Between Mortimer Market and Iraq

MANY LONDONERS WILL HAVE walked past Mortimer Market without knowing it exists. Yet, I used to visit it every working day for about five years. It played an important role in my life and greatly affected my career. How it did, I will reveal later.

Mortimer Market lies a few feet east of Tottenham Court Road (‘TCR’) between Capper and University Streets. Immediately to its east, runs Huntley Street that is parallel to TCR. I used to enter Mortimer Market through a short, covered passageway leading off TCR. Vehicles can enter the Market via Capper Street.

Mortimer Market before 1949
Mortimer Market before 1949 when this photo was published

Until 1886, Capper Street was known as ‘Pancras Street’. This street has existed for over 300 years. Its history is outlined in some detail on an interesting website (https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/). Before it was laid out, the land on which it runs was part of Capper Farm, which was in existence by 1693. The farmer, Christopher Capper, whose widow died in 1739, kept cattle. Members of his family, his daughters, kept the farm going until at least 1768. After his death, the family moved to crop growing in preference to rearing cattle. In 1756, the Duke of Grafton constructed the Euston Road that ran along the northern boundary of the Capper’s farm. At first, the Capper sisters raised an objection to it, saying that the dust raised by traffic along the new road would spoil their crops. The Duke and the sisters eventually came to some agreement. By 1770, the Capper sisters gave up their farm. It was then bought by Hans Winthrop Mortimer (1734-1807), who merits an entry in Wikipedia and on the History of Parliament website (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/mortimer-hans-winthrop-1734-1807 ).

Mortimer was a property speculator and a Member of Parliament between 1775 and 1790. In the 1774 General Election, he was defeated by Sir Thomas Rumbold (1736-1791), who served as British Governor of Madras between 1777 and 1780. Rumbold became well-known for being corrupt. His misdeeds included what was effectively the theft of a precious ring from the Nawab of Arcot (Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, who reigned 1749-1795). Rumbold’s corruption preceded his stay in India. This involved, amongst other things, bribery during the election he contested against Mortimer. After a court case against Rumbold, Mortimer was awarded £11,000 in damages in 1776 and also gained the parliamentary seat that Rumbold had tried to win by cheating (bribery). It is a sign of the East India Company’s wobbly ethics that a man as corrupt as Rumbold was appointed the Governor of Madras so soon after losing his case of corruption.

Mortimer spent a great deal of money acquiring property in Shaftesbury, his constituency and also in London.  

The land, which Mortimer bought that had been the Capper’s farm, became known as ‘The Mortimer Estate’. Some of this estate was later sold and became the site of University College (‘UC’) London, which established in 1826. Mortimer Market began to be built on the western part of the estate in 1795. Old maps of the area show that in the 19th century Mortimer Market was like a piazza containing two parallel rows of small shops. This can be seen in a photograph published in 1949 and reproduced on a British history website ( www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol21/pt3/plate-27).

By 1963, the shops in Mortimer Market had been demolished. In that year, a purpose-built structure standing where the rows of shops had once stood was opened as University College Hospital Dental School (‘UCHDS’). It was this architecturally undistinguished building that I used to visit during the clinical years (1977-1982) of my studies of dentistry. The building is so non-descript that it does not get even a tiny mention in Pevsner’s detailed guide to the buildings of north London.  Prior to 1914, what was to become UCHDS was known as the National Dental Hospital, founded in 1861 and located at 187-191 Great Portland Street (see: https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/uchdental.html). In 1894, the establishment relocated to 59 Devonshire Street. Twenty years later, it amalgamated with University College Hospital. From 1963 until its closure in 1991, 9 years after I qualified as a dentist, UCHDS was housed in Mortimer Market.  The former dental school building still stands and looks very much like I remember it, but now it houses a centre for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

As mentioned earlier, I used to reach the entrance of the dental school by way of the passageway from Tottenham Court Road. However, the hospital could be reached via the network of underground passageways that linked various building of the hospital both with each other and UCL itself. To the right of the passageway if you face it from TCR, there used to be the premises of the Iraqi Cultural Centre. I went in there several times. On one occasion, I mentioned to one of the friendly men who worked in their shopfront office that I am fascinated by folk music from all over the world. He told me to wait and within a few minutes he returned and presented me with an album containing two LPs of recordings of Iraqi folk music. For years after this, I enjoyed listening to them.

During several of my brief lunchtime visits to the Iraqi Cultural Centre near Mortimer Market, I noticed something strange in it. Men would suddenly appear from what seemed like nowhere, maybe from doors hidden in the shop’s internal walls. When Saddam Hussein’s regime (1979-2003) began to attract western military attention, I remembered these curious appearances, and wondered whether there was something other that cultural promotion going on in this place so near my dental school. My suspicions have been confirmed: according to the writer Said K Aburish (born in Palestine in 1935), writing in 2004:

“Years ago Saddam Hussein used the Iraqi cultural centre in Tottenham Court Road to conduct intelligence against dissident Iraqis and to eliminate political opponents.”

Also, The Guardian newspaper noted on the 30th of April 2002:

“The Iraqi government also used some of the students on its scholarships as spies, and set up a London surveillance network based at a “cultural centre” on Tottenham Court Road. There were sporadic assassination attempts against dissidents: in 1995 Latif Yahia, a defector previously employed by the Iraqi government as the official double of Saddam’s brother, alleged that he had been attacked with knives by five men speaking Arabic while stuck in traffic on the capital’s Edgware Road.”

My time studying in Mortimer was quite exciting but not as much as what must have been going on nearby in the cultural centre.  Thinking back to my years of study, we had some lectures given us by a young Iraqi dentist, who was working on his PhD – something to do with denture fixatives. He seemed very pleasant, but now I wonder… 

While I was studying at UCHDS, I had wanted to write about the history of Mortimer Market. In those days before the Internet, although I looked at several books in UCL’s very well-stocked library, I did not find anything about the story behind this little-known part of London. So, what you have just read is what I was hoping to write more than 38 years ago.

Remembering Madras

WE PARKED OUR CAR next to Petyt Place close to Chelsea Old Church and the Chelsea Embankment on the River Thames. Our aim was to cross the river to take a stroll in Battersea Park, but before we had gone a few yards, we came across a granite Victorian drinking fountain, which turns out to have connections with India.

BLOG Sparkes

The structure was designed by the architect Charles Barrie (Junior) who lived from 1823 until 1900. He is responsible for many buildings in London and the south-east of England. His father Charles (Senior) was the architect of the Houses of Parliament, which were rebuilt between 1840 and 1876.

The drinking fountain was erected by the widow of George Sparkes of Bromley (Kent), who died in 1878 during his 68th year. Sparkes had been in Madras (now Chennai) in southern India. Seeing this sparked my interest and inspired me to find out more about the man in whose memory it had been constructed.

George Sparkes (1811-1878) was the oldest of the six children of George Sparkes and his wife Ann Alice Wiple.  He was educated at Eton. His great grandfather was John Cator (Senior). George spent his younger years in the Madras Civil Service possibly in association with his relative Peter Cator. The latter, who served as a barrister and Registrar to the Supreme Court in Madras, was involved in education in India and published a book, “Christian Education in India: Why Should English be Excluded?”, in 1858. According to an issue of “Asian Intelligence” dated 1835, Peter donated 10,000 rupees to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in Asia.

Like his relative Peter, George was part of the legal system of the East India Company. He had been a judge.  A book, “The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and Its Dependencies, Volume 16”, records that in April 1835, George was appointed ‘assistant judge and joint criminal judge of Malabar’. Malabar, being on the west coast of southern India. Earlier that year he had been appointed ‘registrar of zillah court of Malabar’, a zillah being a subdivision of a British Indian province. The same volume states that George landed in India on the 17th September 1834 having sailed from London on a vessel named ‘Arab’. Just in case you are wondering what the Malabar coast had to do with Madras on the other side of India, let me explain that during the existence of the East India Company, part of the Malabar was under the jurisdiction of Madras.

By 1846, George had returned to his native place, Bromley in Kent. That year, he published “An Easy Introduction to Chemistry”. Its publication was noted in the ‘Books Received’ column of the ‘Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal’ dated 14th of October 1946. Clearly, Sparkes had versatile mind.  Sadly, a review published in “The Chemical Gazette, Or, Journal of Practical Chemistry, in All Its Applications to Pharmacy, Arts and Manufactures” was critical of it, stating that it contained a number of mistakes and had failed to keep up to date with the latest developments in the subject.

By 1851, George, living in Bromley where today stand Bromley’s Central Library and Churchill Theatre, had become Director of the ‘Reversionary Society’. This might have been The Reversionary Interest Society Ltd, which dealt with reversionary interest connected with trust funds.

In the 1850s, George bought number 16 High Street in Bromley. He renamed it ‘Neelgherrries’, his spelling of the Nilgiris, hills in Tamil Nadu to which he would have retreated to escape the heat of Madras in the hot seasons. The author of a website, londongardenstrust.org, wrote:

“Contemporary photographs of Nilgiris in the 19th century show an Indian landscape very similar to the uninterrupted views that Sparkes enjoyed from his house in Bromley.”

Sparkes was a keen gardener and in 1872 he wrote to Charles Darwin, who lived nearby, to discuss the results of his experiments in crossing primula plants. By then, he had been married to his second wife Emily Carpenter (1819-1900), his housekeeper, for seven years. On his death, he left Emily the considerable sum of £140,000 and his house, Neelgherries. She remarried a Mr Dowling, but the union was not a great success. It was Emily who was responsible for commissioning the drinking fountain on Chelsea Embankment. When Emily died in 1900, she:

“… left Neelgherries and grounds to the town of Bromley for ‘education and learning’, in accordance   with George Sparkes’s wishes. In 1906 the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated £7,500 for a new library in Bromley and this was erected on the site of Neelgherries. The gardens became the pleasure grounds, these were the first Bromley Library Gardens…”

Had it not been for Emily’s decision to provide Chelsea with a public drinking fountain, George Sparkes would most likely have been completely forgotten outside Bromley. I suspect that most people walk past this memorial to an erstwhile Civil Servant of India and textbook writer without giving it a thought. I have done so several times in the past but am glad that I stopped to examine it today.

 

SOURCES INCLUDE:

http://www.beckenhamplaceparkfriends.org.uk/catorsbyPManning.pdf

https://londongardenstrust.org/features/bromleylib.htm

https://www.bblhs.org.uk/east-india-company

Bachelor of Arts

booknarayan

 

Rasipuram Krishnaswamier (‘RK’) Iyer Narayan (1905-2001) was born in Madras (now ‘Chennai’) in southern India. He was a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. Many of his fictional works are set in the imaginary southern Indian town called Malgudi. Until recently when I bought a copy of “Bachelor of Arts” (first published in 1937 when India was ruled by the British), I had never read any of Narayan’s works. 

“Bachelor of Arts” is a delightful simply told tale about a young man, Chandran, whom we meet while he is completing his BA degree. We follow his life’s strangely interesting path after he graduates until he … well, I won’t give away the story. Despite the simplicity and clarity of the story telling, Narayan subtly changes the mood of the story as it progresses. I liked the way he did this. Another interesting aspect of this novel is the gentle way in which the author criticises the British imprerialistic attitude. I was also excited by the way Narayan, an Indian, portrays the ‘Indian-ness’ of his characters. As Grahame Greene wrote of Narayan in the introduction to the edition I read:

Without him I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”

I agree wholeheartedly with what Greene wrote. I plan to read more of Narayan’s works as “Bachelor of Arts” has whetted my apetite successfully.

Chicken 65

HAMPI 2a

The state-run Mayura Hotel at Hampi is conveniently located in the midst of the extensive, picturesque ruins of the once very prosperous city of Vijayanagara. The former city was once the world’s second largest metropolis, but it was destroyed in 1565. I have stayed at the hotel on at least three occasions despite its shortcomings, some of which I will describe below. It is only fair to point out that the last time I stayed at this hotel was at least nine years ago. Things might well have improved by then.

On one occasion, we were driving to Hampi from Bangalore, and were running late. We rang the hotel to tell them that we would be likely to turn up by 6 pm. They replied that it would not be a problem: our room was waiting. And, so it should have been because check-out time was 12 noon. Whoever had occupied the room on the previous day should have vacated their room by noon.

When we turned up at the hotel, we were told that the room we had booked was still occupied. We were not pleased. The receptionist explained that the occupants of our room, who should have vacated it by noon, were still using it. We remonstrated and asked for an explanation. We were told that the family that was overstaying in our promised room had also arrived late the day before, and the hotel was kindly letting them extend their stay at our expense.  We were tired and not amused.

The receptionist and another member of staff settled us temporarily in a small bedroom while we waited for our room to become vacant and cleaned up. After a couple of hours, we were shifted to our allotted family room. There were several workmen in the bathroom. They were trying to turn off a jet of water, like a geyser, that was shooting up from the floor. They managed after about an hour.

There were no towels in our accommodation. By now it was well after dark. We asked for towels and were told that we could not have them because the person with the (presumably only) key to the linen cupboard had gone home.

At the end of one of our stays at the Mayura, we asked to have breakfast at 7 am, when the dining area was supposed to open. When we arrived promptly at 7 am, there was no staff too be seen. Apart from us, the dining area was empty. After a few minutes, I walked into the kitchen: it was empty. All of the kitchen and serving staff were standing in a crowd in a nearby room, their eyes glued to a television screen. We learned the reason when, eventually, someone came to look after us. The television was showing the funeral of the much-loved Kannada film star Vishnuvardhan, who died on the 30th December 2009. Vishnuvardhan’s family were dismayed because his loss was not so greatly mourned as that of another star Rajkumar, who had died three years earlier. People had committed suicide on hearing of Rajkumar’s demise. Nevertheless, our driver thought it would be safer if we drove with a photo of Vishnuvardhan attached to the window as a mark of respect. Without it, we might have been attacked!

During one of our stays, we were curious to taste what appears on many South Indian restaurant menus. It is something called ‘Chicken 65’. What appeared resembled breaded chicken nuggets. They were bland and tasteless – very disappointing. 

Some days later, we had dinner with an elderly Dutch couple, who were back-packing around India. It was clear to us that they had had enough of spicy food. We suggested that they ordered French fries (finger chips in Indian English), which, like omelettes and tomato soup, are almost always available wherever you are in India. Their eyes lit up at this suggestion. Also, we recommended that they order Chicken 65, which we assured them was not at all spicy. 

After a while, the chips were served along with a plate of chicken pieces that did not resemble the Chicken 65, which we had ordered a couple of days earlier. Our new friends tasted this dish, and their eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. What had been served to them as Chicken 65 was far from bland; it was fiery hot. It seemed to us that the chefs in the kitchen paid little attention to what was ordered by the customers. We later learned that Chicken 65 is supposed to be hot and spicy. What we had been served before we met the Dutch people, was definitely not that dish.

The spicy dish was originally created at Buhari’s Hotel in Madras in 1965, hence the 65 in the name (see: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/the-hows-whys-of-our-chicken-65/article5042658.ece).

While we were staying in the hotel one visit, a tour group of Italians had dinner one evening. One man, who had had enough of spicy food, shouted out in a hysterical voice: “I want chicken, plain chicken with salt, nothing else, just chicken and salt, no spices, just chicken and salt.” He kept repeatng this, and we thought: “He should be so lucky in this eatery”.

Despite its elements of “Fawlty Towers” hospitality, the Mayura is a lovely place to base a few days of exploration of the substantial  ruins of a once great city.

HAMPI 3

It began with a bang

First experiences of India

My wife, Lopa, and I flew to Bangalore in India in late December 1993 to celebrate our marriage with a Hindu ceremony. This was the first time that I had ever travelled further east than Cyprus.

COCO 3

We flew from London on a ‘plane operated by the Sri Lankan line, Air Lanka. The flight was memorable because the food served on board was superb. It was not the bland, insufficient fare usually provided when airborne. What we received on our trays in large metal foil containers was delicious Sri Lankan food, which tasted as if it were home-made by a cook who injected his or her love of food into the flavours.

Our first stop was at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. As we descended for landing during the slowly brightening dawn light, I could see acres of palm trees below us.  This was the first time that I had ever seen groves of palms. This exotic sight made me feel that at last I had arrived in Asia.

After disembarking, we had to wait for our next flight for several hours. In those days, we took anti-malaria tablets. That morning, the only liquid we could find to wash them down was tea. Until that moment I had always drunk tea without milk. The tea stall only provided sweetened milky tea. I found it to be sickly and no help for ingesting the evil-tasting tablet. Now, after many visits to India I quite enjoy Indian milky tea.

My wife and I waited in a room along with other passengers, all of them from the sub-continent. Suddenly, one of her eyes began streaming with tears because some foreign body had entered it. Lopa began dabbing her eyes with a tissue. All the people around us glared at me. They thought that I had upset my wife!

On landing in Madras (Chennai) after walking across the tarmac from the ‘plane to the terminal, Lopa became nervous about the Indian customs examination. She told me that the officials could be very awkward. In those days, very little in the way of foreign goods were imported into India. Visitors or returning Indians were often laden with goods that then attracted high import duties at the customs. Smuggling was rife, and the customs’ officials were eagerly on the look-out for hidden treasures such as electronic goods, booze, and so on. We were not carrying anything of dutiable value. Nevertheless, Lopa was anxious.

As we approached the customs’ officials, the gods blessed us in an unusual way. Lopa’s nose suddenly began bleeding profusely. Despite using a handkerchief there was blood all over the place. The custom’s official, whom we were approaching, took one look at the bloodstained woman approaching him, and waved us through the customs barrier without stopping us.

At this point, let me tell you another thing that surprised me during my first visit to India: women police officers dressed in saris, albeit plain khaki saris. Another ‘plane took us from Madras to Bangalore (Bengaluru).

Lopa’s family met us at the airport (this was the old HAL airport east of the city, which has now been replaced by the newer Kempe Gowda Airport north of the city). After fighting our way through a crowd of taxi touts, we scrambled aboard the family’s ageing Maruti van, through its sliding side door.

By now, it was late at night, and dark. When we reached the family’s house, we disembarked, and stood in front of the main entrance. The top of the front door was decorated with leaves attached to a thread, a ‘toran’ (तोरण). Instead of entering, we all stood in front of the door. I wondered whether the front door key had been mislaid.

After a few minutes, there was suddenly a deafening sharp cracking sound, a loud bang. I thought to myself: “Oh no, we’ve been in Bangalore for just over an hour, and someone is shooting at us.” The noise that had startled me was no more than someone cracking open a coconut with an axe. Cracking coconuts is a part of Hindu traditions, especially at weddings. Amongst other things, the coconut is associated with fertility.

COCO 0

Some days later, we began the three-day long series of events connected with our Hindu wedding ceremony.

COCO 1

After the blessings by the priests, Lopa and I, connected together by several flower garlands and scarves, struggled into the back seats of a small Maruti car (not the van!). As soon as we were aboard we were driven a few feet forward. The purpose of this short journey was to drive over and thereby crack a coconut placed beneath one of the car’s front wheels.

COCO 2

I can truly say that my experience of India began with a bang.