THE GREAT HALL of Lytes Cary Manor House in Somerset has some stained glass windows decorated with crests relating to the Lyte family, who owned the property between the 15th and 18th centuries. One of the crests caught my eye because the crest contains a double-headed eagle. This is a symbol that began to interest me in my teens when I first became fascinated by the Balkans. The double-headed eagle figures on the flags of Albania and some of its neighbours. The earliest known use of this peculiar creature is on seals used to secure goods in Babylon during the 3rd century BC.
The crest at Lytes Cary Manor is a combination of the Lyte family crest and that of the Worth family, which incorporates the two headed bird.
In 1592, Thomas Lyte (c1568-1638) married Frances Worth (1580-1615) who was born in Charlton Mackrell in Somerset. Thus, the double-headed eagle of the Worth family became joined with the three swans of the Lyte family crest. This marriage which was celebrated so long ago, is recorded in glass on a window of the Great Hall at Lytes Cary.
Why the Worths employed the double-headed eagle on their crest is something I would like to know, and will investigate. The double-headed eagle appears on British crests less frequently than other heraldic creatures. Possibly, andI am only guessing, it relates to the fact that a son of King John, Richard, Duke of Cornwall (1209-1272) was appointed King of The Germans, that was a senior position in the Holy Roman Empire. The symbol of that empire was the double-headed eagle.
BEFORE WE MARRIED in 1993, many of our kind friends wanted to give us wedding presents. A large proportion of them wanted to choose gifts from a ‘wedding list’. For those who are unfamiliar with this kind of list, let me explain. A ‘wedding list’ is a list of items, usually available from a shop chosen by the bride and groom, from which those wishing to give wedding presents can choose. As the items are bought, the shop removes them from the list so that the likelihood of duplicate purchases is reduced.
We were a little reluctant at first, but people insisted that it would be helpful if we compiled a wedding list. We chose to have our list at a shop that we both enjoy visiting: Liberty on Great Marlborough Street, very close to Regent Street.
From the outside, Liberty looks like an extremely well-preserved example of Tudor architecture, too good to be true. It is not because it was completed in 1924.
Liberty was founded by Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917), son of a draper. In 1875, he opened his own shop on Regent Street. According to the Liberty website (www.libertylondon.com), he wanted:
“… a London emporium laden with luxuries and fabrics from distant lands, his dream was to metaphorically dock a ship in the city streets. To this day, a voyage of discovery awaits on the good ship Liberty, with history hidden amongst six floors of cutting-edge design, unexpected edits and beautiful wares from the world’s greatest craftspeople. In 1875, Arthur borrowed £2,000 from his future father-in-law and took a building on Regent Street, London with just three dedicated staff and plenty of ambition.”
By the time that Liberty opened his shop, the British public was fascinated by Japan and other parts of Asia. In 1885, he brought 42 villagers from India and set up a temporary ‘living village’ of artisans in the shop.
The website added:
“Liberty’s collection of ornaments, fabric and objets d’art from around the world proved irresistible to a society intoxicated at the time by Japan and the East and Liberty effected social change in interior design and dress, so much so that the Art Nouveau period in Italy is called ‘Liberty Style’.”
Liberty died before his new shop was completed. Designed by Edwin T Hall and his son Edwin S Hall, it was built in the Tudor Revival style that achieved great popularity in the 1920s. Not only is the shop’s exterior in the Tudor Revival style, but also its interior. A great dela of wood was used in the construction as the shop’s website revealed:
“… the builders Messrs Higgs & Hill were given a lump sum of £198,000 to construct it, which they did from the timbers of two ancient ‘three-decker’ battle ships. Records show more than 24,000 cubic feet of ships timbers were used including their decks now being the shop flooring: The HMS Impregnable – built from 3040 100-year-old oaks from the New Forest – and the HMS Hindustan, which measured the length and height of our Liberty building.”
Even if you do not wish to purchase anything from our long out-of-date wedding list, a visit to Liberty is rewarding not only to see the wonderful range of beautiful products on sale but also to narvel at the building and its many finely crafted decorative features.
BULL HOUSE STANDS on the High Street immediately beneath the remain of the castle that dominates the Sussex town of Lewes near Brighton. Its neighbour is an older, half-timbered edifice that now houses The Fifteenth Century Bookshop, a supplier of second-hand books, which was unfortunately closed when we passed it on a Sunday morning.
In the year 1768, the owner of Bull House, a tobacconist named Samuel Ollive, and his wife Esther, took in a lodger, who had arrived in the town. This man was an excise officer aged about 31. His name was Thomas (‘Tom’) Paine (1737-1809). 1n 1771, Paine, already a widower, married Elizabeth Ollive, daughter of Samuel and Esther. At of that time, he became involved in the Ollive’s tobacco business as well as the administrative affairs of the town of Lewes. A year later, as part of a campaign to improve the remuneration of excise officers, he published a pamphlet. “The Case of the Officers of Excise”. Tom enjoyed lively discussions and debates at the town’s ‘Headstrong Club’, which met at the White Hart Inn on the High Street. This hostelry can still be seen today.
The year 1774 found Tom in trouble. He had been accused of being absent without permission from his position as excise officer. Also, his marriage failed, and he separated from his wife Elizabeth. To avoid a spell in a debtors’ prison, he sold all his possessions. He left Lewes and went to London, where he was introduced to the revolutionary Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who recommended that Tom should emigrate to North America. Tom set sail from England and arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774.
The pamphlet that Paine wrote in Lewes was followed by many more published writings. Amongst these is his best known, “The Rights of Man”, published in 1791, in London, England, where Tom had returned in 1787. This work is described in a guidebook to Lewes as “…the bible of English-speaking radicals.” Whether Tom ever returned to Lewes after his first excursion to what is now the USA, I do not know. If it ever occurred, it is not mentioned in my guidebook, and I have not found any reference to it.
OUR DETAILED ROAD atlas – yes, we are still using one of these in preference to ‘GPS’ – marks ‘churches of interest’. One of these is at Little Dunmow in Essex and was labelled ‘priory church’. As we were nearby, we made a small detour to the tiny village of Little Dunmow and found the superb gothic structure standing near some small modern dwellings. As is frequently the case, the church was locked up, but someone suggested that if we asked the lady who lived in one of the nearby houses, she would most likely open it for us. We knocked on her front door and a neighbour looked into her back garden, only to discover that she was not at home. Another of her neighbours suggested that she might be out walking her dog. We saw several ladies out walking with their dogs, and the third one we asked happened to be the one with the key to the church. She opened the church for us, and we had a good look around its interior.
The church of St Mary in Little Dunmow is all that remains of what was once a huge priory church. In fact, it is what was once the Lady Chapel on the south side of the chancel. The rest of the church and the Augustinian Priory, to which it was attached, was demolished in the 16th century following the passing of the Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1535 during the reign of King Henry VIII. Some of the great area that was once occupied by the priory and its large church now contains the village’s extensive cemetery.
The north wall of the existing church was the south arcade of the chancel of the former priory church. The arches through which one could have passed from the Lady Chapel into the now demolished church have been filled in with masonry, but the original supports of the arches remain intact. The south wall of the current parish church has four large gothic windows and on the eastern wall another, which allow a great deal of light to suffuse the church. Probably, these date from 1360 when the chapel was, according the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner writing in his Essex volume of “The Buildings of England”, opulently remodelled. The red brick bell tower at the western end of the edifice was added in 1872 and Pevsner describes it as being “… a silly NW turret.”
The church’s well-lit interior has a wonderfully spacious feel beneath its ceiling lined with simple dark timber beams. Apart from enjoying the place in its entirety, several features attracted my interest. Two alabaster effigies, a man and his wife lying down with carved animals at their feet, commemorate Walter Fitzwalter (died 1432) and his wife Elizabeth (née Chideock, died 1464). Walter was the grandson of Robert Fitzwalter (1247-1346), First Baron Fitzwalter. And, more interestingly, Robert’s father, Robert Fitzwalter (died 1235), feudal baron of Little Dunmow, was one of the barons who opposed King John and made sure that he adhered to what was contained in the Magna Carta, which he signed in 1215. A modern plaque on the eastern wall of the church honours his memory.
The pair of effigies are located next to the north wall of the church, west of an alabaster effigy of a now unknown woman, also located next to the wall. Information in the church suggests that she might have been the mother of Walter Fitzwalter, or Matilda, the daughter of Robert, the Third Baron, or even Maid Marion of Robin Hood fame.
Another curious feature within the church is a wooden chair with carvings made in the 15th century, using wood with 13th century carvings. This, the Dunmow Flitch Chair, is a unique piece of furniture. Its seat is wide enough to comfortably seat two adults. It was used during the so-called ‘Flitch Trials”, which still take place in Great Dunmow every four years:
A flitch of bacon is a side of bacon (half a pig cut lengthwise). The trials were held at the priory church in Little Dunmow until 1750, and were later revived in the 19th century following the publishing in 1854 of “The Flitch of Bacon”, a novel written by William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882). In the preface to his story, the author hints at the origin of the tradition:
“”Among the jocular tenures of England, none have been more talked of than the Bacon of Dunmow.” So says Grose, and truly. The Dunmow Flitch has passed into a proverb. It is referred to by Chaucer in a manner which proves that allusion to it was as intelligible in his day as it would be in our own. The origin of the memorable Custom, hitherto enveloped in some obscurity, will have found fully explained in the course of this veracious history. Instituted by a Fitzwalter in the early part of the Thirteenth Century, the Custom continued in force till the middle of the Eighteenth—the date of the following Tale.”
According to the novel, the couple attempting to win the flitch of bacon had to came to the priory church at Little Dunmow, where they were subjected to a trial with witnesses, jury, and judges, to assess whether their marriage had been without blemish for a year and a day. On arrival at the priory church, Ainsworth related, the couple:
“… kneel down on the self-same spot, and on the self-same stones, where, more than four centuries ago, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife knelt when they craved a blessing from the good prior. Benedicite! fond pair! Ye deserve holy priest’s blessing as well as those who have knelt there before you. Bow down your gentle heads as the reverend man bends over you, and murmurs a prayer for your welfare. All who hear him breathe a heartfelt response. Now ye may look up. He is about to recite the Oath, and ye must pronounce it after him. The Oath is uttered.”
Having been awarded the flitch, we learn that:
“All is not over yet. Ye have to be placed in the antique chair, and, according to usage, borne on men’s shoulders round the boundaries of the old Priory, which in the days of your predecessors stood hereabouts. And see! the chair is brought out for you. It is decked with rich though faded tapestry, woven with armorial bearings, which ye must know well, since they are your own, and with a device, which each of you may apply to the other—Toujours Fidèle.”
Well, our road atlas marked the church at Little Dunmow as being “of interest”, and having visited it, we can assure you that it is of very great interest.
A ROW OF HOUSEBOATS is moored alongside the bank of the River Thames that runs past Cheyne Walk in London’s Chelsea. The floating dwellings are faced by Lindsey House, one of the oldest buildings in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Built in 1674 by Robert Bertie, 3rd Earl of Lindsey (1630-1701) on land that was once part of Thomas More’s riverside garden, it was remodelled by Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf (1700-1760) for London’s Moravian community in 1750. Five years later, the edifice was divided into separate dwellings. Today, they are numbered 96 to 101 Cheyne Walk. The American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) lived in number 96, and the engineers Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) lived in number 98. My friends Kit and Sheridan lived in a ground floor flat in number 100.
I first met Kit and Sheridan during one of our annual family holidays to Venice. Kit, who was a colleague of my father at the London School of Economics, and her husband Sheridan used to stay in the Pensione Seguso that was next door to the Pensione La Calcina, where John Ruskin (1819-1900) once stayed, and we always stayed in Venice. During one of our holidays when we stopped on the Fondamente Zattere to talk with Kit and Sheridan in Venice, they asked me whether I liked classical music. When I told them that I did, they said that they would invite me to their musical evenings held some Saturdays in their home. I attended quite a few of these during the second half of the 1960s.
On arrival at 100 Cheyne Walk, Kit used to welcome the guests by offering us coloured sugar-coated almonds, which she described as ‘stones of Venice’, an illusion to Ruskin’s book about Venice (“The Stones of Venice”), where the almonds had been purchased. After discarding coats, all of the guests, twenty to thirty in number, had to find somewhere to sit in the large, low-ceilinged living room. I was always directed by Kit to the same seat. She used to want me to sit next to the telephone. She always told me:
“If it rings during the music, dear, lift the receiver and say: ‘Sorry, we are having a party. Please ring again tomorrow’”
It never did ring, but I used to sit nervously in anticipation of having to perform my important duty.
Sheridan was a fine ‘cellist, who knew many professional musicians, all of them quite famous. He used to invite several musicians, anything from two to four, to perform a couple of chamber works with him. Kit knew what was to be performed at each soirée, but the invited musicians were not told until they arrived (at the same time as the audience). Without prior rehearsal, Kit and his musical guests performed chamber works, often by Brahms and Beethoven, beautifully and, except for Sheridan, from ‘scratch’. The acoustics of the 17th (or 18th) century living room were perfect for the music performed. These wonderful evenings engendered my enduring love of the chamber music of Brahms. During the music, Kit sat a few feet away from Sheridan on his right. Her eyes never wandered from him and she always smiled sweetly as he played. Whenever we saw them in Venice, they were always walking hand-in-hand like two lovers.
I believe that Kit and Sheridan married late in life. Sheridan told me once that he was pleased when he married, because as a married man he was able to perform a service, for which only married people were eligible at the time. He was at last able to become a marriage guidance counsellor.
Sheridan told me once that there was a lot of planning before putting on each musical evening. He ensured that none of his guest musicians ever played the same piece together more than once. Also, he tried to make sure that nobody in the audience ever heard the same combinations of pieces more than once. He did this by recording who had played what and who had heard what in a set of notebooks.
Two works were played at each soirée. During the interval, everyone stood up, many relieved to get off the not always comfortable seating provided. Kit served glasses of red wine and crackers with pieces of cheese that contained cumin seeds. Every soirée, the same refreshments were provided.
A few of the musicians that I can remember hearing playing with Sheridan included the violinist Maria Lidka (1914-2013) and her son, a ‘cellist; individual players from the Amadeus Quartet; and once the pianist Louis Kentner (1905-1987). At the end of the evening when Kentner had played, Kit asked him to give me a lift part of the way back to north west London. He agreed, but as we drove together, I had a distinct feeling that this famous pianist was not at all keen about giving me a lift and said not a word to me during the short journey.
As Sheridan grew older, he became increasingly frail and began looking gaunt. During the last few concerts I attended, I noticed that he covered his hands with woollen fingerless gloves. Maybe, he had a circulation problem. Sheridan died in 1991. Kit lived on another seven years. I believe that the last time I spoke to her was just after I married in late 1993, but she showed little interest in my news.
Whereas back in the 1960s, when I used to attend the musical evenings at Lindsey House, one could walk from the street to the front door, today this is impossible without being able to unlock a gate leading into the grounds of the house. Currently owned by the National Trust and rented to tenants, Lindsey House is rarely opened to the public. Fortunately, we did once manage to attend one of these openings, but all seemed to have changed since I last listened to chamber music being played close to the river.
WE MARRIED TWICE. That is to say that Lopa and I had a civil marriage in a registry office in October 1993 in London’s Chelsea Town Hall and then a religious marriage in mid-January 1994 in my in-law’s garden in Koramangala, a district south of central Bangalore. Both ceremonies were memorable and meaningful but the one in Bangalore was more colourful, and far lengthier than that in London.
Between November 2019 and the end of February 2020, we were in India. Just before leaving for India in November 2019, we celebrated our English anniversary with our daughter at a French restaurant in London, the Poule au Pot, where one can enjoy typical classic French cuisine in a dimly lit but pleasant environment.
Mid-January 2020 found us near the port of Mandvi in Kutch, formerly an independent princely state, a largely arid, desert region, now part of the Indian State of Gujarat. We were staying with Lopa’s cousin and his wife in their lovely remote and spacious 150-year old farm house, which has been in his family for several generations. Informed of our anniversary, they decided to treat us to dinner at a nearby resort close to the sea. After the meal, we walked to the car under a star-filled clear sky and returned home. There, we sat on the veranda and enjoyed a dessert that Lopa’s cousin’s wife, an accomplished cook, had made specially for us.
A year later, a few days ago, we celebrated our ‘Indian’ anniversary in London. Interestingly, the temperature in wintry London was higher than it was when we were in Kutch (at night), but there was far less sunshine. This year, in the midst of strict ‘lockdown’ conditions necessitated by the covid19 pandemic, we celebrated alone, and not at a restaurant. We had a celebratory cup of coffee outdoors and enjoyed a good home-cooked meal prefaced by gin and tonics. Had we been in India as we often are in January, but not in Gujarat, which is teetotal, we would most probably also have celebrated with ‘g and t’ but sitting outside under the stars on a warm evening in southern India.
Little did we know when we were enjoying ourselves in Kutch last January, that a year later, the idea of visiting India, let alone leaving London, would be out of the question. Well, as my late father used to say, rather annoyingly when misfortune struck:
One of the daughters of my former PhD supervisor was about to get married. As a friend of his family, I was asked to be one of the four ushers at the service, which was to be held at St Giles and St Andrews, better known as ‘Stoke Poges Church’, whose graveyard has been immortalised by the poet Gray in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. The church stands on land that was once owned by William Penn (1644-1718) after whom the American state of Pennsylvania is named.
As an usher, I was required to wear formal ‘black tie’. So, not possessing such clothes, I had to hire the necessary formal attire. I went to a branch of Moss Brothers, who hire clothing, and was fitted out with all the trimmings, morning suit, trousers, waistcoat, shirt, bow tie, and a top hat, but no cummerbund. Getting a top hat that fitted properly presented great difficulty to the assistant at the clothes hire shop. He looked at my head knowledgeably with an air that suggested to me that he was an experienced clothing fitter. After a moment’s contemplation, he decided that I needed a certain size. The hat he chose by eye was far too small. It wobbled uneasily on the crown of my head. He selected another size. At this stage, I was still impressed that he appeared to be able to judge head size by eye. The next hat was far too large. It slipped right over my ears. I became less impressed with the fellow. Eventually, he found one that almost fitted my head; its rim rested on the tops of my ear lobes. That was the best he could do. I hired this and all the rest of the required ‘gear’.
Just before the wedding, I got dressed in my formal wear at the bride’s parents’ home. I had endless difficulties trying to get dressed in the two-piece waistcoat, which seemed to separate into two separate items whatever I did. One of my fellow ushers managed to get this on to me correctly as well as to fasten my bow tie (another skill I have yet to master). Sadly, I do not possess any pictures of me in this ‘get up’. Then, we set off for the church.
Of the four ushers, two were Christian and two were Jewish. The two Christians were on duty outside the church. The two ushers inside the church were Jewish by birth. I was one of them and the other was Victor, a friend of the bride. Victor, whom I had not seen for several decades, was one of my classmates at primary school in Golders Green back in the 1950s. My duty as usher was to help people find a seat in the church and to hand out leaflets, which I referred to as ‘programmes’ until one lady with a plummy voice told me sternly:
“They’re not programmes, dear; they’re Orders of Service, don’t you know.”
Well, you learn something every day.
About 25 years later, I communicated with Victor, whom I had not seen since the wedding, via the LinkedIn website. We agreed to meet for lunch at an Italian restaurant near London’s Charing Cross Station as Victor was coming up to London from his home on the south coast. I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes before Victor. When he came through the door, I recognised him. He had aged but was still recognisably Victor, even though his hair which had been red when we were children was no longer that colour. Red hair, or ‘orange’ as I used to call it as a child, fascinated me in my young days. I greeted him, and he shook my hand, saying:
“Hmmm … you are not the person I was expecting to meet.”
I was not sure whether to feel pleased or upset that he had mixed me up with someone else from his past.
SEATED IN A CHAIR ON A STONE PLINTH, surrounded by a small pond and often with a pigeon on his head or shoulder, Henry Vassall-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland (‘Lord Holland’; 1773-1840) gazes benevolently towards the ruins of his home, which was destroyed by German bombs during WW2. The fine cast metal statue was sculpted by George Frederic Watts (1817-1914) with technical assistance from Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890). I have walked past this statue innumerable times and never given it much of a thought apart from being amused when I have seen pigeons resting on the crown of Holland’s head. A friend of ours pointed out that the sculptor has included, unusually, a depiction of Holland’s wedding ring, a memorial to his marriage which was to prove very interesting with regard to his political activities. Today, the 20th of June, I walked past it yet again, but with the recent interest in statues and their subjects’ relationships with the slave trade, I wondered whether Lord Holland had any connection with it. What I have discovered is somewhat surprising.
Lord Holland was the nephew of the Whig statesman Charles James Fox (1749-1806). According to the British History Online website: “On the death of his uncle … Lord Holland was introduced into the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal; but the strength of the Whig portion of the Government had then departed, and the only measure worthy of notice in which his lordship co-operated after his accession to office was the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.” This suggests that Holland was an abolitionist.
However, things are never so simple. When visiting Florence (Italy) in 1793, he fell in love with Elizabeth Vassall, wife of Sir Godfrey Webster, 4th Baronet. She and Webster divorced and then Elizabeth married Lord Holland. The “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography” (‘DNB’) records that in 1800 “… Holland assumed the additional name of Vassall to safeguard his children’s right to his wife’s West Indian fortune.” When her first husband died in 1800, Lord Holland became the owner of the Vassall plantations in Jamaica. By accident, the abolitionist became an owner of slaves.
According to a website published by the Portobello Carnival Film Festival 2008: “By all accounts, the Hollands were humane and improving proprietors who supported anti-slavery measures against their own financial interests. It can even be argued that he was more use to the abolitionist movement as a slave owner than he would have been as a mere politician. Nevertheless, in perhaps the defining local paradox, the finest hour of Holland House as the international salon of liberal politics was financed by the profits of slave labour.” The site continues by pointing out that after his uncle died, Lord Holland: “… was on the committee that framed his uncle’s bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Meanwhile Lady Holland founded the area’s multi-cultural tradition by employing Afro-Caribbean, Spanish and Italian servants – in order to enhance the foreign image of her political salon.”
VE Chancellor wrote in his article “Slave‐owner and anti‐slaver: Henry Richard Vassall Fox, 3rd Lord Holland, 1800–1840” that Holland regarded a slave: “…not as mere chattel, but as an individual with feelings and abilities no less than those of other men …”. However: “… he justified the continuing history of slavery in the British Empire in Whiggish terms of the right to property and the need to obtain the consent of those who owned slaves before Abolition could be achieved…” So, it seems that Holland, an avowed Abolitionist and ‘accidental’ owner of slaves, was placed in a difficult position. Chancellor records that the great Abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) regarded Holland as: “… a ‘most zealous partisan’ of slave trade abolition …”, And the DNB relates: “Holland himself was an equally keen supporter of the abolition of slavery in 1833, despite its adverse effect on his West Indian income.” Holland gave his full support for the Slave Trade Abolition Bill when it passed through the House of Lords. The passing of the Bill was accompanied by sizable tax relief to sugar producers in the West Indies. Lord Holland benefitted from these, as the University College London ‘Legacies of Slave Ownership’ website notes: “Lord Holland, awarded part of the compensation for under three awards for the enslaved people on his estates in Jamaica…” Chancellor wrote that Holland, who had benefitted financially from the tax relief concessions: “… learnt the lesson that those called on to make sacrifices in a good cause do so the more willingly when potential loss is compensated.”
So, now returning to the statue covered with bird droppings in Holland Park, what are we to think? No doubt, Lord Holland became an owner of slaves, but by an accident caused by one of Cupid’s arrows. Had he married someone else, he might not have become the inheritor of Caribbean plantations with slaves. If William Wilberforce was happy to regard him as a bona-fide Abolitionist, that is for me a favourable contemporary character reference for Lord Holland. Some, including me, looking at his statue with hindsight, might ask why he, an avowed Abolitionist, did not emancipate his slaves as soon as they came into his possession. I am willing to believe that the answer to this is far from simple.
MY MOTHER KEPT A SUN LOUNGER in the garden. It was propped up against a wall of our family home in northwest London. It was made of aluminium tubing and ‘upholstered’ with tautly stretched dark blue canvas. I will tell you why it was there and not in Canada.
My late mother, Helen (pictured above), was born in South Africa in 1920. Until 1947, I believe that it was quite possible that she might have spent her whole life there.
While living in Cape Town in 1947, she and her sister were invited to a party held by their stepfather’s relatives in the suburb of Parrow. Their hosts, Mr and Mrs Kupfer, had also invited two bachelors, Basil and his brother Ralph, whom they knew from the time when the Kupfers and the two unattached men and their parents lived in the small town of Tulbagh east of Cape Town.
By the end if the evening, Basil and Helen agreed to meet again. Not long after the party, Basil invited Helen to the cinema (bioscope in South African English). They met and talked so much that they never made it to the picture house. Almost immediately after this, they became engaged.
Soon after this, so my mother once told me, Basil informed her that they would not be able to meet again for a few weeks because he was too busy marking university students’ examination scripts. Also, he told her that was about to set sail for England, where he was taking up a teaching post at the London School of Economics (LSE). They agreed that given the imminence of his departure, Helen should follow Basil to London, and they would get married there. Basil departed for London.
Helen, who could not contain her excitement, sailed to Southampton in early 1948. She sat in the boat train to London dismayed by what she saw of England. It was soon after WW2 had ended. She told me that the sight of rows of small houses all with chimneys emitting filthy smoke and the grey skies made her wonder why she had come to such a dismal place to marry a man she hardly knew. They married in mid-March 1948.
After my parents ‘tied the knot’, Basil chose to leave LSE to take up an academic post at McGill University in Montreal. Helen and Basil ‘upped sticks’ and emigrated to Canada in about 1950. The move was not a great success. The climate in Montreal was harsh. My mother told me that for most of the nine months they remained there, it was bitterly cold. She related that they had a flat that overlooked a cemetery. For a few months, the frozen ground was so hard that graves could not be dug. Coffins had to be stacked up above ground until the ground was soft enough to be dug. Helen bought a fur coat. It was made of soft brown fur that I can still remember. In 1950, stores in Montreal were well heated. Customers left their fur coats near the shops’ entrances whilst they were inside shopping.
It was not only the climate that was difficult in Montreal. My father found the atmosphere in the university was awkward to say the least. There was great antagonism between the francophone and anglophone academics. This created an environment that reminded him of the racially divided one he had happily left behind in his native South Africa.
The adverse conditions in Montreal, both social and meteorological, and the offer of another job at LSE, caused my parents to return to London (UK, not Ontario!). They put down a deposit on a detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a part of London where many other LSE academics lived. These included: Sir Lionel Robbins and Sir Arnold Plant, and later Professors J Durbin, I Lakatos, P Cohen, and J Watkins and many others.
My parents’ bedroom in the Suburb contained some very well-made wardrobes, which they had had made for their flat in Montreal and brought to London. That they had gone to the trouble of having bespoke cupboards built in Montreal suggests that they had planned to stay much longer than a few months in Montreal.
My mother could never get used to how little light there was in England compared to what she had been used to in South Africa. Every interior wall in our house was painted white, to reflect as much of the little daylight that there was. In contravention of the strict conservation area planning rules that were, and still are, in place in the Suburb, she made alterations to some of the south facing windows in our house during the 1960s. The original windows consisted of a latticework of small panes. She replaced these with large single panes, which allowed far more daylight to enter the house. Even though our neighbours were always asked to remove unauthorised modifications to their houses, the frowned-upon modified windows were still in place more than three decades later. Now, finally, I see that they have been restored to their original, officially approved design.
My mother died in 1980. Between her arrival in London and her death, there was less sunshine in the city than there is nowadays. Had she lived longer than her six decades, I believe that she would have approved of the warmer, sunnier climate that London enjoys now. When she was at home and the sun happened to shine through a gap in the clouds, she would stop whatever she was doing and rush outside into our garden. She would lie on the sun lounger and enjoy feeling the sun’s rays on her face even if only for a few minutes. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, she would leave the lounger and prop it up against the wall of the house ready for the next opportunity to enjoy what she so missed after leaving South Africa. Had my parents remained in Canada, I wonder whether she would have kept a sun lounger at the ready outside her home there. Also, if they had not returned to London, I would have been born a Canadian instead of a ‘Brit’.
Life has not treated Zafar well. Even his wife Zubeida feels that her burqa is barely sufficient to hide her shame. The couple scrimped and saved to pay to educate their daughter Rubina so that she was qualified sufficiently to be able to enter a college in Ahmedabad.
And, what made their beloved daughter do what she has done? And, why did she run off with her Hindu neighbour’s son Rajesh? And, what came over her to marry Rajesh, who is little more than a dunce with no prospects whatsoever? Did she not trust her parents to choose a suitable grroom for her? Only He above might possibly know.
By choosing a ‘love marriage’, that selfish Rubina has not only shunned her parents but has also caused her family to be ostracised by the rest of their community. And, there is more woe to relate. The imam of Zafar’s community has instigated a case against his family, a case to be tried under Shariah law. Zafar is already facing a hefty fine imposed by his community and, even worse, he has already had to pay the hospital’s huge fees required to recover his wife from a paralysis brought on by Rubina’s selfish act of folly.
And, with sorrow, there is yet more to relate. Zafar has since lost his good job. Who would want to employ a man who has lost control of his daughter, you might well ask. Ask you might, but whatever the answermight be, life has not treated Zafar well.