A lost landmark and a treasured map

EVER SINCE I CAN REMEMBER, I have been fascinated by maps and collected them. I cannot say exactly why I enjoy them, but one reason is that I get satisfaction from aesthetic aspects of cartography. Another reason is that when I look at them, I try to imagine the reality that they represent, a form of virtual travelling. Whatever the underlying cause(s) of my fascination with maps might be, it is irrelevant to what follows because what I want to tell you is about a shop that I used to love to visit. It was Stanford in London’s Long Acre, a street not far from the old Covent Garden Market and Leicester Square.

Founded by Edward Stanford (1827-1904) in the early 1850s, his business was one of the best specialist suppliers of maps in the UK, if not the very best.  His company’s store on Long Acre opened in 1901, having moved there from Charing Cross. When I used to visit the shop to browse the lovely maps on display in the 1960s, there were two floors open to the public. The ground floor was the main showroom with maps of popular destinations that appealed to the majority of customers. The basement was less attractively arranged but far more interesting to serious travellers and map collectors such as me. There were no maps out on display down there. One had to ask a salesman to show you maps of areas that interested you. I believe it was there that I bought a nautical chart of the extremely remote French island of Kerguelen in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, a place that I had no intention of ever visiting.

In about 1966, my interest in Albania was born. I have tried to explain why this happened in my book “Albania on My Mind”, which I published in 2013, 101 years after Albania gained its independence.   In those days, not much was known in the UK about this small country in the western Balkans. Maps of Albania were not available in most shops, probably because few people visited the place, or were even remotely interested in it. So, I took the Underground from my local station, Golders Green, to Leicester Square. Stanford was a few yards from that station. At Stanford, I enquired about detailed maps of Albania, and was sent to the specialist map department in the basement.

The only detailed map of Albania available at Stanford was a 1:200,000 scale map with the information that it was made:

“Auf Grund der Oesterreichischer-Ungarische Kriegsaufnahmen und der im Auftrage der Albanische Regierung Von Dr Herbert Louis gemachten aufnahmen sowie mit Benützung italienischer und franzoesischer Karten” (i.e., ‘On the basis of the Austrian-Hungarian war recordings and the recordings made by Dr Herbert Louis on behalf of the Albanian government, as well as with the use of Italian and French maps’)

The map, which comes as two sheets, was up to date in 1925. A small map alongside the main map shows which parts of the large map were surveyed by whom and when.        Between 1916 and 1918, the surveyors were the armies of Austria-Hungary, France, and Italy. Some information collected by Baron Nopcsa between 1905 and 1909 is included in the map, as well as data collected by Dr H Louis between 1923 and 1924.

Baron Nopcsa was the Hungarian aristocrat and politician Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933; see: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-forgot-rogue-aristocrat-discovered-dinosaurs-died-penniless-180959504/), a founder of paleobiology and a specialist on Albanian studies. This one-time candidate for the throne of Albania created the first geological map of northern Albania. The German Dr Herbert Louis (1900-1985), whose name is prominent on the map, was no stranger to Albania. In 1923, he accompanied the Austrian geologist Ernst Nowack (1891-1946) during his research in the country, and in 1925, he was awarded a doctorate for his studies concerning Albania.

The map looked beautiful, I fell in love with it, and I knew I had to obtain a copy of it, but it was priced at 23/- (23 shillings: £1.15) for the set. That might not sound excessive today in 2021, barely the price of a small bar of chocolate or a cup of tea (in a scruffy café). But in about 1966, it was a huge sum of money for me, many times more than my weekly pocket money. I left Stanford, determined to save up for it and hoping that in the meantime the shop would not run out of copies of it. Eventually, I was able to purchase a set of these maps.

Delicately drawn, covered with contour lines, shaded representations of rocks and mountains, a variety of colours, the map shows how few roads there were in Albania in the 1920s. The tiny black dots, which represented buildings or small groups of them are often shown to be connected by tracks or footpaths, but many of them are a long way from any line of communication marked by the map makers. Most of the names on the map are in Albanian, but a few are also in Italian (e.g., Durazzo [Durres], Valona [Vlora], San Giovanni di Medua [Shengjin], and Santi Quaranta [Saranda]). Some words on the map are also in German.

I treasure this set of maps I bought at Stanford so many years ago and my memory of first being shown them in the basement of the shop. Yesterday, on the 15th of August 2021, first day of the 75th year of India’s independence, we walked along Long Acre, and discovered that although its name on the building is still there, the map shop is not. I had not realised that in 2019 this repository of records of landmarks and one of my favourite childhood haunts had moved from Long Acre to nearby Mercer Walk near The Seven Dials.

Night at the opera

OPERA IS FOR THE ELITE or, at least, for those who can afford the often-high seat prices. London’s Covent Garden used to offer some reasonably priced tickets, but these only gave access to seats or standing places far away from the stage, from which one could hear the performance, but one only saw what looked like ants moving around on the stage. Once I had one of these ‘budget’ seats at a performance given by the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. I was so far from the stage that, even though my eyesight was excellent at the time, it could have been almost anyone or anything flitting about in time with the music so far away from me. The best I can say is that I have spent time under the same roof as the great dancer even though I could hardly see him.

Floral Hall, Covent Garden, London

In early 1994, my wife, Lopa, became aware that a foundation was offering Covent Garden opera tickets at radically reduced prices to members of south Asian minority communities to introduce them to the joys of western European opera. Lopa decided to investigate this generous offer aimed at what the foundation assumed were ‘culturally deprived people’. She rang the organisation to ask how to become involved in the scheme. An ineffably patronising but kindly lady replied:

“Which community do you come from, by the way?”

“I am Gujarati.”

“All you need is a letter from the association that represents your community.”

“I don’t belong to such an organisation,” Lopa responded.

“Never mind, dear, why don’t you start one, and then contact us again?”

Not once did the lady ask Lopa if she had ever been to the opera. I suppose she assumed that south Asians never watched western European opera.

A short time later, Lopa sent a letter to the foundation on paper she had headed with the words: ‘Gujarati Worker’s Association of Kensington.’ Soon after this, she was accepted on to the scheme, which offered several tickets for each of a selection of top-class opera performances. These tickets were for the best seats and were priced at less than a fifth of their full price, which was still not an inconsiderable amount of money. We attended about six operas, sitting no more than three rows away from the stage. Sitting in these wonderful seats, which in 1994 cost well over £130 each, spoiled me forever. I do not think that I would be happy to attend another performance at Covent Garden unless I sat in seats with as good a view as those subsidised by the foundation.

On one occasion, we invited my father to join us. He was quite familiar the opera house at Covent Garden, having sat in the Royal Box several times with his colleague Lord Robbins, who was Chairman of the Royal Opera House. He accepted our invitation and we sat in wonderful seats watching an opera. I cannot remember which one we saw, but what happened in the interval, has remained in my memory. Dad said that he would treat us to champagne and smoked salmon sandwiches in the so-called ‘Crush Bar’, an exclusive refreshment area in the opera house.

We arrived at the Crush Bar, where a uniformed flunkey stopped all who wished to enter.

“We need a table for three,” my Dad explained.

“I am so very sorry, sir,” replied the flunkey, “all the tables are taken”.

My father reached into his pocket, and withdrew a £10 note before saying:

“Would this help you find a table?”

“Please follow me, sir,” replied the flunkey as he led us to an empty table.

Incidentally, the refreshments my father bought the three of us cost far more than we had spent on the subsidised tickets. 

At each of the subsidised performances we attended, we saw few if any other south Asian or any other people of non-European appearances in the audience. Sadly, the foundation abandoned their scheme about a year after we had joined it. There might have been other schemes that followed it, but we never found out about them.  

Oh, in case you are wondering about the Gujarati Workers Association of Kensington, whose creation was encouraged and suggested by the lady at the foundation, which shall remain unnamed, it still has only one member.

Carbon dating

I HAVE JUST DISCOVERED an unopened pack  of ten sheets of 13 x 8 inch carbon paper. Carbon paper is something younger readers might never have heard of or used. For those unused to this product, I will explain. More mature readers must bear with me, please.

CARBON

Carbon paper is a thin sheet of paper, one side of which is loosely coated with particles of ink. The other side of the paper is plain. If carbon paper is placed on plain paper (eg typing or writing paper) so that its inked face is in contact with  the plain paper, and then pressure (e.g. with a stylus or typewriter letter) is applied to a point on its un-inked side, the ink beneath the pressure point is transferred to the plain paper beneath the carbon paper, making a copy of the shape of the object (e.g. letter or shape) creating the pressure. 

Carbon paper was commonly used when typing on a typewriter. The letters that sharply hit  the paper to create a letter, number, or symbol, can be transmitted to a second or third piece of paper by carbon paper. The second and third pieces of typing paper are placed below the top sheet, but  each is separated from the  sheet above by layers of carbon paper with their inked surfaces facing down on them.  Thus, several copies of the same document can be created simultaneously.

This was a useful method of creating up to four reasonably distinct copies of a typed document in the era that preceded photocopiers, laser and inkjet printers, and word processors. For larger numbers of copies, one needed access to something like the now obsolete Gestetner machines. And, the copies they produced were not always easily legible.

The sealed pack of carbon paper that was lurking amongst unsorted stationery in our home  bears the name of the supplier, WH Smith  & Son. The company still exists. It has retail outlets in the UK  and abroad. I have seen branches of the company in the departure lounges of airports in the Gulf States.

The price of our pack is given as “3/-” (three shillings) or “15p”. The UK adopted decimalisation of its currency in 1971. Prior to this change, £1 was 20 shillings, each of which was 12 pennies. Thus £1 was 240 pennies (abbreviated as ‘d’, from the Latin word ‘denarius’).  After the decimalisation,  £1 was divided into 100p (‘pence’).

Given that our unused pack of carbon paper bears a price in both the old and the new currencies, I imagine that it was bought around the time that the British abandoned its old currency, when the new penny, 1p, became worth 2.4d (old pennies).

In 1982, I qualified as a dentist and began tackling the dental problems of the general public. After not having used carbon paper for several years, I found myself using a form of it daily. It came in short narrow rectangular strips of thin paper, sometimes with only one surface loosely coated with ink, but more often both sides. It was/and still is known as ‘articulating paper’. It is used to check how the teeth in the mandible (lower jaw) meet their opposite numbers in the maxilla. Determining this is very important for diagnostic purposes and for checking that crowns, bridges, dentures are in occlusal harmony with the rest of a patient’s dentition. If, for example, a crown (‘cap’) is high on the bite when it is being fitted, articulating paper can be used to detect which part of the cap has excess material that is preventing the patient’s teeth from meeting comfortably.

When I  came across my vintage pack of unused carbon paper, I thought that it was a reminder of times past, but it is not. A quick search on Google revealed that carbon paper is still widely available from stationery suppliers. Rymans now sells ten sheets of A4 carbon paper, not for 15p, but for £5.99. Carbon paper still has many uses apart from typing. For example, sheets of this paper are often used in pads of bills or invoices to make copies of the bills etc handed to customers.

I will not throw away our 3/- pack of carbon paper. It is a souvenir of a historic moment in British monetary evolution and a painful reminder of how much the purchasing power of £1 has diminished in almost 50 years

Ignorance is bliss

DURING MY UNDERGRADUATE student days in the very early 1970s, a good friend, who is now my wife, suggested that a group of us should visit one of the then very few Japanese restaurants in London. The one we chose was in St Christopher’s Place, close to Oxford Street.

We decided to order sashimi, raw fish. I chose to have a plate of tuna sashimi. I had never eaten raw fish before, but after my first bite I decided this was a very superior way of serving fish. The sashimi was more than delicious. I would have loved much more than the five neatly cut pieces of tuna, which was the portion size. However, I could not afford that luxury.

The five bite sized pieces of tuna cost £7. And, in the early 1970s that sum could pay for a lot of food or other goods. For example, a Penguin paperback book cost 12.5 or 17.5 pence and a gallon (4.5 litres) of petrol was well under £1.

I was left hungry after our visit to the Japanese restaurant, and had to assuage my appetite at a fast food outlet.

Today, the price of Japanese food in London has dropped relative to what it was almost 50 years ago. Outlets like Itsu can provide a satisfying Japanese set meal for little more than £7. Better quality Japanese restaurants are justifiably more expensive, but not usually way out of reach, as was my plate of sashimi in St Christopher’s Place.

We used to visit a lovely Japanese restaurant in Holland Park side street. It was run by an elderly couple from Japan. It closed when they retired. For a year or two, we did not eat Japanese food in London.

One Saturday evening, we were watching a play at the National Theatre. It was not satisfactory. So, we walked out after the first act. We decided to drive to Ali Baba, an Egyptian eatery near Baker Street.

On the way, I thought that if we were to see a Japanese restaurant, we would stop and eat there. I stopped the car outside a Japanese restaurant near Bloomsbury and suggested to my wife that we ate there. She agreed and we entered the small eatery.

We looked at the menu and then looked at each other across the table. By chance, we had walked into a very (no kidding) expensive place. We were on the point of walking out when I said to my wife:
“Let’s eat here. I will enjoy it if I don’t see the bill. You check it, and I will hand over the card.”
Ignorance is bliss, and so was the food.

Pictures taken at Harima restaurant in Bangalore, India

Greed

books

 

In the UK, we have ‘charity shops’, where (mostly) used goods are sold to make money for charities. In the past, charity shops were good places to find really reasonably priced bargains. This is no longer the case. Those who run charity shops are ‘wising up’. Many of them assess the value of the goods they receive by checking how much similar items are being sold on the internet. This has caused prices in these shops to rise gradually. This is quite sensible for the charities, which would like to raise as much money as possible.

I like visiting charity shops to browse the shelves of second-hand books, which they often contain. One charity shop, which will remain unidentified and is in my home neighbourhood, is managed by a person who must be aiming for very high targets in his shop. The prices of the used items in ‘his’ shop are high. Many of the used books on sale in this particular outlet are often at least half the price of what they would be if they were unused and new. The result is that the same books remain unsold on his shelves for months on end. The manager is hoping that they will raise much for the charity. However, they take up space, and are not making any money for his charity. This is the cost of greedy pricing policy.

Other charity shops within the neighbourhood, even those that specialise in selling books, price far more reasonably than the fellow described above.  If that person, whom I shall not name, is reading this piece, I hope that he will begin to realise that people visit charity shops, not because they are desperate to buy something, but because it is enjoyable discovering a bargain. 

Afghan cab drivers

Dolmus driver_240

 

A few years ago, we hired a mini-cab (a type of taxi) to take us from Kensington to Golders Green. When we entered the cab, we heard music being played on the car’s cassette player. It sounded Russian to me. I asked the driver about it and he confirmed that it was Russian. He told us that he was from Afghanistan and had lived in Russia for a couple of years before settling in London. We began chatting as we drove northwards towards Golders Green. He told us that during the day he sold shoes in his own shop and drove his cab in the evening. We engaged in an amicable conversation.

When we arrived at our destination, I asked how much we owed him. He said:

“Nothing at all.”

“But, we must pay you something,” I said.

“No, nothing. You are my friend. I cannot ask you to pay me,” he explained.

For a few moments, I was flummoxed, at a loss as how to proceed. On the one hand, he said he did not want to be paid. On the other, he had done a good job for us, which needed rewarding. Then, I said to him, handing over a £10 note:

“If we can’t pay you, take this as a present for your children.”

He accepted the money without objection. £10 was the normal fare for that journey in those days.

We booked another mini-cab for our return journey. By coincidence, it was driven by someone from Afghanistan. Although he was not as friendly as the outward bound driver, there was nothing to complain about him. When we arrived at our home, we asked him how much we owed. He answered:

“Anything you like.”

I paid him the £10, which we usually pid for that journey, and the driver was happy with that.

Shortly before that day of Afghan mini-cab drivers, I had finished reading a book about travelling in Afghanistan., An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliott. In it, he describes shopping in rural Afghanistan. The customer is not quoted a price, but has to make an offer. If the offer is too low, the seller will look insulted and hurt. If it is too high, everyone else in the shop will laugh at the customer. I suspect that it was on this basis that the two mini-cab drivers operated with us. They must have detected our familiarity with eastern ways and customs. Had we been typical Anglo Saxon customers, they might have simply quoted a price.

Would you trust them with your money?

Back in the early 1970s, I had dinner at a cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurant (Lido, which still exists in Gerrard Street) with about 7 friends. 5 of them were studying to be chartered accountants, I was completing my PhD thesis, and ‘J’ had only the most basic of educational qualifications.

The bill arrived. It was £24 for all that we had eaten. That seemed about right. The bill, consisting of three pages stapled together, was examined by all of us.

When J looked at it, she said it was twice what it should have been. This was because the waiter had added the sub totals at the bottom of each page to the individual prices which added together were equal to the sub totals.

We ended up sharing a corrected bill of £12.

What concerned me was that 5 people who were about to become chartered accountants missed the error in the bill which they had perused. Would you have trusted them with your money?

Incidentally, J went on to become a very successful business woman, probably more prosperous than anyone else sitting around that table in Lido.

Embarrassment

The 50 pence coin, a seven sided silver coloured object, had already been introduced into circulation in the UK when I was a pupil at Highgate School in North London (1965-70). In the mid to late 1960s, 50 pence had considerable purchasing power. For example, this amount of money would pay for two new paperback books.

At Highgate School, all 600 pupils ate lunch together in a large dining hall. The Headmaster, then Alfred Doulton, sat at a high table facing the long tables where his pupils and teaching staff ate.

At the end of lunch, Mr Doulton used to stand up and make brief announcements. If some money had been found lying about, he used to ask if any of us had lost it. Always, a pupil would walk up to the high table to claim the money. Before releasing it, Doulton would ask the claimant to prove that it was his.

I began worrying what I would say if I felt that I had lost the money that Doulton was asking about, especially if it were a valuable 50 pence coin.

So,whenever I had a 50 pence coin, I used a compass or dividers point to scratch my initials, “AY”, on my seven sided coin.

Luckily, I never mislaid any of my 50 pence coins. Had I done so and it had appeared in Doulton’s hand at the end of a lunch time, I would have been able to check whether the coin was mine. I still shudder to think that I would have become the laughing stock if the school had Doulton announced to the assembled pupils something like: “See how prudent Yamey has been. He has even marked his money just in case it gets lost.”

Now, remember if you are ever handed a 50 pence coin and it bears my initials, give it back to me. It’s mine!