A year of plague

BY THE SUMMER, five hundred people were dying every week in London. The fatalities included both the rich and the poor. Parliament was moved from the capital to the city of Oxford. By July, the plague was destroying the city of London and every Londoner became regarded as a potential carrier of the disease. Towns such as Bristol would not admit Londoners unless they had proof that they were free of contamination. This proof was in the form of a document issued by the Mayor of London, in whose own household illness was rife. Towns near London shut their doors to Londoners and their citizens stayed at home.

In London, volunteer searchers inspected every house and whenever they came across one in which at least one resident had signs of the disease, they posted a notice above the door. This bore the words “God have mercy on us.” Then, two soldiers were posted by the entrance of each affected house to make sure that no one entered or left.  By August, the theatres, inns, and markets were closed in London. When business was conducted, coinage used to pay for goods was dropped into a tub of water by the customer and then retrieved by the vendor or supplier. Nobody touched the hands of another. Later that month, terrified Londoners began fleeing from the diseased city, but they were turned away from wherever they went. By September, 5000 Londoners were dying each week. Schools were closed. As a result, schoolteachers applied to the government for financial relief.

What I have been describing is nothing to do with the current covid19 pandemic, even if there are some remarkable similarities. Also, when considering the number of deaths, it is worth noting that London’s population in 1625 was about 300,000. It refers to a plague (possibly bubonic) that afflicted London in 1625. The information I have given has been extracted from a book that I am reading at the moment: a biography of Sir Harry Vane (1613-1662) by the historians JH Adamson and HF Folland, both professors at the University of Utah in the USA.

And, why, you might wonder, am I reading a book about a man whose existence was unknown to me less than a couple of months ago. The answer lies in Hampstead in north London. I was brought up in this part of the metropolis and recently have been revisiting old haunts and thus begun to become interested in Hampstead’s rich history. It was whilst rambling around Hampstead one cold February morning that I saw a gatepost (near the upper end of Rosslyn Hill) with a commemorative plaque. This memorial recorded the fact that the gate post was all that remained of the house in which Sir Harry Vane, politician and for some time a Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, resided for some time before his arrest (ordered by King Charles II), trial, and execution.

What struck me when reading about the plague of 1625 and comparing it with what we are facing currently was how similar were some of the actions taken then with those taken now, almost 400 years later. By the way, in case you were wondering, the 1625 plague subsided almost completely by November that year and that was without any vaccines being available.

Coffee al fresco

THE COVID19 PANDEMIC has, for the time being, made drinking inside cafés a thing of the past. If you wish to enjoy a beverage, be it a cappuccino, cortado, americano, a hot chocolate, or even a humble cup of tea, you can buy it at a counter and then enjoy it outdoors, come rain, snow, or shine. In the absence of restaurants and pubs, with the exception of take-away foods, this has become one of the few little treats, apart from the joys of nature, available to those who wish to enjoy a bit of life out in the open air.

Not long ago, whilst exercising in London’s Hampstead district, we came across a particularly lovely place to obtain hot drinks and a selection of snacks, both sweet and savoury. They are being served under a canopy illuminated by strings of ‘fairy lights’ on a terrace overlooking the sloping garden of Burgh House.

Built in 1704 during the reign of Queen Anne, Burgh House was, according to the historian of Hampstead, Thomas Barratt, first owned by a Quaker couple, Henry and Hannah Sewell. Barratt remarked:

“…the house gives the idea of Quaker severity of style combined with a good quality of work.”

The house acquired its present name in 1822, when it was the residence of the Reverend Allatson Burgh (1769-1856), who was for a time vicar of St Lawrence Jewry (http://www.burghhouse.org.uk/about-us/history-of-the-residents-of-burgh-house#revburgh). He was also the author of a book about church music. Prior to the cleric, the house was occupied, between 1776 and 1820, by the upholsterer Israel Lewis (1748-1820) and his wife Sarah, both known for their good deeds. Lewis was a supporter of the non-Conformist Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead. The family also provided assistance to the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his brothers. On the 16th of October 1818, the poet wrote to his brother, who was living in the USA, George Keats (1797-1841):

“Mr Lewis has been very kind to Tom all the summer. There has scarce a day passed but he has visited him, and not one day without bringing him or sending some fruit of the nicest kind.”  (“The Letters of John Keats: Volume 1, 1814-1818”)

Burgh House is close to the former chalybeate wells of Hampstead, which were famed for their alleged curative properties. Before the Lewis’s lived there, it was the home of the chief physician of the Wells and a promoter of the benefits of its water, Dr William Gibbons (1649-1728) and his wife Elizabeth. They lived in the house between 1720 and 1743, Elizabeth continuing to live there as a widow.

After Burgh’s death in 1856, the house named after him became the officers’ mess and headquarters of the Royal East Middlesex Militia between 1858 and 1881. The house was then privately owned by several other people, the last of whom were Captain George Louis St Clair Bambridge (1892-1943) and his wife Elsie (1896-1976). Mrs Bambridge’s father was the writer Rudyard Kipling, who was born in Bombay (India). The Bambridges lived at Burgh House between 1933 and 1937. During that time, the ageing Rudyard was a regular visitor.

After the Bambridges left Burgh House for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, the venerable building faced dilapidation until it was taken over by Hampstead Borough Council in 1946. It was then used for social functions such as wedding receptions.

After a long campaign and much fund-raising, the house was opened to the public as a museum in 2006. In addition to displaying items of historical interest, concerts, talks, and other cultural events are also held there. The concerts are held in a music room that the Reverend Burgh added on to the building when he occupied it.  All these life-enhancing activities have come to a halt during the covid19 pandemic. The pleasant and attractive outdoor café is helping to keep the community spirit alive until rates of infection decrease sufficiently to allow at least some return of the cultural activities that we used to enjoy.

The Burgh House café is open from Wednesday to Sunday. Should you visit Hampstead when the café at this place is closed, there are another three Hampstead places, from which we enjoy collecting hot beverages:

Ginger and White in Perrins Court

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead High Street

Matchbox Café in South End Green

There are also a couple of telephone kiosks that have been converted to tiny cafés both in Hampstead High Street and Pond Square, but we have never sampled their wares.  

Confined in Japanese occupied Manchuria

PARTICLES OF SNOW, whisked by the breeze, were whizzing about in the air in random directions and eventually reaching the ground this early February afternoon in London. I had just finished my midday meal with some nutritious fermented cabbage and was wondering what to write. Maybe, it was the kimchi that helped me remember an old friend who spent some of his working life in Manchuria, which is close to Korea, the home of this weirdly delicious fermented food substance, or was it something else that has brought him to mind?

Sir Norman had already retired from Britain’s diplomatic service when I first met him in the mid-1970s. An accomplished musician, a string player, he used to perform in concerts given by a fine amateur orchestra based west of London, whose treasurer was both a player in it and a friend of mine. Usually, after concerts, my friend and her husband hosted a coffee party at their home for the conductor and selected patrons of the orchestra. Sir Norman was a patron, and it was at these parties that I first got to know him. The few tales that he related about his years as a diplomat fascinated me.

On graduating from university, Sir Norman had a good command of several modern European languages as well as Latin and Greek. He told me that it was typical of the diplomatic service that they decided that his first posting was to Japan, where he was to have a role in the interpreting of a language he did not know: Japanese. Being a good linguist, he was able to learn it.

During the late 1930s, he was sent to Shanghai in China for a year (1937-38). When he arrived, a war between China and Japan was in progress. He told me that every afternoon, he would sit taking tea on the roof of a building in the European cantonment of the Chinese city. As he sat there, he could see shells shooting overhead. They were being fired at the Chinese on one side of the Yangtse River by the Japanese artillery on the other side. This went on day after day for several months. Then one day, the shelling stopped suddenly and for good. Sir Norman wondered why.

Soon after the shelling ceased, he met some senior officers of the victorious Japanese forces. He asked them why the fighting that had been dragging on for so long had ended so abruptly. The officers explained that the Chinese soldiers were mostly mercenaries. Once the Japanese had ascertained how much to pay them to stop fighting, they stopped.

Later, Sir Norman was transferred to Manchuria, where he was the Acting Consul General in Dairen (now ‘Dalian’).  He was serving there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. After that incident, the Japanese authorities in the city of Dairen ordered him not to leave the consulate building, in which he lived. They cut off his telephone and forbade him to use his wireless to listen to radio broadcasts. Frequently, Japanese officers used to visit his premises to check that the radio was inactivated. Sir Norman, who told me that he had never been much of a technological wizard, told me more about the radio. He said that he had unscrewed a wire in the radio, which rendered it inoperable, and left it disconnected whenever he did not want to use the apparatus. With a smile on his kindly face, he explained to me that whenever he wanted to listen to a news broadcast, it was a simple matter to reattach the wire. During the time that he was being held under house-arrest, none of the Japanese officials who had visited to check on him had ever bothered to examine the radio properly.

In about 1942, the Japanese transported Sir Norman to Tokyo and eventually he was transferred into Allied hands. He said that at no time was he treated badly by the Japanese. In fact, he was looked after by them very well.

The last time I saw Sir Norman was not long before he died. We went to visit him at his home, whose lovely garden ran down to the bank of the River Thames.  He was in good spirits, recovering from a hip replacement. He told my wife and me that both of his hips had prosthetic joints and that every few years they required replacing.

“It’s like changing a car’s tyres, you know,” he explained cheerfully, “except that it lays you up for a few weeks each time.”

Although I did not meet Sir Norman as nearly as often as I would have liked, I feel privileged to have been able to hear about historical events from someone who experienced them first-hand.

Sir Norman died in 2002. Sitting at home today in early February 2021, watching whisps of snow swirling in the air, whipped up by a strong cold wind, had brought him to mind. I am not sure that it was because of the kimchi I had just eaten that made me think of him. I wondered if I had recalled him because just as he was confined in Manchuria, we are also being confined, or at least being restricted in our freedom to move around. Unlike him, we have plenty of access to communications from the outside world, much of which arrives in ways that Sir Norman did not live long enough to experience. However, like him, we are currently limited in our movements. We can leave home, which Sir Norman could not, but we cannot travel as far from it as we had become accustomed to doing before the onset of the covid19 pandemic. Sir Norman used to sit out the several weeks of recovery from his hip surgeries patiently. I suppose that we must also wait patiently, but for far, far longer.

At the sharp end

“THIS WON’T HURT A BIT” are words that I never used when I was practising as a dentist. However careful and gentle one is when giving an injection, the recipient is bound to feel at least a tiny bit of discomfort. So, I never uttered those words because to do so would be telling the patient something untruthful and that would have risked undermining his or her confidence in me. So, today, when I went to our beautifully well organised local clinic (at St Charles Hospital in London’s North Kensington) to receive the first of my vaccination ‘jabs’ to protect me from covid19, I was pleased that the clinician, who administered it did not say those words which I always avoided, but instead told me that I might experience some discomfort. Despite the needle being of a larger gauge than usual, my jab was not at all painful.

Years ago, a friend of mine, ‘X’, who was married to ‘Y’, a medical doctor involved in biological research, related her experiences of receiving vaccinations and other injections. Until she went into hospital to have her first child, she had always been given injections at home by her husband.

On arrival at the hospital, X was terrified when she was told she needed an injection. However, after it was done, her fears evaporated, but was left with a question in her mind. After she returned home with her baby, she asked her husband the question that had occurred to her in hospital. She said to Y:

“It’s really strange, dear, but the injections I had in hospital were completely painless unlike those you give me. I wonder why that should be.”

Y did not answer immediately, but after a short while, said:

“That’s easy to explain. I always inject you with the type of needles that I use for injecting, or taking samples from, experimental animals, the rats and so on.”

It is no wonder my friend found her husband’s injections painful. The syringe needles he used for laboratory animals were of a much wider bore than those normally used for administering jabs to humans. They were wide enough to be cleaned by pushing a wire along their length prior to sterilizing them.

This reminded me of the somewhat painful injections that our family doctor, Dr C, gave us when we were children in the early 1960s and before. Even though this was long ago, I can remember that his surgery had a gas fire, and its gas pipe had a small branch that fed a burner that heated a container in which he boiled his glass syringes and reusable needles between patients. These needles, like those used on animals and my friend, X, had to be wide so that they could be reamed out prior to being boiled. Furthermore, repeated boiling in water, blunted the needles and made them increasingly likely to cause pain when penetrating the skin. It was lucky that when we were vaccinated as kids, we did not come away with some infection as bad as whatever we were being protected against. There was no HIV in the 1960s, but there were other bugs, which were certainly not inactivated by boiling water.

Today, at the vaccination centre, a beautifully laid-out facility in a Victorian hospital building, I was shown the wrapped disposable syringe and needle, and felt confident that the vaccinator at St Charles had done a good job of jabbing.

This time last year

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:

“Such is life”, or “These things happen.”

Changing travel plans

WE ARRIVED BACK IN LONDON from several months in India on the 27th of February 2020. Since we retired, we have taken to spending a few of the winter months in my wife’s native land, India.

We have often spent Christmas in the south Indian city of Bangalore, where we stay at the long-established ex-colonial Bangalore Club, where the young Winston S Churchill once stayed and then left without settling an outstanding bill. To date, we have settled all our Club bills, you will be pleased to know. However, maybe this is one reason why none of us has ever been elected as Prime Minister of the UK or any other nation.

Christmas is celebrated in style at the Club. Strings of tiny lightbulbs are draped all over the establishment’s buildings and the many lovely trees in the Club’s extensive grounds. Shortly before Christmas, there is an outdoor evening carol singing concert that ends with the lighting of a huge bonfire. There is also a lively Christmas party for the members’ children that culminates with the arrival of Father Christmas on a horse-drawn carriage. I always feel a bit sorry for him as he must dress not only in a bushy white beard but also in clothing that is far too warm for the December temperatures in Bangalore, which can be in the high twenties Celsius. On Christmas Day, members and their families, who are not vegetarian as many are in India, queue up for servings of roast Turkey and a wealth of other foods available at a luncheon buffet. There is plenty available for those who prefer not to eat meat. Well, we will be missing all of this in 2020, and a lot more.

Usually, a day or so after we return to London, we visit our travel agent to book tickets for our next ‘Winterreise’ to borrow a title from the composer Franz Peter Schubert. Air tickets become available eleven months before a flight’s departure date. When we were seated at our travel agent’s desk, we told him the dates of our proposed trip. He looked on his system and told us that we could book the outbound flight, but the return flight tickets would not be available for purchase until early April. He advised us to return in April and then book both outward and inbound tickets together. That turned out to be extremely sound advice.

In the middle of March, the UK went into a total ‘lockdown’. It was no longer possible to return to our travel agent or to do much else. In addition, things were deteriorating all over the world as a result of the spreading of covid19 infections. As the weeks went past, it looked increasingly unlikely that we would be making a trip to India at the end of 2020. We were fortunate that we had been advised not to buy our outbound air tickets. Now, having reached December, travel abroad is not advised and currently travel from the UK is being curtailed. Many countries, including India, are banning travel from the UK.

In August, when restrictions on movement were being relaxed, we spent a pleasant week in a rented cottage in Kingsbridge, Devon. We liked the cottage so much that we asked its owner whether we could reserve it over the Christmas/New Year holiday period. She was happy with the idea providing that future ‘lockdown’ rules did not find her trapped there. A couple of months ago, she informed us that the cottage would not be available after all. This was not because of travel restrictions, but because a friend of hers needed temporary accommodation for a few months in winter.

Undismayed, we managed to find another self-catering cottage in the West Country to rent during the Festive Season. Then, London was cast into Tier 3 covid19 preventive measures, which discourage travel outside the Tier 3 restrictions area except between the 23rd and 28th of December. We rang our landlady in the West Country to explain that we would rather not drive so far to spend such a short time and she agreed to rebook us in March 2021.

With the West Country shelved, we decided to stay in a hotel near Cambridge and to spend some ‘socially distanced’ time with one of my cousins, who lives in the area. As the 23rd of December grew nearer, we began planning our festive feasting programme and buying mouth-watering supplies for it. Then, we all learned that the coronavirus had become highly creative and managed to mutate in more ways that most of these bugs can usually manage. This new viral creation is far more efficient at spreading from person to person than its awful ancestors. As a result, and surprisingly sensibly for our strange government, London and much of southeast England was put under stricter restrictions, Tier 4, which include a travel prohibition that forbids travel out of Tier 4 and no relaxation of restrictions during the period that we had planned to spend near Cambridge. So, that was Cambridge ‘out of the window’.

Soon after London was made subject to Tier 4 regulations, we learned that even with the arrival of new vaccines it was likely that the severe restrictions on travel might continue until Easter. So, we reached for the ‘phone and asked our future landlady in the West Country to shift our booking until May 2021. Now, we will make the most of Christmas and New Year without leaving London for any kind of winter journey, let alone India. I hope that all of this does not sound too depressing to you, because we subscribe to the idea that ‘all’s well that ends well’, and we hope that by following the rules, as ad hoc as they might be, we will all keep well.

While we munch our way through all of the festive ‘goodies’ we have accumulated, we will think of you, our friends all over the world, and wish you a prosperous and healthy future.

French connection

WE HAVE BEEN WARNED repeatedly that during the current covid-19 pandemic that travelling abroad, leaving the UK, is not without the risk that after returning home we might have to go into quarantine for fourteen days. The rules relating to quarantine are strict and include remaining at home twenty-four hours a day. This means, amongst other things, not emerging from home even for exercise, shopping, or going to work. For those who must leave home for work and cannot work from home this quarantine can lead to serious loss of earnings. Currently, the state will not compensate those who have to quarantine because they have returned from a country that the British Government considers having a higher rate of covid-19 virus infections or infection rates. I suppose the argument is that like heat, which flows from a higher to a lower temperature, the virus tends to flow from an area of higher infection to one with a lower one. The quarantining is meant to be part of minimising the risk of importing the virus into the UK from abroad.

Some countries may be visited by people living in the UK without the need for people returning from them to have to stay in quarantine. Until recently, the Government was happy for visitors to France to return to the UK without needing to go into quarantine for a fortnight. Because of this and despite warnings that covid-19 infections were on the increase in France, British holidaymakers were happy to take a risk by travelling to France. From the outset, the Government warned that at any moment there might need to be a change in the situation regarding quarantining after visiting abroad.

On the evening of Thursday 13th August 2020, the British Government announced that anyone who visited France and had not returned to the UK by 4 am on Saturday the 15th of August would need to go into quarantine for 14 days after reaching home in the UK. Between this late evening announcement and early Saturday morning, many British holidaymakers in France were panic stricken and tried to reach British soil before the 4 am deadline because they wanted to avoid being compelled to quarantine. Many of those people shelled out enormous amounts of money to obtain last minute bookings on ‘planes, trains, and ferries, in the hope of beating the deadline.

The panicked return was entirely understandable, and I do not blame anyone for trying to avoid a quarantine period that they could ill afford. What I cannot comprehend was what was magic about 4 am on Saturday the 15th of August. If the risk of importing covid-19 from France (or elsewhere) is so great that it is considered necessary to impose quarantine on returnees, why, for example is someone landing in the UK at, say 3.45 am on the 15th of August, any less likely to pose a danger to public health than someone arriving any time after 4 am on that day? In my opinion, if the chances of bringing in the virus from a certain country are deemed dangerously high and it is determined that quarantine will reduce the chances of imported virus from adding to the already significant local supply, the quarantine requirement should have been imposed immediately, without over a moment’s delay.

As for the effectiveness of the enforced quarantine on reducing imports of infection, that remains to be seen. Recently, the owner of a well-known budget airline poured scorn on the idea of quarantine. He pointed out that many travellers landing in British airports travel to their homes by public transport. During that journey to the places where they plan to quarantine for fourteen days, they have plenty of opportunity to spread the virus to others travelling on the same bus, train, or other public transport. By the time they get home, the damage might well have been done. This airline owner was saying this to help save his business from further destruction caused by ‘lockdown’ conditions, but what he said is true.

Why go abroad?

MANY OF MY FRIENDS AND acquaintances are itching to travel abroad after at least three months of enduring ‘lockdown’ caused by the Corona virus pandemic. Although I fully understand their wanderlust, I would not feel happy travelling abroad for quite a long time despite the easing of restrictions that is on the point of happening in the UK and elsewhere. I am not even happy about travelling on public transport despite the enforcement of wearing face coverings and attempts at separating passengers by so-called ‘social distancing’.

 

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Waterend House

We used to own a car until it decided to give up the ghost in the autumn of 2010. Living in Kensington with access to a rich network of public transport and the fact that we used it no more than twice a month, we felt that replacing it was unnecessary. So, for almost ten years we used buses, trains, minicabs, the occasional rented car, and more recently Uber cars. With the advent of the Corona pandemic, we gave up using public transport and confined our activities to where we could reach comfortably on foot, in our case not much more than two and a half miles from home. As it seems likely that Britain will not be free of risk from infection until eventually there is a vaccine for the infective particles, and that might be a long way off, we decided to travel in ‘splendid isolation’ by buying ourselves a motor car. Recently, we bought a small ‘pre-loved’ motor, and this has allowed us to widen our horizons, to roam around a bit more.

My wife and I are amongst those who prefer to travel to foreign parts and have therefore largely neglected the wonders that are literally on our doorstep: the joys of Britain beyond the boundaries of Greater London. Over the years, it has always struck us how different London is from the rest of Britain. Leaving London and travelling beyond sometimes as exotic to us as crossing international borders.

One part of England that is on London’s doorstep but is completely different is East Anglia (the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk). Much of Essex contains the eastern spread of the metropolis and is not too attractive, but further away from London the county is full of pleasantly delightful surprises.

Recently, we drove to the tiny village of Tollesbury near the River Blackwater, one of the numerous inlets on the coast of Essex. Nearby, is the estuarine port of Maldon, made famous for its granular salt that is highly regarded by cooks. We spent a couple of hours sitting in Promenade Park next to one of the streams of the River Chelmer. Unlike popular beaches like Brighton and Bournemouth, Malden is enjoyed mainly by the town’s locals.  The small town, which is on a hill overlooking the river contains many old houses and a fine church containing the grave of President George Washington’s great-grandfather.

Another trip, which I have described elsewher, took us to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. From there, we visited the Suffolk village of Clare. Dominated by the ruins of a castle and the superb perpendicular style Church of St Peter and St Paul’s, and containing several old pubs and other buildings, this small place was once important in the wool industry. Clare College in Cambridge (founded 1326) was so named in honour of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), an heiress of the Dukes of Clare. She gave the college a handsome endowment. The three red chevrons on the town of Clare’s coat of arms also appear as part of the coat of arms of the Cambridge college. We spent no more than half an hour in Clare, but that was sufficient for us to want to linger there longer on a future visit.   Our route back to London took us through other picturesque villages in Suffolk and Essex, all of which deserve future visits.

Shortly after our trip to Suffolk, we travelled a mere eighteen miles to Hatfield. Our friends took us from that small town deep into the Hertfordshire countryside to a tiny place where Waterend Lane crosses the upper reaches of the River Lea. We parked next to a lovely well-preserved mainly brick building, Waterend House. The historicengland.org.uk website describes it as: “An exceptionally complete example of a mid-C17 medium-sized country house”, and states that one of the fireplaces within it bears an inscription with the date 1692. I would have loved to visit its interior. Instead, we walked around the almost one-mile perimeter of a huge sloping field.

The field and its surroundings were a ‘breath of fresh air’. The upper part of the field was filled with ripening barley, which swayed like waves when the stems were caught by frequent strong gusts of wind. We walked up a steep slope and turned a corner to join the bed of a long since disused railway track. Near the corner of the field an old brick bridge still exists. Long ago, trains used to run below it. While our hosts’ two dogs sniffed their way around the field, M and G pointed out the various wild plants that flanked our path.

The lower half of the field was a sea of daisies. It looked as if the ground was covered with snow. The daisies were not alone. Small patches of blue flowered thistles and red poppies added to the picturesqueness of the scene. Every now and then, we spotted teazels, both green and fresh and, also, dark and drying out, towering high above the daisies. Along the side of the field that runs parallel to the riverbank, there were elderberries and elderflowers as well as many nettles. M pointed out something I had never noticed before. That is, the leaves of nettles are home to numerous ladybirds. In addition to the large numbers of these creatures I spotted many other small beetles, some of which resembled the ladybirds.

I felt that walking around the field, seeing the swaying crops and taking in the details of nature proved very uplifting and therapeutic after our spell of urban ‘lockdown’. It made me pleased that we had taken the decision to buy our own vehicle to explore the countryside on London’s doorstep, and eventually further afield. England outside London feels like ‘another country’ and is well worth exploring. And, in these times of health uncertainties, it provides a worthwhile alternative to the exotic destinations that we have chosen to visit in the past.

From Cuba to Corona

CURRENT AFFAIRS DID NOT interest me when I was a child. I did not read newspapers nor did I listen to the news broadcasts on the radio (we did not have TV at home).The first news item that I can remember hearing my parents talking about was something to do with Cuba. Now, I realise that they must have been discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis that occurred in October 1962 when I was a few months over ten years old. For those who cannot remember this event, it was a dangerous moment for the world because the Soviet Union had placed ballistic missiles in bases on the island of Cuba, which is dangerously close to the USA. These missiles could have been used to drop nuclear weapons on the US. Had that happened, most of us would have been wiped out in a nuclear Armageddon. Luckily, the missiles were removed and a showdown avoided.   

 

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Almost a year later, we lived in Chicago for three months because my father was a visiting academic at the University of Chicago at the end of 1963.  One of my memories of the USA during that time was the preponderance of yellow and black coloured signs indicating the entrances to nuclear bomb (fall out) shelters. The university gave us a flat to live in. This contained a booklet, which fascinated me. It was filled with advice on how to survive a nuclear bomb attack. Two things in that booklet stick in my mind. One was to make sure that you removed your watch if it had a luminescent dial, one which glowed green-ishly in the dark. The other was to crouch under a strong kitchen table. I am not certain how either of these actions would have significantly improved one’s chances of survival.

After we had spent three months living in Chicago, we spent Christmas in New York City. One evening, we visited Steve Rousseas (1921-2012), an economist whom my father knew. He lived in Greenwich Village and was, incidentally, one of the few people who bought any of my mother’s sculptures. As we walked with Steve to a restaurant, he chatted to me. He told me something that made a great impression on my young mind. And, that was if a neutron bomb exploded, most lifeforms would be exterminated, but buildings and other man-made structures would remain intact. I found that idea very eery and quite frightening.

Many years later, I watched a documentary film that graphically portrayed the effects of a nuclear blast. Several aspects of this terrifying film impressed me. First, is that following a blast, there would be a great, powerful wind, which would carry a cloud filled with lethal splinters of glass from windows that had been shattered by the explosion. Secondly, the blast would most probably disable electricity generation and supplies. Thirdly, several species, being relatively insensitive to radiation, would survive the effects of intense radioactivity. These included cockroaches and other vermin.

By 1987, I was well-established in my house in Gillingham, Kent. One night in October of that year, I awoke in the early hours of the morning. It was dark but there was a great noise outside. There was a wild wind blowing. It was so strong that my house swayed slightly as the tempest buffeted against its walls.  I tried to turn on my bedside lamp to see what time it was, but there was no electricity. Then, remembering the documentary, I feared the worst. Was Gillingham being blown by the wind that I had learned from the film would follow a nuclear blast? The failure of the electricity supply confirmed that fear. I lifted the receiver from the telephone by my bed and, to my great relief, I heard a dialling tone. The electricity had gone, but the ‘phone line was still functional. The wind was not due to a nuclear bomb blast but was a fierce storm that devastated many of the trees in the south-east of England. Next morning, I rang my father, who lived sixty miles away in London, and asked him whether his area had been affected by the storm. He asked me:

“What storm?”

When I looked out of my window that overlooked my garden and those of the neighbours, I noticed that all of the greenhouses in my neighbours’ gardens had been flattened by the wind, but not mine. The reason was that my greenhouse had many missing panes of glass, which I had not bothered to replace. So, the wind blew through my green house rather than against it and that left it standing. Another thing I noticed was that the wooden pole in the street from which overhead telephone cables radiated to the surrounding houses had resisted being toppled by the storm. This was not the case for many thousands of lovely old trees all over Kent.  As for the electricity, that returned very soon where I was living but not at the dental surgery where I worked. As a result, the devastating storm provided me with an unexpected day’s holiday.

Now, let us move to the present and the scary pandemic that is affecting the whole world. During, the so-called ‘lockdown’, London became eerily silent. There were few people to be seen out and about and even the main roads were devoid of traffic. One day during a telephone call to a cousin, I was speaking about this weird situation when I suddenly remembered what Steve Rousseas told me long ago one December evening in Greenwich village. The corona virus, as invisible as the neutrons produced by a neutron bomb and almost as lethal, had temporarily rendered London almost devoid of visible human presence. I never would have believed that I would live to experience something like that. Now that the lockdown is easing, London has become noisier and the thoroughfares busier. With good luck and by exercising great caution, we can hope that the virus might well be less successful than neutron bombs in depopulating our world.

It is a long time since the Cubans hosted Soviet missiles. Since then, and especially lately during the pandemic and the Brexit brouhaha that preceded it, from being uninterested in news bulletins I am worried about becoming obsessed by them. As some people say, infuriatingly:

“Such is life” and “these things happen.”

 

Picture from Wikipedia