Covid is over

IT WAS EASTER Saturday (2022), the sun was shining, the air was warm, and we paid a visit to the world famous, popular Portobello Road Market. For the first time after over two years of pandemic-induced suppression of London’s ‘joie-de-vivre’, the market was buzzing with activity, crowded with foreign tourists and local visitors. As it was before Covid19, the market was bustling and business at the stalls, which offer everything from artichokes to antiques and pancakes to paella, seemed to be brisk.

Portobello Road

A friend, who lives in rural France, said to me a few days ago when we were walking near Leicester Square:

“It’s hard to believe that there was ever a deadly pandemic in this city.”

And as we walked along a short street in the area, he added:

“There are more people out in this street than there are living in my hometown.”

Yet, Covid infection rates are high in the UK. Friends in India have been telling us that they are thinking twice before visiting the UK because the risk of becoming infected here is so great at the moment. Recently, I have heard that approximately between 1 in 12 and 1 and 15 people in the UK are likely to be infected with a Covid19 virus, and therefore capable of spreading it to others.

Apart from personal hygiene and wearing face coverings, good ventilation is considered to be useful for reducing the risk of spreading the viruses. So, when I boarded a bus in South Kensington recently, I opened the window closest to me – each window on London buses has a label saying “Open this window”. Immediately after following this instruction, which has been given for reasons of prevention of infection, the lady sitting behind me, who was not wearing a face covering, stood up and slammed it shut. I stood up, opened it, and told her not to touch it. She said, speaking angrily with an Eastern European accent:

“You don’t need to open it. You are wearing mask and have three vaccinations.”

How she knew my vaccination status, I do not know. My wife said to her:

“Don’t you know that one in twelve are infected?”

To which the lady replied:

“Believe what you like.”

Then to my great surprise, she added:

“Covid is over”

Marching on

As we approach the end of the year, the pandemic rages on, the weather is appalling, and prospects for post-Brexit UK are not yet looking too bright. But all is not doom and gloom. On Christmas Eve, we went for a walk from Knightsbridge to St James Park. As we reached Hyde Park Corner and the Wellington Arch, an ever present reminder of the days when ‘England ruled the waves’ and a great deal more, we heard the sound of horse’s hooves behind us. We turned to look back at the arch and saw a line of mounted soldiers with shining helmets adorned with red tassels emerging from beneath the arch.as they have been doing several days a week for very many years, if not for several centuries. Seeing this age-old tradition being enacted in front of us reminded me that although much has been disrupted since the covid19 virus began ruling the waves, life goes on.

Wall of sorrow

PARLIAMENT’S HOME IS OPPOSITE a wall that runs along the northern edge of the grounds of London’s St Thomas’s Hospital. The wall is separated from the River Thames by a walkway, the embankment between Westminster and Lambeth bridges. Almost every square inch of the river facing side of the wall, which is about 440 yards in length, is covered by hand-painted hearts of various sizes and in various shades of red and pink. Many of the hearts have names, dates, and short, sad messages written on them.

Each of the many thousands of hearts painted on the wall (by volunteers) represents one of the huge number of people who died because of being infected with the covid19 virus. The wall is now known as The National Covid Memorial Wall and work on the painting commenced in March 2021. The mural that records the numerous tragic deaths was organised by a group known as Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. The names and other information added to the hearts is being done by people who knew the bereaved person being remembered. When we walked past the wall today, the 27th of October 2021, we saw a young lady carefully writing on one of the hearts. Seeing this and the wall with all its reminders of the pandemic-related deaths was extremely depressing. On our return journey, I insisted that we crossed the river and walked along the opposite embankment on which the Houses of Parliament stands. Even from across the river, the reddish cloud of hearts on the wall is visible. Certainly, this would be the case from the riverside terraces accessible to those who work and govern within the home of Parliament.

It is ironic (and maybe deliberately so) that the wall with its many tragic reminders of deaths due to covid 19 is facing the Houses of Parliament (The Palace of Westminster), where had different decisions been taken, sooner rather than later, many of the names on the wall might not have needed to be written there.

Back to the theatre

BACK TO THE NATIONAL THEATRE

THE DORFMAN IS one of the three auditoria that make up the National Theatre complex on London’s South Bank. The Dorfman, which opened in 2014, is a completely redesigned version of The Cottesloe that used to stand in the same place. On our first ever visit to The Dorfman, today, the 6th of October 2021, we noted that it was a great improvement over its predecessor: better seating and sight lines than at the former Cottesloe.

Stage at the Dorfman

The play that we watched, “Rockets and Blue Lights” by Winsome Pinnock (born 1961), was inspired by a painting by JMW Turner. Originally named “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on”, it is now named “The Slave Ship”. Painted in 1840, it now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Close examination of this wonderful painting reveals the wild sea near a sailing ship is full of hands reaching out from the waves, the hands of Africans sinking after being tossed overboard. Turner, a sympathiser of slave trade abolitionists, might have painted this in response to the tragic story of British slave ship “Zong” on which about 130 enslaved Africans were killed in 1781 when drinking water supplies on-board ran low.

The play explores the possible back stories of those tossed overboard from the ship depicted in Turner’s painting. The drama alternates between the present and the dark past when slavery was still flourishing in the Americas. At first a little confusing, it does not take long before the constant changes in period begin to make sense. The scenes set in the present relate to the making of a film about Turner and those set in the past try to recreate the story that led to the disaster painted by Turner. The ideas behind this play are not without great interest but at times I felt that a bit of editing (i.e., abbreviating) would have made the drama punchier. Understandably, the playwright wanted to make the horrors and inhumanities of slavery abundantly clear to the audience, which she did very well. I am glad to have seen this play, but do not rate it amongst the best I have seen during many decades of watching drama on the stages of the National Theatre.

Our visit to the Dorfman was the first to the National Theatre since the day before the first covid 19 ‘lockdown’ commenced in March 2020. On that day before everything closed down for months, we sat for seven hours in the National Theatre’s Littleton auditorium to watch a truly excellent play, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota” by Robert Lepage, the National Theatre at its very best. Even though the play we have just seen at The Dorfman was not nearly as good as the play by Lepage, it was lovely to return to the National Theatre. That said, the South Bank felt eerily underpopulated compared to before the pandemic, probably because of the paucity of tourists from abroad. Walking in the sunshine along what used to be a crowded, joyful recreation area, I wondered whether we will ever experience the ‘normal’ we enjoyed before covid19 changed the world.

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.”