Welcomed to India with coffee

BECAUSE OF THE COVID19 pandemic, we had not stepped onto Indian soil for two years and nine months. This was unusual for us because after we married in early 1984, we have been visiting India on average twice a year. For family related reasons, we have almost always landed in Bangalore.

When a new international airport was opened near Devanahalli village (at the northern edge of Bangalore) a few years ago, a line of eateries and cafés opened alongside the main landside of the terminal building. Being outside the terminal, which can only be entered by holders of air tickets, these outlets can be used by passengers and those who are not travelling by air.

One of these stalls is a grand affair partly decorated with copper sheeting. It is called Hatti Kaapi. The ‘kaapi’ in the name refers to the way local Bangaloreans pronounce ‘coffee’. This particular coffee stand provides excellent quality South Indian filter coffee. It is so wonderful that whenever we visit the airport, either arriving (from the UK or from places elsewhere in India) or departing, we always make time to drink a coffee served by this superb stall.

So, after what was for us an abnormally long absence from India and what has been a disastrous period for everyone, it was wonderful to discover that it was ‘business as usual’ at Hatti Kaapi. And since our last trip 2 ¾ years ago, a new sign has appeared at Hatti Kaapi. It reads:
“HATTI KAAPI The great Indian welcome drink.”


Seeing that sign after 2 ¾ years made us feel much more welcome than its designers could have ever imagined.

Retreating from the pandemic misery

FOR SEVERAL MONTHS following March 2020, movement was restricted to within a short distance of home because of rules that were supposed to limit the spread of covid19 infections. Almost everything except food stores was closed. Socialising was frowned upon. And travel for leisure was not possible. Around about June 2020, things eased up just a little bit, and travelling became possible once more, albeit subject to various rules and precautionary measures. It was then we decided to buy a car to travel around without risking infection by using public transport.

After collecting our (pre-loved) car from a garage on the Edgware Road, we decided to drive up to see my wife’s cousin in Baldock (Hertfordshire). We asked him to recommend a nice country pub where we might be able to get something for lunch. He suggested that we tried Ashwell, which is about 4 miles northwest of Baldock. This pretty village has three pubs. Two of these were closed, and the remaining one did not serve food. We asked the rather melancholic barman to suggest somewhere else in the area. He pointed at the pub’s only customer, a gentleman seated at a table, and said:
“You could try his place at Abington Piggotts – it’s only just up the road.”
The man, Mick, told us that his pub was open and serving food. So, we drove a few miles to tiny Abington Piggotts, which is 3 ½ miles northeast of Royston. With about 80 households, the village has one pub, a free house called The Pig and Abbot. Housed in a century’s old building, this hostelry is a lovely example of an unspoilt country pub. We were given a warm welcome. We enjoyed a small snack and a drink and decided to return at a later date for a proper meal.

We returned and enjoyed excellently cooked food prepared by Mick’s wife Pat. It was so good that we began returning at regular intervals to enjoy Pat’s cooking. The Pig and Abbot, like all other pubs and restaurants, was subject to compulsory closures during the various ‘lockdowns’ that were imposed by the government, yet it has remained in business despite these interruptions. I am not sure how many times we have visited the Pig and Abbot, but each time has been as least as enjoyable as the others. It was not long before we began regarding Mick and Pat as good friends. Whenever we visit the pub, Pat gives us all a great hug when she sees us. Especially during the periods when lockdown restrictions were only partly eased, a visit to the Pig and Abbot provided a welcome respite from the gloomy atmosphere during the height of the pandemic. Whenever we drive along the country lanes leading to Abington Piggott, I have a warm feeling of gratitude because it was this countryside that lightened our lives during two years of covid-related misery.

Recently, we booked for Sunday lunch at the pub. Several days before we were due to eat at the pub, Pat rang. At first, we thought she was going to cancel us for some reason, but it was worse than that. She rang to tell us that Mick had died suddenly and completely unexpectedly. We felt devastated by this news. When we asked her whether she wanted us to cancel, she said ‘definitely not’. She had decided she must continue, and she wanted to see us. When we arrived for our lunch, the pub was full, Pat greeted us warmly, and her food was as excellent as usual. We will greatly miss Mick, and we wish Pat all the very best for the future.

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.