An actress on the village green

SHE SITS THERE MOTIONLESS, day after day and year after year, watching the traffic on Westway either rushing past or crawling along in a traffic jam. In her heyday, before being captured in stone, instead of the noise of motor vehicles, she would have enjoyed the sound of the applause given by audiences in dimly lit theatres. She was the actress Mrs Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), and her carved stone statue stands facing the elevated Westway in Paddington Green, just west of the Edgware Road.

Mrs Siddons

Paddington Green used to be part of an expanse of ancient wasteland located in an area now bounded by the Regents Canal, the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, and Edgware Road, but now much of this wasteland has been built upon. Writing in 1867, John Timbs noted:

“Paddington Green, now inclosed and iron-bound, was the green of the villagers, shown in all its rural beauty in prints of 1750 and 1783. Upon a portion of it were built the Almshouses, in 1714; their neat little flower-gardens have disappeared. South of the green is the new Vestry -hall. At Dudley Grove was modelled and cast, by Matthew Cotes Wyatt, the colossal bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington … it is thirty feet high, and was conveyed from the foundry, upon a car, drawn by 29 horses, Sept. 29, 1846, to Hyde Park Corner.”

Dudley Grove was in Paddington. What is now left of the wasteland consists of St Mary’s churchyard and next to it a small grassy area, still known as ‘Paddington Green’, and marked as such on a map drawn in 1815. It contains the statue of Mrs Siddons. The first written record of the Green is dated 1549. The Green contained a mediaeval chapel, now long-since gone. It has been replaced by St Mary’s Church, which was built in the Georgian style, in 1788. It was designed by John Plaw (1745-1820), who emigrated from London to the North American Colony of Prince Edward Island in 1807. His church in Paddington was later modified in the 19th century but restored to its original shape (a Greek Cross in plan) in 1970 under the guidance of the architect Raymond Erith (1904-1973), amongst whose other creations was the current form of the Jack Straws Castle pub in Hampstead.

The present church is the third in the area, which was halfway between the ancient villages of Paddington and Lilestone. The old Manor of Lilestone (or ‘Lilystone’) included the present Lisson Grove and extended as far as Hampstead. The earliest church was taken down in about 1678. The second church, which replaced it, can be seen in old drawings. It was a simple edifice with a single aisle and a small bell tower at one end. Edward Walford, writing in the 1880s, described it as:

“… not unlike the type of country churches in Sussex…”

The poet and preacher John Donne (1572-1631) preached his first sermon in the first church in 1615 and the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) was married to Jane Thornhill (c1709-1789) in the second in 1729 without her parents’ knowledge.

Next to the western end of the church there is a single-storied rectangular, brick building decorated with trompe-l’oeil grisailles, one of which depicts Mrs Siddons. Today, this houses the Phileas Fox Nursery School. Built on the site of the old, now demolished, vestry hall (parish council meeting place), this building, the  church hall,  in a late Georgian style was designed by John Quinlan Terry (born 1937), an architect of the ‘New Classical’ style favoured by Prince Charles, and built in 1978-81.

Apart from the statue of Mrs Siddons on Paddington Green, most of it is surrounded by buildings or roads built either at the end of the 19th century or long after. At the eastern side of the Green there is what looks like a pair of either early 19th or possibly 18th century houses. The reason Mrs Siddons is commemorated on the Green is that she is buried in the adjoining St Mary’s Churchyard. Her gravestone is contained within a cast-iron enclosure that looks like a small cage. For some time, the actress lived in Paddington in a house which used to stand in the area around Westbourne Green, which is near the current Westbourne Park Underground station.  

Mrs Siddons was highly acclaimed as an actress by many. The critic James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) had reservations as he remarked in his autobiography:

“Want of genius could not be imputed to his sister, Mrs Siddons. I did not see her, I believe, in her best days; but she must always have been a somewhat masculine beauty; and she had no love in her, apart from other passions. She was a mistress, however, of lofty, of queenly, and of appalling tragic effect. Nevertheless, I could not but think that something of too much art was apparent even in Mrs Siddons; and she failed in the highest points of refinement.”

Although the poet and playwright Joanna Baillie (1762-1851), shared Hunt’s opinion about her, others held her in higher regard.

The statue of Mrs Siddon in Paddington Green was sculpted by the French sculptor Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud (1858-1919). In the 1880s, he moved to London from France and lived south of the Thames in Brixton. His Mrs Siddons, based on a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was unveiled by the actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) in 1897. It was the first statue of a woman, who was not royal, to be put up in London.

Paddington Green, like its close neighbour Paddington Station, figures in the history of London’s transportation. For, it was from here that the coachbuilder George Shillibeer (1797-1866) ran London’s first omnibus service to The Bank of England in 1829. He had got the idea from Paris, where he had been asked to design carriages that could carry up to 24 passengers at any one time.

The Paddington Green police station building stands a few yards east of Paddington Green. Constructed in 1971, this used to provide local policing services as well as an interrogation centre for terrorist suspects. Suspects accused of terrorist activities were brought here for questioning from all over the UK. Although it was refurbished in 2009, the station was closed in 2018. The building’s future is in the hands of property developers, who plan to build new housing on its site.  

Until the beginning of the 19th century, Paddington Green was a bucolic environment on the edge of what was then London. Now, surrounded by buildings and highways, it is a green but noisy oasis in a highly urbanised area.

A collector, a composer, and police constables

LIKE ROME, HAMPSTEAD in north London perches on several hills. A short street, Holly Walk, leads uphill from Hampstead Parish Church towards the summit of Mount Vernon, one of Hampstead’s ‘peaks’. On the southern corner of Holly Walk and the short cul-de-sac Holly Berry Lane, there stands a house, number 9 Holly Walk, that bears the name ‘The Watch House’. It was from this building, constructed in the early 19th century (c1830), that during the 1830s (1830-1834), members of Hampstead’s newly established Police Force set out on patrol and night watch. The Regency era Windsor lantern attached to the Holly Berry Lane façade is of antiquarian interest (https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/photos/item/IOE01/15703/07). The main entrance to the building was the doorway in Holly Berry Lane; it is surmounted by a bas-relief of a lion’s head. By 1834, the police had moved to the bottom of Holly Hill opposite where the Underground Station stands now.

Next door to the former police house with its entrance on Holly Berry Lane is a house in which the composer Sir William Walton (1902-1983) lived in about 1939, although I am not sure exactly when. Walton used to visit Hampstead in the 1920s while he was composing Façade (first performed 1923), a musical setting of poetry by Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), who was living at Greenhill, a block of flats on Hampstead High Street. Later in life, she lived in Keats Grove.

Directly across Holly Walk opposite the former police station, there is a large, detached building called Moreton House. This was built in 1894-1896 in what the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner describes as “… the style of a Jacobean manor house.” The house originally had extensive terraced gardens, but these are now covered with late 20th century houses.  It was designed by Thomas Garner (1839-1906). Its first owner was the art historian and collector Frederick E Sidney, about whom I have discovered only a little.  His motto, which can be found in various places in Moreton House was “God is in Al and in Al thinges”. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, he was born before 1855 and died in 1932. In 1903, he published a travel book called “Anglican innocents in Spain”. In 1937, after his death, Christies auctioned his collection of ancient and modern pictures and drawings. The proceeds of this sale were given to the beneficiaries of his will. Apart from the information that he had a Torpedo model Rolls Royce Silver Ghost made for him in 1914, I can discover little more about Mr Sidney. It seems that currently Moreton House is divided into luxury flats.

The three buildings I have described are within a few feet of each other. They are close to the Catholic church on Holly Walk and the cemetery next to it. There is so much history in such a small area, as is the case for the rest of Hampstead. This is one of many things that endears me to the small hill town that has been absorbed into the metropolis of London without losing too much of its unique character.

Czech point

 

MUCH OF WHAT HAPPENED when we visited the Czech Republic in 1999 was our fault, but what followed left a bad taste in our mouths. We drove to Loket in the western part of the country, in what was once known as the ‘Sudetenland’ and stayed in a nice hotel, where we had stayed two years earlier, in the centre of the small town near to Karlovy Vary. Every day, we used our car to explore the country.

 

LOKET wiiki

LOKET in Czech Republic  (Source: wikipedia)

One day, we drove to Teplice (Teplitz in German). It was here that Beethoven met Goethe at the town’s well-known spa. On the way, we stopped in the square of a small town near to Teplice.  My wife and our small daughter were standing, waiting for me, when a car sped towards them and skidded to a halt about a foot away from them. Had it come any closer and they had not run, my family would have been badly injured or worse. Why had the Czech youths driving the car done this? Was it to scare them or even to hurt them because my Indian wife looked to them like a gypsy? The gypsies in many central and eastern European countries face much hatred and prejudice from those who regard themselves as true locals.

Somewhat shaken, we continued our journey to Teplice, where I parked in a spot (next to a police station) where one needed to purchase a parking ticket to display in the windscreen. Inadvertantly, I did not buy a ticket. We went off for a walk for an hour or so, and then headed back to the car. Before we reached it, I went into a music store to look at CDs and the others walked ahead to the car. A few minutes later, I reached our dark blue SAAB.

Our vehicle was surrounded by policemen. My wife was shouting at them in erratic German, accusing them and the Czechs of behaving like Nazis and trying to murder us. It was only after a couple of minutes that I noticed the clamp attached to one of our wheels. Blue in colour, it matched our car perfectly. It had been placed because of my not having bought a parking ticket. We were required to pay a fine.

“How much?” I asked.

“1500 Crowns”

“I don’t have that much cash.”

“How much do you have?”

“Five hundred,” I replied.

“Not enough. Go to that cash machine. Get more.”

We paid 1500 Crowns (about £25 in 1999) as required, and then asked for a receipt for what seemed like an excessive amount to pay for a parking infringement. One of the police officers brought a receipt book. He wrote something on one page, and then tore it and 14 other pages out of the receipt book. We looked at the fifteen receipts we had been given, each one to the value of 100 Crowns. Only one of them bore a date and our car’s registration number. The fine must have been 100 Crowns, and the rest a gift to the policemen of Teplice.

The following day, our penultimate in the Czech Republic, we ran out of cash. I suggested that as it was a Sunday and banks were closed, that we drove to a border crossing where we were likely to find a bureau de change. Why we did not look for a cash machine, I cannot remember. We drove along a road that led to a frontier post on a road into what had once been East Germany. On the way, we passed a road sign that I did not recognise but will now never forget. As soon as we drove into the Czech frontier post compound, our car was once again surrounded by uniformed men. They told us to drive into a small gravelly parking lot where I noticed an abandoned car with British registration plates. We were asked to disembark and hand over our passports. At this point, my wife, who was already fed up with the corruption of Czech officialdom, began banging her forehead against our car. Meanwhile, our passports were taken into a hut to be photocopied. Our crime was that we had driven to a frontier post that could only be used by local Czech and German pedestrians.

It transpired that the solution to our problem was to pay a fine.

“How much?” I asked, trying to explain that we had arrived at this post hoping to change some money.

“How much have you got?”

Having already learnt that 500 Crowns was likely to be insufficient, I said that I had enough Deutschmarks to pay up to 1000 Crowns.

“You will pay one thousand Crowns. You can change money there,” we were informed by one of the uniformed officers who pointed at a booth nearby.

Once the transaction was over, our passports were returned, and we headed back to our hotel in Loket, thoroughly disgusted by the corrupt behaviour of some Czech officials.

My wife and daughter went up to our attic bedroom to rest whilst I stayed at the reception to settle our bill.

“I have come to pay for our stay.”

“36,000 Crowns,” announced the receptionist in impeccable English.

“But,” I replied, “you agreed 18,000 in your confirmation email.”

“Your daughter has extra bed.”

“No, she did not. We brought her bed from London, as agreed in the email.”

“No, it is 36,000”

I took out my credit card. I knew that the hotel was trying to cheat us and that if I fell for their price, my wife would have found it hard to forgive me after what had happened to us already in the hands of the various officials we had met recently. Waving my card at the receptionist, I said:

“18,000 and no more.”

“We need 36,000”

“18,000, and no more,” I said more forcefully that I am usually and placing the credit card back into my wallet.

“Ok, 1800 will do.”

We left the Czech Republic the next day and have not yet felt the need to return. This is a pity because the country, which I have visited four times, does have a lot to offer the visitor.

Many years after our unfortunate trip to the Czech Republic, we were in Bangalore (India) when I learnt how to deal with corruptible policemen. Our driver, ‘R’, decided to take a short cut by driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction. A policeman stopped him. We said to R that we would pay the fine. Getting out of the car, he told us not to worry.

After a few minutes, R returned smiling. He told us:

“Fine is usually 300 rupees. I told him that if he accepted 100 rupees, it would save him the trouble of writing out all of that paperwork. He was happy with that.”

Clearly, a considerate crook can expect considerate behaviour from a crooked cop.

Very late at night

MY PARENTS USED TO go to bed early, usually just after hearing the 10 pm BBC news on the radio. When I was a youngster living at home, this used to upset me because I did not want to go to bed so early or to stay up without company. However, my aunt, my mother’s sister, and her husband were ‘night owls’. They lived a few minutes’ walk away from our family home.

BLOG BED Autumn leaves viewed nocturnally_500

Often, I used to wander over to their house after my parents had gone to bed. I would join them in their comfortable living room, and we would chat. Every now and then, our coffee cups would be refilled. And as the hours ticked by, the empty cafetieres would be replenished with coffee – one with normal coffee and the other with decaffeinated. As night merged into early morning, the three of us would nod off for a few moments and then wake with a jolt.  This would happen several times during the early hours of the morning. I used to love these late-night sessions with my relatives. Frequently, I left my aunt and uncle’s home at about 3 am.

I used to walk home along the tree-lined streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb that were illuminated by the strange orange glow from the bulbs on the concrete streetlamps. The streets were deserted, without cars or other pedestrians. If you were lucky, you might have spotted a fox scuttling past. To be honest, even in daytime, the thoroughfares of the Suburb were almost as dead. Occasionally, I would encounter a policeman on his nocturnal beat. Usually, these encounters led to me being questioned politely. What was I doing out so late? Where was I going? My answers, my innocent mien, and the lack of a sack of swag probably reassured my questioner that I was innocently going about my business.

On weekdays, despite going to bed late, my uncle was ready to drive with his wife to Golders Green station at 8 am. This was the time I headed in the same direction on my way to school. Oddly, although my parents had retired just after 10 pm, they were always still lying in bed when I left the house at 8 am, having prepared my own breakfast.

Something that has only struck me whilst writing this is that my parents did not give any hint that they were concerned at me wandering the streets alone in the early hours of the morning. When our daughter reached the age when she went out with friends at night, often returning at 3 or 4 am, I could not fall asleep until she returned home. These days, so many decades after I was a youngster, the streets are not nearly as safe as they used to be. I am not saying that the streets of London were 100 percent safe when I was old enough to first venture out alone, because there were hazards. However, many new dangers have been added to those that I might have had to face ‘when I was a lad’. ‘That’s progress’, you might say, but, remember that, speaking medically, a disease that progresses is one that is getting worse.

DEATH OF A DRIVER

THE PEAK OF MOUNT KANCHENJUNGA was covered with snow and clearly visible from our bedroom window in Gangtok at 630 am on the 29th November 2019. By 900 am, it was hidden by clouds.
Our taxi driver collected us and we set off for Darjeeling. Although he was born in Sikkim, his parents are from another part of India. Almost 90% of the inhabitants of Sikkim are not Sikkimese and do not enjoy the special privileges afforded to ‘Sikkim Subjects’, people whose ancestors originated in Sikkim. These privileges include owning land and not paying income tax.

The majority of people who now live in Sikkim arrived there after it was absorbed by India in the mid 1970s.

From Gangtok the route is mainly downhill to Rangpo, the border between Sikkim and West Bengal. The winding road follows the River Rani downstream from Ranipool. As we drove along through the wooded valley, our driver told us about ‘D’, one of the two drivers he employs.

‘D’ was the fifth husband of a lady who owns a restaurant and bar. One night, well after midnight when D’s wife had closed her eatery, D decided to give her a driving lesson.

She sat at the wheel, and just before her lesson was to begin, D dashed into the restaurant building to relieve himself. While he was away, she rashly decided to show her husband that she knew how to drive and did not actually need to be taught by him. When he came out, he saw that the car was moving steadily towards the edge of the road and was about to topple over the edge and drop down onto a very steep slope. He ran to save the car and his wife but he and the runaway vehicle toppled off the road and fell down into the darkness below.

D was killed but his wife, who was sitting in the driver’s seat survived unscathed.

Driving without a licence is an imprisonable offence in India. To avoid risking this, her family, D’s in-laws, arrived and placed her dead spouse in the driving seat so as to make the police believe that he, who carried a driver’s licence, was driving the car when the accident occurred.

We were horrified to hear about this event which had occurred less than a fortnight before we set off from Gangtok. It was clear that D’s employer, our driver, was still stunned by what had happened.

Our driver’s careful driving gave us no cause for concern. However, as we neared Darjeeling and had rung our host to give directions for finding his homestay, our journey struck problems.

First of all, our driver told us he had never before driven to Darjeeling and had no idea about its geography. Secondly, we discovered that taxis with Sikkim registration plates, such as ours, were restricted as to where they can drive in Darjeeling. The result was that our driver had to stop at Jorebunglow, quite a few miles outside Darjeeling. We had to wait there until a local taxi driver took us into town. Despite this, the scenic journey between Gangtok and Darjeeling is a joy to experience.

Green crime

plant

 

I am no gardener, but I enjoy garden, plants, and flowers. When I lived in Kent, I had an enormous garden, which I filled with shrubs because someone advised me that they needed little care and attention. This was good advice.

There was a strip of earth next to where I parked my car at night. I filled this with various shrubs that needed almost no care. One of these plants was a very slow growing conifer, which looked like a miniature Christmas tree. It grew close to where I entered the driver’s door of my car.

One day, I noticed that this tiny tree was no longer in its place. It had disappeared. I thought that maybe it had died and rotted away. After that, I thought little if anything about the missing plant. Where it grew was soon covered with foliage from the neighbouring fast-growing shrubs.

Many weeks later, a uniformed policeman visited my house and asked me if anything, such as garden tools or plants, had gone missing from my land. At first, I thought that this was an odd request. Then, I remembered the mysterious vanishing of my small conifer. I told the policeman about this. Then, he told me that there had been a garden thief operating in the area and the police were collecting evidence.

I told the policeman that I could not believe that my tiny plant could have been of any value for a thief. He explained to me that plants are valuable, and that the maturer they were, the greater their value. I was amazed that there was such a species of criminal as a plant thief.  But, since then, I have heard it is quite common, especially amongst respectable looking visitors to horticultural gardens such as Kew Gardens.

Well, as the saying goes: ‘you learn something new everyday’

I love you…

Teeth_500

In the second half of the 1990s, I worked in a dental practice in West London, not far from Ladbroke Grove. It was also not far from a home or shelter for mentally-compromised people. In those days,  patients with psychiatric problems mixed with the other people in the local community. Many of these people attended our practice as dental patients.

‘P’, one young man, a schizophrenic so he told me, was a regular patient of mine. Usually, treating him presented no problems other than those relating to the technical details of sorting out his dental problems.

One morning, P attended my surgery. He sat in the chair, which I then set to the reclining position. Lying down, he said to me, out of the blue and without any prompting:

“Mr Yamey, I have decided to become a homosexual.”

At a loss as to how to respond adequately, I said:

“That’s nice.”

Then in a strong voice, P exclaimed:

“Mr Yamey, I love you.”

“Thank you,” I responded lamely, adding: “Let’s get on with your treatment now”.

At that moment, my dental assistant, ‘Gemma’, walked into the surgery, ready to assist me with the treatment I was about to provide P. Within seconds, P began unzipping the fly on his trousers.

“Put that away immediately,” I ordered, “otherwise we will have to summon the Police.”

P followed my instruction and behaved perfectly normally throughout the rest of the treatment session.

When the appointment was over, P sat up from the reclining position, and placed a pile of low denomination coins on the armrest closest to me.

“That’s a tip for you, Mr Yamey.”

I thanked him, and then returned the coins, knowing that he could ill afford to waste money on me.

If the judge allows

blur close up focus gavel

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was a little intimidated by his appearance the first time he walked into my surgery. Tall, well-built, he clutched a half eaten sandwich in one hand and a bundle of papers in the other. When he had finished masticating the piece of sandwich in his mouth, he told me that the police had banned him from entering the area. Waving his collection of papers, he explained that his solicitor needed to get permission from the police when he needed to see a dentist at the practice.

P wanted a new set of dentures. Inwardly quaking, I took the primary impressions of his toothless gums, and then asked him to return a week later for the next stage of his treatment. By the end of the appointment, I felt that he was going to be a pleasant patient and that I need not fear him.

On the penultimate appointment, I tried the wax mock-up of his dentures to check that all was proceeding well. I let P look in the mirror. He was very pleased and wanted to take them away. I explained that the waxed version had to go back to the technician to be made into the final, usable plastic product. I told him that they would be ready in a week.

Looking crestfallen, P said :”really ? That might be awkward?”

I asked why.

“I am seeing the judge next week. If he puts me behind bars, I won’t be able to collect the teeth.”

I asked him if he could let me know if he was unable to return.

“Sure, doc,” he said, “I can phone you from prison.”

I said to him: “I see now. That’s what people mean by a ‘Cell phone'”

P gave me a huge toothless grin.

P did return for his teeth a week later, but I was not at work. I’d had to cancel my clinic to attend our daughter’s birth.