THE NAME MOLESWORTH immediately recalls a naughty schoolboy who cannot spell properly. Nigel Molesworth, a pupil in St Custards, a preparatory school, appears as a character in books by Geoffrey Willans (1911-1958) such as “Down with Skool”, “How to be Topp”, and “Whizz for Atomms”. However, for the Cornish town of Wadebridge, the name Molesworth has other significance.
One of the main shopping thoroughfares in Wadebridge is called Molesworth Street. The Town Hall was opened in 1888 by Sir Paul Molesworth (1821-1889). A pub called The Molesworth Hotel, a former coaching inn housed in a building that dates back to the 16th century, is located on the street named after Molesworth. The pub was only named as it is today in 1817. Previously, it had various names including The Fox, The King’s Arms, and The Fountain.
Wikipedia informs us that:
“The Molesworth, later Molesworth-St Aubyn Baronetcy, of Pencarrow near St Mabyn in Cornwall, is a title in the Baronetage of England. It was created on 19 July 1689 for Hender Molesworth.”
Hender Molesworth (c1638-1689) was a Governor of Jamaica from 1684 to 1687 and from 1688 to 1689. Pencarrow House is just under 4 miles southeast of Wadebridge. Each of the 2nd, 4th,6th, and 8th Baronets represented Cornwall or parts of the county in Parliament. The Molesworths were (are?) major landlords in the area around Wadebridge.
Sir William Molesworth, 8th Baronet (1810–1855), was the grandfather of Sir Paul, who opened the Town Hall in 1888. This edifice bears a weathervane in the form of a steam railway locomotive. After undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, which lasted from 1828 to 1831, William made his way to Pencarrow, where he:
“…devoted time to establishing the Wadebridge-Bodmin Railway company. He engaged Hopkins the civil engineer to survey the land for the route with the prospectus for the formation of the Railway Company drawn up by Mr Woollcombe, from the family’s firm of solicitors.” (www.pencarrow.co.uk/story/sir-william-molesworth/)
This railway opened in 1834, was the first steam railway in Cornwall. It continued in service until 1979. The tracks have been removed but some of Wadebridge’s station buildings have been preserved,
William became interested in radical politics. In 1832, he was elected Member for East Cornwall, and re-elected in 1835. As an MP, he:
“…had joined a group named the ‘Philosophical Radicals’ who advocated various reforms such as universal education, disestablishment of the church and universal suffrage.”
Between 1837 and 1841, William, having alienated his Cornish electorate, sat in the House of Commons, representing Leeds. After falling out with his Leeds constituents on account of his views on foreign policy, he retired to Pencarrow, where he dedicated his time to improving the gardens.
In 1844, William married a widow, an opera singer Andalusia (née Carstairs), who died in 1888. The year after his marriage, William was elected MP for London’s Southwark constituency, a seat he held until his death. Amongst his positions whilst representing Southwark, he was Secretary for The Colonies during the last few months of his life. He had wished to be buried in his grounds in Pencarrow, but instead he was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery.
Sir William and his family are deeply involved in the history of Wadebridge and it is right that the Molesworth name is so prominent in the town. From now onwards when I hear or read the name Molesworth, a naughty schoolboy with spelling problems will not be the only thing that springs to mind.
A WIDE FOOTPATH runs south from Piccadilly along the eastern edge of Green Park. We have walked along this many times, but it was not until a few days ago that we noticed a small alleyway leading east from the footpath about 190 yards south of Piccadilly. This unmarked footway, which is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, passes under a building and emerges opposite the Stafford Hotel on St James Place, a short cul-de-sac with a dogleg, which leads off St James Street. St James Place, whose construction began in 1694, is an attractive short street lined with many fine buildings, some of which I propose to describe. What made this lovely quiet road interesting for me was that several fascinating people have been associated with it. I will begin with a relatively recent inhabitant.
Number 9 was home to Sir Francis Chichester (1901-1972), who circumnavigated the world single-handedly in 1966/67. He lived here from 1944 to 1972. He sailed in his boat named Gypsy Moth IV. In 1929, Sir Francis attempted another exploit, to fly from New Zealand to Australia in his ‘plane, a de Havilland Gypsy Moth. He made the first ever flight from New Zealand to Australia. He was also the first person to land a ‘plane on both Norfolk and Lord Howe islands. If you want to see his historic boat, then you need to get down to Greenwich, where it is on display close to the much larger Cutty Sark.
There is another building in St James Place, which associated with water transport. The elegant number 20, an 18th century building, has been the London Club House of the Royal Ocean Racing Club since 1942. The Club was founded in 1925. Between 1822 and 1857, the building housed the servants who worked in number 21, which was demolished during WW2 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp511-541#h3-0019).
Not far from Chichester’s house is number 4. This is the house from which the short-lived Polish born pianist and composer, Frederick Chopin (1810-1849), departed to give his last public performance at the Guildhall on the 16th of November 1848 (www.chopin-society.org.uk/articles/chopin-britain.htm). It was held:
“… in aid of a Polish charity, came at the end of a difficult six-month British sojourn, which had included concerts in Manchester (one of the largest audiences he ever faced), Glasgow and Edinburgh… Finally back in London, the composer-pianist spent three weeks preparing for what turned out to be his final recital by sitting wrapped in his coat in front of the fire at St James’s Place, attended by London’s leading homeopath and the Royal Physician, a specialist in tuberculosis. A week after the concert, he was on his way home to Parisian exile and death the following year.” (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/frederic-chopin-st-james-s-place).
Before discussing the most curious inhabitant of St James Place, I will discuss one of its famous residents, the writer and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who founded “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. According to Peter Cunningham in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850), Addison was living in St James Place by 1710. I am sure that we did not see any memorial celebrating this on any of the buildings in the street. Cunningham wrote, quoting from another source:
“Addison’s chief companions before he married Lady Warwick (in 1716) were Steele, Budgell, Philips, Carey, Davenant, and Colonel Brett. He used to breakfast with one or other of them at his lodgings in St James Place …”
His companions listed above were probably sympathetic to Addison’s Whig politics. However, Cunningham gives no indication of Addison’s address. He frequented the St James Coffee House in nearby St James Street, as he recorded in issue number 104 of his “Spectator”:
“That I might begin as near the fountain head as possible I first of all called in at St. James’s, where I found the whole outwardroom in a Buzz of Politics. The Speculations were but very indifferent towards the Door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the room, and were so very much improved by a knot of Theorists who sate in the inner Room, within the steam of the Coffee Pot, that I there heard the whole Spanish Monarchy disposed of; and all the line of Bourbons provided for in less than a Quarter of an Hour.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp459-471#h3-0014)
The coffee house was at number 87 St James Street. It was demolished to make way for a new building, erected 1904/05.
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_James%27s_Place) lists many other notable residents of St James Place, including Oscar Wilde and Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, but omits one very interesting person, William Huskisson (1770-1830), whose residence at number 28 is commemorated by a plaque. This records him as having been a ‘statesman’. He was that as well as a financier and several times a Member of Parliament. He lived in Paris between 1783 and 1792 and witnessed the French Revolution. Although he had an active political life, what makes him remarkable was the manner of his death.
Against the better judgement of his physician, Huskisson attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on the 15th of September 1830. Thomas Creevey (1768-1838) related the story in a letter written to a Miss Ord on the 19th of September 1830:
“Jack Calcraft has been at the opening of the Liverpool railroad, and was an eye-witness of Huskisson’s horrible death. About nine or ten of the passengers in the Duke’s car had got out to look about them whilst the car stopt. Calcraft was one, Huskisson another, Esterhazy, Billy Holmes, Birch and others. When the other locomotive was seen coming up to pass them, there was a general shout from those within the Duke’s car to those without it, to get in. Both Holmes and Birch were unable to get up in time, but they stuck fast to its sides, and the other engine did not touch them. Esterhazy, being light, was pulled in by force. Huskisson was feeble in his legs, and appears to have lost his head, as he did his life. Calcraft tells me that Huskisson’s long confinement in St. George’s Chapel at the King’s funeral brought on a complaint that Taylor is so afraid of, and that made some severe surgical operation necessary, the effect of which had been, according to what he told Calcraft, to paralyse, as it were, one leg and thigh. This, no doubt, must have increased, if it did not create, his danger and [caused him to] lose his life.”
(quoted from “The Creevey papers; a selection from the correspondence & diaries of the late Thomas Creevey, M.P., born 1768 – died 1838. Edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell”)
Thus, Huskisson achieved the dubious distinction of becoming one of the first widely reported casualties in a railway accident. The ‘Duke’ mentioned above was the Duke of Wellington and the engine that caused Huskisson’s death was the “Rocket”, a pioneering locomotive designed by Robert Stephenson in 1829. I wonder why his demise was not noted on the commemorative plaque.
Huskisson’s former home has a superb front door flanked by iron lampstands each with its own conical torch flame snuffer. St James Place has plenty of fine 18th century buildings as well as some newer ones. These include the Stafford and Dukes Hotels, which are late 19th and early 20th century in appearance. Number 26 St James Place, a mid-twentieth century building, bears a Civic Trust Award. It is a block of flats built 1959/60 to the designs of the architect Denys Lasdun (1914-2001), who also designed the National Theatre on the South Bank. It replaced an 18th century house that was destroyed by bombing in WW2. Although not unpleasing, it stands in stark contrast to the far more elegant older buildings near it.
Even greater contrast to its surroundings is the building on the northern corner of St James Place and St James Street. This avant-garde metal-clad structure, the Target Building, designed by Rodney Gordon (1933-2008) and completed in 1984, is opposite William Evans gun shop and houses the Stern Pisarro art gallery on its ground floor. One of the galleries owners, Lélia Pissarro, is a great-granddaughter of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). The gallery specialises in Impressionist art amongst other things. While on the subject of art galleries, it would be easy to walk past number 6 St James Place without noticing a small plate on its front door that says ‘Agnews Est 1817’. Between 1877 and 2013, this gallery, which deals in the highest quality works of fine art (e,g. Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velasquez) was on Old Bond Street. Then, it relocated to number 6.
St James Place is only 180 yards in length, but as can be seen from the small selection of buildings I have chosen to describe, it is choc-full of historical associations. I am pleased that we discovered the tiny alley that led from Green Park to this fascinating cul-de-sac. And, finally, if you find that you are getting tired of staying at the Ritz Hotel, you would do well to book into one of the two hotels discreetly located in St James Place.
[PS I have not dealt with Spencer House because I hope to write about it in the future]
IT SEEMED APPROPRIATE to visit Runnymede, the so-called birthplace of democracy on a day (7th November 2020) when Donald Trump, the current president of the USA, appears to be losing faith in it and might be about to attempt to undermine it.
Runnymede, a water meadow of the Thames close to Windsor, is close to a former Roman river crossing near the town of Staines. The name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘runieg’, meaning ‘meeting place’, and ‘mede’, meaning ‘meadow’. The ‘Witangemot’, a council of Anglo-Saxon kings, used to meet at Runnymede between the 7th and 11th centuries (AD). This pre-Norman Conquest meeting place was used again on the 15th day of June in 1215, when King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta in the presence of a group of barons who had met a few months earlier in the Suffolk city of Bury St Edmunds (www.visit-burystedmunds.co.uk/blog/2018/discover-bury-st-edmunds-historic-role-in-the-creation-of-the-magna-carta). Runnymede is the most probable location of the signing, as this is what is written at the end of its text (translation from www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation):
“Given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines, on the fifteenth day of June in the seventeenth year of our reign.”
The Magna Carta, whose evolution is too detailed to be described here, was, and still, is of great importance because it aims to ensure a fair relationship between the rights of ruler and those of his or her then powerful subjects, his barons, but nowadays its principles have extended to cover all subjects of the realm, It contains chapters such as:
“In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” (chapt. 38)
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” (chapt. 39)
“In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is at war with us, and merchants – who shall be dealt with as stated above – are excepted from this provision.” (chapt. 42)
“We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.” (chapt. 45)
The Magna Carta includes a number of items that are hardly relevant in the modern world, but those such as I have quoted above are deeply relevant and extremely important. However, the document signed by King John has some elements that illustrate attitudes that we would consider unacceptable today, notably antagonism to Jewish people as can be seen in chapter 10:
“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands …”, and in chapter 11:
“If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands…”
Seventy-five years after the signing at Runnymede, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the Kingdom of England, thus throwing into question whether or not everyone in England was protected by the mostly virtuous intentions of Magna Carta.
In brief, Runnymede was the site of the signing a far-reaching document of great importance to the rights of citizens. Several centuries later, the Magna Carta influenced the formulation of the Constitution of the USA in the late 18th century. The area of Runnymede is now maintained by the National Trust. It contains several monuments and artworks relating to the historic significance of the place.
On arrival at the parking place, we passed a sign that reads:
“Runnymede. A home to politics and picnics for over 1000 years.”
The car park is next to one of a pair of lodges designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), son-in-law of Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1831-1891) the Viceroy of India from 1876-1880, and the architect of some of the government buildings in New Delhi. The lodges were built between 1930 and 1932. They are not the only connection between Runnymede and India as I will explain soon.
During our visit to Runnymede on a crisp sunny morning, we walked across the muddy ground to four features of interest in its meadows dotted with lovely trees, many of them oaks. The first place we reached is a cylindrical stone monument standing within a ring of eight square pillars that support a circular ring whose centre is open to the sky. It is approached via a staircase with names carved in its steps. These are the names of lawyers from the USA. The cylindrical stone bears the words:
“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law”
This monument was designed by the English architect Sir Edward Maufe (1883-1974) and erected by the American Bar Association in 1957.
The American monument stands a few feet above the base of an oak tree, which is growing beside a square marble stone that bears the words:
“Quercus robur, planted by PV Narasimha Rao, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, as a tribute to the historic Magna Carta, a source of inspiration throughout the world, and as an affirmation of the values of Freedom, Democracy, and the Rule of Law, which the people of India cherish and have enshrined in their constitution. March 16 1994”
‘Quercus robur’ is a type of oak tree and Rao (1921-2004), a member of the Indian National Congress Party, was Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996.
Twelve bronze chairs are placed in the midst of the meadow closest to the raised wooded area containing the American and Indian monuments. They are arranged in two rows of five facing each other with another two chairs at the two ends of what is effectively a rectangular dining table with the table removed. Each chair back’s two surfaces are decorated with bas-reliefs, one facing the chair opposite it and the other away from it. The bas-reliefs depict the various people, events, and ideas resulting from the ideas expressed in the Magna Carta. One of them depicts Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), a Parsi, the first Indian woman to practise law in India. Another depicts Mahatma Gandhi’s portable spinning wheel, his symbol of resistance to the importation of British goods to India. Other motifs are described in an informative website, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/what-does-the-jurors-represent . Seeing the empty chairs set out so formally in the field made me feel as though someone had put them there in readiness for King John’s famous meeting with the barons in June 1215. This effective and moving artwork was created by Hew Locke (born 1959) for the 800th anniversary of the signing of the charter. It is quite likely that the sun would have been shining as brightly on that significant day as it did when we visited Runnymede.
Dramatic as is Locke’s work at Runnymede, it is rivalled, or, better, complemented, by another fantastic creation not far away. From the outside, it looks like a recently constructed circular military bunker with a tall entrance in its wall. Step inside and you find yourself in a dark passageway that runs parallel with the outer wall and another inner circular wall. Soon, you reach an opening in the inner concentric wall. This leads into a circular chamber lit by daylight coming through a circular orifice in its ceiling. The inner circular chamber contains a circular pool of water surrounded by a metal band in which words are written as a mirror image, just like the way that Leonardo da Vinci used to write. The words are reflected in the water, where they appear the right way round. They spell out the words of chapter 39 of the Magna Carta (translated into English). The effect is both dramatic and very moving. The artwork is called “Writ in Water”, the words coming from the inscription on the gravestone of the poet John Keats, which are:
“Here lies one whose name was writ in water”.
This spectacular piece of art was designed by Mark Wallinger (born 1959) as a place to reflect on the principles of democracy that were born at Runnymede in 1215. It was completed in 2018 and it alone is a good reason to visit Runnymede.
While I was writing this, news began arriving from the USA. It suggested that barring any devious surprises from the current president of the USA, the democratic process in the USA might well have a chance of remaining guided by the noble principles enshrined in Magna Carta under a new president, Mr Joseph Biden.
BBC RADIO ONE began broadcasting on the 30th of September 1967. Before then, if you wanted to listen to popular music on the radio in the UK, you would have to tune your radio to pick up Radio Luxembourg, whose broadcasts from Luxembourg came over the airwaves loud and clear. Some of its presenters, for example Dave Cash, Noel Edmonds, and Kenny Everett, later hosted programmes on the new radio stations that began to broadcast after Radio One and various new commercial stations began transmitting. Unlike the BBC, Radio Luxembourg was commercial and broadcast advertisements relevant to British listeners. Several programmes were sponsored by two football pools companies, Littlewoods and Vernons. The station continued transmitting for UK audiences until December 1992.
I had not thought about Radio Luxembourg much until mid-September 2020 when we were walking along Hertford Street in a part of London’s Mayfair under the shadow of the tall Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. This short street runs east from Park Lane (just next to the Hilton) for about 630 feet and then makes a right angle turn and heads north through Shepherd Market and ends up at Curzon Street, which I have written about elsewhere (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/20/). Next to the front door of number 38 Hertford Street, a tall narrow house built in the 18th century (or not much later), a commemorative plaque informs:
“This was the HQ of Radio Luxembourg, Broadcasting from the Grand Duchy 1933-1991”
This building was not only the headquarters of the extra-territorial radio station but also contained recording studios where seemingly ‘live’ programmes could be recorded for broadcasting later from Luxembourg. Listeners were not informed where programmes had been recorded and were left with the impression that everything was being produced in the Grand Duchy.
Number 10 Hertford Street is just across the road from the former Radio Luxembourg HQ. This elegant terraced building, whose front entrance is flanked by two metal lampstands complete with inverted cones for extinguishing flaming torches, was home to two famous people, as recorded by plaques affixed to the house. One of its former occupants was General John Burgoyne (1722-1792), who lived and died here and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), who lived here from 1795-1802. Prior to these celebrated occupants, the house was occupied by John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), who was famous for his musical parties (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol4/pp345-359) and for giving his name to a popular food item.
General Burgoyne was, according to Wikipedia:
“… a British army officer, dramatist and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1761 to 1792.”
His military achievements during the American War of Independence were dismal. His attempt to disrupt the American forces came to nought and ended with him surrendering his army of over 6000 men in October 1777 at Saratoga. His dramatic works were popular and included “The Maid of the Oaks” (1774) and “The Heiress” (1786). He assisted in the writing and production of “The Camp: A musical Entertainment” (1778), principally written by another occupant of Number 10 Hertford Street, Richard Sheridan. The General also worked on the libretti of several operas. Had he stuck to the stage, and kept away from the battlefield, Burgoyne might have been remembered as a dramatist rather than a failed military man. Politically, he began by supporting the Tories, but later switched to the Whigs. Near the end of his political career, he was involved in Parliament’s attempted impeachment of Warren Hastings at the end of the 18th century. Hastings, the first Governor General of Bengal had been accused of misconduct in Calcutta but was eventually acquitted.
Another occupant of number 10 was also involved in the theatre but to a greater extent than Burgoyne. Richard Sheridan, born in Dublin, was a playwright and poet as well as being the owner of the London Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. He is best known for his still popular plays “School for Scandal” (1777) and “The Rivals” (1775).What I did not know until I began writing this was that Sheridan had been a Member of Parliament (a Whig supporter). In 1777 during a Parliamentary session, he had demanded the impeachment of Warren Hastings. His speech on the subject made on the 7th of February 1787 lasted five and three-quarters hours. His oration:
“… commanded the most profound attention and admiration of the House. His matchless oration united the most solid argument with the most persuasive eloquence. His sound reasoning giving additional energy to truth, and his logical perspicuity, and unerring judgment, throwing a light upon, and pervading the obscurity, of the most involved and complicated subject.” (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004858403.0001.000/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext).
Clearly, Sheridan was eloquent both in life and creatively on the stage.
This home of playwrights was built between 1768 and 1770 by the builder Henry Holland the elder (1745-1806). On arrival at this address in 1769, Burgoyne commissioned his friend, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), to design and execute some of the interior decoration (http://collections.soane.org/SCHEME1106). After the General’s death in 1792, Sheridan purchased it.
Moving on, we enter the short Down Street that leads south from Hertford Street to Piccadilly. Although the street slopes downwards to Piccadilly, I am not sure that this is the reason for its name. “The London Encyclopaedia” (edited by B Weinreb and C Hibbert) noted that it was was laid out in the 1720s by the bricklayer John Downes, who was involved in much building work in Westminster (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp77-83). Maybe, that is the origin of its name.
Two buildings caught my attention on Down Street. Nearer Hertford Street, on the corner of Brick and Down Streets, stands a Victorian gothic church, Christ Church Mayfair. Constructed in 1865, this protestant church was designed by F & H Francis (they were brothers) and enlarged in 1868. After a fire in 1906, it was rebuilt considerably. It was closed when we passed it, but I have read that it contains some art nouveau features.
South of the church on the west side of Down Street, there is a terracotta coloured tiled façade that looks like a typical Underground station, which is what it was between 1907 and 1932, when it was closed. This now disused station was ‘Down Street’ station on the Piccadilly Line. It lies between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park Stations, no more than about 500 yards from each of them. It was closed because it was never busy enough to keep open. Most of the inhabitants around it were and still are wealthy enough not to need or use public transport. During WW2, it was used as a bunker by Winston Churchill and his staff before the Cabinet War Rooms were ready for use.
By retracing our steps, we can return to Shepherds Market for refreshment, be it a drink or something more substantial. After passing the former Radio Luxembourg HQ and entering the section of Hertford Street that runs towards Curzon Street, you will come face to face with a pub (currently closed) called ‘Shepherds Tavern’. This hostelry was first built in 1735 as part of the development of the area by the developer and architect Edward Shepherd (died 1747). Its customers are said to have included the actress Elizabeth Taylor and Antony Armstrong Jones, who was once married to Princess Margaret. The actress Wendy Richard (1943-2009) lived in the pub from 1948 to 1953, when her parents were its publicans.
As you enjoy a pint of beer or a glass of sherry or maybe a cortado or a ‘latte’ in Shepherds Market, you can marvel at how much history is packed into two short streets overshadowed by the 331 foot high, 28 storey Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, which first opened in 1963. And fully refreshed, you can resume exploring Mayfair sure in the knowledge that you will be treading in the steps of many now famous people who have haunted the area since it was laid out in the early 18th century.
Notting Hill Gate, not to be confused with ‘Notting Hill’ as in the Hugh Grant film, on the western edge of central London is not lacking in mediochre modern architecture, mostly constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. One building stands out as being aesthetically a cut above the rest. This is the former Czechoslovak Centre, the Embassy of Czechoslovakia, a fine (if that is an appropriate adjective) example of ‘Brutalist’ concrete architecture.
The Centre was built between 1965 and 1970, and was designed by “…Šrámek, Stephansplatz and Jan Bočan, from the Atelier Beta Prague Project Institute, were the architects of the embassy, working in cooperation with British architect Robert Matthew and based in his office” (see HERE for detail). The building won an architectural award from RIBA in 1971. Unlike many buildings built at te same time, the Czechoslovak Centre building has not suffered from ageing. It stll looks in great condition.
In 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. It split into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. Despite this, the Czechoslovak Centre building continued to have diplomati cfunctions. The building was divided into a Czech Embassy and a Slovak Embassy.
Before and after the separation of the two parts of what was once Czechoslovakia, I was a member of the Dvorak Society, an English organisation for promoting interest in music from the Czech and Slovak lands. The Czechoslovak, and then later the Czech and Slovak embassies used to host occasional congenial recitals of music for the Dvorak Society.
On one occasion after 1993, my wife and I attended a recital at the Slovak Embassy. After the music was over, we were treated to delicious food and Slovakian wine. The ambassador mingled amongst the guests. My wife asked him how the Czechs and Slovaks were coping with sharing the same building. Smiling, he replied:
“We have to cope well because we have to share the central heating and hot water system that was installed to serve the building when it was a single embassy.”
INDIAN INGENUITY KNOWS NO BOUNDS. Recently in many Indian cities, there have been public protests against unpopular new legislation. Bangalore is one of these cities.
To counter the protestors there have been temporary bans on large groups assembling to protest. In some places the police have arrested and even attacked some protestors, causing injuries and deaths.
On the 23rd December, I was walking along Museum Road in central Bangalore. Suddenly, I saw swarms of motorcycles streaming past. Many of the people on the cycles were carrying the Indian tricolour, the national flag. The flags flew behind the bikes. Some of the passengers on the motorcycles were carrying paper banners with words expressing dislike of the new legislation.
The motorcycles were most probably heading towards a planned public protest. But, they might also have been carrying out a mobile protest, which being at a high speed made it difficult for the police to control. Even if they were only travelling towards the site of a protest gathering, it struck me that this high velocity and noisy protest on wheels was an ingenious way of attracting public attention whilst minimising the risk of police interference.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) saw the realisation of his ambition, the formation of a sovereign nation for Indian Muslims: Pakistan, a year before he died as its supreme leader. Jinnah was a brilliant barrister and orator. His brilliance is described by Rafiq Zakaria in his book “The Man who divided India“. The author, clearly recognising his subject’s skills, does not rate him highly as an individual. His lucid, well-reasoned text makes this very clear.
At first, Jinnah, who was always attracted to politics, strove for Hindu-Muslim unity/harmony in pre-independence India. Various factors, including his disapproval of the anti-British Khilafat uprisings of India’s Muslims following WW1, led to him being sidelined by both the Indian National Congress and the main Indian Muslim political groupings. This led to him leaving India and establishing a legal practice in London and also attempting (in vain) to become involved in British parliamentary politics.
Returning to India after a few years in London, Jinnah recommenced his struggle to become prominent in the Indian polical scene. To do this, he abandoned the idea of working for Hindu-Muslim unity for the opposite – the alienation of India’s Muslims. This proved successful. Under his leadership of the Muslim League, he promoted the idea of a separate sovereign state for India’s Muslims by indoctrinating his followers to believe that as the Congress became more powerful and when the British left India, Muslims would be at the very least dominated by the Hindus. By 1947, when the British gave up their hold on India, the formation of Pakistan, a sovereign state for Indian Muslims, was guaranteed.
The formation of Pakistan was associated with mass movements of people: Muslims into Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs out of the newly created country. During this ‘Partition’, there was massive loss of life and much irreversible misery both in Pakistan and India. Furthermore, Pakistan was not one contiguous territory, but two widely separated portions: West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Zakaria describes how Jinnah, the great leader of the Muslims, was really a very unobservant Muslim. Throughout his life, Jinnah ate pork, enjoyed alcohol, hardly knew the Koran, and never learnt Urdu, the language of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. According to Zakaria, Jinnah did not hold his fellow Muslims in high regard, to put it mildly. It appeared to me while reading the book that Jinnah took advantage of Muslim fears of possible domination by the Hindus to further his ambitions of achieving political prominence, which were indeed successful.
Zakaria uses the last few chapters of his fascinating book to discuss the legacy of Jinnah’s creation, Pakistan. He paints a gloomy picture. Having espoused the idea of the separateness of the Muslims, and promoted the idea that the Indian Muslims were a ‘race’ or ‘nation’ separate from their non-Muslim Indian neighbours, Jinnah, like his hero the Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, decided that Pakistan should become a ‘modern’ secular state rather than some kind of Islamic entity. He wanted to govern Pakistan using the model of British imperialism, which the Indian subcontinent had just freed itself. This has not happened in Pakistan; it is now an Islamic state.
Zakaria emphasises that far from unifying India’s Muslims, Jinnah’s creation of Pakistan has achieved the very opposite. The Muslims of the subcontinent are now divided between Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Many families have members now separated by international borders. Many Muslims in India continue to live with the fear that they are somehow threatened by the Hindu majority in the country. In addition, within Pakistan itself, different factions of Muslims (Sunnis, Shias, and others) are in permanent conflict with each other. In Bangladesh, there are also problems. And, if that were not bad enough, the political situation in modern Pakistan is extremely unstable and life there is far from peaceful. From what I have read in Zakaria’s interesting and highly readable book, Jinnah’s dream of unifying India’s Muslims has turned into a nightmare.
To conclude, it should be mentioned that Zakaria, an Indian Muslim, has served the Indian Congress Party, which opposed Jinnah in the years before independence, as a high-ranking official. Despite that, I felt that his book attempts quite successfully to give a balanced view of Jinnah and his politics without concealing his own views.
Recently, I attended an event, a performance of Albanian polyphonic singing by the ‘Grupi Lab’ ensemble from Vlore (Albania), in a room in the Palace of Westminster in the heart of London. For those who are unfamiliar with the Palace of Westminster, this enormous building contains the two Houses of Parliament.
To enter the Palace, it was neccessary to weave around the barricades put up to limit the activities of the Extinction Rebellion climate change activists. The public entrance is in Cromwell green, close to a statue of Oliver Cromwell. After a series of security checks that resemble those at Heathrow Airport, we followed a path that leads into the huge Westminster Hall. Although restored in parts, this hall dates back to 1097 AD. Its marvellous hammer beam timber roof was built in the 14th century. Much of the timber is original, but some of it had to be replaced after a bomb struck in 1941.
After the concert, we decided to visit the public gallery of the House of Commons. After a short wait, we were issued with tickets and then escorted to another security check point. The examination here was very thorough.
The public gallery overlooks the chamber in which Members of Parliament debate and make speeches. When we arrived at about 5.30 pm on the 14th of October (2019), there were more people in the public gallery than in the chamber. A Labour MP was delivering a lengthy, dull speech. Nobody seemed to be paying him the slightest attention. After what seemed an eternity – actually, about ten minutes – he stopped. He was followed by a Conservative MP, who made an interesting speech, concisely and powerfully phrased. Again, this did not appear to interest anyone else in the chamber. During the couple of speeches we heard, we could see the few other MPs present sitting quietly, many of them fiddling with their mobile telephones or tablets. This, my first ever visit to a sitting of the House of Commons, was interesting but hardly scintillating.
What impressed me most about my visit to the Palace of Westminster was the staff. Everyone we encountered was not only helpful, but also kind and couteous. The ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the Palace did amaze me, but not nearly as much as the superb staff.
The picture depicts the sun setting over Albania as viewed from the Yugoslav shore of Lake Ohrid. When I took the picture, I was standing in Yugoslavia. Now the sun has set forever over Yugoslavia: that country exists no more. What made me interested in Yugoslavia and the Balkans? Here is my reply.
Hergé, the Belgian creator of the cartoon character Tintin, must be held responsible for my fascination with the Balkans. From the age of 7, when my father first presented me with one of his books, I became fascinated by the drawings of Syldavia and Borduria in some of the albums. These were two imaginary countries that the Belgian cartoonist invented to depict what he had seen during his visits to the Balkans. They attracted me than all of the other exotic settings of Tintin’s adventures.
My parents were fundamentally opposed to any totalitarian regime, be it right or left wing. They refused to venture behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Furthermore, they were even reluctant to buy anything made there on the basis that any purchase would give financial support to a regime that opposed the capitalist way of life. Their avoidance of countries, which were under the control of communists, and my fascination by Hergé’s cartoon drawings of south-eastern Europe made me yearn to visit them. As soon as I was old enough to travel alone, I gave in to my yearning.
I chose to visit Yugoslavia first for two reasons. First of all, it seemed more accessible than its neighbours; visas were not required and it appeared to have a less oppressive regime than some of the other Balkan countries. Secondly, I was already becoming fascinated by its mysterious neighbour, the tiny hermetically sealed country of Albania. I believed that by visiting certain areas in Yugoslavia I would manage to catch close-up glimpses of this almost completely impenetrable place.
My early visits to Yugoslavia, which commenced in the late 1960s, were made on my own or with other visitors to the country. These were fascinating enough to make me want to see more, but differed little from simple tourism. Soon, I began meeting Yugoslavs. Many of them, especially in Belgrade and Sarajevo, became good friends. My visits to their country began to assume more of a social nature than simply touristic. I believe that as the years passed and I made ever more visits, I began to experience the country more profoundly, and with far greater affection, than the average tourist. My book “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” contains a trail of memories of the experiences I enjoyed whilst visiting a country that no longer exists.
“SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”
is available as a paperback:HERE and on Amazon Kindle
I love browsing in second-hand bookshops. Occasionally, I come across really good books that I had not previously known about. The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand (published 2019) was one such discovery.
The Patient Assassin is about the life and exploits of Udham Singh (1899-1940), a pro-independence, anti-British activist. Some of his friends were killed in the notorious Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in mid-April 1919. Under the command of General ‘Rex’ Dyer, several hundred innocent men, women, and children, were shot dead within the closed space of Jallianwalla Bagh, a walled public garden in Amritsar. Many others were injured in this cruel attack whose supposed purpose was to subdue the people of the Punjab so that they would not rise against British rule.
Dyer died of illness in England, having been proclaimed a hero for his malevolent deed. Michael O’ Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, who thoroughly approved of what was done at Jallianwalla Bagh and other horrific treatment of Indians, retired to London.
Udham Singh had friends who were killed at Jallianwallah Bagh. He made it his mission to kill O’ Dwyer. The author of Patient Assassin, Anita Anand, traces Udham’s complex and mysterious life from the Punjab to London, where he shot dead O’ Dwyer at a meeting at London’s Caxton Hall in 1940. Ms Anand weaves an exciting tale based on her researches of Udham’s colourful and exciting life. Her book about a real person makes far more engaging reading than most fictional thrillers.
I was very pleased to stumble across Anand’s book for two reasons. One is that it turned out to be an un-put-downable read. The other is that it chimes with something that I have been working on.
In mid 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra, who like Udham Singh came from the Punjab, shot dead Sir William H Curzon Wyllie, a retired important British administrator in India, at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. This assassination horrified the British nation and many in India.
Dhingra had come to England study engineering at University College London several years before shooting Curzon Wyllie. He had become involved in the freedom fighting activities that were centred on India House in Highgate between 1905 and early 1910. It was Dhingra’s fatal shots that hastened the demise of India House, a student hostel and meeting place which was regared by the British as a ‘centre of sedition’. I have almost completed writing a book about India House and its members, including Dhingra, and it should be available for sale soon. Its title will be “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.
Finding Ms Anand’s book quite by chance was a great delight for me. Unintentionally, it might almost be considered a kind of sequel to what I have just written.