A Soviet in Hampstead: Maxim Litvinov in north London

Here is an excerpt from my new book about Hampstead in north London:

For many centuries, Hampstead has been the haunt of people involved in creative pursuits. So, it was no surprise that the former Express Dairy opposite Louis (patisserie) had at least one interesting cultural connection. In February 1916, the Bolshevik revolutionary Maxim Litvinov (1856-1951) proposed to his future wife Ivy Low in the café inside that branch of Express Dairy. Ivy, a novelist, was born, please note, in 1889 (she died in 1977). At the time he became acquainted with Ivy, Litvinov was with Lenin in London. Ivy did occasional typing for Maxim, and it was not long before they were attracted to one another. Passionate about cinema, he took her to watch films with him and one day he ‘popped the question’ in the Express Dairy. After they married, they lived in Hampstead until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in October 1917. They did not return to Russia immediately because in January 1918 Maxim Litvinoff was made First Proletarian Envoy to the Court of St. James’s.

According to Zinovy Sheinis in his biography of Maxim first published in 1988, Maxim often went to Hampstead to meet his friends the Klyshkos, who lived on Hampstead High Street. Nikolai Klyshko (1880-1937) was a Bolshevik revolutionary of Polish parentage, who had settled in London and was a fluent Russian speaker.  For a brief period, Litvinov lived in Hampstead with Klyshko and his English wife. Sheinis wrote about Maxim’s meeting with Ivy:

“They had met at a friend’s house. Then at a gathering of the Fabian Society. Litvinov was impressed by her knowledge of Tolstoy and Chekhov. Putting on weight, red-haired, of average height, well-mannered, and not very talkative, he made a big impression on the young writer. Her mother, the daughter of a colonel in the British Army, naturally wanted a different match for her daughter and certainly did not want to see her married to an insecure emigre from Russia. As for his religious background, Ivy Lowe simply never gave it a thought. She was herself from a family of Hungarian Jews who had taken part in the Kossuth uprising; in her girlhood she had been a Protestant, then had been converted to Catholicism. The choice of religion was her private affair and concerned no one else.”

After their marriage, they lived in a house, owned by Belgian refugees, in Hampstead’s South Hill Park (number 86). While there, Sheinis related:

“Friends sometimes gathered there in the evenings to discuss the political news; then an argument would flare up, developing into a fierce squabble. It always seemed to Ivy that her husband and his guests would any moment start flinging chairs at one another. At the very height of the dispute, when it was almost at boiling-point, she would leave the kitchen, go into the room, and announce that tea or coffee was ready. The disputants would calm down and drink their tea in peace.”

He also wrote that Ivy:

“… was not interested in and did not understand the political activities of her husband and his friends. To her, it was an alien world. In London, after the October Revolution, she asked her husband if he knew Lenin. Maxim replied that he had known Lenin for a long time. But she had no idea that letters from Lenin were coming to their house and that her flat was the headquarters of Bolshevik emigres.”

Later, they lived in a tiny house in West Hampstead. After that, Litvinov, having become a Soviet diplomat, moved from Hampstead. Despite not being officially accredited by the British, Sheinis   noted:

“The Litvinovs were even invited to receptions. Though Soviet Russia was not yet recognised, its powerful influence reached standoffish London, Ivy Litvinova recollected.”

By 1921, the Litvinovs with their two young children, at least one of whom was born in Hampstead, settled in Moscow. Although Litvinov held high governmental posts in the Soviet Union and outside it (as a Soviet diplomat), he and Ivy, like so many other citizens in Stalin’s Russia, were constantly in fear of being arrested and/or killed.

My book about Hampstead, “BENEATH A WIDE SKY: HAMPSTEAD AND ITS ENVIRONS” is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92

A doctor from China

THE CHINESE MEDICAL College in Hong Kong was founded in 1887 by the physician Sir James Cantlie (1851-1926), who was the inventor of what we now call ‘first aid’ and one of the founders of The London School of Tropical Medicine. One of his first students in Hong Kong was Sun Deming, better known as Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925). In 1878, Sun went to Honolulu to live with his elder brother. There, he was educated well in English at school. Aged 17, he returned to China. After desecrating a temple, he fled to Hong Kong, then under British rule, where he continued his education, joining the Chinese Medical College in 1887, having already studied a bit of western medicine elsewhere. In 1892, he graduated as a medical doctor. He became a friend of Sir James Cantlie.

In 1896, poor health forced Cantlie to return to London. That year, Sun came to England to visit Cantlie. Already out of favour with the Imperial Chinese government because of his revolutionary activities, private agents employed by the Chinese were sent to Liverpool where he landed to follow his movements. The reason for his conversion to political activism are summarised in an on-line article (www.newstatesman.com/international-content/2021/10/the-london-kidnapping-that-changed-china) as follows:

“The contrast between the colonial advancement he encountered abroad and the endemic poverty he knew from home convinced Sun that China needed revolutionary change. Rather than becoming a doctor, he helped engineer a rebellion in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1895. The failure of the uprising forced Sun to go on the run, which is why he ended up in Britain the following year.”

The first person that Sun visited after arriving in London was his old teacher Cantlie, who lived close to the Chinese embassy, which was, and still is, in Portland Place. On his way there, Sun was kidnapped and held captive in the embassy. He would have faced death had not he persuaded the embassy’s English housekeeper, a Mrs Howe, to smuggle a note to Dr Cantlie. An influential man, Cantlie managed to get Sun released, as was described in the above-mentioned article:

“In the end, it was an article about the kidnapping in the Globe that did the trick. On the following day, 23 October 1896, a large crowd formed outside the legation, noisily demanding Sun’s release. While diplomatic and legal wheels moved in the background, the ambassador and his staff realised they had to let their prisoner go. Sun emerged on to the street a national hero. While recovering at Cantlie’s house, he gave a long interview to the liberal-left Daily News, giving British readers their first insights into China’s embryonic revolutionary movement.”

Late last year, we were driving to Buntingford in Hertfordshire when we passed through the nearby village of Cottered. As the traffic was slow-moving, we managed to spot a memorial plaque attached to a house. We did not stop, but we saw enough of it to realise it had something to do with Sun Yat Sen. Very recently, we returned to Cottered to look at the plaque more carefully because we were intrigued that the Sun Yat Sen had a connection with a tiny Hertfordshire village. The plaque attached to a house called The Kennels reads as follows: “Sun Yat Sen “Father of Modern China” was a frequent visitor to this house while in exile from his home country.” Beneath Sun’s name there are three Chinese characters: “孫中山” which Google translates as ‘Sun Yat-sen’.

Curious to know more, we rang the doorbell of the house in Cottered and were greeted by a kindly gentleman, who explained that The Kennels was formerly owned by Sir James Cantlie. An article in an issue of the “The Comet”, a Hertfordshire newspaper, dated March 2017 (https://www.thecomet.net/news/sun-yat-sen-in-cottered-the-father-of-modern-china-5358282) revealed:

“His connection to the property, called The Kennels, comes from his life-long friendship with physician Sir James Cantlie, who owned the house, earlier taught him medicine in Hong Kong – and in 1896 saved him from imprisonment by agents of the Qing monarchy at the Chinese Legation in London.

Dr Sun visited the Cantlies in London and Cottered whenever he was in Britain … Sir James’ son Kenneth recalled one of the statesman’s visits to the village:

‘I must have been about five years old. It was sunset on a summer evening, and Dr Sun was walking up and down in the orchard. He was wearing a grey frock-coat and his homburg hat was tilted forward to keep the level sun out of his eyes. He had his hands behind his back and was pondering deeply. I was about to rush up to him in my usual impetuous way, when I stopped. ‘He is probably thinking great thoughts,’ I said to myself, and I went quietly away. I was not in the least afraid of Dr Sun, who was kindness itself – but my parents and my nurse may have put the idea into my head that here was a great man who must not be interrupted when he was thinking.”

Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Cantlie (1899-1986) was about five years old in 1904, which was when Sun was living outside China.

The article continued:

“In 1912, after the success of the Xinhai Revolution – which established a Chinese republic, with Sun Yat-sen as its first provisional president – the doctor wrote with clear affection to the Cantlies. On paper headed ‘The President’s Office’, he wrote: “It makes me feel more grateful to you when from the present position I look back on my past of hardships and strenuous toil, and think of your kindnesses shown me all the while that I can never nor will forget.”

Both Sir James and his son Lt Col Kenneth are buried in the cemetery of Cottered’s parish church close to its southern door. According to “The Comet”:

“After Dr Cantlie died and was buried at St John’s Church in Cottered in 1926, the Chinese minister to Britain, Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, laid a memorial tablet at the church. Dr Cantlie’s grave in the churchyard is engraved with a Chinese translation of the gospel verse Matthew 5:7.

China Central Television visited the house in 2001, and again in 2011 as part of filming for a documentary series on the Xinhai Revolution.”

Sadly, I could find neither the tablet amongst the Cantlie family gravestones nor the engraving in Chinese, which is a translation of “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”. Despite this, revisiting Cottered was well worthwhile, and it has for me sparked an increased interest in the birth of modern China. We hope to return to Cottered to see inside its church, which, judging by pictures posted online, looks fascinating.

Ten instead of twelve

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

AT FIRST SIGHT, this clock, on the esplanade overlooking the seashore at Folkestone in Kent, looks unexceptional. But look again, and you will see that it is missing the figures ’11’ and ’12’. It is a decimal clock forming part of an artwork.

There are as you know 24 hours in a day and of these twelve are usually displayed on a clock face. For a few years during the French Revolution, it was decided to divide the day into ten hours instead of the usual 24. This was not all: the decimal hour was divided into 100 decimal minutes, each of which consisted of 100 decimal seconds. Midnight became 0 in decimal time, and 1 in decimal time was 2.24 am in the 24 hour system, 2 occurred at 4.48 am, 3 at 7.12 am, and so on. This attempt at revolutrionising time did not last for long in France. It was abandoned in 1805.

The French were not pioneers in using decimal time. They were preceded by the Chinese, who ceased using it in favour of the 24 hour system in 1645.

The decimal clock in Folkestone is one of ten in the town, which were created by Ruth Ewan as part of an artwork named “We could have been anything that we wanted to be”. The Tate Gallery website noted: “The commission comprised ten decimal clocks of different designs installed around the seaside town of Folkestone in Kent. All the clocks were displayed publicly, some in very prominent positions such as the town hall, and others that had to be either assiduously sought out or happened upon by chance, such as those found in a pub or a local taxi. With each clock, Ewan replaced the dials and mechanism to achieve the decimal regulation of time.”

The example, which we saw near a Victorian bandstand on the Esplanade has a decimal clock on one side and a regular one on the other side.

My uncle and the USSR

THE MARXIST SOCIETY of the University of East Anglia had just held a meeting around it, so we were told by someone working in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the university campus in Norwich. The object around which the political gathering was held is a 35 feet high model of a structure that was never built full size. The Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) had planned to build a futuristic tower in Petrograd (aka ‘Leningrad’ and ‘St Petersburgh’), an example of Constructivism. The tower, which was to have been 1300 feet high, was planned to celebrate and house The Comintern (3rd International). Hoping to rival Paris’s Eiffel Tower and to symbolise the modernity of Soviet Russia, the tower was never built.

Model of Tatlin’s tower with the Sainsbury Centre behind it

Sometime, back in the early 1970s, it was decided to construct a model of the Tatlin Tower near the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. This was not a simple task because the structure is complex, and proper detailed blueprints were unavailable. To make a model of the Tatlin Tower that was faithful to the designer’s original idea, and which would not topple over, the services of a structural engineer were required.  My uncle Sven, who worked for the firm of Felix Samuely and Partners, proved to be the man for the job. Working with the project’s director, Jeremy Dixon, my uncle had to unravel the plans of the structure using photographs of a 17-foot model of the tower that Tatlin had created in 1920 and a few existing images of plans that Tatlin had prepared. There were inconsistencies between Tatlin’s plans and the model produced in 1920. In 1971, Dixon:

“…built small models in balsawood to get it right, and he worked with Sven Rindl of consulting engineer Felix J Samuely & Partners, who generated detailed freehand drawings as they talked” (quoted from “Blueprint”, December 2011)

Dixon wrote about this in Sven’s obituary as follows:

“I particularly remember working with him on the reconstruction of the remarkable tower that Vladimir Tatlin produced as a monument to the Third International, the communist organisation founded in 1919, for the Art in Revolution exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. The project required us to go back to first principles to reinvent its extraordinary geometry and structure.

Sven would sit listening and commenting during our complex voyage of discovery, and at the same time he would be drawing. These drawings would be remarkable, elegant, three-dimensional sketches straight off the sketch pad, finished and complete. They were graphic works of art as well as documentation of engineering ideas.”

(https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/apr/30/obituaries.mainsection)

The model was built with timber inside the Hayward Gallery before being exhibited outside it in 1971 as part of an exhibition called “Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917”.

Forty years later in 2011, another model of the Tatlin Tower was produced, this time made of a more durable material, steel. Once again, the project was overseen by Jeremy Dixon. The completed model was first displayed in the courtyard of London’s Royal Academy. In an advance notice of the project (www.architectsjournal.co.uk/archive/ra-unveils-tatlins-tower), my uncle, who had died in 2007, was given a prominent mention:

“The 10.5m high steel structure in the Annenberg Courtyard was designed by architects Jeremy Dixon of Dixon Jones Architects, Christopher Cross, Christopher Woodward and engineer Sven Rindl. The tower will form part of the Royal Academy’s forthcoming exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 which opens on 29 October 2011.”

I remember going to view the model and then seeing a small exhibition about it and its construction. The exhibition, which was held inside the Royal Academy, included images of some of the beautifully drawn plans and diagrams created by my uncle.

The steel model of the Tatlin Tower, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2011, has been lent to the Sainsbury Centre by the academy. Painted in red, this model of an experiment in futuristic architecture stands outside and close to the magnificent building that houses the Centre. The edifice, which is now over 40 years old, but looks like new, was designed by the architects Norman Foster and Wendy Cheesman.

We had no idea that there was a model of Tatlin’s tower next to the Sainsbury Centre when we visited it in September 2021. My wife and I were pleased to see this reminder of a much-missed relative whom we both loved dearly.

Rights of man

BULL HOUSE STANDS on the High Street immediately beneath the remain of the castle that dominates the Sussex town of Lewes near Brighton. Its neighbour is an older, half-timbered edifice that now houses The Fifteenth Century Bookshop, a supplier of second-hand books, which was unfortunately closed when we passed it on a Sunday morning.

In the year 1768, the owner of Bull House, a tobacconist named Samuel Ollive, and his wife Esther, took in a lodger, who had arrived in the town. This man was an excise officer aged about 31. His name was Thomas (‘Tom’) Paine (1737-1809). 1n 1771, Paine, already a widower, married Elizabeth Ollive, daughter of Samuel and Esther. At of that time, he became involved in the Ollive’s tobacco business as well as the administrative affairs of the town of Lewes. A year later, as part of a campaign to improve the remuneration of excise officers, he published a pamphlet. “The Case of the Officers of Excise”. Tom enjoyed lively discussions and debates at the town’s ‘Headstrong Club’, which met at the White Hart Inn on the High Street. This hostelry can still be seen today.

The year 1774 found Tom in trouble. He had been accused of being absent without permission from his position as excise officer. Also, his marriage failed, and he separated from his wife Elizabeth. To avoid a spell in a debtors’ prison, he sold all his possessions. He left Lewes and went to London, where he was introduced to the revolutionary Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who recommended that Tom should emigrate to North America. Tom set sail from England and arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774.

The pamphlet that Paine wrote in Lewes was followed by many more published writings. Amongst these is his best known, “The Rights of Man”, published in 1791, in London, England, where Tom had returned in 1787. This work is described in a guidebook to Lewes as “…the bible of English-speaking radicals.” Whether Tom ever returned to Lewes after his first excursion to what is now the USA, I do not know. If it ever occurred, it is not mentioned in my guidebook, and I have not found any reference to it.

A poet to the rescue

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1822), the poet, was a friend of the literary critic and essayist James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who lived at various times in Hampstead, north London. Shelley’s poetry and other writing attracted the attention of radical thinkers including, for example, Karl Marx, who wrote:

“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois. They grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/1888/04/shelley-socialism.htm)

Hunt, who knew him well, wrote of the poet:

“Shelley was not only anxious for the good of mankind in general. We have seen what he proposed on the subject of Reform in Parliament, and he was always very desirous of the national welfare.”

I mention this about Shelley because it chimes with what is to follow.

The Vale of Health, Hampstead, north London

A few months ago, I acquired a copy of Leigh Hunt’s wordy but fascinating autobiography. After being released from a spell in prison in 1815 having libelled the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, Hunt moved to the Vale of Health in Hampstead. Shelley often used to visit Hunt there, sometimes staying at his home for several days. Hunt wrote that Shelley:

“… delighted in the natural broken ground, and in the fresh air of the place … Here also he swam his paper boats on the ponds, and delighted to play with my children…”

Hunt was returning to his home in the Vale of Health one evening after having been to the opera when he heard a woman shrieking and a man’s voice coming from within his house. The woman’s voice was that of a lady, whom Shelley had found lying:

“… near the top of the hill, in fits. It was a fierce winter night, with snow upon the ground; and winter loses nothing of its fierceness in Hampstead. My friend, always the promptest and the most pitying on these occasions, knocked on the first house he could reach, in order to have the woman taken in.”

Shelley’s request was turned down. Hunt continued:

“The poor woman was in convulsions; her son, a young man, lamenting over her. At last my friend sees a carriage driving up to a house at a little distance. The knock is given; the warm door opens; servants and lights pour forth…”

And Shelley asks for help employing the voice:

“… which anybody might recognise for that of the highest gentleman as well as of an interesting individual …”

He relates his story to the elderly gentleman emerging from his carriage and asks whether he will go and see the distressed female. The passenger replies:

“No, sir; there’s no necessity for that sort of thing, depend on it. Impostors swarm everywhere: the thing cannot be done; sir, your conduct is extraordinary.”

To which Shelley replied to the astonishment of the man who refused to provide assistance:

“Sir, I am very sorry to say that your conduct is not extraordinary; and if my own seems to amaze you, I will tell you something that will amaze you a little more, and I hope will frighten you. It is such men as you who madden the spirits and the patience of the poor and wretched; and if ever a convulsion comes in this country (which is very probable), recollect what I tell you: – you will have your house, that you refuse to put the miserable woman into, burnt over your head.”

By ‘convulsion’ Shelley meant revolution, something that England did not suffer as had France or later Russia and elsewhere. Leigh’s reporting of what Shelley said may help to show that whatever Marx saw in his writings was in harmony with his own ideas.

As for the poor woman, she was:

“… brought to our house, which was at some distance, and down a bleak path (it was in the Vale of Health); and Shelley and her son were obliged to hold her till the doctor could arrive.”

In case you are wondering how the woman got into such a sad state, Hunt informs us:

“It appeared that she had been attending this son in London, on a criminal charge made against him, the agitation of which had thrown her into fits on her return. The doctor said that she would have perished, had she laid there a short time longer.”

Now, I am no reader of poetry. I find that I enjoy it more if it is read to me. Further, I must confess that I am unfamiliar with Shelley’s works, but this story related by Hunt, has begun to endear the poet to me. Shelley not only met Hunt in Hampstead but also in Italy on the 1st of July 1822, where they, along with Lord Byron, made plans to start a new journal “The Liberal”. On the 8th of July, Shelley died at sea when the boat he was travelling in sunk.

A Venezuelan in London

KARL MARX, MAHATMA GANDHI, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Ho Chi Minh, Benjamin Franklin, Simon Bolivar, Giuseppe Mazzini, and many other figures, who have caused major changes either in their own countries or in the wider world, have spent time living in London. Now I will introduce you to yet another man who lived in London and is celebrated as a liberator of the country in which he was born.

Despite having spent twelve years studying at University College London, I have not bothered to explore nearby Fitzroy Square until this year, 2021. The only part that I knew about while I was at college was the Indian YMCA, located in a building that was built the 1950s, where one can still enjoy Indian cuisine at below average prices. I shall write about this establishment in the future, as I will about Fitzroy Square. But now I will concentrate on a person, whose statue stands at the south east corner of the square, facing the Indian YMCA at the north end of Fitzroy Street.

Francisco Miranda

The statue, dressed in 18th century attire, depicts Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), standing with his left leg forward and a scroll in his right hand. Bare headed, his left hand is over his chest above his heart. Born in Caracas in the Venezuela Province of the Spanish colony of New Grenada, his full name was Sebastián Francisco de Miranda y Rodríguez de Espinoza. He was born into a wealthy family and educated at the best schools. Following a clash between his father and the aristocratic elite, Francisco travelled to Spain in 1771. Francisco studied in Madrid and in 1773 his father bought him a captaincy in the Spanish Army. He took part in military actions in North Africa, but his superiors considered that he devoted too much of his attention to reading and was also involved in various abuses of authority (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_de_Miranda).

Miranda was next sent to the Americas and was involved with the Spanish in the American War of Independence. In 1782, he was involved in the Capture of the Bahamas. His superior, Galvez, was upset that this had begun without his permission and arrested Miranda. It might have been this clash with Spanish officialdom that made Miranda begin to consider being involved in the quest for independence of the Spanish colonies in Latin America. With his involvement in the failure of the Spanish invasion of Jamaica in about 1782, the Spanish authorities wanted to arrest Miranda and take him to Spain. Fearing that he would not be tried fairly, he fled to the British colonies in North America in July 1783. In what was to become the USA, he met with, and became acquainted with the ideas of, leaders of the American independence struggle, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams.

Between 1785 and 1780, Miranda stayed in Europe, first landing in London in February 1785. In London, the Spanish authorities kept a close watch on him. Between 1802 and 1810, he lived near to Fitzroy Square at number 58 Grafton Way, to which a commemorative plaque is attached. The building is next door to the current home of the Consulate of Venezuela (“Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela”). It was in number 58 that Miranda met the great liberator of Latin America, Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) in 1810. It was also in 1810 that the Venezuelan patriot, philologist, jurist, and poet, Andres Bello (1781-1865) lived in this house. Bello had arrived in England with Bolivar as part of an expedition to raise funds for revolutionary activities in Latin America.

Miranda travelled around Europe and took an active part in the French Revolution between 1791 and 1798, when, disillusioned with the revolutionary movement, he returned to London. Back in London, at Grafton Street, Miranda had two children, Leandro (1803-1886) and Francisco (1806-1831). Their mother was his housekeeper Sarah Andrews, who became his wife.

From 1804 onwards, Miranda became actively involved with freedom struggles against the Spanish in the Caribbean and in what was to become Venezuela. He returned to Venezuela, along with Bello and Bolivar, when the First Venezuelan Republic was proclaimed in April 1810. It was short-lived.  Miranda, who was briefly Dictator of Venezuela, was arrested, along with Bolivar, by the Spanish in mid-1812. Bolivar was released, but Miranda was shipped to Spain, where he died in prison in Cadiz in 1816.

Miranda’s statue next to Fitzroy Square was erected in 1990. It is a copy of one made by the Venezuelan sculptor Rafael de la Cova (c1850-c1896) in 1895 (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/francisco-de-miranda-statue). As the statue was erected in 1990, eight years after I finally completed my studies at University College and I had not been near Fitzroy Square since 1982, it was hardly surprising that it was only this year that I first saw it, one of several statues depicting liberators of Latin America, which are dotted around in London.

Make park, not war

BY FEBRUARY, daytime temperatures in Pondicherry exceed 30 degrees Celsius. This combined with high humidity levels drive the wild street dogs to sleep a lot in whatever shade they can find. Likewise, sensible people avoid direct exposure to the strong tropical sun.

When you walk along the paths shaded by trees in the centrally located Bharathi Park, you can feel the temperature drop. This park, a peaceful haven, was an unforeseen result of warfare.

In 1709, the French built a fortress, Fort Louis, in the heart of Pondicherry. It was a typical fortress of the type designed by the French engineer Vauban (1633-1707). Pentagonal in plan, it had bastions at each of its five corners. The fort was destroyed by the British in 1761 and not replaced.

The space left after the destruction of the fort remained a wasteland used by the French for military training and celebration of some French national festivals. In 1854, an elegant neoclassical pavilion was erected in the middle of this wasteland. It commemorates a legendary 16th century woman, who discovered a source of water that became very important for the inhabitants of Pondicherry.

In 1946, a tree was planted on the land where Fort Louis once stood. Eventually, the present Bharathi Park was laid out. In its middle, stands the pavilion mentioned already.

One entrance to the park is opposite the entrance to the heavily guarded Raj Nivas (Governor’s Residence), housed in the former French Governor’s House built in 1766.

At the north east corner of the park, there is a statue of a man wearing a dhoti, a long jacket, and a turban. This depicts Chinnaswami Subramania Bharathi (1882-1921), also known as ‘Bharatiyar’. He was a great Tamil poet and independence fighter and opponent of the caste system. He fled to Pondicherry in 1908 to escape from being arrested (for his ‘seditious’ writing in newspapers) by the British and remained there until 1918. In 1906, he edited a newspaper with MPT Acharya, about whom I have written in my book about Indian revolutionaries in London, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. In Pondicherry, Bharatiya met other Indian freedom fighters seeking sanctuary there, including Sri Aurobindo and VVS Aiyar (also in my book), an associate of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

In 1918, Bharatiya moved back into British India, where he was promptly arrested. He died in 1921, impoverished.

The Puducherry Government Museum, housed in an 18th century French mansion, is a few metres from the park and well worth a visit. It contains exhibits dating from prehistory until the era of the French colonization. In need of a little bit more care and attention, there is a fascinating range of objects to be seen.

One display that interested me greatly was about the excavations made by a French archaeologist and the British Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Arikamedu, just south of Pondicherry. They were following up discoveries made in that location by French scholars before WW2. It emerged that Arikamedu was the site of a port at which Ancient Romans and Greeks traded with the local Indians.

The museum contains a few artefacts dug up including some Roman and Greek coins. A few years ago, I saw many of these in a museum at Calicut.

The ports where the Mediterranean people traded in India are contained in “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, a navigational manual that was originally composed in the 1st century AD. The port near Arikamedu is most likely to have been ‘Podouke’ as listed in the “Periplus”.

So, it is evident that the area around Pondicherry was visited by Europeans long before the British, French, and Danes estsblished colonies there.

We left the museum, which also has a nice collection of Hindu sculptures, and the lovely park to enjoy some excellent French inspired cooking at the Villa Shanti. At the table next to ours, there was a very serious looking group of French tourists, who were listening earnestly to their Indian guide, who spoke to them in French with an accent that probably caused them to wince internally. Incidentally, apart from people from all over India, most of the rest of the visitors to Pondicherry are French. I wonder how they feel seeing the souvenirs of their former empire, now an episode fading into the swirling mists of time.

A flight of pigeons

I FOUND MY COPY of “A Flight of Pigeons”, a short novel by Ruskin Bond (born 1934), amongst a collection of books about birds in the gift shop at Sanjay Gandhi National Park just north of Bombay. The book has little or nothing that would be of interest to ornithologists and other nature lovers.

The novel is about some English ladies during the First War of Indian Independence (‘Indian Mutiny’; 1857-58). They are some of the only survivors of an attack by Pathan forces on the town of Shahjahanpur.

The ladies are first given refuge by a Kayasth family, and then by various Pathan families. Having some Indian ancestry and a knowledge of Urdu, these English refugees were more or less successfully accepted into the Muslim Pathan families.

The young daughter, Ruth, becomes the object of the amorous intentions of one of the Pathans, who wants to marry her. Ruth’s mother has to try to prevent this from happening. I will not reveal what happens because I do not want to spoil the enjoyment of the reader of this simply told, compelling short book.

This is the first book I have read by Ruskin Bond. If it is typical of his writing, then I want to read more. Like the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, Bond skilfully manages to pack much into his book with great economy of words.

From revolutionary to saint

On Sunday morning it was Republic Day, the 26th January 2020. The streets in Baroda were quite. Several of the few vehicles we saw carried Indian national flags that fluttered proudly as they sped past us.

It was also quieter than usual at the Sri Aurobindo Nivas, the home where Sri Aurobindo lived while he was an official in the government of the princely state of Baroda and both professor and vice chancellor of what is now Baroda University. Aurobindo lived with his wife, Mrinalini in this house donated by the Gaekwad. After Baroda, Aurobindo and his wife moved to Calcutta. Later, he moved to the French colony of Pondicherry. After he arrived there, his wife followed him but during the journey to join him, she died suddenly of an infection (https://www.boloji.com/articles/13683/mrinalini-sri-aurobindos-forgotten-wife). I have written a bit about Aurobindo in Baroda in my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped). Here is what I wrote:

“Today, Sri Aurobindo is associated with ‘peace and love’ by many people, especially the crowds of Europeans who seek spiritual solace at his ashram in Pondicherry. While Aurobindo was working as a teacher in Baroda in the early 20th century, he was involved in Indian independence movements. Although he espoused peaceful methods, he was not averse to the use of violence. Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote in his book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, wrote: “It was at Baroda that Aurobindo took the first decisive steps into political life … Aurobindo clearly believed in the efficacy of violent revolution and worked towards organizing secret revolutionary activity as a preparatory stage for open revolt and insurrection…” In a biography, Sri Aurobindo for All Ages, its author Nirodbaran, who worked in close contact with the great man for twelve years, wrote: “When we asked him once how he could even conceive of an armed insurrection against the well-equipped British garrisons, he answered: ‘At that time, warfare and weapons had not become so lethal in their effect. Rifles were the main weapons, machine guns were not so effective. India was disarmed, but with foreign help and proper organisation, the difficulty could be overcome; and in view of the vastness of the country and the smallness of the regular British armies, even guerrilla warfare might be effective…”

After a year’s spell in Alipore prison in connection with his alleged involvement with some politically motivated murders in Bengal, Aurobindo settled in Pondicherry, and from then began espousing a spiritual approach to life. While living in that French colony, he continued to contemplate contemporary Indian issues, including that of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. In late 1909, Aurobindo wrote: “Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists, by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself.” Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote: “Savarkar legitimately claimed paternity for the idea of Hindutva; but Hindutva could lay to an equally formidable patrimony in the thought of Dayananda, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo. What binds these four thinkers together is the systematic marshalling of a Hindu identity in the service of Indian nationalism.” Sharma quotes the following passage, written in 1923, from Aurobindo’s India’s Rebirth (a collection of writings): “It is no use ignoring facts; some day the Hindus may have to fight the Muslims and they must prepare for it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not mean the subjection of the Hindus. Every time the mildness of the Hindus has given way. The best solution would be to allow the Hindus to organize themselves and the Hindu-Muslim unity would take care of itself, it would automatically solve the problem.” And, in 1934, Aurobindo wrote: “As for the Hindu-Muslim affair, I saw no reason why the greatness of India’s past or her spirituality should be thrown into the waste paper basket in order to conciliate the Muslims who would not at all be conciliated by such a stupidity.”

The Sri Aurobindo Nivas, where Aurobindo lived until 1906 while he was an esteemed teacher and state official in Baroda, is a two-storey grand, mainly brick bungalow with European-style wooden window shutters. In 1971, the Government of Gujarat handed it over to Baroda’s Sri Aurobindo Society, which promotes the peaceful aspects of Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. The house is surrounded by a well-maintained garden. This contains an outdoor stone shrine, a flat marble table with a bas-relief of a lotus flower in its centre. The lotus was surrounded by a flower arrangement consisting of a circle surrounding a six-pointed star. The star with centrally enclosed lotus is a symbol of Sri Aurobindo, whereas the circle is the symbol of his spiritual partner, the Mother, who settled in Pondicherry in 1920. She was born Mira Alfassa (1878-1973) in Paris, of Turkish and Egyptian Jewish parentage. She became the founder of Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry.

The ground floor of this typical colonial-style bungalow contains offices and a library, which was full of people reading at tables. The upper floor has carpeted rooms decorated with relics and portraits of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. These two people are often depicted in their old age, but here at Aurobindo Nivas we saw a couple of portraits, hung side-by-side, showing both as young people. The rooms on the upper floor are used for silent meditation. People sit cross-legged on the floor and occasionally prostrate themselves, their foreheads touching the floor. Also, they stand up and touch the paintings and photographs of Aurobindo and the Mother in the same way as Hindu worshippers touch idols in temples.

There is a large well-tended lawn behind the bungalow. About twenty-five people were sitting on the grass on rugs, meditating and doing yoga. They were facing a boundary wall on which there is a large outline map of India as it was before Partition in 1947 (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh). In the centre of what is now India, there is the circular symbol of the Mother.”

(end of extract).

After spending a pleasant hour in Aurobindo’s former residence, we took refreshments including south Indian filter coffee and dahi vada in the nearby three storey Canara Coffee House (founded 1950). Then we continued our exploration of the Sursagar Lake and looked for picturesque old buildings in the city. Many of the older structures, mostly residential usage, are rich in finely carved wooden decorative features.

By the time we had seen sufficient, the temperature was approaching 30 degrees Celsius – a contrast to the near zero conditions we had encountered earlier on our trip in places like Darjeeling and Mount Abu.

TRAVELS THROUGH GUJARAT DAMAN AND DIU is available from Amazon, lulu.com, and Bookdepository.com

GUJARAT UNWRAPPED , an Indian edition of the above is available from pothi.com (only in India)