Hampstead lies slightly west of the Greenwich Meridian

ST JOHNS CHURCH in Hampstead’s Church Row lies 0.1811 degrees west of the Greenwich Meridian. Its longitude is 0.1811 W. This fact is unimportant to most people living in the area because Hampstead is high above sea level. However, an accurate measurement of longitude (and latitude) is extremely important to seafarers.

Tomb of the Harrison family in Hampstead

I am no expert in navigation, so please excuse me if the following explanation seems oversimplified. Latitude can be assessed measuring the positions of fixed astronomical objects such as the sun and the North Star and relating them to the horizon. Longitude proved far harder to measure because it involves relating the local time to the time at a reference position, now at the commonly accepted Greenwich Meridian.  The difference in the time at a position in the sea and that at Greenwich is the way that the calculation of longitude is made. Local time can be measured by means such as observing where the sun appears in the sky. Until the 18th century, no clocks existed that could reliably record the time at the reference position whilst at sea. The uncertainty involved in assessing longitude resulted in many unfortunate disasters at sea. In 1714, the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act of 1714, which offered prizes for a simple and practical method of assessing longitude out at sea.

To solve the problem, a clock that accurately recorded the time at Greenwich was required. This clock had to remain accurate despite the many changes that it would encounter as it moved across the seas. It had to record Greenwich Mean Time accurately and reliably despite changes in temperature, humidity, air pressure, motion of the vessel, and so on. Major advances in the solution of this demanding technical problem were made by a carpenter and clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776), who was born near Wakefield in Yorkshire. For over 40 years, he worked on the problem, producing ever more reliable chronometers, which were tested at sea. Eventually, his H4 design became the prototype for what was best suited to the job. With the help of his son William Harrison (1728-1815), Harrison was rewarded with much of the financial reward offered in the wording of the Act passed in 1714.

When he died, John Harrison was living at his home in Red Lion Square in Holborn, whose longitude is 0.1186 W. He is buried in the same churchyard as the great artist John Constable: in the cemetery next to St Johns Church in Church Row, Hampstead. His tomb, which close to the south wall of the church, is of Portland stone and decorated with pilasters in the style of the architect Robert Adam. The north side of this shoebox shaped monument has an inscription that gives a brief biography of John Harrison. His wife, Elizabeth, who died in 1777, aged 72, is also commemorated on this tomb. The south side gives a short biography of his son William, who is also buried here. In addition to helping his father test his chronometer, he was also a Governor of the Foundling Hospital in London and High Sheriff of Monmouthshire (in 1791).

According to Christopher Wade in his “Buried in Hampstead”, several persons, who were not resident in Hampstead were interred in the churchyard of St John. The Harrisons figure amongst these. Wade states that there is no evidence that John Harrison and his family had any connection with Hampstead. He speculates that they obtained a burial plot there because they were “… affected by the charm of this particular graveyard.”  

The graveyard still retains its charm. It contains the resting places of many people, who have achieved fame in diverse fields of activity. Some of them are mentioned in my new book about Hampstead, which is available as a paperback from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92) and as a Kindle e-book.

Docked in Dartmouth

MOSES AND HIS followers crossed the Red Sea without difficulty. However, things were not so simple when a group of people were trying to cross the Atlantic to enjoy freedom to worship as they wished without persecution in North America in 1620 during the reign of England’s King James I. These travellers. the Pilgrim Fathers, were English Protestants, Puritans who had been living in the Low Countries in Leiden but felt that conditions there had become unfavourable for them. As they did not expect to live safely in England, they bravely set forth to sail to the New World.

Bayards Cove

The Pilgrim Fathers and their families left Holland in the “Speedwell” (60 tons) and after crossing the North Sea, their ship was joined by the larger “Mayflower” (180 tons), which was carrying Puritans fleeing from London. While heading west, the boats headed into trouble. On about the 23rd of August 1620, the two ships slipped furtively into Dartmouth in Devon and lay at anchor near to the town’s Bayards Cove, close to where today a small ferry carries vehicles and pedestrians across the River Dart between Dartmouth and Kingswear. The secrecy was necessary because as Puritans, the passengers risked punishment in England.  They remained moored there until about the 31st of August while leaks on the “Speedwell” were being repaired.

After leaving Dartmouth to continue their voyage westwards, the “Speedwell” began leaking again. About 300 miles west-south-west of Lands’ End, the “Speedwell” had become almost unseaworthy. The boats returned to England, docking at Plymouth in Devon. There, the “Speedwell” was abandoned, and the “Mayflower” set sail for America with 102 passengers. The boat reached the harbour of Cape Cod in Massachusetts on the 21st of November 1620.

Although Plymouth is the place from which the Puritans finally left England, the point in the port from which they set off would now be unrecognisable to the Pilgrim Fathers were they able to see it. In contrast, although some of the buildings near Bayards Cove in Dartmouth have been built since the Pilgrim Fathers stopped there briefly, there remain sights that have not changed significantly since 1620.

A guiding light near Brighton

THE RIVER ADUR rises in Sussex and flows through the county, reaching the sea (the English Channel) west of Brighton and Hove at Shoreham-by-Sea. Facing the rivers opening to the sea and close to the Brighton Road (A259), there stands the slender, tall Shoreham Lighthouse.  The stone lintel over the small, narrow door at the base of the lighthouse bears the date “A.D. 1846”.

Shoreham lighthouse

The lighthouse was built in 1842 and was at first supplied with oil lamps (https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2011/08/26/shoreham-lighthouse/). The structure was first used in 1846, the date on the lintel. In the 1880s, the lighting system was modernised, and the new lamps were powered by gas. It was only inn 1952 that the gas-powered system was replaced by electric lights (http://shoreham.adur.org.uk/lighthouse.htm). Major repair work was carried out in 1985-86, and the lighthouse is still in service, its beams can be seen from up to 15 miles away.

The tower, about 39 feet high, is made from blocks of limestone. The lamp housing topped with a weathervane mounted on a perforated, spherical base. It was rotating very keenly when I saw it on the second day of Storm Eunice (20th of February 2022). The weathervane is above the lamp housing that has and polygonal roof. At each corner of this, there a metal sculpture depicting the head of a fish with its mouth open.

The lighthouse stands facing a largely industrial stretch of the coast and a row of unexceptional looking two-storey residential buildings. This part of the coast is a complete contrast to the grand (and quite as grand) buildings lining the seafront at Hove and Brighton.

The lighthouse stands a few yards away from the new lifeboat station, built in 2010. It was so wet and windy when I stepped out of the car to take some photographs that I did not linger long. However, I noticed many hardy individuals setting out boldly to stride along the shingle beach despite the horrible weather.

Two historic hotels by the sea

MOST OF SOUTHEND in Essex was built after the Victorian era. The town on the estuary of the River Thames was and still is the nearest seaside resort to London. According to “Encyclopaedia Britannica”, Southend:

“…became fashionable as a seaside resort when visited by Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1801 and by her mother, Princess Caroline (wife of George IV), in 1803.”

Originally, Prittlewell, once a village north of Southend but now one of its suburbs, was the only settlement in the area now occupied by the modern town of Southend. South east of it on the coast was a tiny village called Leigh, which is now the much larger Leigh-on-Sea. The resort now known as Southend-on-Sea was developed at the end of the 18th century in Prittlewell’s  southern district of South End. Today, more than seven miles of buildings extend from Leigh-on-Sea through Southend to Shoeburyness.

The High Street, part of a road heading south from Prittlewell, runs from near Southend Victoria Station towards the sea, ending at the edge of a steep slope that falls to the seashore below. Various roads and a lift can be used to descend this incline. At the top of the slope, the High Street meets the eastern end of Royal Terrace. At the corner where these two streets meet, stands the Royal Hotel. Next to the hotel and lining Royal terrace, numbers 1 to 15 were built in the 1790s at the same time as the hotel. These were backed by the Royal Mews, a road still in existence. These constructions were part of a then new phase of development of the town, which was known as ‘New Town’.

The hotel, a fine Georgian edifice, opened with a grand ball in 1793.  Princess Caroline House that adjoins the hotel. number 1 the High Street, is a listed building, which looks as if it is contemporary with the hotel. The gardens on the slope in front of the hotel and the Terrace are known as The Shrubbery and were originally for the exclusive use of residents in the Terrace, but now they are open to the public. According to www.southend.gov.uk/historic-southend/history-southend/2:

“The Terrace was named “Royal” following visits by Princess Caroline, wife of the Prince Regent, in 1803 and for a short time attracted fashionable society. But difficult access from London by road and river discouraged further development until the construction of the railway in 1856. Royal Terrace is the only surviving Georgian terrace in Southend.”

Just east of the High Street and dominating the shoreline is the massive Park Inn Palace hotel, formerly the The Metropole. Built in 1901, this hotel that looks like an oversized liner had 200 rooms, a billiard room, and a splendid ballroom. During WW1, it was temporarily used as a Royal Naval Hospital. An online article (http://beyondthepoint.co.uk/first-world-war-southend-the-palace-hotel/) related:

“The Palace Hotel was built in 1901 and served great use in the war effort. Messrs Tolhurst; the owners of the hotel, were generous enough to offer the building up for free as a naval hospital for the rest of the war. Its glorious five star interior would’ve been quite bizarre with hospital beds placed amongst its lounges and ballrooms. It held possibly the world’s first purpose-made x-ray department. It recently underwent refurbishment by Park Inn to bring it back to its former glory.”

Both hotels overlook both the sea and Southend Pier. The older, Royal Hotel, is less of a blot on the landscape than the Palace hotel.

Out to sea without stepping off land

THE FIRST TIME I visited Southend in Essex was in about 1960. I was invited to go there on a day trip with my best friend, his younger brother, and their father, who was a senior official in London Transport. We went by car, stopping on the way at several London Transport bus garages, where we saw a few vintage busses. I remember two things about Southend on that first visit. First, we ate fish and chips. It was the first time I had sampled this cuisine because my parents were too snobbish about food to have been seen dead in a fish and chip shop. I have enjoyed fish and chips ever since that time in Southend. The other thing that sticks in my mind was travelling along Southend Pier in a special train that carried passengers almost to its furthest point from the seafront. It was not until the 11th of February 2022 that I made my second visit to Southend.

Southend Pier

Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world. It is 1.34 miles (2.16 kilometres) in length. The present pier, which replaced an earlier wooden one built in the early 1830s, was completed in the late 1880s. it was opened to the public in 1889. At about this time, the single-track railway running along it was also ready for use. It was extended by 1898. The trains were then electrically operated. In 1978, the electric railway was closed. By 1986, it had been re-opened using trains that were driven by diesel engines. It was on one of these that we took a return trip this February.

I enjoy piers. They provide a way of going out to sea without leaving land and without risking seasickness. In addition, like the one at Southend, most of the piers in England are visually satisfying when viewed from the shore. At the sea end of Southend Pier, there are various structures ranging from painted wooden shacks to the beautiful contemporary-style Royal Pavilion, opened in 2012. Despite being a complete contrast to the other constructions on the end of the pier, it enhances to visual attractiveness of the area.

Although the pier was not the primary reason for our excursion to Southend, it certainly enhanced our enhancement of the place as did our lunch at a local fish and chips shop.

Eating ice cream in an old harbour

CHARLESTOWN IN CORNWALL should not be confused with the dance named after Charleston in South Carolina, as it is just south of the Cornish town of St Austell. The latter, named after a sixth century Cornish saint, St Austol, was first associated with the tin trade and then with the China clay industry, which burgeoned after the material was discovered in the area by William Cookworthy (1705-1780) in the 18th century.

In 1790, only nine families lived in the tiny seashore settlement of West Polmear, a fishing village just south of St Austell. A year later, much was to change in this little place. For, in 1791, Charles Rashleigh, a local landowner, began building a dock at West Polmear, using designs prepared by the engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792), who is regarded by many as ‘the father of civil engineering’. By 1799, a deep-water harbour with dock gates had been constructed. The water level in this dock was maintained by water that travelled in a ‘leat’ (artificial channel) from the Luxulyan Valley, some miles inland. The harbour was fortified against the French with gun batteries.

Named after nearby Mount Charles, the Charlestown harbour was used first for loading boats with copper for export, and then later with China clay, also for exportation. Charlestown prospered during the rapid expansion of the Chana clay industry that lasted until the start of WW1. By 1911, the former fishing village, by then Charlestown, had a population of almost 3200. Between the end of WW1 and the 1990s, Charlestown continued to be a port for exporting clay, but rival ports and the use of ships too large to be accommodated, led to its gradual decline. Now, the lovely, well-preserved 18th century harbour has become a tourist attraction and a home for a few picturesque tall ships. It is also used occasionally as a film set.

We visited Charlestown on a warm, sunny, late June afternoon. After exploring for a while, we homed in on an ice cream stall, a small hut with a pitched roof tiled with slates, located above the northern end of the dock. After queuing for what turned out to be first class ice cream, we sat at a table near the stall to enjoy what we had ordered. It was then that I noticed that some of the tables and chairs were standing on a vast cast-iron plate, which was covered with geometric patterns and some words, which I examined. My suspicion that this plate had once been part of a weighbridge was confirmed when I noticed the words: “20 tons.  Charles Ross Ltd. Makers. Sheffield”. I checked this with the ice cream seller in his stall. He told me that his stall had been the office of the officials who used the weighbridge and pointed out that there was another weighbridge nearby. I found this easily. Its metal plate bore the words: “Avery. Birmingham-England”, Avery being a well-known manufacturer of weighing machines. And the hut that used to be used by the officials now sells a range of snacks.

After eating our ice creams and examining the former weighbridge plates, a trivial thought flashed through my mind: by consuming ice cream at this stall, we were putting on weight at the weighbridge.

The good and simple life

A FEW DAYS AGO, we visited the Penlee House Gallery in the Cornish town of Penzance. After admiring its fine collection of art by painters who worked mainly in Cornwall during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially by members of the Newlyn School, I noticed a moss-covered stone in the gallery’s attractive gardens. It mentioned two twinned towns: Penzance and Concarneau.

St Ives Arts Club

Concarneau is a French fishing port in Brittany. Although I was probably less than ten years old at the time, I have some recollections of the family holiday we spent there along with our general medical practitioner, Dr C, and his family. Two memories of that holiday linger in my brain. One is of the excessively lengthy luncheons we had in our hotel’s dining room. Being a poor eater in my childhood, these meals with many courses did not appeal to me. I remember whiling away the time playing with discarded crab and lobster parts from which the adults had extracted the edible flesh. The other memory is of an unfortunate accident that occurred on the beach. Dr C was showing my young sister a sea urchin. Accidentally, it slipped out of his hand and fell onto my sibling’s bare foot. For many years, she remembered this painful experience.

Concarneau is remembered on the stone at the Penlee House Gallery because some of the artists, who spent much time painting in Newlyn, a fishing port next to Penzance, also painted in Concarneau. The French port, like Newlyn, also attracted French artists. Both places were home to ‘artists colonies’ at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries (for some details, see: http://www.stivesart.info/brittany-links/). St Ives, which is near Newlyn and Penzance, was also home to a thriving artists colony in that period. Today, one of the attractions of St Ives is the fact that serious artistic activity continues there. Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947), a highly accomplished artist based for much of his life in Newlyn, wrote that this close neighbour, almost continuation of, Penzance was his:

“…sort of English Concarneau.” (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2003/important-british-pictures-l03123/lot.31.html)

The artists colonies that existed all over Europe and also in North America at the same time as those in Newlyn and St Ives became the subject of research for my friend, the art historian and travel writer, the late Michael Jacobs (1952-2014). For some unknown reason, Michael never learned how to drive. As a result, he depended on public transport and his friends to get him around the many places that he visited. In about 1984, two years after I had gained my driving licence, I agreed to drive him to Cornwall where he was researching its two artists colonies. We stayed both in Newlyn and St Ives in bed and breakfast accommodation. I enjoyed accompanying my friend whilst he made his enquiries.

An organisation in Newlyn let Michael the notebooks (or diaries) of Stanhope Alexander Forbes, who lived from 1884 onwards in Newlyn and died there. Trustingly, the keeper of these original handwritten notebooks gave them to Michael to peruse overnight. He hardly slept that night because he spent most of it feverishly trying to read as much as possible of this source of information about life in Newlyn’s former artists colony.

Michael was a sensitive fellow, who never wanted to upset anyone. This admirable characteristic of my friend backfired the following day. Our landlady provided us with a lavish full English breakfast. The table was covered with an ocean of food, piles of bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, fried bread, toast, black pudding, fried tomatoes, and much more. After we had both eaten, there was still a vast amount of food on the table. Michael said to me that we should not leave it uneaten as that would upset our kindly hostess. I said that I could not manage any more. So, Michael, not wishing to risk offending our landlady, managed to consume the huge amount of food remaining. Thoughtful as this was, it was not without consequences. For much of the rest of the day, poor Michael kept clutching his stomach that was not grateful for the load of food with which it had to deal.

We stayed in St Ives. The bed and breakfast place that we had booked was on a steeply sloping narrow street in the old part of the lovely town. Driving my car through streets like these, barely wider than my vehicle and often dangerously steep, was no joke. After that, my first trip to St Ives, I promised myself never to attempt driving in the old part of the town. I have stuck to that promise.

Our visit to St Ives was made special because Michael had to interview various artists in their studios and members of the St Ives Arts Club. The latter, which is housed in an old warehouse, was founded in 1890. Its early members included the artists Sir John Arnesby Brown, Sir Leslie Stephen, Adrian Strokes and W Titcomb. The Club’s informative website notes:

“All but one of the original Committee hung at the Royal Academy.” (www.stivesartsclub.org/copy-of-history).

I do not recall whom we met there, but we were permitted to enter parts of the Club not normally accessible to non-members.

While we were in St Ives, we did not visit the Barbara Hepworth Museum (first opened in 1976) and the Tate St Ives was not yet in existence; it opened in 1993.

By the time that Michael and I visited the two towns in western Cornwall, my friend had already done a great deal of research about artists colonies abroad. What struck him at the time was that in each of the former artists colonies that he visited in a number of different countries including France, Russia, USA, and Germany, he met experts who could tell him much about the colony in which they specialised but few of them were aware, as Michael had become, of how much the artists moved between the different colonies.

Michael’s research culminated in the writing of his book “The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America” that was published by Phaidon in 1985. Sadly, I have mislaid, I hope temporarily, my copy of this book, in which I am sure that he wrote a personal inscription. When we visited the Penlee House Gallery in September 2020, I looked at their bookstore to see if they stocked Michael’s book. It was not there and also the otherwise informative gallery staff had never heard of it, which is a great pity because it shows how the Newlyn and St Ives colonies were part of an international artistic network or community.

It was the visit to the Penlee that brought us to Penzance, a place that we had not considered visiting before. I am pleased that we went to the town because it offers many delights that exceeded our prior expectations.

Michael passed away six years ago. Although in the last few years of his life we saw him less often than previously because he was often away travelling or spending time in his home in Spain, a country which he loved, we think of him often with great affection.

Make a bigger splash

UNLIKE MANY PLACES IN ENGLAND, Penzance in Cornwall did not get a mention in the Domesday Book published in 1086 although there is archaeological evidence of a bronze age settlement in the area. The first written mention of the town is in a document dated 1284, when it was listed as ‘Pensans’. The etymology of the town’s name derives from the Cornish words ‘penn sans’ meaning ‘holy headland’.

We discovered recently, on our first visit to the town, that Penzance in the far south-west of the British Isles is very pleasant and full of interesting buildings and other attractions. One of these is the long seafront promenade from which the visitor can see nearby Newlyn in one direction and St Michael’s Mount, Britain’s answer to France’s Mont St Michel, in another. Incidentally, Penzance is further west than anywhere in mainland France.

A row of poles carrying large flags, on which pictures of a diving ladies, dressed in old-fashioned blue striped bathing dresses, were printed, attracted our attention. The flags were fluttering vigorously in the strong breeze. They were placed next to the wall surrounding a large triangular open-air swimming pool two of whose walls project out into the sea. The pool was divided into two sections, one with a greater area than the other. Plenty of people were swimming in both parts. The design of the pool immediately made us think that it had elements suggestive of the art deco style that was popular in between the two World Wars.

The pool is known as the Jubilee Pool. A plaque at its main entrance informs that the pool was opened on the 31st of May 1935 (during the year of the Silver Jubilee of the reign of King George V), confirming our suspicion that it was built in the era of art deco. A website (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1221190) contains the information that the pool was built to the designs of the Borough Engineer Captain F Latham, and it adds that the pool:

“… is now the finest surviving example of its type with the exception of the Saltdean Lido in Brighton (listed grade II). In Europe, lidos such as the Piscine Molitor in Paris of 1929 were the first to adopt the modernist style in order to embody the worship of sunlight and physical fitness. The seaside lido manifested the transformation of sea bathing in the 1920s from a predominantly health activity into a leisure activity, and because it was freed from the constraints in planning of more conventional pools it presented local authorities with the opportunity to emulate Continental fashions.”

The water in the two sections of the pool differs in temperature. In the lager part of the bath, it is unheated but in the smaller part, it is heated. Currently, a bather pays up to £4.25 to swim in the unheated section, and up to £11.75 to swim in the ‘Geothermal Pool’, whose water is between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius (https://jubileepool.co.uk/tickets/). Despite locals receiving a discount on ticket prices, many choose to swim in the sea amongst the Battery Rocks that surround the pool and the extension of the promenade that runs along the eastern edge of the bath. One local, who was dressed in a wet suit and had just been in the sea thought the ticket prices were a bit steep and told us that during September, the end of summer, the sea is actually quite warm.

The Geothermal Pool is filled with salt water heated by geothermal energy. The idea of installing this feature derives from Charlie Dixon, who in 2010:

“…had just returned from a trip to New Zealand where he had bathed in geothermal pools … Ten years and a £1.8m funding package later (not to mention an incredible amount of work by the Jubilee Pool Directors and staff) the first geothermally heated pool of its kind in the UK opens to the public on 1st September 2020 …

… The system operates by extracting warm water from one geothermal well (410m deep – the height of one and a half Eiffel Towers!!), taking heat out of that water using heat pumps and distributing it to the pool via a heat exchanger, before re-injecting the cooler water back into the ground.  This combined system means that the temperature of the pool can be sustained with a very low carbon footprint. The initial pool heating results suggest that it’s about 80% geothermal but ultimately all the energy is coming from our geothermal well. We are using the heat pumps to concentrate that energy to the exact temperature required for the pool.” (https://jubileepool.co.uk/pool-info/geothermal/).

Although the Jubilee Pool geothermal system is the first of its kind in the UK, it was not the first pool or lido to use naturally heated water. The Romans heated the water at Bath with naturally warm spring water.

We wandered along the eastern side of the pool towards a carved stone obelisk that overlooks the triangular pool and the expanse of Battery Rocks. It stands on the site of a gun battery that was built in 1740 when Britain’s relations with Spain deteriorated. The obelisk, a war memorial, was designed by Sir Edward Warren and erected in 1922. It was unveiled by Mrs Bolitho on the 14th of May 1922. She was the wife of Thomas Bedford Bolitho (1835-1915), a Cornish politician (Liberal Unionist MP), banker, and industrialist, of Trewidden (Cornwall). Bolitho is a western Cornish surname and that of a prolific writer and biographer, Hector Bolitho (1897-1974), whose biography of Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan, was published in 1954. Hector was born in New Zealand and migrated to the UK in about 1924. Hector’s grandfather emigrated from Cornwall to New Zealand. It would be interesting to know whether Hector and Thomas were related, even remotely.

We saw plenty of folk bathing in the sea near the pool. They sheltered behind towels that flapped about in the breeze whilst they slipped in and out of their bathing suits. None of them, with whom we spoke, complained about the water’s temperature. In addition to humans enjoying the environment I spotted several cormorants contemplating the sea from their perches on the rocks. The Jubilee Pool and the rocks near it are some of the lovely features that make a visit to Penzance delightful.

Atlantic crossing

I CAN ONLY FIND ONE photograph taken on board the SS France when we sailed from Southampton to New York City in September 1963. I do not know who took the picture and why I seem to have no photographs taken during the four months we spent in the USA that year. However, I do recall aspects of that voyage across the Atlantic, and I will share these with you.

FRANCE BLOG

My dear Uncle Felix gave me a present before we left London. It was a pocket-size set of tools (screwdrivers, a miniature saw, etc.) held together on a hinge. I thought that it might prove to be very useful if I became trapped in a cabin while the ship was sinking. Years before, my friend Charles S had recommended that I kept a small notebook and pencil in my pyjama pocket, just in case I was kidnapped – a prospect that used to fill me with fear. Charles’ idea was that, equipped with the writing material, one could send notes to rescuers in the (unlikely in my case) event of being kidnapped. I was, as you might be beginning to realise, a cautious little boy.

Soon after boarding the liner, which had been selected amongst others because my mother had learnt that the vessel had been fitted with the most advanced stabilisers, we looked around. When we reached the ship’s cinema, we poked our heads in and saw (on the screen) a parade of scantily dressed women parading round a pool. My mother pulled my sister and me out of the auditorium to protect us from seeing something she thought inappropriate for our tender young eyes (I was only eleven and my sister younger). The film being shown was “Scheherazade”. 

We set sail in the evening. Our first night was horrendous. As we crossed the Irish Sea and entered the Atlantic, the sea was exceedingly rough. My mother, my sister, and I became terribly sea-sick, despite the state-of-the-art stabilisers. None of my mother’s strong sea-sickness tablets had any effect on her. She insisted on summoning the ship’s doctor, a French man. She told him that she had read that there was an injection for countering seasickness, which had been recently developed, and she wanted that immediately. The doctor had not heard of this wonder cure. However, my mother, a forceful personality at the best of times, insisted on having it. She was not taking ‘no’ or even ‘non’ as an answer. I am sure that the doctor was beginning to regret having come to her aid. In the end, he gave in, and gave her an injection. It may have only been saline, but my mother was happier although no less seasick.

My father was the only member of our family who felt well enough to face lunch in the ship’s dining room. When he arrived there, he was one of a small handful of passengers who felt well enough to have an appetite. After that first night, we sailed through calm waters for four gloriously sunlit days.

During the day, my parents lazed on sun-loungers on a deck. My father is a keen amateur art historian. In his spare time, he read the academic journals, like the Burlington Magazine and the Art Bulletin, which professional art historians read and in which they published learned articles. He might well have been reading one of these, when he turned his head and noticed that a man on the lounger next to his was reading an art historical monograph, which he had read recently. He began speaking to his neighbour. Dad was very excited to discover that he was lounging next to the art historian Leopold Ettlinger (1913-1989), a specialist in the art of the Italian renaissance, the period which fascinated my father most. Leopold and his then wife, Helen, were on their way to the USA to take up a temporary position in an American university, as was my father. My parents struck up a friendship with the Ettlingers, who came to stay with us in Chicago on the weekend immediately following the assassination of President JF Kennedy.

I cannot remember what my sister did during the days we spent on board, but I recall what I did. Far from soaking up the sun, I spent most of the daylight hours in darkness, in the ship’s comfortable cinema. Every day, a different film was screened, several times each day. Except at mealtimes, I watched the same film again and again each day. Two of these films, both filmed in black and white, stick in my mind although I have long forgotten their titles.

One of them, which might have had a title like “The Siege of Altona” concerned a German (maybe a Nazi), who had locked himself inside a flat in the Hamburg suburb of Altona. It was a very moving psychological drama, something that my mother might not have thought suitable for her eleven-year-old son.

The other film was a French comedy. I have not the slightest memory of its title. It concerned two thieves, who robbed locked collection boxes in churches.  Their method was ingenious even if not particularly efficient. The thieves first sucked thin circular toffees attached to long threads. After sucking one, ta toffee was lowered through the coin slot until it touched the coins. When the sweet touched a coin, the latter would stick to the toffee. Then using the thread, the coin and toffee where carefully removed from the collection box. The film worked towards it climax when the thieves conceived an improved method. They arrived in a church with a vacuum cleaner. Attached to its hose was a long thin plastic piece that fitted into the slots on the collection boxes. The thieves inserted this nozzle, turned on the machine, and were able to suck all the coins from a box. However, this discovery coincided with greater police in the activities of this duo. I cannot remember how the film finished, but the two crooks did not come out well in the end. I would love to see this film again. So, if any of you, dear readers, have any idea of its title, please do let me know.

We docked at a quay on the west side of Mahattan. Soon after that, we visited our old friends, the late Cyril and Elaine Sofer, in their holiday home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Cyril had been a friend of my father’s since they were both young in Cape Town. Elaine outlived him. She was, incidentally, the first person to make a Bloody Mary for me (not in 1963, but much later, I hasten to add). Leopold Ettlinger, Cyril and Elaine Sofer, and my mother are no more, nor is the SS France. It made its last voyage in 2008, when it docked at the breakers’ yards in Alang (Gujarat, India), where it was broken up for scrap.