So long Soho

SOHO BAR ITALIA

IN MANY MINDS ‘SOHO’ conjures up sleazy night spots, strip joints, sex shops, and risqué nightlife. For me, Soho contains many memories of my childhood. And before you wonder about what kind of upbringing I had, let me emphasise that these recollections have nothing to do with the seamier side of this colourful district in London’s West End. If you are hoping for something more ‘exciting’, stop reading now to avoid disappointment.

My mother was an artist. Her preferred metier was sculpture. In the 1960s, she used to work in the sculpture workshops at the St Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. She welded pieces of metal to create artworks. Her companions in the studio included now famous artists such as Philip King and Anthony Caro.

In addition to being a sculptor my mother was acknowledged by friends and family as being a good cook. She was a disciple of the food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce French and Italian cuisines into British kitchens. Ms David’s recipes required ingredients and cuts of meat not readily available to British shoppers in the 1960s. However, St Martin’s was close to Soho, in particular Old Compton Street and Brewer Street, where the ‘exotic’ ingredients needed for Ms David’s recipes were easily accessible. These streets contained a variety of shops that catered to French southern European culinary needs.

We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an attractive but, in my opinion, rather dull place. As a youngster, I loved being taken into central London. My mother often took me to the West End. We used to take the ‘tube’ to Oxford Circus Station. Near there, we always entered Dickins and Jones department store. Why, I cannot say, because my mother rarely bought anything there. The ground floor of the shop was dedicated to perfume and other cosmetic sales. Once, one of the salespeople, called to me. Without prompting, she advised me never to use after shave lotions. I was far too young to have begun shaving, but I have followed her unsolicited advice ever since then. I have not yet been brave enough to experiment with these lotions and to discover why she advised against them.

After leaving the department store, we used to visit the Danish Centre in Conduit Street, where I would be treated to an open sandwich and a kransekage, a Danish confection containing marzipan. From there, we used to head for Soho.

Meat was always bought at Benoit Bulcke, a Belgian butcher shop on the corner of Old Compton Street and a smaller side street. According to my mother, only this place knew how to cut meat properly, and she was not someone to argue with. Their motto was “Meat to Please You, Pleased to Meet You”. They moved from Soho to northwest London some years ago. 

Coffee was always purchased at the still extant Algerian Coffee Stores. The shop’s appearance remains unchanged since I was a child. My mother used to choose Mocha Mysore, a name which meant nothing to me as a child. Decades later, when I began visiting India, I got to visit Mysore and also Indian coffee plantations. One innovation at the Algerian Coffee Stores instituted long after my childhood, and well before the Covid-19 crisis, was the inclusion of a small counter where exquisitely made espresso coffee is served.

Other groceries were bought at Lina Stores, still in existence, and Camisa, another Italian grocery nearby. Almost every visit to Soho included a stop at Bar Italia. Founded in 1949, this coffee bar still exists. Entering it is like stepping straight from Soho into a typical bar in Italy. Much of its décor remains as I first remember it, but now the far wall of the café is lined with an enormous TV screen on which Italian football matches can be watched. Whenever we visited Bar Italia, my mother would point at a doorway close to it and tell me that it led to Jimmy’s restaurant. Founded in 1948, it was the first Greek restaurant to be opened in Soho.  Although she always mentioned the place, we never ate there. However, close by in a parallel street there was an Italian restaurant, Otello, which my parents visited often, sometimes taking my sister and me.

One shop that no longer exists was on the short stretch of Old Compton Street between Moor Street and Charing Cross Road. It had trays of vegetables and salad greens on stalls on the pavement outside the front of the store. It was a French run greengrocer, whose name I cannot recall. One of the things my mother bought there was something that sounded to my young ears like ‘mush’ (rhyming with ‘slush’). I had no idea what it was or what it was used for, but I know that my mother prized it greatly. Many, many years later, I realised what she was buying was in fact ‘mache’, also known as ‘lambs lettuce’ or ‘corn salad’, and to botanists as Valerianella locusta. In the 1960s when my mother was buying mache in Soho, hardly anyone in the UK would have heard of it, let alone eaten it. Today, it is a common ingredient of packaged salads found in supermarkets. I had no idea that back in the 1960s, my mother had become a foodie trend-setter by serving us mache in our salads.

My mother died forty years ago, and Soho has changed since then, but much remains that she would have recognised. Whenever I sip coffee at Bar Italia, I raise my tiny cup of strong black coffee to her memory. Mache more than that, I cannot do!

Orange juice in North London

AT A REUNION LUNCH held for students who (like me) had attended Highgate School in north London during the 1960s, the Headmaster, Mr Petitt, gave a speech. He said that we, the former students, had reached the age when the ‘nostalgia gene’ kicks in. In my case it has kicked with a vengeance. When I lived near Golders Green, which is not far from Highgate, I would never have believed that one day I would write nostalgically about this, let us be honest, fairly unexciting suburb in northwest London, but here I am at the keyboard doing just that. Squeezing some oranges to produce juice to flavour a dish containing red cabbage triggered one of my earliest memories, that of walking with my parents to the church hall next to St Albans Church in Golders Green to collect bottles of orange juice.

The juice collected from the church hall was quite delicious and richly flavoured. It was contained in large glass medicine bottles with cork stoppers. The juice was supplied free of charge by the state during the 1950s. It was first supplied gratis by the state in 1941 and distributed to reduce the risk of vitamin C deficiency amongst young British children. In 1951, just before I was born, the Conservative Party won a General Election. Soon afterwards, the government restricted the supply of free orange juice to children under two years. My sibling was born in 1956, four years after me. Therefore, I must have been well under six years old when we made these trips to the church hall in Golders Green. Thinking about this juice led me to recall other aspects of Golders Green as it was during my early childhood.

 

BLOG JUICE

St Albans church hall in Golders Green

One dimly recalled early memory of Golders Green is of a delicatessen near the corner of Golders Green Road and Golders Green Crescent. The place was called Apenrodt’s. I remember this shop had a large wooden barrel that contained pickled gherkins submerged in a liquid. This was not a surprising thing to see in a suburb with a large Jewish population, many of eastern European heritage in my early years. My father enjoyed pickled gherkins. I developed a taste for them in my twenties, as I did for smoked salmon. In my childhood, smoked salmon was relatively more expensive than it is today. My parents regarded it as a treat. I remember them buying it at the aptly named Cohen’s Smoked Salmon, which, like Apenrodt’s, was a Jewish delicatessen.

Two shops in Golders Green particularly intrigued me when I was a little boy. One was an old-fashioned shop, Franks. It sold various clothing items, much of it was hosiery and lingerie. It was not the garments that interested me but the pneumatic system that was used to send money and receipts from the shop floor to an office somewhere else in the shop. Money, bills, and receipts were placed in cylindrical capsules that were placed in tubes along which air was pumped to propel them from one part of the shop to another.

The other establishment was Importers, a coffee retailer with a café behind it. The front windows contained cylindrical coffee roasters, which could be seen from the street. The cylinders were made with fine metal meshwork. Filled with coffee beans, they rotated slowly above gas burners. The air inside the shop was filled with a wonderful aroma that must have helped sell the coffee beans and powders stocked on the shelves of the shop and in the sacks on the floor. We used to pass this shop often, but rarely entered it because my mother preferred to buy coffee at the Algerian Coffee Store, which still exists in Old Compton Street in Soho.  Despite this, I always stopped to watch the roasters rotating and savour the odour of the coffee whenever I passed that shop.

During the last three months of 1963, we lived in Chicago, Illinois. There, we experienced and enjoyed self-service supermarkets for the first time. So, I was excited when the first supermarket opened in Golders Green soon after we arrived back from the USA. I cannot recall the supermarket’s original name, but soon it was called Mac Market, when it was taken over by the Mac Fisheries Company. Prior to taking over the new supermarket, the company had run two grocery shops near to Golders Green station. These were stores where one queued up to be served by shopkeepers standing behind counters laden with food items. If you wanted a product, butter for example, the assistant cut the amount you required, weighed it, and wrapped it up.  

The supermarket occupied a plot on the corner of Golders Green Road and a small service road called Broadwalk Lane on which there used to be a small pet shop. Years later, the building that housed Mac Market was occupied by a newer supermarket that stocked many Kosher and Israeli products. Currently, a branch of Tescos occupies the site of Golders Green’s first ever supermarket.  Another supermarket built far later, a branch of Sainsburys, occupies the site of the Ionic, one of Golders Green’s two former cinemas. The other cinema, long since demolished, was the ABC that stood on Golders Green Road northwest of the main shopping area at the end of Ambrose Avenue. A care home now stands in its place. Although another of the area’s entertainment centres still stands, the huge Hippodrome Theatre, where as a child I enjoyed the annual pantomime and adults enjoyed pre-West End runs of new plays, this now houses the Hussainiyat Al-Rasool Al-Adham community centre, a religious organisation.

The supermarket was close to the bridge that carries the Northern Line of the Underground over Golders Green Road. We used to visit a small shop that nestled close to the southwest corner of the bridge. This was Beecholme’s Bakery, which was run by Harry Steigman and his family, who were related to my aunt’s husband. We visited the shop not to buy baked goods, but to greet these relatives of my father’s sister. She lived in South Africa, which felt very distant at a time when international telephone calls were costly, and the means of electronic communication that are now in common use were probably unimaginable even in the minds of science fiction writers.

What I did not know at the time was that one member of the Steigman family, Natty, the youngest of four brothers who helped their parents run the forerunner of Beecholme Bakeries, had volunteered to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.  Tragically, he was killed at the battle of Jarama (in February 1937) only two weeks after his arrival in Spain.  

Crossing the main road from Beecholme’s and walking under the bridge, one reaches Golders Green Public Library. During my childhood, I loved this place. Until a certain age, maybe 12, I was confined to using the well-stocked Children’s Library. When I passed that age, I could borrow books from the much larger, and far more interesting Adults Library. One bookshelf of this section of the library contained books about the sad story of the Jewish people during period of the twentieth century when their persecution and destruction was being carried out to fulfil the evil plans of Adolf Hitler and his sympathisers. Reading books about this terrible period catalysed my interest in twentieth century history and what led up to it. When I was at school in the 1960s, every school year our history syllabuses led us from the arrival of Julius Caesar in Britain to just before the start of WW1, never beyond it. And, the emphasis was not on what happened and why, but on the dates of events. These books in the library opened my eyes to the history of a period that I found far more interesting than what we were expected to learn to pass examinations. Since those days exploring the shelves of Golders Green Library, my interest in history has gradually expanded from the twentieth century back to far earlier times.

The library was next to a branch of Woolworths. This old-fashioned store, a magnificent emporium, stocked everything from plant bulbs to lightbulbs, from liquorice to lawnmowers. Its ceiling was decorated with an elaborate stuccoed pattern. Although illuminated with electric lamps, some of the shop’s old-fashioned gas lamps still hung from the ceiling. They had little chains dangling from them to regulate the gas flow. Shoppers were assisted by salespersons. It was not a self-service store. Oddly, I have no memory of the shop after its modernisation in 1971.

Although the shops I remember from my childhood have disappeared, Golders Green Road’s buildings look much as they did when I lived near there, and the pavements are just as busy as they were in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

All the shops I have described have been replaced by others, reflecting the passing of time and the changes in the ethnic mix of the population living in the area. There is still a strong Jewish presence in Golders Green, albeit now biased towards the ultra-orthodox communities. To this has been added people from a diverse range of backgrounds.  When I was a child, the idea of eating Japanese, Korean, Turkish, or even, surprisingly, Israeli foods would have been unthinkable in Golders Green Road.

St Albans Church, designed by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built in 1933, remains unchanged.  Neighbouring St Albans, the church hall, where we used to walk to collect the orange juice, also looks as I remember it so many decades ago. 

Today, the shops that we visited when I was a child and collecting orange juice in corked glass bottles are merely memories of a childhood long since passed. As I type the final words of this piece, another memory of the church hall springs to mind. Between the ages of four and eight, I attended Golders Hill School on Finchley Road. Once, we, the school children, performed a play for our parents. We acted it on the small stage in the church hall. I had a minor role as a magician. The costume I wore included my beige dressing gown onto which my mother had embroidered different coloured cloth patches. They were cut to look like stars. For a long time after that show, I treasured the dressing gown as it held memories of an evening I had enjoyed greatly. I outgrew the dressing gown, but memory of it still lingers in the folds of my brain. And, yes, Mr Petitt was right, my ‘nostalgia gene’, clearly a dominant version of it, has become most powerfully active.

Keep your shirt on

My late father in law was enthusiastic about everything new until his very last days. Every day, he scoured the newspapers to discover the latest events happening in Bangalore. If I was visiting the family, I often accompanied him to events that events that caught Daddy’s eye.

For example, I accompanied to the launch of the new Tata Indica car. When we arrived in time for the launch, there was a large crowd waiting for the official launch. When they saw my aged father in law, dressed in a smart suit and wearing a tie, being supported by me and his walking stick, the crowd parted as did the Red Sea when Moses arrived on its shore. We were given the honour of being first to be allowed to sit in the new car model.

On another occasion, Daddy spotted that there was to be a huge shirt sale, at which customers, who brought an old shirt as part exchange, would be able to buy a new one at a substantial discount.

Before we set off, Daddy had to find a shirt that he was willing to part with. This was a lengthy business because he possessed a large collection of shirts, each one of which needed to be examined and considered. This task was difficult because almost all of his shirts were good quality and in good condition.

Eventually, a shirt was selected for sacrifice, and we set off.

There were many people and an enormous number of shirts at the sale. Daddy carefully examined what was on offer and kept selecting shirts and asking my opinion about them, flatteringly but unwisely overestimating my sartorial expertise.

The hours passed and time for eating lunch was approaching rapidly. After giving my opinion about many shirts, all of a lesser quality and beauty to the one he was going to exchange, I told him that the latest one that he was showing me was the one to buy. He bought it and handed his old shirt as part payment.

When we got back home, Daddy showed the family his new shirt. Nobody liked it. They were horrified that I had allowed him to buy such a ghastly shirt. Yet, Daddy loved it. He wore it often. The picture shows him wearing it, sitting with me in 2005 at the Bangalore Club.

Long lasting

A bunch of flowers

Brings endless happiness

And plenty of  good cheer

 

Back in the early 1990s when I was practising as a dentist in Kent and owned a house in Gillingham, my future wife and I visited the local superstore, the Savacentre. Its name has nothing to do with the River Sava that meets the River Danube near Belgrade in Serbia. The shopping mall in Kent is pronounced “saver-centre”.

We wanted to buy some flowers and approached a florist within one of the wide corridors of the mall. He had some blooms of a kind we had never noticed before. We asked him what they were, and his answer sounded like “owlstromeriya”.

We bought a bunch of these attractive flowers and asked him how long we should expect them to survive in a vase. He answered:
“No worries there. They’re good lasters.”

And, he was right.

Alstroemeria, or Lily of the Incas, are native to South America but I guess many of those on sale in the UK are grown elsewhere.

Misinterpretation

 

bright citrus close up color

 

In the 1960s, as a protest against the horrendous apartheid regime in South Africa, shoppers in the UK were asked not to buy produce from South Africa. This is a stry told to me by my late mother, who was born in South Africa but was completely disgusted with the prejudice against ‘black’ and other ‘non-white’ people in the country of her birth.

My mother was in a fruit store in a north London suburb. She saw a fellow customer take some oranges to the sales counter. The customer asked the shop keeper:

“Are these oranges from South Africa?”

“Definitely not, Ma’am.”

“Oh, that’s good. I’ll take them.”

Overhearing this conversation, my mother asked the lady who had just bought the oranges:

“What’s wrong with oranges from South Africa?”

The lady replied:

“You’re not supposed to buy them because they might have been touched by coloured people.”

My mother could not believe what she had heard.

This anecdote just goes to show how a simple message can be totally misinterpreted.

 

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

The dream coat

jacket

About 28 years ago, I was looking for a new winter coat or outdoor jacket. I knew that it had to be warm and have pockets both inside and outside the garment. One Saturday afternoon, I entered a clothing shop on London’s Oxford Street. A well-dressed male shop assistant politely listened to me explaining what I was seeking. He thought for a moment before saying:

“I know exactly what you need, sir”

“What?” I asked.

“What you need is a Dannimac.”

“I see,” I replied, not knowing what he was talking about.

“But, there’s only one problem, sir.”

“Yes. What?” I enquired.

“Well, sir, they don’t make them any more.”

I left the shop amused but without having purchased a coat.

Some months later, I was in New York City, still not having acquired the coat of my dreams. As prices seemed very reasonable in Manhattan, I decided to search for my coat there. I entered a shop that seemed well-stocked but not at the high end of the market, and then explained my requirements. When I mentioned the inside pockets, the chatty salesman interrupted me, saying:

“Inside pockets? Why do you need those? Are you some kind of private detective or maybe you’re a secret agent.”

I was not sure how to answer that, but I went away having bought a superb jacket that fulfilled all of my criteria. That puffy jacket with its inside and outside pockets and brilliant insulation served me well for over 20 years. It showed little sign of wear and tear despite much use. However global warming, and trips to the tropics during winter have rendered it obsolete. I have given it away.

Burger buns in Baldock: two for one

Shop

 

If, say, your dentist were to offer to take out two of your teeth for the price of one, and you  needed to have only one tooth extracted, would you be excited by this special offer? I bet you would not.

Supermarkets are always making offers such as buy one, get one free. Once, we needed four burger buns. We entered a branch of Tesco’s in Baldock (Hertfordshire, UK) and found that burger buns were sold in packets containing twelve buns. Reluctantly, as there were no smaller packs, we took one pack of twelve. As we were heading towards the check-out desks, a lady who worked for Tesco’s chased after us. She was carrying another pack of a dozen burger buns. She said:

You didn’t take these.”

We only want one pack,” I told her.

But you must take a second pack. There’s a special offer. Two for the price of one.”

I told her that we really did not need 24 burger buns; we only wanted four. As it was obvious that she was not going to take ‘no’ for an answer, we took the second pack of buns without any idea of what we were going to do with them. As far as I could see, we had simply helped Tesco empty their shelves of a perishable product, which if not sold would have had to be thrown away.

Another supermarket chain, tries to encourage purchases by offering the customer a free cup of coffee after paying for the goods. And if you have bought enough, a free newspaper is also on offer. These are nice gestures, but do they compensate for the higher than average prices of many of the goods on offer in their stores?

Parking in shopping centres can be costly. Some supermarkets have large car parks associated with them. They are often close to other shopping outlets, and charge a fee for parking. However, car owners who make a purchase in the supermarket are given a voucher that allows them to avoid paying for the parking.

Special offers are, of course, designed to attract sales. And, we as customers are often happy to take advantage of them. However, I still refuse to believe that many would go for a two for one offer on tooth extractions. But … maybe … I could tempt you to accept three extractions for the price of one!

 

A keen salesman

Elephant_240

Many years ago when we vere on holiday in India, we visited a historic Hindu temple complex in the State of Karnataka.

When we left the enclosure containing the amazing temples with thier intricate stone carvings, we were approached by a little boy, who could have been no more than ten years old. He wanted to sell us some quite attractive miniature elephants carved in stone. Out of politeness, rather than curiosity, we asked the price.

“200 rupees,” he said.

We told him that we did not want the carvings.

“100 rupees,” he said, hopefully.

“We don’t want them, thanks,” we said.

“50 rupees?”

“Really, no thanks”

“25 rupees?”

“Really, no”

“10 rupees?”

We tried to make it clear that we did not want the carvings at any price.

“Have them for nothing,” the little boy offered.

We still did not take them. I often wonder what would have happened next, had we accepted his three elephants as a free gift.

NATION OF SHOP KEEPERS

It is popularly believed that Napoleon Bonaparte described the British as a nation of shopkeepers but in reality he might not have said so. More likely, the early economist Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, might have coined this phrase. He wrote: “… the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers…”

Well, Great Britain still contains many shop keepers, but most of them are hopeless. Few shop keepers or their assistants, who are employed to make sales, put much effort into encouraging customers to buy. In general, they are an unhelpful bunch. Often when one asks for something, one is told by a typical British shop keeper: “If we’ve got it, it will be out on the shelves”, and then the customer is left to hunt for it somewhere in the shop.

Occasionally, you can find a helpful salesperson. Once, I was in London’s Oxford Street looking for a winter coat with certain features. I described in detail what I was seeking to a salesman. He replied cheerfully: “I know exactly what you need, Sir. I know just the job. You need a Danimac.” He paused before continuing: ” there’s only one problem: Danimacs are not made anymore.” And, that was it.

Had I been looking for that coat in India, the salesman would not have stopped at that point. Instead, he would have shown me a range of other types of coat in the hope that I might see the benefits of modifying my requirements and buying something else.

Unlike their British counterparts, Indian shop keepers and their sales people take a professional pride in both satisfying the customer and making sales.

Take clothes shopping for example. You enter a shop without much idea which shirt or skirt you want and are bewildered by the variety on display. You will be welcomed by a sales person, who will begin by showing you a garment that may not be to your taste. Then, you will be shown a series of other items. The salesperson will gradually show you merchandise that really appeals to you because he or she has been watching your reactions to what is being shown to you, and from these, your taste in clothes can be accurately ascertained. When you have selected whatever you were looking for as well as much that you never knew you wanted, alterations that might be needed to ensure a good fit will be carried rapidly out at no extra charge.

Some Indian shopkeepers are brilliant salesmen, especially the Kashmiris who run handicraft shops. You might enter one of these shops without any intention of making a purchase, but so expert are the sales people that I doubt that you will leave empty handed!

I could go on and on about the excellence of sales people in India, but I will not. However, before signing off, let me tell you about a simple vegetable seller in Bandra (Maharashtra). Formerly, he used to lay out a cloth blanket by the roadside. At about 1 pm, a truck would stop next to his cloth and various vegetables would be delivered. From day to day, the vendor had no idea which vegetables would arrive, but whatever arrived was, and still is, of a very high quality. His customers, mostly regulars, would turn up and buy what they needed.

After some years, the veg seller acquired a mobile phone. He collected the phone numbers of his customers. Now, every day the veg seller takes pictures of whatever he has received for sale, and then sends the pictures, the prices of his goods, and a description of them, to his customers via WhatsApp. His customers reply with their orders, which they come and collect from him. Thus, from humble beginnings a street vendor has brought his age old business into the 21st century.

Had Napoleon Bonaparte reached India, he would have had good reason to say, as I do, that Indians are truly a nation of first class shopkeepers.