An oasis near Oxford street

CLOSE TO SELFRIDGES, there is a less well-known attraction for Londoners and visitors to London. We visited it today, the 7th of October 2021, for the first time since we last went there in March 2017. Back then, I wrote about the place and posted my piece, reproduced below, on a travel website. When we went there today, we found an attractive temporary art installation, “Sonic Bloom” by the artist Yuri Suzuki (born 1980). This colourful and imaginative artwork is supposed to emit sounds, but when we visited it was silent. The café that we saw when we went to the place, Brown Hart Gardens, has been replaced by a new one run by a Sicilian. Far from offering the usual café fare, this decorative, stylish eatery serves pizzas, lasagnes, burratas, caviar, champagne, as well as coffee.

NOW HERE IS WHAT I WROTE BACK IN 2017:

“I have often walked south from Oxford Street along Duke Street, and always noticed the raised pavilion with a dome on the right. It stands in what appears to have once been a square. The dome surmounts four neoclassical porticos each supported by a pair of columns with florid capitals. I have always wondered about it, but until recently did nothing about researching it. It was only lately that I explored it and its companion on Balderton Street, which runs parallel to Duke Street.

We had arrived early in Balderton Street, where we were meeting foreign guests at their hotel, The Beaumont. With time to spare, we took a closer look at these pavilions. Staircases on either side of both pavilions lead from street level to a raised or elevated roof garden, which is about twelve to fifteen feet above street level. There is also a lift. The garden looked recently designed, and at the Balderton Street end there is a modern café that looks like an elegant glass shoe box.

The raised structure with its roof garden, café, and pavilions occupies the centre of a rectangular ‘square’ surrounded by mostly residential blocks on three sides and the aforementioned hotel on its fourth. It occupies the space that would usually contain a garden in London squares.

The garden and the building upon which it stands form the centrepiece of Brown Hart Gardens.

Duke Street, which runs along the eastern edge of Brown Hart Gardens was laid out on the Grosvenor Estate in the early 18th century. It was extensively re-developed in the 1870s. The Duke Street Gardens, as Brown Hart Gardens was originally named, were laid out in in the 1880s. The blocks of flats built around the gardens date from this period.

From “Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings)”, we learn that:

“…plans were in preparation for the complete rebuilding of Duke Street and for the blocks of industrial dwellings that were to be built around Brown Hart Gardens in 1886–8. The new Duke Street appears to have been conceived as a street of shops with somewhat better-class flats over, acting as an intermediate zone between the blocks round Brown Hart Gardens to the west…”

When the gardens and its surrounding buildings were being planned, The Duke of Grosvenor, the landlord of the Grosvenor Estate, wanted (according to the Survey, quoted above):

“… to have a ‘cocoa house’ or coffee tavern and a public garden. The coffee tavern was dropped for want of an applicant, but the I.I.D.C.’s contract included an undertaking to clear a space and provide a communal garden on the site between Brown Street and Hart Street. The duke soon took over the garden scheme except for the surrounding railings, and in 1889 it was constructed to the layout of Joseph Meston …”

The same source adds:

“…The simple garden included a small drinking fountain at the east end, a urinal at the west end and a shelter in the centre; trees were also planted. None of these features was to survive long…”

These features disappeared as did the garden itself. For, in 1902 the street level gardens were cleared away to make way for the construction of the Duke Street Electricity Substation. Partly above ground and partly below, this electrical facility was completed in 1906. It was built for the Westminster Electric Supply Corporation to the designs of C. Stanley Peach (a leading architect of electrical installations), with C. H. Reilly as assistant. The domed pavilions at either end of it were part of the original design. The Survey describes the building well:

“As built, the sub-station rose to a greater height than had been contemplated but retained Peach’s original layout, with a tall ‘kiosk’ or pavilion and steps at either end, a balustrade all round, and Diocletian windows along the sides to light the galleries of the engine rooms, which occupied deep basements.”

The company had managed to persuade the Grosvenor Estate to demolish the gardens because they said that they were being used by disreputable types. Of course, the presence of the new electricity building deprived the residents of the square of their garden. The residents protested. The electricity company laid out a garden on the roof of the substation, using trees planted in tubs. According to the Survey (quoted above):

“…the ‘garden’ is perhaps the only place in London where quarrelling is specifically forbidden by law.”

The garden survived until the early 1980s, when the then lessees of the plot, the London Electricity Board, closed it to the public.

In late 2007, the City of Westminster decided to spend money on improving public spaces. On the 7th of December 2007, its Press Department issued a release that included the following:

“Brown Hart Gardens, which has a closed off elevated 10,000 sq foot stone deck with two listed early 20th century domed features – is one of three schemes set to benefit from a proposed multi-million renewal of the open spaces and streets surrounding three of Grosvenor’s sites across Westminster… The proposals could see Brown Hart Gardens become a distinctive destination, opening up the square for the first time in two decades and possibly adding some much-needed greenery to the area.”

The gardens were re-opened to the public after more than twenty years.

In 2012, the gardens were closed once again, but this time for a short period. They opened again in 2013, having been fully and beautifully refurbished by the Grosvenor Estate.

The restored roof garden contains a café, currently managed by the Benugo chain. This contemporarily designed café is almost entirely surrounded by huge glass windows, making the place feel light and airy. Situated at one end of the Brown Hart Gardens roof garden, this place offers a lovely view of this horticultural oasis. So, finally, the former Duke of Grosvenor’s desire to have a café in his square has been realised.”

SO, THAT is what I wrote in 2017.

As mentioned at the beginning, Brown Hart Gardens has changed a little bit (for the better) since we visited in early 2017. So close to busy, brash Oxford Street, this lovely area provides a peaceful oasis for the weary shopper. It is so near the commercial hubbub yet feels so remote.

Soho and a straight horizon

WALKING ALONG CHARING CROSS ROAD in central London recently, a memory of my childhood sprung into mind. When I was about eight years old, I was told off by my art teacher at school because the horizon on my painting was not straight enough for her. She told me that I should have used a ruler. When I related this incident to my mother, she was quite annoyed because, in her opinion, it did not matter whether a horizon was drawn ruler straight or not. I hoped that she would not complain to the school about her feelings about the ineptitude of the art teacher. I do not recall that she bothered to do so.

My mother was an artist, whose works became increasingly abstract as she grew older. Before WW2, she trained to become a commercial artist at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town (South Africa). Her earliest works, which I have never seen, were hand-painted posters, advertisements for the latest films (movies). In 1948, she followed my father from Cape Town to London, where he had taken up an academic post at the London School of Economics. They married in 1948 and, according to my father, Mom took painting classes with the now famous Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Interestingly, I never heard my mother mentioning these classes.

Stone sculpture by Adam Yamey’s mother

I was born in 1952, and it was around then that my mother began creating sculpture. One of her earliest sculptures was in terracotta and its subject matter was a mother, seated, holding a child, maybe me. During the late 1950s and early part of the 1960s, my mother worked in the sculpture workshops at St Martin’s School of Art, which was then located on Charing Cross Road. The Sculpture Department was then under the directorship of Frank Martin (1914-2004), whom my mother referred to as ‘Mr Martin’ when talking to us at home.  It was there that she worked alongside sculptors, who have since become quite famous. These included Menashe Kadishman (1932-2015), Buky Schwarz (1932-2009), Philip King (1934-2021), and Antony Caro (1924-2013). The latter two helped her learn how to weld and create sculptures in metal, a medium she preferred. It was probably at St Martins that my mother met the sculptor Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who also taught in the Sculpture Department. She and Mom became close friends. ‘Liz Frink’, as she was known in our family, was a regular visitor to our home in northwest London.

My mother used to work at St Martins several days a week. She used to do a lot of the family’s food shopping nearby in Soho’s Old Compton Street. Vegetables were bought from a French greengrocer, and meat from a Belgian butcher called Benoit Bulcke. This butcher, according to Mom, knew how to cut meat correctly, unlike most English butchers. As a young child, I accepted that this was the case if Mom said so. The butcher and the greengrocer no longer exist. However, three other stores she frequented are still in business: The Algerian Coffee Store; Camisa; and Lina Stores. My mother was an early disciple of the cookery writer, Elizabeth David (1913-1922), and her encouragement of the preparation of French and Mediterranean dishes. The proximity of St Martins to Old Compton Street was convenient for my mother, as the shops along it provided many ingredients, which were hard to find elsewhere in London in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Shopping surprise in Suffolk

WE TRAVELLED TO HADLEIGH in Suffolk to see its church, its mediaeval guildhall, and its Deanery Tower. After viewing these buildings on a drizzly afternoon, we walked along the High Street, looking at some of the lovely old buildings along it. Several of them have coloured pargetting (decorative plasterwork).  Then, we spotted MW Partridge &Co on the corner of High Street and George Street. From the outside, there is nothing remarkable about this hardware store.

Stepping inside Partridges is like entering an enormous. well organised Aladdin’s cave. Apart from food and plants, there is almost nothing that cannot be found in the shop. One room leads to another, and then another, and yet another, each filled with everything that you might ever need to maintain your home and garden. Remarkable as this is, what is truly fascinating is that apart from one room built as an annexe in the 20th century, the rest of the shop is supported by old-fashioned timber beams and pillars.

According to the company’s history (www.partridgeshadleigh.co.uk/index.php?main_page=about_us), there has been an ironmongery business on the spot since 1823, if not before. In 1823, the ironmonger and iron founder Thomas Pritty acquired the business from a Charles Pretty (or ‘Pritty’). After passing through a couple of other owners, Maitland Walter Partridge and Daniel Partridge of Kersey bought the concern in 1929. This partnership did not last long, and in 1934 Maitland and his sister Edith registered the name M W Partridge & Co. Partridges have been in business ever since.

Where seven streets meet

SEVEN ROADS MEET at a point in London called Seven Dials. A column with seven sundials attached to it stands in the middle of the circle where they meet. Long ago, on the 5th of October 1694, the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) noted that he went:

“…to see the building beginning near St. Giles’s, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area; said to be built by Mr. Neale, introducer of the late lotteries, in imitation of those at Venice, now set up here, for himself twice, and now one for the State.”

The pillar with sundials facing in seven directions was erected in 1694 by Edward Pierce (1630-1695) and Thomas Neale (1641-1699). Pierce was a sculptor, architect, and stonemason. Neale was a Member of Parliament for 30 years; Master of the Mint; gambler; and entrepreneur. His achievements included:

“…development of Seven Dials, Shadwell (including brewing and Navy victualling), East Smithfield and Tunbridge Wells, to land drainage, steel and papermaking, mining in Maryland and Virginia, raising shipwrecks, to developing a dice to check cheating at gaming. He was also the author of numerous tracts on coinage and fund-raising and was involved in the idea of a National Land Bank, the precursor of the Bank of England. The extent of his interests – as a prominent Hampshire figure, as a member of the Royal Household, as a long-standing MP serving on dozens of Committees and as the promoter of an extraordinary plethora of projects” (www.sevendials.com/history/thomas-neale-1641-1699).

In July 1773, the column bearing the seven dials was removed because it was believed that there was a substantial amount of money hidden beneath it, so wrote Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London (1850). None was found. Another theory suggests that the pillar was removed:

“… to rid the area of the undesirables who congregated around it. The remains of the column were later moved to the garden of the architect James Paine (Junior) at Sayes Court, Addlestone, but not re-erected.” (www.sevendials.com/resources/Seven_Dials_History_of_the_Area_by_Dr_John_Martin_Robinson.pdf)

It was not until 1989 that the demolished column was replaced. It was reconstructed according to Pierce’s original design that is lodged in the British Library. The new column was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on the 29th of June 1989.

The entrepreneur Thomas Neale would have approved of a venture that commenced in his Seven Dials district in 1976. That year, Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998) opened his Whole Food Warehouse in a disused warehouse in Neal’s Yard (formerly ‘Kings Head Court’), named in memory of Thomas Neale. In Saunder’s words:

“I decided to start a wholefood shop which I would like myself – one that was cheap, efficient and would not make customers feel bad because they could not recognise a mung bean. At that time wholefood shops were mostly of the hippy style – folksy looking with open sacks and used paper bags; nice meeting places for the in-groups but hopelessly inefficient, expensive and tending to make ordinary people feel like intruders.” (https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/).

His venture proved successful. Various other businesses including Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, Casanova & daughters, and Wild Food Café, opened nearby. Saunders wrote:

“The Yard has developed into a social scene. Even though the businesses are each independent, everyone who works in them, and many of the regular customers, identify with the place. In fact most of the workers are customers who had asked for a job. My old idea of a village community has manifested in the form of a community of small businesses, each one individual and free to go its own way. It is rather like a family, with me as a father and the businesses as my grown-up children.”

Although we made our last visit to Neal’s Yard in the middle of the covid19 pandemic, when the place was empty and closed, it is safe to say that the Yard continues to be a vibrant ‘social scene’ and its shops are still thriving despite the fact that shops supplying ‘whole foods’ have multiplied considerably since Neal’s Yard was established. Saunders is commemorated in the Yard by a wall mounted plaque.

Apart from selling food and remedies, Neal’s Yard was home to the film studio run by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam between 1976 and 1987. It was here that they edited the Monty Python series of films.

One of the entrances to Neals Yard is an alleyway leading from Monmouth Street (formerly ‘Great St Andrew Street’), one of the seven streets leading to the Seven Dials. The street is home to one of London’s older still existing French restaurants, Mon Plaisir, which is close to Neals Yard and was founded long before Saunders established his venture. The brothers David and Jean Viala started the eatery in the 1940s.

My parents moved from South Africa and settled in London in the late 1940s, by which time Mon Plaisir was serving customers. I do not know when my parents first ate there, but during my childhood I remember it as being one of their favourite places at which to to eat out. Until 1972, when new management took over the restaurant, Mon Plaisir occupied one shopfront. Its characteristic quirky décor rich in everyday French posters and other ephemera remains substantially unchanged since the 1940s. As a child during the 1960s, I was taken there infrequently. I remember liking it. One thing that I recall was that the toilets were approached through a doorway at the end of the restaurant furthest away from the street. An artist’s palette was nailed above the doorway. It bore the words “Le Pipi Room”. On a visit made this century to the enlarged restaurant, I noted that the sign had disappeared. When life returns to ‘normal’ again, another meal at Mon Plaisir is on our ‘to do’ menu.

During my childhood, the Seven Dials did not make any impression on me. I knew about Mon Plaisir, but never ventured south the few yards to the Dials. With the opening of the Donmar Theatre on Earlham Street, another of the roads leading to the Dials, in 1977, which we have visited often, the Seven Dials entered my London radar.

Before ending this somewhat rambling piece, here is a true story about the theatre. Soon after it opened, an American friend, a keen theatregoer who was midway in age between my parents and me, invited me to join her at a performance at the Donmar. It was a play with a Chinese theme. We were seated in the front row, literally on the stage. My friend who had long legs, stretched them out onto the stage and the actors had to take care not to trip over them. Halfway through one of the acts, my friend began fumbling in her large bag and withdrew a thermos flask. She removed the lid, which served as a cup, and gave it to me to hold. Then, she filled the cup with hot soup, which she proceeded to drink whilst the drama unfolded in front of us. I often wonder what the actors, who were so near us, thought when they saw a member of the audience enjoying her picnic in front of them.

The Seven Dials and the streets radiating from the column are full of fascinating buildings, some old and others new and there are plenty of shops to explore apart from those pioneering wholefood shops in Neals Yard. If you can manage to get a ticket to the Donmar, and this is quite hard if you are not on their advance booking scheme, then it is often worth watching a performance there.

Friday the 13th is unlucky for some

MUCH OF MOTCOMB Street in London’s Belgravia is now pedestrianised. It is lined with nineteenth century buildings that house shops and food outlets, mostly aimed at wealthy customers. Here, you can find the shops of Christian Loubertin, Ottolenghi, Nicola Donati, Marie Chantal, Maison Corthay, to mention but a few you might know. It is probably safe to say that this is not much of a street for bargain hunters, but to be fair, it does boast a newsagent and a large branch of the Waitrose supermarket chain.

Motcomb Street first appears on a map in 1830, when it was briefly known as ‘Kinnerton Mews’. By 1854, many of the houses along it became shops and places where cows were kept. A publication (http://www.grosvenorlondon.com/GrosvenorLondon/media/GrosvenorLondon/WALKING-IN-BELGRAVIA.pdf) produced by the Grosvenor Estate details the shops:

“… a cow-keeper, a saddler, two tailors, a plumber, a wheelwright, a grocer and two sellers of asses’ milk (thought to be beneficial to health and used in nearby hospitals).”

The ‘Alfred Tennyson’ pub stands on the corner of Motcomb and Kinnerton Streets. It was formerly known as ‘The Pantechnicon’. The reason for its earlier name becomes obvious if you walk away from it westwards along Motcomb Street. Opposite Waitrose and by far the most imposing building in the street is a neo-classical façade supported by ten sturdy pillars with Doric capitals. As impressive as many of the great neoclassical façades in central London,  such as that of the National Gallery, these pillars support a slab on which the word ‘PANTECHNICON’ is boldly displayed.

The Pantechnicon was built as commercial premises in about 1830-34 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1223569) for the property developer Seth Smith (1791-1860), most probably designed by the architect and civil engineer Joseph Jopling (1788-1867; http://farnham.attfield.de/fam1012.html). The Pantechnicon was enormous. Covering two acres, it stretched backwards (north) from Motcomb street and was surrounded by the backs of many of the houses lining the east side of Lowndes Square and the west side of Kinnerton Street. When it was completed, it was originally:

“… a bazaar, and was established principally for the sale of carriages and household furniture. There was also a ‘wine department’, consisting of a range of dry vaults for the reception and display of wines; and the bazaar contained likewise a ‘toy department.’” (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp1-14).

By 1850, when Peter Cunningham published his “Handbook of London”, things had changed. It had become a repository, where you:

“… may send the whole contents of an extensive house – furniture, wine, pictures, even jewellery; and the utmost care will be taken of them, at a comparatively reasonable charge …”

Cunningham lists these charges in detail and later added reassuringly:

“The building is well ventilated, and considered fireproof; but the risk (if any) of accidents by fire, civil commotion, or otherwise, will attach to the owners of the property sent to the Pantechnicon to be warehoused.”

Incidentally, the owners of the Pantechnicon designed a new form of removal van. Its innovation was a movable rear ramp that aided the loading of heavy or bulky objects. Originally, horse-drawn, these became known as ‘Pantechnicons’, a word often applied to motorised removal trucks in use today. And just in case you are wondering, the word ‘pantechnicon’ is derived from two Greek words, ‘pan’ and ‘techne’, meaning ‘all arts’, and was coined to describe wide range of goods that were available to buy in the bazaar in Motcomb Street.

Disaster struck on Friday, the 13th of February 1874 at about 4 pm. The fireproof Pantechnicon burst into flames. By 7 pm, the roof had collapsed. Karen Odden, who has written an interesting article about this conflagration (https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2020/01/the-pantechnicon-fire-of-1874.html), noted:

“ …the event was perhaps the single largest episode of destruction of art and furnishings in the Victorian era … It is difficult to assess the value of the objects lost. Because people had such faith in the Pantechnicon, they under-insured their valuables—or found ways to avoid insuring them altogether. For example, one family hid their jewels in their furniture. The cost of insuring a headboard was significantly less than insuring jewels—but jewels hidden inside were (ostensibly) safe all the same. (Tricky!) However, it is known for certain that the fire destroyed the MP Sir Richard Wallace’s painting collection, worth £150,000; and the MP Sir Seymour Fitzgerald’s art collection, worth £200,000, which included many portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds and paintings by other masters including J.M.W. Turner. Contemporary accounts estimated the total value upon the destroyed items at £2,000,000 (approximately £220,000,000 or $280,000,000 today).”

Luckily for us, many of Wallace’s works were not involved in the fire as can be seen by visiting the Wallace Collection in his former home in Manchester Square.

Today, only the façade of the Pantechnicon remains standing. Located opposite a modern ‘bazaar’, Waitrose, it conceals a lovely public space behind it, which contains benches and a few artworks, and is lined by Halkins Arcade. A modern building attached to the old façade houses restaurants, bars and other businesses, some of which can be entered from the Arcade.

It worth making a visit to Motcomb Street not only to see the impressive remnant of the Pantechnicon but also because the short pedestrian-friendly street has become a particularly pleasant place to linger.

A great discovery

I ENJOY ENTERING CHARITY SHOPS (shops selling used goods to raise money for good causes) to browse the books they have on sale. Even if I do not find anything of interest or buy anything, I find these visits both satisfying and therapeutic. Yesterday, to satisfy my craving for the browsing experience, I stepped into a local charity shop which I have entered many times before,  often with only a day or two’s interval between visits: usually finding that the stock of books has barely changed, and not expecting to find anything worth purchasing. This time, my gaze fell on a large old book on a shelf. What caught my eye was the title on its wide spine: “Gazetteer of India”. Because I have a great interest in India, I always look at books about the country and this was no exception.

The book has 1015 pages of text printed in a tiny font. Eagerly, I looked for its date of publication and to my great delight I discovered that it was published in 1857. For those who are not familiar with it, this is the year when the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’, or, as it is known nowadays, the ‘First War of Independence’, began on the 10th of May. The book’s full title “A Gazetteer of the Territories Under the Government of the East-India Company and of the Native States on the Continent of India” was soon to become out of date because following the ending of the ‘Mutiny’ in 1858, the British Government took over the ruling of India from the East India Company.

The book by Edward Thornton (Esq.) was published in response to the desire of the General Courts of the East-India Company to have  “… an authentic Gazetteer of India [that] should be offered to the British public in a cheap and convenient form…”. Thornton had already published a four volume “Gazetteer of India” in 1854. The book I found yesterday contains much of the information that was published in the multi-volume edition. The book that I purchased is an original edition, which is rarely offered for sale in the second-hand book market. A facsimile edition was published by the British Library in the 21st century. Fortunately for me, whoever had priced my copy had no idea of its true worth, which is unusual because often those who run charity shops often check the market prices of old books.

Edward Thornton (1799-1875), the author of the gazetteers is, apparently, often confused with the better-known Edward Parry Thornton (1811-1893), who was an administrator in India where he lived on and off between 1830 and 1862. ‘Our’ Edward of the gazetteers worked at East India House (which stood in London where today the towering Lloyds building now stands) between 1814 and 1857, where he was head of its Maritime Department from 1847. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes this information about him:

“Among his publications were gazetteers of the territories held by the East India Company and the ‘countries adjacent to India on the North-West’, and a six-volume History of the British Empire in India (1841–5). He was also responsible for entries in the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on Indian subjects, which have also been attributed to Edward Parry Thornton. This Edward Thornton died at 1 Montpelier Street, Brighton, on 24 December 1875.”

You can rest assured that I will not be reading all 1015 pages of my new ‘treasure’, but I will enjoy dipping into it to read about places I have visited or hope to visit in the future. One of the first places I looked up was Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu, which we visited in February 2020. Formerly, it had been a Danish colony in India. Thornton wrote:

“ … The settlement of Tranquebar was ceded to the British government in 1845 by the King of Denmark, for a pecuniary consideration … the superiority of the British over Danish administration is attested by the growing prosperity of the district, and the large increase in the amount of the government revenue…”

This “government revenue” did not benefit the British in general but rather the coffers of the East India Company.

Of Bangalore, which I have visited more than 50 times in the last 26 years, Thornton wrote a whole page that includes the following:

“… The town is tolerably well built, has a good bazaar, and is inclosed [sic] by a wall, a ditch, and a broad fence of thorns and bamboos…”

Thanks to my friend, an excellent guide to Bangalore, Mansoor Ali, I knew of the existence of the fence (hedge) of vegetation mentioned in the quote but did not realise it was still in existence as late as 1854/7. This hedge is marked on some maps of Bangalore created during the 19th century. According to a map dated 1800, the circular hedge surrounding Bangalore ran through present day Yeshvantpur in the north. Kengery in the west, and almost at Madiwala in the south east. I have no idea when the hedge disappeared, but it was clearly after the time when Thornton knew of its existence. I look forward to much more delving in my latest literary acquisition.

Finally, my copy of Thornton’s book has an ex-libris sticker that bears a coat-of-arms and the name ‘John Harrison’. Harrison is a common family surname. A quick look at Harrison coats-of-arms displayed on Google reveals that the crest in my book is similar but not identical to that of the “Yorkshire Arms” of the ‘James River Harrisons’, which originated in the north of England. They settled on the James River in Virginia in the 1630s. If my book was once owned by a member of that family, I wonder how it ended up on a shelf in a charity shop in West London.

Start right

MY MOTHER WAS ALWAYS CONCERNED that my sister and I had good shoes when we were children. We used to go to a shoe shop in the Market Place, which is in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived. It was a store that sold the Start-Rite brand of footwear. What none of us knew in those far-off days was that the company was established in 1792 by James Smith in Norwich. His grandson, James Southall, gave the firm its name.

START RITE

Start-Rite shoes had a good reputation for making sure that shoes it sold fitted the wearers well. I remember having my feet measured both for length and width. The shoes were available in several different widths for each length.  For example, a size four shoe could be obtained in any of five widths, ranging from ‘a’ to e’. Thus, the shop assistant could ‘fine tune’ selecting the correct size shoe to fit a child’s feet. Also, the shoes were durable.

The shop in the Market Place had a machine that I was always dying to try. It was a tall box with two holes at its base and a viewing window at its top. The idea was that a child put on a pair of shoes, and then inserted his or her feet into the two holes. The shop assistant would then push a switch and look into the observation windoe at the top of the box. The machine produced x-rays which passed through the child’s shod feet and onto a fluorescing screen. By observing the image created by the radiation, the assistant could assess how well the shoes fitted. ‘Quel horreur’, you might be thinking if your mind operates in French.

Well, that is what my mother thought. Although not a scientist and having had little education in science, my mother knew very well that radiation was dangerous. After all, she knew all about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What she might not have known is that the bone marrow cells in children’s skeletons are very sensitive to ionising radiation but being a cautious caring mother, she took no chances. Therefore, I was never able to see the bones of my feet in the device in that or any other shoe shop.

I outgrew Start-Rite shoes long ago. The shoe shop in the Market Place no longer exists, nor are those foot x-ray machines still in use. However, one thing endures. That is my memory of posters advertising Start-Rite shoes, which were pasted on the walls and hoardings of London’s Underground stations. They showed a couple of small children with arms interlinked walking towards infinity along a straight road bordered by fences and rows of trees. I still think that this is one of the most depressing adverts I have ever seen. The captions on the poster are “Children’s shoes have far to go” and “Start-Rite and they’ll walk happily ever after.”

I started ‘rite’ and since then, I  have been walking happily ever after, but cannot erase the depressing image on the poster from my mind.

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.