Swimming at the White House

MY PARENTS, ESPECIALLY my mother, were keen that I learned to swim. It took me a long time to learn this activity. For many years, I was taken to various indoor pools to take lessons with a variety of swimming teachers, some professional and others not. One of the latter was a young Asian lady, who gave me a few lessons in the pool at the White House. This was not the famous establishment in Washington DC but a 1930’s apartment block, now a hotel, near Great Portland Street Underground station in London.

The White House, London

The teacher, who had no success with getting me to swim, lived in the White House and was recommended to my parents by another resident, a family friend, whom we knew as ‘Sakki’. Like my parents, Sakki was born in South Africa and my father told me that his family and Sakki’s were either remotely related and/or in business together. Both Sakki and my father were on the academic staff of the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). Sakki was the anthropologist Professor Isaac Schapera (1905-2003). He had become an expert on the anthropology of indigenous people of Botswana and South Africa. Amongst his many published works was “The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa”, published back in 1930.

Apart from providing me with one of my many swimming instructors, Sakki took a great interest in my sister and me. He gifted me several books, amongst which was several books about the adventures of Hergé’s cartoon character Tintin. These were in French and were volumes that were at the time neither available for sale in the UK nor translated into English. When I graduated with my PhD in 1976, he presented me with a two-volume book about magic, myths, and science.

In the very early 1960s, Sakki joined us on a family driving holiday in France in our smallish Fiat 1100. My mother, who had been involved in a serious car accident in the 1930s, had installed seatbelts in our car, a rare thing for the time. Sakki had to travel in the rear seat with my sister and me. Sakki had his own seatbelt (lap design), and my sister and I were strapped together in the other belt, separated from each other by a pillow. It soon became obvious to my parents that Sakki was not enjoying being confined in the rear of the car with two young children. My parents solved the problem by stopping at regular intervals at roadside cafés so that Sakki could enjoy a glass of cognac. This seemed to help him tolerate the journey, about which I remember little else.

During my childhood, Sakki was a regular visitor to our family home. He used to amuse us kids with comical verses, only one of which I can remember. It sounded to my ears something like this: “Olke, bolke, reeby, solte. Olke, bolke, knor.” While writing this piece, I looked for this on the Internet, and now know that what he was telling us was the words of an Afrikaans song that goes:

“Olke bolke Riebeeck stolke, olke bolke knor…”

Well, now, many years since I last saw Sakki, I know that what he was telling us was not his invention, as I had always believed as a youngster.

Sakki underwent surgery on his vocal cords. This affected his speech badly and drove him to avoid socialising in his later years. However, he did visit our home on at least one occasion after his voice had been affected. I was a young teenager then and I can still remember that when he spoke, all that one could hear was a hoarse, rasping, whisper. After conversing with me for a few minutes, he said to me:

“You don’t have to whisper just because I am talking so softly.”

And then he added:

“I have noticed that everyone with whom I talk gradually lowers their voice to a whisper whilst they converse with me. It is strange how the loudness of my voice affects that of people who are talking with me.”

That people unconsciously adjust their voices to match that of their interlocutors made a great impression on my young mind, and I have never forgotten it.

I do not believe that I ever met Sakki again between 1976 and 2003, when he died. By then, the White House had almost completely changed from being an apartment block to becoming a hotel. Sakki lived there until he died and was one of the place’s last full-time residents from the time before it became a hotel with a few flats.

And, just in case you are wondering, I did learn to swim eventually, not at the White House but in the pool of the old YWCA near to Tottenham Court Road station.

Well travelled paints

YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT you might find by chance. While sorting through possessions in our storage unit, or ‘go-down’ as it is called in Indian English, I came across a wooden case. It contains artists’ paint brushes; tubes of oil paint, already used; pencils sharpened with a knife rather than a sharpener; a portable palette stained with usage; a couple of glass bottles; a tin containing Fortis brand thumb tacks (made in the USA); and various other items used for creating oil paintings. One of the pencils is marked “sanguine”. Pencils of this type are like charcoal sticks but a little harder. They can be used to draw lines and are also smudgeable.  On the lid of the box, there is a label issued by the Union Castle shipping line. It informs us that the case was travelling Cabin Class in Cabin number 464 on the Pretoria Castle from Cape Town to South Africa.  The name of its owner is “BS Yamey”.

BS Yamey was my father, an art lover who never ever created an oil painting in the 101 years of his life. The box most likely belonged to my mother, HB Yamey, who was a trained artist, both a painter and later a sculptor. My mother left South Africa in early 1948 and married my father on March the 16th 1948 in London. No doubt, the artists’ case was amongst her belongings being shipped from South Africa to her new home in England.

The Pretoria Castle on which the artistic materials travelled had its maiden voyage, soon after my parents married, in July 1948 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pretoria_Castle_(1947)). Constructed in Belfast, it was probably the only ship ever launched remotely. The wife of General Jan Smuts (1870-1950) launched the ship by sending a radio signal from her home in the Transvaal to the shipyard in Ulster (www.bandcstaffregister.com/page4349.html).

The dating of the launch means that the case travelled to England no earlier than July 1948. It is labelled with my father’s name and a cabin number. I assume that this means that it is likely that he travelled with it. As the ship was renamed in 1966, we can say that the case made the voyage before that year. Now, my parents spent most of 1950 in Montreal, Canada, and then returned to London by 1951. Possibly, my parents returned to South Africa for a visit between their marriage and my birth, but I have no evidence of this.  I was born in 1952, and as far as I can recall from what I have been told, my parents did not return to South Africa until 1955, when I was taken along as well. We travelled by sea, but I have no idea on which vessel we travelled and whether the artist’s case travelled with us. So, because my parents are no longer around to tell me about this case, the date of its journey from the southern to the northern hemisphere must remain a mystery.  

Ideas and appearance

EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000 (except 2020), the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has commissioned a temporary pavilion to be constructed next to it. A website (www.inexhibit.com/case-studies/serpentine-galleries-pavilions-history/) explains:

“The pavilions, which last for three months and should be realized with a limited budget, are located in the heart of the Kensington Gardens and are intended to provide a multi-purpose social space where people gather and interact with contemporary art, music, dance and film events.”

The architects chosen to design these temporary structures have not had any of their buildings erected in London prior to their pavilions. Some of the architects involved over the years included Zaha Hadid, Smiljan Radić, Sou Fujimoto, Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, Frank Gehry, Olafur Eliasson & Kjetil Thorsen, Álvaro Siza, and Eduardo Souto de Moura with Cecil Balmond, and Oscar Niemeyer.

With a very few exceptions, I have liked the pavilions and admired their often visually intriguing, original designs. My favourites were the 2007 pavilion by Olafur Eliasson & Kjetil Thorsen; 2009 by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa; 2013 by Sou Fujimoto; and 2016 by Bjarke Ingels.

This year, the pavilion was designed by an architectural practice, Counterspace, based in Johannesburg (South Africa) and led by Sumayya Vally, who is the youngest architect to have become involved in the Serpentine pavilion project. According to the Serpentine’s website (www.serpentinegalleries.org/whats-on/serpentine-pavilion-2021-designed-by-counterspace/) the 2021 pavilion is:

“… based on past and present places of meeting, organising and belonging across several London neighbourhoods significant to diasporic and cross-cultural communities, including Brixton, Hoxton, Tower Hamlets, Edgware Road, Barking and Dagenham and Peckham, among others. Responding to the historical erasure and scarcity of informal community spaces across the city, the Pavilion references and pays homage to existing and erased places that have held communities over time and continue to do so today.”

Well, maybe this was the designers’ aim, but it does not convey that concept to me. This circular, building coloured black and white, immediately conjured up in my mind images of often disused municipal structures such as bandstands and public conveniences that might have been constructed on provincial British or even South African seafronts in the 1930s to 1950s. It might have been conceived with high-minded ideas in the architects’ heads, but I felt that the structure is lacking in visual interest both in detail and in its entirety. Compared with many of the previous pavilions erected on its site, this is one of the dullest I have seen. It is a shame that the pavilion’s creators did not put more effort into its appearance than into the message(s) it is supposed to convey.   To my taste, it is a disappointment but do not let me put you off: go and see it for yourself.

Come up and see my etchings

THE TOWER OF BABEL greeted anyone who climbed the staircase at my childhood home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Well, actually it was a large engraving of the tower as imagined by Dolf Rieser (1898-1983). Dolf, who was born in King Williams Town in South Africa, was related to my mother’s grandmother Hedwig Ginsberg (née Rieser). My mother and Dolf were cousins. Even though they lived not far from us in north London, I saw little of Dolf and his family until about 1976 when I began studying dentistry. It was then that my uncle Sven, married to my mother’s sister, and his daughter told me that they were about to join the printmaking classes that Dolf held in his studio above his home in Sumatra Road, West Hampstead. As I liked drawing and painting, I signed up as well. The three of us attended the weekly evening classes that Dolf held on Tuesdays. Out of a class of on average six to eight students, three of us and the teacher were all closely related.

At the top of the stairs leading to the studio, there was a small colourful image created by the artist who is now very famous. It was a gift to Dolf given by the artist when both were living in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Dolf, who had studied biology in Switzerland and was awarded a PhD in 1922 (https://dolfrieser.com/), began studying art in Munich in 1923, and then moved to Paris to study print-making in Atelier 17, the studio of the great surrealist painter and etcher Stanley Hayter (1901-1988) and the engraver Jozef Hecht (1891-1951).

In the compulsory half hour tea breaks during the classes, we used to sit with Dolf whilst he regaled us with tales about his life in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s. Every winter, he used to go to Switzerland to ski. He used to enter the railway station carrying his wooden skis, and Parisians would stop him to ask what they were. For, in those days, it might surprise you to learn, the average Frenchman was unfamiliar with skiing. Dolf used to visit the Café Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris, where he would enjoy the company of other artists. He told us that he often saw Pablo Picasso there, sitting at one of the tables. Dolf said that being a junior and relatively unknown artist at the time, he had to sit at a table near to Picasso’s, which was reserved for the ‘upper echelon’ of the artists community in the city. I cannot recall all that he told us, but much of it was both informative and highly entertaining, if not always entirely suitable for polite company. One bit of French that I learned from him during these entertaining intervals in the class was ‘poule de luxe’, which you can look up for yourself.

Dolf’s lofty studio had several large tables where we worked on our copper and zinc plates. At one end of the studio there was a raised platform, a gallery, on which there was a couch or bed.  The tables were surrounded with a great assortment of stuff, both works of art by Dolf and the plethora of materials and equipment need to make prints, not only on paper but also on plastic and silk, techniques he developed. There was a table with large shallow trays containing nitric acid in which plates of zinc prepared for etching were bathed. The acid in the trays was of variable concentration, unknown even to Dolf, who used to periodically chuck in unmeasured dollops of concentrated acid from brown glass Winchester bottles whenever he felt (rather than knowing for sure) it might be necessary. Often, he did not tell us when he was about to strengthen the liquid. This could prove difficult if someone were trying to make small delicate adjustments to his or her zinc plate. Occasionally, one or other of us would shout, dismayed:

“Oh, Dolf, you didn’t say you were adding acid. Now, see: the acid has eaten deeper than I was expecting.”

But the ever-ingenious Dolf usually always had a way of remedying what looked to be disastrous at first sight. Today, I doubt that the studio would have passed health and safety rules. There were no extractor fans above the acid baths to remove the toxic fumes emitted when a plate was in the acid. This did not bother any of us.

One end of the studio near the acid baths was dominated by a large, hand operated printing press. The etched or engraved plate was placed on a soft woollen cloth, after having been inked up. A sheet of damp paper was placed over the plate, and this was covered by another cloth. Then, Dolf or one of us turned the large wheel that drove the plate between a pair of metal rollers that applied high pressure to the dampened paper, driving it into the ink-filled grooves on the etched or hand-engraved plates.  When Dolf turned the large wheel, always moving his body rhythmically, he often used to say in Swiss German:

“Aber die Bewegung is immer die glierchen,” meaning ‘but the movement is always the same’.

This referred to a slightly lewd joke he often told us. It went like this. Two Swiss peasants come to Zurich, where they decided to employ the services of a prostitute for the first time in their lives. To save money, they agreed that only one of them should pay for the experience. When the chosen one had finished with the prostitute, he joined his friend, who asked him how it was. The other fellow replied that it was quite pleasant, adding: “Aber die Bewegung is immer die glierchen.”

Printing was always a messy business. To remove the ink from one’s hands, we used a petroleum-based jelly often used by motor mechanics, which Dolf kept in his studio. Removing the ink from one’s hands was easier than removing the lacquer that was painted on to zinc plates to prevent acid from reaching parts that were not to be etched. To explain, a zinc plate is covered with lacquer, which is then removed with tools of varying sharpness to expose parts of the plates which the artist requires to be etched.  This is of course an oversimplification. Dolf who was very inventive showed us many other techniques for producing etched plates. It is likely that his early training in science helped him to develop interesting new ways in printmaking. Dolf maintained an interest in science, as is exemplified by his book “Art and Science”, published in 1972. Its opening words are:

“Art and science are generally considered totally different disciplines. The aim of this book is to draw attention to some of the qualities they share.”

Dolf was a superb teacher. Although the students in our classes were of mixed ability, he brought out the best in each and every one of us. I found that he was particularly good on critiquing composition. The compositions and ideas embodied in his own creations were mostly superb. He used to look at one’s work, immediately understand what we were trying to achieve, and to nudge us gently and constructively in such a way that we ended up with what we were hoping to produce and express.

Once, he held an exhibition of our, his students’, work in his studio and asked us to invite our friends. At the end of the evening, Dolf had sold several of his own prints, but none of us managed to sell any that we had created. Dolf told us off, saying that none of us had worked hard enough, if at all, on getting our friends to buy our works.

After Dolf’s wife died, he continued the classes, but used to be reluctant to see us leave at the end of the evening. I liked Dolf so much that I was always sad when the classes came to an end. However, after he became a widower, we used to follow the classes by walking with him to a Turkish restaurant nearby in Willesden, where we all enjoyed a late supper with him.

The last time I saw Dolf was when he was lying in a hospital bed near the end of his life. Even in hospital, he was in reasonably high spirits, telling his visitors stories and jokes. His house in Sumatra Road still stands. I do not know whether his wonderful studio is still being used to create works of art, but it is with Dolf and his students that I will remember it.

Finally, having read the above, I hope that you will not get the wrong idea when I invite you to “come up and see my etchings”. Many years ago, a young lady did accept this invitation when I made it; she is now my wife.

A walk in the West End

The largest gallery in the Wallace Collection

BRAVING THE INCLEMENT weather, we walked from Kensington to the Wallace Collection in London’s West End. After walking along the north side of Hyde Park, we crossed Bayswater Road (actually ‘Hyde Park Place’) and walked along the short Albion Street. The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), who was born in India (Calcutta) and the author of “Vanity Fair” lived at number 18. His home was close to the still extant Tyburn Convent (located near the famous spot where criminals were hanged). He wrote of the area where he lived (‘Tyburnia’):

“The elegant, the prosperous, the polite Tyburnia, the most respectable district of the habitable globe.” (www.stjohns-hydepark.com/moreaboutus/2016/4/21/history-of-st-johns)

From Albion Street, we turned right to walk east along Connaught Street, named after George III’s nephew and son-in-law Prince William Frederick, Earl of Connaught (d. 1834), and laid out in the King’s reign (1760-1820). Archery Close leads off the street to a cobbled mews. It is so named because it was next to the former cemetery (now a housing estate called ‘St George’s Fields’) of St George’s Church in Hannover Square, which used to be used as a practice ground for archers. A few yards east of the close, we reach Connaught Square.

The square, whose brick-built elegant terraced houses surround a private garden, began to be developed in 1821. Near to the north east corner of the square, number 14 was home to the Italian ballet dancer Marie Taglioni, Comtesse de Voisins (1804 –1884), who was born the daughter of an Italian choreographer, Filippo Taglioni and his Swedish wife the ballerina Sophie Karsten, in Stockholm. In England, Marie taught social dancing to society ladies and children. The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has also owned a house in this pleasant square.

Number 1 Connaught Street, which is on the corner of Edgware Road is now a branch of the Maroush Lebanese Restaurant chain. It is housed in an attractive building whose facades are topped with balustrades. On a map surveyed in the 1930s, which also shows St Georges Fields still as a disused cemetery, marks this building as a bank (Westminster Bank).  After traversing the busy Edgware Road, formerly the Roman Watling Street, the continuation of Connaught Street becomes Upper Berkeley Street, named after Henry William Berkeley (1709-1761), who was part of the Portman family who developed the area.

Number 33 Upper Berkeley Street has a distinctive neo-Byzantine frontage and looks like the entrance to a religious building. It is an entrance to the West London Synagogue whose main entrance is nearby on Seymour Street. This synagogue was established on its present site in 1870. Its congregation is allied to Reform Judaism. Its architects were Messrs Davis and Emmanuel (https://archiseek.com/2013/the-new-west-london-synagogue/). Rabbis, who have served at this synagogue have included a Holocaust survivor, Hugo Gryn, and Julia Neuburger.

Number 20 Upper Berkely Street was home to the first British woman to qualify as a medical practitioner, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). She lived (and practised briefly) at number 20 from 1860 to 1874. She established her practice around the corner at 69 Seymour Place, which opened as the ‘St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children’. Nearby at number 24 (‘Henry’s Townhouse’), we reach the house where the banker and clergyman, Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850), brother of the novelist Jane Austen, lived between 1800 and 1804 (http://jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number20/caplan.pdf).

After passing Great Cumberland Place and Wallenberg Place (created in the 1780s and badly damaged during WW2), an elegant crescent on the east side of the road, we pass Montagu Street that leads north to Montagu Square where my father’s colleague and co-author, the Hungarian born Peter Bauer (1915-2002), used to live.  Further east, Upper Berkeley reaches the northwest corner of Portman Square.

Opposite this corner is Home House, once the home of the Courtauld Institute (for history of art), now the home of a private club. It was built in 1773-76 for Elizabeth, Countess of Home (c1703-1784), a Jamaican born English slave-owner, and designed mainly by Robert Adam, who also created its beautifully decorated interiors and a fantastic helical staircase. A block of flats called ‘Fifteen’ with art deco front doors is next door to Home House and opposite an entrance to the square’s private gardens. This gate, normally locked, happened to be open. So, we snuck into the garden to take a brief look. As we emerged, and slammed shut the gate, a man emerging from Fifteen, noticed us and told us that it was good that we had closed the gate, because he said:

“It’s good to keep the riff-raff out of our square.”

I replied:

“We are the riff-raff.”

He laughed and we began conversing. He lives in Fifteen, which was built in the 1930s, and told us that its interior is decorated like the original ‘Queen Mary’ liner, in art deco style. He confirmed my memory that the store front that houses Air Algerie  and the National Bank of Kuwait on the east side of the square used to be part of the shop front of the Daniel Neal children’s clothing store, which closed in 1977. My late mother always pointed it out when we drove past it in the 1960s, but I cannot recall ever having entered it.

Continuing east from the square along Fitzhardinge Street, we pass Seymour Mews. A plaque on the corner of these two roads commemorates the site of the birthplace of Captain Thomas Riversdale Cloyes-Fergusson who was awarded a Victoria Cross medal posthumously after dying, aged 21, at the Battle of Paschendaele on the 31st of July 1917 during WW1. His medal is currently on display at Ightham Mote in Kent, the former home of his parents. Incidentally, the well-preserved Tudor Ightham Mote house is a lovely place to visit.

Walking another 200 feet eastwards brings us to our destination Manchester Square. Before describing its main attraction, let us look at number 14, now called ‘Milner House’. This was the home of Alfred Milner (1854-1925), who was an important colonial official in southern Africa. He was Governor of the Cape Colony from 1897 to 1901, a period that included the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. Then, he was successively Administrator of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony (1901-1902), Governor of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony (1902-1905), and then Secretary of State for the Colonies (1919-1921). Milner was in no little way responsible for the outbreak of the conflict between the British and the Boers that began in 1899, one of whose aims was to establish an unbroken British corridor that ran from Cairo to The Cape. Another of its aims was to have the gold mines of the Rand and other parts of the Transvaal under British rule.

One of Milner’s neighbours on the square was Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), who, unlike his neighbour Milner, did much good for mankind. He was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford and educated in Paris, where he also worked. In 1870, when his father died, Richard inherited his collection of European art. Wallace added greatly to the collection, often purchasing fine works of art. During the Siege of Paris (September 1870-January 1871), Wallace, who was living in the city, performed many acts of charity including contributing much money to the needy of Paris and organising two ambulances. In 1872, he paid for the erection of fifty public drinking fountains, which are now known as ‘Wallace Fountains’ and can be found all over Paris. One of these distinctive fountains stands outside the entrance to Hertford House, his London home on Manchester Square where his art collection is now housed in what is called ‘The Wallace Collection’.

From the outside, Hertford House is imposing rather than attractive. It was built between 1776 and 1778 for the 4th Duke of Manchester. In 1797, the 2nd Marquess of Hertford acquired the building and modified it considerably. Richard Wallace and his wife, Julie Amélie Charlotte (daughter of Bernard Castelnau, a French officer), lived there whenever they were in London from 1870 onwards. The Wallace Collection contains over 5500 works of art collected by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Richard Wallace. These include more than 6 paintings by Rembrandt, and others by great names including Vermeer, Bols, Poussin, Frans Hals, Canaletto, Velasquez, Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard, Lawrence, Hobbema, Cuyp, Maes, and many others equally well-known.  Richard’s widow bequeathed it to the nation in 1897.

I first visited the Wallace Collection with my father when I was less than ten years old. I remember being extremely bored by the huge numbers of Paintings on display but fascinated by the large collection of weapons and armour that occupies several rooms. Now, many years later, I am thrilled by the wealth of paintings that can be enjoyed in the beautifully decorated rooms of the house. The splendour of the interior décor of the rooms contrasts greatly with the exterior of the building that gives no hint of the treasures within.  Along with the collection of artworks at Kenwood House in Highgate, the Wallace Collection is one of the finest (formerly) private art collections open to the public in London.

After seeing the collection and having coffee in Hertford House’s vast covered internal courtyard, we retraced our steps by walking back to Kensington. We felt satisfied that we had had a good walk along streets and through parkland after having enjoyed an enriching artistic experience at the Wallace Collection.

Silence in the tree

IT WAS ONLY WHEN I FIRST visited India (in January 1994) that I first saw animals that I had only ever seen in captivity, in zoos. It amazed me that in the heart of a big city such as Bangalore I could see monkeys running wild, cormorants drying their wings in the sun, and large birds of prey (eg kites) swooping high above the ground and occasionally making brief landings to steal food of outdoor tables.

During our honeymoon in South India we spent a night in the Bandipur National Park (in Karnataka close to its border with Tamil Nadu). While we were there, we were shown the fresh footprint of a tiger and saw elephants. The highlight of our visit to the place was taking a ride on the top of a large elephant. As it padded serenely through the jungle, it snacked on the grasses which it plucked from the ground with its trunk. Our guide on the elephant pointed out wild deer (sambar) that seemed unperturbed by our passing. It was a delightful experience. We also saw termite mounds that were almost six feet high. I had never seen such things before, except in photographs.

The elephants we met in Bandipur and have seen in other places in India are not usually ‘wild’ animals. They are usually beasts of burden in the employ of mankind. It was only when we visited South Africa in 2003 that we saw truly wild elephants. We visited the Addo Elephant National Park, which is not far from the city of Port Elizabeth. For the first hour or more, we drove around the park, not seeing any elephants. We saw plenty of other tourists’ vehicles but no pachyderms. At about one o’clock, lunch time, the other visitors’ cars and camper vans disappeared from the roads in the park. We continued driving, somewhat disappointed to have only briefly glimpsed a few elephants sheltering in a clump of trees some distance away from the road.

We were about to give up on the Addo park when we rounded a curve, and found the roadway blocked by several huge elephants with one baby. A couple of adults were gradually demolishing the foliage on a large tree, and the others were standing around motionless. We stopped our car. One of the elephants looked at us, menacingly so it seemed. We stared at the trunked creatures and some of them stared at us. The roads in the park were one way. The elephants showed no sign of moving away. We knew that we should do nothing to antagonise the beasts, especially as they were likely to have been very protective of the baby. We could not drive forward safely. “What to do?”, as people often say in India.  There was only one practical solution. That was to turn the car around and drive along the one-way road in the wrong direction. We did this without problems because there was no other traffic on the road at that time of the day.

Another of my wild animal encounters also occurred in South Africa, at Boulders Beach close to Cape Town. I was surprised to discover that in this part of Africa, admittedly one of its places nearest to Antarctica, there is a large colony of penguins living in the wild. They are so-called African penguins (Spheniscus demersus). They settled on Boulders Beach as recently as 1982. Other colonies of this species can be found on the southern African coast between Namibia and Algoa Bay (near Port Elizabeth). A raised boardwalk has been constructed at Boulders Beach to allow visitors to wander through the penguins’ habitat without coming into contact with them. It was delightful watching the creatures going about their daily life. However, the fish smell they create is very strong.

In early 1995, a few months before our daughter was born, we visited California, driving to San Francisco along the coast from San Diego. It was in the latter that we encountered another marine creature living in the wild. We stopped at an inlet of the sea favoured by wild seals. Many years later, I enjoyed watching wild seals gambolling near to Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall.

Our friends, who live near to San Francisco, took us out to Point Reyes one afternoon. The aim of the excursion was to watch whales. We were not alone at our destination. I looked out at the choppy ocean and saw nothing but the white crests of waves. Meanwhile, around me people were becoming extremely excited as they saw what they believed to be whales. It was a pleasant place to see, but as for spotting whales, I drew a blank.

Returning to Bangalore in India and sightings of wildlife, let me describe what happened one Sunday afternoon in the southern suburb of Koramangala, where my parents-in-law had a second floor (third if you are from the US) flat. The living room had windows that looked out towards a huge old banyan tree. It was a tree that provided endless entertainment for the observer. It was full of chirruping birds, busy squirrels, and often troupes of monkeys. There was never a dull moment in its complex network of leafy branches.

One Sunday afternoon, my in-laws had invited Dr and Mrs Srinivasan to take tea with us. We sat by the window with our chairs arranged in a semicircle so that we could enjoy the lovely view of the tree. The windows were open. After some time, I noticed that there was no sound coming from the birds in the banyan. The squirrels were not scuttling about in the branches. It was unusually and eerily silent. Then, I noticed it. At the base of the tree, there was a cobra, its head posed as it is depicted in Hindu temple sculptures. The presence of this motionless, almost statuesque, reptile had silenced the birds and stilled the squirrels. Dr Srinivasan and I were spellbound. I did not have my camera with me. I did not want to leave the cobra lest it disappeared and, also, realised that the camera I used then would not have captured the reptile adequately. Eventually, after we had finished our tea and snacks, the snake moved on and normal activity resumed in the branches of the banyan. This experience of wildlife was for me more exciting than the elephants, monkeys, kites, and the penguins.

Tragically, the owners of the land (who should best remain unnamed) on which the banyan tree grew, a protected plant, illegally felled the banyan one night to clear the land for a building project. Fortunately, this happened after my father-in-law had passed away because he would have been heartbroken if he had been alive to see it. The view of the banyan tree is what endeared him to the flat that he and my mother-in-law bought to live the closing years of their life.

Returning to London, another big city, it is not difficult to spot wildlife. After dark, foxes are commonly seen even on streets quite near the centre of the city. Our local open space, Kensington Gardens, is well-populated with green parakeets. They are wild but at the same time very tame. They, like the ubiquitous grey squirrels, are happy to feed from the hands of visitors. Although I have yet to see a truly exotic wild creature in London, plenty of marine fowl take advantage of the rich pickings available in the capital. Years ago, my PhD supervisor, a keen naturalist, explained to me that the vegetation growing on the banks of railway lines serve as corridors or extensions of countryside that reach right into the heart of London. It is along these that wildlife makes its way into the centre of the city.

Although I would not usually go out of my way to visit a nature reserve or safari park, I do get a thrill when I spot a creature that I normally associate with zoos in the wild. I will bring this to an end with one more tale from India.

There is a wildlife reserve close to Mysore in the State of Karnataka. We visited this with our then small daughter and three members of the Karnataka State Forestry Police, who were looking after us as guests of the then Commissioner of this police force. Looking after us was clearly more fun for the three officers than their normal routine. When we entered the reserve, they noticed that a boat was just about to set off for a trip around a lake. It was a large rowing boat already crammed full of Indian tourists. All six of us squeezed into the boat and we cast off. There were no life-jackets on board and the boat was so full that its edge was less than an inch above the surface of the lake. Being of a slightly nervous disposition, my heart was in my mouth as the boat swayed port to starboard and vice-versa. Had I been prone to panic attacks, I would have had one when I realised that what I thought were logs floating on the water were, in fact, crocodiles. Luckily, I survived the trip, but still shudder when I think that we were far closer to the crocs than we were to the fearsome cobra.

The antelope and the well

IT WAS HUNGER that drew us to Lighthorne, a tiny rural village just over six miles south-east of the city of Warwick. Our aim was to eat lunch at the highly recommended Antelope Inn before visiting the magnificent Compton Verney House with its gardens that were designed by Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown in the 18th century.

Lighthorne is an attractive village nestling in a steep sided basin. Some newer buildings have been built on the slopes above what was the heart of the old village. The etymology of the village’s name is uncertain. Close to the Fosse way (a road built by the Romans; it linked Exeter with Lincoln in an almost straight line), it was in existence in 1086 when the Domesday Book was compiled. Throughout the centuries, the village has been ‘in the hands’ of various noblemen and religious institutions. Time constraints did not permit us to visit the village’s Church of St Lawrence, whose construction began in the late 14th century, but we hope to see it on a subsequent visit.

The Antelope Inn is housed in a building whose construction began in the early 18th century. The earliest record of the pub’s existence is a document dated 1838. This was signed by the then publican Joseph   Lattimer.  I was curious about the pub’s name because I thought that antelopes were not common in Warwickshire. The friendly staff in the inn suggested that there were two possible explanations for the name. One was that some previous owners of the pub had been a South African couple. Far more likely than this is the fact that the antelope is taken from the badge of the Warwickshire Regiment. A useful website, www.lighthornehistory.org.uk, explains the pub’s sign:

“The Antelope is standing on a strip of six pieces. This is said to be the six feet of turf representing the old name of the 6th Regiment of Foot.”

Always on the lookout for Indian connections, I found the following (www.forces-war-records.co.uk/units/316/royal-warwickshire-regiment):

“The Regiment took part in two campaigns in South Africa known as the Kaffir Wars (7th Kaffir War 1846-47 and 8th Kaffir War 1850-53), protecting Dutch and English settlers from the aggressive native tribes north of Cape Town.  The Regiment also took part in the suppressing the India Rebellion of 1857.”

So, the regiment had taken part in campaigns both in South Africa, where my parents were born, and in India, where my wife was born. Regardless of the activities of the local regiment, we ate an excellent meal at The Antelope Inn.

More recently, in 1972, Ugandan Asians who had fled from Idi Amin’s Uganda were housed temporarily at Gaydon Airfield (now ‘Lighthorne Heath’) that is near Lighthorne (see: http://www.lighthornehistory.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Shorthistory.pdf).  Some of the inhabitants of Lighthorne assisted the distressed Asians during their first couple of months in England.

Almost opposite the inn, there is a well or spring that issues from an elaborate stone structure with a badly weathered coat-of-arms. It is a ‘broadwell’, a word derived from the Old English ‘breac-well’, a well that is supplied with water from a brook (rather than a spring). The well is likely to be as old as the village. However, the stone structure probably dates from 1746, as the Lighthorne history website notes:

“… the quoins and coving, were probably built in 1746, the remainder of the fascia, pool and paving are from the 19th and 20th centuries. The old ironstone escutcheon inserted in the fascia is older and is believed to be the arms of the Pope family, Lords of the Manor in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

There was green mildewed water in the two receptacles of the broadwell. It has been suggested that this well might have been used for washing in the past.

Close to the well, we spotted red grapes ripening on a vine growing on the side of a cottage facing the Antelope. They are located in what must be a fine sun trap. Our Sunday lunch in the inn, one of the best Sunday roast meals that I have eaten for many a year, ended soon before we were due to take up our timed entry at Compton Verney. Next time we visit the latter, spending more time in Lighthorne and The Antelope will be given top priority.

Red rover

MY GRANDMOTHER LIVED a serene life in Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Born in the 1890s, she came with her parents from what is now Lithuania to what was then the Cape Colony. She married my father’s father in Cape Town. She raised four children and also helped her husband run a general store in Tulbagh, a small town, almost a village, near Cape Town. When her husband died young in 1931, she continued running the shop for a few years before marrying a widower who lived Port Elizabeth (‘PE’). Through this  second marriage, she acquired three stepsons and her fifth son. Hers was a tough life to begin with. By the 1960s, when the children had grown up and dispersed, she began living a quieter life in PE.

GRANNY red-rover-ticket john harper

Once every couple of years Granny used to visit her son, my father, and his half-brother in the UK. Although I met her when I was three years old, I only remember her from the time I was about nine. She used to sit in our ‘lounge’ (colonial term for ‘sitting room’) and did little except meet people. Every day in the late afternoon, she enjoyed a glass of whisky before the evening meal. It was in our home that she first ate bacon. My mother, although Jewish, was far from observant and was almost unaware of dietary rules. We ate ham and bacon regularly. She served bacon quite innocently to Granny, who had not encountered it before, enjoyed it, and appeared unperturbed to discover that this delicious food item was derived from pigs.

I was about ten when I suggested to Granny that we went on an outing together. It was an outing quite unlike any granny had ever done before or was ever likely to do again. I suggested that we should buy Red Rover tickets and then set off into the unknown. Few readers will be familiar with Red Rovers. So, I will explain. A Red Rover ticket allowed the holder unlimited travel on London Transport’s red buses for a whole day. In the early 1960s, an adult Red Rover ticket cost six shillings (30 pence) and children paid half of that. To my surprise and joy, my not too sprightly seventy-year-old grandmother agreed to the plan.

We set off from the bus station at Golders Green one morning and travelled to Chingford, which at that time was the terminus of the long 102 bus route. Then, another long bus journey through dreary parts of north-east London ended at Ponders End. By this stage, both Granny and I had enough of being jerked around on double-decker buses, but we had to face a couple more tedious bus journeys in order to get us back to Golders Green. For the rest of her life, Granny would recall this trip and the name ‘Ponders End’. When my father’s half-brother moved to a new house to north-east London, we were both amused because it was not far from Ponders End.

Many decades later, about two years ago, I decided walk south along the River Lee Navigation canal, starting near Waltham Abbey. After walking slowly for almost a couple of hours along the canal, which is flanked by large reservoirs, many electric pylons, and occasional industrial buildings, I reached the lock system at … Ponders End. Although I could not remember what Ponders End was like back in the early 1960s except that it was dismal, I found that although there had been much new construction, it had remained dismal.

I am glad that I got the idea of using a Red Rover out of my system. Until the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic in London, my wife and I loved using London’s superb bus system. Since mid-March, we have not boarded a bus. Now, it is mandatory to wear a face covering on public transport. We see people waiting at bus stops, their noses and mouths covered by everything from a fairly useless single-use paper mask, such as I used when treating dental patients, to colourful home-made fabric coverings. However, things go wrong once these masked passengers enter the bus. We have noticed that many people travelling on buses that pass us have removed their face coverings once they are on board. Also, many bus drivers do not wear them.  So, if you were to gift me a Red Rover, you can be sure that I will not be using it in the foreseeable future.

 

Photo from john-harper.com

A novel idea

BY 2010, I HAD DONE a great deal of research on the backgrounds of both my parents’ families. I had published a few papers in prestigious genealogical journals, such as the former “Stammbaum” published by the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. I felt that it was time to combine the results of my investigations into a great compendium. I started compiling this with a view to publishing it eventually. After writing a couple of chapters, I sent them to a wise friend to get her reactions to what I had done so far. She wrote back that she was impressed by the research I had done but found that the chapters of my great compendium made for dull reading. She suggested that I should abandon the enterprise and instead choose one of my ancestors and write a novel based on what I had discovered about his or her life. I liked the idea.

ALI BLOG

Adam Yamey at the grave of his ancestor Heinrich Bergmann. In Aliwal North, South Africa

I chose Heinrich Bergmann (1831-66), my mother’s grandmother’s cousin. He was the first person to whom I am related to have left Europe for South Africa. He sailed from London to Cape Town in 1849, hoping to meet someone who had migrated from his village in Bavaria to South Africa. That person had left Cape Town by the time Heinrich arrived. He soon became employed by the German Jewish traders, the Mosenthals, and within a year of landing in Africa, he was put in charge of opening and running a branch of the firm in the newly established town of Aliwal North. Within a short time, Heinrich became very wealthy and was regarded by a highly respected banking family in Frankfurt-am-Main as being a suitable bridegroom for their daughter. The happy couple returned to Aliwal North from Germany, after they married. However, Heinrich’s rapid increase in prosperity led to problems that could only be resolved by taking a drastic measure. 

I wrote a novel, “Aliwal”, based on what I knew about Heinrich and the times he lived in. As the cause(s) of his downfall are not clear, I invented a sequence of events to replace the gaps in my knowledge of his short life.  I embarked on my novel-writing not having read a novel for over twenty years. Some people who have read “Aliwal” say that can be seen in my writing and what I produced was more like a narrative than a modern novel. I cannot argue with that. Except for the last few chapters, the denouement, which I invented, what I have written is largely based on historical research. I tried to transport myself back to mid-19th century Germany and South Africa to explore the kind of experiences that my ancestor may have encountered. For example: how did he learn English so quickly? Did he need a passport to travel? How did he find his spouse? What was it like landing in Cape Town in 1849? What was it like travelling through the arid interior of the Cape Colony? How did a young Jewish man interact with the English, the Boers, and the Africans? What was it like doing business in rural communities? I hope that all of these and other matters have been adequately covered in my novel.

When I read through what I wrote 10 years ago, I wondered if it would be worth bringing out a revised edition with a new ending. Let me think about that. Now here is an excerpt from the original version. In it, Heinrich is travelling from Cape Town to Graaff-Reinet in the heart of the Cape Colony soon after landing from London and meeting Mr Caro, with whom he is about to work.

THE EXCERPT FROM “ALIWAL”

They travelled for well over a week, lumbering from one pothole to the next, leaving behind them clouds of dust that hung above the road along which they had come. Heinrich clung onto the bench on which he was perched in order not to be thrown to the ground. This journey was more uncomfortable that any he had made in Europe. He thought that even the worst tracks around Dittenheim were not as bad the one along which they were travelling, and this was the main road to Graaff Reinet! They crossed numerous dried up streams and riverbeds. Most of these were without a bridge. This made the crossings slow and dangerous. The wiry, muscular native helpers sweated profusely as they eased the wagons down one bank of a riverbed, and then steadied them as they were hauled up the other. They had to take care to avoid damaging the wheels and axles of the wagons. Whenever they reached a pool or any other water, Caro ordered the convoy to stop to allow the oxen to rest and drink. Heinrich used these breaks as an opportunity to stretch his legs and give his aching backside a rest.

The days slipped by. They met few other travellers apart from the infrequent wagon trains heading back to the coast, and post carriers who hurried past them on horseback. The few Europeans they encountered were mostly Dutch speakers, eking out a living on their isolated farms. After having drunk coffee with some of these farmers, Heinrich remarked:

“These Afrikaners are friendly, open, and welcoming.”

“Yes, Heinrich, they are, especially to us Jews, because they regard us highly.”

“That makes a change!”

“They welcome us because they read in the Old Testament, whose words they follow closely, that we are God’s ‘Chosen People’, and understand our flight from Egypt.”

“Why?”

“Not so long ago, many of the Dutch fled from the British, whom they regard as oppressors. They piled their possessions in to wagons like ours, and left the Cape, crossing the Orange River – their ‘Red Sea’ – in search of their ‘promised land’. They are trying to live the way they choose, without interference from outsiders. The main thing is, as far as we Jews are concerned, that the Afrikaners respect us as fair and honest people, and like doing business with us.”

“And how do the English regard us?”

Caro did not answer immediately. He looked ahead towards the flat horizon, and then said:

“The English are not easy people. They say one thing, but often mean something else. Mastering their language is one achievement but deciphering what they really mean is quite another. Their attitude towards us is more of tolerance than acceptance. It is odd that the British, who have spread themselves all over the globe, are wary of foreigners and what they consider to be foreign ways. They put up with us Jews because we are useful to them and we don’t make trouble, but they’re not at ease with us.”

He turned away from Heinrich, and, standing precariously on the wagon’s seat that tilted as the vehicle crossed a pothole, ordered the men to stop and set up camp for the night. Then, turning to Heinrich, he said:

“To succeed with the English, we need to try to be, or at least to seem to be, more British than they are. We must emulate their ways when dealing with them, so that they feel that they should treat us as equals rather than ‘inferior foreigners’.”

After the sun had set, Heinrich and Caro sat by the embers of the fire having just eaten tasty steaks from a small hartebeest that Caro had shot earlier that day. They were enjoying a post-prandial brandy when Caro announced:

            “We must do something about your name.”

 “My name, what’s wrong with it?”

 “Even when your accent fades away and your English improves, your name, ‘Heinrich’, will always label you as foreign.”

Heinrich remembered the shipping agent in London: Gladstone, formerly ‘Goldstein’.

Caro plucked a meerschaum pipe from his jacket pocket and lit the tobacco in its ivory bowl carved in the shape of a sheep’s head. His face, barely visible in the dim evening light, brightened for a moment. He sucked on his pipe, and then, after blowing a cloud of smoke towards Heinrich, he coughed, cleared his throat, and said: 

“From now on, you must call yourself ‘Henry’. It is a name which you will share with eight kings of England! Keep ‘Bergmann’, but change the way you pronounce it.”

Heinrich looked puzzled. Caro sucked noisily on his pipe, and then said:

“From now on you are ‘Berg-man’, not ‘Berch mun’ – try to express your name in your mouth, not in your throat!”

Caro looked at Heinrich sternly for a moment, and then asked him his name.

“My name is Henry Berg … mann.”

END OF EXCERPT

ALI cover

In case you feel intrigued and want to read more, my book is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/144618322X/ and also on Kindle.

 

Sun lover

MY MOTHER KEPT A SUN LOUNGER in the garden. It was propped up against a wall of our family home in northwest London. It was made of aluminium tubing and ‘upholstered’ with tautly stretched dark blue canvas. I will tell you why it was there and not in Canada.

Hel

My late mother, Helen (pictured above), was born in South Africa in 1920. Until 1947, I believe that it was quite possible that she might have spent her whole life there.

While living in Cape Town in 1947, she and her sister were invited to a party held by their stepfather’s relatives in the suburb of Parrow. Their hosts, Mr and Mrs Kupfer, had also invited two bachelors, Basil and his brother Ralph, whom they knew from the time when the Kupfers and the two unattached men and their parents lived in the small town of Tulbagh east of Cape Town.

By the end if the evening, Basil and Helen agreed to meet again. Not long after the party, Basil invited Helen to the cinema (bioscope in South African English). They met and talked so much that they never made it to the picture house. Almost immediately after this, they became engaged.

Soon after this, so my mother once told me, Basil informed her that they would not be able to meet again for a few weeks because he was too busy marking university students’ examination scripts. Also, he told her that was about to set sail for England, where he was taking up a teaching post at the London School of Economics (LSE). They agreed that given the imminence of his departure, Helen should follow Basil to London, and they would get married there. Basil departed for London.

Helen, who could not contain her excitement, sailed to Southampton in early 1948. She sat in the boat train to London dismayed by what she saw of England.  It was soon after WW2 had ended. She told me that the sight of rows of small houses all with chimneys emitting filthy smoke and the grey skies made her wonder why she had come to such a dismal place to marry a man she hardly knew. They married in mid-March 1948.

After my parents ‘tied the knot’, Basil chose to leave LSE to take up an academic post at McGill University in Montreal. Helen and Basil ‘upped sticks’ and emigrated to Canada in about 1950. The move was not a great success. The climate in Montreal was harsh. My mother told me that for most of the nine months they remained there, it was bitterly cold. She related that they had a flat that overlooked a cemetery. For a few months, the frozen ground was so hard that graves could not be dug. Coffins had to be stacked up above ground until the ground was soft enough to be dug. Helen bought a fur coat. It was made of soft brown fur that I can still remember. In 1950, stores in Montreal were well heated. Customers left their fur coats near the shops’ entrances whilst they were inside shopping.

It was not only the climate that was difficult in Montreal. My father found the atmosphere in the university was awkward to say the least. There was great antagonism between the francophone and anglophone academics. This created an environment that reminded him of the racially divided one he had happily left behind in his native South Africa.

The adverse conditions in Montreal, both social and meteorological, and the offer of another job at LSE, caused my parents to return to London (UK, not Ontario!). They put down a deposit on a detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a part of London where many other LSE academics lived. These included: Sir Lionel Robbins and Sir Arnold Plant, and later Professors J Durbin, I Lakatos, P Cohen, and J Watkins and many others.

My parents’ bedroom in the Suburb contained some very well-made wardrobes, which they had had made for their flat in Montreal and brought to London. That they had gone to the trouble of having bespoke cupboards built in Montreal suggests that they had planned to stay much longer than a few months in Montreal.

My mother could never get used to how little light there was in England compared to what she had been used to in South Africa. Every interior wall in our house was painted white, to reflect as much of the little daylight that there was. In contravention of the strict conservation area planning rules that were, and still are, in place in the Suburb, she made alterations to some of the south facing windows in our house during the 1960s. The original windows consisted of a latticework of small panes. She replaced these with large single panes, which allowed far more daylight to enter the house. Even though our neighbours were always asked to remove unauthorised modifications to their houses, the frowned-upon modified windows were still in place more than three decades later. Now, finally, I see that they have been restored to their original, officially approved design.

My mother died in 1980. Between her arrival in London and her death, there was less sunshine in the city than there is nowadays. Had she lived longer than her six decades, I believe that she would have approved of the warmer, sunnier climate that London enjoys now.  When she was at home and the sun happened to shine through a gap in the clouds, she would stop whatever she was doing and rush outside into our garden. She would lie on the sun lounger and enjoy feeling the sun’s rays on her face even if only for a few minutes. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, she would leave the lounger and prop it up against the wall of the house ready for the next opportunity to enjoy what she so missed after leaving South Africa. Had my parents remained in Canada, I wonder whether she would have kept a sun lounger at the ready outside her home there. Also, if they had not returned to London, I would have been born a Canadian instead of a ‘Brit’.