Eyes facing the ocean from Madeira

STARING OUT TO sea at Calheta on the Portuguese island of Madeira is a bronze bust of a man wearing 18th century clothing and a bow tie. The sculpture depicts Sebastián Francisco de Miranda y Rodríguez de Espinoza (1750-1816). Born in Caracas in what is now Venezuela, Miranda became a military leader and a revolutionary fighting for his country’s liberation from Spanish rule. Regarded by many as the forerunner of Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the great liberator of several Spanish South American colonies and born in Caracas, Miranda ended his life in a Spanish prison in Cadiz.

The plaque below the bust in Calheta records (translated from the Portuguese on a website: https://statues.vanderkrogt.net/object.php?record=ptma108):

“The Sons of the municipality of Calheta in the lands of Venezuela at the bicentenary of the Independence in honour of its precursor ‘Generalisimo, Sebastian Francisco de Miranda’ ‘The most universal Venezuelan’”

I interpret this as meaning that the bust was erected by descendants of people from Calheta, who had emigrated to Venezuela.

The bust was created by the Venezuelan sculptor Julio César Briceño Andrade, who was born in Caracas in 1950. It was unveiled in Calheta by Lucas Rincón Romero, the Venezuelan Ambassador to Portugal, on the 5th  July 2011.

Miranda was the son of a man, who had migrated to Venezuela from the Spanish Canary Islands. His mother was born in Venezuela. Although, he crossed the Atlantic several times, I do not know whether Miranda ever set foot on the island of Madeira.

Like those from Calheta, who migrated to Venezuela, many others have migrated from Madeira to various parts of the world over the years. I have been told that many of the Portuguese speakers in South Africa had their roots in Madeira. Having seen the bust in Calheta, clearly Venezuela was another destination.

Now, with difficulties that Venezuela has been facing, some its citizens with Madeiran heritage are returning to the island as can be seen in an article published on-line (www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/madeira-an-island-of-refuge-for-venezuelans-of-portuguese-origin/):

“No one knows the exact figure but the authorities in Madeira consider that about 6,000 Venezuelans of Portuguese descent have taken refuge on their island, where they found themselves in an extremely precarious situation. “They arrive with nothing, many are sick, these are people lacking a great deal,” said the President of the Portuguese archipelago, Miguel Albuquerque. These people are second or third generation Portuguese, descendants of those who left Madeira decades ago in search of a better life in Venezuela. They are now making the opposite journey.”

Reading this made me think about South Africa, to which many Europeans, including my parents’ families, travelled in search of a better life. After the ending of apartheid, many of their descendants have left the country because they had become concerned about their futures in a land where Europeans no longer hold the upper hand.

Diverting water in Madeira

A damming plate hanging on a wall beside a stream in Funchal

WHEN WE WERE IN the Western Cape of South Africa,  I  noticed streams running alongside roads in rural farming areas. Occasional small channels led off from them and into the fields of farms. At each junction of the main stream and a side channel, there were small plates that could be used  to temporarily dam the main stream to divert water into the channel leading to the fields.  

We are staying in Funchal, Madeira. Our guesthouse is high above the city centre and the seafront on a road that leads down an extremely steep hill.  On one side of the road there is a fast flowing stream. Every now and then, there are metal plates that can be inserted into slots on both sides of this stream to divert water into the property beside the water. This is just like what I saw in rural South Africa. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the similarity of the damming system, but I cannot recall having noticed it anywhere else I have visited.

Crossing the Equator in a Roman toga

MY PARENTS WERE born in South Africa. They settled in England in about 1947/48. In 1955, when I was three years old, my parents took me on a visit to their native land, possibly to show me off to relatives who lived there.

We travelled to Cape Town by sea. I remember nothing of the voyage, which must have taken about two weeks. Recently, I came across a photograph, which had remained in storage for several decades in my late father’s garage. The picture shows a little boy in a white outfit resembling a Roman toga. He is standing between two children dressed up to resemble, if your imagination is good enough, Belisha beacons such as are found at pedestrian crossings of the zebra variety.

The photograph reminded me of what my mother had told me many years ago. During our voyage to South Africa, we crossed the Equator. My mother told me that to celebrate this event, there was a fancy-dress party for the children on-board. My mother, unlike some of the other parents, had not been aware that this was going to take place. So, she had not packed a costume for me to wear. Ever resourceful and extremely creative (she was a painter and sculptor), Mom used one of the sheets from a bed in our cabin to wrap me up as if I was wearing a toga. Looking at the photograph, it appears that also she fashioned a pair of what look like Roman sandals, using some string. Thus, during my first crossing of the Equator, I was attired in a Roman toga.

Looking at this image, which includes a rug designed to look like a pedestrian crossing, made me think. There I was standing halfway across a zebra crossing whilst our liner crossed from one side of the Equator to the other.

Mahatma Gandhi in Hampstead

WHEN I USED TO visit Hampstead with my parents in the early 1960s, we always walked past a place that intrigued me when I was a youngster. It was the still standing Hampstead Quaker Meeting House, which has a lovely front garden. The latter is overlooked by its neighbour, the late 18th centuryMansfield Cottage, which in the 1960s housed a tearoom or restaurant. The Meeting House with art nouveau (Arts and Crafts) features was built in about 1907 to the designs of Fred Rowntree (1860-1927). According to James D Hunt in his detailed book “Gandhi in London”, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), the future Mahatma, spoke in this meeting house on the 13th of October 1909:

“… perhaps travelling there by the recently opened underground line … The Society of Friends (Quakers) were not at this time much interested in Indian affairs … The 1909 meeting was sponsored by the Hampstead Peace and Arbitration Society”

The speech, as recorded by Robert Payne in his “The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi”, was entitled “East and West” and outlined the evils of the British occupation of India and the sufferings of Indians in South Africa. I knew nothing of this or about the house when we used to stroll down Heath Street.

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.