A suitcase of memories

Memories of childhood. Here is the introduction to a travel book, “CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME”, which I published several years ago:

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The attic of my parents’ house in north London contained a number of old Revelation suitcases. These were plastered with ageing colourful paper stickers bearing the names of shipping lines and also of places such as: Cape Town, Southampton, Harwich, New York, Montreal, and Rotterdam. Had they been animate and able to speak, what tales they would have been able to tell!

If, as a child, I had become a suitcase, I too would have been covered with an exotic assortment of stickers including some of those mentioned above. But, I did not become a piece of baggage, and the stickers that I carry are not made of paper. Instead, they are memories stuck in various compartments of my brain. Unlike the inanimate objects in the attic in the eaves of our house, I am able to speak: to divulge my impressions of the places that I visited in my childhood; to describe the remarkable people I met in those places; and to reveal the unusual experiences that resulted from travelling with my learned father and my talented mother.

This book contains my memories of the holidays and trips that I took with my parents, mostly during the first eighteen years of my life. They are worth relating because they differed markedly from the kinds of holidays that most people took during the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than exposing their children to the sun on the beach, my parents preferred to expose my sister and me to cultural experiences that, they hoped, would benefit us in the future. This was due to my father’s great interest in the history of art, which resulted from my mother being an artist. Whereas now I appreciate what they did for me then, I did not always do so at the time.

Please join me now as I examine the stickers in my memory – the souvenirs of many years gone past. Let them reveal to you how interesting school holidays can be even if they only include the rarest of glimpses of the sea and an almost total absence of ‘child-friendly’ activities.

These memories of my childhood travels are illustrated with photographs, all of which were taken by me or with one of my own cameras unless otherwise stated. I was given my first simple camera when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It was not given to me by my parents, who never took photographs, but by my uncle Sven who was a keen photographer. His grandfather had been a pioneer of professional photography, as I will describe below. I will begin my narrative by choosing a label that could have been pasted on to my suitcase of reminiscences during the late 1950s or any time in the 1960s. It bears the name “Soho”. I have chosen it amongst all of the others because it provides a good introduction to my mother, who affected so much of what we did as a family and what will be related in this book.

 

CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME

(ISBN: 9781291845051)

is available at:

Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com , and on Kindle

Shish kebab and sausages

Not long ago, I wrote about Warren Street, which played a significant role during part of my life. Now, let’s move a little further south to a street, which is overshadowed by the Post Office Tower and contains many memories for me.

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London’s Charlotte Street runs between Rathbone Place in the south and Maple Street in the north. It is just over half a kilometre in length. Laid out in 1763, it was named after Queen Charlotte, who married King George III. I began to get to know the street just under 200 years later.

My earliest recollections of Charlotte Street were regular visits in the early 1960s to the Hellenic Stores on the west side of the street south of Goodge Street. My mother bought olives and other Mediterranean products at this store and another Greek shop in nearby Goodge Street. The latter was smaller than the Hellenic Stores, and a little less honest. When something needed weighing in the Goodge Street shop, the shopkeeper would throw it on the scales. The weighing machine’s needle would flash across the dial, and before one had time to think, a price was given. Neither of these purveyors of Greek produce exist anymore.

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Site of Schmidt’s, now rebuilt

During the twelve years (1970-82) that I studied at University College London (‘UCL’), I used to visit Charlotte Street often. As a student, I was always keen to find somewhere to eat cheaply. Schmidt’s on Charlotte Street was one such place. This was a German restaurant. Its dining area was on the first floor. Most of the waiters were pasty-faced gentlemen, who added to the gloomy atmosphere of the place. The ground floor served as a delicatessen. It contained a counter where boiled Frankfurter sausages were served with mustard and slices of delicious greyish German bread. They were very cheap and extremely delicious.  A female cashier sat in a booth in the middle of the room. Whenever I saw her, she had a blackish facial hair where men grow moustaches. My father, who was in London during the 2nd World War, told me that during the conflict, the owners of Schmidt’s posted labels on their windows, which read: We are British, NOT German.”

There have always been plenty of eateries on Charlotte Street. L’Etoile, which I never entered because it was beyond my budget, was a long-established restaurant on Charlotte Street. It had a Parisian look about it, but like Schmidt’s, it has disappeared. Near to the posh L’Etoile, there was a Greek ‘taverna’ called Anemos. I never visited it, but plenty of my fellow students did. One did not visit Anemos for its food, but for its riotous atmosphere, which included music, dancing and the trational Greek practice of plate breaking. Venus was another Greek place that has long since disappeared. I was taken there several times by an uncle, who worked nearby and regarded it as his favourite Greek restaurant.

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Just north of Goodge Street, there is another long-standing, and still existing, restaurant. This is the Pescatori, an Italian place specialising in fish dishes. It was one of my parents’ favourite restaurants in London. Back in the 1960s, there used to be a life-size boat suspended from the ceilings above the tables. I believe that my father was being serious when he said that he preferred not to sit beneath the boat, in case it fell.

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There was another fish restaurant in Tottenham Street that leads east of Charlotte Street. Pescatori was at the high end of the scale of elegance, and Gigs was at the lower end. Gigs was very popular with students from UCL and workers in the neighbourhood. It was divided into two sections: take-away and sit-down. At lunchtimes, there was always a long queue at the take-away counter. Two gentlemen, oozing with sweat, took the orders for fish and chips and also for the delicious lamb shish kebabs they prepared while you waited. In between taking the cash and wrapping the fish and chips, they threaded lumps of lamb onto skewers, and grilled them. The kebabs were served with salad in a warm pita bread. As the saying goes, they were ‘to die for’. Despite the rather haphazard-looking hygiene, I know no one, who died from these mouth-watering bundles of meat and salad.

Gigs closed many years ago. Then a few years ago, the premises were modernised, and Gigs was brought back to life by some relatives of the original owners. What used to be the take-away section is now an attractive restaurant, and what used to be the sit-down area is now the take-away area. The updated Gigs is both hygienic in appearance and looks as if it is designed to attract a more sophisticated clientele than its ancestor.

My father was a professor at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’) for most of his working life. The LSE has a hall of residence for students, Carr-Saunders Hall, a non-descript 1960s building on Charlotte Street. When it opened in 1964, my father’s colleague Kurt Klappholz was its first warden. Kurt, whom I knew well as a family friend, was a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor. Later, another of my father’s colleagues was a warden there many years ago. Once, he invited me to his flat. This academic possessed the most wonderful sounding HiFi equipment that I had ever heard. The warden, who owned it, was rather over-built. He told me that he preferred listening to music sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of his HiFi, than trying to squeeze into uncomfortably narrow chairs in concert halls.

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The building that used to house Cottrells

When I became a dental student, I became aware of Cottrells in Charlotte Street. This was near the Rathbone Place end of the street. It was the showroom for a major supplier of dental equipment. Housed in an elegant Victorian building, which still exists (it now contains a restaurant), the firm supplied everything from dental examination mirrors to entire dental operating units (chair plus attachments fordrills etc.) The technician responsible for teaching me how to cast gold crowns (caps) told me to visit Cottrells, not to look at the equipment, but, instead, the pictures hanging on the walls of the showroom. The walls were hung with a large collection of paintings by William Russell Flint (1880-1969). He specialised in depicting women.  Well-painted, and quite artistic, the paintings on the walls of the dental showroom and of its main staircase fell very definitely into the category of extremely light porn.

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One of the longer established shops in Rathbone Place: Mairants

Rathbone Place, a short street which connects the southern end of Charlotte Street contained a large postal sorting office. Quite late on in life, one of my uncles, a bachelor now sadly no longer living, got a job there as a postman. He often used to tell me about his experiences as a medical orderly in the South African Army in the North African desert during the 2nd World War. He spoke of them fondly, regarding the great camaraderie he experienced amongst his fellow serving men. I often felt that this was one the more enjoyable times in his long and varied life. When he joined the postal team at Rathbone Place in his fifties, he spoke of this in the same appreciative terms. He liked being part of a working team. Now, not only has my uncle gone, but also the sorting office no longer exists.

Charlotte street and its surroundings lie in the shadow of the Post Office Tower, which was ready for use in 1964. Until 1980, it was the tallest building in London. When it opened it had a revolving restaurant high above the ground. I never ate there, but did manage to visit the viewing platform just beneath it. When I looked up from this platform, I could watch the concrete base of the restaurant rotating slowly. A terrorist attack in 1971 put an end to the public being allowed to visit the viewing platform or any other part of the tower.

I still wander along Charlotte Street occasionally. Although it is still extremely vibrant, it evokes many memories of times long past.

Olives growing near Portobello Road

Florence (Italy) 1960s and London 2018

 

In the 1960s, my parents, both art-lovers, used to take my sister and me on annual trips to Florence in Italy.

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Olives growing near Portobello Rd, Sept 2018

Seeing some olives growing near Portobello Road in London reminded me of these trips. Here is what I wrote in my book, “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me”, which is about travels I made during my childhood:

The Oltrarno is the part of Florence on the left bank of the River Arno. It contains major sights such as the Pitti Palace, the Boboli Gardens, the Piazzale Michelangelo, the Belvedere Fortress, and the churches of S Spirito and S Maria degli Carmine. Almost every afternoon included a visit to the Oltrarno. This was made for sartorial rather than cultural reasons. My mother’s dress maker, whose name I can no longer recall, had a small shop near to S Spirito. Maybe, there is a Freudian reason for my amnesia; the visits to his shop filled me with dread. My mother had dresses made in Florence. As I have already hinted, she was a stickler for perfection. The long-suffering dress-maker in the Oltrarno must have valued her custom to have been able to put up with the unending visits we made in order to allow my mother to try the latest version of the garments that he was preparing for her. My father and us two children had to sit in the small narrow shop looking at tatty, well-thumbed magazines full of pictures of dresses whilst my mother and the tailor spent much of the afternoon dealing with the latest stage in the fabrication of her dresses. Our visits to this shop were often prefaced with my mother saying that of course we did need not wait for her there, but we knew better. Our absence would not have been well-regarded.

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Adam Yamey at San Miniato, Florence, in the early 1960s

Florence was, and still is, famous for its leather work. My mother was particularly keen on one aspect of this craft: footwear. She liked good shoes, but many of them did not fit her wide feet. So, we tramped around Florence, entering many of its shoe shops and waiting patiently (or impatiently in my case) for her to try on numerous pairs of shoes. Almost all of them were unsuitable for her to wear. One shop whose name still fills me with some dread was that of Salvatore Ferragamo on the Via Tornabuoni. The fact that I remember this high-class shoe store is a testimony to the amount of time that we spent there. As was usual, if any of us showed any signs of impatience, she would tell us that we need not wait for her, but we knew that this was not what she really felt …

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San Miniato, Florence. Pic by Adam Yamey in early 1960s

… Florence was not, as you may be beginning to imagine, one long round of paintings, sculptures, shoes, dresses, and brassieres. Many afternoons ended with a trip up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. This panoramic platform or terrace, which is really more of a large open space with one side overlooking the hills sloping down to the River Arno, provides a magnificent view of the city. It is a readymade vantage point for postcard makers and other photographers. A little behind the Piazzale a series of staircases flanked by pine trees leads up to a church with a wonderful black and white marble façade. This is S Miniato al Monte and was our main destination when going up into the hills. This peaceful sanctuary high above the bustling city is undoubtedly a great example of unadulterated 13th century Romanesque architecture.

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Cemetery of San Miniato, Florence. Pic by Adam Yamey in early 1960s

After admiring this church, we did not return to the city centre by bus, which is how we arrived. Instead, we walked. We used to descend from the raised terrace in front of S Miniato al Monte and start walking away from the Arno along the level Viale Galileo, which follows a gently sinuous contour along the left side of the river valley. After almost a mile, we would then turn right onto the narrower Via S Leonardo. This road descends gradually, passing the walled gardens of well-separated villas. The branches of olive trees in these gardens overhung the road.

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Olives growing near Portobello Rd, Sept 2018

Every year, my mother used to break off a small twig bearing greyish green olive leaves and several, usually unripe, olives. She would take it back to London to remind herself of the great pleasure that she derived from being in Florence.”

I remember finding a sprig of desiccated young olives and dried leaves amongst her possessions long after her early death in 1980.

 

Adam Yamey’s book “CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVES TO ME” is a collection of tales of journeys made during the author’s childhood.

In paperback, click: HERE, please

For Kindle version, click: HERE, please