The watch repairer of West Hampstead and Auroville in India

TODAY, I WAS WALKING ALONG Mill Lane in West Hampstead when I spotted a plaque almost hidden in a doorway. It commemorated a craftsman who used to work in the building. I wondered why anyone had bothered to put up a notice to remember him.

Mill Lane connects West End Green (in West Hampstead) with Shoot Up Hill, which is a stretch of what was once the Roman Watling Street. West End Green was known as ‘Le Rudying’ (a name given to a woodland clearing) in the 14th century. By 1534, the area around the Green was known as ‘West End’. Currently, this green is a part of the district of West Hampstead. Although not so named until later, Mill Lane existed in the Middle Ages. A detailed map published in 1870 reveals that at that time, there were scarcely any buildings along it.  It was not until the late 19th century that Mill Lane began to be lined with houses and shops. A pub on the lane, The Alliance, bears the date 1886, suggesting that before that time there was not sufficient local population to warrant building such a large hostelry.

It was the doorway of number 54 Mill Lane that caught my attention. Number 54 is sandwiched between AK locksmiths Ltd and Computer Clinic. Its shop front has frosted glass. It is the window of an office connected with St Johns Wood Cars, a taxi and private vehicle hire company. The commemorative plaque that I noticed is close to the doorway that gives access to a staircase that leads to the upper floors of the building.

The wording on the commemorative plate reads:

“Clifford Norman Bowler, watchmaker and jeweller, lived & worked here. 1899-1993. A Mill Lane tradesman for over 67 years.”

Well, 67 years is a long time and no doubt Clifford (1899-1993) was a well-known local. Articles published on the Internet (www.watchrepairtalk.com/topic/3184-clifford-norman-bowler-watchmaker and westhampsteadlife.com/2014/01/15/a-moment-in-time-on-mill-lane/9921 ) show that that Clifford was a remarkable member of his profession. Clifford was born in Northumberland in July 1899 and served in the Machine Gun Corps during WW1. By 1926, he was on the Electoral Register, registered as residing at 54 Mill Lane, and in 1929 he married Mabel in nearby Willesden.

He bought the shop on Mill Lane for £100 in about 1926 after leaving the army and having worked for a while with other jewellers and watch-repairers in Manchester. His shop used to be painted red and has been immortalised in a documentary film shot for Channel 4 by a local film-maker, Conrad Blakemore, who currently teaches at the City Lit college in London. His charming short film “The Watchmaker”, a working day in the life of Clifford Bowler,  can be viewed on YouTube (https://youtu.be/BU2nOQwxiWw). In it, Clifford, a charming old man, explains that he left the army in 1919 and began learning watch-repairing in Manchester. Faced with a wage cut, he asked his brother, who was already living in London, to find him some premises. The shop he acquired in Mill Lane was already a watch and clock repairing business. The £100 he paid for it included much equipment required for his trade.

Clifford’s father was a professional banjo and mandolin player. Clifford and Mabel had two children. One of them, Norman Clifford Bowler (born 1932), has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by having a career in entertainment. Between 1961 and 2012, he appeared in many plays mainly on television.

Although his watch repairer father probably had nothing to do with India, Norman Clifford did forge a connection with the far-off country. In 2011, Norman Clifford recorded “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in Bristol. Incidentally, Coleridge’s remains lie in St Michael’s Church in Highgate, where my school used to attend services regularly. The recording was made by Norman Clifford to raise money for a school, The Aikiyam School, in the settlement of Auroville, which is close to the city of Pondicherry, a former French colony, in the south of India. A website (lanternmanproductions.bandcamp.com) that gives access to the recording also notes:

“After falling ill a number of years ago, Norman, as part of his recuperation began to spend time in the warmer climes of Southern India with his wife, Diane. As a result, he became directly involved with The Aikiyam School as a teacher of English and Drama. As the years have gone on, Norman spent more and more time in India, only returning to England to spend time with family and friends, and raise money for the school with poetry readings and personal appearances.”

Clifford is privileged to have met Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) and The Mother (Mirra Alfassa; 1878-1973), Aurobindo’s spiritual companion/muse, and there exists a recording (www.aurovilleradio.org/satprems-my-burning-heart-a-reading-by-norman/) in which he describes his impressions of her.

When I chanced upon the almost hidden memorial to a watch and clock repairer in Mill Lane, little did I expect to discover a connection between a somewhat non-descript shop in West Hampstead and the south Indian utopian settlement of Auroville, where we have some good friends and have visited a few times. Well, they say that ‘curiosity kills the cat’. Luckily although I am curious about what I see whilst out and about, I am not a cat.

A tropical Utopia

WE MADE A BRIEF VISIT TO THE TOWNSHIP OF AUROVILLE near Pondicherry to visit a friend, one of the approximately 3000 members of this international ‘utopian’ community. Created in 1968, it was inspired by Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), the spiritual companion and collaborator of Sri Aurobindo. She wrote:
“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”

Whether or not this has been achieved, I am not qualified to judge. However, Auroville, fifty years after its conception, is a lovely place to visit. It is home to many people with a creative turn of mind and attracts many people who take an interest in the arts.

Members of the Auroville community have built themselves homes and workshops with aesthetically pleasing ‘modern’ and contemporary architecture. These buildings, including structures for communal use, such as galleries, performance spaces, and restaurants, are well spaced and separated by tamed luxuriant wilderness.

During our short visit, I noticed a building, the offices of an architect, that reminded me of the Sangath Studio in Ahmedabad (Gujarat). Sangath was built between 1978 and ‘80 by the architect BV Doshi, who still uses them as his offices. Both the offices in Auroville and in Ahmedabad make use of long hemi-cylindrical concrete roofs covered with mosaics of fragments of white, sun reflecting broken ceramic tiling. Our friend thought that the studio in Auroville was built in the 1990s, but did not know whether the architect who works there was ever Doshi’s student or collaborator.

Near to the studio, we saw a tile covered brick dome above a small building. Our friend explained that this was the first free standing brick dome to be built in Auroville. In order to build it, he and his associates had to rediscover the lost art of constructing free standing brick domes.

We ended our short visit to Auroville with a superb lunch at the attractive Garden Café, which was designed by the architect whose office in Auroville I have described above.

Anybody visiting Pondicherry with an interest in the future of humanity should take a look at Auroville because, in the words of Mirra Alfassa: “For those who are satisfied with the world as it is, Auroville obviously has no reason to exist.”

From revolutionary to saint

On Sunday morning it was Republic Day, the 26th January 2020. The streets in Baroda were quite. Several of the few vehicles we saw carried Indian national flags that fluttered proudly as they sped past us.

It was also quieter than usual at the Sri Aurobindo Nivas, the home where Sri Aurobindo lived while he was an official in the government of the princely state of Baroda and both professor and vice chancellor of what is now Baroda University. Aurobindo lived with his wife, Mrinalini in this house donated by the Gaekwad. After Baroda, Aurobindo and his wife moved to Calcutta. Later, he moved to the French colony of Pondicherry. After he arrived there, his wife followed him but during the journey to join him, she died suddenly of an infection (https://www.boloji.com/articles/13683/mrinalini-sri-aurobindos-forgotten-wife). I have written a bit about Aurobindo in Baroda in my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped). Here is what I wrote:

“Today, Sri Aurobindo is associated with ‘peace and love’ by many people, especially the crowds of Europeans who seek spiritual solace at his ashram in Pondicherry. While Aurobindo was working as a teacher in Baroda in the early 20th century, he was involved in Indian independence movements. Although he espoused peaceful methods, he was not averse to the use of violence. Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote in his book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, wrote: “It was at Baroda that Aurobindo took the first decisive steps into political life … Aurobindo clearly believed in the efficacy of violent revolution and worked towards organizing secret revolutionary activity as a preparatory stage for open revolt and insurrection…” In a biography, Sri Aurobindo for All Ages, its author Nirodbaran, who worked in close contact with the great man for twelve years, wrote: “When we asked him once how he could even conceive of an armed insurrection against the well-equipped British garrisons, he answered: ‘At that time, warfare and weapons had not become so lethal in their effect. Rifles were the main weapons, machine guns were not so effective. India was disarmed, but with foreign help and proper organisation, the difficulty could be overcome; and in view of the vastness of the country and the smallness of the regular British armies, even guerrilla warfare might be effective…”

After a year’s spell in Alipore prison in connection with his alleged involvement with some politically motivated murders in Bengal, Aurobindo settled in Pondicherry, and from then began espousing a spiritual approach to life. While living in that French colony, he continued to contemplate contemporary Indian issues, including that of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. In late 1909, Aurobindo wrote: “Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists, by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself.” Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote: “Savarkar legitimately claimed paternity for the idea of Hindutva; but Hindutva could lay to an equally formidable patrimony in the thought of Dayananda, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo. What binds these four thinkers together is the systematic marshalling of a Hindu identity in the service of Indian nationalism.” Sharma quotes the following passage, written in 1923, from Aurobindo’s India’s Rebirth (a collection of writings): “It is no use ignoring facts; some day the Hindus may have to fight the Muslims and they must prepare for it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not mean the subjection of the Hindus. Every time the mildness of the Hindus has given way. The best solution would be to allow the Hindus to organize themselves and the Hindu-Muslim unity would take care of itself, it would automatically solve the problem.” And, in 1934, Aurobindo wrote: “As for the Hindu-Muslim affair, I saw no reason why the greatness of India’s past or her spirituality should be thrown into the waste paper basket in order to conciliate the Muslims who would not at all be conciliated by such a stupidity.”

The Sri Aurobindo Nivas, where Aurobindo lived until 1906 while he was an esteemed teacher and state official in Baroda, is a two-storey grand, mainly brick bungalow with European-style wooden window shutters. In 1971, the Government of Gujarat handed it over to Baroda’s Sri Aurobindo Society, which promotes the peaceful aspects of Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. The house is surrounded by a well-maintained garden. This contains an outdoor stone shrine, a flat marble table with a bas-relief of a lotus flower in its centre. The lotus was surrounded by a flower arrangement consisting of a circle surrounding a six-pointed star. The star with centrally enclosed lotus is a symbol of Sri Aurobindo, whereas the circle is the symbol of his spiritual partner, the Mother, who settled in Pondicherry in 1920. She was born Mira Alfassa (1878-1973) in Paris, of Turkish and Egyptian Jewish parentage. She became the founder of Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry.

The ground floor of this typical colonial-style bungalow contains offices and a library, which was full of people reading at tables. The upper floor has carpeted rooms decorated with relics and portraits of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. These two people are often depicted in their old age, but here at Aurobindo Nivas we saw a couple of portraits, hung side-by-side, showing both as young people. The rooms on the upper floor are used for silent meditation. People sit cross-legged on the floor and occasionally prostrate themselves, their foreheads touching the floor. Also, they stand up and touch the paintings and photographs of Aurobindo and the Mother in the same way as Hindu worshippers touch idols in temples.

There is a large well-tended lawn behind the bungalow. About twenty-five people were sitting on the grass on rugs, meditating and doing yoga. They were facing a boundary wall on which there is a large outline map of India as it was before Partition in 1947 (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh). In the centre of what is now India, there is the circular symbol of the Mother.”

(end of extract).

After spending a pleasant hour in Aurobindo’s former residence, we took refreshments including south Indian filter coffee and dahi vada in the nearby three storey Canara Coffee House (founded 1950). Then we continued our exploration of the Sursagar Lake and looked for picturesque old buildings in the city. Many of the older structures, mostly residential usage, are rich in finely carved wooden decorative features.

By the time we had seen sufficient, the temperature was approaching 30 degrees Celsius – a contrast to the near zero conditions we had encountered earlier on our trip in places like Darjeeling and Mount Abu.

TRAVELS THROUGH GUJARAT DAMAN AND DIU is available from Amazon, lulu.com, and Bookdepository.com

GUJARAT UNWRAPPED , an Indian edition of the above is available from pothi.com (only in India)