Dig weed

GATE 3e Old Highgate School changing rooms BLOG

HIGHGATE SCHOOL IN north London, like many other public (i.e. private) schools in the UK and far fewer state schools, operated (and might still do so) a Combined Cadet Force (CCF). The CCF was designed to provide military training to teenage schoolboys. It provided military experience that would allow its members, if they joined the forces, to advance up the ranks faster than young people who were recruited without this training. It helped give public school boys an earlier chance of commanding their fellow soldiers than those who had not been privileged to attend expensive private schools.

Highgate School had a well equipped CCF. There was an armoury, a drill hall, an assault course, and at least one member of staff dedicated to running the CCF. During the period I attended the school,1965 to 1970, many of our teachers had served in the armed forces during WW2. Some of them were involved with the school’s CCF.

Fortunately for me, participation in the CCF became voluntary instead of compulsory when I reached the age for joining it. I would have hated the discipline, the polishing of belts and boots, the physical activities, and wearing the uniforms made of scratchy materials.

The CCF training took place on Tuesday afternoons. When it ceased to be compulsory, the school decided that those who did not volunteer should spend Tuesday afternoons doing some kind of useful social work

I was first assigned to gardening duty, known as ‘digweed’. Along with another boy, we spent Tuesday afternoons in the garden of one of the boarding houses. Our mission was to clear the weeds from flower beds. Neither my companion nor I could distinguish a weed from a flower. The sight of the house master’s wife bringing us cups of milky tea and biscuits always marked the end of a pointless afternoon, which left the garden in a worse condition that when we arrived.

After a while, I was transferred to visiting the inmates of a local old age home, what is now called a ‘care home’. My task was to chat and cheer up the inmates sitting in high backed padded chairs around the walls of the large sitting room.

In my teens, I was not the chattiest of people. And, all o the elderly inmates except one, were either incapable or uninterested in responding to my attempts to engage them in conversation. The exception was a feisty lady, who was very talkative. The only problem was that she was not there every week. She told me that whenever she was able, she escaped from the home and enjoyed herself until the police brought her back.

One afternoon, I rang the doorbell of the home. When the doors were opened, but only a little, I caught a glimpse of a coffin standing on a trolley in the dimly lit hallway. The matron told me that it would be best that I came back the following week. I had a free afternoon that day.

At some point the school decided that those who did not join the CCF should become members of the newly formed Basic Unit. Instead of wearing miltary uniforms we wore track suits. We spent time ‘square bashing’ or military style drill. I was hopeless at this, turning left when I was supposed to be turning the other way, and not moving in time with the other members of the unit.

One day during Basic Unit, we had to attempt the school’s military assault course. At one place on this, we had to scramble up two metal pipes to reach the flat roof of a seven foot high concrete block house and then to jump off it. I reached the roof, but refused to jump down. I remained up there until the other hundred or so boys had completed the course and were in position for some more drill before the afternoon ended. In desperation, the supervising teachers pleaded with me to jump down otherwise nobody else would be allowed to go home. I told them that did not bother me nor would I jump down. In the end, I was helped down so that the session could be brought to an end.

The best and most enjoyable Tuesday afternoon activity I did was during my last two years at Highgate. I worked as an assistant at the now long since closed New End Hospital in Hampstead. But, more about that another time!

Picture shows the concrete area where the Basic Unit trained

In the footsteps of the ancients

OSTIA ANTICA, THE PORT of Ancient Rome is constructed mainly with baked clay bricks. When I visited it some years ago, I remember thinking that it looked like a recently built place because of the brickwork that looked so contemporary. Ostia dates back no further than the 4th century BC. The port at Lothal in Gujarat (western India) thrived long before Ostia, probably between 2500 and 1900 BC, but like the Roman port, the remains of Lothal are mainly (sun baked) clay bricks, giving them a far from ancient appearance. Lothal, excavated in the 1950s, was a port inhabited by people of the Bronze Age Harrapan (or Indus Valley) civilisation that thrived between about 3300 to 1300 BC.

We drove to Lothal from Ahmedabad along a good highway that runs through flat landscape with numerous tidy looking factories. We arrived after about 75 minutes of steady driving. The archaeological site, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is in the middle of very flat fertile agricultural land far from the nearest village. Unlike most other ASI sites that charge an entrance fee, that at Lothal is the same for both foreigners, who are usually charged a high fee and Indians. Each ticket cost only 5 Rupees.

The ticket gives access to a small but well laid out museum, whose exhibitsand information panels demonstrate how Lothal fits into current understanding of Harappan civilisation and what life might have been like in the ancient port. A fairly simplistic video was shown. It concentrated mainly on Mohenjo-Daro, a large Harappan site now in Pakistan. The evidence dug up at Lothal and other Harappan sites shows that the civilisation was both technically and artistically sophisticated. On display, were systems of weights and ingeniously crafted fine jewellery, both examples of products that could only have been produced by people of great intellectual ability.

The ruins are, as already mentioned, mostly made of brick. A low mound, known as the ‘Acropolis’, is covered with structures that might have been warehouses or residences of the upper echelons of Lothal. The mound overlooks what looks like a huge rectangular brick lined swimming pool, now filled with rainwater. When Lothal was thriving, this dock was connected to the nearby sea (now the Gulf of Khambat) by a channel along which vessels could sail. Over the millennia, the coastline has shifted and what was once Lothal is separated from the sea, far away from it. The ASI keep the dock filled with rainwater to show what the dock must have looked like in its heyday.

Various other structures outlined by brickwork, including circular wellheads, can be visited. These include the former bead factory, a cemetery (where all the skeletons discovered were from people who died aged 30 or less; maybe older people were cremated), and a ‘lower town’. What little that has been excavated is well looked after, but without the explanations provided in the museum the casual visitor would have no idea of what he or she was seeing or how ancient these remains are. With a little background information it was thrilling to walk in the footsteps of townsfolk and traders who lived and thrived so many, many years before us.

We met only three other visitors while wandering around the ruins. They were all from Bangalore. They were touring Gujarat but lamented the fact that most signs are only in Gujarati script. In Karnataka, where they live and where we visit often, signs are often not only in the local script but also in English and/or Hindi.

There are no refreshments available at the Lothal site. An employee suggested that we might get tea in the modern village of Lothal, a few kilometres away. Our driver had his doubts about this and so did I when we drove along the winding dusty road through the small village. There were no shops or stalls to be found.

We parked outside a pair of wrought iron gates separating two houses. A lady appeared in the door of one of them, and my wife asked (in Gujarati) whether tea was available in the village. The lady said she would make some for us.

We followed her through the gates and into a long wide alley lined with houses. Two ladies were embroidering gold thread, jewels, and sequins onto long silk saris spread out along the incredibly clean concrete floor of the alley. Other ladies were sitting around.

Our hostess brought us each a plastic chair from her home. We sat chatting with the ladies while we awaited our tea. The alley was lined with houses that a farmer had built for his sons. Each of the ladies was one of his daughters in law.

Our hostess arrived with a large metal cup filled with tea and two china saucers. Each of us was handed a saucer, which she filled with hot tea. We slurped the tea from the saucers as is the custom when sharing tea in Gujarat (often one person drinks from a cup and the other who is sharing it drinks from the saucer: a system known as ‘cutting chai’).

The ladies doing the embroidery take about a day to decorate a whole sari with a complex design. The silk is sent to Lothal from Surat, where the decorated saris are later sold. An old lady with barely one tooth in her smile, the mother in law of the women we were talking with, joined us. This wizened relative asked if it was true that a man’s haircut would cost 1000 rupees in the USA, as she had seen on YouTube. We told her that it would cost at least that. She was then told to go back to rest on her charpoy in the nearby farmyard.

We asked where the menfolk were. They answered: “In the fields. What else could they be doing?”

Our hostess, who seemed to be the brightest of the very hospitable women, took us to see the cow whose milk had been used to make our tea. We thsnked her calf for sharing his mothers milk. She also proudly showed us the two fine horses the family owned.

Just before we left, my wife asked our hostess whether we could leave a small gift for her children. She said that they were at school and there was no need for a gift. She told us that she was very keen that they should do well at school, and hoped that they would be able to study in the USA, because she said: “There is no future for them, nothing here anymore.”

As we drove away from our new acquaintances through the village, people waved to us. We waved at three old men on a bench. They waved back. We felt that we had received a warm welcome at ground level in Gujarat.

Some cafés and an Ottoman princess

WE WERE ADVISED TO PAY a visit to the “new Niloufer café” in Hyderabad to try its Irani Chai. We hired an Uber taxi to take us there.

The New Niloufer Café turned out to be a rather scruffy place across the road from a newer looking place called “The Niloufer Café”.

Irani chai is prepared by boiling tea leaves continuously in a large kettle. This produces a strong decoction, which is poured through a muslin filter and then added to boiling milk before being served in cups.

As the New Niloufer did not serve milk without sugar, we crossed the road to the Niloufer Café, which did. This café was very crowded. In addition to tea, it sold a wide range of biscuits, cakes, and breads. One of the breads looked like an oversized bagel or an obese Turkish simit.

After taking tea at this café, we walked past several Hindu temples, mostly dedicated to Hanuman, and many medical clinics until we spotted yet another Niloufer Café. This one is newer and more luxurious than the previous café but belongs to the same company. It described itself as the “Niloufer Café Premier Lounge”.

On reflection, we realised that it was the new Premier Lounge, rather than the unrelated New Niloufer Café, that had been recommended to us.

By the way, Princess Niloufer (1916-89) was one of the princesses of the Ottoman Empire. She married the second son of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Moazam Jah. He died in 1952 and then she married an American, Edward Julius Pope in 1963.

Photo shows kettle for boiling tea to prepare decoction

A SPECIAL TEA

I met the lady who was later to become my wife on the first day of the undergraduate course that we were both studying at University of London. We were enrolled in the same department.

I lived at home with my parents, who were very sociable and hospitable. They were happy to host friends whom I had met at the university. My future wife was a frequent visitor to our home. Often when she arrived, she used to present my mother with special leaf tea from India, where her family lived. This tea was her mother’s favourite, Lopchu.

Lopchu is a district through which runs the very steep, winding road that connects Dargeeling in West Bengal with Rangpo on the border of Sikkim. Recently, we were driving up this road towards Darjeeling when we spotted a side road leading to the Lopchu Tea Estate. We asked our driver to drive us down what proved to be a narrow road with barely any undamaged surfaces. It was full of treacherous pot holes.

We drove past tea gardens that resembled many others we have seen. However, because of the special connections between Lopchu tea and our two late mothers, we were pleased to have made a special effort to see the source of the tea that might possibly have contributed at least a little bit towards the development of the relationship between me and my future spouse.

DRIVING AROUND DARJEELING

OUR WONDERFUL DRIVER picked us up at 9 am and took us and our new friends from Lincolnshire sightseeing in the area around Darjeeling for over seven hours.

We began at the Japanese Temple and close by Peace Pagoda (a stupa), both Buddhist places of worship set in a well tended garden.

Next, we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the track used by the Toy Train. This road links Siliguri with Kathmandu in Nepal. The Nepalese border is about an hour and a half’s drive from Darjeeling and Kathmandu is about twelve hours away.

We stopped to wander through a park that is laid out around the Batasia Loop which is where the Toy Train loops the loop. The centre of the park contains a monument to Ghurka soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for India since 1947. There were many Indian tourists, who were enjoying dressing up in colourful Nepalese and other local costumes that were available for hire.

Although many people disapprove of zoos, I do not. Some animals, especially the big cats and wild dogs – wolves, jackals, and so on, give the impression of discontent. Other creatures show their unhappiness, if any, more subtly. The highlight of this beautifully laid out zoo was for me seeing the rare red pandas, whose long striped bushy tails and appealing faces make them very attractive. A black panther looked like a very large pussy cat. The clouded leopard has fur colouring that resembles magnified snakeskin markings. We saw many other eye catching creatures.

A visit to a Tibetan Refugee Centre established in the 1960s was moving and fascinating. A large collection of photographs depicted the sad history of Tibet during the twentieth century. We could not see any pictures or even mentions of Heinrich Harrer, who lived in Tibet after escaping from a British POW camp in 1944, and then tutored one of the Dalai Lamas. His book “Seven Years in Tibet” is a good read.

The Refugee Centre contains a children’s home, a souvenir shop, a general store, and a Buddhist monastery. We climbed up to this, passing lines of prayer wheels, and reached a shrine containing a Buddha and religious figurative wall paintings. The shrine abuts a room containing two huge metal prayer wheels, taller than most people. We met an old man, deaf and over 90 years old, who showed us how to rotate the heavy wheels. As they rotate, bells ring.

We stopped to look at a tea garden. The bushes were flowering with small whitish blooms. At a small stall nearby, built with corrugated iron sheets as are so many other structures in the district, we drank delicately flavoured Darjeeling tea.

The large house where Sister Nivedita, an Irish born disciple of Swami Vivekananda, “breathed her last” is called the Roy Villa. It contains the room where Nivedita died and a poorly lit museum.

Tenzing Rock was our final stopping place. This rock and others close to it are used by the Himalayan Mountain Institute to train mountaineers. Enthusiastic visitors can pay to climb the Tenzing Rock which, I guess, is no more than 30 feet high.

I have described the main sights of our excursion, but not the endless series of spectacular vistas and glimpses of aspects of the lives of locals. But, rest assured that even without seeing any of what I have related, the district around Darjeeling is fascinating and photogenic.

All along our route our driver, who speaks his native Nepali as well as Hindi, Bangla, and English, greeted people we passed. He is a very popular person in and around Darjeeling.

Tastes change

Once, long before ‘political correctness’ became fashionable, when my wife was an undergraduate student, she asked two Nigerian students whether they preferred their tea “black or white “. They looked at her indignantly before answering aggresively: “with milk“.

When I was a child, I drank tea without milk. That was the way my parents preferred it. That is what I became accustomed to. If I sipped even a little tea with milk, I felt nauseous. Tea with milk, as served in England, is made by adding brewed tea to milk or vice versa depending on your preference.

My prejudice against tea with milk persisted until I began visiting India in 1994. At first, I was suspicious of the “white” tea on offer, but soon began to enjoy it. I think that this is because it is made differently from that which is served in the UK.

In India, tea leaves are boiled vigorously with milk. Often additives such as sugar, crushed ginger, cardamom, mint, and lemon grass are added to the hot bubbling mixture. After a while, the boiled milky tea is passed through a strainer, often cloth, and served in cups. The resulting drink is a harmonious blend of the flavour of tea and the additives. In my opinion, it tastes quite different from, and much better than what is served in England.

I have visited India many, many times since 1994. Apart from developing a great fondness for the country and its people, my tastes in food have changed for the better as a result of my exposure to life in India.