How I avoided an awful fate

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE IS A CITY which I have visited often since I was a child. My first recollection of the place was visiting Gonville and Caius College to meet my father’s long-term collaborator, the Hungarian born economist Peter Bauer (1915-2002). Later, after 1965, during my childhood and adolescence, we used to visit Cambridge to spend time with my father’s friend from his student days in Cape Town (South Africa), the social scientist Cyril Sofer (died 1974) and his wife Elaine. At first, I used to visit them with my family and when I was in my teens, I used to stay with them in their large Victorian house near Selwyn College. It was Elaine, who first introduced me to the joys of the drink known as ‘Bloody Mary’.Further travels to Cambridge followed when a childhood friend of mine attended Clare College to study for his bachelor’s degree. Through him, I met his good friend, now a well-known writer, Matthew Parris.

Many more visits to Cambridge followed my graduation at University College London in 1973. Although I remained in London to study for a higher degree, some of those who had graduated with me moved to Cambridge to pursue further studies. Three out of the nine of us, who graduated in physiology in 1973, embarked on doctoral theses in the city’s university. One of these was Lopa, who is now my wife. While she was at Cambridge, we were still ‘just good friends’, as the saying goes.

On one of my visits to see Lopa, I stayed in a house in Owlstone Road, which is south of the historic centre of Cambridge. A mattress was set up for me in a ground floor room with a street facing window. The room had been recently occupied by a female student, who had moved elsewhere. This sojourn in the city was during the time when the so-called Cambridge Rapist was assaulting young women, always within their homes, at an alarming rate. He carried out his attacks between October 1974 and April the following year.

Apparently, he followed potential victims to their homes and noted down their addresses in a notebook.The rapist carried out his first rape on the 18th of October 1974. Then another on the first of November, and yet again on the 13th of that month ( The latter was carried out within Homerton College, now a part of Cambridge University. He struck again on the 13th of February 1975, and then, unsuccessfully, on the 5th of May.

I slept soundly at Owlstone Road when I was staying there for a night or two. One morning, I woke up and saw police vehicles out in the road. It was the 8th of December 1974 and the rapist had raped a woman in the house next door to where I was staying, having broken into its ground floor room, which mirrored that in which I was sleeping. What none of us knew until after the perpetrator, Peter Samuel Cook, was eventually caught during his attack on Owlstone Croft’s nurses’ hostel in June 1975, was that the villain had listed the house in which Lopa was living with some other young ladies in his notebook of potential targets. The young lady who had occupied the room where I spent a couple of nights was in the rapist’s list of future victims.

Cook, who had knifed at least one of his victims, was a violent person and might have been awfully annoyed with me had he broken into the room where I was sleeping and found me, a man, instead of one of his intended female targets. Subsequent visits to the wonderful city of Cambridge have not, I am pleased to relate, been so potentially hazardous. Cook was jailed for life and died in Winchester Prison in 2004.

A small village near Cambridge

THE TINY VILLAGE of Madingley is just under 3 ½ miles west of Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, yet it feels a long way from anywhere. The settlement was recorded as ‘Matingeleia’ in about 1080, as ‘Mading(e)lei’ in the Domesday Book, and ‘Maddingelea’ in 1193. The name means ‘the leah of Mada’s people’, a ‘leah’ being a glade where mowing was done, in other words, a clearing. What became of Mada and his or her people, I have no idea. In 1086, there were 28 peasants in Madingley but by 1279, there were 90 people in the village ( The population in the 18th century reached about 150 and increased to over 200 in the 19th century. In 2011, there were 210 people living in the civil parish of Madingley ( Whenever I have visited the village, where my cousin lives, I have never seen many people out and about.

The earliest record of a church in Madingley was in 1092. Much of the present, attractive church (St Mary Magdalene), which was closed when we last visited, contains structures that date back to the 13th and 14th centuries ( The building has a square tower topped with a tall steeple. The north side of the exterior of the nave of the church is brickwork made of irregularly shaped and equally irregularly arranged stones and mortar. The south side looks plain because the stonework is covered with plaster rendering. A church official who was passing by while I was taking photographs explained that the rendering, which protects the wall from penetration of rainfall, is probably original and that the church authorities are currently trying to decide whether to cover the north side with rendering.  

The church stands next to the entrance to the grounds of Madingley Hall. A long drive climbs sinuously up a slope to the hall, whose construction was begun by Sir John Hynde (died 1550) who acquired the Madingley estate in 1543 ( Hynde, who had studied at Cambridge University, was an important judge. He was called to the Bar at Grays Inn and became Recorder of Cambridge in 1520. In 1539, as a result of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) ordered by King Henry VIII, he was granted the Cambridgeshire estate now known as Anglesey Abbey and in 1542-43, he came to possess lands at Madingley ( The construction of the Hall was continued by John’s son, Sir Francis Hynde (c1532-1596). In 1756, Sir John Hynde-Cotton, employed Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown (1716-1783) to landscape the Hall’s grounds. I do not know how much of the landscaping seen today was that created by Brown but the lovely pond at the bottom of the lawns sweeping down from the front of the house looks like one of his typical features.  The property remained in the Hynde family until 1858. A descendant of the family, Maria Cotton, married Sir Richard King, who obtained the part of the estate that included the Hall. In 1861, Maria rented the Hall to Queen Victoria for use by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whilst he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Currently, the Hall is home to the University’s Institute of Continuing Education and has sleeping accommodation both for those attending courses and also for visitors to the area.

In 1871, the Hall was sold to Mr Hurrell and then later to Colonel Walter Harding, who completely renovated the Hall. His heirs sold it to the University of Cambridge in 1948 ( Harding’s granddaughter Rosamund gave 30 acres of land on which the American Military Cemetery now stands beside the village of Madingley. The graves in this cemetery, mostly Christian and a few Jewish, are arranged neatly with military precision.

A half-timbered thatched lodge stands by the entrance to the drive next to the church. The former was built in about 1908 by Colonel Harding. The driveway crosses a bridge at one end of the lake or pond. This fake bridge was one of Lancelot Browns landscaping features. Sadly, when we last visited, most of the Hall was covered with scaffolding. Despite that, we were able to admire the mainly 16th century architecture of the building. One particularly interesting feature is the ogival gothic archway that leads into a courtyard behind the original Hall. Decorated with heraldic and other mouldings, this brick and limestone archway was originally part of the Old Schools in Cambridge. Sir John Hynde-Cotton brought the archway to Madingley Hall in 1758. It is worth passing beneath the archway, which bears the date ‘1758’, and entering the walled kitchen garden on the left of it. This area contains a lovely variety of well-tended plants and shrubs.

Tiny Madingley, dwarfed by the Hall and its gardens, has one pub, the Three Horseshoes. It has been in existence since 1765, if not before. Attractively thatched, as is the village hall nearby, the pub we see today was built in 1975, following destruction of an earlier building by fire. I have eaten at the pub once. My impression was that it is a place to which most of its customers drive from elsewhere. It is more of a restaurant than a typical pub. I am curious to know how many of the villagers use it to enjoy a pint or two. On our recent visit in April 2021, the establishment looked sad, being closed on account of the covid19 lockdown.

Peaceful Madingley is home to a private nursery school, housed in a building dated 1844 as well as a discreet complex of University of Cambridge animal behaviour laboratories. Apart from these attractions, there is a disused telephone box that now serves as a library where anyone can take books for free so long as they replace them with others. It is a pity that there is no village shop, often a focus of village life, but given the small population of the place, maybe its absence is not surprising.

Little Madingley is now a suburb of Cambridge yet it has not merged with the city physically. It remains at heart a picturesque and charming example of ‘village England’ – a place to take refuge from the stresses and strains of modern life.

An almost secret garden

ONE COULD EASILY MISS it whilst walking around the Inner Circle at London’s Regent’s Park. Had I not noticed a couple of people emerging from the discreet gap in a fence, I would have dismissed this as one of the numerous private entrances on the outer circumference of the Inner Circle. The gap in the fencing is near the northernmost point on the circular road. A small notice, framed by vegetation, within the gap in the fencing gives a short history of The Garden of St John’s Lodge. Follow the pathway away from the road, take a left turn and walk between two manicured hedges and then turn right, and you enter a lovely formal garden replete with a pond, several sculptures, and a lawn that gives a fine view of one side of St John’s Lodge. Brave the slippery mud and explore the various separate parts of this almost secret garden. You will not be disappointed.

St John’s Lodge was the first ‘villa’ to be built in Regent’s Park. Completed between 1817 and 1818 (, it was designed by John Raffield (1749-1828), who had worked for the Adam brothers before setting up his own architectural practice. It was later modified and enlarged both by Decimus Burton and Charles Barry. The house was built for the politician Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849).  Subsequent owners of the private residence have included Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) who served in India; John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (‘Bute’;1847-1900), whose heart was buried at The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; and Baron Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778-1859). It was Wellesley who employed Decimus Burton to enlarge the house in 1831-32.

Goldsmid was a philanthropist and one of the leading personalities in the emancipation of British Jews. He made his fortune as a partner in the bullion brokers firm of Mocatta & Goldsmid (founded as ‘Mocatta Bullion’ in 1684), brokers for both The Bank of England and The East India Company. It was due partly to Goldsmid that my alma-mater, University College (London), was able to come into existence. Albert Hyamson, author of “A History of the Jews in England” wrote that:

“University College, London … was established in 1826, largely by the efforts and through the munificence of Isaac Lyon Goldsmid …”

Goldsmid paid for the land on which the university was later built.

In connection with Jewish emancipation, the online Jewish Encyclopaedia ( writes of Goldsmid:

“The main effort of his life was made in the cause of Jewish emancipation. He was the first English Jew who took up the question, and he enlisted in its advocacy the leading Whig statesmen of the time. Soon after the passing of the Act of 1829, which removed the civil disabilities of the Roman Catholics, he secured the powerful aid of Lord Holland, the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Duke of Sussex, and other eminent members of the Liberal party, and then induced Robert Grant to introduce in the House of Commons a similar measure for the Jews. During more than two years from the time when Jewish emancipation was first debated in Parliament, Goldsmid gave little heed to his ordinary business, devoting himself almost exclusively to the advancement of the cause.”

In 1841, Goldsmid became the first Jewish person, who had not converted to Christianity, to become a Jewish baronet.  His son, Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid (1808-1878), worked with him for Jewish emancipation and was the first Jewish barrister in England, having been called to the Bar at Lincolns Inn.

Clearly, St John’s Lodge has had some noteworthy residents. Of these, it was Bute who commissioned the Scottish Arts and Crafts architect and landscape designer Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951) create a garden “… fit for meditation”. Bute at St John’s Lodge, which he acquired in 1888, was one of Schultz’s first major clients ( Bute had taken an interest in Schultz’s studies, having financed his visit to the British School at Athens in the late 1880s. The garden was created in the early 1890s. It was refurbished and some of its original features restored in 1994, but it has been open to the public since 1928 (

Apart from its vegetation, the garden features sculptures, a pond, and a giant urn. The sculptures include “Goatherds daughter” by Charles L Hartwell (1873-1951); “Hylas and the Nymph” by Henry Pegram (1862-1937); an “Awakening” by Unus Safardiar (born 1968), commemorating Anne Lydia Evans (1929-99), a local medical practitioner. There are two stone piers, one on each side of a lawn, bordered by scalloped hedges,  leading up to the house. Each of these is topped with a stone cherub holding a fading painted stone shield, the coat-of-arms of Crichton-Stuart. These were made by William Goscombe John (1860-1952).

St John’s Lodge remained in private ownership until World War I, when it became a hospital for disabled officers and then became the HQ of St Dunstans (now known as ‘Blind Veterans UK’) with its workshops from 1921 to 1937. Then, it became the headquarters of the Institute of Archaeology from 1937 to 1959. In 1959 it was occupied by Bedford College (now ‘Regent’s University’).  It was vacated and since 1994, it has been leased for private residence to the Royal Family of Brunei.

Had I walked past the small passage leading off the Inner Circle,  I would have missed experiencing the almost hidden, delightful garden of St John’s Lodge, which is a building that has housed persons who have influenced the history of Britain significantly. We visited the garden in late December when few plants were in flower. We hope to return a few months later when not only the garden will be filled with blooms as will the nearby Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens within the Inner Circle.

Smoking drums

A DENTIST NEEDS manual dexterity and good powers of observation (amongst many other skills). My PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, used to teach physiology to the first year (pre-clinical) dental students at University College London. He not only encouraged them to learn the rudiments of the subject but also how to improve their dexterity and skill in observation.

While the students were under Robert’s care, he tried to instil in them something of his spirit of scientific curiosity. Each student had to carry out an investigative project as part of the physiology course. This had to make use of the students’ powers of observation. He felt, quite correctly, that a good physician must be very observant. He had students, with their pencils, watches, and notepads at the ready, measuring, for example, the blink rates of people travelling on the Underground, or how many times a minute peoples’ jaws moved whilst chewing gum, or how often and for how long people scratched their heads. Projects like these, simple though they sound, honed the students’ ability to observe carefully. These projects also helped to instil something else in some of the students: many of them went on to have academic dental careers.

Robert had great manual dexterity and knew that development of this in his students was of great importance to those aspiring to practise dentistry. When he or his wife Margaret was interviewing prospective students, they always enquired whether a candidate played a musical instrument or enjoyed making models or sewing/knitting/embroidery. If they did, then there was a good chance that the candidate’s manual dexterity would be sufficient to perform dental procedures. Robert encouraged this in the practical physiology classes that he arranged for his pre-clinical students. Typical of this was his insistence on the use of the archaic smoked drum kymograph.

Most students doing experiments in physiology would record results from their experimental set-ups, be it a contracting muscle or a stretch of live nerve, on an electrically operated pen and ink tracing that produced a graph on a piece of paper tape. All that was necessary was to plug the measurement transducer out-put lead into the electronic moving chart recorder and wait for the results.

Robert insisted on his dental students using a kymograph with smoked paper, a mechanical predecessor of the modern electronic equipment. A sheet of white paper had to be attached around the outside of a metal cylinder (drum). This had to be rotated carefully above a smoky flame until the entire surface of the paper had been uniformly blackened by a thin layer of charcoal particles. Without disturbing this fragile black layer with a stray finger or thumb, the smoked drum had to be carefully attached to the vertical spindle that emerged from a cylindrical motor. The experimental tissue – often the students measured the contraction rates and strengths of lengths of rodent gut – was attached via a thin cord to a delicate lever which had a sharp point (stylus) at one end of it. This point was then placed against the smoked paper and then the motor was activated, causing the drum to rotate at a known speed. As the gut contracted, it moved the lever up and down which in turn caused the sharp point to displace carbon particles beneath the stylus point to leave a white tracing on the slowly moving blackened paper covering the metal cylinder. When the tracing had been made, it had to be removed from the drum without smudging it, and then immersed in some liquid, a smelly lacquer, that fixed the image to the paper. This procedure, I can assure you, is no less demanding on one’s manual skills than, say, preparing a tooth for an inlay or a bridge abutment or placing an implant.

Many generations of Robert’s dental students remember him fondly. Recently, someone with whom I studied dentistry at University College reminded me about his curious laboratory coats. He did not wear the long white coats that most scientists and many medics normally use. Instead, he wore a long coat coloured brown or ochre. Why he wore a lab coat that looked more like the work wear of an old fashioned grocer I have no idea – I never thought to ask him – but Robert did many things in his own inimitable style. Often his approach to things seemed eccentric at first sight, but usually after reflection you would realise that there was a lot of sense in what he did and how he did it.

Meeting the professor

AMONGST THE COURSES on offer in the third year in the Physiology Department at University  College London Lon, there was one with the mysterious title of ‘Connective Tissue’. I went to see our tutor Dr Roger Woledge, a specialist in muscle physiology, and asked him about this. He told me that it had been on offer for years, but no one had ever asked to take it. He suggested that I enrol in it so that it would be held for the first time ever, and at the very least he would discover what was on offer. I agreed, and he sent me to the office of Prof Robert Harkness to let him know that I was interested in finding out about his course.

As soon as I entered Robert’s cluttered office, I knew that I would enjoy studying whatever was on offer. There was barely any, if any, free space on the Prof’s huge desk. The walls of the office were crowded with books, runs of journals, pictures, old engravings, and even framed cartoons. There was a small paper notice stuck on the glass door of one cupboard. It was typical of Robert’s sense of humour and his take on common sense.

 His rotating office chair looked antique, rather like something you might expect to see in a bank manager’s office in the old Wild West. There was a glass fronted wooden cabinet filled with books and other objects. On the floor, there was a variety of things including polished wooden microscope cases. I was asked to close the door behind me quickly because he told me that his life would not have been worth living if the new black kitten, which had just emerged from a cupboard, was allowed to escape from the office. He and his wife, Margaret. would be taking it home that evening.

I imagine that Robert must have told me something about his Connective Tissue course whilst I stroked his affectionate young cat, but I do not remember what. All I can recall is that by the end of our brief but friendly interview, I had been enrolled on his course. When I reported this to Dr Woledge, he was delighted. The course was not to be held until well into the academic year, and, by the time it commenced, its participants included G Clough, who is now a professor at a major University, an MSc. Student, and me.

Some months later as I neared the date of graduation, I began investigating the possibility of starting a PhD and began visiting various people who were potential supervisors. While I was walking beside the iron railings enclosing the gardens of Lincolns Inn Fields after just having had two interviews that I had not enjoyed, I had a revelatory moment. It dawned on me that however prestigious a laboratory or potential doctoral supervisor might be, I would have to get on with him or her as well as his or her team of co-workers. I would be spending at least 3 years in their company. It was important, at least for me, that I should feel at ease with whomever I was to collaborate. If I did not, as I had just felt during the recent interviews, I knew that I would not be able to flourish as a doctoral student. Since that day, I have always asked myself whether I would feel comfortable working with whoever was interviewing me when applying for a post. Only once, I did not follow this rule, and then I ended up in a job that did not suit me at all.

On the next day, I visited Robert Harkness in his office.  As I entered and surveyed his undoubtedly individual office, I decided that whatever project that he had to offer would suit me as it would give me the chance to work in the genial company of Robert, Margaret, and their friendly team. He told me that he would be able to get hold of a Medical research Council (‘MRC’) grant for me, providing that I thought of an interesting topic related to connective tissue. He was not going to tell me what to research – I had to make that decision.

Then all of a sudden, he opened one of the leather-bound volumes that contained reprints of his published papers, and showed me a graph published in a paper that he had written for the prestigious Journal of Physiology. I forget what the graph illustrated but recall that it was divided into sections by several vertical dotted lines. He explained to me that he always had a great deal of trouble from the editors of the Journal. They were forever returning the manuscripts of the paper that he submitted to them, wanting him to make minor modifications and thus delaying publication.  He asked me to examine the vertical lines with a magnifying glass, and then I saw that they were made up of dots and dashes, which looked like Morse code. He asked me whether I was able to decipher Morse code. I told him that I could not. Gleefully, he translated the dots and dashes which he had drawn on the published graph and revealed that they spelt out the words ‘drat those flies’ repeatedly along the length of the lines. They had not been noticed by the journal’s fussy editors and were Robert’s revenge for their pernickety interferences.

Not only did I complete my PhD under the supervision of Prof Harkness, but also, I established a close relationship with him and his family. This friendship with the family, which my wife and I value greatly, has endured long since the deaths of the Prof and his wife.

The Turk’s Head

WE DROVE TO CORNWALL along the A3, a main road that connects London with Cornwall. Soon after it leaves the capital, the road passes close to Royal Holloway College (at Egham in Surrey), a part of the University of London. The campus at Egham was founded in 1879 and officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1886. The college at Egham was founded by a philanthropist named Thomas Holloway (1800-1883).

Holloway was born in Devonport (near Plymouth in Devon). His family moved to Penzance in the 1820s. There, they ran a public house (‘pub’) called ‘The Turk’s Head Inn’. He became a manufacturer and seller of patent medicines. He was highly successful at promoting his business by advertising in newspapers. Between 1837 and 1842, he had spent more than £5000 on advertising, and as he neared the end of his life, he was spending over £50,000 per year on promoting his products. The advertising paid off. He became one of the richest men in Britain during his life. His products were clinically of dubious value, but they sold well. After his death, some of his products were taken over by Beechams Pills.

Holloway was generous with his wealth. He is best remembered for funding and building the Holloway Sanatorium near Virginia Water (Surrey) and the Royal Holloway College. The college was opened for women only. It was not until the 1960s, that it began admitting male students. It had links with Bedford College in London, where my wife’s grandmother studied in the 1920s, having sailed over from India.

Today, we visited Penzance and walked past the Turks Head Inn, which is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) pubs in the town. It is thought that this pub was first established in 1233, following the Turkish (probably Moorish) pirates attacking Penzance during the Crusades ( The pub claims to be the first in England to be named The Turks Head. The building was damaged by fire during the 16th century. What we see today is a modification of what was built after the fire.

We had travelled almost 280 miles from Egham to Penzance, mainly along the A30 (a road about which I hope to write more). Thomas Holloway must have covered this distance many a time in the past. It was fascinating to stumble across his childhood home in Penzance and thereby discover why The Royal Holloway College, which I have known of for ages, came into existence.

Between Mortimer Market and Iraq

MANY LONDONERS WILL HAVE walked past Mortimer Market without knowing it exists. Yet, I used to visit it every working day for about five years. It played an important role in my life and greatly affected my career. How it did, I will reveal later.

Mortimer Market lies a few feet east of Tottenham Court Road (‘TCR’) between Capper and University Streets. Immediately to its east, runs Huntley Street that is parallel to TCR. I used to enter Mortimer Market through a short, covered passageway leading off TCR. Vehicles can enter the Market via Capper Street.

Mortimer Market before 1949
Mortimer Market before 1949 when this photo was published

Until 1886, Capper Street was known as ‘Pancras Street’. This street has existed for over 300 years. Its history is outlined in some detail on an interesting website ( Before it was laid out, the land on which it runs was part of Capper Farm, which was in existence by 1693. The farmer, Christopher Capper, whose widow died in 1739, kept cattle. Members of his family, his daughters, kept the farm going until at least 1768. After his death, the family moved to crop growing in preference to rearing cattle. In 1756, the Duke of Grafton constructed the Euston Road that ran along the northern boundary of the Capper’s farm. At first, the Capper sisters raised an objection to it, saying that the dust raised by traffic along the new road would spoil their crops. The Duke and the sisters eventually came to some agreement. By 1770, the Capper sisters gave up their farm. It was then bought by Hans Winthrop Mortimer (1734-1807), who merits an entry in Wikipedia and on the History of Parliament website ( ).

Mortimer was a property speculator and a Member of Parliament between 1775 and 1790. In the 1774 General Election, he was defeated by Sir Thomas Rumbold (1736-1791), who served as British Governor of Madras between 1777 and 1780. Rumbold became well-known for being corrupt. His misdeeds included what was effectively the theft of a precious ring from the Nawab of Arcot (Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, who reigned 1749-1795). Rumbold’s corruption preceded his stay in India. This involved, amongst other things, bribery during the election he contested against Mortimer. After a court case against Rumbold, Mortimer was awarded £11,000 in damages in 1776 and also gained the parliamentary seat that Rumbold had tried to win by cheating (bribery). It is a sign of the East India Company’s wobbly ethics that a man as corrupt as Rumbold was appointed the Governor of Madras so soon after losing his case of corruption.

Mortimer spent a great deal of money acquiring property in Shaftesbury, his constituency and also in London.  

The land, which Mortimer bought that had been the Capper’s farm, became known as ‘The Mortimer Estate’. Some of this estate was later sold and became the site of University College (‘UC’) London, which established in 1826. Mortimer Market began to be built on the western part of the estate in 1795. Old maps of the area show that in the 19th century Mortimer Market was like a piazza containing two parallel rows of small shops. This can be seen in a photograph published in 1949 and reproduced on a British history website (

By 1963, the shops in Mortimer Market had been demolished. In that year, a purpose-built structure standing where the rows of shops had once stood was opened as University College Hospital Dental School (‘UCHDS’). It was this architecturally undistinguished building that I used to visit during the clinical years (1977-1982) of my studies of dentistry. The building is so non-descript that it does not get even a tiny mention in Pevsner’s detailed guide to the buildings of north London.  Prior to 1914, what was to become UCHDS was known as the National Dental Hospital, founded in 1861 and located at 187-191 Great Portland Street (see: In 1894, the establishment relocated to 59 Devonshire Street. Twenty years later, it amalgamated with University College Hospital. From 1963 until its closure in 1991, 9 years after I qualified as a dentist, UCHDS was housed in Mortimer Market.  The former dental school building still stands and looks very much like I remember it, but now it houses a centre for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

As mentioned earlier, I used to reach the entrance of the dental school by way of the passageway from Tottenham Court Road. However, the hospital could be reached via the network of underground passageways that linked various building of the hospital both with each other and UCL itself. To the right of the passageway if you face it from TCR, there used to be the premises of the Iraqi Cultural Centre. I went in there several times. On one occasion, I mentioned to one of the friendly men who worked in their shopfront office that I am fascinated by folk music from all over the world. He told me to wait and within a few minutes he returned and presented me with an album containing two LPs of recordings of Iraqi folk music. For years after this, I enjoyed listening to them.

During several of my brief lunchtime visits to the Iraqi Cultural Centre near Mortimer Market, I noticed something strange in it. Men would suddenly appear from what seemed like nowhere, maybe from doors hidden in the shop’s internal walls. When Saddam Hussein’s regime (1979-2003) began to attract western military attention, I remembered these curious appearances, and wondered whether there was something other that cultural promotion going on in this place so near my dental school. My suspicions have been confirmed: according to the writer Said K Aburish (born in Palestine in 1935), writing in 2004:

“Years ago Saddam Hussein used the Iraqi cultural centre in Tottenham Court Road to conduct intelligence against dissident Iraqis and to eliminate political opponents.”

Also, The Guardian newspaper noted on the 30th of April 2002:

“The Iraqi government also used some of the students on its scholarships as spies, and set up a London surveillance network based at a “cultural centre” on Tottenham Court Road. There were sporadic assassination attempts against dissidents: in 1995 Latif Yahia, a defector previously employed by the Iraqi government as the official double of Saddam’s brother, alleged that he had been attacked with knives by five men speaking Arabic while stuck in traffic on the capital’s Edgware Road.”

My time studying in Mortimer was quite exciting but not as much as what must have been going on nearby in the cultural centre.  Thinking back to my years of study, we had some lectures given us by a young Iraqi dentist, who was working on his PhD – something to do with denture fixatives. He seemed very pleasant, but now I wonder… 

While I was studying at UCHDS, I had wanted to write about the history of Mortimer Market. In those days before the Internet, although I looked at several books in UCL’s very well-stocked library, I did not find anything about the story behind this little-known part of London. So, what you have just read is what I was hoping to write more than 38 years ago.

Examining the past

ON 13th AUGUST 2020, MANY YOUNGSTERS in England received the results of the state’s university admission examinations. This year of plague and social distancing, 2020, the results have not been determined by the students themselves writing examination papers but by a clumsy, somewhat arbitrary, algorithm that takes various factors other than a student’s own ability into account. Things were quite different last year and back in 1970 when I sat the A-Level examinations required for admission to university.


Back then, as now, universities offered places to potential students subject to achieving or exceeding certain grades at A-Level. The place that was my first choice amongst the six universities I chose was University College London (‘UCL’). In ‘my time’, UCL invited potential students for extensive interviewing. I was invited to spend a whole day at the Physiology Department. During that day, I was interviewed at least three times by different people and met both members of the academic staff as well as students already embarked on their courses of study.

Several days later, I received a letter from UCL offering me a place on the BSc course providing I achieved three E grades at A-Level. The top grade at A-Level was A, the lowest pass grade was E. At first, I was not sure whether to be pleased that all I needed was just to pass my three A-Level examinations. Was that the best that they thought I could manage? No, it was not. In those days, if UCL liked a candidate at interview, they took the strain off the candidate by not expecting high grades. Thee Es was normal for most subjects except medicine and dentistry when 3 Cs were required.  These days, candidates to places like UCL would be expected to get 3 A grades or something awfully close to this. Well, having been offered a place subject to my attaining at least 3 E grades and being neurotic by nature, I began to worry. What if I could not manage the three Es?

I became obsessed by examination papers to such an extent that I used to use my father’s typewriter to compose examination questions that I hoped would never appear in front of me in the examination hall. Whether or not composing these impossible questions was a kind of self-therapy or simply an opportunity to enjoy using the typewriter, I cannot tell, but it did me no harm. At the very least, It gave me short breaks in what for me was long hours trying to understand what I was studying.

My three A-Level subjects were Biology, Physical Science (a mixture of chemistry and physics), and mathematics. I found that all of them were most interesting and not too taxing. When I was at school, it was possible to opt to attempt supplementary papers in the subjects chosen for A-Level. These papers were known as ‘S-Levels’ and were designed to test a candidate’s deeper understanding of a subject. I chose to do S-Level papers in biology and mathematics. The biology S-Level paper was enjoyable. I was able to show off what I had learnt from reading around the subject. One of the questions was something to do with discussing the origins of life on earth. Well, in addition to various then current theories I decided to include what is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament. I passed that S-Level. The mathematics S-Level paper was a quite different ‘cup of tea’. Even though I had attended special classes to learn the mathematics that was required, I was stumped. For the first 30 minutes of the three-hour paper, I just stared at the questions. There was not one that I could even begin to tackle. So, after 20 minutes, I walked out of the examination room, leaving a blank script on my desk.

I can remember where I was when I received the A-Level results in August 1970. I was in Italy with my parents and sister on one of our annual visits to that country. We were in Venice, staying, as we always did, at the Pensione La Calcina, where many decades earlier the eminent John Ruskin(1819-1900) used to reside when visiting the island. The establishment’s façade is on the Fondamente Zattere across the water (of the Giudecca Canal) from the famous Santissimo Redentore church (completed 1592) designed by the architect Andrea Palladio.

We had just eaten lunch at the pensione and were taking the air on the waterfront prior to retiring indoors for a siesta when Signorina Steiner, the manageress, came rushing up to us with a telegram. My parents opened it to discover that my aunt in London had sent my A-Level results, which to my great relief were way in excess of the minimum required to gain admission to UCL.

If I had not managed to attain even 3 E grades, I would certainly not have expected to be admitted to any university. I would have had to accept the result and might well have decided to re-sit the examinations a few months later. As far as I am aware, in my day, there was no appealing to have papers re-marked as has become normal in the last twenty or thirty years. During recent times, it is not unusual for someone who is not satisfied with a grade to have his or her examination papers re-marked. Often, the revised grade is higher than the original, but things can go less favourably for the candidate.

This year, when young people have not been able to attend school since March and have not been awarded A-Level grades based on final papers written under strict examination  conditions, they have been awarded grades based largely on statistics (generated by what appears to be a poorly conceived algorithm) rather than individual ability. Many students have been awarded grades well below what they and their teachers expected. Thank heavens that there are appeal procedures in place.

I remember how much of a nail-biting experience it was waiting for my A-Level results back in 1970. This year, it was far worse for candidates. Not only did they not know on what basis their grades would be estimated, but also many of them will have to remain anxious for even longer whilst their appeals are being considered.


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.

A light bulb moment: sudden enlightenment



After I had completed my first (Bachelor’s) degree, I decided that I would like to apply to become a doctoral (PhD) student. In order to do this in the UK (and elsewhere) it is necessary to enlist a supervisor, an academic who guides you through the process of researching and writing a doctoral thesis.

I knew roughly in which field I wished to pursue my further studies. Someone in Cambridge was looking for a PhD student to work on something that sounded interesting to me. So, I visited the academic in Cambridge. First of all, I was not particularly keen on the man’s personality (albeit having only met him once) and also the project he was offering seemed far too difficult for me, way beyond my ability. 

After the Cambridge episode, I discovered that the Imperial Cancer research institute was offering amazingly generous scholarships for PhD stuents working in their laboratories. I applied, choosing two of the projects that seemed to be in harmony with my interests, and received an offer of interviews at the institute in Lincolns Inn Fields.

At the first interview, I was introduced to the eight or so members of the team i was applying to join. They sat around whilst the senior members of the team interviewed me. It did not take me long to feel uneasy about my future colleagues, and as the questioning continued I could not wait for it to end. Near the end of the session I was asked if I was interested in cancer. In an attempt to cut short the proceedings, I answered that I was uninterested in that subject. 

After an equally unpromising interview with another of the research groups that I had applied to join, I left the building and began walking across Lincolns Inn Fields, feeling relieved that the interviewing ordeal was over. It was then that an important tought entered my head.

A PhD takes about (or at least) three years to complete. During that time, I would have to work in a laboratory with the rest of a research team and in regular contact with my supervisor. I realised while walking in Lincolns Inn Fields that it would be important for me that I enjoyed the people with whom I would be working. A pleasant environment was more important for me than the precise nature of the research topic.

I returned to University College, having made the decision to ask Professor Robert Harkness, whom I liked and whose research interests attracted me, whether he would take me on as a PhD student. To my great delight, he accepted me. As one of his doctoral students, I spent a very happy three and a bit years working in his laboratory with his other researchers, all of whom were friendly and helpful.

Since that day in Lincolns Inn Fields and my ‘light bulb moment’, which happened there, I have attended other interviews (for positions in various dental practices). At each occasion, I have asked myself: would I feel happy working five days a week with the person(s) interviewing me? If I have not felt the right ‘vibes’ at the interview, I have always turned down the job however attractive it seemed. On only one occasion, I have been mistaken with that approach, which I was fortunate to have been able to take when looking for work.