A castle, a bridge, and the law

RIVER CROSSINGS HAVE often had great historical significance. The small town of Wallingford in Oxfordshire has been a place for crossing the River Thames since Roman times or maybe even before. According to “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names” by someone with an interesting name: Eilert Ekwall, a fascinating book that I picked up for next to nothing at a local charity shop, the town was known as ‘Waelingaford’ in 821 AD, as ‘Welengaford’ in c893 AD, and ‘Walingeford’ in the Domesday Book. The meaning of the name is ‘The ford of Wealh’s people’, clearly referring to a river crossing place. It is said the William the Conqueror used the ford. Today, a fine bridge with many arches crosses the river.

Wallingford Castle

There has been a bridge at Wallingford since 1141, or before. The construction of the first stone bridge was probably constructed for Richard, the first Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272), a son of King John, who became King of Germany (Holy Roman Empire) in 1256, a title he held until his death. Some of the arches of the bridge may contain stonework from the 13th century structure. Much of the present bridge dates from a rebuilding done between 1810 and 1812 to the designs of John Treacher (1760-1836). During the Civil War (1642-1651), four arches were removed and replaced by a drawbridge to help defend the besieged Wallingford Castle.

The huge castle was built on a hill overlooking the town; the river – an artery for water transport in the past; and, more importantly, the bridge, which was an important crossing place on the road leading from London to Oxford via Henley-on-Thames. Between the 11th and the 16th centuries, the castle was used a great deal, being used as a royal residence until Henry VIII abandoned it. During the Civil War, the castle was restored and re-fortified and used as a stronghold by the Royalists. It was of great importance to them as their headquarters were at nearby Oxford. To simplify matters, the Parliamentarians began laying siege to Wallingford Castle in 1645. This initial attempt was unsuccessful because the besiegers had underestimated the strength of the castle’s fortifications. After the Royalists were defeated at the Battle of Naseby (14th June 1645), Wallingford was one of only three strongholds in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire) still loyal to King Charles I. A second siege of Wallingford commenced on the 14th of May 1646, shortly after the Parliamentarians had laid siege to Oxford. The latter fell on the 24th of June 1646, but Wallingford held out until the 22nd of July 1646 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallingford,_Oxfordshire). The castle was demolished in November 1652.

The castle grounds are open to the public. Here and there, few and far between, there are ruins of what must have once been a spectacular castle. Within the grounds of the former castle, there are several informative notices that give the visitor some idea of which part of the castle used to stand near the signs. From the grassy areas that formed the motte and bailey of the castle, there are fine views of the river below and some of the town.

Although our first visit to Wallingford was brief, I learnt that the judge Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) had presided as the Recorder at Wallingford from 1749 to 1770. “So, what?”, I hear you asking. At first, I hoped that he was something to do with the road, where we lived in Chicago (Illinois) in 1963: South Blackstone Avenue (number 5608). But I think that thoroughfare was more likely named after the American politician and railway entrepreneur Timothy Blackstone (1829-1900). The Wallingford Blackstone, who lived in the 18th century, was most probably a distant cousin of Timothy’s father (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Blackstone). Related or not, Sir William Blackstone had an extremely important influence the legal affairs of the USA.

Having studied at the University of Oxford and the Middle Temple, where he was called to the Bar, Sir William taught law at Oxford for a few years. Just before resigning his prestigious academic position in 1766, he published the first volume of what was to become a best-seller, a real money-spinner, “Commentaries on the Laws of England”. Eventually, this work was completed in four volumes. They contain:

“… first methodical treatise on the common law suitable for a lay readership since at least the Middle Ages. The common law of England has relied on precedent more than statute and codifications and has been far less amenable than the civil law, developed from the Roman law, to the needs of a treatise. The Commentaries were influential largely because they were in fact readable, and because they met a need.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commentaries_on_the_Laws_of_England)

The “Commentaries” are widely regarded as being the definitive sources of common law in America before the American Revolution. Blackstone’s writings were influential in the formulation of the American Constitution. His words embodied his vision of English law as a method of protecting people, their possessions, and their freedom. Blackstone’s ideas are well exemplified by this quotation from the “Commentaries”:

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

This is known as ‘Blackstone’s Ratio’.

Leaders of the American Revolution recycled the idea with words such as:

“It is of more importance to the community that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world, that all of them cannot be punished…” (John Adams; 1735-1826), and:

“…it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer…” (Benjamin Franklin; 1706-1790)

As already mentioned, Sir William presided in the court in Wallingford from 1749 onwards, three years after being called to the Bar. During his career, he served as a Tory Member of Parliament a couple of times: for Hindon (1761-68) and for Westbury (1768-70). In the House of Commons, he was:

“…an infrequent and ‘an indifferent speaker’: during the seven years 1761-8 only 14 speeches by him are recorded, mostly on subjects of secondary importance. Very learned and original, over-subtle and ingenious, in major debates he showed a lack of political common sense.” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/blackstone-william-1723-80)

The Blackstone family owned a large estate at Wallingford including 120 acres of land by the River Thames. He died in Wallingford and was buried inside St Peter’s Church, which is close to the bridge over the river.  

What little we saw of Wallingford, its castle, its riverside including the Thames towpath, its attractive market square, and streets rich in historic buildings, during our brief visit recently, we saw enough to whet our appetites for a future and lengthier visit.

Sun and snow in Arizona

BEFORE WE DEPARTED for the USA in January 1995, three months before the expected due date of the baby, who was in my wife’s womb, we consulted our obstetrician. We wanted to know whether it would be safe for my wife, Lopa, to travel at this point in the pregnancy. Our obstetrician saw no reason why we should not make the trip but warned us:

“Make sure you have good travel insurance because a premature birth in the States will bankrupt you.”

We spent much of January 1995 driving around California and neighbouring Arizona. What we had not expected was the weather. We had wanted to visit Death Valley but were advised against it, not because of the heat but because of the bad winter weather there. On arriving at Yosemite National Park, we were turned away in order to buy snow chains for the tires of our hired car. Returning with the chains we ventured into the snowy wilderness that Yosemite had become.

Later in the trip we crossed a so-called desert, probably the Mojave, the first I had ever seen. It rained nonstop and instead of sand there was plenty of green vegetation. I was disappointed as it did not match my preconceptions of desert appearances. We were travelling east towards Arizona, a state that until that trip I had associated with heat and deserts.

One of our destinations was the south side of the Grand Canyon. We were really glad that we had the snow chains with us because without them it would have been impossible to reach our rented cabin close to the edge of the canyon.

We were adequately dressed for the cold but Lopa was terrified that she might slip in the snow and fall, possibly risking the health of our unborn child. We found her a tall, stout branch and she walked in the snow, looking rather like  Mahatma Gandhi on a march as depicted in many statues in India, but dressed in padded clothing.

We arrived at the Canyon after nightfall. The next day, the sun was shining, and the sky was blue. The snow still lay thickly on the ground, on the trees, and in the canyon.

This was my first visit to the Grand Canyon and the snowfall enhanced my enjoyment of this spectacular place. The snow had fallen in such a way that it had only landed on the upward facing surfaces of the many strata that make up the walls of the canyon. This exaggerated their appearance in a positively aesthetic fashion. The Grand Canyon under snow made our visit memorable and exceeded all my expectations of the famous site.

From the Canyon, we drove south to Sedona, which is famous for its vortices that some people. including me, claim to be able to feel. Though not far south from the Canyon, the weather had improved considerably.

When we reached Phoenix, a city south of Sedona, winter had become summer. Whereas the temperature at the Canyon had been below freezing point, at Phoenix it was at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

From Phoenix, we drove west towards Yuma and San Diego in south California. On the way, we traversed a stretch of land that confirmed my preconceptions of what a desert should look like. It was neither soaked with rain nor lacking in sand dunes. On the contrary, it was hot, deserted, and sandy. And we saw occasional cacti. At last, at the age of almost 42 I had seen my first ‘real’ desert.  Since then, I have seen a few other sandy deserts including the vast wastes of Kutch in western India.

Although our obstetrician in London was unconcerned about our journey, everyone we met in the USA on that trip was horrified that we had undertaken it. Our holiday in the USA was a great success and our baby daughter arrived intact and healthy in early April. I cannot say for sure whether her in-utero journey across the Atlantic and around parts of California and Arizona is in any way responsible for her love of travelling, but there is a possibility that it was.

In the shadow of the Hilton Hotel

BBC RADIO ONE began broadcasting on the 30th of September 1967. Before then, if you wanted to listen to popular music on the radio in the UK, you would have to tune your radio to pick up Radio Luxembourg, whose broadcasts from Luxembourg came over the airwaves loud and clear. Some of its presenters, for example Dave Cash, Noel Edmonds, and Kenny Everett, later hosted programmes on the new radio stations that began to broadcast after Radio One and various new commercial stations began transmitting. Unlike the BBC, Radio Luxembourg was commercial and broadcast advertisements relevant to British listeners. Several programmes were sponsored by two football pools companies, Littlewoods and Vernons. The station continued transmitting for UK audiences until December 1992.

I had not thought about Radio Luxembourg much until mid-September 2020 when we were walking along Hertford Street in a part of London’s Mayfair under the shadow of the tall Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. This short street runs east from Park Lane (just next to the Hilton) for about 630 feet and then makes a right angle turn and heads north through Shepherd Market and ends up at Curzon Street, which I have written about elsewhere (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/20/). Next to the front door of number 38 Hertford Street, a tall narrow house built in the 18th century (or not much later), a commemorative plaque informs:

“This was the HQ of Radio Luxembourg, Broadcasting from the Grand Duchy 1933-1991”

This building was not only the headquarters of the extra-territorial radio station but also contained recording studios where seemingly ‘live’ programmes could be recorded for broadcasting later from Luxembourg. Listeners were not informed where programmes had been recorded and were left with the impression that everything was being produced in the Grand Duchy.

Number 10 Hertford Street is just across the road from the former Radio Luxembourg HQ. This elegant terraced building, whose front entrance is flanked by two metal lampstands complete with inverted cones for extinguishing flaming torches, was home to two famous people, as recorded by plaques affixed to the house.  One of its former occupants was General John Burgoyne (1722-1792), who lived and died here and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), who lived here from 1795-1802. Prior to these celebrated occupants, the house was occupied by John Montagu, 4th  Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), who was famous for his musical parties (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol4/pp345-359) and for giving his name to a popular food item.

General Burgoyne was, according to Wikipedia:

“… a British army officer, dramatist and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1761 to 1792.”

His military achievements during the American War of Independence were dismal. His attempt to disrupt the American forces came to nought and ended with him surrendering his army of over 6000 men in October 1777 at Saratoga. His dramatic works were popular and included “The Maid of the Oaks” (1774) and “The Heiress” (1786). He assisted in the writing and production of “The Camp: A musical Entertainment” (1778), principally written by another occupant of Number 10 Hertford Street, Richard Sheridan. The General also worked on the libretti of several operas. Had he stuck to the stage, and kept away from the battlefield, Burgoyne might have been remembered as a dramatist rather than a failed military man. Politically, he began by supporting the Tories, but later switched to the Whigs. Near the end of his political career, he was involved in Parliament’s attempted impeachment of Warren Hastings at the end of the 18th century. Hastings, the first Governor General of Bengal had been accused of misconduct in Calcutta but was eventually acquitted.

Another occupant of number 10 was also involved in the theatre but to a greater extent than Burgoyne. Richard Sheridan, born in Dublin, was a playwright and poet as well as being the owner of the London Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.  He is best known for his still popular plays “School for Scandal” (1777) and “The Rivals” (1775).What I did not know until I began writing this was that Sheridan had been a Member of Parliament (a Whig supporter). In 1777 during a Parliamentary session, he had demanded the impeachment of Warren Hastings. His speech on the subject made on the 7th of February 1787 lasted five and three-quarters hours. His oration:

“… commanded the most profound attention and admiration of the House. His matchless oration united the most solid argument with the most persuasive eloquence. His sound reasoning giving additional  energy to truth, and his logical perspicuity, and unerring judgment, throwing a light upon, and pervading the obscurity, of the most involved and complicated subject.” (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004858403.0001.000/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext).

Clearly, Sheridan was eloquent both in life and creatively on the stage.

This home of playwrights was built between 1768 and 1770 by the builder Henry Holland the elder (1745-1806). On arrival at this address in 1769, Burgoyne commissioned his friend, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), to design and execute some of the interior decoration (http://collections.soane.org/SCHEME1106).  After the General’s death in 1792, Sheridan purchased it.

Moving on, we enter the short Down Street that leads south from Hertford Street to Piccadilly. Although the street slopes downwards to Piccadilly, I am not sure that this is the reason for its name. “The London Encyclopaedia” (edited by B Weinreb and C Hibbert) noted that it was was laid out in the 1720s by the bricklayer John Downes, who was involved in much building work in Westminster (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp77-83). Maybe, that is the origin of its name.

Two buildings caught my attention on Down Street. Nearer Hertford Street, on the corner of Brick and Down Streets, stands a Victorian gothic church, Christ Church Mayfair. Constructed in 1865, this protestant church was designed by F & H Francis (they were brothers) and enlarged in 1868. After a fire in 1906, it was rebuilt considerably. It was closed when we passed it, but I have read that it contains some art nouveau features.

South of the church on the west side of Down Street, there is a terracotta coloured tiled façade that looks like a typical Underground station, which is what it was between 1907 and 1932, when it was closed. This now disused station was ‘Down Street’ station on the Piccadilly Line. It lies between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park Stations, no more than about 500 yards from each of them. It was closed because it was never busy enough to keep open. Most of the inhabitants around it were and still are wealthy enough not to need or use public transport. During WW2, it was used as a bunker by Winston Churchill and his staff before the Cabinet War Rooms were ready for use.

By retracing our steps, we can return to Shepherds Market for refreshment, be it a drink or something more substantial. After passing the former Radio Luxembourg HQ and entering the section of Hertford Street that runs towards Curzon Street, you will come face to face with a pub (currently closed) called ‘Shepherds Tavern’. This hostelry was first built in 1735 as part of the development of the area by the developer and architect Edward Shepherd (died 1747). Its customers are said to have included the actress Elizabeth Taylor and Antony Armstrong Jones, who was once married to Princess Margaret.  The actress Wendy Richard (1943-2009) lived in the pub from 1948 to 1953, when her parents were its publicans.

As you enjoy a pint of beer or a glass of sherry or maybe a cortado or a ‘latte’ in Shepherds Market, you can marvel at how much history is packed into two short streets overshadowed by the 331 foot high, 28 storey Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, which first opened in 1963. And fully refreshed, you can resume exploring Mayfair sure in the knowledge that you will be treading in the steps of many now famous people who have haunted the area since it was laid out in the early 18th century.

Pelicans in the park

I HAVE BEEN FORTUNATE to have lived in parts of London close to large green open spaces. When I was at secondary school in Highgate (north London), I could walk there from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, hardly needing to walk along streets. It was a short distance from my house to the grassy Hampstead Heath Extension. From there, I crossed a road to enter the wooded part of Hampstead Heath through which I walked to the Spaniards Inn. Then a few hundred yards of pavement followed before I entered the pleasant landscaped grounds of Kenwood House. Walking through this lovely park brought me to within a few hundred yards of my senior school.

When I was a student at University College London (‘UCL’), I was able to walk there through green areas most of the way from my family home. By walking the length of Hampstead Heath Extension, and then strolling southwards across the eastern part of Hampstead Heath, I reached South End Green. From there, I had to tramp the streets towards Primrose Hill, where once again my feet were on grass instead of paving stones. Primrose Hill led straight to Regents Park and from that splendid open space, it was a short walk along pavements to UCL.

Since marrying over 27 years ago, we have lived close to the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens. We are about three to four minutes’ walk away from the gardens depending on whether the pedestrian traffic lights are in our favour or not. We can traverse Kensington Gardens, passing close to the so-called Round Pond and then reaching The Serpentine Lake, where maybe one might stop for a coffee at the café by the Lido on the Serpentine. From there, it is not a long distance to the southeast corner of Hyde Park, which is next to Hyde Park Corner, a small green space ringed by busy roads. After crossing Hyde Park Corner, maybe having walked beneath Wellington Arch, which is surmounted by a metal quadriga, one road needs traversing before entering Green Park, which lives up to its name with its expanses of lawn and rows of mature trees. If you wish, you can walk along the northern fringe of Green Park to reach the eastern third of Piccadilly, and then you have arrived in the heart of the West End hardly having stepped upon the pavements lining busy streets.

After walking east through Green Park, one reaches the Mall and the front of Buckingham Palace. Cross the Mall and then you are in St James Park. By crossing this beautiful green space, you will soon reach Parliament Square and beyond it the Thames and the South Bank area.

Let us linger awhile in St James Park. The feature that endears me to this London Park is the St James Park Lake and its rich assortment of waterfowl. The park was established by King Henry VII on marshland watered by the now no longer visible Tyburn River, which runs in underground conduits. The lake, probably designed by the French landscape designer André Mollet (d. before 16 June 1665), began life as a canal dug for King Charles II. The king used it for swimming in the summer and for skating when it froze in the winter (a rare occurrence nowadays, thanks to the so-called ‘global warming’ that many believe is occurring).

There is a pedestrian bridge across the water, two islands, and a fountain, in the lake. A wide variety of ducks, swans, geese, herons, cormorants (or shags), and other birds congregate in and around the water. This is nothing peculiar. You can see the same in The Round Pond, the Serpentine Lake, and many other water bodies that are dotted liberally across Greater London. However, St James Park offers one kind of bird that you will not find anywhere else in London except at the Zoo. The park is home to a small population of pelicans. These creatures are often hard to see as they usually perch on the islands in the lake, but yesterday, the 11th of October 2020, at least three of them were walking fearlessly (it seemed) along the edge of the lake close to admiring visitors including my wife and me.

In 1664, during the reign (1660-1685) of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland, pelicans were first introduced into St James Park. These distinctive long billed birds, which symbolise the Passion of Jesus and the Eucharist in Christian symbolism, were gifts of the Russian Ambassador, who knew that the king appreciated exotic waterfowl. Charles was presented with two grey or Dalmatian pelicans (Pelicanus crispus). Sadly, they did not breed successfully, and the park needed to be replenished with new specimens occasionally. An article in the online version of “Country Life” (www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/st-jamess-park-pelicans-sparked-cold-war-stand-off-russia-usa-171954), published in January 2018, reveals:

“The Russian Embassy’s custom of occasionally presenting new pelicans continued during and after the Soviet era and other organisations – such as the City of Prague in 2013 – have also added to the birds’ numbers.”

However, a diplomatic incident erupted in the 1960s, when:

“… London’s Royal Parks accepted some American pelicans for the lake in St James’s Park … According to Foreign Office tradition, the presence of the American pelicans resulted from a Cold War rivalry between the American and Soviet Embassies. One day, a newly accredited US Ambassador called on the Foreign Secretary, whose office overlooks the lake. He noticed the pelicans and was informed about their history and origin.

Determined not to be upstaged by the Soviet Ambassador, his opposite number announced that he, too, would be presenting some pelicans – American ones – to grace the lake, an offer that the Royal Parks management accepted gratefully.

When the American pelicans duly arrived, they were, predictably, not friendly to their Russian counterparts. Indeed, rather mysteriously, they failed to flourish and seemed miserable. The US Embassy suspected the Soviet Embassy of harming the American pelicans – which the Russians denied – and relations between the embassies became glacial.”

That incident is something that we did not see recorded on any of the numerous informative signs placed near the perimeter of the lake.

Londoners are most fortunate to have so many green spaces often within easy walking distance from their homes. Many other great cities of the world do have significantly large public green spaces, for example Central Park in New York, Cubbon Park in Bangalore, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and Kalemegdan in Belgrade, but few have so many as liberally distributed across their areas as does London. Being within walking distance of both Kensington Gardens and Holland Park during our recent severe month’s long ‘lockdown’ helped raise our spirits during this bleak period. Not only was the walking we did good for our spirits, but it gradually increased the distance that we can walk comfortably before becoming physically fatigued. Even when eventually the pandemic of covid19 dies down, we might well think twice about taking public transport now that we know how pleasant it is to walk instead.

PS: If you wish, you can watch the pelicans feeding in the lake on:  http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/50409682

Illinois Central

A TRAM RIDE IN the northern Portuguese city of Porto (Oporto), home of the drink ‘port’, evoked memories of Chicago in Illinois.

In Porto, we travelled along the riverbank towards the seaside in a very old tram. Most of its seats had reversible backrests so that a passenger was able to choose to sit facing the direction of travel or face the opposite direction. These seats had a mechanism beneath each of them that allowed the seat backs to be shifted manually. On close examination I noticed that the mechanisms had been manufactured in the USA.

Seeing these seats in 2010 reminded me of Chicago in autumn 1963. My father had been invited to spend three months at the University of Chicago. We sailed across the Atlantic in the then almost new SS France (launched 1962). Sadly, this wonderful ship no longer exists. It was sold to be turned into scrap metal by shipbreakers at Alang in Saurashtra (Gujarat, India) a few years ago in 2008.

We had high hopes of Chicago, naively expecting to be put up in ‘swish’ accommodation. The first floor (American 2nd floor) flat we were lent was far from swish. There was nothing wrong with it, but we were expecting something more up to date and in harmony with our preconceptions about America being at the ‘cutting edge’ of living standards. 5608 South Blackstone Avenue was a dowdy two storey house with a highly dubious looking wooden fire escape, which would have been the first thing to go up in flames had the house caught fire. I have recently learnt that our temporary home and its neighbours have been replaced by newer buildings.

At night, the air was filled with the sound of police car sirens almost continuousl and the occasional lengthy rumble of long freight trains passing close by on the railway that followed the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

This railway line near our home was used not only used by freight trains but also by passenger trains, both inter-city and local.

Our nearest station, a few minute walk from our flat was named ‘55th-56th-57th Streets’ and was both close to a superb Science Museum and served by the suburban trains of the Illinois Central Railroad. These rather antiquated trains carried us to the then terminus, Van Buren Street in downtown Chicago. The trains were electrically powered receiving current from overhead wires.
Often whilst waiting on the platform at our local station, trains heading towards or from Indiana, operated by the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, would hurtle past us.

What interested me then, aged 11 years old, were the backs of the seats in the train carriages. They were reversible just like those on the trams in Porto, which I was to see about 37 years later in Porto.

It is curious the way that seeing one thing can trigger old memories to come to the forefront of one’s mind.

Picture of reversible tram seats in Porto from TripAdvisor

New York! New York!

IN THE SUMMER OF 1992, I began planning a trip to the USA. It was going to be the first trip that I had made to that country since 1963, when our family lived in Chicago for the last three months of that year. While we were in Chicago, President JF Kennedy was assassinated. Most of my 1992 trip was to stay with friends who lived in Manhattan. I was also going to stay in Boston with some other friends. When my cousin Anthea heard that I was going to be in New England, she suggested that I looked up some cousins of my father, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island.

NY 1 Near 42nd Street_ (2) BLOG SIZE

I was keen not to waste a moment in Manhattan. So, unusually for me, I spent many hours of my spare time at home reading numerous guidebooks to New York. Each of these detailed tomes contained a section on keeping safe in New York. Each one of these explained what to do WHEN you get mugged rather than IF you get mugged. It seemed to me that getting mugged in New York was an inevitable experience for tourists in the city. The more I read, the more anxious I became. As the date of departure drew closer, my inclination to cancel my trip increased steadily. However, my desire to visit New York was greater than my fear of the dangers described in my guidebooks. I decided that should I get mugged, as seemed inevitable, I did not want all my money to be taken. I wanted to be left with some so that I could make my way back to where I was staying after the robbery had taken place. I decided that a safe place to hide my ‘emergency’ cash would be inside my sock beneath the sole of a foot. This is what I did every day in Manhattan, but, fortunately, the guidebooks were not entirely accurate: I was not mugged.

Plenty of beggars tried to entice me to put money into the paper cups they held out hopefully. Once, I succumbed and threw a coin into one of these cups, and its owner shouted:

“Is that all? I was hoping for a hundred Dollars,” adding a few seconds later, “well, it’s a start.”

I loved Manhattan. I loved the quick wittedness of almost everyone I met. I felt as if I was taking part in a Woody Allen comedy, but the things said by New Yorkers were often far cleverer and funnier than any of Woody’s lines.

One purchase I wanted to make in New York was a padded winter jacket. When I entered one shop, I explained what I wanted. When I told the salesman that I wanted both outside and inside pockets, he exclaimed:

“Hey, what are ya? Some kind of secret agent?”

He sold me a superb jacket, which I used until a couple of years ago.

My father had told me to look up one of his first cousins, who lived in Manhattan. She lived high up in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. Its windows overlooked The Metropolitan Museum and Central Park. After dinner, I announced that I would walk the few blocks to where I was staying. She was dead against this and insisted I went by taxi. As she and her husband were seeing me off, she said:

“Press the elevator button marked ‘taxi’.”

I boarded the lift, found the button, and pressed it. The lift descended and when the doors opened on the ground floor, I could see a taxi waiting just outside the doors to the apartment block. I was amazed. I had never encountered such a thing before. I felt like a country bumpkin marvelling over the wonders of the big city. This button that summoned taxis seemed to me an example of what made ‘America great’.

It was fun visiting my friends in Boston back in 1992. However, after the excitement and uniqueness of Manhattan, I was not as trilled by the city as many other visitors are.

I took a train from Boston to Providence. It was the time of the famous ‘Fall’ colours. The journey afforded me with a great opportunity to view the outstanding display of autumn leaf colours, which far exceeded my expectations. I had no idea about what sort of time I would be spending with my newly discovered cousins in Providence. My main worry was that they would not take me sightseeing. So, I told them that I would be arriving on a train that reached Providence in the late afternoon but boarded one which arrived in the middle of the day. That allowed me a few hours to look around before I met them.

After spending a few hours on my own in Providence, I returned to the station platform, and then walked up the stairs to the waiting area where I had planned to meet my relatives. I had no idea what any of them looked like. They had no idea about my appearance. I entered the waiting area and found that a lot of people were seated there. I scanned the faces and spotted an elderly lady sitting with two young boys. I fancied that the face of one of these looked like I did when I was only a few years old. Then, I thought that I was being silly, but I was right. I approached the elderly lady, the grandmother of the two boys and introduced myself. Greta, widow of one of my father’s cousins, said she had noticed me and thought that I had a family resemblance to her late husband. She drove us to her daughter’s home in a large American saloon car, swinging the steering wheel with gusto whenever a change of direction was required. My cousin’s family did take me sightseeing. I particularly remember the roads in an Italian neighbourhood. The median road markings were in the three colours of the Italian flag.

I enjoyed my trip to the USA in 1992. My next visit to Manhattan was in 2007. Things had changed a lot since 1992. The city seemed to have lost its edgy, almost electric feel. Gone were the men on the pavements with their paper cups and witty comments. Also missing, were the endless stream of dubious characters walking, often menacingly, along the corridors of the Subway trains. Although Manhattan had probably become a safer place for its inhabitants, I felt that it had become almost twee in comparison to what I had found so exciting in 1992.

Sadly, now in April 2020 as I write this piece, New York City is facing one of its greatest, if not greatest, crises: a viral epidemic that is trying to outdo the Spanish Flu that occurred at the end of WW1. May it return to normal as soon as possible.

Route 66

MY MOTHER’S ANCESTORS included a Seligmann family, which can be traced back to the area around Ichenhausen Bavaria in Germany.

In January 1995, we visited Arizona in the USA and drove along a stretch of Route 66 on our way from Lake Havasu City and the Grand Canyon. On the way, we spotted a tiny settlement called Seligman . Even though its name differed to my ancestor’s family name by having only one ‘n’, we felt that we should make a small break there.

Seligman on the Santa Fe Railway is named after Jesse Seligman of JW Seligman & Co, who helped finance the railway and others in the area. The founder of the company was Jewish from Germany. Many German Jews who migrated to the USA with surnames ending with a pair of consonants, such as Seligmann and Wolff, dropped the final consonant on arrival in the States.

Seligman looked like a typical ‘boondocks’ place. It was just what I expected to find in the Wild West despite the dismal weather and the snow on the ground.

We came across a pen in the centre of the town. A weathered notice next to it said that the enclosure contained an ageing buffalo that was once displayed at Buffalo Bills Wildwest Show. My wife suggested, frivilously, that she should should into the pen to pose for a photograph next to the sign.

Despite being 7 months into pregnancy, she began climbing the fence around the pen, and stopped suddenly. What we thought was empty, was not. The pen housed an enormous, sleepy, aged buffalo. She had a lucky escape!

Later, we arrived at the Grand Canyon where the snow fall had been heavy. We were fortunate to see this spectacular geological area decorated with snow.

A town in California

 

Just after Christmas in 1994, we flew to San Francisco in California (USA) for a four-week holiday. My wife was in the sixth month of pregnancy. Before booking our trip, we consulted her obstetrician at St Marys Hospital in Paddington, London. We wanted to know whether it was safe for her to travel at this stage in her pregnancy. The obstetrician did not mince her words:

Yes, go ahead, but make sure that you have good travel health insurance because having a premature birth in the United States might well bankrupt you.”

After spending a few days with friends who live across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, we rented a car, an upmarket Toyota, one of the nicest cars I have ever driven. We drove all over California south of San Francisco. Also, we visited the Grand Canyon and saw it under snow. This was a very beautiful sight because the snow had fallen in such a way that the many stepped strata that line the walls of this spectacular gorge were accentuated. We admired this while trudging through very deep snow. In order to enjoy this, we had had to purchase snow chains and to learn how to apply them to the wheels.

One day, we drove south from the snow-covered Grand Canyon to Sedona, a town famed for its vortices of energy. It was a distance of 106 miles. Yet in that short distance the weather had changed from Arctic to summer. And, the following, day we drove further south past Phoenix and Yuma and then through a southern Californian Desert to San Diego. Even though it was freezing up at the Grand Canyon, from Phoenix to San Diego it was so hot that we had to switch on the car’s air-conditioning.

From San Diego, we spent a few days driving along roads close to the Pacific Coast. We visited most of the historic mission stations between San Diego and San Francisco. We also stopped at Nepenthe in Big Sur, where the writer Henry Miller once lived. The building in which the writer lived was open to the public. While we were visiting it, my pregnant wife needed to use a toilet urgently. Without making any fuss, the guardian unlocked the toilet that Miller used to use and allowed my wife to relieve herself.

Being fans of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, we visited some of the few buildings that the great architect had designed along the route we were taking. One of these, at San Luis Obisco (between Los Angeles and San Francisco), was a particularly lovely medical centre, the Kundert Medical Clinic that was built in 1956.

On the final day of our road trip, I looked at the guidebook and spotted something that I did not want to miss. To reach it, meant adding 60 miles to our already long (300-mile journey) journey. The place that caught my eye was about 90 miles to the east of our destination Marin County on the left bank of the River Sacramento. The small settlement is called Locke.

Locke is in the wetlands of the Sacramento River Delta. In the 1860s, work was undertaken to drain the malarial wetlands. Many poor Chinese labourers were hired to do this work at disgracefully low wages. In about 1912, the settlement of Lockeport, now called ‘Locke’ was established by three local Chinese merchants. Three years later in 1915, the Chinatown in nearby walnut Grove was destroyed by fire. The Chinese community then moved to Locke and a town grew. Because the Californian Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade Asians buying farmland, the Chinese in the area leased the land from a George Locke.

The town’s population reached 1000 to 1500 in its heyday. It acquired a reputation for its gambling halls, opium dens, and brothels. At one point, according to an article in Wikipedia, it became known as ‘California’s Monte Carlo’. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the towns population dwindled because many people migrated from Locke to major American cities. Currently, there are only about ten people living there.

By 1995 when we drove into Locke it was already a ghost town, a lesser-known tourist attraction. However, it did not disappoint us. Most of the main street’s buildings were picturesquely decaying. They were all made of wood, and no doubt highly inflammable. The place looked like a rundown set for a cowboy film, except that it was for real. One of the buildings that had housed a gambling salon, or maybe a brothel or opium den, was open to the public. Its original dingy décor had been preserved. All that was missing was a haze of opium smoke and the poor Chinese workers squandering their hard-earned money.

From Locke we drove west into the setting sun towards Marin County, pleased that we had made the detour to see the fascinating remnant of a far-off era. Our daughter was born three months later, having travelled several thousand miles around the American west in utero.

New York! New York!

Brooklyn Bdg_240

 

In 1992, I decided to visit New York City (‘NYC’). I had a week available and did not want to waste a minute of that precious time.

In order to make efficient use of my time in NYC, I bought several guidebooks. I spent several weeks studying them in my spare time. I wanted to make sure that I did not miss seeing anything that seemed likely to be of interest to me.

As I turned the pages of these books, something began to worry me and nearly made me want to cancel my trip. Each of the books had sections on dangers in the city including ‘mugging’. What worried me most was not that these books warned of the risks of being mugged, BUT what to do when you are mugged, rather than if you are unlucky enough to be mugged. The implication seemed to me to be that getting mugged was inevitable. That was what got me worried.

Well, I decided, if I was going to be mugged, I had better be prepared for it. Had the situation arrived, which (thank heavens) it did not, I was going to hand over my wallet politely without attempting a struggle. However, I was not prepared to hand over all my cash to any old criminal. To avoid this, I carried a useful nmber of US Dollars in my socks beneath the soles of my feet.

As it turned out, my week in NYC was not only free of unpleasant surprises but also highly enjoyable. 

The streets of NYC in 1992 were far more exciting and ‘edgy’ than when I returned for another visit in 2007. Between those two visits, Manhattan seemed to have been socially ‘sanitized’. The sense of excitement and uncertainty that I felt in 1992  had been replaced by an almost dull genteelness. Manhattan had been transformed from an electrifyingly live place to something like an urban theme park. No doubt, those who live there find it an improvement over what it was back in 1992, but I was a little disappointed.

Catching up with the past: Chicago

chicago theatre

 

During the last three months of 1963, while my father was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, I attended the university’s high school, the Lab School. While we were in Chicago, President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

I was put in the PreFreshman class with pupils who were one or two years older than me. Everyone was very kind and friendly towards me, and a bit curious about having a boy from England amongst them.

I remember being asked about some green plant that the British loved to eat. I had no idea what the questioner was talking about until I realised that he was referring to watercress. Another of my fellow students was surprised that the word ‘bloody’ was a swear word in British English.

I left the Lab School in December 1963 and, sadly, lost all contact with my lovely new school friends. In 1963, there was no Internet and international telephone calls were quite expensive. Hence, keeping up with people living far away was much more difficult than it is today.

Fifty six years later, in 2019, I made contact (via social media) with Steve, who remembered me from my brief stay at the Lab School. He remembered that I had introduced him to the hobby of train spotting. I do not recall that, but many years have passed since then.

A few days ago, Steve came to have dinner with us. I am not certain that either of us recognised each other after over half a century of separation, but that did not matter as Steve turned out to be a very congenial guest and we engaged in interesting conversations. We reminisced briefly about Chicago, but spent most of the evening discussing other topics.

Although, as already mentioned, I did not recognise Steve and barely recollected him, I felt a wave of pleasure catching up with the ever so distant past.

 

 

Photo by Leon Macapagal on Pexels.com