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.

BLOG EXAM

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.

From Europe to Asia

I NEVER IMAGINED THAT I WOULD SEE THE VENETIAN WINGED LION of St Mark in Bhuj (Kutch, western India), but I did. A carving of this well known symbol of a once powerful European empire stands at the entrance to the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Bhuj, which was built during the reign of Maharao Lakhpatji that lasted from 1752 to 1761.

In 1742, Ram Singh Malam, aged about 16 left his native town of Okhi in Saurashtra (Kathiawad), now a part of Gujarat, and set out to sea. His boat was shipwrecked and he was rescued by passing Dutch vessel, which took him to Holland. Ram Singh remained in the Netherlands until about 1760.

During his stay in Holland, Ram Singh Malam learnt various skills including: clockmaking, mirror making, glass making, ship building, cannon manufacturing, tile making, enamelling, tool making, and more. When he returned to Saurashtra, he offered his skills to various local rulers, but to no avail. Then, he travelled to the Kingdom of Kutch, where his knowledge was recognised and employed by its ruler, Lakhpatji. The latter was so pleased with the technical advances that Ram Singh had imported from Holland that he was sent back to that country two more times. During his trips to Europe, Ram Singh also visited Austria and the Republic of Venice. No doubt the Lion of Venice sculpted in Kutch and placed at the Aina Mahal was designed after Ram Singh had been to Venice.

The Aina Mahal contains tiles and mirrors that were made using the knowledge acquired by Ram Singh. Statues that decorate both the inside and the outside of the Aina Mahal and the adjoining Rani Mahal depict men wearing European clothes, such as Ram Singh would have seen people wearing in 18th century Europe.

In 2001, Bhuj was struck by a huge earthquake, which caused much damage to both the Aina Mahal and the Rani Mahal. Their neighbour, the 19th century Victorian Gothic Prag Mahal, suffered considerably less damage.

The former curator and archivist at the Prag Mahal, a keen researcher of the history of Kutch, is Mr Pramod Jethi. He told us that after the earthquake the Dutch government were apparently considering assisting in the restoration of the damaged Aina Mahal palace, provided that documentary evidence was provided to prove that Ram Singh Malam had really been staying in Holland. Apparently, despite many accounts by various writers that he did spend years in Holland, this did not constitute evidence that would satisfy the Dutch.

Anyone, who arrived in Holland on a Dutch ship in the 18th century must surely be recorded in a ship’s records or registered in the books kept by Dutch port authorities. However, it is likely that quite a few ships arrived in Holland at the time that Ram Singh disembarked there. Dutch ships sailing in the vicinity of Gujarat were most probably connected with the Dutch East India Company. If someone has the enthusiasm and energy to search through the Company’s records, maybe the evidence that the Dutch government requires will be found. Regardless of whether or not the Dutch government can be satisfied, it is clear that Ram Singh was a very remarkable man who greatly advanced technology in Kutch and brought the winged lion of St Mark to India.

A suitcase of memories

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

charlie

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

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

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

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

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

 

CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME

(ISBN: 9781291845051)

is available at:

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

Slow down

taxi

My late mother lost two front teeth in a car crash in South Africa during the 1930s. Ever since then, she was both a nervous driver and an apprehensive passenger.

In the early 1960s, my mother was one of the first drivers in the UK to have seat belts installed in our car, which, like all other cars at the time, was sold without seat belts.

When I used to go on holidays with my parents, we used taxis wherever we were: water taxis in Venice and automobiles elsewhere. The places we visited most often were Italy and Greece. In both places, drivers manoeuvred at higher speeds than in the UK and far more adventurously. I remember one occasion in Milan (Italy) in the 1960s where our taxi driver drove along the tram lines on the wrong side of the road, so that trams headed straight towards us. And, in Athens (Greece), if a driver saw a space on the road some hundred yards ahead, he would take all kinds of risks to reach it. In all the years that I travelled with my parents in taxis we were only involved in one accident – no injuries, fortunately.

Well, all this dangerous dashing about in dare-devil taxis did not do anything positive for my mother’s nerves. Consequently, wherever we went she made sure that she knew how to say ‘slow down’ in the local language. Whenever I am being driven in India, where traffic is very exciting to say the least, I often think that had my mother experienced it, she would have died of fright. Oh, by the way, the Hindustani word for ‘slow down’ is ‘aasthe‘.

An American in a gondola

When I was young, before I was about 17, I used to visit Venice annually with my parents. We used to stay in a pensione called ‘La Calcina’. As breakfast and one meal were included in the room price, we used to take lunch in the dining room of La Calcina. Every year, we sat with other regular visitors, whom we got to know gradually. One of them was a somewhat silent American gentleman…

 

On the Canale Grande_500

 

The Calcina’s neighbour, the Pensione Il Seguso, was located on a corner where a narrow side canal met the wide Giudecca Canal. One morning, we were waiting outside the Calcina, trying to decide what to do. It was a bit later than usual, which is possibly the reason that we spotted something we had never seen before. A gondola with green upholstery and other identically coloured cloth drapes appeared from along the side canal and drew to a standstill at the corner near where we were standing. The gondolier was dressed in a livery the same colour as the upholstery and the drapes. After a short delay, the American, who used to sit silently with us at lunch, left the main entrance of the Calcina and boarded the gondola. The gondolier set his vessel in motion. His American passenger sat reading his newspaper whilst he was rowed across the Giudecca Canal. We watched them disappearing along a canal that passed through the Giudecca Island towards the wide open lagoon beyond the island. Naturally, our curiosity was aroused.

That lunch time, the American sat down in his usual place. My mother could no longer contain herself. She asked the American about what we had witnessed that morning. He explained that the gondolier was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. Whenever he visited Venice, he would hire this same grandson for the duration of his visit. Every morning, he was picked up just as we had observed, and was rowed out into the midst of the lagoon. When they arrived there, he and his gondolier exchanged roles. The American had mastered the art of rowing a gondola, and took his daily exercise by ‘gondoling’ around the lagoon for an hour or so.

The American introduced himself. My father, a knowledgable amateur historian of art, was most excited to discover that our American lunch time companion was William Milliken, a former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and a famous historian of mediaeval art.

Later Miss Steiner, a humourless late middle-aged Austrian who managed the Pensione Calcina, told us that Mr Milliken stayed at the Calcina every year during the month in which his mother had died. He stayed in the room that she used to occupy during her visits to the Calcina. Whilst he stayed there, Miss Steiner informed us, the room was always filled with his mother’s favourite flowers, and furnished with the very same furniture that she used to use whilst she was a guest at the pensione.

 

Mr Milliken died in 1978, at least ten years after I last met him. About twenty years later, I bought a second-hand copy of his book, “Unfamiliar Venice”. This wonderfully illustrated and almost poetically written book, which was published in 1967, describes the magic of Venice beautifully, but makes no mention at all of any of the things we learnt about our solitary American neighbour in the dining room of the Pensione Calcina.

 

 

Venice observed

 

Venice is a special place in many ways. This meeting place of oriental and occidental art is bathed in light of a special quality. Maybe this is due to the fact that there is so much water reflecting the daylight and thereby increasing its intensity. Maybe, it is something else, but whatever it is, part of the beauty of Venice is its lovely light.

Artists have long been attracted to portraying Venice. Canaletto portrayed the city almost photographically in his paintings.  Guardi captures the city brilliantly by using an almost impressionistic technique. Ruskin captured the beauty of the Venetian architecture scholarly yet attractively. Other artists such as Manet, Monet, Moran, and Turner have also portrayed some of the ‘essence’ of Venice’s attractiveness.

Yesterday, I visited an exhibition of new paintings inspired by Venice by the British contemporary artist Joe Tilson (born 1928). Each of his deceptively simple canvases capture several aspects of what makes Venice attractive for me. Architectural details, coloured patterning like tiles or brickwork, and moonlit skies  conspire to evoke the special light an appearance of Venice. His painting is both simple and subtle, and above all visually satisfying.

 

The exhibition is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 18th May 2019

Train to Florence

Settebello_power_car

 

Until I was about 17 years old, my parents used to take my sister and I for long trips to Florence and Venice every year. Often, we would fly from London to Milan, and then take a train to Florence. Frequently, our reserved seats were occupied by other passengers, who would only shift elsewhere when we had got the carriage’s conductor to intervene on our behalf.

Here is an extract from my reminiscences of childhood travel in Italy from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me“:

“Once we were seated in our reserved seats, we began to enjoy the 3 hour journey to Florence. Within minutes of entering our carriage or compartment, my mother would begin to strike up a conversation with whoever was sitting nearby. My mother and two of her three brothers, one of whom lived in London and the other in Cape Town, were always happy to initiate conversations with complete strangers. Her only sister and other brother were less inclined to do this. Mostly, our fellow passengers were Italian, but once I recall sharing a compartment with an elderly American lady who was considerably older than my parents. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, she revealed that her son was none other but the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), who was born 3 months before my mother.

Occasionally we were lucky enough to travel on a Settebello train. These high speed streamlined electric trains, which plied between Milan and Rome and stopped briefly in Florence, were the pride of Italian State Railways. At each end of the train there was an observation saloon. The driver’s cabins were located above these. When travelling in the front observation cabin, one experienced a driver’s view of the track ahead. As a child who loved trains, sitting in these was a great treat for me. I still gain great enjoyment sitting at the front of trams and trains. One of the attractions of London’s Docklands Light Railway, which weaves its way through London’s former docklands and other reclaimed parts of the East End, is that there are seats at the front of the train where a driver would normally be seated had the train not been automated.

About an hour away from Florence after passing through Bologna, the train entered a long tunnel. Even the fastest trains took almost half an hour to travel through this. Soon after we emerged from it we sped through the town of Prato, and then the suburbs of Florence (Firenze in Italian) began. I knew that after we had passed the marshalling yards at Firenze Rifredi, we would soon be entering the huge terminal, Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.

 

Charlie Chaplin waved to me is available from:

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

 

Picture: Front of a Settebello train showing the observation lounge and the driver’s cabin above it. Source: it.wikipedia.org

Marine Ices

Whenever I am in a restaurant and presented with the dessert menu, I often order ice-cream, especially if there are fruit sorbets available. Ever since I can remember I have loved ice-cream, and I continue to do so. Let me tell you about three places where I have enjoyed eating this chilled delicacy. Two are in Italy and one is in London.

Marine 2

During my childhood, we visited Florence (in Italy) every year except 1967, the year the after city was badly damaged by a terrible flood in November 1966. Annually, my late mother used to visit a brassiere maker called Busti Biondi. The owner of this shop was unable to speak English, and my parents were not sufficiently confident of their Italian to communicate with him effectively. Near the shop in the same street, there was a textile merchant called Giorgio, who spoke good English having learnt it from British soldiers during WW2. He helped interpret during the often-lengthy proceedings at Busti Biondi. He also introduced us to one of the best ice-cream shops I have ever visited. This shop or ‘gelateria’ was called ‘Perché No’, which means ‘why not?’ I have not visited Florence since the late 1960s. The gelateria, Perché No, in Via Dei Tavolini still functions, selling ice creams as it has been doing when it opened in 1939.

Bar Cucciolo was a gelateria that stood next to the Pensione La Calcina on the Zattere waterfront (Fondamente del Zattere) of Venice’s Dorsoduro island. It was at the Calcina that our family stayed. Many years before we patronised the place, the Victorian artist and writer John Ruskin stayed there (in 1877). Although the accommodation and food at the Calcina was not great, my parents chose to satay there because it overlooked the wide Giudecca Canal and the lovely waterfront of the Giudecca Island across it.

The Cucciolo made and sold ice creams and sorbets at least as good as those that we enjoyed in Florence at Perché No? Their banana flavoured ices were my favourite. I particularly enjoyed having a cone that contained a scoop of banana and one of lemon sorbet. Writing these words makes my mouth water.

The Cucciolo was run by two men and was always very busy on summer afternoons when the sun shone brightly on the south-west facing Fondamente del Zattere. On one such afternoon we were sitting on the Calcina’s deck that projected over the water when we heard a woman beginning to scream. Her small child had fallen into the canal. Quick as a flash the plumper of the two fellows who ran the Cucciolo dived into the canal fully clothed, and then rescued the small boy. His parents hurried away with their child, barely thanking their soaking rescuer. On the next day when we were buying ice creams, he told us that his watch had been wrecked when he jumped into the canal. Also, the victim’s parents, who were not Italian, had not been in the slightest concerned that he had risked his life, limbs, and clothes, for their child whom they had not been watching carefully enough. My mother was most upset on his behalf. Sadly, the Cucciolo closed many years ago. It had already disappeared when we last visited Venice in 2007.

Marine 1

Very recently, I visited Chalk Farm. There opposite the Underground Station, to my horror, I saw a building site where once Marine Ices used to stand. In the 1960s, when I was a child this was one of the only places in London, where good quality ice-creams and sorbets were on sale. One could sit down in the parlour and eat them, or you could take them home in boxes. As I savoured their ices, I could imagine I was back in Italy either at Perché No or the Cucciolo.  

According to its website, Marine Ices was established in London in 1931. When I returned from my trip to Chalk Farm, I looked on the internet to find out what had happened to Marine Ices, and I discovered that it still exists but at a new address, which is closer to Camden Market.

Today, London is littered with great gelateria’s serving ice cream as good as I remember eating when I was a child. There are already three high quality gelaterias where I live and a fourth (a branch of a firm from Florence) is opening soon.