Defeated by snow and meeting Churchill’s widow

WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, that was in 1968, I made two memorable trips. The first was a youth hostelling trip in Wales and the other, which followed soon after that, was my first visit to Paris.

PARIS Clouds over the Beacons_800 BLOG

Three good friends of my age and I travelled by train to Chepstow in South Wales. Our plan was to walk from one youth hostel to the next, carrying our baggage in rucksacks.

 From Newport, we struggled along footpaths by the east bank of the River Wye until we reached the village of St Briavels. The youth hostel was housed in parts of the place’s mediaeval castle, whose construction began in the early 12th century.

We were assigned beds in a dormitory. At night I struggled to make myself comfortable in the shroud-like sheet sleeping bag that was required by guests staying in British youth hostels. In those days, I used to find it difficult falling asleep in places away from home. St Briavels was no exception. In the middle of the night I felt the urge to go to the loo, but because I was anxious about walking across the dark castle courtyard to the hostel’s only toilets, I remained becoming increasingly uncomfortable until day broke.

The eight mile hike from Newport to St Briavels had been a hard, tiring ‘slog’. We were not looking forward to doing something similar the next day. We walked a few miles until we reached a main road, and then boarded a local bus. At this point, dear readers, you need to know that in 1968 youth  hostels were only supposed to be used only by travellers making their way under ‘their own steam’ (i.e by walking, cycling, canoeing, horse-riding etc.), but not by motorised transport.

We reached the small town of Crickhowell and walked from there towards an isolated youth hostel on the edge of the Brecon Beacons mountain range. The Nantllanerch youth hostel, which only functioned between 1966 and 1969, was about a mile from the house where its warden lived. We were the only people staying in this un-manned hostel miles away from anywhere. It had no electricity and the chemical toilets were attached to septic tanks. Lighting was via gas lamps fuelled from a cylinder. This delightful place was also supplied with an out-of-tune upright piano. We stayed there for two nights, using the day between them to climb one of the nearby peaks. I had never climbed a mountain or a significant hill before. Every time I saw what I hoped was the summit, it proved to be a ridge behind which there was another gruelling climb. After that experience, I decided that Everest was not for me. However, a few years later, I did climb, or rather scramble up, Mount Ventoux in the south of France.

We left Nantllanerch and used public transport to reach Brecon, where we spent another night in a youth hostel. Then, again disobeying the rules, we travelled a long way using public transport to Great Malvern, where we spent another two nights. On the day between them, we completed a lovely walk along the ridges connecting the peaks of the Malvern Hills. I fell in love with Great Malvern and have revisited this mainly Victorian resort often.

Every time one left a youth hostel, the warden was required to stamp our Youth Hostel Association booklets with the hostel’s official stamp. On leaving Great Malvern, we notice that the warden had placed the hostel’s stamp upside down in each of our booklets. We wondered why. Long after we had returned to London from Great Malvern, we discovered the reason. An upside-down stamp was to warn the wardens of other youth hostels that the bearer of this stamp had caused trouble or breached a rule. The warden at Great Malvern must have realised that our itinerary as recorded by the hostels in which we had stayed could not have been undertaken without making use of motorised transport along the way.

I loved my first youth-hostelling trip and felt sure that my first trip to Paris, which followed it, would be an anti-climax. But I was wrong. I  travelled with my family to Paris on the Night Ferry train, which was boarded in the evening at Victoria station in London. There were two platforms at the station dedicated to the Night Ferry trains. To enter them, one needed not only tickets but also passports. Our family occupied two neighbouring compartments. My sister and I shared one of these. It was equipped with two berths, one above the other, and a basin with water taps.

The Night Ferry travelled to Dover, where the sleeping cars, such as we occupied, ran along rails into those in the hold of a cross-channel ferry. We all remained in our compartments. After a while, our carriages were pulled out of the ferry and onto the rails at the French port of Dunkirk. I could not sleep a wink. I stared through the glass of the window of our compartment throughout the night. There was not much to see during the sea crossing, but things improved at Dunkirk, where our carriage was shunted around a huge floodlit marshalling yard for what seemed like several hours. As dawn broke, we set off through France towards Paris.

Paris was a wonder, an ‘eye-opener’ for me. I loved everything about it, especially the metro with its curious pervasive characteristic smell and some of its trains that whooshed along on rubber tyres instead of metal wheels. In those far off days, the entrances to station platforms were provided with doors, ‘portillons’, which closed automatically just before a train left the station. These were supposed to prevent passengers from rushing to board the train just before its doors closed. Once, I got caught behind a closed portillon just after my parents and sister had passed through on to the platform. For a moment, I felt panicked, but the family waited for me to be liberated. Above ground, some of the metro stations were decorated with art-nouveau metal work. I loved this because I was already very keen on this artistic style.

We stayed in a small hotel on the Ile St Louis, a peaceful oasis separated from the rest of Paris by the River Seine. It was the nicest place I have stayed in the city. On my first visit, I loved the bookshops on Place St Michel and the well-stocked record shops nearby. We did a great deal of sight-seeing including a visit to the Louvre. What I remember most about this world-famous collection was rather mundane. We had left our coats at a garde-robe near one of the entrances. By the time we had paid our respects to the Mona Lisa and many other great works of art, we had forgotten where we had left our belongings. We spent longer looking for our coats than we had done admiring artworks.

My parents, who were not keen on visiting places that were neither churches nor museums, did take us up the Eiffel Tower, but only to its lowest viewing platform. What impressed me there were the lifts that climbed at an angle rather than vertically. My first visit to Paris was followed by many more, always enjoyable and always eliciting in me the same sense of wonder as my first.

We returned to London on the Night Ferry, arriving at Victoria in the morning. After we had stepped down onto the platform, my mother pointed to a lady disembarking from the next carriage to ours and said to us excitedly:

“Look, there’s Lady Churchill.”

It was Winston’s widow. I had been at the Hall School in Belsize Park when in early 1965, my class gathered around a small black and white TV to watch Winston’s funeral, ‘live’, as it happened.

The next year, following the success of our first hostelling trip in Wales and nearby, my three friends and I decided to go back to Wales on another hostelling trip. The first hostel on our itinerary was at Capel-y-Ffyn in the Brecon Beacons National Park, just north of the ruins of Llanthony Abbey. We booked in and woke up the next morning to discover that the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow. Then, fate struck.

 I had promised to telephone my over-anxious mother every day. So, I went to the village telephone box and rang her. She told me that she had heard that there was snow falling in Wales. I told her how little we had seen. She replied that we were to return to London immediately. I do not know what she was imagining. She might have thought that snow in Wales was likely to be as dangerous as blizzards in the Arctic.

My friends and I knew that my mother’s orders were never to be questioned. It was with great sadness that we packed up (while the snow was melting) and returned to London. My mother’s over-anxiety had wrecked our adventure.

Years later, my wife and I were entertaining the mother of one of my friends on the sabotaged trip. Then in her late eighties, she could still remember being amazed at the time when she heard how my mother had reacted to the news of snow falling in Wales.

To my great relief, my three disappointed friends remained friendly with me despite my vicarious role in greatly abbreviating what promised to be a great trip. Sadly, of the three one died a few years ago. A spot of snow never put him off risking his life more excitingly during his colourful career. Nor, did it deter the rest of us from doing many things that would have given my late mother cause for great anxiety.

 

Photo showing clouds over the Brecon Beacons in south Wales

Foot and mouth

Wales 1 SMALL

Before she died in 2012, we used to make annual visits to a dear friend, whom I had known since my childhood, in South Wales. She used to live in London, but when she retired, she moved to a village in the Brecon Beacons, near the River Usk. We stayed in her cottage but were encouraged to leave her in peace from after breakfast until about four in the afternoon. We did not mind this because there is plenty to explore in the area and often the weather was good at the times of the year that we visited her.

In 2001, disaster hit Wales in the form of a vicious outbreak of foot and mouth disease. In order to prevent its spread, all footpaths and many open spaces were closed to visitors. This and the appalling rain that fell relentlessly during our visit, restricted what we could do while we were allowing our guest a few hours relief from her guests. We drove around the countryside not particularly having much fun.

One day, we arrived at a small town with a name I am unable to pronounce correctly:  Llanwrtyd Wells. It was lunch time. We parked outside a hotel near the town centre. The floor of the lobby was covered with a grubby, well-worn carpet. We were shown into an unattractive dining room. Our hopes for having a decent meal fell as we surveyed the room’s dingy uninviting décor. The sight of incessant rain falling outside did little to enhance the dreary mood that this unappealing room was inducing.

The hotel’s owner brought us menus. We asked what he recommended. He said “steaks” and showed us the large range of meats listed in the menu. We asked his advice about which steak to choose. Then, he did something that transformed the dingy place for us.

He gave us a ‘tutorial’ about the relative merits of different kinds of beefsteak and their tastes. The least tasty, in his opinion, was the costliest cut, fillet steak. Sirloin steak was, he advised us, tastier and cheaper than fillet. However, he considered that the tastiest cut was rib-eye. He explained that the latter was marbled with fine streaks of fat, and it was this that gives it its superior taste. We ordered it and discovered he was right. He regretted that he was unable to serve the local, and in his view far superior, Black Mountain beef. This was because of the problems connected with the foot and mouth outbreak.

Whenever I buy steak, I look for rib-eye first, and if this is not available, I go for sirloin. Whenever I think of beefsteak, I always remember that dreary eatery in Llanwrtyd Wells and its helpful landlord. For a long time, I could not remember in which town in Wales, we were given our tutorial about steaks. Recently, I discovered some photographs I had taken there almost twenty years ago. In one of them, there was a pub sign that read “Neuadd Arms Hotel”. Seeing this helped me discover where we had been.

Eating into profit

Ffestiniog BLOG

In 1994, my wife, who was pregnant, and I decided to spend a relaxing week in Wales. We filled the boot (luggage compartment) of our car with more than enough books for a week’s leisurely reading. 

We drove to Bala in north Wales. We had booked a room at what seemed like a lovely guest house in a converted mill. On arrival, we were given a comfortable, well-furnished room and then enjoyed a meal prepared by the establishment.

Next morning, we entered the dining room to discover a breakfast buffet with a wide selection of food items. We chose a table, were greeted by the owner of the place, and then moved towards the buffet. 

As I began emptying some cereal into a bowl, the owner, much taller than me, stood close behind me, and said in a minatory voice:

“Go easy on that. It’s very expensive, you know.”

I placed my bowl of ‘costly’ cornflakes on the table, and then headed off towards a tempting glass jug filled with orange juice. As I began pouring it, the owner appeared again, saying:

“That should be enough. Do you know the cost of orange juice?”

Just before we finished breakfast, the owner addressed us and the only other couple of guests staying in his acommodation:

“You’ll all be in for dinner this evening?”

We confirmed that we would be.

“Pork chops for dinner? Alright?”

It sounded good to us and the other couple.

We spent the day  exploring the surroundings of Bala rather than embarking on the reading material we had brought from London. When we returned, we entered the dining room for dinner and found that two more guests had arrived during the day. There were six of us to be fed.

The pork chops were served. However, the pieces of meat on the plates were strange shapes. We soon realised what the mean landlord had done. He had assumed that there would only be four of us for dinner, and bought only four pork chops. With the arrival of two more guests, instead of purchasing two more chops, he had divided the four so that they could be served to six people. Such meanness and penny-pinching annoyed us so much that we told the owner that we had to leave urgently the next morning. By saving on not buying two cheap pork chops, he managed to lose the income he would have gained had we stayed the full week as we originally intended.

 

Photo taken at the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway

An empty grave

On one of my frequent visits to Bangalore in India, I was idly flicking through a street atlas of the city when I noticed a small green patch near to the Mysore Road. It was marked ‘Jewish Grave Yard’.

CEMY 1

I knew that there have been large Jewish communities in cities such as Bombay, Calcutta, Cochin, and Poona, but I had never associated Bangalore with a Jewish presence of any size. I visited the cemetery the next day. Surrounded by a huge Moslem cemetery on two sides and two roads, the well-maintained burial ground contains just over fifty graves, and the foundations of the hut which was used to prepare bodies for burial.

The land on which the cemetery is located was donated on the 9th September 1904 by Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the Maharaja of Mysore. On that day, Subedar Samuel Nagavkar died, and his is the earliest death recorded on the stones in the cemetery. A notice at the entrance informs us that the land was donated due to the “efforts of the late Mr Rubin Moses”. This might have been the case, but I have reason to believe that this man did not reach India until later.

CEMY 3

Rubin Moses Nahoum (‘Nahoum’ has been dropped by his descendants) left his birthplace, Iraq, to join the California Gold Rush. After the city of San Francisco was struck by an earthquake in April 1906, Rubin left for India in order to become involved in the Kolar goldfields near Bangalore. By 1910, he had opened a shoe store in Bangalore’s Commercial Street. It was to become the largest in southern Asia. The large premises still exist but in another reincarnation: it is now the home of ‘Woodies’ a vegetarian café popular with the numerous shoppers in what is Bangalore’s equivalent of London’s Oxford Street.  The Moses family, who still finance the maintenance of the cemetery, had a prayer hall in the now demolished Rubin House, a building which housed a shoe factory. Any Jew living in, or visiting, Bangalore was welcome to worship there. The most notable of these visitors was a future president of Israel, Ezer Weizman, who was stationed at an RAF base in Bangalore in 1946.

The majority of those buried in the cemetery were born in India and represent the various different types of Jews who lived there. Six of the graves commemorate Jews not born in India, five of them European. When Saida Abrovna Isako, a Russian Jewess, the wife of the proprietor of the Russian Circus, died in 1932, her coffin was brought to the cemetery on a bier drawn by white circus horses. Not far from her grave are those of a number of refugees from Nazi Europe. Siegfried Appel came from Bonn in Germany. His compatriots the dentist from Gleiwitz, Gunther Moritz Rahmer, and his mother Margarethe (née Schuller: the widow of Alfred Rahmer, a soap maker in Gleiwitz) lie close by, as does another German dentist, Carl Weinzweig, who had a practice in Bangalore’s MG Road.

Bangalore has been an important military base for several centuries. So, it was not surprising to discover some graves related to warfare. Yusuf Guetta died age 22 years in 1943. His grave records that he was an “evacuee” from Benghazi, the Libyan town evacuated by the British in April 1941. Yusuf lies next to the grave of Private Morris Minster of the South Wales Borderers Regiment. Morris passed away on the 4th of April 1942, aged 24. I looked up Private Minster on the Commonwealth Graves website and was surprised to find that he was recorded as being buried in the Madras War Cemetery, Chennai. Yet, I had seen and taken pictures of his grave in Bangalore.

CEMY 2

I wrote to the Royal Welch Regimental Museum.  Martin Everett replied, informing me that Morris, son of Solomon and Annie Minster of Salford, joined up maybe as early as 1931, and died in 1942, but not in action. He told me that at the time of his death there were no Welsh Borderers in India. They had all left for Iraq by November 1941. Morris was probably too ill to travel and remained in India. Mr Everett wrote that he believed that his remains had been moved to Chennai. He wrote also that:

“The Madras War Cemetery was created to receive Second World War graves from many civil and cantonment cemeteries in the south and east of India where their permanent maintenance could not be assured.”

Well, I can report that Morris Minster’s grave in Bangalore is certainly being well-maintained. When I enquired about the whereabouts of his body, a member of the Moses family, the last Bangalore born Jew still residing in the city, told me that a few years ago it had been disinterred and transferred to Chennai, as suggested by Martin Everett. My mind was set at rest.

I have published a photographic album showing all the graves in the cemetery, “Buried in Bangalore”.

It is available for purchase from:

http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1126091

Sabotaged

My late and much-loved mother was very protective of her two children. She saw dangers everywhere. We were not allowed to go near to electric wall sockets just in case we got an electric shock. Intelligent as she was, I have the feeling that she believed that electricity flowed out of the holes in the socket like water from a tap. 

 

During my childhood, my aunt and uncle used to smoke Benson and Hedges cigaretess that were supplied in nice small hinged metal boxes, which when empty were very useful for storing small objects. When one day I was given one of these boxes, empty, my mother confiscated it immediately. She was concerned that I might cut my fingers on the sharp edges of the box.

As for matches, much caution was needed here. Despite the fact that her grandfather had owned a factory that manufactured safety matches, even safety matches were deemed unsafe by my mother. Therefore, we were forbidden to handle boxes of  (even safety) matches just in case they should spontaneously ignite in our hands or packets. I am sure her intentions were well meant, but sometimes they went a bit too far. This excerpt from my book “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” (he did!) shows how her anxiety sabotaged what promised to be a wonderful hiking trip:

The four of us (aged 17) embarked on a second youth hostelling trip the following Easter. Once again, we took a train to South Wales, and made our way up to our first hostel, which was located at Capel y Ffin in the Black Mountains near to the English border. We spent the night there, and awoke to discover that snow had begun to fall.

 

I had been instructed that I had to telephone home every morning to ensure that my mother knew that I was still alive. I rang from the hostel’s public telephone and my mother answered. She had heard on the radio weather forecast that there was snow in Wales, and asked meabout it. When I said that it had begun falling where we were, she ordered that we return to London immediately. Believe me, this was not an order that could be discussed. My mother, anticipating that we would surely be lost like Scott of the Antarctic in an avalanche or in freezing snow drifts, had to have us back as soon as possible. I broke the news to my 3 friends, who were furious. For about an hour they kept offering me reasons that I should give my mother in order to try to change her mind about our premature return. Eventually, they gave up. We all knew that none of these would work. And, because, I imagine, they feared my mother, we set off back to London. I have never been allowed to forget this fiasco. Even Hugh’s mother, now in her eighties, often recalls her amazement when she learnt how my mother had successfully wrecked our trip.

 

Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” is available by clicking: HERE

Mad cow

we don’t see ev’rything

that we consume:

might be germs with any bite

 

Bovine_500

From time to time, the United Kingdom is subject to agricultural diseases that need to be accompanied by nation-wide restrictions to limit spreading. A frequently occurring example of this is so-called foot-and-mouth disease. During such epidemics, those not involved in agricultural activities, such as hikers and tourists, are confined to roads, told to keep out of fields where traces of the disease may be lying.

During one outbreak of foot-and-mouth, we were spending a holiday in Wales. Wherever we went, we saw signs and barriers that prevented free movement across the countryside. What with the incessant rain, it made our trip rather dreary. We stopped for lunch in an ugly little town in central Wales. The most attractive looking eatery was a dowdy pub, devoid of any architectural merit. We sat down in its ageing dining room, trying to avert our eyes from the peeling wallpaper and a horrible worn carpet that badly needed to be replaced. Things looked up when the inn-keeper arrived to take our food order. We were attracted to beef steaks. There was a bewildering range of options for this on the menu.  Our host patiently explained the differences between the different types of beefsteak, explaining how the tastiness of the meat itself was related to its fat content and distribution within the cut. Fillet steak, for example, has little fat, not much taste without sauces, but wonderful texture. He recommended rib-eye as being the cut with just the right amount and distribution of fat to be tasty on its own. He was quite right, we discovered in that unattractive dining room in rainy Wales.

bovine

Some years later, Mad Cow disease (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy) became a concern in the UK. One evening, when we were going to a theatre near St Martins Lane in London, there were large headlines about the disease on the front page of the latest issue of the Evening Standard newspaper. Before the performance, we entered a branch of McDonalds for a quick snack. Almost everyone in the café was eating beef burgers, despite the headlines on the newspapers that some of the customers were reading!

Shortly after this, we went on a driving trip through France. In one small town, we walked passed a small restaurant with a sign hanging in its glass-fronted door. It read (in French): “We might be mad, but our beef is not.”

While the Mad Cow scare was at its height, we were invited to stay with some friends in Belgium. We had stayed with them often before. We asked them what they would like us to bring from London. They said they would love a home-made curry, enough for about twelve people. Although I am married to an Indian, it is I who makes the meat curries in our family. I prepared and cooked a huge lamb curry. As it is only a few hours’ drive between London and Belgium and the curry would have to be re-heated before being served, we thought it safe to transport the casserole containing it without refrigeration.

There were more security checks than usual at the English end of the Channel Tunnel. After our car had been examined, and the engine checked for hidden items including explosives, we were asked if we were carrying any meat products across the English Channel. We mentioned that we were transporting a casserole of cooked lamb curry. The security officials looked puzzled, told us not to move, and then walked away towards an office. One of them returned, and asked:

“It’s lamb, not beef is it?”

We confirmed that it was not beef.

“And thoroughly cooked?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what with all those spices, we’ll let you take it through the tunnel.”

Nobody asked us about meat when we arrived in France. We drove through a bath containing disinfected, and then headed for our destination.

Do they speak Welsh?

MARS

One of the many patients, whom I treated while I was studying dentisty at University College London, was a highly intelligent senior civil servant. There was much work that needed doing in his mouth, so he visited my clinic frequently and we got to know each other reasonably well. At least, that is what I began to think.

 One morning, he arrived for his appointment and sat in my dental chair. After exchanging pleasantries, he said:

“You know those Martians, who have landed in Wales?”

“Mmmm,” I replied.

“Well, I’ve heard that they communicate without exchanging words.”

“Telepathy?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s it”

I turned away from him, ready to wash my hands, when he continued:

“Well, I was wondering whether when they are in Wales they communicate in English or Welsh.”

Feeling a smile coming on, I turned my back to him, and began washing my hands for long enough for my urge to laugh to wear off.

As the saying goes, it takes all sorts…