Americans in Mayfair

MY UNCLE SVEN Rindl (1921-2007) was a structural engineer. He was involved in the construction of the building on the west side of Mayfair’s Grosvenor Square, which used to house the Embassy of the USA until recently. About yards south of the former embassy building, there is another place associated with the USA on South Audley Street. Far older than the embassy, this is the Grosvenor Chapel, whose foundation stone was laid in 1730 by Sir Richard Grosvenor (1689-1732), the local landowner. The relatively simple brick and stone church with some neo-classical features was ready for use in 1731. When the church’s 99-year lease ran out in 1829, it became adopted as a chapel-of-ease (i.e., a chapel or church within a parish, other than the parish church) to St George’s Hanover Square.

Until very recently, I had often passed the Grosvenor Chapel when going to and from The Nehru Centre, also on South Audley Street, but had never entered it. Yesterday (26th of August 2022), the doors were open and, being early for a dance performance at the Nehru Centre, I looked inside the chapel. Its interior is simply decorated. The wide nave lies below a barrel-vaulted, plastered ceiling. Galleries supported by columns with Ionic capitals flank the north and south sides of the nave. The chancel is separated from the nave by a screen with openings, each of which is flanked by pairs of Ionic columns. The screen was added by the architect John Ninian Comper (1864-1960) when he remodelled the church’s interior in 1912.Ionic columns with their bases on the gallery support the ceiling of the nave. Windows (with plain glass panes) on two levels, both below and above the galleries, give the chapel good natural illumination. In summary, the simple, white-painted chapel, though not large, feels spacious. Its simplicity is a complete contrast to its neighbour, the flamboyant Gothic Revival style Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception.

An inscribed stone plaque on the west front of the chapel records its American connection. The words on it are:

“In this chapel the Armed Forces of the United States of America held Divine Service during the Great War of 1939 to 1945 and gave thanks to God for the Victory of the Allies”

The American General Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) was amongst those who worshipped there during WW2. Many years before that, another person connected with the USA, John Wilkes (1725-1797) was buried in the chapel. Wilkes, a radical journalist and politician, was a supporter of the American rebels during the American War of Independence.

America (i.e., the USA) has been associated with Mayfair since it gained independence from the British. Its first embassy was in a house in Mayfair belonging to John Adams (1735-1786), who was the first US Minister to the Court of St James (between 1785 and 1788). The embassy’s Chancery moved several times before 1938, when it was housed in 1 Grosvenor Square, now the home of the Canadian High Commission. Thus, during WW2, it was close to the Grosvenor Chapel. The embassy building, in whose construction my uncle was involved, was designed by the architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), and completed in 1960. By January 2018, the embassy had shifted from Grosvenor Square to a newly constructed edifice across the Thames at Nine Elms.

Returning to the small chapel, a small note about its name. The place’s website (www.grosvenorchapel.org.uk) explained:

“It retains its title of Chapel because it is not, and never has been a parish church, and its continuing existence is entirely dependent upon the generosity of those who worship here regularly or visit from time to time.”

The underground artist

THE BRITISH SCULPTOR Henry Moore (1898-1968) moved to London’s Hampstead district in 1929. Between that year and 1940 he lived in Parkhill Road, close to the Mall Studios, where the great sculptor Barbara Hepworth had her home and workshop. Many of Moore’s other close neighbours were in the forefront of the modern art world of the years between the two world wars. Not far away, the designer Jack Pritchard (1899-1992) and his family lived in Belsize Park Gardens, having moved there from Hampstead’s Platts Lane.

By Henry Moore, 1941

Quoting from my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”:

“In 1929, he [Pritchard] and the Canadian architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) formed the company, Isokon, whose aim was to build Modernist style residential accommodation. Pritchard and his wife, a psychiatrist, Molly (1900-1985), commissioned Coates to build a block of flats in Lawn Road on a site that they owned. Its design was to be based on the then revolutionary new communal housing projects that they had visited in Germany, including at the influential Bauhaus in Dessau.”

The modernist building, now known as the Isokon, still stands on Lawn Road, which is close to Parkhill Road. It is still used as a block of flats. Completed in 1934, the building included communal areas including a restaurant and a bar called The Isobar where (to quote from my book again):

“… exhibitions were held in the Isobar and, according to an on-line article in ‘The Modern House Journal’ these were attended by artists including Adrian Stokes, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. The article also noted that this refreshment area was frequented by modernist architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Serge Chermayeff and, Wells Coates, as well as by left-wing politicians.”

The Lawn Road Flats (the Isokon) was an early British example of a ferro-concrete building with a steel frame. This made it far more resistant to being damaged by bombs than its many brick-built neighbours. In fact, the only damage it suffered during WW2 was a few broken windowpanes. Various people, including the author Agatha Christie, moved into the Isokon to seek protection from the Blitz. Another person doing the same was Henry Moore, who moved there in 1941.

Many people, who were not lucky enough to be able to live in a relatively bomb-proof edifice, sought shelter from the bombs by spending nights on the platforms of Underground stations such as Belsize Park and Hampstead, all of which are far beneath the ground. Henry Moore created a series of dramatic drawing of the people taking shelter on Underground station platforms. It is quite possible that while living in Hampstead, he visited the stations mentioned above to find subjects for his drawings, which provide a vivid record of the terrible times when London was under attack from the air.

Recently, whilst visiting the Tate Britain art gallery, which houses a great deal of British art, I saw two of Moore’s Underground drawings, both dated 1941, and several of his sculptures. The drawings are not accurate depictions of what the artist saw, but they illustrate his reactions to what he witnessed, and as such they emphasise the atmosphere of those fearful times.  Although there is no doubt that Moore was a great artist, on the whole I prefer the works of his contemporary and sometime neighbour in Hampstead: Barbara Hepworth.

The way to the summer ballroom

HOLLAND HOUSE IN Holland Park was badly damaged by aerial bombing during WW2. What is left of the building shows that it must have been a splendid Jacobean palace. It stands on the estate of Sir Walter Cope (c1533-1614), for whom it was originally constructed. In his time, the estate extended south from what is now Holland Park Avenue almost to what is now Fulham Road.

Although much of Holland House was destroyed in the War, many of its out-houses still stand today. Amongst these are the icehouse with its conical roof; a disused dairy; a stable block which now houses a Parks police station; and an orangery, which is attached to what was once the summer ballroom.

A covered arcade, open to the outside on one side, runs from where the southwest corner of the house used to stand, passing near the icehouse, to the southeast corner of the orangery. In poor weather, this long covered passageway was used by house guests moving between Holland House and its summer ballroom. From the western end of the passageway, they would have had to walk through the orangery to reach the ballroom. In fine weather, those attending balls would have walked along the walkway above the covered passage. In places, this runs past walls covered with colourful tiled panels, made in Florence (Italy), which were placed there in the 1850s. The wall of one stretch of the covered walkway, the section nearest to the orangery, are painted with scenes depicting an imaginary garden party held sometime in the 1870s. They were created between 1994 and 1995 by the artist Mao Wen Biao (born 1950).

Currently, the former summer ballroom is being restored. For many years, it was home to The Belvedere restaurant, a pricey establishment. When the restoration of the ballroom is complete and its former glory restored as much as possible, it will be used to house a new Italian restaurant, which is planned to be more affordable than its predecessor.

Over several decades, we have made innumerable visits to lovely Holland Park, but had not realised that the arcade described above was anything but decorative. Today, we met Jenny Kettlewell, who is the Chairman of the Friends of Holland Park. It was she who revealed its purpose. Currently (2nd to 10th of April 2022), there is an annual art exhibition in the orangery. The works on display are by local artists.

Czech it out

JAN GARRIGUE MASARYK was born in Prague (Czechoslovakia) in 1886. Son of the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), Jan was Foreign Minister of his country between 1940 and 1948, when two things happened. First, the Communists began tightening their grip on Czechoslovakia and possibly connected with that, Jan Masaryk was found dead in his pyjamas in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry in Prague on the 10th of March. By 1948, Prague already had a reputation for defenestration. Whether or not Jan was pushed out of a window remains uncertain. Two years earlier, a large non-descript house in Hampstead’s West End Lane became home to the recently formed National House, a meeting place for Czechoslovaks (mainly war veterans) in London. Now, it is known as Bohemia House. Its website (https://bohemiahouse.london/beginning-of-national-house/) explains:

“After communist revolution in 1948 and the USSR invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968, providing the homely atmosphere as well as traditional cuisine. Converted into public house in mid 80’s, the National House serves also as a traditional restaurant showcasing Czech & Slovak cuisines to the public.”

It was in the 1980s that I first began visiting the place to sample Czechoslovak food and drink. After many years, I revisited the place recently (in March 2022).

If it were not for the sign advertising Pilsner Urquell beer projecting above a tall privet hedge, most passers-by would hardly notice that they were passing what is now a bar and restaurant. Immediately after entering via the front door, I noticed several commemorative plaques. One of them honours the British historian RW Seton-Watson (1879-1951), who fought for the rights of the Czechs and Slovaks and other subject people/nations of the former Austro-Hungarian Empireafter WW1. Next to that, there is a large metal plate remembering the Czechoslovak “soldiers, airmen, and patriots”, who fell in WW2. It makes special mention of the Czechoslovak men who flew from Leamington Spa and were parachuted into their Nazi-occupied country to assassinate Heydrich (see https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/11/25/leamington-spa-heydrich-and-the-tragedy-at-lidice/).

A doorway from the hallway leads into a front room used as a formal dining room. This is decorated in a mildly baroque style. A gold-framed portrait of TG Masaryk faces the door. Various other framed portraits including one of Queen Elizabeth II hang on the walls. A metal bust of TG Masaryk stands on a mantlepiece next to a credit card machine and a metal sculpture of a Czech airman and there is an old-fashioned gramophone with an LP on its turntable between the two metal sculptures. The formal dining room is separated by a folding screen from a much larger room behind it. The latter, with tables and chairs, a pool table, and a table-football unit, is a less formal space, which I do not remember from the 1980s. In those days, food was served to ‘outsiders’ in the formal front room.

The larger, rear room with windows overlooking the back garden has several interesting objects on its walls. A sombre-looking metal plate covered with many names lists those who “gave their lives for Freedom” between 1939 and 1945. On the wall facing this, there are two posters with photographs of Alexander Dubček (1921-1992), a Slovak Communist politician, who tried to reform the Communist government during the Prague Spring of 1968, which ended after a few months when the Soviet Army invaded his country. On a wall behind the table-football unit, there are two large, colourful, framed maps. One is of the Czech Republic and the other of the Slovak Republic. Between the end of WW1 and 1993, the two now independent countries were parts of one country: the former Czechoslovakia.

A visit to the toilet involves climbing the stairs to the first floor. After ascending the first flight of stairs, the next short flight approaches a huge painting depicting TG Masaryk dressed in a flowing light beige coat and sporting a straw hat with a black ribbon tied above its rim.

Today, Bohemia House continues to welcome guests, both from the lands, which were once Czechoslovakia, as well as others. Its bar offers a range of beers, spirits, wines, and soft drinks, from that region of Central Europe. I sampled a can of Kofola, a carbonated Czech soft drink, whose taste vaguely resembles Coca Cola. The pint of Pilsner Urquell beer was more enjoyable. We also tried a variety of dishes typically cooked in the Czech and Slovak republics. They were enjoyable enough, but I prefer the cuisines of both Poland and Hungary. However, do not let this comment put you off paying a visit to Bohemia House, where you will receive a warm welcome from its charming staff. And … if you wish to know more about Hampstead’s Czechoslovak, other Central European, and Soviet historical associations, you could do no better than to read my new book about the area, available from Amazon [https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92] and bookdepository.com [https://www.bookdepository.com/BENEATH-WIDE-SKY-HAMPSTEAD-ITS-ENVIRONS-2022-Adam-Yamey/9798407539520]).

Point of departure

TORWOOD STREET RUNS downhill to the harbour of Torquay in Devon. This usually busy street is currently (March 2022) closed to vehicular traffic because it is undergoing repairs including resurfacing. During WW2, the street was resurfaced with concrete sufficiently strong to bear the weight of tanks and other heavy military vehicles that were making their way downhill to the harbour. One of our friends in Torquay told me that the current roadworks was partly to replace the concrete surface that was laid down in the 1940s. This US military equipment was on its way to the beaches of Normandy, where the invasion of German occupied France took place: the D Day Landings in 1944.

When these heavy vehicles reached the water’s edge, they had to be loaded onto boats. Concrete embarkation ramps were constructed in May 1943. They were used to load the equipment onto seagoing vessels in June 1944 to carry out Operation Overlord, which involved landing the US forces onto the Normandy coast. The concrete slipways, which have been preserved, were called ‘Embarkation Hards’. According to information displayed on a memorial close to the ‘hards’, the landing craft used in Operation Overlord operated a shuttle service between Torquay and the Normandy beaches. Soldiers of the 4th US Infantry Division, who embarked at Torquay, were amongst the 23000 troops who were landed at Utah Beach in Normandy. Along with them, 1700 tanks, guns, and trucks also arrived on that beach.

The ‘hards’, point of departure for Normandy, are not particularly attractive to look at, but they are an impressive souvenir of what was an important military operation, which in no little way helped to bring about the downfall of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Leamington Spa, Heydrich, and the tragedy at Lidice

CLOSE TO WARWICK, there is a town that reminded me both of Brighton on the south coast of England and Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) in the Czech Republic. The grandiose architecture, mostly neo-classical, of Leamington Spa reminds me of some parts of Brighton and the area around the town’s spa buildings, both new and old, brought faint recollections of visits I made long ago to the Czech spa town to my mind. What I did not know when we visited Leamington Spa was that it does have a not too distant historical relationship with what was once known as ‘Czechoslovakia’.

Czechoslovak memorial in Leamington Spa

SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was one of the main ‘architects’ of the Holocaust and in 1942 he was the acting Governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the area now known as the Czech Republic. In January 1942, he was Chairman of the Wannsee Conference at which the terrible fate of the Jewish people was decided. On the 27th of May 1942, Heydrich was shot at while driving through Prague. During this attack, a hand grenade, thrown into his open top vehicle, exploded. Heydrich was rushed to hospital but died of his wounds or sepsis resulting from them early in the morning of the 4th of June. His senior, the Chancellor of Germany, the dictator Adolf Hitler, was furious.

The assassination attack was carried out by Czechoslovak men who had been trained in England and then parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The men were volunteers, who were members of the Free Czechoslovak Forces stationed in the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa, where there was a training camp for them. It had been there since 1940. Seven of the Czechoslovak men flew from England in December 1941 and parachuted at various paces over their native land. Two of them, Jozef Gabčík (1912-1942) and Jan Kubiš (1913-1942), carried out the attack in Prague that led to the ending of Heydrich’s life. These two men and the others dropped over Czechoslovakia sacrificed their lives in the struggle to free their country from Nazi tyranny.

In November 2021, we paid a brief visit to Leamington Spa. Amongst its attractions is the pleasant Jephson Gardens, which are close to the spa establishments after which the town gets its name. The Park is named after the physician and philanthropist Henry Jephson (1798-1878), who promoted the superior healing powers of the town’s spring water. An attractive circular neo-classical temple containing a statue of Jephson was erected in his honour in 1849. This stands atop a small mound. Close to it there is another monument, also circular.

The other monument was unveiled in 1968, 50 years after the formation of Czechoslovakia out of the ruins of the failed Austro-Hungarian Empire. The memorial is in the form of a circular fountain. A bowl is supported by a single pillar on which the heraldic emblem of Czechoslovakia can be seen in bas-relief. Something, which at first sight resembles a large mushroom, sprouts upwards from the centre of the bowl. Closer examination of this reveals that it is a sculpture depicting a cluster of open parachutes. On each parachute, there is a name of one of the group of volunteers who parachuted into Czechoslovakia. The monument was designed by John French.

According to a noticeboard close to the Czechoslovak volunteers’ memorial, this small fountain also remembers the thousands of Czechoslovak citizens, who were murdered by the Nazis in reprisal for Heydrich’s death. After numerous arrests were made, two Czech villages suspected of having been involved in the assassination plot, Lidice and Ležáky were literally wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. Their innocent inhabitants were mostly killed, but some were sent to concentration camps. These poor people are remembered in Jephson Park, which is such a lovely place that one would not think that it could possibly be even remotely associated with the human tragedies that followed the death of a monstrous member of the Nazi party.

In the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi

RECENTLY, I WALKED in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, neither in India nor in South Africa nor in London, but in southeast England.

I am sure that many years ago, at least once, I travelled by ferry across the English Channel from Folkestone in Kent to a port in France. Whether I was travelling by car or by train I cannot recall. Had I been travelling by rail I feel sure that I would have remembered the pier at Folkestone, but I cannot now recall it. If I reached the ferry by train, it would have had to have been before 2001, when the last ferry sailed from Folkestone.

The first ferry service from Folkestone to Boulogne began in 1843 (https://folkestoneharbourarm.co.uk/history/the-harbour-in-the-19th-century/). Passengers reached the boat from the mainline railway station by local transport. In 1847, a long viaduct was constructed to take a steeply inclined mile long branch line from the main line, which was 111 feet above sea level, to the shoreline. This track crossed the viaduct and a swing bridge, which still exist and separate the Inner harbour from the Outer Harbour. At the seashore, the track ran onto a newly constructed pier, The Harbour Arm, from which passengers and freight could be embarked and disembarked. The pier, which was only fully completed in 1904, had a station, a customs house, and warehousing facilities.

During WW1, the Harbour Arm played an important role in the conveyance of military personnel and materials between war-torn Europe and the UK. In December 1915, the famous spy Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (‘Mata Hari’; 1876-1917) was prevented from boarding a vessel at Folestone bound for France by Captain S Dillon of the Secret Intelligence Service. Another famous person, of far greater historical significance than Mata Hari, stepped of a vessel, the SS Biarritz, onto the Harbour Arm on the 12th of September 1931. This passenger was a Gujarati, the only member of the Indian National Congress, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), going to London to attend the Round Table Conference. A picture taken at the time (www.alamy.com/mahatma-gandhi-alighting-at-folkestone-kent-england-united-kingdom-uk-12-september-1931-old-vintage-1900s-picture-image346793736.html) shows him, dressed in white robes and a dhoti, stepping along a gangplank. The curved platform of the station on the pier, which still exists, is clearly visible in the picture. He is shown walking towards a group of policemen and reporters, some of whom are holding unfurled umbrellas. His arrival at Folkestone on a rainy day is also recorded in a short but amusingly commentated newsreel film (https://youtu.be/P6njRwz_dMw), which also illustrates the rapturous reception he received in the streets of London.

Far more recently, another arrival at Folkestone has hit the headlines. On the 19th of October 2021, a large puppet called Little Amal (‘amal’ meaning ‘hope’ in Arabic), over ten feet in height, first made its appearance in the UK in Folkestone. Little Amal has been carried on foot all the way across Europe from Turkey (www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/whats-on/the-walk-one-little-girl-one-big-hope/) as part of an exercise to raise the public awareness of the plights of refugee children fleeing their native lands. On British soil, she plans to tour the country for a while. Little Amal did not arrive, as Gandhi did, on a cross-channel ferry bound for Folkestone, but she did make her first an appearance on the Harbour Arm (www.kentonline.co.uk/folkestone/news/little-amal-coming-to-town-255932/). She was greeted by the actor Jude Law.

Folkestone harbour was heavily bombed during WW2 and then the pier was repaired after the war ended. Passenger services to France resumed in 1946, but limitations of the harbour’s depth, which prevented the docking of larger ferries, and the development of roll, on roll-off ports elsewhere, led to Folkestone’s gradual decline as a port. These factors and the completion of the nearby Channel Tunnel resulted in the ending of Folkestone’s life as a passenger port by 2000. After this date, the Harbour Arm and its buildings fell into decline and became dilapidated.

In 2014, the Department of Transport closed the railway line ad the facilities on the Harbour Arm. The following year, it was acquired by the Folkestone Harbour & Seafront Development Company (www.folkestoneseafront.com/). This organisation has tastefully restored the Harbour Arm and its buildings as well as the viaduct leading to it across the water. The rails on the viaduct have been preserved but submerged in the walkway in such a way that their top surfaces can be seen. The sinuous platforms and their canopies have been repaired, as have the signal box (now a café) and the old Customs House. Beyond the station, the pier runs out to sea towards a lighthouse. All along the pier, there are several eateries. Also, there is an artwork by Antony Gormley.  What was once a busy transport hub has now become a delightful leisure facility, which along with Folkestone’s transformation as an artistic ‘creative hub’ has turned the town into a place well worth visiting, a far cry from what it was when Gandhi set foot on its pier. My wife and I wondered whether Little Amal, who is quite tall, will have as much influence on the future of the world as did the short man from India, who arrived in his dhoti at Folkestone in 1931.

I am pleased to have walked where Gandhi once stepped in Folkestone because I have also followed in his footsteps in various places in India including his birthplace Porbandar in Gujarat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bombay, Madras, and Bangalore. In London, I have often walked by Friends House on Euston Road, passing the very door through which he left the building to greet his admirers back in 1931. In all these places, there are ample monuments and other reminders of the Great Soul (the Mahatma), but, as far as I know, Folkestone is yet to materially commemorate his brief presence there.

Three pubs and a hero

LESS THAN 580 FEET long, Rathbone Street runs parallel to part of London’s Charlotte Street. Short though it is, it is not lacking in interest. The quiet thoroughfare was originally named ‘Glanville Street’, before being renamed Upper Rathbone Place, and then its present name (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol21/pt3/p12). Rathbone after whom Rathbone Place and Street were named was a carpenter and builder, Thomas Rathbone (died 1722), who lived in a house on the Place around 1684. Rathbone Street was laid out 1764-65 (www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/architecture/sites/bartlett/files/chapter31_hanway_street_and_rathbone_place.pdf). During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Rathbone Street was occupied by various artists including the sculptor M Bordier and the painter John Rubens Smith. Today, various vestiges of the past can be seen on the short street.

The Marquis of Granby pub at the southern end of Rathbone Street was named in honour of Lieutenant-General John Manners, Marquess of Granby (1721-1770), who fought heroically at the Battle of Warburg (1760) during The Seven Years War (1756-1763). He became Commander of the British Army in 1766. There are many pubs named after him because, it is said, he set up many of his soldiers as publicans when they retired from military service. The pub bears old boundary markers marking the demarcation line between the parishes of St Pancras and St Marylebone. The pub now stands in both the Boroughs of Camden and Westminster. In the past, the pub’s customers have included Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot. The building housing the pub was already built by 1765.

There are two other pubs in Rathbone Street. One of them halfway along it is The Newman Arms, another haunt of Dylan Thomas and also frequented by George Orwell. Established in the 1730s, this pub features in two of Orwell’s novels: “1984” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”. Once upon a time, the pub was a brothel. A painting depicting a prostitute in period costume covers a bricked in upper storey window. Across the road from the pub there is a plaque on a building that bears the words: “Hearts of Oak Benefit Society” and the date 1888. This marked the rear entrance to the offices of the Society. Its main entrance was 15-17 Charlotte Street (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/hearts-of-oak-benefit-society-w1). At the north end of the street, there is a third pub, The Duke of York. Bearing the date 1791, it was where the author Anthony Burgess was drinking when he witnessed an attack by a gang bearing razors (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Duke_of_York,_Fitzrovia). The pub’s sign bears a portrait of someone who is far younger than the pub, the current Prince Andrew. This pub is the only one with the name The Duke of York which has a pub sign depicting the current Duke of York. The pub was originally named to honour an earlier Duke of York.

Rathbone Street, short as it is, contains three pubs. Its continuation southwards towards Oxford Street, Rathbone Place, contains two pubs and another drinking place, once a pub but now named The Liquorette, in a stretch of road even shorter than Rathbone Street. Thus, there used to be 6 pubs within a stretch of roadway 364 yards in length.

Returning to the south end of Rathbone Street, its southwestern corner, we reach what first got me interested in this short lane. During WW2, there was a London Auxiliary Fire Station, Sub Fire Station 72Z, on this spot. During the night of the 17th of September 1940, it was hit by a bomb dropped by the German Luftwaffe. The building burst into flames. Seven firemen lost their lives. However, two men were saved by the brave actions of Fireman Harry Errington, who was later awarded a George Cross to recognise his bravery. He rescued two of his comrades from the flaming ruins. Harry Errington (formerly ‘Ehrengott’) was son of Jewish immigrants living in Soho. Harry, son of Baila and Shepsel Ehrengott who arrived in London from Poland in 1908, was born in Soho in 1910 (https://british-jewry.org.uk/New%20Member%20Area/BJ%20News/100806/Microsoft%20Word-B-JNews8final.pdf).  

After training to become an engraver, he had to abandon this because his lungs became affected by nitric acid fumes. Then, he joined a relative, a tailor in the Savile Row firm of Errington and Whyte. He became a master tailor. Then, WW2 broke out. Mike Joseph wrote in the “B-J News” of August 2006:

“It was in 1940 that Harry earned true celebrity status. Having joined the Auxiliary Fire Service at the outbreak of the Second World War a year earlier, he was one of several firemen on duty in a basement rest-room during an air raid, when the building collapsed. An enemy bomb had scored a direct hit, and twenty people died, including six firemen; Harry was lucky: he was only knocked out! When he came round, the building was on fire. He could have escaped with little difficulty, but two of his comrades were trapped under rubble: how could he leave them? He wrapped a blanket round his head against the flames and, digging with his bare hands, managed to free one of the men. He dragged him to safety, upstairs into the street, and then, although he was already badly burned, went back and rescued the other man.”

Harry was true to the words quoted from the Book of Joshua, which are written on one of the two commemorative plaques marking the former fire station in Rathbone Street:

“Be strong and of good courage.”

Harry returned to tailoring when the War was over but remained in touch with the London Fire Brigade. When he died in 2004, he was the last surviving Jewish holder of the George Cross.

Though less lively than nearby Charlotte Street in ‘normal’ times, Rathbone Street is worth a detour, if only to quench your thirst in one of its three pubs. I wonder whether Harry Ehrengott and his colleagues made use of any of these drinking holes during the odd quiet moments between their brave firefighting tasks.  

Hidden in the rocks

MY FASCINATION WITH MILITARY bunkers began after visiting Albania in 1984, when the country was stilled being ruled by the last regime in Europe that still revered Joseph Stalin. Tiny Albania was surrounded by potential enemies, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Italy across the Adriatic. Having had his country invaded many times in the past, Albania’s dictator, Enver Hoxha (who ruled between 1945 and 1985) was determined to make the country as impregnable as possible. One approach that he adopted was to cover (literally) the entire country (towns and villages included) with small (and large) concrete bunkers, many of them were hemispherical in shape. As Albania was never invaded after 1945, the effectiveness of these concrete structures that looked like a severe rash of pimples was never put to the test.

blog cave

Bunker at Torcross

The same can be said of the numerous concrete bunkers that were constructed in many strategic places all over England before and during WW2. Fortunately, the Germans never managed to invade the UK, with the exception of the Channel Islands. Judging by how useless the Maginot Line proved to be in France, I suspect that the British bunkers would have been fairly useless had the Germans invaded.

Today, we visited the tiny hamlet of Torcross in south Devon. It lies at the southern end of the long causeway that separates the sea from Slapton Ley, a large freshwater lake. While sitting at an outdoor table on the sea front at Torcross, I was staring at a picturesque rocky outcrop when I noticed what I thought was a rock with a rectangular slit cut in it.

Looking more closely using my camera’s zoom lens, I realised that the slit was really there, but it was cut in something that was not rock, but a thick concrete wall. The wall looked identical in texture to the rocks surrounding it. I realised that what I was looking at is an old bunker that ovelooks the long stretch of Slapton Sands, which is on the sea side of the causeway. It overlooks what would have been a perfect beach for a foreign invasion force to land.

In fact, the stretch of beach known as Slapton Sands was used by an invasion force in 1944. It was not a hostile force belonging to the Axis powers, but a friendly one used by Allied troops. The troops, mostly Americans, were using Slapton Sands to practice or rehearse the planned landings (on D Day) that were about to take place in Normandy as a prelude to recovering Western Europe from German occupation.

As I have described in another post, the rehearsing Allied troops were attacked by German boats, resulting in the tragic deaths of over 700 young Americans. The Germans, based in France, attacked the beach at Slapton Sands because they had picked up very busy radio signal activity in the area. Luckily for the planned invasion of France, the German attackers had no idea of what was being rehearsed at Slapton. Had they known they might well have returned to do even more damage that might have sabotaged the D Day invasion plans.

An amphibious tank, recovered from the sea in 1974, stands at Torcross as a memorial to the men who lost their lives during the German attack of the boats and other military positions at Slapton Sands.

The bunker, which I spotted at Torcross, is known as ‘Pillbox Torcross’. Near to the former Torcross Hotel, this was one of six bunkers at the south end of Slapton Sands. What I thought was concrete is actually local stone (see https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV39402&resourceID=104).

 Hence, it blends with its surroundings far better than it would have had it been built in concrete. Whether or not this and the other bunkers nearby were of any use when the Germans attacked during the very early hours of the 28th April 1944, I cannot say. However, I feel that given the devastating results of the German attack, this is unlikely.

Today, Torcross is a popular place with visitors. It has several eateries and places to stay. During past visits to this delightful spot, once the scene of a horrible tragedy, we have eaten good seafood at the Start Bay Inn, which is only a few feet away from the tank memorial. The inn was established in the 14th century, when it was known as ‘The Fisherman’s Arms’.

Visiting Torcross provides a good place to reflect on the heroism of those who fought in WW2. Little did those 700 or more men lost in this place in 1944 know that their sacrifice has allowed us to enjoy holidays at this beautiful spot. Whenever I am at Torcross, I have mixed emotions: joy because of the place’s great natural beauty, and sadness when I look at the tank memorial and remember why it is there. Had the D Day landings been thwarted, who knows under what kind of regime we would be living today.

Clive in India

I AM NOW IN CALCUTTA. Last time I came here, for miles and miles along the railway lines and at stations, there were starving people. Now there is not a sign of famine – it has been organised with the ability of genius…” 

Thus, wrote Clive Branson (1907-1944) from Bengal on the 11th of November 1944. Later in the same letter, this British soldier in India added:

“… it is reported that in the week ending November 5th, 267 deaths occurred in Chandpur town and in the 53 unions (groups of villages), on an average more than 200 in each. The report states ‘Almost all the dead bodies were thrown into the ‘khal’ and paddy fields – to be devoured by dogs, jackals and vultures – as there was no man available to bury or burn those corpses.”

A few lines later, he adds:

The point is that out in the villages people can starve to death without anyone knowing about it, while on the basis of the falling mortality rate in Calcutta Amery will no doubt claim that the famine is over.”

‘Amery’ to whom Branson referred was Leo Amery (1873-1955), who was Secretary of State for India during WW2. The famine was that which decimated many Indians in Bengal and other parts of India.

clive

Writing on the 28th of August 1943, Branson suggested that the famine was to some large extent man-made rather than the result of natural disasters:

But the fact is there is enough food in India now …”

A major cause of the famine he suggested it was:

“… the hoarders, the big grain merchants, the landlords and the bureaucrats who have engineered the famine …”

And, on the 14th September 1943, Branson wrote:

The thing that stands out a mile is that the Government showed no signs of weakness when it came to the arrest of the Congress in glaring contrast  to its utter helplessness (??) (or should we call it co-operation, tie-up) in the face of the grain profiteers (and in a similar situation – the cloth merchants – the coalowners, re employment of women underground).”

These quotes, damning indictments of the situation Clive Branson observed whilst serving in India come from a book, “British Soldier in India”. It contains the letters that Clive wrote from India to his wife in England and was published in 1944 by ‘The Communist Party, London’. The slender volume contains an introduction written by Harry Pollitt (1890-1960), who was General Secretary of The Communist Party of Great Britain from 1941 to 1956. I came across the book while reading an excellent book about the 1943 Bengal famine, “Churchill’s Secret War” by Madhusree Mukherjee, and ordered a copy.

Clive was born in Ahmednagar (India), son of an army officer. Ironically, most of his time in India during WW2 was spent in the town where he was born. He trained to be a painter at The Slade School of Art (part of University College London) and became a prolific and talented artist. Some of his works are housed in London’s Tate Gallery. From the age of 20, Clive became interested in Communism and joined the Communist Party in 1932. Pollitt wrote of him:

He was one of those who endear themselves to all who came in contact with them … he was able to inspire others to hate poverty and fight to remove it, to hate ugliness and see beauty … He was not only a brilliant speaker and organiser, but also did more than his share of what is sometimes called “the donkey work”. Nothing was too much for him …”

During the Spanish Civil War, Clive both recruited for, and from 1938 fought with, The International Brigade. In March 1938, he was taken prisoner by Franco’s Nationalist forces and interned in San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp, where he painted and sketched the camp and many of its inmates. These artworks are currently stored in the Marx Memorial Library in London’s Clerkenwell Square. Pollitt reports that a fellow prisoner said of Clive:

In any difficult time, Clive was always cheery, putting forward what we should do … He was one of the most popular and most respected among the British prisoners.”

Clive, a true patriot and ardent anti-fascist, joined the Royal Armoured Corps during WW2 and was posted to India where he arrived in May 1942, the month that he sent his first letter published in the book. Pollitt accurately notes that Clive’s letters from India:

“… will make you angry and they will make you sad. They will make you see new colours and shades, an unimaginable suffering and a truly heroic grandeur, extraordinary nobility and equally extraordinary bestiality. It is a vivid and many-sided picture which Clive wanted to record in painting, and which we may be sure he would have executed with feeling and sincerity...”

Reading Clive’s letters today, 76 years after they were composed, still evoked a sense of anger because of the awful things he saw as well as a sense of wonder because of his very evident love and admiration of India and its people.

Whenever he was able, Clive mixed with Indians from all strata of society and delighted in their company.  While in Ahmednagar, Clive was introduced to an Indian artist. At this person’s house, he:

“… did a drawing for 1½ hours of his little niece aged 10. I did it in indelible pencil and ink – this is the medium I shall do most of my work in as it is more lasting – does not smudge – than ordinary pencil. But how difficult are Indian clothes – I shall have to do a lot of careful observation and drawing before I shall know what to do technically’ The Indian just sat and watched me working. He speaks English quite well, and knows a number of famous Indian painters – he himself went to the Bombay School of Art…”

This was noted in a letter dated 13th of April 1943. Several months later, in mid-September, Clive was invited to lunch with his artist friend. I loved his description of the occasion, which was new to him but typically Indian:

We sat on wooden seats about 2 ins. off the ground. The meal was in a room just off the kitchen. Of course we had taken off our boots etc. Each had a large silver plate with the various ingredients put around the edge. A small bowl of what they call butter-milk took the place of water. A pattern, done with vermilion and white powder had been drawn on the ground. In front of me was placed a little silver stand in which a stick of incense burned. Nana’s elder daughter also ate with us. The whole affair was very civilised and friendly.”

In general, Clive was enamoured of all of the Indians he encountered, both those from sophisticated and also humble backgrounds. He was horrified at the way that the British and their government treated them. This is a significant feature of what he conveyed in his letters. Also, the failure and apparent unwillingness of the British to address the terrible famine concerned and upset him greatly. He communicates this eloquently and powerfully in his writing.

One of Clive’s many observations struck a personal chord. It concerns the bookshops that Clive visited in India in search of reading material. In a letter written from Bombay in September 1942, he noted:

I have said a lot about going to bookshops, but I have never mentioned something which hits you in the face about the general trend of literature: 1. Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is on sale prominently at every bookstall …”

Seeing copies of “Mein Kampf” openly on sale in most bookshops in India is something that has always surprised me since my first visit to India in 1994.

As a Communist, Clive’s political views are not concealed in his letters. He showed little or no sympathy for the policies of Gandhi and the All India Congress. On the 10th of March 1943, he wrote:

How stupid Gandhi’s fast looks compared to the grandeur of a handful of Indian peasants and workers uniting to demand their human rights!  No wonder the Viceroy corresponds with Gandhi and sends the police after the people.”

As for the Muslim League in Bengal:

The net result of the League’s scheme is to launch the peasants against the little men and leave the big bastards to control the famine via the black market – such is the first practical application of the policy of Jinnah.” (letter dated 19th June 1943)

Also, as a staunch anti-fascist, he regarded Subhas Chandra Bose as contemptible because he had chosen to fight alongside the Japanese, who were allies of fascist Germany. During his stay in India, Clive met and discussed matters with members of the Indian Communist Party. This is described in the letters and was not removed by the censors. In addition, his harsh but justifiable criticism of Britain’s mishandling of the famine in India passed the censors’ scrutiny and reached his wife’s letter box intact.

Clive was constantly upset by seeing examples of British racism in India. He mentions this often in his letters. The most eloquent example appears in a letter written on the 29th of November 1943:

I am sitting on the grass outside a long army hut. Not far away is an African negro … reading a book. Five minutes ago a B.O.R. [British other rank] came up, stopped, and said to him, ‘Can you read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s the book? Miss Blandish?’ ‘No, Pygmalion.’ I had to record this – whole books could not present the present world situation better.”

(I imagine that the B.O.R. was referring to “ No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, a  raunchy thriller by James Hadley Chase)

In the same letter, Clive noted that the British Conservative MP, Ferris:

“… has made a study of Indian affairs, and has delivered himself of the profound judgement that India is not ready for self-government. I wonder how many whiskies and sodas it took to produce such an original conclusion.”

Sadly, Clive did not live long enough to see India becoming independent in 1947. He was killed in action early in 1944 “…commanding an M3 Lee tank of B Squadron, 25th Dragoons. He was hit a glancing but fatal blow on the back of the head by a Japanese anti-tank shell near Point 315 at the end of the Battle of the Admin Box.” (source: Wikipedia).

Clive’s letters provide a moving collection of well-described observations of India, a country in which many of its citizens were enduring a plight at least as bad as that of people suffering in Nazi occupied Europe. They were under the control of the British, who were fighting to defeat Nazi tyranny. The British were under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who is reported (by his close colleague Leo Amery) to have said:

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Here are two short videos well worth watching in connection with what I have written:

https://youtu.be/QI6qg1ERmGE

(Pathé Newsreel with scenes of the famine. Commentary in Punjabi, but images are very powerful)

https://youtu.be/fUjtxHFGUrg

(An Indian historian/author/politician gives a fresh view of Churchill)