Wasting time by the pool

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My parents, like many other parents, wanted me to learn to swim. I was a reluctant learner. The reason was I could not believe that if I took my foot off the floor at the bottom of the pool or the sand beneath the sea, I would not sink like a stone. I could watch others swimming, but could not understand how they could do it and how much they enjoyed it.

Almost every Saturday morning, I used to be taken to one pool or another to get private swimming lessons. Year after year, these produced no results. I could not learn to swim. My parents must have spent a small fortune on these fruitless swimming lessons.

At school, we were taken to a public swimming bath at least once a week  during the Summer Term. The teachers supervising us were uninterested in those, like me, who were unable to swim. We were told to remain at the shallow end of the pool and not to move from there. This happened both at my primary school and also at secondary school.

Eventually my parents learnt of a Mr Brickett, who gave swimming lessons on Saturday ornings at the YWCA, which used to exist in Great Russell Street near Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. The red brick building still stands, but now it serves another purpose. 

Mr Brickett had a system that involved the pupil wearing an inflatable buoyancy arm-band arround each upper arm. Each armband had two separate inflatable chambers. With these fully inflated, I became convinced that I could make it across the pool without my feet touching the bottom. Each week, Mr Brickett would inflate the armbands a little less than the previous week, and then the pupil would be encouraged to swim to and fro across the pool. After a few weeks, I swam across the pool wearing my armbands. When I had done this, Mr Brickett revealed to me that he had not inflated the armband at all and that I was swimming without their assistance.  As I trusted Mr Brickett, I removed the bands and under his watchful eye I swam across the pool unaided. For this, I was awarded a certificate with my name and a Union Jack flag on it. It certified that I had swum 10 yards unaided, under my own steam.

 

I hardly ever swim any more, but I used to enjoy it a little bit, especially in the sea. I am glad that my parents persisted with the lessons, but regret that my slow progress led them to waste so much of their spare time by the pool.

 

A precocious child

Sometimes it pays to keep your mouth shut at the dental surgery.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, our family dentist was a kindly German Jewish refugee called Dr Samuels. In those days, I learned later while I was studying dentistry, sugar used to be an ingredient of toothpaste made for use by children. I doubt that my mother provided us with children’s toothpaste, which she would have regarded as being gimmicky.

Dr Samuels had a very upmarket practice in London’s St John’s Wood. His waiting room floor was covered with thick pile oriental carpets and the reading matter was glossy journals such as Country Life.

The surgery, where Dr Samuels performed his dentistry, was old-fashioned. Instruments were kept on display in glass fronted metal cabinets. His x-ray machine looked antiquated even to my young, inexperienced eyes. So, did most of his other equipment, much of it made by the German Siemens company. One of my uncles, also a patient of Dr Samuels, once asked him if a museum might be interested in displaying this historic looking dental equipment. Samuels answer was that it was not quite old enough for a museum.

Dr Samuels drilled teeth with a cord driven dental handpiece. He told us that he had an air driven high speed dental drill, but he did not like it because it cut too fast in his opinion. So, having fillings in his surgery was quite a noisy and bumpy experience.

Dr Samuels was a gentle, kindly man, like a benevolent grandfather. He never frightened me.

At the end of an appointment, he used to reward me with a boiled sweet. I looked forward to receiving these. However, one day when I was about 8 or 9 years old and he offered me the sweet, I said to Dr Samuels: “No thank you. Sweets are filled with sugar and bad for my teeth.”

The price I paid for my precociousness was that he never again offered me a sweet at the end of my appointments with him. I should have kept my mouth shut and graciously accepted his kind but unhealthy gift.

Albania’s got talent…

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The Albanian community in the UK has been in the country long enough for some of their children to have been born in the country. It would be easy for the first generation born in the UK, who have to attend British schools and mix with non-Albanians, to begin to forget their cultural heritage. However, thanks to various organizations that some of the children of Albanian heritage attend, Albanian language and cultural traditions are being kept alive in the UK. On the 27th of October 2018, I was invited to attend the finals of the, which was held in a school hall in London’s Chalk Farm.

The Albanian Ambassador to the UK, Mr Qirjako Qirko, was one of several well-known personalities who introduced the show in Albanian. He ended his speech with a few words in English. The gist of what he said was as follows. He thanked the Queen and her Government for allowing Albanians to maintain their traditions and language, which is not the case in every other country. The show which followed the speeches certainly demonstrated that despite being far from their traditional homes and many years away from them, the Albanian community is encouraging their children to keep alive the traditions of their forefathers.

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The show consisted of a series of performances by young people whose parents came from Albania or Kosovo. There were songs (traditional and contemporary Albanian as well as renderings of current and not so current popular songs in English). Small troupes of youngsters in traditional Albanian garb performed traditional Albanian dances. Others danced routines that they had choreographed themselves. Several youngsters declaimed poetry in Albanian. Naturally, the quality of performance was not uniform. Some of the young people were dazzlingly competent, the rest were not bad. None of the performers was shy or overtly lacking in confidence. Each of them performed with an enthusiasm that was refreshing to observe. The large audience around me encouraged each of the contestants as they performed on stage, cheering and clapping to the rhythm of the music. The five judges praised and gave friendly encouragement (in Albanian) to each of the performers when their act was over. Three of the judges were for singing, one for poetry recital, and one for dancing. The atmosphere in the hall was joyful and friendly. Everyone who passed my wife and me, greeted us warmly even if they had no idea who we are. It was great to discover that the famed hospitality of the Albanian people has been preserved in its British diaspora.

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Many, if not all, of the performers, who sung or recited in Albanian or who dressed up in traditional costumes and performed the dances of their ancestors, use English in their day to day life. They have given up parts of their precious spare time to learn Albanian and to help Albanian cultural traditions remain vital and vibrant. They set an example that many children of British ancestry might profitably follow.

Summers in Florence

I hope that this piece will not sound ungrateful, dear reader.

ARY 36 HW 60s

When I was a child and in my early teens, my parents, who were art-lovers, took my sister and I to Florence every summer. As a child, I failed to appreciate what a treat these visits were. At the end of the summer when school recommenced, my friend N and I would compare notes about our holidays. N visited Llandudno in North Wales every summer with his parents. He would relate how they had climbed the Great Orme, travelled on a special tramway, and stayed at a marvellous hotel overlooking the sea. What was I able to tell N? Well, nothing that I believed would rival the exciting things that N had experienced. What, for example, was the Uffizi art gallery in Florence when compared with the Great Orme in Llandudno? I mention the Uffizi in particular, because our annual visits to this treasure house of art filled me with despair. I wrote of this place in my book “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” (available from Amazon and Bookdepository.com) as follows:

The aforementioned Uffizi was another of the places that we often visited in the morning. I used to dread having to walk through its seemingly endless series of inter-connected galleries filled with masterpieces. The only thing that sustained me during this ordeal was the promise of an ice-cream afterwards or the promise of the opportunity to buy a paper cone filled with corn to feed the pigeons in the Piazza Signoria outside the gallery.

One of the first pictures that we always used to stop and admire was the Portinari Triptych painted by the Flemish painter Hugo Van der Goes in about 1475. That was during the time when the Florentine merchant Portinari, who commissioned it, was living in Bruges in the building which became the hotel in which we often stayed. My father, who is fascinated by the iconography of Renaissance art, explained to us the meanings of everything in this beautiful picture. My very young sister absorbed this information so well that year after year she could explain to us, and also to other tourists, who gathered around to listen to her, the reasons that particular things were depicted in it. For example, she could relate why there were a certain number of lilies in the vase near the bottom of the central picture; and why there was a barely visible devil’s horn at its top left, just above the horn of a cow grazing in the holy manger. This horn only became apparent after the picture was cleaned in the early 1960s.

The museums and my late mother’s seemingly endless visits to the dress-maker and countless shoe shops added to my lack of enjoyment of Florence. However, it was not all gloom and doom. The food we ate was lovely and there were some cultural sights which I enjoyed. And, Florence did hold some mysteries, one of which was solved between two successive annual visits. Let me quote from my book again:

The River Arno flows through Florence. It is traversed by a number of bridges, the most famous of which is the Ponte Vecchio. This is covered, like the mediaeval London Bridge used to be, with buildings and shops. The most interesting feature of this old bridge was the‘secret’ corridor that ran along its buildings just beneath their roofs. This, so my father often told us, linked the Uffizi on one side of the Arno with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side, the Oltrarno. Thispassageway, which must be about almost half a mile in length, allowed Florence’s rulers to move between these important buildingsunobserved by the public. It was closed to the public when we used to visit the city.

When the Germans retreated at the end of WW2, they demolished all of the bridges across the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. They decided that as its carriage way was far too narrow to accommodate military vehicles and large troop movements, it could not have been used by the Allied armies chasing them. My father said it was a tragedy that this bridge was saved whereas its neighbour a few yards downstream was demolished. This bridge, the Ponte Santa Trìnita, was a masterpiece designed by the renaissance artist Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511-1592). His Fountain of Neptune is an important and much photographed landmark in the centre of Florence.

When we first visited Florence, the bridge, which was painstakingly reconstructed after the war from the fragments found scattered about under the waters of the Arno, had two statues at each of its ends. Three of these were complete, but one of them was missing its head. This was the only bit of the bridge that had not been recovered. One summer, when we were visiting the city, my father pointed at the bridge and asked us if we noticed anything different about it. We discovered that the missing head had been found, and was back in its rightful place; the bridge was complete again. This must have been in 1962, as the head was only recovered late in 1961.

Most people reading this blog article, will probably think that I was so lucky to have visited Florence so often, and they would be justified. However, to a young boy as I was, I could not appreciate it properly. Now, many years later, I realise that my exposure to the arts at such a tender age was a great gift bestowed by my parents, even if it meant that I never saw the Great Orme.