Late September 2016

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Ibn Gvirol Street, Tel Aviv.  7.50 a.m., September 30 2016

We’ve been back in Tel Aviv over a fortnight already and it’s still summer with no end really in sight.  Actually, that’s not quite true because on Monday afternoon we had a torrential shower that must have lasted all of seven or eight minutes.  But that was one of those instances when the meaning of a phrase becomes clear for the forecast had said that “localized showers” were possible.  And true enough, halfway through the 4 km drive home from baby-sitting duties not only did the downpour cease but the road was a dry as it has been since last April.

It’s one of those years where the lunacy of the lunar calendar becomes evident.  The first day of the Jewish New Year falls this year on October 3; there have only been three or four occasions in the last 60 years when this has happened and the whole festival season doesn’t come to an end until October 24 so that when they’re all eventually over, there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Anyway, it’s back to photographing the mundane close to home.  While in London a couple of months ago, I visited the retrospective exhibition of photographs by William Eggleston at the National Portrait Gallery.  Eggleston was an American photographic pioneer, known for his brilliantly coloured and esoteric images but he is acclaimed mainly for his experimental use of colour at a time when art photography was still marked by use of black and white and colour reserved for gaudy use in advertising and glossy magazines.  But I like to think that in addition to his experiments with colour that Eggleston should be remembered for photographing the mundane in Mississippi and turning the mundane into something fascinating.

So I returned to Tel Aviv after 11 weeks in the big city to walk through the Yarqon Park, Tel Aviv Port and the neighbourhood streets to photograph many of the same scenes I’ve been photographing for the past nine years.  And that, of course, is what makes the scenes mundane.  It’s not so much that they are uninteresting and everyday but that I’ve photographed them so often and still find something new almost every time I lift the camera to my face and look through the viewfinder.

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Photographer in action.  Early morning, Yarqon Park, Tel Aviv

The photo below is just a public phone box.  Whereas in Hampstead, someone had converted the iconic red British phone box into a coffee shop on the footpath, this phone box might be interpreted as a shelter for someone using a mobile phone when it’s raining or as a place where a dog can get a drink while chatting to its owner on the phone.

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Not far away from where I photographed the phone box, I came across this notice — in three languages — on a streetside box belonging to the Israel Electric Corporation.  The upper of the two notices appears on almost every electricity pylon in the city — and I presume also throughout the country — so I didn’t pay much attention to it.  It was the lower one which caught my imagination because it made me wonder what if the high magnetic fields that may be present actually affected the pacemaker (or other implanted device, perhaps a steel pin in one’s hip or knee or foot) as the owner walked past and the heart stopped working properly or the hip was attracted inward towards the electricity box.  Who might be held responsible?  The electricity  company or the victim for not having the presence of mind to escape the forces of magnetism before actually encountering the warning?

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Walking along Ibn Gvirol Street, one of the main north-south drags in north Tel Aviv yesterday morning, my eye was drawn to the gun in the window.  My goodness — could Israel be going the way of America in that anyone can walk in off the street and buy a pistol.  Then I saw the price — 250 shekels, around $65 or £50.  But not to worry — it’s just a pepper spray pistol and two canisters of spray.  So I bought one to put in my camera bag so that I can threaten people who don’t want me to take their photograph.

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There’s a large residential building going up 200m or so from the house and when we returned a fortnight ago, where there had been a large open pit, there was now many tons of concrete, the foundations of a building that will be several storeys tall.  And, of course, there’s a crane.  I’m fascinated by these real-life Meccano sets and it’s not all that often you get to see the operator — but there was one hard at work the other day.

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Crane operator, Brandeis & Bnei Dan Streets, Tel Aviv

 

This morning (Friday) was Farmers’ Market day at Tel Aviv Port.  I rarely buy anything there — too awkward to lug home with the camera around my neck.  But I go for the colours and there’s always something that attracts the eye, like these bright orange-coloured corn cobs.

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There was something about two signs below the day before yesterday on the northern section of Dizengoff Street that made me stop and walk backwards to have a closer look.  In the upper one, I couldn’t help thinking “If only they could make up their minds!”.  In the lower one, the café is advertising Happy Hour.  But even if you don’t read Hebrew, you can understand that time passes slowly in this part of the world, with happy hour lasting for a full 150 minutes!

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Then leaving the house this morning, I photographed something I pass every day — and have photographed a couple of times before but never when it’s so full.  This is one of the ugliest pieces of street installation in the country (at least this one isn’t bright yellow and has a floral “artistic embellishment”.  These containers are for plastic bottles, almost all of which carry a 30 agorot (about 8 cents or 6 pence) deposit if you return them to a shop or supermarket but nobody does.  Every now and then you can find someone (usually an older person) attempting to rescue bottles from the installation in order to claim the refund but generally it’s not this full and is therefore difficult.  I drink tap water, by the way.

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My walks often involve crossing the river.  Here are two early morning pictures from adjoining bridges taken about 20 minutes apart.  The upper one is looking east towards the rising sun; the lower one is the next bridge to the east looking westward towards the lower reaches of the stream.

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The final picture in this series is of one of the many egrets that you encounter on any walk through the park.  Naturally, what drew the eye into this picture is not the bird itself but its shadow.

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Finally, the past few days have been taken up with listening to and viewing people talking and reminiscing about Shimon Peres who died a couple of days ago and was buried this afternoon in Jerusalem.  There’s been so much written about him in the past few days by people who knew him well or who had interviewed him that I feel that perhaps I should say nothing at all.  But I can’t because I feel that a very special person has passed on.

Listening to the Israeli politicians talking about him made you realise how lilliputian their views are.  The gap between the winner and the also-rans is enormous.  The hypocrisy and cynicism of the members of government interviewed over the past couple of days know no bounds, it seems.  In life they fought him tooth and nail over everything he believed in.  In death, he was the most wonderful man.

Peres was a paradoxical person (read the obituaries in the Economist and the Guardian this week and you can see how and why).  As a civil servant, which is what he was before he became a politician, he was responsible for building the Israel Defence Force into what it became.  Yet he was vilified as politician for all sorts of reasons.  He wasn’t Israeli enough, he wasn’t a general, he was too European, he spoke with a Polish accent, he was too Ashkenazi.  He was a loser, they also said, leading the Labour Party into elections five times and never winning a majority.  It was also said that he couldn’t be be trusted, moving from party to party when it suited him.  He was the ultimate pragmatist, a feature of his character that didn’t endear him to ideologues right or left.

As a politician, he took decisions and didn’t wait to see the results of polls in order to evaluate whether or not “the people wanted it” before deciding something.  And, as a politician who took decisions, some of the decisions were wrong but that’s the name of the game, vide  Winston Churchill.  As a post-politician, as State President, as elder statesman, he had a vision and was an eternal optimist.  He gave many people reason to believe that there could be a better future.  

I didn’t see him as a loser but as a winner.  If you look at Israel’s history over the past half century, he may have lost elections but generally ended up inside the coalition rather than in the opposition.  He believed that if you wanted to get things done, then you had to be in government.  Some people might call that untrustworthy.  I like to regard it as ultra-pragmatism.

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Tubes and Buses (mostly)

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I’m not all that keen on public transport but as I’m not affluent enough to employ even a part-time chauffeur and a Rolls, I make do with what there is.  It just so happens that the only two occasions on which I’ve been pickpocketed or, as Roald Dahl might have written, raped by a fingersmith, involved public transport.  The first was in Camden 20 years ago where boarding a bus, I was jostled by a couple, one in front of me and the other behind, and my wallet vanished.  In the 20 minutes or so it took me to get home and cancel the credit cards, each had been used once.  In the second instance, on a day trip to Paris with my daughter and boarding the Metro for lunch in a restaurant highly recommended by an epicurean friend of Shuli and Tami, half a dozen teenage girls were scrambling to get out as I was struggling to get in. In the process, everything except our passports and return tickets had gone.  I spent three hours at the police station at Gare du Nord with a policeman, two dictionaries and lot of laughter at the farcicality of it all as I futilely attempted to file a report on the loss.
Anyway, à propos public transport, the Financial Times Weekend Magazine on August 26 ran a story about an up and coming Irish author, Eimear  McBride, a writer with a style very much her own.
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Eimear had emigrated to London as a teenager in 1994 from Mayo in the west of Ireland, writing that everything about London was alien to her — the sheer quantity of bodies jammed into it, and the “it” itself being an unquantifiable space. How big was it and how many hours were needed to cross it? In 1994, she wrote, there were fewer bridges and transport options but for her, even the long unrefurbished Northern Line sang of Futurism.

How anyone could think of the Northern Line trains as “futurism” is beyond even my limited imagination, but whatever.  She found all those bodies themselves initially disorientating, then exhilarating to find herself having no tangible existence for them. After years of praying to avoid talkers on the Dublin train, she soon realised that here there was very little chance of that occurring in London. People on the Tube looked straight ahead and even her unsociable self had to retrain the instinct to greet whoever she sat alongside.  At first, she frequently had late-night, drunk, Tube chats with other recent arrivals who, like her, were more accustomed to “public displays of generalised sociability”. The necessity to be more circumspect was eventually learned Interpreting it as the epitome of Londoners’ basic respect for the privacy of fellow passengers; how else to endure such unnatural physical closeness to strangers? Coming from a people even less inclined towards touching, she found even British cheek-kissing to be challenge enough.

This non-contact, blank-stare behaviour on the Tube is something I’ve noticed, too and it fascinates me.  Unless you are travelling with a friend or happen to meet someone you know, more likely than not, you’ll have no contact whatsoever with your fellow-travellers.  About the only time human behaviour reverts to some sort of normality is if someone in an advanced state of decrepitude manages to make it down to the platform and boards a train.  Then somebody might — just might — establish eye contact for long enough to make offering a seat unavoidable.  I’ve also seen people make a move if an arm or a leg becomes trapped in a carriage door just as it’s closing, though that might have no more than something to do with the train being delayed.  Or, as once happened to a person I knew, if the person sitting opposite lurches forward and dies in front of your very eyes!

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Perhaps I smell a bit off today

These days when I use the Tube I have the luxury of not having to travel during rush hour, which makes it sort of bearable.  Thirty years ago when I was doing a daily commute between Edgware and Charing Cross, and Edgware being one of the termini of the Northern Line, I was always able to get a seat for the morning commute.  Because there was nothing to look at other than blank stares, I found it a very amenable work space and I even managed to write the drafts of two published papers during those two highly productive years on the Northern Line southbound.  

Every now and then, however, something out-of-the-ordinary occurs on the Tube. 

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Entertainment time on the Northern Line [uninvited]

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The Tube on a warmer day

A different unusualness occurred in 1986, 30 years ago now,  when an 87-year old man (pictured below) boarded the train at Hendon Central and sat opposite me.  (I now know his exact age because I found out that he was born in 1899 — and died in 1999.)

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He produced a torn brown envelope from his coat pocket and I figured — mistakenly, as it turned out, that he was writing notes on it, perhaps a shopping list or some other sort of reminder. The train continued through Brent Cross and arrived at Golders Green Station.  As he made his way to the door, he thrust the paper into my hands and alighted. I looked at it — and then I looked at it again.  Yes, now, 30 years later, it’s a fair likeness but in 1986 it seemed to me as if he’d drawn a caricature of my mother’s cousin, Frank Fine, a North Dublin GP and Irish International bridge player.  I’d always resembled Frank — but always with a 20-year time lag, if you know what I mean.  (The last time I saw Frank was about three years ago at the Jewish cemetery in Dublin and I honestly didn’t recognise the old man on two sticks until I got close and had a good look.  And then I thought, this is I should I survive into my late 80s!)

Anyway, I looked at the drawing again and noticed that he had signed it.  Somehow, the name seemed vaguely familiar but these were the days before Internet so there was no easy way to check him out.  I brought it home and framed it and it’s been above my desk all these years.

     sallon

Years later, I decided to do a Google search and discovered that the 87-year old man was none other than Ralph Sallon, caricaturist for the Daily Mirror for over 40 years as well as for Tatler, Daily Mail, Daily Sketch, The Observer and Daily Express.  His work was admired by such luminaries as David Low, who kept copies of his caricatures. According to the British Cartoon Archive, the Queen Mother was a fan and she personally recommended him for an MBE in 1977. 

On the page devoted to him on the archive website, he is quoted as explaining that “the art of observing is to forget yourself … The art of caricature is not to think of yourself in relation to anyone else but to think of the other person only. Your whole personality must go outwards, never inwards.”  It was reported that his daughter had said that he hated having to pay for things, so he used to persuade taxi drivers to take the caricatures he had drawn of them on the journey as payment.  So, it seems, I came across Mr. Sallon on one if his more generous days.

However, if possible, I prefer to travel by bus but because buses have windows and the stops are more closely spaced than the Tube, I find that even reading a newspaper on the bus is a near impossibility.  Nonetheless, buses can provide surprise meetings. 

Late in 2001, I got on a Number 113 bus at Swiss Cottage en route to work at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in Wimpole Street.  I had just bought my first iPod a few days before (the first time I had ever read about something and decided on the spot that it was a “must have”.)  I parked myself in the middle of the bench seat at the back of the lower deck of the bus and turned on the iPod and was listening to the Alban Berg Quartet playing Mozart’s quartet K589.  Turning on to Finchley Road, a large woman got on the bus and seated herself to my right.  Before we had reached St. John’s Wood Station, she tapped me twice on my right shoulder and as I removed the earbud, in a South African accent so sharp and abrasive that you felt that it could cut through frozen boerewors as if it were melted butter, asked me what I was listening to.  So I told her exactly what and replaced the earbud whereupon the tapped me on the shoulder a second time and asked me what else one could listen to on “that contraption”.  I can’t remember what I answered her but then she said to me: “You’re not from here, are you?  Where are you from?” I told her that I was from Dublin but as I really didn’t want to enter into a conversation with this nosey stranger, I jammed the earbud back into my ear and continued listening to the ABQ and Mozart. But she was persistent if nothing else.  

Now, here’s the interesting part.  To me, she didn’t seem Jewish at all; it must have been the accent that disarmed me and she was built like and had the face of ‘n Afrikaner boere vrou. But for some peculiar reason that I cannot fathom, my appearance to her must have seemed somewhat Jewish.  But it was her next question that floored me:  “Do you happen to know my cousin Philip Coleman?”, she asked.  “The pharmacist?”, says I, “with a shop on the Lower Kimmage Road?”.  “Yes, that’s the one”, she says.  So I told her that he often used to play poker with my Uncle Lew on Sunday evenings! (which, as it happens, was absolutely true!).  

By this stage, the bus had almost reached Portman Square, where she got off.  I have no idea what her name was nor she mine and I never saw her again.  But coming after a day, on which at work, in the process of preparing a lengthy questionnaire for a survey of more than 3,000 Jewish households in London, we had spent several hours discussing the cultural and ethnic significance of chance meetings such as this among secular Jews.  This particular chance meeting of two Jews on a bus in northwest London discussing a third in another city and known to both of them was really enlightening, an actual example of what we had been discussing theoretically the day before.

POSTSCRIPT

This photo has nothing to do with trains and buses but relates to public transport.  I stopped at the traffic lights in Tel Aviv en route to pick up granddaughters from the kindergarten when I noticed this in front of me.  Given my sensitivity to signs and spelling, it was crying out for someone to photograph it and as the iPhone was lying on the front seat, I whipped it out and took the picture and then posted it to Facebook (the car was stationary!).  One of my Facebook acquaintances pointed out that even the name of the car was misspelled though I hadn’t noticed that.  I think he was referring to “Road Use”!

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POST-POSTSCRIPT

NOT TO BE CLICKED if you’re in any way sensitive to vulgar, coarse, smutty, dirty, filthy, crude, lewd, obscene, offensive, indelicate, improper, indecorous, salacious, off-colour, tasteless, risqué, ribald, bawdy, or suggestive language!!!

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Readjusting — the 2nd week begins

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On Bus 125 at King George V Street, Tel Aviv

I usually have a good idea of how I’m going to start these posts but rarely when I begin to write do I know quite in which direction the flow will take me.  I also try to balance the quantity of text and the number of pictures though sometimes there might be more of one than the other.  This time, text wins but I’m not apologising, mainly because I don’t have to please anyone but myself.  Nevertheless, it’s worth a read, just for the heck of it — and there are photographs, too, which appear mostly at the end of the epistle — so if you want to, you can skip straight to the pics!

Today, on the autumnal equinox and a week after returning to Tel Aviv from a prolonged stay in London, I am once more trying to adjust to life in Israel.  Of course, that shouldn’t be all that difficult.  I’ve lived here for 44 years but at the same time, I’ve been striving — vainly, it seems — to comprehend the Israeli psyche and I still find it almost impenetrable.   Not that the Israeli mindset is static, you understand.  Steamship Israel has been listing to starboard in recent years at a velocity that I find scary.  A sinking feeling is setting in, so much so that I once again feel that I am very much part of minority — but this time in a country which, according to all the ideological bumpf, I am supposed to feel most at home.  

Anyway, just to make me feel again familiar with my old/new surroundings, I spent Sunday having a run-in with Israeli bureaucracy.  Truth to tell, I haven’t had too much to do with Israeli bureaucracy in recent years and the little I have suggests a marked improvement from years past where you would sit with tens or hundreds of others on wooden benches in a large room and hope that some officious semi-literate would provide you with the papers or permit you needed at the given time.  And another apparent truth is that Israeli bureaucracy is probably no better or worse than bureaucracies in other countries; it’s just that in some other countries you are less likely to encounter state apparatchiks.

Moreover, I have to admit that in all honesty Israel is not the place in which I experienced my most memorable brush with officialdom.  That occurred about 15 years ago in the London when, working in the country for the first time ever, I needed a National Insurance (Social Security) number.  I applied and was given a date and time to present myself in person at 1 Melton St., NW1 2ER, a building beside Euston Station only to discover when I turned up that the place was closed due to a wildcat strike of bolshy pencil-pushers. 

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1 Melton Street, c. 2009 (Google Street View)

However, there was one functionary who, for some reason, had decided not to take “industrial action” and appeared to have some compassion; it must have been the browbeaten expression on my face. Ushering me into a cavernous room, he bade me sit.  He then vanished only to reappear a minute later on the other side of metal grille.  So here I was, in a room designed to accommodate hundreds and which should have resounded with the hubbub of dozens of disgruntled individuals, seated alone except for my interlocutor, who then proceeded to ask me questions, which echoed around the empty chamber, relating to my life.  (I assumed that the meta-question was why, at my advanced age, was I applying for a National Insurance number for the first time.)  Moreover, as his speech was in an accent so heavily laced with curry and mango chutney (that’s not PC, I hear some people say?  Too bad!) that I had to focus my attention sharply in order to decipher the questions. 

This exercise continued for an hour or so at which point he indicated that he had no more questions to ask.  What I hadn’t noticed was that he had been taking notes as I responded and when we reached the end of the “interview”, he then proceeded to read his notes from eight pages of closely written and extremely neat handwriting in pencil.  What he read out amounted to a narrative of the 56 years I had lived until then, in the form of a short story.  To what purpose this exercise was beyond my comprehension.  Perhaps he wished to submit it to the BBC as part of a short story competition but my life isn;t that interesting.  I realised that this was a sort of official form, which I duly signed as a true record of who I was up till that point in time.  It was a clear case of “The Empire Strikes Back”.   And the bottom line was that I received my N.I. number and a card to that effect a few days later.

However, the Israeli experience last Sunday was somewhat different.  Unpacking last Thursday, I checked our passports and noticed that they are due to expire in four months’ time.  So I looked into see whether there was a way of applying for a new passport that obviated the need to do so in person at the Ministry of the Interior in Tel Aviv, not one of the more accessible buildings in the city.  And indeed, one can do this online — or so I was given to believe.

I logged on — easy-peasy.  I found the electronic version of the passport application form.  I filled in my first name and family name in Hebrew and English, each of which I remembered.   My address and postal code were no problem either. My date of birth? OK, too — I just have to remember Mozart and the year that WWII came to and end.  Then it asked “If you were not born in Israel, in which country were you born?”  and in case you can’t remember, they provide you with a list of about 200 states to choose from.  But of course I remembered because I found my Irish passport next to my Israeli one. 

Then there was a signal to “Press the button to proceed to the next page”.  I did so only to discover that I couldn’t actually reach the next page.  Two more futile attempts and then I ascertained that there’s a red line around a box that I had missed and not filled in.  What’s supposed to be there?  Ah, they need the date that my immigration to Israel was registered (or, as they put it using the Zionist lexicon, when did I make aliyah or ascend to Israel).  No problem, thought I; it’ll be on the passport expiring.  But there’s no reference there to date of immigration!  Not to worry, says I, it’ll be on my ID card — if I could only find it.  (As nobody has asked me to produce an ID card in a decade and my driver’s licence does for ID, I have no idea where it might be.)  No sweat.  I called my dear wife who is a more disciplined citizen than I and she checked her ID card (we “ascended” to this heavenly country together all those years ago) but there’s no mention there of date of immigration either.

Nevertheless, stamped, embossed and emblazoned and burnt into my memory, somewhere deep in my brain where numbers and formulas are stored, is a date: September 27 1972. It is difficult to forget such a fateful day in my life story .  However, there’s  just one small problem.  I may well remember it and it may well be accurate but how do I confirm it? (Perhaps I should try to trace my Indian biographer  at Euston Square?)  I would have inserted the date if not for the fact that underneath the boxes with my responses was a declaration in bold letters to inform box-tickers that giving incorrect information is a criminal offence.  (My friend Maoz is convinced that nobody would ever check it but that if someone did, he has given me his solemn oath to come and visit me in my cell every day!)

So, there’s little alternative but to phone the Ministry number.  On doing so, I hear a recorded message stating that due to sanctions and until further notice there will be no service provided for good citizens requesting biometric documents.  However, for those like me, requiring no more than information about regular passports, ID cards and such like, just hold the line.  So I held for 20 minutes until I realised that I was in an ever-decreasing audio spiral and hung up and when I tried a couple of hours later … same thing. 

At this point, I noticed on the bottom left corner of the computer screen, a chatroom.  So I chatted and asked into the ether what one should do in such cases.  The reply was prompt, and came during the time the tea was brewing.  The chatroom is simply subcontracted to the Ministry of the Interior but trying to be helpful, the chattee gave me a different telephone number to call only this brought me back into the same loop that had proven to be a bottleneck earlier.

But — nil desperandum — there was an email address to which I could direct a request for information.  So I sent my message there on Sunday afternoon only to receive an automated email response on Monday morning which read:

“Your message was not delivered to info@moin.gov.il because the server is not responding.  The server may be down or you may be experiencing network problems. Contact your system administrator if this problem persists.”

I rest my case. I’ll take the #26 bus to the Ministry of the Interior and make sure I bring lots of reading material with me.

Meanwhile, in order to overcome my feelings of anomie and displacement, the most efficacious therapy for readjusting to life in Israel is just to get out there with the camera and shoot.   So some images from the past few days follow:

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A new visitor to the neighbourhood

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Refurbishing the climbing wall.  Yarqon Park, Tel Aviv

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European Basketball comes to Tel Aviv (finally!)

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BIBI’S FREEBIE:  Israel Today, courtesy of Sheldon Adelson and his casino proceeds

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… and the pigeons can’t wait to peck at their breadcrumbs

 

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The dates are ripening in the Park

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Trees bring fruit, the fruit brings fruit bats, the bats deposit what remains of the fruit …                   Café Anastasia, Central Tel Aviv

 

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Friday morning Farmers’ Market, Tel Aviv Port

 

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Scaffolding Israeli style.  Pass the plank, please.  Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv

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The promenade, Tel Aviv Port, early morning

 

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Rowing Lesson #1, Tel Aviv Rowing Club, Yarqon Park

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How are things doing in Addis Ababa this morning?

 

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Messing about on the river.  Yarqon Park

 

black-crowned-night-heronBlack-crowned night heron, Yarqon Park

 

P.S.  

Just after I’d read this piece through (yet again) I decided to have one more search for my date of immigration.  And, lo and behold, literally before I clicked to publish this, I found a CV about 20 years old, when I was still keeping my CV up to date, replete with information I thought others might need, buried deep within the innards of my computer, which substantiates (to me at least) that  September 27 1972 was indeed the date in question!  So, no need (I hope) to take the bus to the Ministry and no need for Maoz to arrange visiting hours.

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Home again!

It’s hard to believe that a week has passed since the last post.  It’s not that I’ve been idle but the last few days before a trip always involves a lot of activity.  After 2 1/2 months in London, the time had come to make sure that we’d spoken to and seen everybody who needed to be spoken to and seen and, as always, there are some who will have to wait until the “next time”.  So it was time to say our goodbyes and make sure that had everything we needed for the trip back to Tel Aviv.  It’s always difficult taking our leave of family — grandchildren and their parents, sisters, and all the rest.

I did manage to spend a few hours out with an old friend, each of us armed with a camera.  After we’d chatted for an hour or so and discussed important problems of the world  without actually solving them, it was off to see what there was to record. Our choice this time was the St. James’s area a district in Central London, in the City of Westminster, part of the West End.  Sandwiched between Piccadilly to the north, The Mall to the south, Green Park in the west and Haymarket to the west, the area developed in the 17th century as a residential location for the British aristocracy.

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It was (and still is, to some extent) a focal point for “gentlemen’s clubs”, if, indeed, such a thing as a “gentleman” still exists and whether in a society that aspires to equality between the sexes, there really should be a place for  “gentlemen’s clubs”.

little-st-james-street

Upmarket it may be, but no money for a missing “T.”, an apostrophe, and a “W”?

In recent decades, St. James’s has altered its character from residential to commercial use, housing anything and everything from hedge funds to shops selling expensive bags, paintings by members of the Pissarro family, and believe it or not, yachts.  A short while after setting out, we passed a line of people outside a shop on Mount Street and wondered what it might be and whether it was closed for lunch.  Passing it from the opposite direction about an hour later, there was still a queue but the composition had changed.  We discovered that it was Goyard, an very expensive luggage store where the handbags start at £660 for the smallest and go up from there.  I suppose the queue was the result of limiting the number of persons in the shop at any given time, lest some put a handbag inside a shoulder bag inside a trunk and order their helicopter to transport the lot back to who knows where.

goyard

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Hedge funders with their barley sandwich lunches

Turning into Mayfair we entered Mount Street Gardens, in the middle of which is a large Roman Catholic church, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, run by the Jesuit order.  Opened in 1849, it has been described as “Gothic Revival at its most sumptuous” and its interior is something, indeed, to behold.  Absolutely stunning.  Whether it tallies with a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience is a moot point.

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The Church of the Immaculate Conception, Mayfair

Strangely, though, St. James’s appeared less photogenic than we had bargained for and reminded me of Camden Market (at the other end of the social spectrum), which, when you pass through it always seems so colourful and interesting but at street level, consistently seems to offer a lot less than it appears to have from the upper deck of a bus.

In stark contrast to the opulence of the Farm Street Church, coming out on to Regent Street, I came across this:

begging-regent-street

The weekend passed and on the Sunday, as the grandchildren were already back at school, we arranged to meet them for a last get together.  The original meeting place was to be under Henry Moore’s Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 5 1963-64 at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath.  However,at the last moment, it was decided by the powers-that-be to change the venue to the Bandstand in Regent’s Park where the annual Klezmer in the Park afternoon was being held, sponsored by the Jewish Music Institute, based at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.  

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A genuine Klezmer musician

The day attracted a variety of ensembles, including the Jewish Free School Youth Band, and other assorted outfits with such names as Tantz (with Giuliano Modarelli), a group called Don Kipper (which I misheard as Yom Kippur, something I thought a little misplaced) — in collaboration with The Sabbey Drummers from Ghana, The London Winchevsky Ensemble featuring the London Yiddish Choir, The London Klezmer All-stars, and Turbans.  In addition to the usual motley assortment of London Jews from the most secular to the most religious — and a hefty security presence provided by the Community Security Trust and the Metropolitan Police — all sorts of people turned up or passed through (see below), stopping to take in the scene and listen for a while.  (The concerts were free and the weather was wonderful.)

Long legged Brass players

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Brass players on plasterers’ stilts taking a well-earned break

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I suppose he has bells on his toes, too!

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Middle-aged man in 10th month of pregnancy

Ironically, overlooking and perhaps overseeing the whole event, the minaret of the Regent’s Park Mosque.

regents-park-mosque

And then, while listening, I noticed the wreaths laid at the base of the bandstand, which reminded us that 34 years earlier, the threat of terror came not from ISIS but from another organisation altogether.

bandstand

Frankly, however, I found four hours of Klezmer, mixed with Sephardi/Mediterranean music more than I had bargained for but if the kids and everyone else seemed to be enjoying it, who was I to complain?

Monday and Tuesday involved clearing up and packing but I did manage one last walk around to Primrose Hill again before “le grand retour” and I photographed St. Mark’s Church with the city as a backdrop, a picture I’ve taken many times and which always turns out different.

st-marks-primrose-hill

The gods of London must have known that I was somewhat vainly trying to work up enthusiasm for the return to Tel Aviv, so they stoked the fires and the temperature on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday shot into the 30s Centigrade, with no air/con, including not only the hottest September day since 1911 but also the hottest day of 2016.  All this as if to tell me that it will be more comfortable in T-A!  But those gods were also laughing at me because having got me out of the way, they were promising — yes, you’ve guessed —clouds, wind, rain and thunder for the coming week.

But I knew, as always, that the final bit of packing and panicking would be done in the couple of hours prior to the trip to Heathrow.  The cab driver avoided the A40/M40 and drove us through Acton to join the M4, a route I hadn’t been on before and a place to which I should return if only because it looks so different — and better-heeled — from Northwest London, the part of the metropolis I know best.  

And there we were, through Heathrow security, which is part serious, part farce, where I was spoken to as if a naughty child by one distraught assertive official who had obviously had a harrowing morning before I turned up and then was passed over to a young woman who proceeded to empty the contents of one of our pieces of cabin baggage.  The machine had turned up two things that were a no-no — a painkiller that came in the form of liquid in a small bottle and my MacMini, which irked me as I had been told specifically and shrilly three times that “laptops, iPads, tablets and e-readers” should be removed from the case — and a MacMini falls into none of those categories — categorically.  

And a few hours later, we were home again, thinking that our move from Haifa to Tel Aviv a decade ago was a wise one, if only because 25 minutes after exiting Ben-Gurion Airport terminal you can be in bed (and it was already way past midnight when we arrived!).

One zombie day unpacking, acquiring food and undertaking such mundane matters as seeing daughters and granddaughters again and I’m back in business, treading through park and port.

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Signage — again?

My eyes are attracted to signs and the words on signs.  What can I do?  Little, it seems except to read them, obey them sometimes and laugh at some of them more often than not.

So, the other day, when I got off a bus outside Euston and made my way to the Underground station, I came across this officious looking sign and laughed out loud.

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There were several elements on this sign that I found amusing.  The first was simply the use of the phrase “Controlled Drinking Zone”.  Somehow, there was something in the combination of words that didn’t quite add up.  I mean, if the people at which it was aimed were able to control their drinking, there wouldn’t be any need for the sign, would there? And if they were not in control, then they would be over the limit and even the Metropolitan Police would be unable to “control” them and would need to take some other form of action in order to remove them from the zone and if they were removed, would that, in fact, be what they meant by a “Controlled Drinking Zone”?  And then the thought struck me that perhaps they wouldn’t even see the sign as it appeared to me.  Methinks they are more likely to perceive it as this:

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or that:

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Or, in fact, more likely this:

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and then this, as the gutter fills up:

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Then there is the use of the term “Police constable”.  Yes, I know.  This is the lowest rank in the police force, the bobbies on the beat.  But this implies that if the policeman or policewoman bore three stripes on their arm — or better still if the person concerned was an Inspector, a Superintendent, a Commander or even a Commissioner on his way home from a black-tie dinner that they wouldn’t be able to require the person, who by this time is definitely lying in the gutter, not to consume any more alcohol?  And what on earth dio they mean by “can require”? Surely it’s a simple “yes” or “no”?  And where, precisely, are the borders of the “zone”?  (That’s the ex-political geographer in me making an unwelcome return, I suppose.)  And, finally, there was the warning: “Penalty: Confiscation — Fine”.  I mean, what are they going to confiscate?  An empty beer glass or whisky bottle.  Would that be fine or wouldn’t it?  And surely it would make more sense to warn them about the Minimum fine rather than the maximum?  That way, before they get into the state they’re in they can make a rational choice as to whether getting pissed and becoming paralytic is really worth the £250 minimum that police constable could demand on the spot, in cash?  Or am I being too rational altogether?

I suppose that all this relates somehow to my misinterpretation of another sign I noticed on the way back down the hill from Hampstead.  In my innocence,  tongue.pngI assumed that this must be an area in which all signs of an illness that has afflicted British drivers for years — road rage — has been eradicated.  Then, on further deep contemplation, I realised that it must actually something else more profound.  Quite what, I’m not sure — no HGVs (Heavy Goods Vehicles) perhaps, no buses, no sports cars driving over three times the speed limit (20 mph)?  Who knows?  And then, I did what people are wont to do these days when searching for trivia, and consulted Wikipedia and got the following response: Traffic calming uses physical design and other measures to improve safety for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.  It aims to encourage [sic!] safer, more responsible driving and potentially reduce traffic flow.”  

traffic-calmed

Another joke, it seems.

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And then, there was another piece of signage that surprised me.  On a Virgin Trains train to Manchester on a one-day visit, as we neared Manchester, I had a call of nature.   I sought out the toilet, and discovered that trains have changed.  You used to open a door and walk in.  This time, I pressed a button and a curved door slid silently open.  I found another button inside the loo, which closed the door when I pressed it and then as I prepared myself to respond to the call of nature that had brought me there in the first place, a disembodied voice in surround sound announced that the door was unlocked.  My god!  Did they have CCTV cameras inside the train loo, too? Now I am beginning to understand the true meaning of the Englishism “toodleoo”! In this country, anything to do with CCTV is possible.  

But my fears  were allayed and I discovered that yes, there’s one button to close the door and yet another to lock it — and thankfully, there was a third one to open it again.  No CCTV (I think!).  And then just as I was readying myself for the reason for my being there in the first place, the disembodied voice made itself heard again.  It announced the following:

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This was obviously a Sir Richard Branson Virgin joke (a joke that hadn’t been used previously) designed to appeal to the plebs (I wonder what they say in the First Class loos).  And, as I raised the toilet seat after a smile at hearing the warning recitation, there was the transcript — staring straight back at me.  This was a piece of good luck because on my way home later that day, approaching Euston, I was able to sing the joke as a duet with the same disembodied female voice!  

My thoughts then drifted to envisage a scene photographed and videoed just a fortnight ago and I asked myself (not really expecting an answer, of course) whether Jeremy Corbyn  had managed to flush the country’s dreams and hopes down the toilet just to spite Richard Branson when he made that fateful journey to Newcastle or did he hold it in until he had reached his destination?  And, more significantly, hadn’t he (or his fixers) realised that one can reserve two seats together at the click of a button or by making a phone call to Virgin Trains where, on each of the three occasions I made a call, I was answered by three  very helpful and extremely patient persons.

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Finally, and on a completely different tack, along the walk up to the summit of Primrose Hill, a walk I’ve done hundreds of times over the past 16 years, there is a solitary bench. I know that there’s a plaque attached to the bench and I even photographed it a few years ago but I really didn’t pay it too much attention.  Plaques on benches in London parks are nothing out of the ordinary and usually they something in memory of somebody who loved walking through the park or just sitting on a bench to watch the world pass by.  As often as not, the plaque will give a date or year of birth or of death or say what age the person was when they departed this world.  

In this part of the world, in Northwest London, it is not uncommon to come across a bench commemorating somebody who survived the Nazi Holocaust or, even more fortunately, found refuge in London where they lived a normal and productive life until old age caught up with them.  But then,this time around, when I looked at this plaque once more and paid attention, I noticed  that the people commemorated here by relatives or friends were not two people who had either escaped Hungary or survived the Holocaust.  Sadly, they, like so many millions of others, hadn’t made it.

plaque

 

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Signs of the Times

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan
The Times They Are A-Changin’
2nd verse

 

There used to be a time when the iconic red British telephone box was, indeed, a telephone box.  In those far-off days, you would dial a number (or, if it was a long-distance call — a trunk call you got on to an operator, gave her (it was always a female voice) the number you wanted and she would tell you how much coinage to prepare for your 3-minute call.  (As a child I could never quite envisage an elephant inside a telephone box; must have been the proverbial elephant in the room, I suppose.) You put the requisite amount of coins in the slot and if someone answered at the other end and it was the voice you were expecting to hear, you pressed Button A to be connected or if it was obviously a wrong number or if the call didn’t go through, you pressed Button B and if you were lucky, you got your money back.

The iconic British telephone box has, like so many other things gone through a series of transformations, each of which has changed its character and even its functionality.  When the time came, BT the then monopoly that operated public phones, indeed all phones, introduced a phone card to obviate the need for having the correct coinage in your pocket in order to communicate with others.  These phone boxes also became advertising sites, mostly for making callers aware of the qualities of women of a certain profession.  However, I had already noticed a few years ago that times had moved on and that the girls  and/or their handlers had probably moved online.  At any rate, advertising your wares in telephone boxes no longer paid off.   In Tel Aviv, they had evidently decided that laying them face up on the pavement had a greater probability that they would be seen by despondent males of a certain age than sticking them up in phone boxes.

No sex 1

It’s hardly news to mention that people had acquired cellphones (the first handheld mobile phone appeared 43 years ago and the first commercially available one a decade later).  Making phone calls from a phone box, if it had not become a thing of the past five years ago had at least become a rarity.  A few years ago, some telephone boxes advertised that they had Wi-Fi connection, though I didn’t really think that that would encourage people to return to using public phones.  Then, a few months ago, a joker had put a humorous post on Facebook stating that the principal function of a public telephone box nowadays was to offer shelter to people wishing to make calls on their cellphones when it was raining — which might or might not be the case.

 

And then, last Wednesday, when we were out with friends, J said to me: “Do you know what I saw this morning in Hampstead?  A phone box that has become a café!”  It’s not that I didn’t believe her but I consider myself to be relatively observant (in a strictly secular sense, of course) and hadn’t noticed anything like that in Hampstead recently, so on asking where exactly in Hampstead and informed that it was opposite the post office, I took myself off to investigate at the first available opportunity.  And there I was and there it was — a coffee bar inside a telephone box with a bright young businessman selling coffee, sandwiches and all the rest to passers-by.
Phonebox café
I approached the smiling entrepreneur who informed me that he’d been in business since April and that he rented the “space” not from British Telecom but from a private company.  
Coffee box
I thought this rather enterprising on the parts of all concerned and, as I continued down the hill towards Belsize Park, I came across another telephone box.  This one was empty — no phone, no fridge, no espresso machine, no Coke, no sandwiches — but it did have a notice inside, informing passers-by that BT was no longer responsible for the maintenance of the box and that any concerns of requests for further information should be directed to the Red Kiosk Company, located in a suburb of Brighton, the company had bought 60 phone boxes throughout the country, several of them in London. (http://www.redkioskcompany.co.uk/)
Red Kiosk Company
Along the same stretch of urban thoroughfare, I had just passed the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, which has been around for over 300 years and in which several first class chamber music recordings have been made.
Rosslyn Hill Chapel
Three centuries is a long time but the Hampstead Unitarians have understood that they must move with the times, with a woman minister  and a licence to conduct marriages, including same-sex weddings.  However, although everyone is welcome, you won’t be if you leave your bicycle by the railings though unicycles and trikes are presumably OK.
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If you keep your eyes open and your wits about you, there are all sorts of other indicators that the times, they are a changing.  Close to the telephone box-cum-coffee bar stands an historical monument, a Penfold Pillar Box, named after its designer, John Penfold. There are several of them in London but potential letter-posters are warned that this one is not in use, intimating that the metal bar blocking up the postal aperture should not be removed and that your letter would have a much better chance of being delivered if you walked across the road to the Post Office and shoved it into one of the slots in the wall.
 Penfold Pillar box
Of course, some things don’t seem to change much at all.  A sign in South End Road in Hampstead, which looks like it’s been there for almost century, can still be seen, advertising the London and North Eastern Railway as the shortest and quickest route to Scotland and which in those days took approximately twice as long as the trip does today.  So something has changed for the better even though Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, who had an issue with the current operator of the line a couple of weeks ago, might take me to task on that score!
Fast to Scotland
A common enough sight on Oxford Street — in fact, all over Central London — these days is the combination of the traditional and the modern.  The need to please husbands and wear what you please is exemplified by these two women on which under the cloaks of modesty are the jeans, shirts and sneakers that they obviously feel comfortable in. 
Shopping on Oxford St.
Further east on the same street, I came across the following sign in a window close by Tottenham Court Road Underground Station.  Oxford Street is a long street (it’s just over 2 km from the Tube station to Marble Arch).  Anyone setting off on a shopping expedition has a lot of hurdles to cross en route even if British Home Stores has gone — Primark, Marks and Spencer, Uniclo, Debenham’s, John Lewis, Selfridge’s, M&S again, Primark again, and many, many more — even if you trudge in a straight line.  It’s a journey that many make and by my estimate, the stamina of the female sex far outstrips that of the male.  One enterprising establishment, a public house (pub) as it happens, pleads for wives to have mercy and offers free day care services for their husbands. The ladies, I assume, are only glad to be rid of them for a while but at the same time, I also assume that unmarried partners who have yet to prove their worth by schlepping a day’s haul of bags  and boxed are not offered the same facility.
Free Husband Daycare Centre
And, at the end of the day, having been cared for by bar people at The Flying Horse, the husbands need to be aware of the warning offered by another sign of the times.
Do not climbcool
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