It’s what they refer to as Bank Holiday weekend in England this weekend. Other than the fact that the banks might be closed on Monday (if there are any branches left at all to do business in), it’s things as normal except for extra mayhem on the roads, trains and planes. And then a couple of days after that, it’s back to the schwitz that is Tel Aviv in late August.
I go back to Israel with very mixed feelings. I’m not sure which I prefer — the [increasingly serious] ballyhoo around anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party or the corruption that is rife among Israeli politicians, especially having just read Bibi—The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, the new biography by the Haaretz journalist, Anshel Pfeffer, who is also the Israel correspondent for The Economist newspaper.
I was in two minds whether I should invest the time reading 400 pages about a man I’m not too keen on (I tend to turn off the TV or at least mute the volume when he appears) but, as it turned out, the book was almost as much about the state of current Israeli politics (in which Bibi plays a central role) as about the man himself. It was well worth the read, not that it makes me any happier or more optimisticor the future of Israel or for the Jewish people, especially those of us who are not of the varieties of Judaism usually described as Orthodox or Haredi. I thought it was such a good read that it should be required reading for anyone remotely interested in modern Israel’s political scene. I was so taken with it that I posted a review on the Amazon website, which I do occasionally, the link to which I give here.
In addition to the return to Bibi’s Israel and the Tel Aviv heat and humidity, there is also the small issue of having to survive what have come to be known as Chagei Tishrei. In British Jewish English, they are referred to “the yomtayvim”and in Americanese, “The High Holy Days”. What it means is that we are already in the run-up to these 3½ weeks of religious kerfuffle in which rams’ horns are blown in the synagogues and sometimes outside, too, and during which we are constantly reminded of what went on regarding sacrifices in the Temple thousands of years ago.
A week later, there’s a day when people can choose, if they so wish, to sit all day in the synagogue while fasting. This, in its turn, is followed by the seven days of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), which celebrates the ingathering of the harvest and commemorates the protection the Almighty is regarded to have provided for Israelites on their exodus from Egypt. Really keen sukkoteers spend their days and nights in a foliage-covered booth (a sukkah) and those slightly less keen only have their meals in these temporary little boxes that spring up on balconies and in gardens throughout Israel. Sukkoteers also bless and shake four special species of vegetation—a citron, a palm frond, three myrtle twigs and two willow twigs— reciting a blessing over them on each day of the festival except the Sabbath, waving them to the right, to the left, forwards, up and then down, and finally, backwards. There are all sorts of explanations for this but I can only say that variety is the spice of life.
As a postlude, there is one day on which the cycle of reading the weekly portion of the Torah starts again and which, among other things, is an excuse for a drink or two. All in all, it’s a month out of the calendar in which very little, if anything, actually gets done, very much like Xmas/New Year, except on hormones.
However, as the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He and I haven’t exactly been on speaking terms for some years now, I have a couple of good books to catch up on and some music that I’ve been promising myself for years that I’d listen to, so I think that that would be far more productive and more spiritually uplifting (to me, at any rate) than spending my days in the synagogue. Enough said.
And now, to business.
The highlight of the past week was undoubtedly a visit to the Barbican Gallery to see an exhibition of photographs by the American documentary photographer and photojournalist, Dorothea Lange, a woman best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Her photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and had considerable influence not only on the development of documentary photography but on the plight of the people she photographed. If anyone personifies the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, then surely it must be she.
She started out as a portrait photographer—there was an early portrait in the exhibition of her mother which, in terms of composition, was about as perfect as a photograph could be and her skill and experience as a portrait photographer is, more than anything else, what stands out as she immersed herself in documenting such subjects as the Dust Bowl and its effect on emigration, the Depression and its accompanying poverty and misery, the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor and so on.
Lange was a photographer who is best remembered for a single photograph, one which, even if you know absolutely nothing about photography you are likely to immediately recognise and that photograph is Migrant Mother, located at a pea pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California. This iconic image sums up almost everything that needs be said about the Depression in 1930s America.
Many years later in an interview, Lange recalled that she saw “a hungry and desperate mother” and approached her as if drawn by a magnet. She could not remember how she explained her presence or the camera camera to her but she remembered that the woman asked her no questions. She made six exposures—all displayed at the exhibition—working closer and closer from the same direction but did not ask her name or her history. The woman, Florence Owens Thompson told her she was 32 and that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. She was sitting in a lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to perceive that the pictures might help her, and so she was a willing subject. Lange described this as a sort of equality.
On returning home, Lange told the editor of a San Francisco newspaper about conditions at the camp and provided him with two of her photos. He, in turn, informed federal authorities and published an article that included the photos and the result was that the government rushed aid to the camp to prevent starvation. Her boss thought the picture to be outstanding and that she never surpassed it. However, it appears that Ms. Thompson was unimpressed by the accolades accorded to Lange and years later said that she felt that she had been exploited and misrepresented and that that chance 10-minute meeting with a photographer had turned her into a national icon with no discernible benefit to her or her children.
That said, many of the 200 or more black and white photographs hung on the walls at the Barbican are emotionally disturbing and I never thought I could be moved to tears just by looking at black and white pictures—but I was.
A few days later, I decided to deviate from my usual morning routes and decided to walk into town through Camden as far as Tottenham Court Road Station, a route that I had taken many times by bus and car although as we have all learned, even travelling passively by bus is no substitute for using Shanks’s pony.
One building that I have seen many times but paid little attention to is one that was once the Carreras Cigarette Factory on Hampstead Road. It’s a large art deco building noted as a striking example of early 20th Century Egyptian Revival architecture, erected in 1926-1928 by the Carreras Tobacco Company on the communal garden area of Mornington Crescent. It measures 168 metres and is mainly white with distinctive Egyptian-style ornamentation, originally including a solar disc to the Sun-god Ra and has two gigantic effigies of black cats flanking the entrance and colourful painted details. The factory was converted into offices in 1961 and the Egyptian detailing lost, but it was restored during the late 1990s with replicas of the cats placed outside the entrance. Today, it houses offices for the British Heart Foundation and Revlon, among many other companies.
And while in the environs of Mornington Crescent, it suddenly dawned on me that I have ridden through that particular Underground Station hundreds of times but never actually been in it or even had a good look at exactly where it was situated. And then it also dawned on me that there must be a street after which the station is named, and so it proved to be.
Finally, in this succession of dawnings, I remembered that there once was a BBC Radio 4 comedy panel show hosted by ex-Etonian trumpeter, Humphrey Lyttleton — not just an old Etonian but the son of an Eton College house master and born at Eton College, to boot. I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue was a show that satirised panel games and it consisted of each of the panellists in turn announcing a landmark or street, most often a station on the London Underground with the aim to be the first to announce “Mornington Crescent”. It was interspersed with humorous discussion amongst the panellists and host regarding the rules and legality of each move, as well as the strategy the panellists are using. Does that make any sense to you? Did it ever make sense to anybody? Not really—for it was a radio programme that could only have been devised in England.
But as I stood there opposite the station, I wondered whether there might be anything to remind us of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Humph—and then, as I turned around through 180 degrees, there it was!
As I continued south along Hampstead Road, just before arriving at the bridge over Marylebone Road, I came across a shop that from its show window, looked as if it might be interesting. However, as it was just about 8 a.m., the shop was closed and the photo I took from the street didn’t quite do justice either to the photograph or to what they appeared to be be selling inside.
So returning home, I wrote them an email and asked if it would be OK to come in at a later date and have a look and few clicks. Much to my surprise, I was told that I could photograph to my heart’s content. As the lyrics of the song say:
However, pride of place in this brass collection was something that caused me to ask the manager of the shop whether it was real, if someone played it and what it’s called. As a consequence I was informed that, yes, indeed, it is real, that some people do play it and that it’s called a contrabass saxophone. It’s rather large with twice the length of tubing of the baritone saxophone, with a bore twice as wide, is 1.9 meters tall, is pitched in the key of E♭, one octave below the baritone saxophone and weighs in at approximately 20 kg.
And yes, it has a price tag of £25,000. And yes again, it is no longer the largest member of the saxophone family, because in September 2012, an instrument manufacturer, Benedikt Eppelsheim of Munich, built the first full-size subcontrabass saxophone, which is 2.25 meters tall. Best of luck to them those with sufficient wind to play these monsters.
On another day, walking towards Hampstead Heath, I passed the Isokon Building, a piece of Bauhaus architecture that looks pristine. I’ve photographed it from several angles many times and it’s appeared in this blog more than once.
However, this time I noticed that a blue plaque had gone up on the wall facing the street, one that I didn’t recollect ever having seen before. What the plaque didn’t say was whether or not this trio lived in the building at the same time and if they did, what sort of all-night discussions might have taken place there!
And returning from a walk across the Heath, I walked for almost 15 minutes behind this gentleman who appeared to be fully dressed for work some time later in the day. And try as I might, I couldn’t quite walk fast enough to catch up and ask him which band of musicians he played with.
And as a sign of the times, that same morning, en route to the Heath, I came across this parking meter, covered in such a way that it was impossible to insert coins or a credit card into the meter. What you could do was read the message, white on black, that you need to use your smartphone to park. But what happens if you don’t have a smartphone or even a phone at all? You keep driving, I suppose.
And while on the subject of signs, I’ve seen this on several lampposts and railings in the neighbourhood. There are still some true believers who haven’t yet given up the struggle.
And then there was another sign that I came across in the Oxford Street area (it’s funny how my eye is attracted to misspellings). What caught by eye this time was the thought that in a School of English, spelling might not be once what it was!
And on the same walk, I spotted this woman using a vape, an e-cigarette. Currently, there’s talk about allowing these things to be used indoors as they do not pollute in the same way that regular cigarettes do and anyway, they’re supposed to help addicted smokers give up the habit. But as far as I can see, it’s much as Tom Lehrer sang half a century ago:
Wear a gas mask and a veil
Then you can breathe
As long was you don’t inhale.
And then in the City, I came across this couple relaxing. I thought she was wearing a coloured sleeve — but no, it was just a[nother] tattooed arm …
… which was almost as bright and colourful as the tattooed building (one of several) in and around Camden Markets.
The grandchildren are all away on vacation, returning home this weekend. Last week, my 8-year old grandson proudly showed me the book he had chosen when on a visit to Stanfords, the map shop in Long Acre (well, it used to be a map shop but it has spread its wings these days and is now a specialist map and travel shop) with his dad. I couldn’t help thinking that he might have thought that he should be well prepared should he lose his parents for a while when hiking around a Scottish island.
Finally, to return to a sense of an ending. It means that it will be a while again before we can partake of the pleasures of Oliver’s Fish & Chips on Haverstock Hill, situated about 300 m away, and which always means that on an evening when we really don’t feel like cooking (and it does happen on occasion), there’s a proper meal to collect and take home in little more than 10 minutes after deciding that’s what you want to do. You can collect; they deliver; you can order by phone—or online for a discount—or you can walk in off the street and wait a few minutes or you can choose to sit in the restaurant and eat in. It’s smoothly run by Ash, who has to be one of the most imperturbable and unflappable people I’ve ever come across.
(And for those Jewish friends concerned with kashrut, one occasionally sees a kippa in the restaurant for unlike several other fish-and-chip outlets, Oliver’s does no meat, poultry or shellfish and if you’re into fried fish, it’s done in a matzo meal batter. Delicious but a perhaps little unhealthy—but once or twice a year, so what?) Unfortunately, Tel Aviv has nothing quite like it. I haven’t tried their specialty dessert— deep-fried Mars bars (apparently a Scottish invention, possibly when the Scot responsible was not entirely unintoxicated)—and I don’t intend to but I’ve heard that it’s super!
And—a reminder—exactly 100 years ago yesterday, it happened—but you’ll have to make do with this clip from three decades ago!