I apologise for the long gap between the last post and this but one has to be in the mood and one has to have something to say!
Last week, I met up with a friend from Tel Aviv and who was visiting London, in one of Britain’s longest shopping arcades, the Burlington Arcade, which stretches 180 metres from Piccadilly in the south to Burlington Gardens in the north, before we ended up for coffee in the forecourt of the Royal Academy of Arts. Burlington Arcade was built in early in the 19th century at the request of one, Lord George Cavendish, a relative of the Dukes of Devonshire, a person later elevated to the peerage as the Earl of Burlington, hence the arcade’s name, in order that his wife could shop safely amongst other refined and respectable ladies and gentlemen of the day, away from the busy, dirty, and crime-ridden open streets of London.
From the perspective of 2021, it seemed to me and notwithstanding the shoeshiner that Burlington Arcade had lost some of its gentility and had moved somewhat downmarket, noted by the construction of a glass tunnel halfway down. This being England, there are several old rules one must abide by when one visits the arcade, as they are still enforced. Running or even fast-paced walking as well as riding bicycles, opening umbrellas or behaving boisterously are forbidden and, moreover, in the Burlington Arcade, humming, whistling, singing are prohibited, too, as I discovered to my detriment many years ago (I was whistling a happy tune). The singing and whistling are banned because of the role that prostitution played in the arcade’s history. Apparently, its upper floors were often used as brothels occasionally (usually?) frequented by “respectable” gentlemen and as it wouldn’t do to be caught there, prostitutes and pimps used songs and whistling as signals that the police were about, the prostitutes also using such signals to warn pickpockets below when they might be spotted.
And while waiting until my friend had completed a discussion with her daughter about the suitability of a pair of shoes she had seen, I waited outside in the arcade looking at mens’ shoes for sale a couple of shops away. I was so staggered by the prices, ranging from £400 to over £500 for a pair that I decided to take a photo. I think I might have been prepared to lay out as an absolute maximum a third of those prices for a pair of footwear — but no more than that. Actually, what I was thinking as I stared at them was they looked distinctly like what my late father used to make by hand many years ago and what he might have missed out on when we moved to Dublin 70 years ago had he continued to practise what he excelled at, i.e. making upmarket shoes.
And while I was looking at the shoes, I felt a tap on my left shoulder and as I turned around, I saw an elderly man (he was probably younger than I am) who asked me in heavily Israeli-accented English if I was from Israel. My response, in Hebrew, was my usual one — “from Tel Aviv, Dublin, London — it all depends on from where you start to count. Take your pick!” And then I asked him what made him ask that question to which he responded that it was because I was wearing a mask for as far as he was concerned, the only people in London wearing masks were Israelis! I thought that he might have a point there but hearing Hebrew spoken on and off over the past few days, I think that he might have been in error.
However, the previous day, I had been to an NHS clinic in Kentish Town finally to have my annual flu shot (in my right arm) an to receive the Covid booster shot (into my left arm) and after the obligatory 15-minute wait following the injections, and on my way home, I noticed the sign below, which sort of summed up the whole situation re dealing with Covid in England.
And while on the subject of notices, friends out for a walk today in a park in Ilford in NE London sent me two photographs that they thought might interest me — and they did.
Exiting the Royal Academy on to Piccadilly, one couldn’t help but be reminded of the inequalities in British society that the Prime Minister insists that he is adamant they be “levelled up”.
Earlier this week, I finished reading Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler, which was published a year ago and which has just come out in paperback. It was a fascinating read and deals with the histories of everything from napkins (serviettes?) to fish knives, gravy (sauce?) to tripe (which I omitted to read but I will get back to it eventually to see if I might have been missing something in life. Ms. Vogler asks such questions as how can it be that a foodstuff can signal sophistication in one age, and the complete opposite in another? And how does this connect to social class (with which England is rife), to geography, and even to gender? As an example, she notes that bread and butter has almost disappeared from the tables, at least as something in its own right and that a hungry manual worker today takes carbohydrates in several alternative forms. Or, she asks, If a someone today admitted to love pease pudding, would it suggest they had roots are in the north-east of England or could just as easily be a trendy youth who likes to eat way-out things? It wouldn’t necessarily mean as it might have done once, that they are poor (as in the nursery rhyme, “pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot nine days old”) which might have indicated some food to be stretched out over a week or more. What stands out in this book, as much as anything else is the breadth and depth of the author’s reading, her ability to impart information on the meaning and origins of certain dishes and foodstuffs and her ability to make political comments without necessarily offending anyone. Super book.
And then, last weekend, I read a review of a new book in the Financial Times Weekend, written by Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, a historian specialising in urban terrorism, at the University of Sheffield. The book is We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 by Fintan O’Toole, a longish tome of 624 pages. In my ignorance, I had never heard of Fintan O’Toole let alone read anything by him but then again, I haven’t read the Irish Times since 1969 and Mr. O’Toole, among his many accomplishments, is the deputy editor of that paper and has been a regular columnist for many years but reading the review was sufficient to whet my appetite. She (the reviewer) writes “This is not a memoir in any conventional sense, yet in the first half we encounter O’Toole as a Zelig-like figure with an amusingly personal chain of connections to the great events and characters — from serving as altar boy to the imperious and omnipotent John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, to a chance meeting with the composer Seán Ó Riada whose Cór Cúil Aodha choir revolutionised Irish music. …There are villains, for sure: the avarice of Haughey is almost incredible, while he castigated the Irish for “living beyond our means”. The Catholic hierarchy that moved abusive priests from parish to parish. Bishop Casey, who fathered a child, embezzled diocesan money for his son’s upkeep, and fled the country. The brazen bankers and useless regulators.”
So I searched for the book on Amazon (where else?) and downloaded a sample and after reading the first chapter, the whole book. What attracted me to the book, I suppose, was that although our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different and I’m 15 years older, I learned that we grew up a couple of kilometres from one another. “The end of our garden was a grey pebble-dashed wall about fifteen feet high. It was the boundary of Dolphin’s Barn Jewish Cemetery. From my grandfather’s bedroom, which became mine after he died, you could look over almost the whole cemetery. It was also the view from the upper floor of the primary school at the end of the road and, when the secondary school was built in 1969, from those classrooms, too. Half of it, the part next to my primary school, was densely packed with gravestones, some standing upright in what we regarded as the proper Christian manner, but most set out in symmetrical rows of stone memorial slabs, laid flat and level, so that the dead seemed to repose all the more serenely. The other half was empty, just well-cut grass and a line of half a dozen neatly trimmed cedar trees, its unused expanse indicating a community too small to fill its own resting place.” The cemetery, of course, is where my parents and most of my relatives of that generation and some of those of my own, are buried.
I’m halfway through the book and it’s unputdownable (except that I have put it down to write this post). It’s extremely well-written and composed with just about the right level of anger, disgust and cynicism to appeal to someone like myself. But most of all, notwithstanding the age gap between me and the author, he’s describing events and places that I haven’t thought about for years and in such a way that I can remember exactly where I was at the time the events happened, whether it be the destruction of Nelson Pillar on O’Connell Street, an IRA bombing in Sackville Place where I had passed less than 24 hours previously, or a description that reads “[s]hortly after eleven o’clock on the night of 8 December 1962, about sixty young men and women crushed around the door of the police station on College Street in the centre of Dublin city. Many of them pushed inside and ‘began a systematic search under the tables, chairs and benches’. They claimed there were leprechauns in the station and ‘they just had to find them’. They had been convinced of their existence by a French hypnotist, Paul Goldin, whose show was playing at the nearby Olympia Theatre. The grand climax to his arduous performance came when he seemingly convinced his “pupils” that they had each just lost a leprechaun and as the curtain came down a group of docile young folk suddenly erupted into a wild scramble around the theatre searching for their lost leprechauns.
I’m not sure that I was there that specific night but I certainly did see Mr. Goldin’s show (Goldin wasn’t a “French hypnotist” as Mr. O’Toole describes him but an East End London Jew). I must have been to see the show twice because I went up on the stage as a “volunteer” to see how Mr. Goldin chose his “victims” and there were those who obviously wished to be hypnotised and those skeptics like me (I was young and innocent then had not yet mutated from skeptic to cynic) who had no interest whatsoever in falling under his spell. Moreover, it was easy, as I looked around, to ascertain who was which — and if it was easy for me, it must have been child’s play for the showman himself. As to the young people “searching for their lost leprechauns”, I can only testify that one of those I saw on the night I was there had been in my class at school and was at the top of lamppost looking for his little leprechaun—and if there’s anyone out there from those days reading his and who wants to know who the fairy searcher was, write to me privately and I will divulge!
What else is news? Well, I had the privilege of attending a concert at Wigmore Hall a couple of weeks ago given by the French Ébène Quartet. I’ve been listening to string quartets (as well as other ensembles and soloists) at Wigmore Hall for over 35 years and I’ve heard most of the current (and some of the older) quartets but I’ve never heard a sound like the one I heard that evening. I thought from the volume of the applause at the end that the walls of the venerable hall might collapse. They are, as my daughter informed me when she asked me if I enjoyed the concert, simply “the tops”.
I passed the notice below on a bus stop on Haverstock Hill there other day. I looked at the price and remembered the last time I participated in an evening like that, at an Institute of British Geographers annual conference in Edinburgh many years ago. I paid £2.50 and then listened to an interesting lecture given by a member of the Edinburgh’s Faculty of Engineering, which lasted about 45 minutes. However, the organisers made the mistake of opening the whiskies to be tasted after about 20 minutes and pouring them into small glasses and suddenly the smell of Scotch began to waft through the air in the lecture hall causing the (mostly male) audience to become overly restless and fidgety in their seats. When the talk ended, the rush to the back of the hall was immediate as 200 or so would-be tasters struggled to taste in the correct sequence from light to dark single malts—the glasses were very small!
Today, notwithstanding Brexit, much of the world put the clock back an hour as summer officially came to a close as Daylight Savings Time ended. Autumn has well and truly arrived as today’s rain and gales have proven. It can be picturesque, as the image below taken on Hampstead Heath illustrates …
… but at the same time, it can be messy as you scrunch your way up the street through piles of dead leaves
My 10-year old granddaughter has become a Rubik Cube maven, the “cubes” now coming in various shapes and sizes. She studies, as she puts it, “the algorithm” from a YouTube video and then learns the sequences. Current record to complete the task — under 90 seconds.
Finally, travelling on the Tube, one never quite knows what one’s going to see. Last week, I found this sitting opposite me. What she was recording, I haven’t a clue. Perhaps my heartbeat? My breathing pattern? My rumbling tummy? She stayed on the train for one stop and then marched off to record others.
… and I didn’t have time to check whether the dog wanted to be a tap dancer or ballet dancer.
Finally, a scene of the City of London as photographed from Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath.