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Sunday, 27 May 2012


Zuid Afrika

Drawn in colour is a book written by a ‘black’ South African in 1960. The author compares the lives of the black Africans (‘natives’) living under Apartheid in Nationalist South Africa with that of those living in the much freer conditions in The Protectorate of Uganda just two years before it became an independent member of the British Commonwealth. As it is has been out-of-print for a while, and hard to find, I have included a number of extracts in this review.

During my researches into the life of my great grandfather the late Senator Franz Ginsberg (1860, Prussia - 1936, South Africa), I scoured numerous crumbling pages of the issues of the Cape Mercury (published in King Williams Town, where Ginsberg was an important political figure), stored in the British Library’s newspaper collection, looking for references to him. I found was an editorial dated February the 6th, 1906, an extract of which reads: “Much to the Cape Mercury’s surprise the Natives are objecting to the proposed take over of the locations by the Council. The newspaper “Imvo” has voiced the opposition expressed.  Mr Ginsberg published a reply in Imvo. The editors of Imvo pointed out that the Native inhabitants of the locations, under threat of repossession, do not see things in the same light as Mr Ginsberg.” The editor of the Cape Mercury countered that the Natives did not realize the benefits that they would accrue if the Council took over their locations (i.e. native townships), and wrote that Imvo would be doing good work if it advised its readers to approach the matter from a broader standpoint, relying a little more on the Council’s honesty of purpose, in preference “to indulging in carping criticism”.

I returned home after recording this extract, and looked up Imvo amongst my collection of books about South Africa. I learned that Imvo was a shortened form of Imvo Zabantsundu, the full name of the first African language newspaper to be published in what is now South Africa. According to JD Omer in his  “History of Southern Africa” published in 1994, the newspaper was founded by John Tengo Jabavu in 1884 with the financial support of  James Rose-Innes.  Rose-Innes was a white lawyer with liberal views about the rights of ‘natives’ (i.e. native Africans) to have opportunities to determine their own political fate. John Tengo Jabavu, according to Wilson and Thomson in the second volume of their “The Oxford History of South Africa” (1971) founded the Native Electoral Association in King Williams Town in the same year. It supported Rose Innes, who was standing as a candidate for the town’s representative in the Cape House of Assembly (i.e. parliament).  It is obvious why they favoured him when one reads one of Rose-Innes statements made some years later: "we do not allow separate representatives for Jews and Gentiles, for Catholics and Protestants, for farmers and merchants. The result would be chaos. Why then should there be separate representation for the Natives? No doubt, the ethnological distinction between European and Bantu constitutes a wider separation than exists between any of the classes which have been mentioned. But that does not alter the fact that both races are interested in the welfare of the whole country; and that the economic position of the one reacts upon the other. The part of statesmanship is not to stress racial differences, but to emphasise the interests which exist in common” (quoted from an article by Jeremy Gauntlett, published in Consultus, a South African law journal, in April 1988).

Some years after learning about Imvo, I was browsing the shelves of a large second-hand bookshop in Brecon (Wales) when my eye was attracted to the orange coloured spine of a book. It was “Drawn In Colour” by Noni Jabavu. As it was only £2, having already been reduced from £4, and I was in a hurry, I snapped it up without skimming through it, but hoping that the author might be related to the Jabavu who founded Imvo.

Only recently, I decided to read it after I had just finished ploughing through Shaun Johnson’s tedious novel, “The Native Commissioner”, which is concerned with the genesis of, and the results of, Apartheid. I hoped that Noni Jabavu’s book would deal with this subject in a better way. I was not disappointed.

Jabavu’s book is a work of non-fiction. It begins with the author, who resided in London, landing in South Africa in 1960 in order to attend the funeral of her younger brother who was shot by gangsters in Johannesburg where he was studying. She makes her way to her birthplace Middledrift, a village in the Eastern Cape which is almost 90 kilometres east of King Williams Town and 19 kilometres east of Alice. The latter houses Fort Hare University, the oldest black university in Southern Africa. Its graduates included many who took part in the struggle to end Apartheid including: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani, Robert Sobukwe, and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

I did not need to read far into Noni Jabavu’s book to discover that she was indeed related to John Tengo Jabavu, who founded Fort Hare University. Noni, who died aged 88 in 2008, was one of his granddaughters. Her father, known by all as ‘the Professor’ was Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu. Educated in England, where Noni was living at the time of her brother’s murder, he became the first black professor at Fort Hare. So, Noni was a member of a highly educated and respected Xhosa family.

As soon as Noni arrives in Middledrift, the ceremonies leading up to her brother’s funeral begin. And after this has finished, the family retreat, according to Xhosa custom, ‘in the forest’. For, the elder Xhosa people believe that, “The bereaved have to be secluded because if the public are suddenly confronted with them at such times, they, too, suffer pangs of the heart since they are at a loss how to comfort them.” This seclusion of the bereaved minded me of the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for seven days after the death of a close member of the family. This also caused me to remember another similarity between Jewish and Xhosa traditions, that of placing pebbles on gravestones. When we visited Steve Biko’s grave in the cemetery near to the township of Ginsberg (named after my great-grandfather Franz), we noted that pebbles had placed on his gravestone. Our guide told us that it was the tradition that Xhosas, who had been unable to attend a funeral, placed pebbles on the grave of the deceased. So do Jews when visiting a grave (even if they had attended the funeral of the deceased on whose grave they place a pebble). I suppose that both the Jews and the Xhosas, once having been nomadic people, had to bury their dead in the wilds where nature would have gradually obliterated traces of these graves. By placing these stones, passers-by would help to preserve the longevity of the burial place.

After the period of mourning, and before Noni left Middledrift, the family members decided that it was time for her widowed father to get remarried. However, before the wedding could proceed a pre-nuptial contract had to be drawn up.  Noni’s father entrusted this Mr EEP Burl, to an elderly white advocate in the town of Alice. While Mr Burl and the Professor were dealing with this matter, Noni noticed, “… an equally ancient telephone made by Ericcson of Stockholm, the name picked out in gold letters…” This must have been a forerunner of the better known Sony Ericcson mobile telephones that so many of us clutch today (The first Ericcson factory was Lars Magnus Ericsson in 1876).

Eventually, Noni sets set off on the first stage of her journey to East Africa where he is going to visit her sister, who was unable to attend her brother’s funeral. Her father accompanies her on the first stage, which is by train to Bloemfontein. They meet a cousin of hers, Governor Mjali. She learns that Mjali had been on the point of marrying someone, when at the last moment it was discovered that the couple were distantly related.  For amongst the Xhosa, isiko (custom or tradition) dictates that when people propose to marry, genealogies must be traced to ensure that there are no blood links between them. Marriage between cousins of any classification was forbidden amongst Noni’s people. This resembles Kayasth Gujaratis of Indian origin, who restrict their marriages to those who do not share the same gotra (people who are descendants in an unbroken male line from a common male ancestor), but contrasts with the religious diktats of the Jews and Moslems, which allow first cousin marriages.

Noni’s father is like a magnet. He attracts other passengers to join him in his compartment on the train, where the lively discussion soon reaches the subject of African languages. This focussed on the subject of the intermixing and subsequent dilution of the purity of the various African languages caused by “…Big Business and Industry’s need for workers.” The Professor sees little wrong with this, reminding his fellow passengers of his ancestors from ‘invading’ from the north, who, “… as they travelled with their cattle, their languages constantly being enriched by those spoken by the unknown populations they overran during those centuries of movement!”.  The conversation then drifts to another language spoken in Africa, Afrikaans. Some of the passengers in Noni’s compartment felt that, “Many of the younger generation have become emotionally antagonistic towards Afrikaans, reciprocating the Nationalist Boer Government’s policies of repression and the unfairnesses (sic) they cause…” Her father replied to this, “to know Afrikaans can teach you as nothing else can the background and character of the intrinsic Boer” with whom they had to deal.

Noni and her father reach Bloemfontein, where they stay with her new step-sister and her husband in their house in the Bochabela Location, a part of Bloemfontein where black Africans were permitted to live. As they tour the location (township), they begin comparing the Boers with the ‘Europeans’ (which is how the Xhosas referred to the white English in South Africa). Their hosts point out that “… the Boers are not all primitive Calvinists stunted in thought as Nationalist policies and tenets of the Dutch Reform Church imply… nor are the English on the other hand all civilised  Western men as their ‘overseas’ inheritance would lead you to expect… Furthermore, the English are guilty in our eyes of a subtler, greater sin because in what we call their ‘dessicated’, intellectual’, to themselves ‘balanced’ approach to human problems. They appear heartless and unfeeling…”  And, a little later, Noni writes something that chimed with my own gut feelings about the effects of the Second Boer War (1899-1902): “What ruined the Boer was when the Englishman, having vanquished and thrashed him in war, handed the whip to the loser with that 1910 Act of the Union of South Africa.

Noni then continues her trip northwards. She leaves Bloemfontein on an overnight train, and observes, that the bedclothes in her sleeper berth, “ … are green, with a special line to show that they are ‘Native’ and therefore even after cleaning never to be used in the European part of the train.” She arrives in Johannesburg, which, she remarks “… is an uncomfortable place for someone from a quiet country Reserve… it is bristling with energy, violence, zest for life and progress, seems to prickle with the possibilities of sudden death.” She was pleased to leave it after changing trains. Her views on this city are shared by quite a few of my cousins, who left their homes, searching for a place to live in greater safety, more than three decades after Noni wrote these words.

When Noni reaches Southern Rhodesia (now ‘Zimbabwe’), she encountered hostility towards the ‘native’. This was well exemplified by what happened when she tried to buy something in a pharmacy in Salisbury (now ‘Harare’). The sales assistant was rude, telling her to “Go’n get whatever you people use in yer own native shops, go on, get out.” She left Rhodesia by aeroplane, flying northwards over the mighty River Zambesi, whose name, she informs the reader, is derived from the Xhosa word Uku-zambesa, which means to undress. This is what her ancestors had to do before attempting to swim across the river on their migration southwards. As she flew over the wide expanses of Africa, she was looking forward to see how other Africans lived in an Africa not burdened with the yoke of Apartheid, which her family in Middledrift imagined to be some kind of paradise.

After a long flight, Noni lands at Entebbe in Uganda, and is driven to Kampala where her sister lives. On her way, she asks herself, “…what Southerner would not be impressed…at the visible signs of wealth which was on a scale I had thought Africa incapable of?” Yet, soon she realised that all is not well in the Garden of Eden.

At the edge of Kampala, she sees what was, “…clearly an horrific slum area.” She compared it with Pimville (near Johannesburg), one of the very worst slums that she had seen in Nationalist South Africa. She says to her sister and brother-in-law, “Here in the African’s own country our people are forced to live and rot in locations.”  She is surprised when they reply, “This is not a location… it’s the African’s own town, the modern town of Baganda.” Her hosts inform her that each of the plots in this slum is private property, owned by black Africans. They tell her that no one is forced to live like this and that everybody in Uganda can live almost anywhere that they choose. They are not forced to live in slums like these by the white people. “You know, it’s time you got this South Africa idea out of your mind,” her sister says to her. Noni notices that the slum dwellers in Kampala are quite different from those in South Africa. She wrote that in Kampala, “They did not look gay. The atmosphere was morose. I was struck by this for it was a noticeable difference from location dwellers down South. There, despite slum conditions Southern Bantu have an indestructible gaiety, bubble with vitality …” So soon after arriving in Uganda, she was already showing signs of her gradual disillusionment with what she saw in a country where the ‘native’ was unfettered by the impediments of Apartheid.

When a wealthy looking African drives past in a very fancy car, she asks her hosts, “Why haven’t such Africans developed the place? They rule themselves here, therefore why have they made no roads, no drains…” The matter-of-fact answer that she receives makes her reconsider her ideas, “ … African landlords can get enough in rents with the place as it is…why should they pay to improve… That would be spending money on other people, wouldn’t it? The object is to obtain money for yourself if you are a landlord, from the other people.

The next part of Noni’s book, most of the second half, deals with her experiences in Uganda: the people she meets and their attitudes; a safari during which her idealistic preconceptions of Uganda are further demolished; and finally the breakdown of her sister’s marriage. Eventually, she writes of Uganda, “Yet I kept on trying to come to terms with this exotic background which was beginning to grate… I found I was averting my eyes so as not to see ‘the Natives’ who embodied and represented it.” She found that she felt impelled to, “…try to ‘like’ and ‘be nice’ to those natives I knew…”, and was dismayed to find that she was, “… in the same boat as those whom we Southerners call slightingly ‘liberals’, meaning white people whose brain and sense, education or conviction tell them that there’s no reason not to like us blacks; but whose emotions are rooted, as evidently mine were too, in an instinctive revulsion from a way of life more primitive than their own.”  Her words have a startling honesty and ring of truth.

In the last section of her book, the author returns to South Africa to see her family. She wanted to see again how her fellow ‘Southerners’, “… sweat blood as they progress; how they gain experience in co-operation and cohesion as they pass through those steel tempering ordeals of Treason accusations, women’s anti-Pass campaigns, bus boycotts, imprisonments… All these things seemed to me to be, if one remembers that it is the long view that counts in Africa, why our lovely South Africa was a significant country.”  I hope that Noni, who lived to see the ending of Apartheid, was not disappointed by what was beginning to happen in her mother country in the last years of her life.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012


Adam Yamey's books on Goodreads

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Early in 2002, our daughter, who was then almost seven years old, was highly impressed by a photograph of somewhere in Venice. Her instant reaction was to ask us to take her there. As she was taking swimming lessons at that time we said that we would take her when she had learnt how to swim (in case she fell into a canal). Within a couple of months, she had become a competent little swimmer. She learnt much faster than I did. At her age I would have been reluctant to even consider entering a swimming pool.

When I was a child, my parents took us, my sister and me, to Venice every year until I reached my late teens, which is when I began travelling without the rest of my family. Many years later, in 1982, my friend - and many years later she became my wife - and I spent a few days in Venice. It was during the Falkland’s Crisis, and I remember standing near the Accademia Bridge having an argument with my future wife about the rights and wrongs of the war being waged by the British and the Argentineans. Luckily, we eventually became reconciled to our opposing points of view, and agreed to differ.

Twenty years later, we flew into Treviso Airport, near Venice, along with our seven year old daughter.

We had rented an apartment near to the Cannareggio sestiere (Venice like some other Italian towns is divided into six districts or boroughs known as ‘sestiere’). It was within walking distance of the railway station and also close to the Ghetto, which was once the quarter of the city in which there were iron foundries and also where Jews were permitted to live. The word ‘ghetto’ is most likely derived from a Venetian word meaning the waste slag produced by iron foundries. The Ghetto Vecchio (old ghetto) is actually newer than the Ghetto Nuovo (new ghetto), which it borders.  The Jews of Venice were required to live in these districts of Venice, and nowhere else. The modern word ‘ghetto’ is derived from the Venetian term. 

When I used to visit Venice with my parents, we occasionally visited the Ghetto district. This was not because of any sense religious attachment. It was for art historical reasons. At least one of the synagogues, as far as I can remember, contained some decoration from the Baroque era, and that is what interested my father, one of whose hobbies is art history.

My father was brought up in a religious family. His was one of the seven Lithuanian Jewish families, who lived in the small village of Tulbagh high in the mountains of the Western Cape of South Africa. He was one of three brothers. Once a week a schochet (a Jewish ritual slaughterer), recently arrived from Lithuania, used to come to Tulbagh to teach the Yamey boys Hebrew in order that they would be ready to become Bar-Mitzvah when they reached the age of thirteen. They did not learn much Hebrew as their teacher was keener to learn English. My father told me that he could read Hebrew writing, but had no idea what the words, which he was pronouncing, meant. My father’s two elder brothers had their Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies, and were often required to make up the minyan (the quorum of ten adult males required before a service could be performed) in Tulbagh’s makeshift synagogue in the billiard room of Tulbagh’s hotel, which was run by the Scher family.  In 1931, when my father was twelve, disaster struck. His father became ill, and died. His widowed mother was left with a general store to run and four children to look after. Religion assumed a lesser importance than survival. As a result, my father never had a Bar-Mitzvah ceremony.  

My father married seventeen years after his father died. He was relieved to have been able to inform his religious stepfather that his bride was Jewish. One of his stepbrothers had married a gentile, and his father, my father’s stepfather, immediately sat shiva (went into mourning) for him. It was as if his son had died by ‘marrying out’. Although my mother was Jewish by birth, neither she nor her parents were in the slightest bit ‘observant’ in Jewish matters. Jokingly, I sometimes say that my late mother was so unobservant a Jewess that she was almost unaware that it was against the rules for Jews to eat pork.

As a young child, my eating was unadventurous; I was reluctant to try anything new. All over Italy and France, whilst my parents were eating delicacies that I now enjoy, all that I used to eat was ham (or steak) and chips. We never went to any synagogue apart from the one in Venice, and then only as tourists At school, I used to wonder why on certain days, some of my fellow pupils were absent: I had no idea about Jewish High Days and Holidays.  And also I had no Bar-Mitzvah ceremony. Indeed, had anyone asked me whether I had had one, or was going to have one, I would have responded with a blank stare of ignorance, not knowing to what they were referring. I grew up without any religious upbringing at all, Jewish or otherwise.

When my wife and I took our daughter to Venice, I had already become fascinated by the history of my family, and was spending much of my spare time a researching it. Just before we left London for Italy, I began reading a book by Howard Jacobson. It was called “Roots Schmoots”, and it described his explorations of the history of his family. Quite early in his narrative, he describes visiting some relatives in Llandudno in the north of Wales, and was surprised to discover that they were all members of an ultra-orthodox Hassidic sect, followers of the late Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Jacobson became fascinated by this sect and flew to New York, where he met the rabbi. I had read up to this point in the book when we arrived at our rented apartment close to the Venetian Ghetto district.

One morning, we left our small apartment, turned right, and crossed the main canal of the Cannaregio sestiere. A straight lane, perpendicular to this canal led through the Ghetto Vecchio to the heart of the older Ghetto Nuovo. I noticed that a trattoria located on this pedestrian thoroughfare had a sign outside it, advertising the dish of the day. It was cotoletta maiale (pork chop). I doubt that there was any malice intended by the owners who were promoting this inappropriate dish in an area that was once a Jewish community. Nowadays, the majority of the people, who now reside in the ghetto, are not Jewish, and would be happy to enjoy this dish. However, many Jewish tourists visit the area. I suspect that the majority of these don not understand much Italian, and so few people are likely to have been upset by this sign.

The heart of the ghetto is a pleasant square. At one side of it there is a frieze showing Jews being loaded onto cattle trucks. It is a monument to those who suffered in the Holocaust. Opposite it, there was a shop, or what looked like a shop. It had a picture of the Rabbi Schneerson on a board above the window. I realised that it was a centre set up by a Hassidic organisation. I felt that I had to enter it because of what I had just been reading about in Jacobson’s book. I had no preconceptions of what I would discover inside, but at the very least I thought that maybe I would be able to buy a recording of some traditional Jewish music, such as is played by Kletzmer ensembles and which I enjoy.

I entered the shop and our little daughter followed me. We were welcomed by a young man dressed in black. He had long curly payots (uncut sideburns) and his tzitzit (string-like tassels worn by orthodox Jews) were dangling over his trouser pockets. He greeted us in English that had more than a hint of an American accent, yet was not American. I guessed that he was probably originally from Russia, but had migrated to the USA. He took one look at our daughter, and immediately asked her if she wanted a cold drink. Our daughter accepted his offer with alacrity. He poured out some strongly coloured orange fizzy drink and placed it in front of our little one. As she stretched out to lift the glass, our host told her to wait. Before she could take a sip, she had to repeat a series of words, meaningless to her and me, in Hebrew. When she had recited this prayer or blessing, she was allowed to start enjoying her drink.

Almost as soon as our daughter had begun drinking, my wife, who is Indian, entered the shop to find out what was delaying us. Our Hassidic host took one look at her and said,
            “Ah, you must be an Indian Jew.”
On reflection, this was a ridiculous assumption. There are more than a billion Indians living in India alone, and of these no more than five thousand of these are Jewish. So the chance that my wife was an Indian Jew was less than 0.0005%. My wife assured him that she was not an Indian Jewess. On hearing this, he turned to our daughter, pointed at her, and said in a pained voice:
            “Then, she is not a Jew.”

At this point my wife pointed at me and volunteered,
            “But, he’s sort of Jewish.”
To which, the Hassidic man retorted,
            “He cannot be ‘sort of Jewish’. Either he’s Jewish, or not Jewish.”
He turned to me and asked,
            “Is your mother Jewish?”
            “Yes,” I replied.
            “And her mother?” he asked.
            “Yes,” I replied, adding: “and her mother as well.”
            “Then he is Jewish,” he informed my wife. “Not ‘sort of Jewish.”
To which my wife, who is very interested in all religions, volunteered, for reasons that continue to elude me,
            “He’s never had a Bar-mitzvah.”

In less than the time it takes to say ‘spaghetti’ or even ‘ghetto, the Hassidic man had begun wrapping the black straps of tefillin (small black boxes containing scrolls with holy Jewish scripts written on them) around one of my arms and also around my forehead. Next, he told me to repeat some Hebrew after him. For twenty minutes, I struggled to repeat his words, irritating him occasionally by saying ‘baroque’ when he said ‘baruch’. It was a hot morning, and I was perspiring more than usual as I attempted to repeat his words, which were completely incomprehensible to me. After we had reached the end of what he wished me to repeat, he unwrapped the threads attaching the tefillin to me, and announced:
            “You are now Bar-mitzvah.”
I was somewhat surprised to say the least, and maybe also a little bit pleased. I am not sure that I was just relieved that my repetition had come to an end, or whether I had just been ‘Bar-mitzvahed’.  I’d like to think that it was at least a little of the latter.

We had been in the Hassidic man’s shop for quite a while. He had been hospitable, offering our daughter a drink as well as initiating me into manhood at last, at least from the religious Jewish perspective. I felt that the least that I could do in gratitude was to make a small contribution to what appeared to be a charity collecting box, which was standing on one of the counters. I rummaged about in my pocket, and found two Euros in coins. As soon as I placed the last of the coins in the slot, our host raised his hands, and exclaimed something like:
            “Ah, such a mitzvah…
And then, he invited me to repeat some more Hebrew words, but far fewer than those that preceded my Bar-mitzvah. I imagine it was a prayer to celebrate recognition of the kindness signified by my having made a contribution.

We left the shop, and entered the sunshine. Both my wife and I were wondering whether this Bar-mitzvah ceremony, which I had just received without realising that it was happening, was Kosher. I have asked a number of people about this. One of my uncles told me that the same sort of thing happened to him in South Africa. Without realising it was happening, a rabbi performed his Bar-mitzvah. A retired rabbi in New York thought that my uninvited, unwitting Bar-mitzvah should be regarded as genuine, as did many others, who are well-versed in Jewish matters. One of the people, who listened to me relating my experience in Venice’s historic ghetto said to me,
            “Two Euros: that must surely be the cheapest Bar-mitzvah ever.”

Epilogue: Whilst researching the background to this piece, I have learnt that a Jewish boy technically becomes a Bar-mitzvah (that is: obligated to observe the Commandments, and also able to take part in leading religious services) on reaching the age of thirteen. No ceremony is required to confer these rights and obligations. So, when my wife told the Hassidic man in the shop in Venice that I was not a Bar-mitzvah, she was mistaken. However, regardless of whether or not I follow the Commandments, it would be foolhardy of me, who cannot read a word of Hebrew, to even consider attempting to take any role in conducting a service in a synagogue. 


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Sunday, 13 May 2012


I first visited Bangalore in southern India in January 1994. Much of the first week of my stay was taken up with preparations for the very colourful and quite complicated Hindu wedding ceremony, in which I was to play a starring role. After the three days of proceedings were over, my wife and I spent a fortnight away from the city on our honeymoon, visiting Ootacamund and then Kerala. When we returned from this enjoyable trip, my first in India, we spent a few weeks in Bangalore, during which I was introduced to some of its attractions.

The Bangalore Club was one of these. In the days when the British controlled India, this was known as the ‘Bangalore United Services Club’ and its members were selected from the higher ranks of the armed forces. Today, it is still considered to be highly distinguished amongst the many social clubs of India, and its members, including myself, are very much aware of being considered by others, maybe without much justification, as being privileged people. In any case, the Club is located in its own delightful park-like grounds, an oasis in the heart of the ever increasing mayhem of everyday life in the city.

One of the Club’s two main entrances is located on Lavelle Road, which was named after Michael Lavelle who made his fortune in the 1870s by selling his mining concession in the Kolar Gold Fields. In 1994, most of the buildings along Lavelle Road were old bungalows, private residences set well back from the leafy street and surrounded by luxuriant gardens. Today, few of these remain, many of them having been replaced by modern blocks conceived by architects who appear to have little or no aesthetic sense. The road winds northwards from the Club until it reaches the grounds of St Mark’s Church, an elegant structure containing many memorials to Britons who fell during some of the many military campaigns, which they undertook to control their unruly subjects, such as, for example, the suppression of the Mopla Rebellion in Malabar in 1921. Before Lavelle Road reaches this point, it meets the eastern end of Madras Bank Road. In 1994, the southern corner plot where the two roads met was occupied by the open air café of the Airlines Hotel (‘Airlines’).

I don’t know exactly when Airlines first opened, but my wife, who lived as a small child in Bangalore the middle of the 1950s, has vague recollections of visiting it then. Other people, with whom I have spoken, feel that it first opened later, in the early 1960s. The exact date is unimportant, but it was during an era when air travel was considered new and exciting, and was definitely something that the vast majority of Indians would have never even dreamt of experiencing. The closest that even most relatively affluent Indians would ever get to flying was by driving out to an airport, and having a tea or coffee at its café. My wife remembers this is as being one of the treats she enjoyed during her schooldays in Calcutta, where her family moved to in 1958 from Bangalore. So, ‘Airlines’ - a name that suggested exoticism, modernity, and the latest mode of transport - was a clever choice for a new establishment opening in the late 1950s or the early 1960s. Furthermore, it had a drive-in, just like something that  Bangaloreans would only have seen in American films. One could, and still can, sit in the car park and have refreshments served on a stainless steel tray that clips on to the window of the car door.

Arborial embrace
Squirrels mating high above Airlines Café

My wife introduced me to Airlines for several reasons. Firstly, it is full of good memories of her childhood. It was a place that her parents visited as a treat. Secondly, it is a place that one can sit peacefully in the open-air, shaded from the sun by umbrellas of fern-like foliage growing from the branches of the huge trees that surround the open-air café. Thirdly, the coffee served there is good. Waiters dressed in stained white uniforms deliver large glasses of good quality milky south Indian filter coffee from the main building of the hotel. The coffee at Airlines may not be the best available in a city overflowing with coffee outlets, but it is way above average, and few places can compete with the café’s leafy ambience.

No smoking

A few years ago, long after my first visit to Bangalore, we arrived at Airlines and were shocked to see that it had shrunk in size. No longer did the open-air café extend as far as Lavelle Road. A high, unadorned, breezeblock wall had bisected not only the open air section of Airlines, but also the main building of the hotel. The eastern half the building still functioned, but its western half had been demolished. This section of the hotel ended abruptly at the new wall.  Beyond this wall, which made me recall the Berlin Wall that fell more or less the same time as this one was erected, there was a building site. Today, this is occupied by another tasteless modern office block.

The land, on which Airlines stands, is leased from a waqf, a charitable trust maintained by Muslims. When the trust needed to realise more cash, it reclaimed some of the land and built the more profitable office block on it. The division of Airlines resulted. Today, if one sits with one’s back to the ugly wall, the café looks unchanged. In its reduced form it is now bounded at each end by huge banyan trees. 

Basin in the banyan

One of these, the banyan nearest the new wall, grows next to an area where glasses and plates are rinsed before being returned to the indoor kitchen across the car park. A basin with one tap, used for handwashing, is precariously attached to the trunk of this tree. The dangling tendrils of the banyan at the other end of the café gently caress the roof of a dilapidated hut in which fresh jilebis are fried in ghee at certain times of the day. Other equally dilapidated huts, half hidden by unruly vegetation, line the the café along its edge closest to Madras Bank Road. These buildings, which look as if they are about to collapse are used to prepare treats such as delicious fruit juices freshly prepared from pineapples, apples, mosambis, and whatever else is available that day. Although these huts look as though they cannot possibly be hygienic, I have never suffered any problems after drinking juices prepared in them.

The careful observer will notice a children’s slide hidden amongst the jungle growing alongside these huts. This is all that remains of the children’s playground that was demolished when the ‘wall’ went up. Today there is a new playground located near to the main entrance of the grounds of the hotel.

A small humped footbridge leads from the car park across a dried up gully into the café, passing below a faded metal sign on which the word ‘Tivoli’ can just be discerned. Is this a reference to the well-known identically named pleasure park in Copenhagen? If so, the resemblance ends there. Until recently, when a layer of cement was laid down, the floor of the open-air café was bare earth. Uneven, it was difficult to locate the four legs of the plastic chairs and the white marble-topped tables so that they did not wobble continuously, and in the rainy season it was muddy as well. The concrete is equally uneven, but will probably be less messy during the monsoon rains.

Drinking coffee can make one need to visit the toilet. At Airlines, this is an interesting experience. The lavatories are located within the main building of the hotel, a single storied structure, now dissected by the wall erected by the waqf.  To reach them, it is necessary to walk through the indoor café.  At any time of the day, however bright the sun may be, this must be one of the gloomiest places in Bangalore. At first, you will see nothing. When your pupils dilate sufficiently, and your eyes have adapted, you will notice that the long rectangular hall is filled with tables at which people, mostly men, are sitting nursing coffees or eating idlis and dosas. Its grimy walls and ceiling look as if they have remained untouched since the day that the first customer was served in here.  The door leading to the toilets is at the end of this dingy room. Even the extremely basic men’s toilet seems more cheerful than the indoor café.

A stranger to Bangalore might take one quick glimpse at the ancient yellow and blue sign at the entrance to the Airline’s compound, and walk on in search of somewhere that looked more salubrious to take refreshment. And, as I have already mentioned, there is no shortage of these in the city. UB City, the outrageously swanky mall, is not far away, nor is the smart Café Coffee Day opposite Cubbon Park. And, on MG Road, there are a number of coffee joints that make Airlines seem like a poor relative in comparison. Yet, Airlines is frequently overflowing with customers.

At weekends, only the courageous would consider visiting the drive-in. The car park is filled with cars packed so closely that the waiters can barely squeeze between them to deliver their offerings. You may easily hunt in vain for an empty table under the trees. From early morning to late in the evening Airlines is often seething with customers. The place is not much cheaper than other fancier, trendier places. So, it is not parsimony that attracts people there. It is not filled with people, like my wife, who remember it nostalgically. Many of the customers enjoying their beverages and eating vegetarian dishes are young. Many off them look like school kids or college students. Most of them are equipped with the latest mobile telephones and dressed in stylish casual clothes.

No way! ok!

I am often tempted to think of Bangalore as being a yuppie city, where only the newest is acceptable, and the old is rejected as is the case with so many of the city’s older buildings.  The Airlines Hotel, decrepit as it undoubtedly is, makes me resist the temptation, and gives me some hopes for a place, which I love, and which often seems determined to self-destruct.  

Friday, 11 May 2012

LA CALCINA - memories of Venice

Bought off the boat.

Almost every year until 1969 when I was seventeen, I visited Venice with my parents and younger sister. We used to travel there either by train from Florence, having first arrived in Milan by air, or directly by aeroplane from London.

As a child these air flights, which lasted no more than three hours, seemed endless. In those days, passengers were allowed to smoke once the ‘plane was airborne and there was no entertainment provided during the flight. However, I used to ask for the window seat, and my nose would be pressed constantly against the porthole, hoping, often in vain, to see a gap in the clouds beneath us through which I could see the countryside in miniature far below us.

I used to be very apprehensive about flying. It scared me to think that each time we lifted off from the runway might be the prelude to the sudden ending of my short life. I used to read the safety instruction card, and still do today. However, I had little faith that by following the safety instructions, had there have actually been a disaster, would my life have been saved. On one occasion, I became very agitated because the man in the seat beside me had not fastened his seatbelt when instructed by the voice that cracked through the loudspeakers of the ‘plane’s tannoy system. My mother mentioned my concern to him, and I felt reassured when he told us that he worked for BEA (British European Airways) and knew exactly when it was essential to fasten this safety device.

During the 1960s, there were no moving map displays in aeroplanes such as are commonplace today. However, halfway through the flight, a small piece of paper used to be passed from passenger to passenger. It contained a bulletin about the progress of the flight, and it was signed by the pilot. I used to feel privileged being allowed to handle such an important document.

The airport nearest Venice was, and still is, Aeroporto di Marco Polo. It is situated on the shore of the lagoon, directly north of the city, and separated from it by at least two miles of water. There were several ways of reaching the city of Venice. The cheapest involved taking a coach around the lagoon to the bridge that connects Venice to the mainland. The bus went across this bridge to the Piazzale Roma on the west side of the island. From there, we would have had to take a waterbus or a water taxi to a point near to our hotel.

My parents preferred the more costly, and, in my view, more enjoyable and exciting option. My mother hated travelling on boats as she was prone to seasickness, but for some reason she happily boarded a motorscafo, water taxi that resembled a speedboat, at the airport without resorting to seasickness tablets. After the usual haggling about the fare, we sped across the lagoon directly. This did not bother her at all. After a few minutes racing across the water, the small boat’s prow buffeting noisily against the waves, we used to arrive at our destination on the ‘Fondamenta Zattere’ the waterfront on the Dorsoduro (one of the largest of the multitude of islands on which Venice perches) facing the Giudecca Canal. We disembarked there, and our luggage was carried through the entrance of the Pensione Calcina.

The Calcina was definitely not the most comfortable place to stay in Venice, but its position was superb. Many of the rooms had views over the Giudecca, the widest of Venice’s canals, towards the Giudecca Island, one of the quieter quarters of Venice. From the front entrance of the Calcina, we could see Palladio’s façade of Il Redentore Church in one direction, and the Molino Stucky, a huge nineteenth century industrial building, in another. In between them, and separated by rows of small houses, with red tiled roofs, directly opposite our hotel was the façade of the church of Le Zitelle, also designed by Palladio. My parents always took a room overlooking the canal, but my sister and I were usually allocated a room which overlooked the neighbouring buildings. By leaning dangerously far out of our window, we too could catch a glimpse of the canal.

In addition to the views, there was a terrace that projected over the water on stilts from the front of the establishment. This was furnished with tables and chairs along with umbrellas during the heat of the day. It was reserved for the exclusive use of the Pensione’s guests. Breakfast was served here every day. This was not a meal that sustained or pleased us. Weak coffee was served along with hard hollow rolls that exploded into a cloud of sharp crumbs when any attempt was made to break them. The numerous pigeons that lurked around benefitted from these inedible items more than we did. In fact, one of the first things we used to do after finishing breakfast was to visit a nearby bar, usually the Bar Redentore, and have a decent coffee and some kind of sandwich. However, the terrace and the views easily compensated for the poor breakfasts, the uncomfortable beds, and other disadvantages of this Pensione, where John Ruskin stayed between February and May 1n 1877.

The ‘Cucciolo’ was a superb gelateria, an ice cream bar. It was located in a single-story building, which abutted the Calcina, and was run by two elder men and a younger assistant. We were frequent customers there. I remember a time during the 1960s, long before the Euro intruded into our lives, when one scoop cost 50 Lire (in those days £1 bought as many as 1760 Lire!).

One afternoon after taking our usual naps, we were all sitting on the Calcina’s exclusive terrace when we heard a commotion. A young boy, the child of a family of tourists, had just tumbled into the canal. Quick as a flash, one of the two owners of the Cucciolo came rushing out, and dived fully clothed into the canal. He rescued the child. I distinctly remember that the victim’s parents did not thank the soaking rescuer, let alone offer to compensate him for his watch, which must have been damaged by his courageous plunge into the water.

My parents used to rent rooms at the Calcina on a demi-pension basis. This means that they paid for the rooms, breakfast, and one meal. We used to have lunch at the Calcina so that my parents could take a long snooze afterwards. This meal was little better than breakfast. It was served by a friendly waiter, whom we used to call ‘Mr Greeps’ amongst ourselves because this is the way he pronounced the word ‘grapes’ whenever he served us with fruit.

The dining room at the Calcina was L-shaped. We used to be seated at a table by the window in the toe of the L. There were four other tables in this section of the room and every year they were occupied by other regular visitors. Every year, we met the same group of people.  Two extremely elderly Russian men sat at a table near us. My mother was sure that they were not only White Russians, but also homosexuals. I remember little about them apart from one occasion when one of them said to me that he thought that the paintings in the Accademia Gallery, which was a short distance away from the Calcina, had been spoilt by cleaning. He thought that they had looked better before numerous layers of yellowing varnish had been removed.

Two Polish musicians sat at tables facing each other, one with his wife, the other alone. They used to glare at one another throughout each meal. One of them was called Horowitz, and the other Tansman. Many years after I had ceased visiting Venice, I realised who that Tansman was none other than the composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). Only one thing stopped them from glaring, and that was the arrival of the food. It made them raise their eyebrows in surprise and shrug their shoulders as if expressing the hopelessness of the situation in which they found themselves.

The other regular who sat and ate lunch with us was a solitary elderly American, who used to greet everyone silently, but said nothing during the meal. I was surprised that my mother, who was always happy to strike up conversations with strangers, never attempted to break the ice with him.

On the whole, little united our select group of regular lunch eaters except for displeasure with the Calcina’s culinary offerings. That was the case until the Olympic Games held in Tokyo during the summer of 1964. There was a small television in the sitting room that adjoined the Calcina’s dining room. After lunch during the Olympics, most of the regulars from our section of the dining room congregated around its screen. Each time that the Soviet Union failed to win a gold medal, these fellow diners including the solitary American, who were all anti-Communist, cheered.


The Pensione Il Seguso was next door to the Calcina, but set back far from the waterfront. Although none of its rooms could rival the Calcina’s for their views, it was said to be more comfortable. One summer evening, when I was already a teenager, my father was greeted familiarly by an elderly couple. Kit Russell, one of my father’s colleagues from the LSE (London School of Economics), was walking alongside her husband Sheridan. Unknown to my parents, they, like us, had been visiting Venice annually, but stayed in the Seguso. After this first meeting, we bumped into them regularly in Venice each year.

When the Russells learnt that I enjoyed listening to classical music, they began inviting me to their musical evenings, which they held in their ground floor flat in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, close to the bank of the River Thames. Their large seventeenth century living room was ideally suited for the performance of chamber music. It looked right and had perfect acoustics. Sheridan was a very competent amateur cellist and knew many of London’s leading professional chamber music players. On each musical evening several musicians would be invited along with an audience chosen from the Russells’ vast collection of friends. The musicians would arrive not knowing either what they would be playing or with whom they would be playing. After everyone had assembled and been given sugar coated almonds decorated to look like little pebbles, which Kit used to call ‘stones from Venice’, the curtains were drawn, and the musicians began playing the first piece that Sheridan had chosen for that evening. Needless to say, the performances were beautiful. Only one thing marred these wonderful evenings slightly. I used to be given a special job. I was asked to sit close to a telephone, and if it were to have rung during a piece, I was supposed to lift up the receiver and say the following words: “We are having a party. Please ring again tomorrow.” It never rang, but I was always nervous that it might have done.

The Russells explained to me that they kept careful records of each of their musical soirées. They made sure that the composition of the audience was always different, and that none of their guests ever heard the same pieces played together (there used to be two pieces played on each occasion). Also, they ensured that no two musicians ever played the same piece together. However, they always served the same snack during the intervals between the two pieces: glasses of red wine and savoury biscuits, always the same kind, with a particular yellow coloured hard cheese that contained caraway seeds.

Kit and Sheridan married when they were both over seventy years old. Kit had been married before, but for Sheridan it was his first time. As soon as married, he trained to become a marriage guidance councillor, a profession, which in those days, was not open to those who had not been married. He had always wanted to do this kind of work, but had to wait for more than seven decades to elapse before fulfilling this ambition. The two of them were hopelessly in love with each other. I still remember them walking away from the Seguso hand in hand after passing the time of day with us.

The Calcina’s neighbour, the Pensione Il Seguso, was located on a corner where a narrow side canal met the wide Giudecca Canal. One morning, we were waiting outside the Calcina, trying to decide what to do. It was a bit later than usual, which is possibly the reason that we spotted something we had never seen before. A gondola with green upholstery and other identically coloured cloth drapes appeared from along the side canal and drew to a standstill at the corner near where we were standing. The gondolier was dressed in a livery the same colour as the upholstery and the drapes. After a short delay, the American, who used to sit silently with us at lunch, left the main entrance of the Calcina and boarded the gondola. The gondolier set his vessel in motion. His American passenger sat reading his newspaper whilst he was rowed across the Giudecca Canal. We watched them disappearing along a canal that passed through the Giudecca Island towards the wide open lagoon beyond the island. Naturally, our curiosity was aroused.

On the Canale Grande

That lunch time, the American sat down in his usual place. My mother could no longer contain herself. She asked the American about what we had witnessed that morning. He explained that the gondolier was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. Whenever he visited Venice, he would hire this same grandson for the duration of his visit. Every morning, he was picked up just as we had observed, and was rowed out into the midst of the lagoon. When they arrived there, he and his gondolier exchanged roles. The American had mastered the art of rowing a gondola, and took his daily exercise by ‘gondoling’ around the lagoon for an hour or so.

The American introduced himself. My father, a keen amateur historian of art, was most excited to discover that our American lunch time companion was William Milliken, a former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and a famous historian of mediaeval art.

Later Miss Steiner, a humourless late middle-aged Austrian who managed the Pensione Calcina, told us that Mr Milliken stayed at the Calcina every year during the month in which his mother had died. He stayed in the room that she used to occupy during her visits to the Calcina. Whilst he stayed there, Miss Steiner informed us, the room was always filled with his mother’s favourite flowers, and furnished with the very same furniture that she used to use whilst she was a guest at the pensione.

Mr Milliken died in 1978, at least ten years after I last met him. About twenty years later, I bought a second-hand copy of his book, “Unfamiliar Venice”. This wonderfully illustrated and almost poetically written book, which was published in 1967, describes the magic of Venice beautifully, but makes no mention at all of any of the things we learnt about our solitary American neighbour in the dining room of the Pensione Calcina.

Thursday, 10 May 2012


 A little exercise in 'thinking aloud'

My late mother was born in South Africa. Her father was German and her mother was born in the ‘Cape Colony’ (now part of South Africa) of German parents. Mom understood German, but could not speak it. This was the language her parents used when she or her siblings were not supposed to know what was being said.

Mom studied commercial art in Cape Town before the Second World War (‘WW2’) broke out. During that war, she did something 'hush-hush' for a government department that was tracking shipping movements around the Cape of Good Hope. As the war progressed, she also worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross. It was while she was working for this international organisation that she was able to read reports of what had been going on in the concentration camps in Europe. What she learnt was the basis for her being prejudiced against the Germans: maybe not individuals, but definitely the nation.

It was not surprising that when my parents moved to Europe in the late 1940s, they tended to avoid visiting Germany whenever they took holidays in Europe (remember that until the UK joined the EEC, we 'Brits' regarded Europe as beginning somewhere across the English Channel!).

I remember one holiday in the late 1950s. We went to Noordwijk, a seaside resort on the Dutch coast. Everyday, we used to lay a blanket out on the sands in the morning. And everyday, we had to move it at least once. Noordwijk was popular with German visitors. If my mother heard German being spoken, we had to move out of earshot. She was so aware of, and upset by, recent history that the sound of German, the language of her parents, upset her enough to want to avoid hearing it. 

This avoidance of the Germans had an effect on me. The more that they were avoided, the more intrigued I became. So, when I was old enough to travel alone, I made a trip to Vienna by train, stopping at a number of places in Germany on my way. Almost without exception, I was charmed by everyone that I met. 

On one trip, I stopped for a drink in Regensburg and an elderly man sitting nearby asked me where I was going. When I told him that I was driving to Hungary and made some comment about the good quality of the autobahns, he smiled and told me that this was one of the good things that Hitler gave Germany. My German was not good enough to reply suitably to this man, who had spent ten miserable years as a Soviet prisoner of war. This was one of the only instances of positive nostalgia for the Nazi’s awful regime that I have encountered during my numerous trips to Germany. In general, most Germans, whom I have met, not only recognise readily the hideousness of the misdemeanours of their ancestors but also try to make amends for them. This cannot be said for other Europeans.

The Italians, for example, are ambivalent about their far from perfect past. This is neatly summarised in the refrain of a song: “Oggi siamo tutti partigiani…” (‘today we’re all partisans’). The implication being that yesterday, this was not the case: some of us were fascists then.

In France, a murky aspect of recent history is conveniently kept in the shadows. Between 1940 and 1944, the sleepy spa town of Vichy was the seat of a fascist regime led by the elderly Marshal Pétain, the hero of the Battle of Verdun. We visited the town and were curious to see the Hotel Parc where the quisling government had had its headquarters. We found the building, now an office block, named Le Parc. There was no plaque or anything else attached to it to commemorate its former function. We asked an office worker, who emerged from it, whether we had indeed found the right building. He confirmed that we were not mistaken. When we asked him why there was nothing to indicate the historic significance of the Parc, he shrugged his shoulders and said something like: “On n’est pas fier de ca” (‘It’s nothing to be proud of’), and then continued off to buy his lunch.

Further, when Max Ophul's produced his four hour documentary film about the collaborationist (and anti-Semitic) nature of the Vichy Regime "Le Chagrin et La Pitié (in 1969), it was banned in France until 1981. 

I am sad to relate that here in Britain, we also have selective memories. Ask most people on the street about the Partition of India and its calamitous consequences, and your response will usually be a blank face. As for British concentration camps, which antedated the Nazi German ones by at least three decades, you will probably be greeted with incredulity. Never once did any of my South African family, who condemned both the Nazis and later the Apartheid regime, ever tell me about the British concentration camps in which at least 26,000 innocent Boer women and children perished during the 2nd Boer War (1899-1902). I only became aware of this in recent years when I began to start reading about southern African history.

I do not blame my mother at all for wanting to move away from Germans on the beach at Noordwijk in the late 1950s because she knew in vivid detail what some of them might have done, or have been aware of. 

However, I do feel that it is important when criticising others to “cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye” (Luke Ch. 6, Verse 42.)