Walking along in Mylapore the other day, I came across an arresting sight - a toddler lying down as if asleep in a rubbish recycling cart.
The boy's mother was sifting among roadside rubbish for anything that she could salvage and recycle or sell on for a few rupees. She had her own cycle-with-trailer. By the time I had got her OK to take some photos, her son - Puray, as I heard it - was well and truly awake.
Puray seemed quite content in his resting place, and his mother - Sandiya is what I think she said - was clearly a well organised and enterprising kabari wali (to use the Hindi term for those who trade small-scale in waste). And India can teach the West an awful lot about recycling.
This is not 'chick' as in Dixie Chicks, nor as in Quick Chick noodles, nor indeed as in Parisian 'chic'.
Sumathi and Lakshmi are working out in the open on their regular pitch on Chennai's TTK Road using slender bamboo stems to make chick, window blinds or sun screens (and occasionally mats and table placings) which are light, durable and flexible.
The making process uses a lot of stone weights to keep the bamboo taut and to ensure that the strands remain level. This video gives a sense of the intricacy of the craft -
Chick is fashionable. Big balcony blinds can be - and I'm going by online prices here, I'm sure it's a lot cheaper to buy bespoke on TTK Road - about 20 rupees per square foot. Window blinds go for up to 70 rupees (about $1) a square foot.
Sumathi and Lakshmi are part of a small army of vendors and craft workers whose workplace is on the Chennai streets.
I sought their permission to take photos, which was happily given. I didn't buy any chick, but their boss, the man (yes, the sexual division of labour is alive and well here) to the left of one of the pictures posted here, negotiated a modest recompense.
And I trust that at least some of that reached the women who do the work.
I've just landed up back in Chennai - for a third year (hence 'Chennai 3') I'm spending a semester teaching at the Asian College of Journalism. I'll meet the class for the first time on Monday. Meanwhile, just a five minute stroll from where I'm staying, I came across the annual exhibition of the Chennai Photowalk (look them up on Facebook), a group of enthusiastic photographers who every couple of weeks go out for a group wander to find things/people/cityscapes to photograph in this wonderfully photogenic city.
This photography exhibition was happy for visitors to photograph the impressive array of exhibits - the photo above (and just to emphasise, I can claim no creative credit for this image - Sethu Raman was the photographer) was my favourite.
I did manage to get a group photo of at least some of those exhibiting. I was assured that to join the Chennai Photowalk group you didn't have to be a top talent, high end photographer ... indeed you didn't even have to have a camera. So, what's not to like about it - I've signed up to the Facebook group and watch this space to see what transpires at their walks.
Many of the photographs make use of humour - a few made me laugh out loud. And in a city where water is ever present, the exhibition was drenched with monsoon rains, sandy beaches and froth-topped waves. Here's a few of my favourites (and again, all credit to exhibitors of the Chennai Photowalk group whose names feature below the mounted photographs).
If you are in Chennai, the closing day of the exhibition is tomorrow (Sunday - 27th January)
It's funny how some things recur across the generations. Like mangoes. OK - bear with me ...
Fully twenty-five years ago, when I was new as a BBC correspondent in Delhi and seeking to impress my colleagues with my Hindi, I declared: मैं आम हूं (me aam hoo). The response was smirks, giggles and at least in one case derisive laughter. I had intended to say that I was an ordinary guy - not someone from a privileged background. Instead I had declared: I'm a mango!
OK, so fast forward ... my daughter, a really good linguist, has started Hindi lessons. Well, her first proper Hindi lesson was yesterday - though she is already fairly OK in the language. This evening she asked me to give her a quick run down on Indian politics as we enter what will be an election year there.
I mentioned the Aam Admi Party
आम आदमी पार्टी - the insurgent anti-corruption party which won a startling landslide victory in local elections in Delhi a few years back. Aam Admi means 'common man' - a phrase made famous by the cartoonist R.K, Laxman. But as we have discovered. Aam also has another meaning -
"Um, the 'mango man' party? Really?" my daughter enquired.
It seems we have more in common than I thought.
I've been thinking a lot about my mother this week. She would have been ninety last Saturday. Sadly, she died in August 2000. This is my parents' wedding at Gildersome Baptist Church on 18th July 1953. All four of my grandparents are present - Joseph and Ethel Whitehead are (discounting the child in arms) the fourth and fifth from the left at the back while Elizabeth and Thomas Graham are on the far right. My father's two brothers (and their wives) and my mother's three sisters (one of whom married my father's twin brother) are all there. So are my two oldest cousins. I think I can name almost everyone - but I really should have double checked with my father, who died a couple of years ago.
I've blogged about my father, Arthur Whitehead - but not so much about my mother. Time to make amends. Margaret Graham was born in Glasgow - her father was a Protestant from Belfast (his mother was a Catholic, which explains why they eventually moved out ) who served his apprenticeship in the Harland and Wolff shipyards, then moved over to Glasgow where he worked as a boilermaker in the Govan shipyards.
My mother was brought up in a close in Ibrox, a short stroll from the Rangers football ground - she and her friends used to sneak in when the gates opened and catch the last few minutes of the game.
When my mother was about nine, her father got a job as, I think, a foreman in a steel stockholding plant near Gildersome, and the Graham family all moved to West Yorkshire. Their home was on Grove View at the centre of Gildersome. My mother went to Morley Grammar School and worked as a telephonist before meeting and marrying my father. Her parents and two youngest sisters eventually emigrated to South Africa and her father (who I never met) died there.
Just by coincidence - or is it? - I have over the last few days been looking through some of the family papers and photos my father left - quite a few of which are in fact my mother's. Some of the letters feel too intimate for a third party to read. Among them is a Valentine card my father sent before they married. She also kept a lot of my letters - from college, from India when I worked there, all sorts of stuff which I never imagined might survive.
There's also a few of my mother's pocket diaries from the 1950s, including her entries at the time of my birth. It's both wonderful and slightly unsettling to read about how I came into the world. I was born on June 23rd - here's what she wrote on that day and the days either side:
'To go in Mo[rley] Hall [[maternity home]] 10am if not taken before. A[rthur] took me. Dr McNaughton came - started injections 2.15pm. Pains started about 3.30pm. Had injections. A came 7-8pm. Pains wore off + started at midnight. Went into Labour Ward 1am - nothing to eat all day. Dr Mc called twice + called to see A. A came 7-8pm the waters started to break. Baby born app 11.30pm. 8lb 2ozs. Dr McNaughton arrived about 5 mins after birth + gave 2 stitches.
Sun 24: A + Mam came 2.30-3.30pm + A at 7-8pm. Baby doing fine - Andrew. Dr McN called in morning. Nellie came to window about 6.15pm + brought flowers.'
Also among her papers I came across this portrait photo - I don't recall seeing it before. It's undated, but I imagine it may have been taken for her twenty-first birthday.
My New Year ramble has become an annual custom - this time (new camera in hand) there was a touch less serendipity about the route. I wanted to walk along Jubilee Street in Stepney, and visit one of the last surviving Jewish institutions in the old East End.
The walk began at Aldgate tube station and took me along Commercial Road, the distinctly shabby main road heading east towards Canary Wharf. There are a few old mansion blocks still lining the street, but most of the businesses are given over to wholesale garment shops - and the cheap end of the business. Almost all are South Asian-run, but it's a continuation of what was the defining industry of the Jewish East End. Coincidence perhaps, but a curious and heartwarming one.
There's still a synagogue on Commercial Road - one of, I think, only three surviving in the East End where once were were 150 or more. The Congregation of Jacob dates back to 1903 though this building was consecrated only in 1921. It has an imposing frontage and by all accounts the interior is even more splendid - but this morning it was firmly shut.
Jubilee Street runs from Commercial Road several hundred yards north to Whitechapel Road, and at the northern end is Rinkoff Bakeries. I'd never been there before. I'll certainly be going again. I had a coffee and a smoked salmon and cream cheese beigel. Excellent! And I brought back pastries for the family.
The place does good business. There are a few tables - both inside and out (and even on a nippy January morning most of the outside tables were taken) - and a steady stream of customers ... tourists, 'pilgrims', but mainly locals who want a take away cake, beigel or coffee.
That's Ray above, with a model of himself in his days as a master baker. He trades a lot on tradition, but there's quality in the mix too. I had never heard of Rinkoffs until I started thinking about this walk - if you haven't been, do go!
Jubilee Street has been knocked around a lot. There's only a short stretch towards the north end that looks a little as it would have done a century ago, when this area was overwhelmingly Jewish.
The street has a special place in the history of the East End - it was the epicentre of of the once formidable anarchist movement in this part of London.
The Jubilee Street Club was established in 1906 and for eight years was both a social and educational centre. Rudolf Rocker was closely associated with the club, and such anarchist luminaries as Kropotkin and Malatesta spoke here. I once interviewed Nellie Dick (born Naomi Ploschansky) who as a young woman was active in the Jubilee Street Club and helped to organise a 'Modern School' here.
There's a wonderful account of this and other London anarchist clubs, including a rather grainy photograph, in this research paper by the historian Jonathan Moses. It's worth a read. The old club building was demolished many decades ago and Jarman House, with its distinctive sky blue balconies, now stands on the site.
A little to the east lies Stepney Green, a wonderfully peaceful and historic spot. Rudolf Rocker and his family - including his younger son Fermin, an artist - once lived in a top floor flat here. By chance a few year ago, I had the opportunity to visit that same flat in Dunstan House when my friend Bill Schwarz was putting up here. Fermin's drawing of the building graced the cover of his memoir of his East End childhood, and you can see how little it has changed.
Just to the south is the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney - one of the few London churches which is genuinely medieval. In origin it is Anglo-Saxon and houses a tenth century rood, a representation of the crucifixion (the photo is from the church's website), which is believed to be a remnant of the church that St Dunstan himself may have founded here.
And as so often with old London churches, its memorials are testament to the human cost of Britain's Imperial ambitions.
Just east of the church and its grounds, there's the sort of street that I just love - Durham Row, tiny post-war bungalows on one side, and (at a guess) mid-nineteenth century buildings on the other, several of which seem once to have been shops. And above one of these one-time shop windows, it's just possible to make out an inscription: E, Andrews, FLORIST.
Another couple of hundred yards, and I reached the Regent's Canal - the end of my walk. Thanks for making the journey with me.
And as I looked back, there was the City looming over the East End, looking almost enticing ... from a distance.
To start the year, let's stop the war. This is a wonderful Walter Crane designed image from a handbill issued by the Stop the War Committee - the Boer War, of course - set up in 1899 by the campaigning journalist, W.T. Stead. The angel of peace is shown beseeching British soldier and armed Boer farmer to put down their weapons.
The campaign brought together prominent religious figures (John Clifford was a prominent Baptist and a pioneer of passive resistance) and popular novelists (Silas Hocking was a Liberal and Methodist who wrote dozens of novels, among which Her Benny was a bestseller). It was largely free of conventional political personalities - and indeed the language of the leaflet is much more religious and humanitarian than political.
'The Boers are the Dutch of South Africa', it asserts, 'white men, and Protestant Christians like ourselves' - a sentiment which immediately implies that the Committee does not seek to represent women, non-Protestants or people of colour. Even 120 years ago, that immediately excluded perhaps two-thirds of the British population.
The Stop the War Committee distributed millions of handbills, on trains and elsewhere - though of course vanishingly few have survived. It was regarded as pro-Boer, which was a damning epithet amid the khaki patriotism engendered by the war campaign.
'We do not want another Ireland in S. Africa', the leaflet asserts. Hallelujah!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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