Holborn Civil Defence
This is a spectacular ghost sign - and although huge, it's also one of the most hidden away I've ever come across. It reads:
HOLBORN BOROUGH COUNCIL
CIVIL DEFENCE HEADQUARTERS
VOLUNTEERS WANTED ENROL HERE
It dates, I would guess, from the Second World War - when, as you can see, Holborn had an active civil defence operation. It's just possible that it's from the period of the Cold War, when fear of a Soviet nuclear strike prompted a revival of civil defence teams, particularly in sensitive areas such as Holborn in central London.
The sign is entirely obscured by Holborn Library, a building completed in 1960 - this photo was taken from the local history section of the library on the second floor looking out through a rear window.
The library building itself, on Theobalds Road, has been described as 'a milestone in the history of the modern public library'. Camden Council intends to refurbish the building - the spot I took this photo from is set to become a luxury apartment, and the local history collection is to be banished to the basement.
And the former Civil Defence HQ - in a building built between the wars as a furniture warehouse (and currently used by the council for storage and as the base for a number of arts and similar organisations) - is set to be demolished, though we don't quite know when, and the site redeveloped. Its side aspect is on John's Mews, if that helps.
Holborn Borough Council, by the way, was swept away in the 1965 reorganisation of London local government when it was amalgamated with St Pancras and Hampstead in the new London Borough of Camden.
So if you are in to ghost signs - or Holborn's history - or you are just curious (which is a good thing to be) - don't delay in getting a glimpse!
We're just back from a few days in Rome, staying in Trastevere - literally 'across the Tiber' - the once working class area of the inner city which is now immensely fashionable.
From our guest house window, we looked out on the flank wall of the 'Casa di Dante' - Dante's house. This is a bit of a mystery - it doesn't seem to be open to the public and the house itself dates from the mid-sixteenth century, so roughly 250 years after Dante's time.
About a hundred years ago, it seems, the building was designated by an Italian minister as a study centre devoted to one of Italy's most renowned writers. Though what studying or similar goes on there, I really couldn't say.
I can't quite decide whether these architectural embellishments are charming or sinister - I think both! But they are small - and our room must be the only vantage point.
What a wonderful cover design this is - the sort of artistic magic that a novel of this quality merits. It's the work of Cyril Satorsky for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's fourth novel The Householder published in 1960.
And thanks to Cyril, here's the story behind the design: a compelling tale of three Indian women (and there was a fourth in Cyril's life, but that's not for telling here).
Cyril was born into a Jewish family in Whitechapel in the East End of London in 1927. He now lives in New Orleans and as his website testifies, he is still busy as an artist.
I bought a first edition of The Householder recently and dropped Cyril an email to say how much I liked his design - and that led to a couple of long phone conversations, the key points of which I record here with Cyril's blessing.
As a young man in his early twenties, Cyril got to know - and like - an Indian writer, Indu Dutt, who introduced him to Tagore. 'I'm still enchanted by Tagore', he tells me. He helped with her book, A Tagore Testament - first published in 1953 - and designed the memorable cover.
He also met Indu's Dublin-educated daughter, Bulbul Dutt. 'I was knocked over by her beauty - she was stunning', Cyril recalls. She was married to a Calcutta-based businessman, Ian Arnold, and had a couple of children. She was a follower of Subud, a spiritual movement established in Indonesia, and in the mid-1960s wrote a book about its beliefs under the name Mariani Arnold.
Both Bulbul and her husband returned to India - he kept in touch for a while but never met them again and understands that both are now dead.
Alongside this introduction to India and its culture, Cyril also attended dance performances in London of the Radha-Krishna story by Ram Gopal and his company - among whom the young Kumudini Lakhia was a luminous beauty and a great talent.
He found the energy and elegance of the performance intoxicating. 'What was mind altering to me', he says, 'was seeing Indian dance.' Cyril recalls that he managed to get access to the dancers' dressing room and got to know Kumi; they became firm friends.
It was the publisher John Murray who approached Cyril to design the jacket for The Householder - an intimate, acutely observed novel about lower middle-class Delhi written by a woman who had married into the country. He read the book and loved it - and the figure of the mother-in-law reminded him of the matriarchs in Jewish families.
So he turned to the design - and to a woman whose beauty lingered in his memory.
The young Indian woman on the cover is Bulbul - though she never knew she was the model. He had a passport photo to work off, 'but my memory of her was sharper than that photo - Bulbul came to me on that page'.
And the other figure? 'The man sitting at the table is me.' Of course. the character he represents is the 'householder' of the book's title, a young, recently married Indian school teacher.
Being asked about the cover, and the network of Indian friendships it brings to mind, has given Cyril a wistful pleasure - a chance to reflect on people and moments which have meant a lot to him. 'I don't think I've ever talked about this before with anyone except my wife, Dale'.
I asked if he had ever managed to make the journey to India. Yes - seventeen years ago, at Dale's urging. And as a result of a chance encounter at an Indian airport, Cyril and his wife spent a week as guests of Kumi and her family in Ahmedabad where she runs a renowned dance school. And so a friendship dormant for half-a-century was rather magically rekindled.
Cyril Satorsky says his connection with South Asia has greatly influenced his art. 'My paintings now are really abstract - but they have jumped out of India. Indian art is not abstract on the surface of things - but go beyond the surface and it is.'
India has also shaped his approach to life. 'For one thing, it has changed my idea about women: women are cleverer than men - their perceptions are larger, deeper, wider.'
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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