This is Gertie. She died this month. I only found out today, and missed even the chance of raising a glass in her memory at her local, the Boston Arms.
Gertie did the weekend shifts at Tufnell Park's launderette. I used to pop in every couple of weeks or so with a big IKEA blue bag of sheets and stuff - and she did a service wash. Always friendly and welcoming, though not exactly talkative - 'you're early today', 'hot enough for you', 'what time will you be back', not much more than that.
For quite a while, I didn't even know her name. Then one Saturday, a young man was there, running the place. 'Where's the regular woman?', I asked. 'Oh, Gertie's not well.' Happily she recovered from that bout of illness, and was at work until quite recently. When I popped in earlier this month, there was someone new - 'Gertie's not too good', she said.
Today, I discovered that Gertrude O'Sullivan has died. A distinctly grainy photo, which briefly was on display at the Boston Arms, is now propped up on a bench at her launderette. I asked if she had any family. "They're in Ireland", I was told.
Let me say one last time: thanks, Gertie!
A few weeks ago, I spent some time in Kashmir - my first visit there in several years. The BBC radio programme From Our Own Correspondent today broadcast my piece reflecting on that visit, and how Kashmir has changed over the past twenty years - and I am posting my script here with the programme's blessing.
INTRODUCTION: Indian-administered Kashmir, a mainly Muslim corner of a Hindu majority nation, was in the grip of a violent separatist insurgency when Andrew Whitehead first reported from there for the BBC in the 1990s. He’s gone back regularly, but his latest visit was his first for several years, and prompted him to reflect on what’s changed, and what hasn’t, over the period he’s known the Kashmir valley:
The flight into Kashmir was full – of Indian tourists. Every seat taken, and an air of holiday excitement. What a change from twenty years ago. Then, amid the separatist insurgency and equally brutal Indian army response, no one took the plane to Srinagar for pleasure. This time I came across scores of holiday makers strolling along Dal Lake and visiting the beauty spots. At a shop on Polo View, I queued behind a family from Delhi who spent seven-thousand rupees, a hundred dollars, on Kashmiri walnuts and almonds to take home with them.
The number of Indian tourists, there are far fewer foreigners, has been edging up year-by-year as the violence has eased – so much so, I heard tell there’s been an appeal for Kashmiris to offer home stays, because of a shortage of rooms in hotels and on houseboats. In the nineties, even if there had been any Indian holiday makers, they would never have felt at ease in a Kashmiri home.
On my drive in from the airport, I spotted another sign of Kashmir’s bounce back – huge mansions being built on the outskirts of Srinagar. The place has always had more of an air of prosperity than many north Indian cities, and – while there’s certainly poverty and deprivation – some Kashmiris are now doing very well indeed. And not just in the city. At a saffron growing village just outside Srinagar, every house was lavishly appointed – sprawling, two or three storeys, not the sort of opulence I’d expected in rural Kashmir.
And security? Well, what was once one of the most militarised spots on earth is now much more lightly guarded. There are bunkers and checkpoints, but many fewer than in the 90s – in Srinagar at least. I walked round the city at close of day with a colleague who has spent many years in Pakistan – we browsed at the paper stalls, said hello to the women selling fish on one of the bridges, and chatted to a teenager as we walked along the banks of the Jhelum river. He was astonished – Srinagar today, he said, felt safer than Islamabad or any other Pakistani city.
But it would be wrong to imagine that Kashmir has found peace. The numbers killed in the troubles amount to perhaps one-in-fifty of the valley’s adult population – a huge proportion when set aside, say, Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka. It’s still a society in trauma.
A Kashmiri who was a teenager when the armed separatism erupted said that in some areas, perhaps half the young men came to be embroiled in some manner in the militancy. A younger, upper class Kashmiri told me how his parents had sent him out of the valley to a boarding school, because it was safer. “The other kids there, Punjabis mainly, nicknamed me AK-47”, he said with a thin, resentful smile. He supports continued Indian rule. He’s in a minority. One Kashmiri intellectual whose opinion I respect ventured that for every Kashmiri who backs India there are three who favour Pakistan – and that both these camps are outnumbered by supporters of Kashmir’s independence.
Young Kashmiris may not be taking up guns, but the killing of scores of stone throwing but otherwise unarmed anti-India demonstrators by the security forces in the summer of 2010 reforged a burning sense of resentment. At a new university, the Islamic University of Science and Technology – both faculty and students told me there was nothing Islamic about it beyond the name – young men and women explained, in calm and considered tones, why the ebbing of the militancy doesn’t mean that Kashmiris feel any more Indian, why they remain unreconciled to Indian rule.
On my initial visits to Kashmir all those years ago, I used to see quite a bit of a bookish young man called Umar Farooq. He was then in his early twenties, and had recently assumed the role – on his father’s assassination - of Srinagar’s Muslim chief priest. He was a leading separatist. He still is. I called again at his home near Nageen lake. The years have been kind to him, more kind than they have been to the cause he champions. The reduced level of violence was no bad thing, he said. But if the armed militancy hadn’t worked, neither had India’s military presence. The young were even more alienated today, and the mood of resistance was still very strong.
So much has changed in Kashmir. So much remains the same.
Back in 1963, E.P. Thompson wrote the most influential post-war book of British history, The Making of the English Working Class. I came across it a decade or more later, and dipped into it repeatedly rather than read it throughout (it's a bit of a doorstopper). It made its mark on me, prompting me to do a postgraduate degree at the Centre for the Study of Social History at Warwick, where Edward Thompson had been the presiding genius.
By the time I got there, he had left academia behind. I came across him only occasionally - attending a seminar he gave when he, as I recall, unilaterally changed the subject to the haunting death of his older brother, Frank, in Bulgaria towards the end of the Second World War; I chaired a meeting at which he spoke, calling for the release of the East German dissident Rudolf Bahro; and much later, in 1991, I interviewed Edward and his wife Dorothy about their years in the Communist Party, and the audio is posted elsewhere on this site.
I knew that in the early 1950s in particular, E.P. Thompson was an active member of the CP in Halifax, and teaching in the Extramural Studies department at the University of Leeds - and that both these aspects of his life fed into the writing of The Making. What I had not appreciated, and this I have to confess is a very personal obsession, is that Edward Thompson had more than a passing acquaintance with my home town of Morley.
David Goodway's contribution to a new book entitled E.P. Thompson and English Radicalism (edited by Roger Fieldhouse and Richard Taylor and published by Manchester University Press) spells out how Thompson's role as an adult educator informed the making of The Making. Morley was one of fourteen venues where Thompson held classes. He found the large oval table in the Library's reading room ideal for his purpose. And in 1963-4, after the publication of his seminal work, he commented of Morley: 'Within living memory ... it seems, miners have worked lying down in eighteen-inch seams, children have been in the mills at the age of nine, urine has been collected from pub urinals for scouring, while the brother of one of the students still uses teazles to raise the 'nap'. It is difficult to believe that the industrial revolution has yet occurred in Morley, and next year's syllabus (in the later 19th century) will seem like a tour through the space age'.
My own association with Morley Library is restricted to attending stamp club sessions there, rather unwillingly, as a child. My father was on Morley council at the time Thompson was writing his book. My father was an independent, which usually meant Tory but in his case Liberal. He never came across E.P. Thompson, but much to my surprise talked of attending Workers' Educational Association classes - one on history held at Morley Grammar School, and another during the war which he attended with his mother (a JP and National Liberal) at the unlikely venue of the Gildersome Conservative Club.
All this is incidental, but out of a web of such tenuous links, affinities and association are built. And I am more than a little chuffed to discover that E.P. Thompson taught in Morley.
We have a family of woodpeckers - noisy, colourful creatures. And the adults are currently busy round the clock getting food for their young. These photos catch the woodpeckers in profile as they prepare to enter the nest (a hole in a tree), and bottom right as an adult emerges from the hole..
The recently hatched woodpeckers are not yet visible but they tweet incessantly - by my reckoning, a million monotone chirrups a week. I suspect the youngsters operate a relay system - taking it in turns to remind their parents that they are hungry, and waiting for a juicy grub or two.
Malden Road has seen better days. At least, I hope it has. When Karl Marx and family lived here, on Grafton Terrace, the locality would have been new and, not posh but smart at least. Sharp's Fishing Tackle Shop - I'm not sure whether it's still going, and the window display is about as flyblown as can be - is at the down-at-heel extremity of the street. Victor Eggleton, by the way, appears to be the name of the barber who had a business here decades back.
Next door, the undertakers has a wonderful blue lamp, surmounted with a crown - it's really fantastic to find such a very special architectural flourish amid this slightly forsaken corner of Kentish Town.
Two minutes' walk away as the road crosses the railway lines, slowly fading, is a wonderful Guinness ghost sign - replete with performing seal (I guess this predates the toucan). I'm no expert, but I'd say it's from the 1950s or earlier. The first use of a seal balancing a pint of Guinness appears to date as far back as 1930 - the fridge magnet featured below is still on sale.
I came across this pamphlet from 1942 recently - and the story attached to it is so striking, I'm going to share it.
Ram Nahum, the man on the cover, was a communist and clearly a brilliant physicist who was killed in July 1942 when a stray bomb was dropped on Cambridge by a German plane returning east. He was 24. This pamphlet was published a few months later by the (clearly Communist-minded) University Labour Federation.
I imagined at first that Ram Nahum was an Indian student. Ram is a very Indian name - and Nahum or Nahoum is a surname of a prominent Calcutta Jewish family. That's not right. Though it's not entirely wrong.
Effraim Nahum was born into a Jewish family in Manchester. He went to Clifton College and on to Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was a very active part of a flourishing Communist movement at Cambridge in the late 1930s, the Popular Front period which was the zenith of the party's appeal to both the young and intellectuals. Eric Hobsbawm mentioned him as part of a formidable coterie of Pembroke leftists. In his autobiography, Interesting Times, Hobsbawm describes Nahum as:
a squat, dark natural scientist with a big nose, radiating physical strength, energy and authority. He was the son of a prosperous Sephardic textile merchant from Manchester and, by general consent, was the ablest of all communist student leaders of my generation. As a graduate physicist, he stayed in Cambridge during the war , and was killed ... by the only German bomb to fall on the city.
The 'ablest' of that remarkable cohort of student communists - quite a compliment from someone as able and discerning as Eric Hobsbawm.
Hobsbawm also related how he and Nahum were asked by the party HQ to attend meetings of a party "Jewish group". Both went alaong a few times but concluded that it had little relevance to their own political activity.
Nahum's parents set up a physics fellowship at Cambridge in their son's memory. A few years ago, an album which his parent's collated of cuttings and obituary letters was presented to Pembroke, and one of the college archivists, Jayne Ringrose, wrote a wonderfully researched account of Nahum's life and death which you can find in the Clifton College magazine, towards the end of the issue you can access through this link.
And the India connection? Well, the pamphlet I came across explains how strongly Ram Nahum felt about the India issue and how closely he worked with Indian students at Cambridge to challenge imperialism and work for India's independence.
The photograph below, by the way, apparently was taken at a 1938 demo against the British government's refusal to countenance intervention in the Spanish Civil War.
Today's Radical Book Fair spills over three floors of the capacious Bishopsgate Institute - a much better venue than last year's over- crowded Conway Hall.
Lots to do, old friends to meet, and for me the chief delight is the second hand items for sale.
So take this handbill - from, I am fairly confident, 1890 - issued by the Socialist League. Shaw and Morris are among the advertised lecturers, the Club Autonomie in Soho is the principal venue, and there are enticing references to the 'Commonweal' choir ('Commonweal', founded by Morris, was the weekly paper of the Socialist League). Marvellous!
Not cheap, but no wonder.
My other 'big' buy was a really nice copy from 1898 of the Social Democratic Federation's paper, 'Justice', subtitled in a fashion that sets it in its time: 'the Organ of the Social Democracy'. It has a wonderful masthead with a large representation of Justice blindfolded - and you can see in small letters, the artist's name 'Leon Caryll, 1893'. I don't know much about Caryll, but he did quite a bit of art and design work for socialist journals in the 1890s.
So, what with the 'it' purchase (see below), a very successful collecting week.
One of the most famous mastheads of the alternative press ... This issue, which I've just picked up for a fiver on Charing Cross Road, dates from October 1967. The paper launched a year earlier with a concert at the Roundhouse featuring Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, and by the time of its - or should that be it's -first birthday - it was already suffering serious grief from the police - as detailed in the excellent Wikipedia entry.
And the alluring, 'retro' woman on the masthead? Well, there's a story attached. Wikipedia's version is this: The paper's logo was a black-and-white image of Theda Bara, vampish star of silent films. The founders' intention had been to use an image of actress Clara Bow, 1920s It girl, but a picture of Theda Bara was used by accident and, once deployed, not changed.
In this issue, the centre spread is 'The Acid Report: chemical, sociological & legal aspects of LSD'. This asserts: The widespread use of LSD represents a new social force in England. In the past, drug users have always been members of the lowest classes; the poorly educated and the slum dwellers, but LSD users are "the cream of today's youth"; college and high school students, as well as advertising men, housewives and ministers. Just a little overstated perhaps, but a sign of those times.
John Peel was among the columnists ... there's a full-page ad for Jefferson Airplane's 'Surrealistic Pillow' (yes, I've still got a copy of that) ... and an ad for a concert headlined by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
I was only eleven when this issue came out. But I keenly remember a school announcement not much later proudly listing the achievements of the sixth form school leavers. One, it said, was going to work for The International Times, which they clearly considered to be a title of great repute ... even then, I knew it was it, and its reputation wasn't quite as the school imagined.
Wonderfully, the entire archive of it is available online,
A missionary roll call in a small north London Baptist church - the first of its missionaries headed out in 1875, and the last as recently as 1950. Congo was the most popular destination, the station for eleven of the Camden Road missionaries, while seven headed out to India.
The congregation of this back street chapel has sent twenty of its own number out to preach the gospel - it feels a dated and forlorn endeavour, but it must have required courage as well as commitment to head out to Leopoldville or Calcutta.
The church is just off Camden Road, on Hilldrop Road (so more in Holloway), and dates back to 1854. I called in by chance over the weekend when there was some sort of open day. The church isn't exactly thriving but it's surviving - which is quite something.
It is heartening that these institutions continue to take root amid the modern city - a precarious hold no doubt, but still hanging in there. Hallelujah!
... British Library.
Off I went this morning to the wonderful new exhibition there, 'Comics Unmasked: art and anarchy in the UK'.
And in the shop, for a tenner ... the most famous political mask of our times, the 'V for Vendetta' mask - a stylised depiction of that noted constitutionalist Guy Fawkes - which has become the icon of the global Occupy movement.
So it's a tenner for the Guy!
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