I first met a member of Burma's Jewish community in Calcutta almost twenty years ago. That's where most Burmese Jews fled when the Japanese invaded during the Second World War. A handful stayed there. Many moved on - to Britain, Australia, Canada, Israel. But there is still - as I discovered on my first visit to Myanmar (as Burma is now officially called) last month - a very small community in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and a wonderful, well-kept synagogue.
I wrote a piece about Burma's Jews for the latest issue of the 'Jewish Chronicle' - here it is below, along with some photos I took during my visit:
Of all the fates that could befall a subterranean Victorian urinal, this has to be about the best outcome imaginable. A boutique coffee, lunch and cake place ...
It's called 'The Attendant' (which is a lot more lofty than many of the names that must have been touted). It's in London's Fitzrovia, very handy for BBC staff at nearby Broadcasting House. To be precise, it's on Foley Street at the junction with Great Tichfield Street. And it's not just the tiling that's original. The stalls and cisterns are all still in place ...
In case you are wondering, my cappuccino and carrot cake was good - the service is friendly - the place is well patronised. I'll certainly go again. Perhaps see you there!
This is a photo of one of the best bookshops I know - Gulshan Books, on Residency Road in Srinagar. They are publishers too. They have a wide stock - comprehensive about Kashmir but extending much more widely. And their publishing house has brought back into print many key titles about Kashmir's past, as well as supporting new research.
OK, so that's the shop as it was a few weeks ago - this is the shop as it is now ...
It's a gut wrenching sight. A business built up with such attention and care swept away by flood waters, and as much by the absence of any flood warning. The Rising Kashmir reports that as many as 40,000 books - some of them rare - have been lost.
This is perhaps almost trivial compared to the human suffering inflict by the floods - hundreds dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, communities ruptured. But this too is a grave loss to Kashmir, to its sense of itself - and this too is damage that needs to be made good.
A rare privilege this week, to see inside the Mildmay Club on Newington Green. A big barn of a building which has seen better days, but seems to be slowly, slowly bouncing back from the prospect of oblivion.
The Mildmay and a raft of other local radical clubs were in the second tier. Hardly any are still going. This club has had a chequered history, and only moved into its current home after the heyday of late-Victorian radicalism, but it's still hanging in there. Just. And there was something both sad and wondrous about looking round this time-locked sarcophagus of a club - thinking back to what it once was, and ahead to what it could become.
Hackney's appraisal of the Newington Green (North) conservation area - which focusses on such fine buildings as the nearby Unitarian Chapel established in 1708 - offers a potted history of the club (and I've nicked the photo from there as well):
The renaming of the club was a clear statement that it had abandoned its radical pedigree. But in earlier years, the Radical in the club's title meant just that. A local vicar complained of the club's 'pernicious influence' - radicalism at that time often went hand-in-hand with freethought. And Tommy Jackson, later a leading Communist, recalled with gratitude help from the club when an anti-Boer War street meeting at Highbury Corner came under attack. Barry Burke and Ken Worpole take up the story:
The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up: the Radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club (Newington Green) to act as ‘stewards’. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local S.D.F., who, when the fight started, were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting, the Socialists, led by their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them ‘with great slaughter’
Walking round the club, it's cavernous - on every floor. A snooker room, dark, slightly spooky, with a dozen or so tables ... a bar that's bigger than most pubs ... a big hall with stage, festooned as if for a 1960s talent night, which could easily take a couple of hundred ... a smaller hall in itself the size of many working men's clubs ... and at the top of the building, three (now empty) one-bed flats. There are city states, UN member nations indeed, smaller than this!
Once the Mildmay Club had a membership to match. Outside the hall, there's a large varnished wooden board listing the club's wartime casualties (at least, we think that's what it is - the top of the board has been obscured by a rather hamfisted renovation). There are close to four-hundred names.
And in the Conservation Area appraisal, there's a couple of grainy old black-and-white photos dating (it says) from about 1905, one of the theatre/hall and the other of the snooker room. Take a look:
It strikes me that, more than a century later, the snooker room may still have the same lino. If not, it's a close lookalike.
And the snooker hall - they should film Sherlock Holmes in here, and ghost movies, Edwardian thrillers ... it's eery, with a Martian-style greenish light intensified by the lime coloured walls.
There are still gas light fittings, adding to the spectral feel and looking sinisterly like secret police torture equipment.
Then the most macabre aspect of the room - the walls are lined with snooker cues in their cases, some locked into position. Dozens and dozens of them. In a snooker hall, where on Thursday night, just two of the tables were in use. Some have names and numbers inscribed in a style resonant of a bygone era. I am fairly sure quite a few must once have been wielded by players now seeking out record breaks in the greater snooker Valhalla in the sky.
And the bar? Well to judge by the meagre attendance last Thursday, if they sell twenty pints on a weekday evening they are doing well. Which makes you wonder whether this sign really is necessary ...
And I mentioned the tentative bounce back in the club's fortunes. Well, it's not going to be sold off for development - details here - and the club committee, whose orders are of course the last word, has had an infusion of new blood. Whether there's new signage to follow, well, I'll let you know.
Alys George was born a century ago this month. She was better known as Alys Faiz - she married the renowned Pakistani poet, journalist and activist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I met and interviewed her twice at her home in Lahore in the 1990s - and I am posting the audio of those interviews on this blog with the blessing of her daughter, the artist Salima Hashmi.
Alys was the daughter of a bookseller in the London district of Walthamstow. In the 1930s in London, she became politically active eventually joining the Communist Party, and got to know Indian nationalists and leftists in London. In 1939, she travelled to Amritsar to visit her sister Christobel, who married Dr M.D. Taseer, a noted Marxist thinker and educationalist. Two years later, Alys and Faiz married at Pari Mahal in Srinagar - with the nikah conducted by Sheikh Abdullah.
When I interviewed her in Lahore in October 1995, Alys reminisced at length about becoming involved in the British Communist movement ('I wanted to go to Spain but my parents said no'), getting to know Indian activists, coming out to Punjab and spending time in Kashmir. She recalled the tragic, cathartic violence which accompanied Partition, and spoke of her husband's ranguished poetic reflection on the manner in which India and Pakistan gained independence, 'Freedom's Dawn'.
Audio of Alys Faiz interviewed in October 1995, press the arrow below
I first met Alys Faiz a few months earlier, and talked to her then more briefly both about her memories of Partition, and her reflections on the then impending marriage of Imran Khan and Jemima Goldsmith, and what advice she might give the new bride:
Audio of Alys Faiz interviewed in June 1995, press the arrow below
The second time we met, I brought a long a copy of her book of letters to her husband when he was in jail, Dear Heart. My wife, Anu, was with me - her only visit to Pakistan. Alys signed the book to us both - a nice personal remembrance of a warm and courageous woman.
There is to be a centenary tribute to Alys Faiz in Lahore on September 20th.
Both interviews with Alys Faiz will also be posted in due course on the Partition Voices page of this website.
Alys Faiz (nee George) 22 September 1914 - 12 March 2003
The York Rise street fair - it's in Dartmouth Park, NW5 - is nothing grand. It's not on the scale of the Alma Street knees up in Kentish Town. But it is a really nice local get together - lots of stalls, food, entertainment, arts and crafts, bric-a-brac (I'm very happy with the badge I got today, see below), and local community groups from the Friends of Highgate Library to the Dartmouth Park Neighbourhood Forum.
And the badge? Here it is ... I imagine it dates from the 1975 referendum (yes, we had them even then) - the first time I voted.
The wording 'Common Market' tells its own story about the vintage - that's what the European Union was known as back in the day.
How could I have missed this for so long? A wonderful pane of window glass in what is now a pizzeria on Parkway, close to Camden tube station. It's the centre of three charmingly dated (I'd say 1950s if you pushed me) glass panels which once graced a camera shop.
Parkway has some magnificent shop fronts, notably Palmers 'Regent Pet Stores' - the business survives, though the property with the splendid signage is now a cafe. A quick web search didn't reveal anything about this camera shop - anyone know anything?
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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