OK, a lifetime ambition realised. I've no idea why it took me so long.
I am now the owner of a Penny Black, the most renowned of all postage stamps (remember them?). It was issued in 1840 and bears a likeness of the young Queen Victoria. And it was the first postage stamp, establishing what remain the key elements of the Royal Mail and most other postal services, that the sender meets the cost of postage (before stamps were introduced it was the receiver) and that there's a standard charge, based on weight and size, for any domestic destination.
As a youngster I collected stamps, and I dreamt of having a Penny Black. In my dreams, I would hold the stamp firmly in my hand - imagining this at least made it possible that I would wake up with the prized item still in my grip. My parents once bought me as a present a Twopenny Blue - of similar vintage - which was very nice, and I still have it. But it doesn't quite have the magic of a Penny Black.
The stamp was not perforated but cut out of sheets - so, many have no or irregular margins. This is a nice one with all four margins in place. The Penny Black was withdrawn after a year or so because its black colour made it difficult to see whether the stamp had been franked and many were improperly reused. The Penny Red took its place (and is much more common), and the colour of the frank was changed from red to black.
This Penny Black is on a small size envelope and bears the frank date of 14th December 1840. I wonder if it originally contained a Christmas card? It was sent to Miss Goodbehere in Highbury, an address not all that far away from where I live.
All that makes me even more pleased to have achieved a childhood ambition.
Orange Street is one of the more hidden away thoroughfares in the heart of London. It runs at the back of the National Gallery - and the only building of any character that remains is the Orange Street Congregational church. It's a throwback to another era in any number of ways ...
The church has a rich history stretching across several denominations - including Huguenot and Church of England - and is now fiercely, fundamentally Protestant
The church's website sets down with stark clarity the tenets on which it operates -
We Believe: The Bible to be the inspired and true Word of God.
We Believe: That Jesus, the Messiah or the Christ, is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, and that He took our human nature upon Him in order that He might become the Redeemer and the only Saviour of mankind.
We Believe: While acknowledging God the Son to be the Living Word, that chosen men spoke therein as they were moved by God the Holy Spirit.
We Believe: That the personal visible return of the Lord Jesus in power and great glory, as part of God's great plan for the restoration of all creation to a state of harmony with His gracious will - is imminent.
We Believe: That in the matter of personal salvation there is no distinction of race. All races are dependent upon the saving grace of the Lord Jesus.
We Believe: That the descendants of Jacob, grandson of Abraham, are a distinct and separate people from those who call themselves Jews today.
The nation of Israel was divided into two Kingdoms, one was called Judah and the other Israel. Around 745-676 B.C. the Kingdom of Israel was taken captive into Assyria and never returned to Palestine and henceforth became known as "The Lost Tribes of Israel." History tells us their migrations from Assyria via Southern Russia through Europe under a variety of names such as Cimmerians, Goths, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Danes, Vikings and Normans.
We Believe: The true descendants of Israel are in the Celto-Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, Germanic and Dutch/Holland peoples in Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and America (A Great Nation) and the British Isles (A Great Nation and Company of Nations).
We Believe: The Royal Family is directly descended from the Line of David.
This belief that the British people and its royal family are descendants of the Biblical lost tribes of Israel - aka 'British Israelism' - is one of the more curious of the cul-de-sacs of Protestant belief. How remarkable to discover that it has an outpost so close to the centre of power.
UCL's Law Department is staging exhibitions to mark the centenary of the legislation which allowed women to qualify as barristers and solicitors. So they are commemorating women of distinction linked to law at UCL. And Sheela's aunt, Dorothy 'Dorf' Bonarjee, was the first woman to be awarded a law degree at UCL way back in 1917.
Dorf studied first at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth - where she achieved the remarkable feat for an Indian woman student (albeit brought up largely in Dulwich) of winning the bardic chair at the college Eisteddfod. She was a published poet - and Sheela still has manuscript and printed copies of many of her verses.
She went on to UCL - again accompanied by her brother, Bertie (Sheela's father) - where she made an indelible mark once more. Here's what the panel about Dorf at the dinner (and there will also be an exhibition at UCL's Bentinck House) proclaimed:
Dorothy Bonarjee - UCL Laws LLB 1917
The first woman to achieve an internal law degree from UCL
Dorothy Bonarjee was the first woman to achieve an internal law degree from UCL Faculty of Laws (1917). This achievement is particularly notable because the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which enabled women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates, was not ratified until 1919. This means that while she was pursuing her studies, women could not formally enter the legal profession. Additionally, other leading universities did not, at that time, admit women to degrees.
Dorf's father was a lawyer but she never practised in the profession - indeed she eloped with a French artist, Paul Surtel, perhaps to avoid the prospect of returning to India. She lived for the rest of her life in southern France. Sheela knew Dorf well, and indeed regarded her as something of a role model.
I've blogged before about Dorothy Bonarjee - indeed it was after the team at UCL googled her to try to find out more about her that they made contact with me. The dinner invitation ensued. And there's more about Dorf to come!
Priests and congregation at the annual mass at the Armenian church in Chennai, February 2019. Mike Stephan, a prominent member of the Armenian comunity, is on the left and next to him the Jesudian family. The priests are the Very Rev. Fr. Movses Sargsyan, Pastor of the Armenians in India and Rev. Fr. Artsrun
Here's the script for a piece I wrote and recorded for 'From Our Own Correspondent' on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. The introduction reads: In India there are still a few communities, much diminished in size, whose roots lie in the trading links which came with Empire. Andrew Whitehead has come across one such group in the southern city of Chennai which, for the first time in centuries, is growing in numbers again:
I didn't expect to see a baby in his mother's arms among the congregation. India's Armenian community - once conspicuous in commerce, though always modest in number - has been fading away for many decades. In Chennai, they are barely clinging on.
The city's serene eighteenth-century Armenian church holds just one service a year. It's the oldest church in what was once called Black Town - the place that became home for those not allowed to live in the British fort at the heart of what was then Madras. The place was one of Asia's commanding ports in that earlier era of globalisation and Empire. And the Armenian traders had money - that's reflected in the stylish design of this pocket-sized church, its large grounds, striking plaster cherubs and their bugles, and a separate tower complete with church bells cast in Whitechapel in London’s East End.
Two priests from Kolkata came over for the annual mass - a two-hour flight away, where the Armenian congregation can reach the heady heights of a hundred or more worshippers, at least at Christmas time. The clerics brought with them to Chennai the incense, ornate clerical headgear, capes and crucifix which are such essential parts of Orthodox worship. Even counting well-wishers and the curious - and I suppose I fit both descriptions - the number attending just touched double figures.
So the young family made up I guess a quarter of the congregation. The baby's name is Suren. His father, Kapilan, is an architect – Chennai-born and, he insists, 100% Tamil; his mother Ashkhen, with red hair and pale complexion, describes herself as Armenian through-and-through.
As is often the case with marriages across the frosted boundaries of race, religion, language and nation, there is a heart-warming measure of coincidence in this love story. Kapilan was so often told when a postgraduate student in Canada that his surname, Jesudian, sounded Armenian that his interest in the country was aroused; Ashkhen performed so well in Hindi lessons when she was at school in Armenia that she won a study trip to India, and on her return took on a role promoting links between the two countries.
When Kapilan arrived in Armenia as a tourist, Ashkhen showed him round. "He asked me if Armenia is safe" - she recounts, with feigned shock and amusement. "He's from India - and he asks if my country is safe!" When she was, in turn, invited to Chennai she was wary - "don't think I'm coming there to get married", she insisted. But a day before her return home, they got engaged. A white wedding followed, held in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Ashkhen found her first year in Chennai tough. She was hit by South India's ferocious heat and humidity. She missed her family, her language, her food, her favourite kind of coffee. Her husband is a Christian but the services at his Protestant church in Chennai didn't sound - or smell - anything like the orthodox worship she had grown up with.
Over time, she came through and adapted. She started teaching Russian and - with admirable entrepreneurial flair - worked as a business coach, offering Indian businesses advice on branding and on commercial etiquette when dealing with the Russian-speaking world.
That’s just one story. But there are more. Hundreds of Indian students now attend medical schools in Armenia. Ashkhen reckons that sixty or more Armenian women have married trainee doctors and accompanied them back to India. Suren is not the only youngster in Chennai with an Armenian Mum and an Indian Dad.
Not all the young Armenians in India cleave to the church as a marker of their identity – but they do network, and Ashkhen is now the regional coordinator of the India-Armenia friendship group. She’s worried about her son growing up in a culture where inter-racial marriages are still rare, and where anyone with a fair skin is likely to be seen and treated as an outsider. Chennai is no longer the cosmopolitan city it once was - but Ashkhen is determined to – as she put it – make herself comfortable there.
So for the first time in a couple of centuries, the Armenian community in India is growing. "If you want to find the bad things about India, you will", Ashkhen counsels her friends – and her clients. "If you want to find the opportunities for business, you can. There’re plenty."
Then she checks herself - looks at her husband - and declares with a laugh in her voice: "I sound just like one of those Armenian traders who came here back in the 1780s, don't I?"
It's difficult to disagree.
Even the most humdrum of street furniture sometimes warrants closer inspection. Take this lamp post on Great James Street on the north side of Theobalds Road. It bears the mark of one of London's lost localities, St Giles.
The Crossrail-bedevilled junction of Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road is known formally as St Giles Circus, though most would refer to the spot as Centre Point or simply as Tottenham Court Road tube.
The area takes its name from the wonderful eighteenth century Flitcroft-designed church of St Giles-in-the-Fields, itself simply the latest in a series of churches on this spot in a chain going back perhaps a thousand years. The church's website has a good account of the history of the building and of the area.
St Giles was known in the mid-nineteenth century as a rookery, an area of cramped and insanitary housing. It was also the home of skilled artisan trades and a hotbed of the radicalism associated with such occupations. Inside the church there's a blue plaque for a prominent radical George Odger, moved here when the nearby house on which it was initially installed was demolished.
The church and the adjoining (and warmly recommended) Angel Inn are about the only buildings of any antiquity on what remains of St Giles High Street, now sadly reduced to little more than a stub of the road it once was. I am surprised that St Giles ever had a Board of Works, and even more surprised that its remit extended to Great James Street, perhaps half-a-mile away and (I am fairly sure) in the parish of St Andrew's, Holborn.
Great James Street would, from 1900, have been part of the Borough of Holborn, which in turn became part of the London Borough of Camden in the mid-1960s. But it's so nice that this street souvenir of St Giles survives.
This is the wonderful inscription in a first edition of Henry Mayers Hyndman's The Historical Basis of Socialism in England, published in 1883. Hyndman - a Tory and a toff by background - was the key figure in the socialist revival in England in the 1880s. He popularised (and bowdlerised) some of Marx's writings and was the swashbuckling key figure in the establishment in 1883 of the Social Democratic Federation.
Hyndman was a flawed and controversial figure - a jingoist (his support for Britain's involvement in the First World War split the party he led, by then renamed the British Socialist Party) and an anti-semite. But he was crucially important in the development of a socialist political party.
One of the SDF's areas of strength was Islington. This book was presented to Hyndman (I assume by 1906 the first edition was difficult to come across) by the SDF's four Islington branches.The inscription was signed on the branches' behalf by A.P. Hazell, a printer who joined the SDF in the mid-1880s and who sometimes signed letters in the party press as ''summat stronger of Clerkenwell".
A few years later, Hyndman gave the book to his wife, with the fond inscription you can see above.
Perhaps that's why on the Brecknock Road estate in north Isington there is, to this day, a Hyndman House -
Indeed, the names of the blocks on the estate offer homage to socialists of ages past - with buildings named after Hyndman's onetime colleagues in the SDF, H.W. Lee and Harry Quelch (or perhaps his son Tom), as well as such prominent figures in the progressive pantheon as William Morris, Edward Carpenter, William Cobbett, William Blake, Henry Hetherington, Thomas Paterson and Beatrice Potter (or perhaps the trade unionist George Potter), along with some whose names I don't recognise.
And happily, the Hyndman first edition presented to the author by the Islington branches of the SDF is once more back in Islington - where I live.
The wonderful Old Church on Stoke Newington Church Street was the venue over the weekend for a book launch - part of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. The volume is about a son of Stoke Newington, the novelist Alexander Baron, best known for his D-Day novel From the City, From the Plough and his cult classic of post-war Hackney, The Lowlife.
Six Baron enthusiasts have come together in So We Live: the novels of Alexander Baron to examine aspects of his life and writing. We were joined by Muriel Walker, who is 92 and worked alongside Baron in the late 1940s on the journal 'New Theatre'. She read from a letter Baron had sent her in 1949 when she was in Italy - where Baron had served during the war.
The launch was a great success with a hundred or so people packing the church pews. And lots of books were sold.
So We Live is published by Five Leaves - and they have also just published four of Baron's novels, three of them republications and in one case, The War Baby, the first publication of a powerful novel set amid the International Brigades fighting Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
The Boston Arms - that gothic monstrosity of a pub opposite Tufnell Park tube station - is having a makeover. And some of the signage from its heyday, engraved on wooden board, has come to light - probably for the last time.
The pub was then known as the Boston Hotel, and the grandeur of the signage - not just engraved, but the lettering highlighted in gold paint against a lilac backdrop - p0ints to just how splendid this local landmark once was.
Some of the wood on which the signage is painted seems to be rotten - and I suspect it is being removed as part of the renovation.
The Boston is, these days, a hard drinking, Hibernian, sports-on-big-screen sort of place. It has a leading music venue, The Dome, in premises adjoining which were once the Boston's own music rooms (and much earlier, I believe, were dance rooms known as the Tufnell Park Palais).
The pub has been at the heart of Tufnell Park - iconic, in a sense - since it was built well over a century ago. This vintage postcard, showing Junction Road with only cycles and horse-drawn transport - must date from shortly after the Boston Hotel opened in 1899.
The Boston Arms is grade 2 listed - and some of the signage has a wonderfully dated feel. Why would anyone advertise 'foreign wines'? Where would punters imagine the wine came from?
For these relics of the past - "time's up, ladies and gentlemen please!"
I am just back from Delhi, where I was a regular panellist commenting on the elections for WION, one of India's best TV news channels. It was fairly full on - but I managed to take a couple of hours off to go to Hauz Khas Village, where I was able to pick-up this remarkable print.
It's a wonderfully stylised portrayal of a meeting - clearly in London - between M.K. Gandhi and the King Emperor George V and Queen Mary. You can see how the diminutive Gandhi is portrayed as the biggest figure in the room. Indeed, his chair appears to be the more imposing 'throne'. This is not simply cheap agitprop, but there's certainly an Indian nationalist message evident.
I wondered at first if this 'interview' was mythical - much like Queen Victoria's visit to India. But I discover that in November 1931, while in London for the Round-Table Conferences, Gandhi was indeed invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the King.
Gandhi was reputedly asked whether he felt under dressed for a visit to the Palace - he is said to have replied that the King was wearing enough for both of them!
It seems that no photographic record was made of this Gandhi-Emperor encounter - allowing the artist responsible for this image free rein. Gandhi was accompanied to the Palace by Sarojini Naidu - there's a decent likeness of her in the print - and by his personal secretary, Mahadev Desai.
But it seems to be not Desai who is represented in the print but another Congressman, Madan Mohan Malaviya, who was certainly present at the Second Round Table Conference - he's shown next to Gandhi below - but I'm not at all convinced he was at the Palace. Anyone know?
Sandiya is thirteen and she runs quite the most unusual roadside stall I've come across.
She sells cattle feed - both greens and grain - in small quantities to motorists and scooter drivers who stop off here and spend twenty or thirty rupees on a bunch or bowl-full of nourishment. They then give that to the cattle waiting all around (and the ever grateful pigeons) apparently to get the benefits of a good deed - cows of course are revered within Hinduism.
Business is brisk - I've passed by quite a few times and there's usually someone either buying or dispensing the feed. The stall is close to a car park serving people using Mayur Vihar Extension metro station in Delhi - though many of Sandiya's customers seem to come on scooters and to be regulars at the stall.
It seems a strange combination of livestock management and devotionally-minded benevolence. But, hey, it works!
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