Sunday 17 October 2021

More Travels With My Camera

American photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt famously said, “it is more important to click with people than to click with the shutter”. I agree with him. For me, a photograph is often the culmination of a longer exchange with a stranger who initially interests me because of their face, clothing or activity. This exchange may be short or can develop into a more sustained connection. There are people in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Delhi that I clicked with on my first visit who I now seek out each time I return. 

This could be because I am a lover of stories. Some of my best pictures have been taken after or while hearing about the lives of others. People will often reveal intimate things about themselves if someone shows interest, even a complete stranger. In return the photographer may be asked to share their story and when traveling I am often questioned about my family, work, and financial and marital status. 

My curiosity has led to unexpected experiences. I’ve been asked to sing in Hindi in a barber shop in Lucknow and also by a group of sweepers in a Mumbai street. I’ve been quizzed on Premier League football and the British Royal Family by tipsy agricultural workers in a remote part of Myanmar. In a Kolkata street quite a crowd gathered when a vendor refused to believe that I don’t have a car. His parting shot was: “if you don’t have a car then you are not from London”. 

Next week, my new exhibition, More Travels With My Camera, opens at the Jeannie Avent Gallery in East Dulwich, London.  It includes photographs taken in Cuba, India, Myanmar and Peru between 2017 and early 2020. In early 2020 international travel became almost impossible and is only now, beginning to recover. Myanmar has seen violent and ongoing political upheaval and in Cuba there have been the first anti-government demonstrations for thirty years. It may still be some time before it is possible to revisit some of the people pictured in More Travels With My Camera. Until then I hope my photographs will bring their stories to a wider audience.

More Travels With My Camera opens at the Jeannie Avent Gallery, East Dulwich, London SE22 9EU on October 21st and runs until November 2nd. The gallery will be open every day from 10-5 and 10-6 on Fridays. 

The images featured in this post are from a book produced to accompany the exhibition, also entitled "More Travels With My Camera". It contains 36 full colour pictures and the stories behind some of them. Copies will be available for purchase at the gallery during the period of the exhibition or by emailing 

Tuesday 31 August 2021

The Delineator - Art Deco Fashion Magazines of 1929

I recently became the proud owner of two, 1929 editions of the Delineator Magazine, a women's monthly fashion-focused publication, that ran from the late 19th century until 1939. During the 1920's the magazine adopted several Art Deco design features, especially on the front cover. Most of these were designed by American artist and industrial designer Helen Dryden, and it was her work that led me to my purchases. 

The emphasis on fashion was due in part to the sewing pattern company, Butterick being the publisher. The latest fashions received in-depth coverage every month with enough information for a competent dressmaker to be able to reproduce them. Many of Butterick's sewing patterns were featured in the magazine. Although fashion was the main focus, there were also articles on health, cookery, childcare, travel and social issues. The editorial team also took a strong interest in women's rights and from the beginning of the 20th century advocated for votes for women. There was also original fiction by prominent authors including Frank L. Baum author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and articles on the lives of public figures. The advertising included health, beauty and personal hygiene products as well as brands still popular today such as Heinz, Wrigley's and Campbell's.

The August edition demonstrates the magazine's interest in social issues. There is a lengthy article by Vera L. Connelly, promoting the idea of aviation as a career for women, whilst Anne Carol Moore of the New York Public Library contributed a piece on encouraging children to read. Moore emphasised the importance of parents reading with their children and recommended several authors for the very young, amongst them, Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane. The advertising includes Sal Heptica, touted as "a laxative for loveliness," Ponds cosmetics, hair removal products, corn preparations and Heinz Spaghetti.

The December edition carries several articles relating to the festive season including "What Christmas Means To Me" by Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, wife of the then President of the USA. The Christmas recipes section has various sweet treats - marshmallow mint sauce, tutti-frutti fudge and chocolate fruit patties. This may explain why elsewhere in the magazine there is a full page advert for Phillips Milk of Magnesia, useful for "...the gentle correction of digestive disorders and sluggish bowel action". Camay soap has a full page advert, asserting that it has the approval of "...73 of the most eminent dermatologists in America". For those who wanted a good read over the holidays, there is a serialised biography of Frances Parkinson Keyes and original fiction from Edith Wharton and Konrad Bercovici. 

Helen Dryden designed several of the Delineator's covers during the 1920's and 1930's. She was born in Baltimore in 1882 and displayed artistic talent at an early age, designing and selling clothes for paper dolls. Her customers included a newspaper that used them to illustrate its fashion pages. She later studied landscape painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts but on graduation chose to work in fashion design and illustration. She was initially rejected by Vogue but later produced several covers for that publication as well as for Vanity Fair and House & Garden. 

The 1925 Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative  and Industrial Arts inspired her to begin working in industrial design, especially lamps and tableware. By 1932 she had all but retired from illustration to concentrate on this new field and by 1936 she is said to have been earning $100,000 a year from her work. The New York Times claimed she was the highest paid woman in the USA at the time. In 1935, Raymond Loewy approached her and asked for her help in designing the interior of the 1936 Studebaker Director and President cars. Loewy designed the Coca-Cola fountain dispenser,  the Greyhound bus logo, the Gestetner duplicating machine and Concorde's interiors. Dryden was one of very few women working in this field at the time and attracted much media attention for her work. Her fame was such that the marketing materials for the cars included the phrase "It's styled by Helen Dryden". She worked with Loewy until 1940 but by 1956, things had changed and she was living on welfare. She died in 1972. The Delineator continued until 1937 when it was merged with the Pictorial Review. Two years later it ceased publication and disappeared from the news stands.

You might also like The Illustrated Weekly of India - 15th March 1936

Tuesday 22 June 2021

Close To Home - a new album from Ari Erev

"Close to Home tells the story of family members, close friends and familiar places to whom we relate and feel deep emotions towards" says Ari Erev of his fourth, recently released album.

His latest recording combines jazz with strong Latin influences and occasional classical hints, creating a soundtrack for a musical exploration on the subject of home. The music communicates a range of emotions including optimism, hope, melancholy and nostalgia. I am very familiar with the place that Erev calls home and from the opening notes of the first track I can almost see the Mediterranean sunset, taste the coffee in my favourite Tel-Aviv cafe and imagine myself walking the streets of that city.

An impressive group of musicians have been assembled for this album. Yuval Cohen plays soprano sax, Assaf Hakimi double bass, Gaspar Betoncelj drums and Gilad Dobrecky percussion. Flautist Hadar Noiberg guests on two tracks. They are a very tight ensemble as demonstrated on the opening track, Israeli Story. It features a musical conversation between Erev's super cool piano and Noiberg's flute, setting the tone for the rest of the album. One of eight original compositions, it builds slowly from an understated opening, culminating in some delightful exchanges between the musicians towards the climax. 

My other favourites include Afar, which Erev wrote for his daughter, Tal and Po (Hebrew for here). Afar is a mellow piece led by the composer with some impressive sax from Cohen and flute from Noiberg. Po, the final track sees Erev again joined by Cohen and by Assaf Hakimi on bass guitar rather than his usual double bass.

In addition to the original compositions there are five works by other writers. I often wonder how musicians choose non-original material for their albums and recently had the chance to ask Ari about his choices for Closer To Home. He began with a short answer "I like them a lot" before explaining that there is no specific reason for their inclusion. As part of his normal repertoire building he will play a song, experiment with different approaches and arrangements and if it works he will include it in performances or recordings. He said that Debora Gurgel's Para Sempre was included almost by chance. He recalled discovering the piece a few years ago, printing the charts and then forgetting about them until coming across them again a few weeks before recording Close To Home. He played the piece again and felt "an immediate click" hence its inclusion. Whatever the reasons for their inclusion, these tracks complement the original works and help carry the story being told by this album.

In addition to his having released four superb albums, Ari Erev is also a great and very engaging live artist. The first time I saw him play he performed several works of Bill Evans, who he lists as an important influence on him. That influence can be seen in Close To Home but he also has his own warm and engaging style, exemplified on each one of its tracks.  I hope to enjoy a live performance of this new work somewhere closer to Ari's home before too much longer. 

 You can hear clips from and buy Closer To Home here.

Sunday 30 May 2021

How To Be A Travel Writer

"Only describe something as breath-taking if you are writing at high altitude or interviewing someone with emphysema" warned Peter Carty. It was the first session of his online travel writing course and he wanted to demonstrate how the genre lends itself to cliche. He's asked us to identify examples of this and several other clunkers were put forward. I laughed along with my course mates but realised that in ten years of blogging and occasional contributions to magazines, I'd used many of these words and phrases myself.

I enrolled on the course during the most recent lockdown hoping to sharpen my writing skills and to improve my chances of getting published more widely. The course is designed to meet both of these objectives, has a very practical focus and offers continuing support at no extra charge. It consists of four sessions of two hours. They are spread across four evenings and combine information-giving, discussion and  short writing exercises to practise the skills being covered. The sessions are well structured, relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable and I quickly felt very comfortable speaking and sharing my work. Handouts of case studies and resource lists are provided to support the work done in the sessions.

The first two weeks concentrated specifically on writing, including choosing and researching subject matter, style and structure. Each of these areas was covered in depth and was accompanied by a short exercise. This led up to an assignment completed between the second and third weeks - a 500 word piece on a subject of our choice. It had to be focused, interesting and meet Peter's style and punctuation guide. This exercise replicates the requirements of potential publishers as well as Peter's strong emphasis on good writing. "If you want to torture me tie me up and make me read badly punctuated articles" he said. 

I wrote about a marzipan shop in Tel-Aviv. Sharing it with the rest of the group was a bit nerve wracking and of course, as my name begins with letter A, I ended up going first. Peter gave an initial response on ways of  improving our work, before providing more detailed written feedback. I enjoyed sharing my piece and it was helpful to hear the approach classmates had taken and to learn about places I didn't know, such as an historic pub in Saint Albans, a cafe in a working class neighbourhood of Warsaw and a river walk in north London.

The third and fourth sessions focus on getting into print, how and when to pitch to different types of publication, both hard-copy and online, marketing one's work and general advice on communicating with the travel industry. Again Peter emphasised the need for detailed research before approaching a publication. 

I completed the course feeling that my objectives had been fulfilled. I learned a lot about sharpening my writing and have been looking back on some of my earlier work and seeing how it could be improved. It has also made me feel more confident about pitching to a wider range of publications. I just hope there aren't any cliches or too many adjectives in this post.

More information

Peter Carty runs regular travel writing workshops. He also offers the course I took as a single day workshop. There is also the option of a six module distance learning course conducted over email with zoom meetings on request. Unlimited post course feedback and support is offered with each course. My course cost £115.

Thursday 13 May 2021

Do You Know Where Dhaka Is? - Adventures in Zakaria Street, Kolkata

The first time I visited Kolkata, I dumped my bags at the hotel and headed for Zakaria Street. The Kolkata Heritage Photo Project’s book “Calcutta Chitpur Road Neighbourhoods” had inspired me to explore North Kolkata and this busy street and the lanes leading off it seemed like a good place to start. 

Zakaria Street is at the centre of a predominantly Muslim area, famed for the magnificent Nekhoda mosque that stands at the junction with Chitpur Road. The mosque was built in 1926, can accommodate 10,000 worshippers and is intended as a replica of the Mughal Emperor Akhbar’s tomb in Agra. It is the city’s largest mosque and dominates the skyline of this part of Chitpur Road. The street is also known for its many food vendors, most of whom offer meat dishes. Although not suitable for a vegetarian like me, the stalls are immensely popular with locals and also attract a few tourists.

Mohammed Ishmail

Zakaria Street is relatively narrow and very crowded. Despite this all kinds of vehicles manoeuvre their way along it, delivering goods to the traders or picking up items to take elsewhere. Crossing the road can be a bit of a challenge as trucks, hand pulled rickshaws, tuk-tuks, humans and the occasional animal compete for space. It is a great place to observe and photograph Kolkata’s street life. I soon discovered that approaching people for portraits can result in a lengthy exchange, involving my answering many questions in what I now know to be a standard Indian style interview about where I’m from, what I’m doing in India, what my marital status is, how much do I earn and what do I think of the city. This is almost always accompanied by an invitation to drink tea purchased from a chaiwallah, one of whom is to be found on almost every street .

One such invitation came in a lane leading from Zakaria Street to Tarachand Dutta Street. I noticed a sign for a drycleaner’s bearing the service legend “Ordinary 4 days, semi-urgent 2 days”. No urgent service. A group of men were sitting in front of the sign and I asked if they wouldn’t stepping aside for a moment so that I could photograph it. “No problem” came the reply as Javed Uddin stepped forward, introduced himself as the owner of a nearby delivery business and offered me the obligatory chai. His friend’s daughter had been married the day before and he insisted that I also eat some sweets, left from the wedding. He asked me the routine questions and then said “do you know where Dhaka is?”. “Yes, it’s the capital of Bangladesh”. I replied. He seemed surprised and said “It is exactly that. It is also the name of that building. Dhaka House. This also belongs to me”, indicating said premises with a flourish. I sat for a while, drank my tea, ate some sweets and then got up to go. He insisted I drink water before leaving “it is a very hot day, you must drink” he said. He handed me a large bottle of water that he and his friends had been passing between them. Not wanting to appear rude I decided I would take a sip and managed to drink a little without putting my lips to the bottle and without pouring the contents over myself. A good technique and a steady hand is vital in order to do this.


After shaking my hand and checking I had his name, Javed advised me to be careful and said that if I had any problems, or if anyone gave me trouble in Kolkata, I was to come and see him. “I can help. I know people” he said. I photographed him standing beside a motorbike in the doorway to Dhaka House.  I was able to give him a copy of the picture a year later. It wasn’t my best work, but he seemed pleased with it.


Making my way into Tarachand Dutta Street I soon realised that the thing I was looking for was no longer there. I had wanted to see the art deco Krishna Cinema, a photograph of which appears in the Kolkata Heritage Photo Project book. It had been demolished. For a moment I wondered if I was in the wrong street. I checked with a sweet vendor who confirmed I was indeed in Tarachand Dutta Street and when I asked about the cinema, he very cheerfully said “that old thing has been demolished”.


On a subsequent visit I came across a covered arcade accessed by a narrow alley leading from the main street. An impressive gentleman wearing kurtha pyjama and an embroidered topi was sitting in the doorway of a tailoring shop. This was Mohammed Ishmail. He nodded a welcome to me and said that the shop belonged to him. He introduced a young man working over a sewing machine as Gulab, which is the Urdu word for rose. Mister Ishmael went on to explain that this was a family business and then seemed anxious to make it clear that Gulab was not a relative, saying in English “he is my servant”. Gulab clearly understand this and looked up from his work, affronted. Mister Ishmail noticed this and corrected himself, saying, in very formal English “that is to say, he is my employee”. The placated employee resumed his labour. I photographed them both and showed them the results. Gulab merely nodded but his boss laughed and said “look at me. I could be in Pakistan”. 

This part of Kolkata is home to other industries too. In one of the adjoining streets, dozens of workers sit surrounded by piles of discarded metal, wood and cardboard goods. All of these waste items, collected from across the city are dismantled and used to create tools, furniture and other items. There is the constant sound of hammering as old nails are straightened and made ready for re-use. Sparks fly from welding and huge coils of recycled wire are stacked outside workshops ready for despatch and a second life. 

It was in the midst of this noise and industry that I met Feroz. He was employed as a delivery man using a cyclo-rickshaw adapted to carry large loads to and from the recycling businesses. He had a shaved head, a dazzling smile and a sense of humour. He saw my camera and asked me to take his picture. Once done, he pointed at my head, laughed and said in English “you and me same to same” before laughing again and riding off before there was a chance to hear his story. I found him again a year later, but I hardly recognised him. He was sleeping on a charpoy at the side of the road. I only knew it was him because I showed his picture to a couple of porters who recognised him and took me to him. His hair had grown back but the smile was absent, and his eyes were dull. He smelt strongly of alcohol. Alcohol dependancy is a widespread problem amongst day labourers, many of whom come from other parts of India and live alone in the city without the support of their family. He managed a half smile and a “thank-you” as I handed him his picture before he returned to his charpoy and went back to sleep.


Recycling metal

Street vendor, Zakaria Street

The mosque is not the only interesting building here. There are several once elegant mansions, built by wealthy Marwari merchants after 1911 on land purchased from the Calcutta Improvement Trust. The mansions replaced slums inhabited mainly by poor Muslims, many of whom had come from East Bengal towards the end of the previous century. Today the Marwaris are long gone, relocated to smarter addresses in the south of the city or to other parts of India. Their former homes are rented out for both residential and commercial purposes and although there are hints of former glory, there is a general shabbiness to what remains. There are several hotels here, some of them sporting impressive names, such as the De Luxe Guest House and the Rajasthan Guest House. In Keith Humphrey’s excellent book “Calcutta Revisited”, he suggests that they are suitable only for “…the adventurous, desperate or impecunious”.  


Zakaria Street and some of the neglected mansions feature in Kunal Basu’s book “Kalkatta”. The hero lives in one of the old apartment buildings. The book tells the story of a Muslim family with a complicated background. The parents fled Bihar during partition and settled in the former East Pakistan, present day Bangladesh. In order to escape poverty, they obtain forged papers and return to India to make a new life in Kolkata. The son, Jamshed is the focus of the story as he struggles to fulfil his parents’ ambitions for success. Basu captures perfectly the atmosphere of the street with its overcrowded, once grandiose tenement buildings, the daily struggles to make ends meet and the city’s complicated politics.


I was last in Kolkata in September 2019. At the time there was no way of knowing that it would be impossible to return a year, or even two years later. Until the world changes again the only way to visit this, my favourite Indian city, is through the pages of books. For those who want to explore for themselves, some suggestions are listed below.

You might also like A Case of Mistaken Identity - The Story Behind A Photograph

Suggested reading

Kalkatta - Kanal Basu

A Strange And Sublime Address - Amit Chaudhuri

Calcutta, Two Years In The City - Amit Chaudhuri

The Epic City - Kushnava Chowdhury

Calcutta Revisited: Exploring Calcutta Through Backstreets And Byways - Keith Humphrey

Calcutta (Cities of the Imagination series) - Krishna Dutta

Calcutta Chitpur Road Neighbourhoods - Kolkata Heritage Photo Project

Kolkata Calcutta - Fionn Reilly

Monday 19 April 2021

A Case Of Mistaken Identity - The Story Behind A Photograph

I first met the man I now know as Dilip Ghosh in September 2017. As I walked along Beadon Street in North Kolkata I noticed a chaiwallah serving tea to a long line of customers. Those who had already been served stood chatting in groups or sat squeezed onto a long bench busy with tea drinkers. The chaiwallah was an impressive figure with his neat black moustache and hair and off-white shirt. His stall was in front of a bright green building. A deep red garland hung on the shutters behind him matching the colour of the cloth wrapped around the kettle's hot handle. I caught his attention, indicated the camera and received the slightest nod of approval. He continued working whilst I took several shots and then showed him the best of them. He nodded again and continued pouring tea.

I ordered a chai and stood to one side whilst he prepared it. Whilst I waited a neatly dressed man, perhaps in his sixties, stepped forward and insisted on paying for my drink before asking me the usual questions about work and family. He said that he had worked for a British company before retiring on what he described as a comfortable pension. He invited me to sit with him and told me that the chaiwallah, who did not speak English, was one Mohan Lal and that like many other people in Kolkata, he was originally from Bihar. I scribbled these details into my notebook and referred to them shortly after whilst blogging about my time in Kolkata. 


I returned to the city a year later and looked for Mohan so that I could give him the picture. It took three days to find him. On this occasion, I was accompanied by a guide who told him we’d been looking for him and that no-one in Beadon Street had heard of him. The reason for this soon became clear. His name is not Mohan Lal and he is not from Bihar. He is Dilip Ghosh and he was born in Kolkata. Not only this, he had lived all his life there and had no idea why my erstwhile friend thought otherwise. I handed him the picture which he admired for a moment  before calling to his wife and son to come and look at it. Mrs. Ghosh was very excited and took it to show to customers and neighbours before requesting a picture of her and her husband.


Between my second and third visits to the city, I staged a small exhibition of my photographs in a series of London venues and used Dilip’s picture on the promotional poster. He now displays it behind his stall beside the calendar he produces annually and gives to his regular customers.


There is an odd coda to this case of mistaken identity. In early 2021 I posted the picture on my Instagram account. It received a positive response with many likes and new followers, but I soon noticed a series of laughing emojis in the comments box, some of them posted alongside Dilip’s name. I began to worry that I’d made a mistake of some kind or that I still had the wrong name. I googled “Dilip Ghosh” to try to understand what was going on. It seems that my favourite Kolkata chaiwallah has a namesake, a prominent West Bengal politician. The thought of him selling cups of tea had amused many of his constituents.

You might also like Travels With My Camera 2020 - The Best Pictures

Monday 22 March 2021

A Mumbai Icon And A Disappearing World


It is thought that the first Parsees came to India between the eighth and tenth centuries, fleeing persecution in what is now Iran. Together with the Iranis, they are one of two groups practising the Zoroastrian faith. They have been extremely successful in India, particularly during the period of British rule when several members of the community achieved positions of prominence including in science, industry and the military. In recent decades their numbers have declined due to emigration and an extremely low birth rate.  However, their presence is still felt through their historical achievements, the remaining Parsi temples and the work of internationally renowned writers including Rohinton Mistry, Thrity Umrigar and Bapsi Sidhwa. They are also known for their famous cuisine. 


During the middle years of the 20th century, Mumbai was home to several hundred Parsee and Irani cafes serving authentic dishes including salti boti (mutton pieces cooked in a special gravy), fish patra, berry pulav and Parsee chapatis. Sadly, most have now disappeared, some have reinvented themselves as places to enjoy beer and snacks and a few have clung on to their roots. Café Britannia in the Fort neighbourhood falls into the latter category. Founded in 1923 by Rashid Kohinoor, a Zoroastrian immigrant from Iran, it was originally established to serve continental dishes to British officers during the colonial period. Rashid’s son, Boman eventually took over responsibility for the café and was an iconic presence there until his death in 2019 at the age of 97.


The name of the café was chosen because eating places needed to be licensed by the British and Rashid thought the name might encourage them to deal quickly and positively with the application. He was proved right and the café has been operating since then. Although not as elegant as it must once have been, it retains a certain charm with its peeling paint and beautiful bent wood chairs imported from Poland decades ago. Less charming although somehow endearing are the idiosyncratic rules and regulations displayed on the walls and on the menu. These include sensible stuff such as not allowing outside food to be brought in and a requirement to vacate seats as soon as you have paid to allow others to sit down. Others assume a more authoritarian tone. My favourite notice reads “Do not argue with the management”. I wish I’d thought of that when I worked with the public. It goes nicely with a favourite sign of mine seen in another Mumbai café that says “This place is for eating not meeting. Eat and go”. These notices can be found in most of Mumbai's Parsi and Irani cafes and as well as directing the behaviour of customers they have inspired at least one prominent Mumbai writer. The Bene Israel Jewish writer Nissim Ezekiel wrote the following after spending time in Bastani, another (now sadly closed) Irani cafe in south Mumbai. 


Do not spit

Do not sit more

Pay promptly, time is invaluable

Do not write letter

Without order refreshment

Do not comb

Hair is spoiling floor

Do not make mischief's in cabin

Our waiter is reporting

Come again

All are welcome whatever caste

If not satisfied tell us

Otherwise tell others

God is great

I met Boman Kohinoor twice, the first time in 2017 when I enjoyed a plate of his famous vegetable biryani accompanied by a sweet lime soda. He took my order, asked me where I am from and said, “I’ll be back”. A few minutes later he returned to the table saying “I’m back” before proceeding to show me a number of laminated press cuttings picturing him with Prince William and Kate Middleton as well as other articles about the café. He was a devoted royalist and received extensive media coverage when he was invited to meet the royal couple when they visited the city. The invitation came following his making a video appeal explaining how thrilled he would be at the opportunity to meet them. He continued to come and go from my table to speak to other customers, always saying “I’ll be back” and “I’m back” at the appropriate point before telling me a little more or teasing me about where I come from. “So are you from England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles or the United Kingdom” he asked me. I told him “London” and he agreed that this was a good answer.


Before I left, he asked me for three favours. I was to ask the Queen to visit Mumbai, to kiss the children of William and Kate next time I saw them and to come back and eat there again. The first two were beyond my ability and at least one would probably have got me into serious trouble should I have tried to do it. However, I did manage to return and to enjoy his food a second time. I was also able to give him a large copy of the photograph I had taken of him, proudly holding the laminated news clipping featuring the picture of him with the royals. His death was a sad day for Mumbai and for India, the end of an era and the loss of one of the few remaining links with old Bombay.

Saturday 13 March 2021

The Language of Thieves

London's Jewish Book Week (JBW) is one of the highlights of the literary calendar. Every year it attracts huge audiences who come to hear authors talking about their latest books and current issues of Jewish (and wider) interest. This year, for the first time, and for obvious reasons JBW took place online before a virtual audience. Whilst I missed the excitement of the live appearances and the chance to browse in the pop-up book shop I welcomed the chance to attend the festival from the comfort of my armchair whilst enjoying coffee and cake!

I watched several sessions but was so interested in Martin Puchner's book The Language of Thieves that I ordered a copy online whilst listening to him speak and then read it within two days of receipt. It tells two stories. Primarily a history and examination of Rotwelsch, a language spoken in Europe from the Middle Ages to the mid twentieth century, mainly by vagrants and members of the criminal class, it also tells a parallel story of his uncovering an uncomfortable truth about his family.

The author describes Rotwelsch as more of a sociolect than a language, that is a variety of language used by a distinct social group, in this case mainly homeless people. It enabled communication between its users who cam from different parts of Europe and also allowed its speakers to disguise their conversation and on occasion to evade the police. Puchner relates early childhood memories of men coming to the door of his family home, his mother giving them food and his being unable to understand much of what they said. His parents explained that these people lived on the road and spoke their own language. More than this, his father was able to explain some of the words to him, sparking a lifelong interest and eventual academic research into the subject. 

Although Rotwelsch was primarily a spoken and not a written language, its speakers left pictoral codes, carved into the foundation stones, fences and gateposts of houses. These signs, known as zinken, provided information for other people of the road about the possibility of receiving food from a particular house, places to avoid or advice on the kind of behaviour that might secure some help, such as religious piety or offering to work for food. Others can best be described as tags, symbols identifying particular characters a bit like those used by modern graffiti artists. I especially liked the idea of an image of a parrot being used by a man able to speak several languages. 

Rotwelsch borrows words from various sources, primarily Yiddish and Hebrew but also Romani, Czech and elsewhere. Hebrew speakers will recognise the words lechem (bread) ganeff (ganav in Hebrew meaning thief) and mackum (makom in Hebrew, meaning place) as well as many others. Examples of this are given throughout the book and there is a nice touch at the end of each chapter where the author gives a short lesson on different themes, enabling us to talk about the police, prison, making an escape or to take the American Oath of Allegiance in Rotwelsch. Through detailed research he discovers that although the language has almost disappeared today, there is perhaps a successor version called Yenish which is spoken in Switzerland and has a degree of official recognition there. 

Puchner is a Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He was born and grew up in Nuremburg, the site of the enactment of the notorious Nuremburg Laws, Nazi rallies and of course the war crimes trials at the end of the Second World War. It may come as no surprise that the Nazis were not big fans of either Rotwelsch or the people who spoke it. This was partly because of its use of Yiddish and Hebrew words but also because of the lifestyle and non-conformist behaviour of its speakers. What did come as a surprise to the author was finding out about his paternal grandfather's had involvement with the Nazi Party and his authoring of an anti-semitic tract about the use of names as racial markers. This unwelcome surprise, which turns out to have direct links to Rotwelsch instigates a painful search for more details of his grandfather's story and its impact on the family. 

Whilst listening to the author speak, I was reminded of other languages or sociolects that have served similar purposes. Both Polari, a kind of slang spoken mainly by gay men (but also by others) until at least the 1970's and Cockney rhyming slang have been used to disguise the conversation of its speakers and on occasion to evade the police. Both are in danger of disappearing.  

The Language of Thieves is a fascinating work that not only tells the story of the language and its speakers but also the context in which it grew, developed and eventually disappeared. The book is an important and eminently readable work of social history. It deserves a wide audience.

You might also like Best Reads of 2020 Part One Indian Contemporary Fiction   Best Reads of 2020 Part Two

Friday 26 February 2021

Picture Post 72 - Beautiful Watercolours From Myanmar

Sai Pyae Sone Aye is one of Myanmar's leading watercolourists. Born in Hkamti in the country's Sagaing region, he began painting at a very young age, receiving many prizes for his work. His original ambition was to be a cartoonist but over time he became interested in watercolours and began studying the format in 2014. 

His work includes both rural and urban landscapes of his stunningly beautiful but troubled country, with a number of recurring themes. These include the river Ayeyarwady, the iconic Shwedagon and Sule pagodas in Yangon and street scenes featuring the crumbling red brick buildings of the colonial period. More recently he has begun to produce portraits. Regular readers will know that I have a special affection for Myanmar and Sai's paintings perfectly capture many of the things I love about the place and I must admit to being the proud owner of two of his works. Sai identifies Khin Maung Than and Myint Naing as sources of inspiration for his work. 

Than is a particularly interesting character. He was born in Wetlet, Shwebo in 1942 into a family with artistic talents - his father was a goldsmith. He studied at Myoma School until grade seven before going on to the Mandalay Fine Arts School in the 1950's. He initially worked in commercial arts, producing film posters and graphic items and illustrating a number of novels and other books for high profile authors. He moved to a more fine arts approach in the 1990's and his work has been exhibited overseas a number of times.

Sai has had significant success both in Myanmar and internationally. His works have been exhibited in prestigious hotels in Yangon as well as in private galleries in the city. In 2019 he was selected to represent Myanmar at the International Triennial Watercolour and Spirit exhibition in Varna, Bulgaria. His works are available for sale. Enquiries should be directed to him through his website

All of the  pictures featured in this post are Sai's work and are currently available for sale at time of writing.

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Saturday 20 February 2021

Best Reads of 2020 Part Two

A recent Adrian Yekkes post featured reviews of some of my favourite reads of 2020. It focused on five great works of contemporary fiction, all of them by Indian writers. This post continues the literary theme with five more of my favourite books from last year.

Andrew Cartmel's Vinyl Detective series is perfect for me combining music with the detective work of the unnamed hero and his fabulous partner, Nevada. Low Action is the fifth title in the series and once again the pair accept a commission to track down a rare vinyl record, the pursuit of which inevitably leads them into trouble. This time they investigate a series of attempts on the life of an ageing rock star's girlfriend, whilst simultaneously searching for a rare album of the fictional disbanded punk girl group - the Blue Tits. Low Action sees the return of several old favourites including the afore mentioned ageing rock star, Erik Make Loud, free loader Tinkler and shaved headed cab driver Agatha. I am especially fond of Agatha who gets drawn into the trickier parts of the couple's work and is admired from afar by Tinkler. 

In Low Action, Cartmel works his usual magic, leading us through numerous twists and turns, developing his characters so that one feels they've known them for some time. The reader develops either a liking or disdain for each one, before reaching the final denouement which never fails to surprise. The series has great continuity with all the little habits and interests of the main characters maintained and developed with each book. The Vinyl Detective always has something to say about the quality of his coffee and Nevada can be relied upon to choose a great wine and to track down haute couture fashion in second-hand shops whilst simultaneously searching for the elusive vinyl. At the same time, there are always new subjects in his stories and trouble is sparked by all kinds of jealousies, resentments and grudges. It's worth starting at the beginning of the series if you haven't read any of them, but each title  can stand alone. Cartmel has also written a number of Doctor Who novels and novellas and wrote scripts of the TV series in the late 1980's.

Still on the subject of crime, I discovered the books of A.A Dhand for the first time last year. Amit Dhand's stories, set in Bradford look at crime through the prism of various social issues including religious and political extremism, corruption and poverty but without becoming didactic or cliched.

His detective, DI Harry Virdee is a complex character who resorts to unorthodox methods to solve cases. and this often lands him in trouble with his superiors This includes occasionally securing the help of his brother who is himself involved in the city's underworld. The books also have a sub-plot. Virdee is a Sikh married to a Muslim woman. Their marriage has caused both families to sever ties with them. These mutual prejudices are to some extent examined in each of the stories but are given particular attention in his most recent novel One Way Out. 

The first of his books I read was City of Sinners which left me hungry for more of his writing. Our hero is tracking a vicious serial killer bent on revenge for a perceived slight several years previously. Although he doesn't realise it at first, the grudge is somehow linked to Virdee and threatens to destroy his family. The tension builds to an almost unbearable level that kept me reading into the night, too worried to put the book down until I reached the end. 

Dhand grew up in Bradford and as a teenager helped his parents in their convenience store. His experience there was no doubt a rich source of ideas for the characters and story lines of his books. He went on to qualify as a pharmacist, a profession which he still practices full-time. There are plans for Streets of Darkness, his  first novel, to be made into a TV series. 

Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. It is an atmospheric tale of outsiders, misfits that the city needs but doesn't want. It centres on Tequila Leila, an Istanbul sex-worker, brutally murdered and dumped in a garbage bin in the back streets of the city. The first half of the book deals with what happens to her mind after death, where for ten minutes and thirty eight seconds her life passes before her as each memory is evoked by a different smell or taste - lemons, cardamom coffee, wood and even sulphuric acid. 

This device is used to take us through her life from her childhood in a small village to her escape to Istanbul where she becomes a prostitute and where her life is shaped through her relationships with her five best friends. All of them are, to some extent, outsiders. Jameelah is a Somali woman, brought to Istanbul by human traffickers. Zaynab122 (the number refers to her height) is a very religious refugee from Lebanon who is taunted for her dwarfism. Sinan is her best friend from childhood, Nalan is a trans woman and Humeyra has fled her abusive husband. 

This group inhabit what was once a very diverse city and the writer's affection for those times is clear. A couple of years ago I heard her speak about how her beloved Istanbul has been cleansed of much that made it both interesting and a refuge for the dispossessed.  Shafak describes the quarter in which she once lived as having a synagogue, an Armenian church, a Greek church, a Sufi lodge and a Russian Orthodox Chapel "between rows of licensed brothels" all within short distance of her street. Istanbul has also been cleansed of her presence as she now lives in the UK after having been prosecuted in Turkey for daring to refer to the Armenian Genocide in her work. 

The second half of the book deals with what happens to Leila's body after her death. Her friends are not happy to let her lay in an unmarked grave where those who die in the street or without relatives are dumped. They embark on an almost slapstick mission to bury her somewhere more fitting, avoiding pursuing police as they drive through the night in a stolen truck. This is a final act of friendship and an indication of how even in death the outsider will no longer find a welcome in the city. 

Shafak has a particular talent for enabling the reader to feel they are in the room with the characters. I especially felt this in the scenes in Leila's apartment and in the tension of the stifling life she lived in the village before her escape. The story examines some of her favourite themes - the treatment of women and sexual minorities, growing problems with religious and political orthodoxy and the rejection of difference. These subjects are also examined in her earlier works including The Bastard Of Istanbul, The Flea Palace, Three Daughters of Eve and Honour - all of them cracking reads.

Not many people can say that they won the Booker Prize with their first novel, but Douglas Stuart can. The Glasgow born, New York based fashion designer picked up the 2020 prize for Shuggie Bain the story of a young boy growing up in Glasgow at the beginning of the 1980's. The focus of the novel is Shuggie's relationship with his alcoholic mother Agnes and his attempts to save her from herself. In the early chapters his older brother and sister take responsibility for her but eventually leave in order to save themselves and so it's just Shuggie and Agnes from then on. 

Agnes is a fascinating character. Despite living on an isolated sink estate in what was then a decaying city, she is determined to keep a clean house, to wear only the smartest clothes that show off her figure at its best, to always attend to her hair and not to go out without getting made up first. All of this despite her growing reliance on the alcohol that takes most of her weekly benefit payments. There are brief moments of respite when it looks as if everything will be fine. From time to time Agnes and Shuggie decide they will be "new" and she stops drinking, but the city, her neighbours and her need for love are always going to be there to pull her back down.

As if this isn't enough for a young boy to cope with, he is also gay. His way of speaking, attention to his appearance and disinterest in the games of other boys lead to him being described as "not right" by friends, relatives and neighbours. They also make him vulnerable to abuse by adults and older children.

Whilst Shuggie and Agnes are the main characters, there are several other stories here. Her parents have a dark secret. The female neighbours on the estate are both jealous and secretly admiring of her appearance and most of them have stories of their own with husbands made redundant in middle age and destined never to work again but still having to maintain themselves and several children. And then there's the issue of sectarianism with religious affiliation governing who will be friends with whom and where they will live, or go to school. However, despite the misery of much of their lives, Agnes and Shuggie manage moments of humour and there were occasions when I laughed out loud whilst reading this. It's a great, albeit difficult read, and good to see a novel featuring authentic working class characters receiving the highest accolades.

Avi Luria, a 73  years old retired engineer who seems to be in the early stages of dementia is the hero of Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua's latest novel,  The Tunnel. Avi's memory loss is first alluded to when he forgets to collect his grandson from school and then has trouble remembering people's first names, including that of a woman he once had a brief affair with.

His wife Dina is a high profile paediatrician who wants him to remain active and intellectually engaged in order to slow the progress of the disease. She persuades him to return to his former employer, the Israel Roads Authority as a volunteer where he becomes involved in a supposedly secret project to build a military road in the Negev Desert. The project is hampered by the road needing to pass through the location of a hill at the summit of which are ancient Nabatean ruins. Not only this, the hilltop is home to a family living in Israel but who lack appropriate documentation to do so. The family claim to be trapped and unable to live elsewhere and so Avi develops proposals to take the road underneath the hill, a costly project that will bring many technical challenges. The project gives him a new lease of life but his family are troubled by his occasionally going missing and some of his former colleagues are against his ideas.

The tunnel is a metaphor both for Avi's dementia as his world narrows and slowly darkness begins to surround him. However, perhaps all is not lost and as Dina says "Does it matter what day it is, if there is love every day". The tunnel idea is also a reference to the ongoing political situation in Israel with opportunities for resolution narrowing but then there is always light at the end of the tunnel. 

You might also like Best Reads of 2020 Part One - Contemporary Indian Fiction or Essential Items And Other Tales From A Land In Lockdown - Stories From The Pandemic

Sunday 31 January 2021

A Place Full of Stories - East London's Novo Jewish Cemetery

The Novo Cemetery in Mile End is just a ten-minutes walk from my home. I have lived here for almost twenty years but it is only very recently that I "discovered" the cemetery through the Discovering and Documenting England's Lost Jews project. Established in 1733 and now tucked away within the grounds of Queen Mary University, the cemetery has been the resting place of some very prominent people. Champion boxer Daniel Mendoza was buried here as was Benjamin Disraeli whose grandson of the same name became Britain's first Prime Minister of Jewish heritage, famed comic actor David James (David Belasco) and Diego Pereira who served as financier to the Austrian Empress, Maria Theresa. It is fascinating to think that these illustrious characters were buried just a short walk from where I now sit.

Grave of Orovida Abigail Bensusan

It has also been the final resting place of the less well known, including tailors, rag merchants, quill pen makers and feather makers who lived and worked in the once predominantly Jewish East End and were eventually buried here. I wonder if any of the traders mentioned in my recent post on Sclater Street were laid to rest in the Novo Cemetery.


The graveyard itself has quite a story. In 1656, after an absence of almost 400 years, the presence of Jews in England was accepted but not officially recognised. In the same year, a small synagogue was established in Creechurch Lane in the City of London and in 1657 a piece of land was purchased in the then rural Mile End, for use as a burial ground. Over the next several years as this predominantly Sephardi community became more established and expanded in size a larger cemetery was needed and in 1726 an additional piece of land was leased for this purpose. A short distance form the original burial ground it was named the Nuevo (new) Cemetery and the former site became known as the Velho (old) cemetery. The first burials took place in the Novo in 1733.

Nature has begun to take over some of the gravestones

Over the next century London's Jewish population continued to grown and in 1855 it was necessary to purchase a further 1.7 acres of land to accommodate its needs. By 1899 the cemetery held about 9000 graves. At this point, the Sephardi community began to drift away from this part of London and a new cemetery was established in Golders Green. In 1906 the Novo was closed for adult burials and in 1918 for children. Despite this, occasional internments took place into the 1970's.

In 1973 about 7000 bodies were disinterred from the pre 1855 site and reburied in a communal grave in Essex, leaving about 2,000 graves in place. This was because the expanding Queen Mary College, now a University, required additional space and an agreement was reached between the Sephardi community and the College to transfer part of the burial ground to College ownership. Daniel Mendoza was one of those disinterred and this great Jewish and British sporting hero now lies unacknowledged in a shared pit.

Hands signify the grave of a Cohen 

A life cut short

Books may indicate that the deceased was a scholar 

Wandering through the cemetery on a crisp, cold winter's afternoon I was struck by how much cemeteries can tell us about the communities they serve and how many stories are waiting to be unlocked from them with just a little research. As already noted, the Novo Cemetery is a Sephardi burial ground and this is evidenced by the Spanish and Portuguese names marked on almost every one of the gravestones as well as by the tradition of laying the stones flat rather than upright. This is to remind us that regardless of our status in life, in death we are equal. Some gravestones carry visual clues to the lives of the deceased. An image of hands usually denotes that the person is a Cohen, that is, of the priestly caste and that they can claim to be descended from Aaron, brother of the the Biblical prophet Moses. Images of books may indicate that the deceased was a scholar or rabbi, whilst a tree or a tree being cut down means that a life was cut short. Candlesticks are sometimes carved into the headstones of women as a reference to their responsibility for lighting candles on Shabbat. 

Non-Jewish visitors may wonder why there are small stones or pebbles on many of the graves. Various explanations are given for this including the belief that the soul of the deceased remains near the body for a while after death and that rocks will prevent it from leaving too soon. There may also be practical reasons for this tradition. In Biblical times burials would take place under a pile of rocks rather than a heavy slab and so the placing of stones on graves in the modern era may be a reflection of this. Today it indicates that someone has visited the grave.

It is important to note that although all of those buried here are from the Sephardi community, not everyone came from Spanish or Portuguese family backgrounds. A whole row of graves is given over to the illustrious Sassoon family who originated from Baghdad in Iraq and became one of the world's foremost merchant families over several generations with business interests in  Bombay (today Mumbai), Shanghai and Hong Kong. Amongst others, Flora Sassoon, wife of David Sassoon founder of the dynasty and former leader of Bombay's once substantial Jewish community, (nee Farha Hyeem) is buried here.  

Grave of Flora Sassoon (nee Farha Hyeem)

Cemeteries have always been important sources of information for historians but today the little bit of information contained on a headstone can lead us on the most fascinating of virtual journeys via the internet. The stone pictured at the top of this post is that of Orovida Abigail Bensusan who died on 30th July 1912 aged 69. We can learn from it that she was the daughter of Samuel and Esther, that she probably never married (no other family name is given other than that of her parents) and the quote from Proverbs indicates that she was well thought of and did not need praise.

"Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her own works praise her in the gates". 

A little research reveals many interesting details about her and her family. Both parents were born in Gibraltar which remans home to a significant Jewish community today. Although I have not been able to find out when the family came to London, the 1871 census shows Esther, Orovida's mother, living in Lambeth. By 1881 she was living in Penge not far from the site of the Crystal Palace, which perhaps indicates that the family had become more prosperous. 

Although Orovida appears not to have married, according to the Ancestry website, she did have a child with one Abraham Corcos, a merchant born in Oran, Algeria in 1810. He was father to at least nine children, some of them born in Algeria and Morocco, and who had three different family names between them. Orovida and Abraham's daughter, Esther Corcos was born in London in 1873. Details of Orovida's life after the birth of Esther are sketchy until 1911 when it is known that was living in Stamford Brook, Chiswick with her niece Esther (daughter of Orovida's brother Jacob) and her niece's husband...famed French artist Camille Pissarro. Orovida was clearly a much loved aunt as the couple named their only daughter after her. Orovida Camille Pissarro was herself to become a distinguished artist studying with her father and then with Walter Sickert before rejecting their styles in favour of Chinese and other Asian techniques.  Her works can be found in the collections of both the Tate and the Royal Academy.

The Novo Cemetery is full of stories like that of Orovida Abigail Bensusan and whilst not everyone will have had links with world famous artists, discovering their personal histories will be  just as interesting. The website of the Discovering and Documenting England's Lost Jews project includes testimony from Jews with Sephardi heritage, more details about the history of the cemetery and stories of some of those buried there. The cemetery is open to visitors and is a short stroll from either Mile End or Stepney Green Underground stations.  

You might also like Sclater Street - full of history and a hot spot for street Photography or Whitechapel Library - University of the Ghetto