Showing posts with label London. Show all posts
Showing posts with label London. Show all posts

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Looking back on a London century

A century separates these two photos taken at exactly the same spot in a northern neighborhood of London.



The older lady was Martha Watson [1837-1915], while the young woman is Martha’s great-great-great-granddaughter Indiya Taylor, born in Australia. The following chart indicates that Martha’s married name was Mepham (which was loaded onto my unfortunate father as a second given name):


The second child, Eliza Jane Mepham, married a certain William Skyvington, as indicated in the following chart:


Their only child, Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], went out to Australia in 1908 on a steamship named the Marathon.


Ernest, who was Indiya’s great-grandfather, became a prosperous businessman in Grafton (NSW), where he started up the Ford automobile dealership.


He once revisited the Old World and his native London in the company of his daughter Yvonne. In Paris, my wife Christine asked Pop (as we called him) to name the place that had most impressed him during his world tour. His reply: “Burleigh Heads.” That was the town on Queensland’s Gold Coast where he had been living in retirement for a decade or so. Pop had a great sense of humor, and that was his way of telling us that there’s no place like home. But the address that Indiya tracked down a few days ago was indeed Pop’s true home throughout his adolescence in London.


With technical assistance that I had obtained from historical authorities in London, Indiya was able to discover the quiet dead-end section of Mount Pleasant Crescent (called Mount Pleasant Road in Pop’s time) where the old Mepham house is currently numbered 72.


I’m amused by the symbolic aspects of the following photo, in which my lovely niece appears to be narrowing down her search for origins, while looking back upon a London century.


Incidentally, I should have normally published by now my genealogical book that talks about our London origins (amongst many other aspects of our family history). Its cover will look like this:


Publication is delayed, however, by fascinating last-minute news that I mentioned briefly in my recent post entitled White lies of men in love [display]. The potential “white liar” in question is the man whose name appears in the upper left-hand corner of the second chart: my great-grandfather William Skyvington. I’m hoping that the friends who have kindly revealed this curious affair—the Courtenay family in the UK—will be convinced that the only way of elucidating this enigma is to call upon modern science: namely, a Y-chromosome genealogical test.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Australian expatriates in London

When I was a science student at Sydney University in the '50s, the future celebrated author Robert Hughes [1938-2012] was studying architecture. The following photo shows Hughes more or less as I remember him, physically, in those days.


Admired as an outspoken dashing dandy on the campus, he was known above all for his comic strip in the university weekly Honi Soit. The main character was a student, like Hughes, attired in a duffel coat and shoes with thick crepe soles (the winter fashion at that time). I forget the theme of Hughes's comic strips, but it was no doubt related to the major enemy of university activists at that time: the much-maligned apathy of their fellow students. The greatest insult an intellectual could hurl at other people was to describe them as zombies overcome by apathy, unconcerned by politics, society, art, sex, etc. I've often wondered if these comic strips have survived in the university archives.

It was hard to imagine that Bob might have evolved into the excruciated spectacle of Bill Leak's astounding portrait:

Robert Hughes — Nothing if not critical 2001
by Bill Leak [1956- ], National Portrait Gallery

In the wake of Hughes's death on 6 August 2012, the media have often evoked the theme of celebrated Australian expatriates in London. Besides Hughes, four inevitable names appear:

Left to right: Rolf Harris (82), Barry Humphries (78), Germaine Greer (73) and Clive James (72).

Today, I believe that Australia has a champion expatriate in London:


The audacious style in which Julian Assange addressed Britain, Sweden and the US from a pulpit above the heads of the bored bobbies—waiting like vultures on the off-chance that he might fall down into their claws—was most spectacular.

I'm trying to imagine an escape scenario that would involve Julian's getting picked up from the London rooftops by a helicopter, before being let down in a nearby London park where a waiting automobile would take him down to the East London docks, where he would board secretly a ship leaving for Ecuador....

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

King save the God

They're colorful creatures. Kept in a domestic cage, fed periodically on spiritual tidbits (cereal wafers and cheap wine, with holy water when the weather's hot), they're most often trouble-free, and their upkeep can even be fun when you show them off in front of friends on Special Occasions. But, believers are faced with an alarming question: Might these splendid specimens be an endangered species in modern Britain?


[I make an effort to refrain from all superficial ironical remarks concerning the mating habits of the red variety, and the dangers of allowing children to play with them. As for the violet variety, thankfully, it has always been sexually vigorous.]

Strident Richard Dawkins has just thrown a spanner in the works by his organization of a most serious survey on British religiosity [access]. You can be sure that, in the future, we'll be hearing a lot about these marvelous findings.

I've never met up with Dawkins, but he has become my unchallenged scientific and literary hero of all times. What would I need to do in order to persuade him to organize similar simple (?) surveys in lands that I love such as Australia and France?

In the case of Australia, I'm aware that Dawkins might need some time to get over this fabulous face-to-face encounter with a local elected lad, Steve Fielding, a "Strine craishonist": laughing-stock of the wide world beyond Down Under, and a symbol of self-sufficient idiocy in the face of intelligence.


Do fellow-Australians still in fact support today, by their votes, this embarrassingly empty-headed nincompoop named Fielding?

I'm impressed by this fabulous photo of dark clouds over Southwark Cathedral on Australia Day 2012 (Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly):


Nothing suggests that any of my ancestors might have ever been lost in spiritual bewilderment before the image of this southern London religious edifice. The Pickering people were all from thereabouts, originally, and particularly pious in various ways. But I'm not convinced that any of their long-departed souls might be disturbed today by Dawkins. On the contrary, I often tend to rediscover the fabulous reality of our genealogical and biological ancestors through Richard's instigation to marvel in the apparent mysteries of our fleeting window on the Magic of Reality [access].

Monday, August 8, 2011

Jingle cash bells

Regular readers of my Antipodes blog will have noticed that I often go out of my way to give a friendly helping hand to needy causes that appear to be worthy of my patronage.

So, that's why I've decided to throw in this small plug for a time-honored department store in London. In using the adjective "needy", I must admit that I'm merely judging the present state of this prestigious shop on the basis of a somewhat disturbing news item… although I must add that I haven't had time to drop across to the other side of the English Channel to verify personally this news. Apparently they've decided to install, at the height of summer, their Christmas 2011 displays. My only guess is that they're desperate for cash, and that their dire straits force them to adopt this incongruous marketing solution.

I'm particularly enticed by a delightful article that is indeed presented on their Christmas 2011 web pages [display]. I'm talking of a deluxe version (a little less than 80 quid sterling) of Freddie, the Harrods 2011 Christmas Bear. I'm thinking of ordering a specimen in the next few days—before the store runs out of bears—so that I'll be able to send it out to my Australian family in December. I reckon that a Christmas bear that can be acquired in the Old World at the start of a sultry month of August will be just right for transportation to Australia during the sweltering Antipodean celebrations of the birth of Jesus.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ratzinger is an enemy of education


Watching this amateur video of Richard Dawkins standing up in a London crowd and speaking out against the pope, I was immediately reminded of the great Bertrand Russell, back in the Cold War days, addressing the throngs at Trafalgar Square on the dangers of nuclear weapons.



A major scientist such as Russell or Dawkins, speaking his mind publicly and brilliantly on fundamental issues, demonstrates a marvelous British tradition of outdoor oratory. It's the Speaker's Corner at Hyde Park, but with beautifully simple and powerful words worthy of Winston Churchill in wartime London. In decades to come, I'm sure that people will be using the Internet (or whatever system has replaced it) to hear and admire the Dawkins anti-papist speech of Saturday, September 18, 2010.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An ancestor who published Cinderella

Yesterday, I wrote about my great-grandfather William Skyvington, who must have spent a particularly nasty period of six months in a notorious London prison. Even to be able to lie down there on something looking vaguely like a bed, you had to have friends on the outside with money, to purchase that privilege… otherwise you spent the night sitting around with crowds of poor inmates on the freezing muddy floors of the jail's stinking rat-infested cellars. And that was just over a century ago, in the grand capital city of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, my great-grandmother Eliza Mepham, aged 34, was dying of tuberculosis behind the façade of this posh little house at 16 Marriott Road in northern London.

As for my future grandfather Ernest Skyvington, cared for by his Mepham aunts in another house, he carried on going to school in Woodstock Road, probably unaware that his father was in jail.

He once told me that his constant dream, at that time, was to get aboard a cargo ship of the kind on which his uncle William Mepham was a captain, and to sail away to the Antipodes… where he would be able to ride a horse through the bush. In 1908, the 17-year-old lad finally found such a ship, the SS Marathon, whose master was a colleague of Captain Mepham.

The SS Marathon reached Sydney six weeks later... which meant that it was quite a rapid vessel for that epoch. Ernest Skyvington set foot in Sydney on Christmas Day 1908, and William Mepham and his wife Gertrude Driscoll were waiting on the wharf to welcome the young man to his new land. The Mephams lived at Rushcutters Bay, which was the site at that time of Australia’s best-known boxing stadium. The fighters Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson were to meet here on Boxing Day 1908 (an ideally-named day) for the world heavyweight title. That Saturday, Ernest woke up on Australian soil for the first time in his life, and it so happened that he was rambling around in sunny Rushcutters Bay at the moment that Burns and Johnson arrived at the stadium. But the boy from London did not yet have enough money in his pocket to pay for a seat at such a boxing match.

Today, as an outcome of lengthy Google searches, I discovered a lot of interesting stuff about a Londoner in the ancestral line of my paternal grandmother. I'm speaking of John Harris [1756-1846], who was my 4xgreat-grandfather. He was a publisher, specialized in children's books, with a bookshop alongside St Paul's Cathedral, seen here:

I was thrilled to learn this afternoon that he had published a wide variety of high-quality works, many of which can be downloaded today from the Internet. One of the nicest publications I found was his Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper (John Harris, London, 1827), which contains beautiful hand–colored woodcuts.

The Cinderella story is so familiar that we can more-or-less figure out what's happening for each of the following woodcuts:














These splendid illustrations remind me of the celebrated Epinal images created in France by Jean-Charles Pellerin [1756-1836], who was a contemporary of John Harris. I have spoken already of this famous French tradition of simple and colorful graphic work in my article of 6 March 2007 entitled Epinal images [display] and in my article of 17 May 2007 entitled Upside-down world [display].

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stuff called spam

I went to live and work in the UK in December 1962... at a time when an obscure musical group called the Beatles was starting to become popular up in Liverpool.

The 1962-63 winter was harsh, and I could never figure out why anyone would want to stay in such an environment. Brits were then offered spectacular spring entertainment in the form of the Profumo affair, featuring personages straight out of a James Bond novel.

At the end of June 1963, I decided that my six months with IBM in their Wigmore Street headquarters had been more than sufficient as an experience of life in Britain. So, I returned to France.

The reason why I'm talking about my first and last stay in the UK is that I'm obliged to make an amazing confession. During those six months in London, I never got around to eating spam. Worse than that, I hadn't even discovered yet, at the ripe old age of 23, that such a strange foodstuff as spam existed. I had learned to appreciate English delicacies such as fish and chips, cold pork pies, etc, but the spam phenomenon somehow escaped me. In fact, during my stay in South Kensington, I usually ate in Italian, French and Indian restaurants.

Years later, I returned to England for a few extended weekend visits, assisting a French girlfriend from Paris who organized tours. We were lodged in cheap hotels, and fed in standard tourist restaurants.

And that's when I finally discovered the famous canned meat called spam, produced by Tulip in Denmark under license to the Hormel Foods Corporation. It was hilarious to see intrigued French tourists in an English restaurant, trying to identify the exact nature of the mysterious ham-like product they found in their plates. The Internet did not exist then. Today, we can visit the official Spam website. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia page on the Spam foodstuff indicates euphemistically that most pejorative uses of the term spam evoke "undesirable repetition". Readers hear of the Monty Python masterpiece that no doubt launched the concept of spam throughout the civilized world.



As of today, we're privileged to have free legal access through YouTube (authorized by the copyright owners) to many of the great Monty Python sketches.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Big Banksy is watching you

This is the most recent and probably biggest ever work, on a post office wall in central London, of the secretive British graffiti artist Banksy [about whom little is known]:

[Click the image to visit Banksy's fascinating website.]

It depicts a small boy on a ladder who is finishing a huge sign—whose message is "one nation under closed-circuit television"—while a security agent and his dog stare up at him. Banksy created this painting in April. He worked so rapidly and stealthily—first erecting three-story scaffolding during the night, and then concealing himself behind a plastic sheet while he did the painting—that nobody was aware of the artist's presence before the work was completed and unveiled. The most amusing aspect of the affair is that the area is watched over by a TV surveillance camera, which can be seen in the middle of the wall.

Unfortunately, dullish London authorities consider that such a work must be thought of as vandalism, and Banksy's masterpiece will therefore soon be painted over.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mind the gap!

Readers who haven't had the privilege of being jolted around in the London underground train system will need to know that the gap in question lies between the doors of carriages and the edge of the platform. Its width varies from one platform to another, even from one part of a platform to another. And passengers who forget to "mind" this abyss stand the risk of falling into the depths of subterranean London, and maybe breaking an arm or a leg. So, that's why the transport authorities hired a woman named Emma Clarke whose delightful voice floats out constantly, from one end of the underground network to the other, warning passengers of this danger. She also chatters on nonstop about all kinds of trivial things, as if traffic would grind to a halt were it not for all this verbiage. Emma Clarke tells you, for example, that you must stand on the right-hand side [if I remember correctly] of escalators. She informs you that volunteers are collecting money for such-and-such a worthy charity, just as she lets you know that pickpockets have been sighted in such-and-such a zone.

Personally, accustomed to the quiet and smooth métro in Paris, I'm horrified by the noisy London underground. Besides, their stylized maps are far removed from geographical reality, the color-based signs associated with the various lines are meaningless for newcomers, and the basic system for designating itineraries—using directional adjectives such as northbound and southbound—is poorly conceived. In other words, I look upon the London underground as an uncomfortable mess... almost as antiquated and unpleasant as Sydney's trains.

But let me return to Emma Clarke. Having attained celebrity status, she started her own elegant website, with all kinds of unexpected goodies:

Now everything would have been fine, and Emma Clarke would have continued to expand into a bigger and more sophisticated media business if only she had remained a serious young lady, respectful of her employer and her audience. Alas, Emma started to crack jokes on her website. For example, she made a fake public announcement to inform US tourists that they're talking too loudly. And other cheeky things. Well, London Transport doesn't seem to share Emma's sense of humor. In any case, they've just fired her.

Having reached this point in my presentation of the wonders and woes of Emma Clarke, I hasten to add that there might not be a word of truth in all that I've just been saying. Maybe the charming voice of the alleged female is the synthetic audio output of a robot. Her existence could well be a gigantic hoax conceived by smart marketing people and computer experts at London Transport, with the aim of smoothing the edges of their rough network by introducing an imaginary feminine touch. Be that as it may, I'm obliged to point out that my disparaging remarks about the London underground were, of course, totally false. Just ask a typical Londoner and he'll tell you that their trains are the finest service in the universe... even better than Sydney's fabulous system.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Paris to London by train in two hours

In London a few weeks ago, I was greatly impressed by the splendid transformation of the old St Pancras station, which will soon replace Waterloo [after 14 November] as the terminus of the Eurostar link with the Continent.

The modern rail section between the English Channel and London is referred to as High Speed 1, because it is Britain's first line capable of supporting high-speed trains of the kind that have been crisscrossing France regularly for years. This morning, a train pulverized the speed record between Paris and London. Two hours and three minutes! These two great cities are so totally different in ambience and style that it will be an amazing thrill to be able to leave one and set foot in the other a couple of hours later.

PS When I reread that last sentence I've written, I find it so trite and obvious that it almost deserves to be classed as what the French call a lapalissade. Monsieur de la Palice used to make declarations of the following kind: "No more than an hour before she died, the poor lady was perfectly alive!" A good modern example, from John Howard's Texan mate: "I think we agree: the past is over."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pop's epoch

We always referred to our paternal grandfather, Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], as Pop. That was a nice name for a grandfather back in the days when the word "pop" had not yet become a banal adjective as in "pop music". Today, if children were to refer to their grandfather as Pop, people would immediately imagine the old man as a Beatle.

If the younger generations of Pop's descendants were asked to put an adjective upon the 17 years he spent in his London birthplace before setting sail for Australia, some might be tempted to say Victorian, or even Dickensian. The latter term is rather anachronistic, since the image of Oliver Twist had disappeared from the London scene—except for special cases such as the poor London urchin who would become Charlie Chaplin [1889-1977]—long before my grandfather's birth in a well-to-do northern neighborhood of the city, Finsbury Park. As for saying that Pop's London days were Victorian, this is not wrong, since the great queen died in 1901, when Pop was ten years old [two years after the death of his own mother]. But, to describe the few adolescent years that Pop spent in London before leaving for the Antipodes, the most appropriate adjective is surely Edwardian. Besides, the atmosphere of his youth is excellently described in this delightful book [which can be purchased through Amazon], written by a former London policeman, slightly younger than Pop, who went to the same school as Pop in Woodstock Road, Hornsey:

The title of Rolph's book comes from a quaint "pea soup" passage of Bleak House by Charles Dickens [1812-1870]:

I asked him whether there was a great fire anywhere, for the streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen. "Oh dear no, Miss," he said. "This is a London particular." I had never heard of such a thing. "A fog, Miss," said the young gentleman. "Oh, indeed," said I.

London is indeed a particular city. It is a great and moving place, like Paris or New York. But nothing, in that metropolis, is as elsewhere. Everything in London is particular.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

End of English excursion

In my article entitled Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display], I described my delightful Friday, 3 August 2007, in the sunny village of Blandford. There, while downing a pint of Guinness in a local pub, and feeling far away from France, I picked up a newspaper with an amusing story on the relationship of the English with France, or rather, with the French language:

According to a recent BBC survey, it was found that French remains the most frequently studied foreign language in British schools [taken by 85 per cent of students]. But it would appear that most adults, following five years of foreign language classes, remember an average of no more than seven words from a language studied at school. In the case of French, this means that an average Brit remembers how to say bonjour, au revoir, s'il vous plaît and merci. They can count, but only up to three: un, deux, trois. And they can ask French people: Parlez-vous anglais? Funnily enough, the average Brit knows the French word for beer (bière), but not wine (vin).

Within the relatively narrow confines of my genealogical research, I've developed the habit of referring to the Dorset region to the south of Shaftesbury as "Skivington country". For all lovers of the work of Thomas Hardy [1840-1928], author of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, this region is better known, of course, as "Hardy country". These rolling pastures of rural Dorset are designated geographically as the Blackmore Vale. Well, as the author of a former tourist guide book on Great Britain, I was disappointed to discover a surprising news item on the front page of the local Blackmore Vale Magazine, hot off the Blanford press that very morning (3 August 2007):

The acronym TIC stands for Tourist Information Centre. In other words, on that very morning when I encountered for the first time my ancestral village of Blandford, the local press was announcing that their tourist infrastructure would soon be closing down, apparently because there wasn't sufficient local funding to keep it in business.

While regretting that I was unable to visit the surrounding villages of my "Skivington country" (which would have necessitated an automobile and more time), I took the bus back to Poole. The weather was exceptionally warm, and my feet were sore from walking all around Blandford. Since the shops were still open in Poole, I decided to purchase a pair of sandals with cushion soles and a pair of shorts. Changing from my walking boots to the lightweight sandals was a pleasure, which encouraged me to spend the warm evening on the Poole waterfront. Meanwhile, I was amused to think that an Australian residing in the south of France would find himself tempted to purchase sandals and shorts in England.

For the second evening in a row, I was tempted (nostalgia of childhood gastronomy) to eat fish and chips, seated on the wharf. Finishing my meal with beer outside a waterfront pub, I said to myself that it wouldn't take me long, in Britain, to increase both my weight and my cholesterol level. In fact, during the four days since my arrival in the UK, I had often imagined that a big proportion of Brits, including young girls, seemed to be overweight. Back in London, a prominent newspaper had in fact confirmed, with the following stark headlines, that this impression wasn't apparently a mere figment of my imagination:

According to the WHO [World Health Organization], one in four Brits is obese. In the newspaper article, the head of the BMA [British Medical Association], a certain Dr Hamish Meldrum, is quoted as making the following claims, concerning the way we talk of fat folk: "We are saying 'This patient has a hyper-appetite problem', rather than 'They are just greedy'. People like to put fancy labels that suggest things are a medical problem." I wouldn't be surprised if a few offended fat guys, reading those comments, were to decide to roll on Hamish Meldrum.

On the roadway in front of the pubs at Poole, the municipality had organized a display of elegant old sports cars, parked in a long line alongside the wharf. Personally, I was less intrigued by these automobiles than by the stunts performed by a few youths on curious circus bikes, with no saddles, who spent their time hopping between the stone walls and concrete pillars.

Don't forget that, stuck away in my Gamone wilderness, I haven't had many opportunities, over the last decade or so, of seeing how urban kids amuse themselves. Who knows? Maybe I'll end up buying myself such a bike, one of these sunny days, and introducing such stunts to Pont-en-Royans, on the parapet above the River Bourne, opposite the hanging houses [preferably after I'm naturalized, so that the authorities won't be tempted to expel me as a crazy old alien].

On the walk back home, as the sun was going down, I strolled alongside graceful birds on the lake in Poole Park, in a beautifully calm and typically English environment.

The next morning, I attempted to use my portable computer to book a hotel room in London, but I stupidly forgot to note down the name and address of the hotel. Consequently, when I finally arrived back in the vicinity of Russell Square in London, a kind Underground employee used his computer and phone to find me an excellent cheap hotel within a few minutes. There's no doubt about it that English people are basically kind, helpful and apparently altruistic, even in the noisy swarming ambience of London on a Saturday afternoon. Once settled in at the hotel [where the lady at the desk went out of her way to make sure that I knew which buses to take], I transformed myself, for the rest of the day, into a typical tourist. For example, I took a photo of the big ferris wheel on the other side of the Thames:

Then I joined a crowd of hundreds of other tourists to take a photo of Big Ben striking six:

Deciding to stop acting like the herd, I took the Underground across to the South Kensington neighborhood where I used to live for a few months [my only lengthy stay in England] during the 1964-65 winter, in a flat in Onslow Gardens.

Suddenly, a vague memory appeared in my mind. I decided to try to locate the local pub where I used to drink in 1964-65, called the Anglesea Arms. I was overjoyed to find that it's look and atmosphere had not changed one iota over the last forty or so years.

The next morning, I strolled through Hyde Park, where I was intrigued by the following recently-constructed monument:

At first site, I had the impression that the curious white crosses glistening in the sunlight at the top of the black pillars suggested that it was some kind of Christian thing, maybe memorials of British churches destroyed during the Blitz.

Well, it turned out, when I got up closer, that I was completely off the mark. This is a spectacular New Zealand memorial, evoking early conflicts between colonists and Maoris, and I would imagine that the white crosses are meant to reproduce the pattern of four stars found on their flag.

Finally, I was impressed by a dramatic monument dedicated to animals who have given up their lives in warfare.

I started to think of my donkey Moshé, back at Gamone [who, I hope, is rather unlikely to lose his life in a war]. One thing led to another, and I became frankly homesick when I imagined my dog Sophia waiting for me back in France, in the company of my daughter Emmanuelle. After four or five days on the far side of the stretch of sea that the British call the English Channel, it was time for me to return home.