Where do ordinary heroes go?

DAVID SELVES was just 12 years old. But he dived into the water, to support “his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.” This was in 1886. Two years earlier, Samuel Rabbeth, a 28-year-old doctor, had desperately tried to save a four-year-old suffering from diphtheria, clearing an obstruction in the child’s throat by putting his mouth to the tracheotomy tube. But he contracted the infection and died. And so did the child.

Ordinarily, they would have been forgotten by now. After all, they were neither rich nor powerful.

However, their courage is as arresting today as it must have been then, more than a century ago. Because, in a busy corner of London, there’s an old, hushed park where extraordinary deeds of courage are remembered, along with their ordinary heroes.

Almost hidden

Wedged between office blocks, this park is in the heart of London’s frenetic Barbican, bustling with bankers in expensive suits and secretaries clipping past in gleaming designer boots. Yet, you’ll be lucky to find someone who can give you directions to it. The frantically posing tourists at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, barely a minute away, hardly ever wander here, and Londoners seem to only stop by for a quick absent-minded cigarette or sandwich. But if anyone stops to listen, the powerful stories it tells are compelling enough to leave a lasting impact. Postman’s Park is one of London’s most surprising secrets. It also holds some of the city’s most heart-warming stories.

In the evening, the park is a pool of darkness, locked and bolted. The quaintly named “Guild & Ward Church of St. Botolph-Without-Aldersgate” next door, on the other hand, radiates warmth, with its burnishing lights and Scottish preacher’s lilting sermon. Although the park, set between King Edward Street and Little Britain, seems to be a part of the church (which stands at spot where “a church building has stood for nearly one thousand years” according to a plaque), a notice at the entrance proclaims that it was created with land from the churchyard of Saint Leonards, Foster Lane, St. Botolphs, Aldersgate and the graveyard of Christchurch, Newgate Street. Today it is maintained by the Corporation of London, Open Spaces Department. Once a popular lunchtime destination for workers from the old General Post Office, postman’s park, shaped so irregularly it looks like its been hastily squeezed in, was opened in 1880, opposite an old post office. But it went on to become much more than just a backdrop to hastily-eaten sandwiches and stately trees, thanks to George Frederic Watts, a talented painter and fiery philanthropist.

A different tribute

In 1887, Watts wrote to the Times, suggesting a memorial for ordinary heroes. After all, the rich and powerful are always remembered, whether they’re army generals, film stars or millionaires; celebrated for winning wars, teary lines or making enough money to raise grandiose buildings and glitzy marble plaques. Watts — the son of a London piano maker, who reportedly despised the very-rich and refused a baronetcy twice — campaigned for a memorial to remember regular people, who displayed startlingly heroic acts of courage, and died in the process.

His letter suggested that a memorial of this sort would be a marvellous way to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Year. But no one paid him any attention. Fortunately, for the few people who stumble upon this moving treasure and the selflessly heroic men, women and children who will be remembered for as long as it stands, when Watts realised that neither the government nor the town planners were really interested in raising marble to ordinary lives, he just went ahead and funded it himself, paying for the first 13 plaques. His widow then added 34 after he died in 1904. Five more were added almost three decades later.

Today, you can wander past the park’s mysterious tombstones draped in so many layers of damp moss that only occasional words shine though, an “alderman” here and “1800” there — it was evidently a graveyard at some point in it’s history. But huddled together in groups of seven at discreet corners, the tombs are clearly not the main show here. Neither are the fountains, which burble politely on the pathway. Or the lush patches of purple flowers, surrounded by carpets of bright yellow maple leaves.

It’s the 50-foot gallery stretching across the end of the park, neatly plastered with plaques (most created by Royal Doulton), crowned by a damp, faded inscription, “In commemoration of heroic self-sacrifice”.

Power in simplicity

The brief descriptions on each tablet are plain and unemotional. But that simplicity is their power. For, these are stories that need no histrionics, or ornate embellishment to move any random reader that happens to wander past.

There is the plaque to John Cranmer, a clerk in the London County Council who drowned when he was 23 years old “while saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner” in 1901. And eight-year-old Henry James Bristow who died in 1890, when he “saved his little sister’s life by tearing off her flaming clothes but caught fire himself and died of burns and shock”.

But perhaps the most vivid is the heart-rending remembrance to Solomon Galman, an 11-year-old who “died of injuries after saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street”. At the bottom are his last words. “Mother, I saved him but could not save myself.”


Orchids, Witches, Byron: Sneak Through Secret London

TOURISTS don’t see real cities. They see images, created by slick marketing people and shrewd shopkeepers. Paris, for instance, is the Eiffel tower, flashing gaudily beside overpriced restaurants and stalls festooned with “I love France” key chains. New York, of course, is the Statue of Liberty, and endless sweaty queues for a ferry to Liberty Island. And London, a photograph in front of Big Ben, a longing look though the bolted gates at Buckingham Palace and David Beckham at Madam Tussauds.

Unless, of course, you become a defiant independent traveller. It takes courage. You won’t be able to swap stories with the neighbours on how crowded Trafalgar Square is these days, or how the Champs-Elysées can be frightfully expensive, which might considerably bring down your social standing in the housing complex. (“Can you imagine, he was in New York, and he didn’t go to Macys!”) But you’ll discover a lot more. London for the locals, for instance, is a world away from the Hop-On Hop-Off tourist route.

Orchids and oysters

Languid Sunday mornings are perfect for pottering around the Columbia Street Flower Market in East London. Make your way there, past pretty houses with bright shutters and balconies lush with potted plants. Past friendly Labrador dogs out for a stroll with their owners, gardening enthusiasts excitedly discussing weed control and Londoners laden with bunches of vivid flowers.

It’s like “My Fair Lady” – except it’s the MTV version. Flower sellers holding out giant bouquets of cheery daffodils, bunches of stately white orchids and boxes crammed with potted petunias, all trying to out-shout each other, in an attempt to grab the attention of languid passing customers. Bustling cafés, handing out cups of steaming tea. And the motley crowd, swelling by the minute, includes little old ladies peering at cacti, and multi-pierced hipsters, wandering in after a raucous night, hoping to clear their heads. And maybe score a couple of beers.

This is also a deliciously unusual place to brunch. You can have a bagel in a garden café, accompanied by mugs of strong coffee. Or try oysters from a makeshift counter, where they’re piled besides traditional English kippers. Through it all a street musician provides vibrant background music. Foodies can also investigate the old barns, built like gardening sheds, covered with heavy wooden tables, creaking under the weight of local cheeses, exotic varieties of olive oils and crusty brown bread.

Magical Diagon Alley

Shockingly close to touristy Leicester square, teeming with drunk teenagers and theatre-goers bargaining for cut-price tickets, is mysterious Cecil Court. A hushed Victorian pedestrian street, it’s lined with old-fashioned stores, and reportedly inspired J.K. Rowling to create Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. Like Diagon Alley, crammed with curious shops and colourful characters, Cecil Court too has its share of magic.

With names such as “The Witch Ball” or “David Drummond Of Pleasures Of Past Times”, the shops here deal in the most delightfully eccentric goods. One dusty little store threw up shoeboxes crammed with old postcards from all over the world, including a bunch from homesick Britishers, posted in India more than half a century ago. (One, strangely enough, gushed about a snowstorm in Poona!) Then there’s the antique dealer, with a wealth of snuffboxes, Victorian charms and even a white stuffed owl that bears a startling similarity to Potter’s pet, Hedwig. Not surprisingly, this is also a meeting place for people interested in magic, most of whom head to the “Esoteric centre”, abounding in mystical books, beads and tarot readers. (London, by the way, has a significant number of wiccans and druids, many of whom are members of official groups such as the “Pagan Federation”.)

For a splash of extra colour, the road even has a turbulent past. Legend (and Wikipedia) has it that Cecil Court was razed in the early 1970s, probably by a Mrs. Colloway, who was apparently running a brandy shop and brothel there.

And, of course, if you need to stock up on Harry Potter money — galleons, sickles and knuts — you’ll find a store at Cecil Court that sells that too.

Byron’s Harrow

At Harrow On The Hill, bustling central London could be centuries away. Walk up a steep, winding path so quiet that the only thing you’ll hear besides your own breathing will be the rustling of leaves.

There’s something about Harrow On The Hill that makes people silently reflective, maybe it’s the languorous silence that wraps the hill. Or the almost intimidating Harrow School, founded in 1572, with its world famous alumni, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and former British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, amongst others. (There are guided tours of Harrow, made up of a charming muddle of warm, inviting buildings, with random stairs and unexpected quiet courtyards.) Or maybe it’s the spectacular 900-year-old St. Mary’s Church.

Beloved by the poet Lord Byron, who joined Harrow as a student in 1801, St. Mary’s is the quintessential English church. Even tempestuous Byron, infamous for his many roaring love affairs, extravagant lifestyle and wild living (Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his best known ex-lovers, described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”), found peace here.

Soothing landscape

In the churchyard, beyond the shadowy tombstones, there’s a huge tree under which he used to sit for hours, both as a boy and an adult. It’s easy to see why. The view — green meadows, aged trees and quaint houses dappled with sunshine — is as soothing as a watercolour. Byron’s sentimental poem, “Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow”, was composed here. A part of it is reproduced on the plaque that marks the spot now. When Byron’s beloved daughter Allegra died at the age of five, he insisted on burying her at St. Mary’s. However, today she lies in an unmarked grave and all there is to remember her by is a discreet, easy-to-overlook tombstone, tucked into a corner. And the lines from her father’s poem nearby:

How do thy branches, moaning to the blast,

Invite the bosom to recall the past,

And seem to whisper, as the gently swell,

“Take, while thou canst, a lingering, last farewell!”

Posh Curry

It is as Indian as palak paneer, and as international as champagne. Traditional, like a tandoor, yet sufficiently avant-garde to keep up with edgy food trends. It incorporates age-old ingredients like saffron, and showcases caviar from the Caspian Sea with equal zest. A whole new genre, this is the newest form of Indian cuisine, currently being created by talented chefs in competitive London. Greasy chicken tikka masala has finally ceased to define India.

At Zaika, where the sleek décor is more about clean lines than the typical mirrors-sequins-and-elephants kitsch, and the music more Talvin Singh than thudding bhangra, Chef Sanjay Dwivedi offers a gourmet tasting menu. This includes a tandoori grouper, served with upma (or “Indian cous cous” as they call it) in a surprisingly invigorating champagne and cardamom sauce. The high drama of the meal is sustained by a succession of beautifully designed courses — seven in all — and theatrical frills, like a waitress spraying a thick foam of coconut cream over spice-encrusted scallops, right at the table. There’s pan-fried foie gras, served with wild mushroom naan and mango chutney. And chocolate samosas drizzled with raspberry sauce.

But Dwivedi’s current piece de resistance is his experiment with molecular gastronomy (the science of creating cuisine by treating your kitchen like a laboratory), a steaming portion of fragrant wild mushroom rice, topped with a scoop of tangy tomato “makhni” ice cream and served with mini-poppadums.

Slick and stylish

Slick, stylish and sassy, Indian food in London has certainly evolved from the days “Indian” meant oily balti meat curries and cheap takeaway. While the British have had an enduring affair with “Curry Houses” for many decades, these restaurants haven’t always been the best ambassadors for authentic Indian cuisine. For one, “Indian” in the British restaurant sector is used generically and includes Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Nepalese, and Sri Lankan food, according to Pat Chapman who heads the Curry Club and publishes the popular Cobra Curry Guide, currently in it’s ninth edition this year with about 50,000 copies sold. “Most of these restaurants in the U.K., some 85 per cent or 7,200, are Bangladeshi owned,” he says.

Typically their menu includes lamb jalfrezi, aloo gobi, vindaloos and “chicken naan”. “In a curry house, all the sauces are the same,” states Samir Sadekar, chef of the smart new Imli restaurant in Soho. “They just put in onion, carrots, tomatoes add spices and keep it cooking. Then, when a customer orders something, they’ll mix turmeric for a yellow colour, or red food colour for a chicken tikka.” And this holds true, right from Aberdeen to Brighton.

Nevertheless, these places are still popular and can be credited with having made Indian food a part of the British menu. “It’s also the British affinity for India,” says Chef Vivek Singh, of Cinnamon Club as he sips a luxurious Saffron Gin, glinting with gold leaf, in his trendy restaurant set in the old Westminster Library. “It’s the romance of the Raj… the best time of the Empire, and that just doesn’t go. So the feeling towards spices and silk is deeply engrained.” He adds that he constantly has customers who talk of grandfathers who served in India, “They still have old letters, photographs and paintings.”

Yet, he says even about a decade ago, although Indian food was wildly popular, “when it came to the top five, top 10 restaurants in the city, you would never find an Indian restaurant listed. It was still classified as `ethnic’ and it still had a cheap image.” Justifiably so since there was no quality control. “But because these restaurants were also successful — the most successful in the country — they didn’t need to change,” says Singh.

Raising the bar

Then restaurants such as Tamarind, which received a Michelin star for the seventh year running this January, began to raise the bar. Our motto is “change your perception of Indian dining”, says Rajesh Suri, Executive-Operations for the Tamarind Group. “We have high standards and inspect all supplies. If the sous chef is not happy with one fillet we send it all back.” Alfred Prasad, the Chef, adds that “London is the best place in the world for a restaurant, and a chef. But you have to be creative. And original. It’s very competitive.” And although they don’t innovate wildly, believing “there is enough diversity in Indian food. We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg. There are so many regional specialities… the opportunities are endless,” they do “push the boundaries,” to quote celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey. Roghan Josh with avocado for example, or “butter chicken with herb butter to calm it down,” says Prasad.

Imli, Tamarind’s sister restaurant, on the other hand is about fast, casual dining,” says Chef Sadekar. “Vegetable brochettes, fenugreek wraps, papdi chaat and mushroom tikkis… What we are offering is lighter food, and great quality at affordable prices. For the common man, this food is a revelation. After a meal here people say, `I never knew Indian food was actually like this’.”

With three-year-old Benares (featuring contemporary food from all over India by Chef Atul Kochar) also being given a Michelin star this year, it looks like London is finally taking Indian food seriously. As a result, there’s tremendous competition and every chef is pushing himself relentlessly, resulting in leaps of creativity. “In India people are still following old rules… recipes that are 200 and 500 years old,” sighs Singh. “In India, unfortunately, we can do anything we want with any other cuisine, but we cannot touch Indian food. Indian people will not take any innovation.” He adds, “I create food that is relevant.”

Not just simplistic fusion

“People are changing the way they eat,” agrees Dwivedi. “We’re making food lighter. I don’t do rasamalai. And I don’t do rasagullas. I don’t eat them. Nobody does, unless it’s at a shaadhi… I’d make a crème brulee or chocolate samosas instead.” He insists it’s not simplistic fusion, but all about playing with flavours, textures and techniques. “When people dine at Zaika for an occasion we want them to remember it for the rest of the year.”

“At Cinnamon Club we’re still cooking with spice, still cooking Indian — but in a contemporary intelligent way,” says Singh. “I do a European fish on a Bengali sauce served with lemon rice, which is south Indian: the whole plate is Indian to me. The customer is comfortable because he recognises the fish, yet there’s still a wow factor.”

All this confidence is being reflected in the pricing too. For a long time, people, used to curry house prices, resented expensive meals at Indian restaurants. “It’s a mindset that’s been around for 40 years — Indian food has to be cheap,” sighs Prasad. “We use the same suppliers as Gordon Ramsey. The same vegetables, the same fish… and that’s a three Michelin star restaurant.” Thanks to years of standing firm, and their unwavering quality, Tamarind and the others now charge as much as any top London restaurant, and still have a stream of happy customers.

“I take offence to India being portrayed as just the land of snake charmers and tigers. There’s a brilliant, modern India too,” says Singh definitively. “We are comfortable with the international world, why shouldn’t our food reflect that?”



October 2022