Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Smelling the coffee - following my nose in Nazareth

Azmi at work roasting the coffee
Earlier this week I spent a day in the searing heat (almost 40 degrees) visiting archaeological sites in the Galilee. I also spent a little time in Nazareth where my nose was stimulated in the same way my eyes had been at the ancient necropolis at Beit Shearim where Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi is buried and at Tzipori, the site of an ancient city where many beautiful mosaics have been uncovered.

Like most cities in Israel, Nazareth has a shuk. Housed in ancient alleyways, it sells everything you would expect it to - fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, tourist "souvenirs", plastic toys, clothing and other assorted items. Some way into the shuk I noticed a pleasant coffee smell and began to look around for what I thought would be a cafe or perhaps an open window in one of the old houses where someone was preparing my tipple of choice. With no sign of either, the aroma grew stronger and stronger until I had almost reached the end of the shuk and discovered Azmi Fahoum's coffee stores, where coffee has been ground and sold since 1957.

The tools of the trade
Stepping into the open fronted store, Azmi greeted me and my friend and guide, Shlomit of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus Center and invited us to see his work room with the machinery and the freshly ground and roasted coffee, which had drawn us to his door. The store does not include a cafe but when I asked him if we could try some coffee he produced a couple of small cups filled with the strongest Colombian blend I've ever tasted. And I like very strong coffee. The price is as good as the taste and just 10 shekels will get you 100 grams. I bought 200 grams to bring home with me and asked him to mix it with ground spices - mainly cardamoms to further enhance the flavour. He keeps a range of spices to mix with the coffee on request and which also add to the shop's bouquet.

Customers came and went whilst he told us that he had once played football for a Tel Aviv team and showed me a photograph of himself with one Tony Blair who had visited his shop at some point! He then offered to pose for a picture with Shlomit and of course I couldn't resist! I've got the coffee in my suitcase - making a good strong cup of it will be one of the first things I do when I am back in London. "Following my nose" is something I always like to do when exploring new places. This time the experience was literal rather than figurative!


Entrance to the shuk
You might also like Akko's Tunisian Synagogue

Friday, 15 May 2015

A modernist house with a story - the French Ambassador's house in Jaffa

Art deco staircase in the French Ambassador's house, Toulouse Street, Jaffa
The French Ambassador to Israel is a vary lucky man. He gets to live in one of the most beautiful modernist houses in the country. Tucked away in Jaffa's Ajami neighbourhood with stunning views of the Mediterranean from the roof terrace, spacious rooms, works of art on the walls and (of course) very tasteful furniture, the ambassador and his family live in a house with quite a story.

The story begins in 1934 during the period of the British Mandate in the unlikely setting of the Tel-Aviv Rotary Club. The club had a membership of one third Jews, one third Arabs and one third Britons. It was here that Muhammed Abdel al-Rahim one of Jaffa's wealthiest residents met Jewish architect Yitzhak Rapoport and impressed by his designs for the nearby Dajani Hospital, commissioned him to build a house in Jaffa. al-Rahim was a successful businessman and landowner and wanted to enjoy a home with modern facilities but which also maintained his religious and social traditions,  separating public and private spaces and with distinct quarters for men, women and children. In response, Rapoport designed an elegant Bauhaus exterior with an interior floor plan to fulfil his client's requirements. This included a mashrabiyya - a latticed screen to denote the boundary between the women's quarters and the rest of the building with another one inserted into a wall to enable the women to see into the more public areas without being observed.

A mashrabiyya, separating men's and women's quarters
Main reception room

The 1930's saw rapid development in Tel-Aviv and Jaffa with many homes and public buildings being constructed in the Bauhaus style. They also saw significant periods of unrest and growing tension between the different communities. The Arab riots of 1936 saw many people killed and Rapoport would no doubt have been nervous visiting the construction site in this largely Arab populated neighbourhood. He had developed a kind of friendship with al-Rahim through working with him on the commission and the architect was smuggled into the area in Arab dress and introduced to his client's other guests as a visitor from Kuwait.

Both men took risks in continuing to work together during this period but the risk was even greater than we might imagine. al-Rahim was an Arab nationalist and treasurer of the group carrying out attacks on Jewish residents, whilst Rapoport was working as a spy for the Haganah and used his visits to Jaffa to inform on the overheard plans and discussions of the Arab group. Their relationship continued with al-Rahim going on to commission Rapaport to design a flour mill for him. The same flour mill became a strategic post for Jaffa's Arabs during the 1948 war and the architect was able to use his knowledge of the building to advise on how to topple it.

There are different versions of what happened to al-Rahim after the 1948 War. Some say he left for Lebanon in 1948, others that he lived on in the house for a year before leaving. Either way, astonishingly he signed the house over to Rapoport in order to protect his asset. Rapoport is known to have asked him why he didn't hand it to his own relatives and was told that he was more trustworthy. The architect resisted attempts to nationalise the property before selling it to the French for their first embassy in Israel in 1949 before traveling to Naples to hand the money to his friend and political rival. Doubt has been placed on this story, but the French confirm it and it a bill of sale for £20,000 for the property sits in the Tel Aviv municipal land registry. Over time the two men lost contact. al-Rahim died in Lebanon in the 1960's whilst Rapoport lived on until 1989.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be able to see inside the house as it was open to the public as part of Tel Aviv's Houses From Within programme - similar to London's Open House. Groups of about 20 people were led on thirty minutes tours of several of the ground floor rooms and the lower terrace. My Hebrew is not good enough to have fully understood the guide's commentary but I was able to enjoy touring the reception rooms, high ceilings,  the dining room hidden behind a glass wall that doubles as a door and the classic glazed stairwell and lines and angles of Rapoport's exterior. There is also a wooden door that folds like an accordion. But the real show stopper is the fantastic art deco staircase with its smooth marble steps and wall panel and its ornate metal railings. Unfortunately the tour did not include the chance to climb those stairs but what a privilege to be able to see and photograph them! 

The connection with the Rapoport family continues as the architect's son, Oded followed the family trade and became an architect and has worked on minor renovations in the house at the Embassy's request.  

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

More from Metroland - Amersham's High and Over and the Sun Houses

Amersham is a small Buckinghamshire town, an hour or so away from central London at the very end of the Metropolitan line. It is the epitome of "Metroland" the term used to describe the semi rural areas around London that became home to many city workers when the tube lines were extended during the 1930's. 

Amersham retains some of the charm it must have had when the station first came under the direction of London Underground in 1933. It retains a number of independent shops and cafes (including a record shop!) but has also attracted many high street chain stores that can be found almost anywhere. It has also kept some architectural treasures from the 1930's just a short walk from the station that make the long tube journey worth it!

The High and Over
The house known as the High and Over stands at the summit of Highover Park with views across the Misbourne Valley. The house is composed of three wings joined by a double height hall that once had an internal fountain in the centre. Built in 1929 for British archaeologist and art historian, Professor Bernard Ashmole, it attracted much attention and some controversy due to its modernity. It was deemed interesting enough for British Pathe to produce a short film about it in 1931. Entitled "The House of a Dream"  and featuring some great internal shots, you can see it here. Very photogenic, the house was also used much later for an episode of the detective series Poirot.

Architect Amyas Connell originally wanted the structure to be made entirely of concrete. His builders were unable to deliver this and he had to settle for a reinforced concrete frame with a rendered brick infill. He may have been disappointed but the result is stunning - a huge, bright white house set in 1.7 acres of land complete with a swimming pool. The original interior decoration included the use of striking colours and materials such as jade green cellulose and chromium steel. There is also a spiral staircase encased in glass and a roof terrace accessed through what was originally a day nursery. 

The house was threatened with demolition in the 1960's which thankfully was avoided, although it was divided into two residences in 1962. Later restored to a single home it has recently been returned to much, although not all of its original glory. It is possible to get good views of the front of the house from its grounds but difficult to see and photograph the rest due to the large trees that now surround it. In 1929 the house stood in splendid isolation looking over the countryside. The original grounds included terraces, walks, a fish pond, a water garden flower garden, orchards and tennis courts.  The plans were based on Armenian architect Gabriel Guevrekian's Garden of Water and Light at Villa Noailles.Unfortunately this has all gone and the High and Over is now surrounded by many more recent and much less attractive houses despite there having been much opposition to further development. It now has some protection with a Grade II listing. 

Connell was an important figure in the development of British Modernism. Born in New Zealand in 1901, he was attracted to modernism through seeing the work of Le Corbusier and others at the Paris Exhibition in 1925. He went on to become one of the most influential British architects of his period, forming a successful partnership with Basil Ward and Colin Lucas.

Glazed stairwell at the side of the building, the High and Over

The High and Over
The High and Over is not the only modernist treasure to be found in Amersham. Indeed, its not the only treasure to be found in Highover Park. Togther with Basil Ward, our Mr. Connell also designed a number of "Sun Houses" built further down the hill in 1934. 

As with the High and Over, it is difficult to see some of the Sun Houses as they are now surrounded with trees and fairly dense vegetation. However there are clear views of the two houses at the bottom of the hill. I understand that they have lost many of their original internal features, but the exterior of both houses has been beautifully maintained. Constructed of reinforced concrete, both houses have glazed stairwells, a sheltered roof terrace, spiral staircases and potholes. The pristine white painted exteriors contrast with coloured window surrounds and maintain the sophistication of the buildings which also now have Grade II listed status. 

Pictures of the Sun Houses…

You might also like Picture Post 32 Lawn Road Flats Belsize Park - modernist masterpiece, artists and spies! and East End Modernism

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A few days in Lisbon

I was recently in Lisbon for the first time. I had planned to visit several years ago and for various reasons couldn't go. Having spent four nights there, I can't believe I waited so long to go and would love to spend some more time there soon.

The city has some major tourist attractions, but regular readers will know that my favourite destinations have great cafes, interesting architecture, galleries and museums, a little shopping, a chance to hear local jazz musicians perform and great opportunities for strolling and enjoying the city. Lisbon has all of these and this post includes some of my favourites.

I managed to combine shopping and my favourite drink at A Carioca, a tiny shop at Rua da Misericordia 9, from where the smell of freshly ground coffee has been wafting into the street since the 1930's. The shop was acquired by the  long established Negrita company in 1990 and restored to its original art deco influenced glory. Customers choose their favourite coffee beans which are then ground on the original machine filling the shop with rich aromas. I was lucky enough to be able to buy arabica beans imported from the former Portuguese colony of Sao Tome e Principe. Fragrant and delicious. As well as a great range of coffees, chocolate and sweets, A Carioca also sells the famous Gorreana tea, grown in the Azores using traditional methods. The shop offers good old fashioned service and a glimpse of how Lisbon must have been 80 years ago.

A Carioca, coffee stores, Rua de Misericordia
Still on the coffee theme, Lisbon has hundreds of cafes, the most well known of which is Cafe  a Brasileira on Rua Garrett. Established in 1905 to sell "genuine Brazilian coffee", owner Adriano Telles gave a free cup of it to every customer who purchased one kilo of ground coffee. His idea caught on and 110 years later, despite some difficulties in the 1950's Brasileira sells thousands of cups of coffee every day. Now mainly patronised by tourists, the cafe was once the haunt of Portugal's best writers and artists including poet Fernando Pessoa whose statue stands outside.

The interior was redesigned in 1922 by architect Jose Pacheco with mosaic marble floors, ornamental freezes on the ceiling, walls in reds, ochres and golds and ornate mirrors and wooden pillars. The entrance references art nouveau with its figures and flourishes including a gentleman enjoying a cup of coffee. There is also a tiny and charming wooden panelled kiosk just inside the doorway where you can buy newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, postcards and other bits and pieces. Yes, the cafe is full of tourists but is still worth a visit to enjoy the decor and a good cup of coffee standing at the bar. Coffee must be accompanied by one of the ubiquitous pastel de nata, tiny delicious custard tarts. I love custard tarts but these knock spots off the shop bought ones found in the UK.

Cafe A Brasileira, Rua Garret
The Discoveries Monument, Belem
The pastels are thought to have originated before the 18th century, made by the Catholic monks at the iconic Jeronimos Monastery in the Belem district. The pastels can be purchased at almost any pastel aria in the city but the best ones are said to be made at the Pasteis de Belem in Rua Belem. The length of the queue outside of the shop on the Sunday morning I visited appears to vouch for this! If you manage to get to the front of the queue and enjoy your pastels, Belem is a great place for strolling to burn off the calories. The Jeronimos Monastery and the 16th century Belem Tower are key elements in the area's UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. The Tower in particular features on many postcards, travel guide covers, fridge magnets and other tourist paraphernalia. It also attracts huge queues at weekends and holidays and wanting to make the most of my time, I opted instead to go to the top of the nearby Discoveries Monument, built in 1960 overlooking the River Tagus and featuring Leopoldo de Almeida's sculptures of various Portuguese royals and explorers including Magellan, de Gama and Cabral. Best of all is the view over Belem and the Tagus from the top of the 50 metres tall structure.

The Belem Tower
On the subject of strolling, there are some great themed guided walks available from Lisbon Walker who offer a whole series of different walks every day. I took the City of Spies walk which takes participants back to the 1940's and the Second World War, where due to Portugal's neutral status and Lisbon's important geographic location, the city was flooded with spies from both allied and axis powers as well as refugees seeking a way out of Europe. Different cafes and hotels would attract clientele from opposite sides whilst in some establishments it was possible to find German and British agents eating at adjoining tables. I was thrilled to learn that my hotel, the Avenida Palace had been frequented by spies from both sides mainly due to the direct and private corridor to the adjoining Rossio Station which allowed discrete entrance and exit!

Many, although not all, of the refugees were Jews from German occupied territories, desperate to leave Europe. Many were poor and depended on charitable organisations including the Joint Distribution Committee for sustenance, whilst others were more wealthy. One of the richer "guests" was none other than art collector Peggy Guggenheim who is said to have shocked conservative Lisbon by entering cafes unaccompanied, something felt to be beyond the pale in those days whilst other women refugees wearing short dresses, again a rarity amongst respectable Portuguese women at the time, became a major talking point amongst the Portuguese. Pastelaria Suica occupies a prominent position in Praca dom Pedro in the city centre. Refugees needed to pass through the square on their way to the various offices that could issue them papers to leave Europe. Local men soon became wise to this and renamed the cafe the "Good Legs Cafe" as they sat outside admiring the refugee women passing by. Neil Lochery's Lisbon: War in the shadows on the city of light 1939-45 tells the full story of this little known chapter of European history.

Moorish design, Casa do Alentejo
One of the venues much favoured by agents of both sides was the former casino in the Palacio de Alverca on Rua das Portas de Santo Antao. Built in the 17th century in Moorish style with gorgeous arches, tiles and stained glass, it must have been the perfect setting for intrigue and espionage with its roulette wheels, card games and dancers on a the double sided stage that allowed patrons in adjoining rooms to be entertained at the same time! The Palacio is still there and is now the home of the Casa do Alentejo, a cultural centre for the Alentejo region of Portugal with a restaurant serving its traditional food. It is easy to walk in from the street and admire the courtyard and the staff don't seem to mind visitors having a peep at the exquisite upstairs rooms too.

The Courtyard, Casa do Alentejo
Most of the Jews who came through the city as refugees eventually moved on to the Unites States, Israel or other countries. Today, Portugal has a small Jewish population with 7000 people identifying as Jewish in a recent census. Lisbon has just one synagogue and visitors are welcomed. It is the place of worship for the 750 or so registered members of the community. Built in 1904, as in many European cities, it is tucked away, behind a metal gate on Rua Alexandro Herculano. I was shown around by Ana Araujo who co-ordinates visit to the synagogue . She told me a little about the history of the Jews in Portugal including the expulsion in 1496, the horrors of the Inquisition and the interesting story of the Marranos, mostly forced converts to Catholicism but who secretly maintained at least some Jewish religious practices over centuries. A community of Marranos in Belmonte, northern Portugal, re-established itself as a full Jewish community in 1989. There is a minyan at the Lisbon synagogue on shabbat and also on the major Jewish holidays. There is no rabbi at the moment although there are visits by rabbis from other European countries that have larger communities. The synagogue itself has a beautiful interior with wooden panelling and seats and an extremely ornate Aron HaKodesh with beautiful Hebrew letters, Magen Davids and colourful mosaic details.

The synagogue, Rua Alexandro, Herculaneo
I am a self confessed jazz addict. Lisbon has a great little jazz venue called the Hot Club de Portugal on Praca Alegria, just off Avenida Liberdade. Its very small with perhaps 50 seats set around low level tables and against the perimeter walls but the sound quality was good and on the night I was there the  excellent Albert Sanz Trio from Spain, playing through some of their own compositions as well as some jazz  standards for a very knowledgeable audience. The Hot Club has a very intimate and friendly atmosphere and an international standard programme. 

Two final places I must mention - Corvo Azul, a tiny little gourmet close to the Sao Jorge Castle that sells great preserves, pickles, soaps and other Portuguese products and which offers friendly service and advice and is a great place to pick up little treats to take home - the fig jam I purchased was very well received! Corvo Azul is the kind of place I would visit every week if I lived in this city! My other favourite shopping experience was A Vida Portuguesa in Rua Anchieta. This is a delightful place full of  Portuguese produced items, including soaps, porcelain, stylish Serrotte notebooks, cleaning materials, rugs, blankets, books and music. I liked it so much I visited twice during my short stay and came away loaded up with blankets, a vinyl record, some postcards, soaps, toothpaste and some exquisite Alantoine hand cream for my mum!

Lisbon is a great city in which to spend a few days and to discover on foot, whilst the easy to use metro makes most of the city easily accessible by public transport. As ever, there was so much to see in so little time.

A few more pictures to enjoy...

Colourful houses in Alfama
Street scene, Alfama
Blossom in Alfama
Florist near Estacio de cams de Sodre
I have already written about Lisbon's wonderful collection of art deco buildings here.

You can see more pictures of Lisbon here.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Metroland Modernism - Stanmore's Valencia Road and the Kerry Avenue Conservation Area

4 Valencia Road
Stanmore is one of a number of places that were developed due to the extension of London Underground in the 1930's. Stanmore Underground Station opened in December 1932, now the last stop at the northern end of the Jubilee Line, it was the original terminus of the Metropolitan Line following the abandoning of plans to take the Underground to Elstree. The Underground extension brought many former villages on London's periphery within easy reach of the city and work. Many more affluent families chose to move out into what became known as Metroland, attracted by the benefits of a better environment and rapid public transport to their place of work.

The land opposite the station was the property of one Sir John Fitzgerald, an Irish Baronet and Knight of Kerry and in 1931 he granted  Douglas Wood architects permission for a residential development at the southern end of his estate, just a short walk from the Underground. This resulted in the properties that currently stand at number 2,4,6 and 8 Valencia Road, a private road within Harrow Council's Kerry Avenue conservation area

Number 4 has recently been lovingly restored to its original splendour under the supervision of English Heritage. It can be yours for a mere £1.795 million! The house was completed in 1934 and was originally the property of Attilio Azzali who came to London in 1926 fleeing poverty in Italy. He settled in Kings Cross where he established a restaurant and then two more elsewhere in London. According to the Azzali family legend, Attilio brought his wife Elvira to Stanmore for a day out in 1932. He fell in love with the area, which would still have been somewhat rural then and so purchased one of the four houses being built by the Douglas Wood Partnership. The family retained the house until 2009 when it was sold and restored.

Detail, 4 Valencia Road

The former Azzali home has 5 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms and a variety of other rooms arranged over three floors. There are also two roof terraces and a feature staircase with a brushed chrome bannister and glass panels. The exterior displays some wonderful modernist features with the original style crittall windows  fully restored (and now double glazed for a London winter), squared off edges and that wonderful tubular staircase with glazing at the midpoint.  There is also a 130 foot garden at the rear of the house. 

Number 2 Valencia Road was also on the market earlier this year and sold for £1.4 million. A striking corner building, the white painted exterior contrasts with the thin strips of colour underneath the windows at ground and first floor levels whilst the side of the building recedes between each of the floors giving it an interesting stepped appearance.

2 Valencia Road
Valencia Road intersects Kerry Avenue, which leads down to the station and gives its name to the conservation area. It is also the location of seven modernist houses (numbers 1-6 and 16) designed by architect Gerald Lacoste and built in 1937. Lacoste was a much sort after architect and was responsible the interiors of fashion designer Norman Hartnell's studio at 26 Bruton Street in Mayfair,a further studio for Edward Molyneux. He also designed a weekend retreat in Berkshire for Hartnell. Clearly influenced by modernism, he was not restricted to the style and designed Gracie Fields' "Spanish house" in Frognal Way, Hampstead. 

Stanmore may well be at the very end of the Jubilee Line but its definitely worth a visit for fans of modernist or art deco architecture.

You might also like East End Modernism

4-6 Valencia Road

Safa Lodge, Kerry Avenue
6 Kerry Avenue

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Picture Post 42 - Boris Anrep's mosaics at the National Gallery

It's good to look up when strolling through cities as often the  most interesting sights are above street level. When entering London's National Gallery in Trafalger Square you should do the opposite and look down. Every day thousands of visitors walk across some of London's most beautiful mosaics - the work of Russian emigree Boris Vasilyevich Anrep, born in St. Petersburg in 1883 and who arrived in the United Kingdom in 1910.

The National Gallery commissioned Anrep to produce and lay two mosaic floors in the vestibule of its main hall based on the themes The Labours of Life and The Pleasures of Life. He completed this task between 1928 and 1933. The Gallery must have liked the results as in 1952, he was commissioned to produce a third mosaic entitled The Modern Virtues.  

Anrep was associated with the Bloomsbury Group and a number of its members appear as characters in his work as did a number of other prominent people of the time. Examples of this include Winston Churchill as Defiance and Great Garbo is the muse Melopeme, whilst in the pictures featured here, we can see ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn as Delectation, poet Edith Sitwell as the Sixth Sense and my favourite astronomer Fred Hoyle as Pursuit. I particularly like Pursuit with its image of a young Hoyle, climbing his way up towards the stars, wearing glasses that would make him extremely fashionable today and carrying what looks a little like a laptop! Anrep was clearly forward thinking.

Originally studying to be a lawyer, he abandoned this for art and studied in Paris before enrolling at the Glasgow School of Art for the year 1910-11. He met British artist Augustus John whilst in Paris and soon  became familiar with other British artists including Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. His Russian background also helped open doors for him in London and in 1912 he was asked to take charge of the Russian section in Roger Fry's second post-impressionist exhibition. Exhibitors in this section included Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Nicholas Roerich. He also maintained a life long friendship with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova is the subject of the current exhibition at London's Pushkin House, part of which examines her links with Anrep.

It is possible to see more of Anrep's work in London by visiting Westminster Cathedral in Victoria where he designed the mosaics in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel or Saint Sophia's Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bayswater. He also completed commissions at the Church of Christ the King in Mullingar, Ireland. Its free to see the mosaics in the National Gallery, but remember to look down!

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ella Leya - The Orphan Sky, a brilliant first novel

One of the hits of this year's Jewish book week, Ella Leya is an accomplished musician playing both jazz and classical music. The Orphan Sky is an excellent first novel capturing the complicated manoeuvrings of life in the final decade of the Soviet Union through the experiences of Leila Badalbeili, a talented young pianist from Baku, Azerbaijan.

The book captures the atmosphere of Baku's old city with its narrow lanes, sites and smells, and most of all its iconic Maiden Tower. The Tower is the source of many stories, some of which overlap with Leila's own experiences as she navigates her way through her teenage years, discovering art, music and even love - much of which is forbidden during the Soviet period in which the story is set. 

Leila is a committed member of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organisation, but becomes disillusioned after meeting Tahir, a young man from the once prominent Mukhtarov family who introduces her to a world beyond that permitted by the authorities. Gradually, she begins to see and understand the deceit, corruption and hypocrisy inherent in the Soviet regime with party officials lining their own pockets whilst others live in poverty. This extends all the way to her beloved father, who moves in the upper levels of Soviet Azeri society, and who she realises is not above receiving bribes in return for favours. Her awareness of how deceitful those in authority are grows until she discovers her father's ultimate betrayal, which I won't reveal here (!), but which results in a series of catastrophic events leading all the way to the final denouement and a kind of deliverance.

The Orphan Sky has a wonderful cast of characters. Our heroine Leila wins our support, respect and sympathy but, happily, is no angel herself, making mistakes and compromises as she struggles between the urge to survive and the desire not to compromise herself. Her best friend Almaz is both survivor and victim whilst Sonia, her mother, is a brilliant surgeon but turns a blind eye to her husband's indiscretions even when they come very close to home. I especially liked her music teacher, Professor Sultan-zade, initially drawn as a cold, stern character but who is developed through the course of the story as considered, capable and eminently human and who also has emotions. The female characters demonstrate very clearly the position of many women in Soviet society who had to live up to the requirements of both the regime and more traditional roles assigned to women in some cultures and communities. 

I visited Azerbaijan in 2012 and The Orphan Sky took me back there, especially to Icheri Sheher, the old city of Baku. Indeed, it made me want to visit again. Ella Leya's love for music is displayed throughout the book, through her descriptions of Leila's performances, immersing the reader in emotional journeys through pieces by Mozart and Rachmaninov using references to art, the elements and to the music of Billie Holiday in order to convey her feelings. This is no surprise given her own jazz background and that rhere is a bit of a jazz tradition in Azerbaijan.  During the Soviet period it was seen as the music of dissent. The great Azerbaijani jazz pianist Vagif Mustafazade who suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime is now revered and his former home is a museum. The book also contains many references to traditional Azeri poems and lyrics and to the traditional Azeri mugham form of music. 

Ella Leya was born in Baku and received asylum in the United States in 1990. She lives between Laguna beach in california and London-  where she is the wife of a rabbi! You can find out more about her music here.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Picture post 41 - Middlesbrough's Iconic Transporter Bridge

Middlesbrough's transporter bridge is one of just three of its kind remaining in the UK and is both a much loved iconic image of the town and a reminder of the area's industrial past.  

The idea for a bridge was first mooted in 1872 by one Charles Smith, manager of the Hartlepool Iron Works, who suggested a scheme to Middlesbrough Corporation. His idea was rejected and it was not until 1911 that the bridge was built as a result of an Act of Parliament passed in 1907. It cost 68,026 pounds, six shillings and eight pence to build which translates to about 6,300,000 pounds today. Construction was completed by Sir William Arrol and Co. of Glasgow using steel made by local company Dorman Long (forerunners of British Steel) and replaced ferry services across the river. Local labour employed at Dorman Long also produced the steel used to construct the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The foundation stones were laid by Mayor of Middlesbrough Thomas Gibson-Poole and Alderman Joseph McLauchlan, whilst the towns citizens turned out in huge numbers to welcome Prince Albert of Connaught on 17th October 1911 when he came to open the bridge.

The bridge is 851 feet long - the longest remaining transporter bridge in the world. The cantilever construction has three main bridge parts and a gondola which runs on a wheel and rail system 160 feet above the Tees. The transporter has seen some drama over the years. It was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, whilst in 1953, the gondola became stuck half way across and was lashed by gale force winds that brought the river to within inches of the platform. It has also featured in films and TV series including Billy Elliot and the Boys from the Backstuff, whilst scenes of its apparent dismantling and transportation to Arizona during Auf Wiedersehen Pet resulted in calls from worried citizens  to the Council, protesting the seeming loss. The TV company had to include a clarification at the end of the series that the scenes were purely fictional! A real drama occurred in 1974 when actor Terry Scott thought he was crossing a toll bridge and drove off the edge, landing in the safety netting below - and I just about remember this from the local newspaper - the Evening Gazette

The bridge straddles the river Tees between the former St. Hilda's area of Middlesbrough and Port Clarence on the Stockton-on-Tees side of the river. St. Hilda's was home to a range of industries connected to the docks as well as to a residential community. Almost all of both are now gone, cleared by the demolition ball over a number of years with only a few exceptions -  two pubs (one derelict), the old dock clock and the former town hall, the latter of which was famously painted by L.S. Lowry in 1959. Referred to as "over the border" due to being on the riverside of the railway line, St. Hilda's had a reputation for being a bit scary during my younger days as well as being a bit risqué due to the (possibly assumed) activities that took place in some of the pubs! 

The area has been renamed "Middlehaven" and is now home to part of the town's university campus, it's college and Middlesbrough FC's stadium. There are also plans to redevelop the area with housing, shops and cafes, re-connecting the town to the river and bringing new life to this historic area. I like the idea of bringing it back to life - but its a shame that so much of what was there before has gone. The transporter bridge was given grade II* listed status in 1983, protecting it from a similar fate, but its real protection comes from its continued use and more importantly from the attachment that locals continue to feel for this example of engineering ingenuity.

The transporter bridge seen through the remaining wall of the former salt works.
You might also like Picture Post 28 - Middlesbrough Empire Palace of Varieties and Memories of Middlesbrough and days long gone