Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: October 2022

Roy Plomley and My Desert Island Discs

In Putney Vale Cemetery in London there is a gravestone flanked by palm trees, topped by a scallop shell and where dolphins swim above the faded inscription:

Roy Plomley OBE

Who created

Desert Island Discs

Born 20th January 1914

Died 28th May 1985

Roy Plomley’s grave at Putney Vale
Detail of grave with scallop shell, dolphins and palm trees.
Detail of dolphins

Desert Island Discs began in 1942. The theme tune, Eric Coates’ By The Sleepy Lagoon, drifted out of the wireless,  followed by the sound of surf breaking on the shore and the cry of herring gulls. The format was simple: each week Roy Plomley interviewed a notable person  about their life and views, the talk interspersed with their choice of the eight pieces of music which they would take with them if cast away upon the eponymous desert island.

Plomley created the programme and presented it every week until his death in 1985. Subsequently four other presenters have taken his place. This year marked the eightieth anniversary of the programme, and it is the second longest running radio show in the world. I doubt if there is anyone in Britain who has never tuned in, curious about the musical tastes of the esteemed and the execrable, as fascinated by the meretricious as by the meritorious.

In an interview with John Dunn, Plomley explained that few people ever refused to take part in the programme: why would anyone, he asked, when

“ you  get invited out to a very good lunch…and then you play your favourite music…and talk about yourself…and on your way out you get a cheque.”

While most of us will never be offered the lunch or the cheque, I defy anyone hearing the programme not to muse upon their own selection of eight discs.

 And yes, here are mine…

It is the summer of 1969. I am in Montauban on a French exchange, designed to improve my command of the language before the A-level exam next year. I am in possession of a pale blue mini dress with pearl buttons, silver sandals with glitter, and  my exchange, Françoise, and  I are listening to Georges Moustaki singing Le Métèque. We are mesmerised by the photograph on the record cover: a man with dark eyes, olive skin, long hair, and an already greying beard. The words of the song hold us spellbound; his is a world of exotic destinations, he is a free spirit, a man of passion and poetry, romance and sophistication, of Experience. We are enthralled by this heady mix. We are seventeen and want to be “ the sweet captive” of this man who will “drink of our youth” (it loses something in translation.). We are  avid for “a whole eternity of love.” We have powerful imaginations but No Experience – but fervently hope to remedy this soon.

Four years on and another set of examinations is punctuating my life. In the last weeks before Finals, the files and heavily annotated and underscored notes are piled up on my desk, and I emerge from my room only for meals. I am not alone in this and a heavy , unnatural pall of silence hangs in the corridor. Periodically  the stillness is riven by  Lou Reed’s Transformer  emanating from my neighbour’s room. Whichever tracks he chooses he always sets the needle back on to Perfect Day for the finale. With any other record this would be  irritating but Perfect Day just makes me smile, push aside the books for a moment  and daydream.

Even today it  transports me back, not just to those final weeks but to the whole heady experience of three  years of freedom without responsibility, of new discoveries and delights. Coming from a worthy but  dull girls’ school where work was set for the sake of it rather than to  open new horizons, I had arrived at university with other things on my mind than a serious commitment to study. That had changed under the influence of my tutor, Peter Reddaway, and Maurice Cranston who  taught me Political Philosophy. Suddenly learning was exciting and I devoured all that my erudite teachers had to offer.

And beyond the library was a social life and the sheer ridiculous fun of living in hall with two hundred other students. Passfield Hall was the first hall in London to go co-ed and this gave it a certain caché. Others less privileged would query in awe the goings on there. In truth the regular sighting of one’s fellow students scuttling to the communal bathrooms in their pyjamas, or bleary eyed and unshaven over breakfast, was not conducive to passion, but we always managed to field questions with knowing looks implying that Sodom and Gomorrah paled into insignificance beside Passfield.

These were the years of my first lover and my first heartbreak, and months of a tear-stained pillow. Was the experience worth it? Of course it was.

A more sophisticated friend introduced me to London beyond the university: to The Marquee and Sunday nights at The Roundhouse. There I learned to roll a joint and, unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale.

Perfect Days indeed.

I am in my twenties and living in Athens with a Greek boyfriend. We are in love but not  good at the day-to-day business of living together. We argue a lot  and when angry we know how to hurt each other. I pack my suitcases and come home,  but a few months later I am back. We fall into a pattern of quarrels and reconciliations. Sometimes everything is perfect, and the world is a magical place, at others we make each other wretched. It ended badly, but Manos Hadjidakis’ Fifteen Vespers will forever transport me back to  an idyll on Serifos,  to warm summer nights,  the sound of the waves,  the scent of jasmine, and the taste of  Karelia cigarettes. And with the passing of the years the bad memories  fade, while the good ones grow more luminous.

It is  New Year’s Eve, sometime in the 1980s, and I am in a bar in Havana, absently wondering whatever happened to the red and black poster of Che Guevara which once adorned my bedroom wall. Suddenly a group of Italians spring to their feet, and erupt, with a perfect command of words and tune, into a rendering of Carlos Puebla’s Hasta Siempre Comandante. They follow this with an emotional Bella Ciao. Then they embrace everyone and wish them a Happy New Year. But it is 6pm. Understanding dawns: it is midnight in Italy. The  evening proceeds punctuated with hourly performances from different national groups. And at midnight – a toast to Che.

It is the 1990s and I have realised  that I will “never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in (my) hair.” Instead, I drive a Vauxhall Corsa through Bristol’s rush hour traffic to work every morning, often stationary for what seems like hours at a cheerless roundabout on the A4. Meat Loaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light blasts from the car stereo. He is clearly having a better time than I am.

In  celebration of the Millennium, I book my partner and self on to a boat trip across Lake Nassar to Abu Simbel. As the boat moves slowly towards its destination the massive rock cut temples grow larger and the rich, extravagant strains of The Triumphal March from Aida crash upon the air. After dinner we go ashore and drink champagne and as midnight approaches the lights on the boat are extinguished and we are guided in silence through the velvet black night to the Great Temple of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. At midnight, the door is thrown open upon a blaze of light and we enter the hypostyle hall between the four colossal statues of Ramesses. Inside are dazzling floor to ceiling hieroglyphs and painted scenes of the Battle of Kadesh, more statues line the walls, and the ceiling is painted with winged vultures. Later, as the others make their way back to the boat, I close the massive door and stand alone in the temple. Three thousand years ago the Ancient Egyptians worshipped their Sun Gods here. Three thousand years hence the temple and its behemothic statues may still keep vigil beside Lake Nasser.

It is 2015 and the third week of July: the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival and Rally, a celebration of trade unionism and Labour politics, is taking place during a Labour leadership election. A wreath is laid at the grave of James Hammett and a procession of vibrant  banners precedes the speeches. Jeremy Corbyn is standing as leader of the Labour Party and his support, along with membership of the Labour party, is increasing rapidly. He is on the brink of achieving the  largest mandate ever won by a party leader, and by the hung Parliament of 2017 Labour’s share of the vote will have increased to 40% with a net gain of thirty seats. Without notes he gives an impassioned speech setting out his radical beliefs with eloquence and emotion, lucidity and resolve. By the time Billy Bragg follows the speeches with a rendering of The World Turned Upside Down,

“…Still the vision lingers on

You poor take courage, you rich take care

This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share”

it  feels as though the New Jerusalem is just around the corner. For the first time in my life British politics are electrifying, exciting hope and promising change.

That was another story which ended badly: a combination of antagonistic media and smear campaigns by political opponents caused Jeremy Corbyn to stand down and the Labour Party retreated into woolly centralism and unprincipled compromises. Tories tightened their grip and seven years on those high hopes have turned to ashes. But another Billy Bragg song  still raises smiles, hopes, and voices at Tolpuddle – There is Power in a Union. And as more unions reluctantly turn to strike action this autumn, our current political nadir may yet precipitate a sea change in British politics.

Remembering Raja Ram Mohan Roy

At  Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol a magnificent chattri towers incongrously above the angels, crosses, and obelisks which line the Ceremonial Way. Made from Bath stone but based on a traditional Bengali funeral monument, and much the grandest of the Victorian memorial sculptures, it marks the grave of Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

The chattri of Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, often referred to as The Father of Modern India, was a linguist and philosopher, committed to female rights, education, and religious reform. He was born into the Kulin Brahmin, those Bengali Brahmins designated Kulina or superior. They advocated the prevailing systems of polygamy, dowry, sati, caste rigidity and child marriage. In his childhood he witnessed the burning to death of his seventeen-year-old sister-in-law in a sati ceremony. Mohan Roy championed a social reform Hinduism which opposed all these practices, leading to conflict with the authorities of the day and with his own family. Committed to monotheism, he co-founded the Kolkata Unitarian Society in 1822 and the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, the latter specifically seeking to reform Kulin Brahminism tempering it with Unitarian beliefs.

For Mohan Roy, education was the key to social reform, and he established schools where teachers incorporated western learning into Indian education, believing that modern subjects were vital to prepare young people for success in the world. This integration of eastern and western culture brought further criticism,  as did his emphasis on the particular importance of education for girls.

He travelled widely, learning many languages, and defying the Hindu prohibition on crossing the Kala Pani, the Black Water, or the seas which separate India from foreign lands. Such journeys resulted not only in loss of social respectability but also, it was believed, precluded reincarnation when individuals were cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges.

Roy had been instrumental in obtaining a ban on the practice of sati which the British East Indian Company had long condoned to facilitate their own trading and colonial expansion. In 1830 he came to Britain, acting as Ambassador for the Mughal emperor, and successfully pressured the British government  into upholding the ban.

While in Britain the Raja visited his Unitarian friends in Bristol including Lant Carpenter and his daughter Mary. Influenced by her contact with him, Mary was to become a political and social activist campaigning against slavery, for prison reform, female education, and latterly for female suffrage.

Sadly, the Raja was never to leave Bristol,  for in 1833 he died of meningitis while staying at Beech House, the home of Unitarian friends in the suburb of Stapleton. According to Hindu beliefs he should have been cremated  but in the England of 1833 this was still illegal. Non-Christian burials in  Christian graveyards were also prohibited. And so, at a silent service, his friends buried him in the grounds of Beech House.

Ten years later new owners had purchased Beech House. Consequently, William Carr and William Prinsep, businesspeople who had worked in Kolkata, bought a plot in the new cemetery which the Bristol General Cemetery Company had established at Arnos Vale . They  moved Mohan Roy’s coffin to a brick lined vault in an unconsecrated section of the cemetery. The chattri was designed by  Prinsep and funded by Dwarkanath Tagore.

There is a celebration of the life of Raja Ram Mohan Roy  every year at Arnos Vale on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of his death  on 27th September 1833. This year marked  the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1772. Anyone is welcome at the ceremony and so  I joined members of Brahmo Samaj, Unitarians, a representative of the Indian High Commission, The Lord Mayor of Bristol, staff and volunteers at Arnos Vale, and other members of the public to honour the life and achievements of this remarkable man.

Mrs. Mariju Chowdhury, a member of Brahmo-Samaj speaking at the ceremony
Ovessa Iqbal laying flowers on behalf of the Indian High Commission
Laying flowers at the memorial
Carla Contactor speaking at the ceremony
At the memorial

There are other tributes to Mohan Roy in Bristol:

In Bristol Art Gallery, a magnificent portrait of the Raja provides a burst of colourful magnificence dominating a room of Victorian art.

Portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bristol Art Gallery

In 1998 the Indian government presented a bronze statue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to the City of Bristol in celebration of fifty years of Indian Independence. It stands  outside the cathedral on College Green.

Bronze statue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy outside Bristol Cathedral

There is a plaque on the wall of Beech House in Stapleton.

Beech House, Stapleton where Mohan Roy stayed on his visit to Bristol
Contrary to the dedication on the plaque, the Raja was born in May 1772

Next year the ceremony at Arnos Vale will be on 24th September.

Arnos Vale Cemetery  closed and fell into neglect in the 1980s. With no room for new burials, the income of the private for-profit company which owned it disappeared. With fewer descendants left to care for graves the cemetery  become overgrown and vandalised. In 1987 the company  proposed to clear away the graves and use the land for commercial development. The Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery led a successful campaign to save it, and in 2003 Bristol City Council made a compulsory purchase order. Today volunteers have cleared away brambles and overgrown paths, restored monuments, and cleaned graves. They host tours, talks, film, theatrical and musical productions. And they have a great café where in fine weather you can sit outside with the forty-five green acres of the new Eden stretching before you. If you find yourself in Bristol pay them a visit.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén