August 15, 2012
Hiding away on one of the leafy streets midway up Highgate Hill sits India House.
Bearing a blue plaque on the wall to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, there is little about 65 Cromwell Avenue that suggests it has the dubious claim of being the home of one of the first foreign terrorist cells to establish itself on on English soil.
Between 1905 and 1910, the house operated as an informal but hugely influential Indian nationalist organization. Fighting for Indian freedom from British Imperialism, India House was regarded as the one of the most revolutionary and radical centres of Indian nationalism outside India during the British Empire. Valentine Choril, the then-editor of the Times, even labelled the unassuming Victorian pile in a quiet, well-off side street “the most dangerous organization outside India.”
In the late 1890s, an Oxford-educated Indian named Shyamji Krishnavarma Bhansali (commonly known as S K Varma, 1857-1939) returned to England from India, where he had become increasingly resentful of British rule. He purchased a house in Muswell Hill with a view to establishing a base for an international Indian independence movement – one in the very heart of enemy territory.
His aim was to promote nationalist views amongst Indian students studying in Britain and Varma was visited at the house by a vast number of social thinkers and revolutionaries, including Lenin and Gandhi (then working as a lawyer.)
In 1905, Varma published his first issue of his anti-colonist newspaper The Indian Sociologist and inaugurated a new organisation called “The Indian Home Rule Society”.
1909 edition of The Indian Sociologist
The first meeting laid out the society’s aims: securing home rule for India, carrying on propaganda in England to achieve it, and spreading information about freedom and national unity in India. He followed the dictum of the philosopher Herbert Spencer (most famous for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest”, he is buried in nearby Highgate Cemetery): “Resistance to aggression is not simply justified, but imperative.”
In the same year, Varma purchased 65 Cromwell Avenue to be used as a hostel for 25 Indian students.
While ostensibly accommodation for students who were often racially discriminated against by other landlords, Varma’s underlying intention was to create a new generation of Indian radical patriots. It was formally inaugurated as India House by HM Hyndman, a Scottish Socialist, on 1 July 1905.
Varma may have been the driving force behind the foundation, but the activities which took place inside the house are most closely associated with Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), described as an “Indian patriot and philospher” on the blue plaque.
Savarkar, considered the central icon of modern Hindu nationalist political parties, lived at the house from 1906 to 1909, and together with the other men now regarded as the founding fathers of Indian communism and Hindu nationalism – men like VN Chatterjee, Lala Har Daval and VSS Aiyer – he started radical student societies and produced publications calling for complete Indian independence by revolutionary means.
Still only in his early twenties in his time in Highgate, Savarkar was a fiery young law student from Pune, whose fierce and incendiary nationalism was not shared by all of the students in the house.
Gandhi made another visit to the organization (his first to India House) in October 1906, and it has been suggested that Savarkar’s militant views about revolutionary violence (and the consequences resulting from those practices) may have influenced Gandhi’s subsequent nonviolent philosophy.
By 1906, the organization was starting to attract the attention of the British authorities. An editorial in the Times suggested Varma should be prosecuted for preaching “disloyal sentiments” to the Indian students staying in Cromwell Avenue. Following police visits to both the house and the printers of The Indian Sociologist in 1907, and fearing arrest was imminent, Varma fled to France, and Savarkar took over the operation of India House.
With Savarkar in charge, India House became swiftly radicalized. Sunday night meetings took place, where Savarkar selected topics for lectures ranging from the philosophy of revolution to bomb-making and assassination techniques. Badges – known as Mutiny Buttons – were produced commemorating the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the Indians who had died were referred to as ‘martyrs.’ The outbuilding of India House was converted to a “war workshop” where chemistry students attempted to produce explosives and manufacture bombs, while the printing press turned out “seditious” literature, including bomb-making manuals and pamphlets promoting violence toward Europeans in India.
Savarkar was at the heart of the scheme, spending a great deal of time in the explosives workshop and emerging on some evenings, according to a fellow revolutionary, “with telltale yellow stains of Picric acid on his hands”. The residents of India House practiced shooting at a range in Tottenham Court Road and rehearsed the assassinations they planned to carry out.
In 1909, Savarkar published The Indian War of Independence, which was considered so inflammatory that the British Library removed it from their catalogue to prevent Indian students from accessing it. As Savarkar’s speeches grew increasingly strident – he called for revolution, widespread violence, and the murder of all Englishmen in India – Scotland Yard placed India House under surveillance, and started to send undercover officers to meetings.
Even so, they totally underestimated the true danger that was slowly fermenting.
In July 1909, a member of India House named Madan Lal Dhingra assasinated Sir WH Curzon – an Indian army officer with close ties to the secretary of state of India, Lord Hamilton. Two years before, The Indian Sociologist had named Curzon as one of the “old unrepentant foes of India who have fattened on the misery of the Indian peasant every (sic) since they began their career.”
A student at the University of London and the son of a wealthy Hindu doctor, Dhingra shot Curzon at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington at an event organized by the National Indian Association.
Wearing a sky-blue turban in the Punjabi style and a smart suit, a necktie and dark glasses, Dhingra filled up his coat pockets with a revolver, two pistols and two knives.
Dhingra reached the party at eight. He went around talking to people there for some time. It was past ten when political aide-de-camp to the Secretary of State for India Curzon Wyllie and his wife arrived. Their arrival added zest to the merriment. It was about eleven when the proceeding ended. Wyllie got down from the dais. Then there was some music. Wyllie was moving around talking to people informally.
Dhingra fired five shots right at his face, four of which hit their target. Cowasji Lalkaka, a Parsee doctor who tried to save Sir Curzon, died of Madan Lal’s sixth and seventh bullets, which the latter fired because Lalkaka had caught hold of him.
He was hanged at Pentonville the following month. But Indian intelligence sources suggested that the assassination was Savarkar’s brainchild, and that further actions were planned in Britain as well as India.
The Metropolitan police were unable to bring a prosecution against Savarkar, since he had an alibi for the night, but over the following year, police and political sources brought pressure on the residents of India House to leave England. Many moved to Paris (in the footsteps of Varma) where the Paris Indian Society gradually took India House’s place as the centre of Indian nationalism on the continent.
The police brought strong pressure on India House and began gathering intelligence on Indian students in London. These, along with threats to their careers, robbed India House of its student support base. It slowly began to disassemble, and the residence was treated “akin to a leper’s home” by the Indian students in the city.
In March 1910, Savarkar was arrested upon his return to London from Paris where he had briefly fled to. He was put in Brixton prison, charged with sedition and abetment to murder and deported back to India. He was freed in 1924 after serving 14 years, and turned to politics.
He established the Hindu Mahasabha and working throughout the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s towards Indian independence from British rule: pro-Hindu, pro-Indian self-rule, and largely anti-violence.
Savarkar was one of the pivotal people in the independence movement, but disagreed with those around him: He did not like the Muslim Jinna – he believed the Indian Muslims and Indian Hindus were two different races – and he disapproved of Gandhi’s hunger strike in 1942.
Following independence, the murder of Gandhi in 1948 by Nathuram Godse – the editor of a newspaper that held Mahasabha views – led to reprisals against Hindus, and Savarker’s house was attacked. In May 1948, he was arrested with nine other men and was accused of being behind Gandhi’s assassination. A witness stated to the court that Savarker had sent two of his men a mission to assassinate Gandhi and Prime Minister Nehru, charging them to “be successful and to return.”
In February 1949, Savarkar was the only one of the nine men to be released without charge – two (including Godse) were executed, five transported for life and one turned King’s evidence. He largely retired after the trial, and died in 1966 at the age of 83.
Over the years, Savarkar has been viewed as both patriot and terrorist, but his slow ascent to respectability has no better marker than the blue plaque on the side of the house that the British establishment once drove him from.
But that’s nothing compared to his veneration in parts of India. In December 2010, an exact brick-by-brick replica of the Highgate house was built in Savarker’s birthplace of Mandvi-Kutch, Gujurat. Set in 52 acres, the replica house contains a children’s play area, statues and a fountain.
The only thing it lacks is the blue plaque.
UPDATE: Thanks to Nicole for the following clarification: “The museum in Gujerat which includes an exact replica of India House was built to commemorate SK Varma, who founded it, rather than Savarkar.”
May 21, 2012
In May 2012, a new Banksy wall painting in Turnpike Lane was excitedly reported by the world’s media. Depicting a child making Jubilee bunting, the trail of flags were removed after less than 24 hours.
Now that the debate as to whether graffiti is art is long over, a new problem has arisen with street art: it’s easy to ruin it.
While many of Banksy’s pieces have been covered with plexiglass by the owners of the buildings they appear on, countless works have been destroyed.
There’s all manners of ways in which London is deprived of these pieces of public art.
In September 2011, the work above appeared on the side of Luti Fagbenle’s post-production company, Portobello Post, in Portobello Road – Banksy painted it on a Sunday morning, having erected scaffolding so he could work unseen while the Portobello Market was in full swing. After protecting it with plexiglass, Fagbenle put the piece up for auction on eBay, saying “‘I could never justify owning a piece of art worth that much.”
With a Buy It Now price of £1,000,000, it attracted a high bid of £208,100 (and an additional £5000 to remove it from the wall, and consequently repair the hole left behind.)
Less professional attempts have also been made to remove pieces for sale: Lily Evans wrote an article for Vice Magazine about her disastrous attempt to retrieve a famous rat which ended in the complete destruction of the piece.
Similarly, some pieces have been removed not for profit, but by local councils, keen not to have their workplaces despoiled.
In October 2008, Westminister City Council demanded the removal of a huge mural painted on a building part-occupied by the Royal Mail sorting office on Newman Street.
While the Council said the owner of the building was free to do what he liked with the three-storey high-image – sell it or exhibit it elsewhere – they demanded it be removed from the site.
Deputy leader of the council Robert Davis said keeping the mural would mean “condoning” graffiti. “I take the view that this is graffiti and if you condone this then what is the difference between this and all the other graffiti you see scrawled across the city? If you condone this then you condone graffiti all over London.”
Westminster Council couldn’t have taken a more opposing view to Camden, who had long spoken of their admiration for Banksy’s maid, which had been stencilled on a wall belonging to the Roundhouse close to Chalk Farm Road.
But on the night the Hawley Arms and Lock Market caught fire in February 2008, the Camden New Journal reported “another Camden icon was being destroyed.”
The maid was obliterated with white paint.
The whitewash attack in Regent’s Park Road was made under cover of darkness, with a sarcastic calling card wishing “All the Best – Vida” left spray-painted at the scene.
The actions of the mysterious “Vida” fly in the face of an unspoken law practised by council officials, which has seen Banksy’s street art preserved, even retouched, while all other artistic offerings on the same wall – the most recent a life-sized wooden mantelpiece – are swiftly removed.
Beyind saving, the council commissioned a large mural from the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra to replace it.
The needless defacing of Banksy’s works has never been more apparent than in Archway, where one of his most famous stencils of Charles Manson hitching a ride to ‘Anywhere’ had stood opposite the McDonalds on Junction Road since 2005.
One of the oldest of Banksy’s large-scale works, by the time I took these photos in 2009, the image was weather-worn and some additional graffiti had appeared.
But in 2010, Banksy was accused of altering a twenty-five-year-old tag by Robbo (described by the Guardian as “one of the founding fathers of the London graffiti scene) on the Regents Canal.
By now hugely successful, Banksy eliminated much of the original with the addition of a workman pasting the tag up like wallpaper.
Insulted by Banksy’s actions, Robbo (now dubbed King Robbo) returned to re-alter the altered tag. In an interview with the Sabotage Times, Robbo said he did it himself, scooting across the canal in a wetsuit on an inflatable lilo.
He broke a graff code of conduct and for a lawless community we have a lot of laws, so I had to come back. What people don’t realise is that he’d already gone over loads of my stuff before and I hadn’t bothered retaliating but this time it was just so deliberate, so cowardly. If you’ve got the hump about something, you send a message and discuss it like gentlemen, you don’t wipe out a piece of graffiti history.
As the war of words on walls started to grow, Team Robbo set about altering many of Banksy’s works in North London. Following alterations to works in Camden Town, the Archway hitchhiker’s sign was changed from ‘Anywhere’ to ‘Going Nowhere.’
The alteration to the sign was quickly buffed out (presumably by the Council) and the original figure was left holding a blank sign for a couple of months.
But in November 2011, supposedly irritated by the respect accorded to Banksy by the authorities while their own efforts had been cleaned away, someone from Team Robbo decided to entirely obliterate the Hitchhiker with white paint.
A ‘spokesman’ told the Islington Times:
Regarding the Archway piece, Team Robbo and Team Banksy are still ‘at war’ and, unfortunately, there is sometimes collateral damage to innocent artworks. It has become increasingly hard for us to verify whether or not a specific artwork has been attacked or damaged in crossfire. Furthermore, many writers outside the Team Robbo crew in London are involved in covert actions.
After six months, the decision was taken to clean the work off the wall entirely.
All that remains after five years is a pale, ghostly outline of the Banksy.
Team Robbo have occassionally tagged the Archway area – here’s their hesitant contribution from a nearby building site next to the Whittington and Cat pub which appeared in the last couple of months.
November 9, 2011
From 1768 until it was finally sold in 2002, Britain’s most famous publisher was run by a man by the name of John Murray.
John Murray wasn’t a single man – but seven men from the same family all of whom bore the same name (they are differentiated by a number, I to VII.) All but the first John Murray operated from a building at 50 Albemarle Street, Piccadilly, the outside of which still bears their name a decade after the company was bought and absorbed into Hodder Headline.
Renowned as an uncanny spotter of literary talent, John Murray II (1778-1843) moved the firm his father had started from Edinburgh to Albemarle Street in 1812, a year after he began publishing the works of Lord Byron (1788-1824).
Byron’s epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage had been an instant sensation, selling out in just five days and turning the 24-year-old into a superstar of the age. In Byron’s own words, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” For the whole of his life and for many centuries afterwards, he was simply regarded as the greatest poet the world had ever known.
The publisher and the poet met for the first time in the upstairs drawing room of the offices – a room which would later play host to one of the most infamous incidents in the history of lost English literature.
As the 1820s advanced, so too did the fortunes of Murray’s firm. He published Jane Austen – Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – along with Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott. His regular afternoon teas at the house – known as “Four O’Clock Friends” – ensured the house became a meeting point for the biggest and brightest names in literary London.
For Byron, however, the passing years had not been so profitable. His name had become associated with whispered allegations throughout society of sexual promiscuity, affairs with married women, siring illegitimate children, homosexuality, sodomy and even incest – and the whispers were getting louder. In 1816, Byron left England for good, spending the last eight years of his short life in exile abroad.
Byron died in Greece in 1824, struck down with a fever while leading a troop of soldiers against the Ottoman Empire in the War of Greek Independence. In death, the formerly scandalised Byron became a hero, celebrated for his passion, untamed nature, arrogance, wilfulness, tortured soul, tangled love-life and untimely death. Not just the template for the Romantic hero, Byron’s very name became a by-word for the noble virtues and tragic flaws he encapsulated.
Once his body was shipped back to England (with rumours rife that his heart had been removed and buried in Greece), he was refused burial at Westminster Abbey, who cited his “questionable morality.” One of the greatest of all English poets, Byron wasn’t even awarded a memorial in the Abbey until 1969.
With the doors of the Abbey closed to him, a long funeral procession was organised to take his body from London to Hucknall in Nottinghamshire (close to his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey.) As Byron’s body passed through Highgate, the cortege was witnessed by his elderly contemporary Coleridge, who was standing alongside the young pharmacist’s assistant from whom he made his regular, surreptitious purchases of opium.
On 17th May 1824, a month after Byron’s death, John Murray would participate in one of the most notorious acts in the annals of literature in the upstairs drawing room of 50 Albemarle Street.
During his exile in 1822, Byron named the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852) as his literary executor and handed him a manuscript of his personal memoirs which he wanted to be published at a later date.
But with Byron dead, and the public clamouring for anything bearing his name, Murray made a decision. Having been presented with the two volumes of Byron’s memoirs by Moore, he decided he had to act.
Byron’s memoirs had to be destroyed.
With the agreement of five of Byron’s friends and executors of his will (and with the only opposition coming from Moore), the men set about pulling apart the pages and burning the pages in the fireplace of the drawing room.
Whatever Byron had written, Murray believed the memoirs were so scandalous they would forever damage Byron’s reputation, and possibly his own should he ever publish them. Even Moore, who in 1832 wrote a biography of Byron and was heavily criticised for allowing the memoirs to be destroyed, never divulged their contents.
Of what Byron wrote, which shocked Murray so deeply, we know only one thing; it left the house at Albemarle Street via the chimney.
In destruction, Byron’s memoirs gained infamy; they became the most celebrated work of literature that no-one would ever read.
For centuries afterwards, a massive portrait of Byron has been hanging above the very fireplace which rendered his final words into silent spots of ash and soot.
May 4, 2011
While everyone knows Highgate Cemetery is full of interesting and noteworthy monuments, I didn’t stumble across this one until 2009.
It’s genuinely a surprise when you stumble upon it – you rarely see the word ‘dead’ celebrated in a graveyard, let alone spelled out in huge laser-cut letters on a six-foot slab of granite.
The painter and print-maker Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005) was a contemporary of David Hockney. Regarded as part of the Pop Art movement. and a Turner Prize nominee in 1987, Caulfield designed the memorial which now sits on his grave.
There’s lots of Caulfield’s work available to see online, but if you fancy seeing the grave, it’s in the east side of Highgate Cemetery – down the central road, and almost to the railings at the very end.