“We can’t sit on that” said Ravi Shankar as we looked down on the unvarnished and splintery floor boards on the stage

Alla Rakha on tabla, Prodyut Sen on tamboura and Ravi Shankar on sitar.

My elation at having secured a visit from Ravi Shankar and his group was rapidly evaporating. We were in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. It was 1958 and Ravi Shankar was already an international star and the leading player of Indian classical music throughout the world. He had composed the music for Satjit Ray’s internationally acclaimed film “Pather Panchali” and was well known for his performances throughout the USA, Europe and India. He was well on the way to super stardom, with performances to come in the 1960s with George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and at Woodstock.

I was president of the Oxford Majlis, a University club specialising in Asian politics and culture. I had been somewhat surprised when Ravi Shankar had accepted my invitation and considered it very gracious of him. And now, having dined him and his group at the Oxford Union, we had taken a taxi the short distance to the Holywell Music Room, the oldest custom-built concert hall in Europe, opening in1748.

The show was going to be a sell-out with all two hundred or so of the tickets already sold. Fortunately we had half an hour to go before the performance was due to start.

I assured Ravi that I would sort something out but I was not sure that he looked all that convinced. I sent one of my committee members to search through the props boxes of the stage and after a few moments he came back triumphantly with an armful of blankets. Blessed relief. The show would go on. However euphoria rapidly turned to despair as we shook out the blankets in a cloud of choking dust and discovered they had been eaten to shreds by rats.

Ravi did not look happy.

I had to do something and assured him I would find a solution and that he and his group would be comfortably seated. I explained that this would take about five minutes.

Ravi looked sceptical.

Fortunately my college, Wadham, was a two minute dash round the corner. I raced in through the gatehouse and entered the first room in the corner of the quadrangle. All doors in those days were unlocked and luckily there was no sign of the undergraduate who resided there. I grabbed all the blankets off the bed plus a small rug off the floor and raced past the porter in the gatehouse, round the corner and into the Music Room, pushing past the audience who were beginning to turn up.

Ravi asked no questions, happily settled down on the pirated blankets and rug and went on to delight the audience with a magnificent sitar recital.

Close to a quarter of a century later I took my son Rodney and his friend Sean to a Ravi Shankar performance in the Sydney Opera House. As I looked at Ravi on the stage and around at the sell-out audience of two thousand or so, I had a moment of quiet satisfaction at knowing I had played a small and totally irrelevant role in his career.


Sydney, January 2021

Santa’s cover blown

A cold Sussex evening in December 1977. A group of us were doing a door knock collecting gifts of food for the poor of the town. We belonged to the East Grinstead Round Table (akin to Australian Apex). We found the most generous people (rushing indoors to contribute Christmas puddings, cakes, tins of fruit, chocolate and lollies, etc) were usually the poor and elderly themselves. The young, I suppose, were going flat strap trying to pay their mortgages in this attractive, highly desirable town about fifty km south of London….. and had little charity to spare.

We had our own Santa – local veterinarian Euan, a quiet-spoken Scot and thoroughly decent fellow, well-known and respected in the town. A few months earlier we had watched his look of horror as a visiting group of French Round Tablers presented the president of our club with a large, white and very French cockerel. They had smuggled it through H.M. Customs at Newhaven after crossing on the ferry from Dieppe and, with Gallic insouciance and the characteristic French shoulder shrug, ignored British biosecurity rules. It is reliably known that later that evening Euan volunteered to take care of the cockerel, after wresting it from the club president who probably had had ideas for Sunday lunch. The bird was not seen again but it is pretty sure that our conscientious vet did the right thing.

Now in December, our evening of collecting had begun well. Santa’s sack was already brimming with reverse Christmas gifts. Local vet Euan, disguised as Santa, was clad in his red robe, with hood drawn close to his face and wearing a long white beard. So far nobody, adults or kids, had recognised him in about twenty or so door knocks.

We came to the door of a little cottage on the outskirts of the town. Santa knocked on the door and a small boy opened it.

“You’re not Santa”, said the boy. “You killed my cat!”

Illustration: Eleni Sen



Back in the 1940s in wartime London, all kids owned guns – not the fragile plastic things bought today by politically incorrect parents. Most of us owned sturdy, die cast metal Colt 45 Six Shooters. Ours were of course better than the real thing. We were not limited to six shots before re-loading. We could fire up to a hundred shots at a time with our rolls of caps.

Illustration: Eleni Sen

We sometimes played “Cops and Robbers” but mostly it was “Cowboys and Indians” because those were the films we were most likely to see on Saturday mornings at the local flea pit. I suppose we were also politically incorrect by today’s standards, especially when we corralled the imaginary wagons and ordered “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes”.

Although there was a grassy park not a mile away, we preferred the car-free streets of our South London neighbourhood as our Wild West prairie.

Entertained on a diet of Western films, we were inclined to hero worship Americans, especially John Wayne and Randolph Scott, but we drew the line at the “Singing Cowboy- Roy Rogers” who we dismissed as “soppy”.

Round about that time, London filled up with American servicemen and, although not many ventured to our suburb of Brixton, we did occasionally see one or two striding around in their smart uniforms and chewing gum. How we longed to do the same! One or two lucky kids had even succeeded in approaching them and been rewarded when asking “Got any gum, chum?” Generally the Yanks welcomed these approaches by kids. Most I suppose were kids of eighteen or nineteen themselves and missing their younger siblings.

We didn’t need to travel far to come across bomb sites and these ruins became our adventure playground. Imagine our delight when one day we discovered among the ruins a number of batteries covered in black, sticky tar. We eagerly picked off blobs of said tar and spent the rest of the day swaggering around masticating our ersatz chewing gum.

Illustration: Eleni Sen

We kids were very superstitious. Whenever we saw an ambulance we had to hold our shirt collars until we saw a dog. If we did not do so, we believed our mothers would drop dead. Sometimes we spent hours wandering the streets looking for a dog – while no doubt our mothers would almost die of anxiety wondering where we were.

On one occasion we wandered into a bombed building and came across a dead cat with swarms of flies buzzing around. One of my friends told us to run off or “we would get THE FEVER”. I like to think that this was a direct link across the generations of kids for three hundred years back to the time of The Great Plague of London, when kids would no doubt have issued similar warnings. Indeed I recently discovered that during the Great Plague of 1665 many people thought that cats were carriers of that year’s pandemic and huge numbers of cats were killed. The true culprits, the rats, were ignored.

Eventually peace came to Europe and my parents celebrated VE Night by taking us up to London to the newly opened Waterloo Bridge. Everywhere huge crowds were out on the street celebrating victory in Europe. I had read in stories that the streets of London were paved with gold and to my delight I found this was true. There were pieces of gold everywhere and I eagerly stuffed them into my trouser pockets. It was only when I got home that I came face to face with the reality that they were crown corks off beer bottles.


Sydney, November 2020

The Blind Beggar

“Do not give alms to the blind beggar” said my Bengali-English phrasebook. I had bought the book in Sydney to brush up on my Bengali prior to a visit to Kolkota (Calcutta) in 2006. It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the publication date did I see that it must have been printed over and over again for the past hundred years. This would account for other odd phrases such as “Order the syce to find out where we can buy fodder for the horses”. Being able to say this in Bengali would have been a valuable linguistic accomplishment for a fresh-faced young subaltern on his first posting with the Raj in 1906. It wasn’t going to be much use to me in one of Asia’s biggest cities in 2006. Still what else could I expect for an outlay of $3.95.

As it turned out, during a couple of weeks in Kolkota, I saw no blind beggars. Indeed, unlike my prior visit in 1959 when beggars, full- or part-limbed, sighted or blind, were abundant, this time I do not recall seeing any – due, said the locals, to the government whisking them away out of sight to who knows where.

However the concept of a blind beggar became imprinted on my subconscious and resurfaced in an unexpected way four years after the visit to Kolkota. My wife and I had been invited to a family wedding in Stuttgart and here I was in Sydney, working out what to wear for the ceremony – a suit of course- I had several in the wardrobe and these days they got worn only for weddings and funerals- sadly, more of the latter than the former. Here was an opportunity – to clear up wardrobe space by getting rid of the oldest suit. Sure, to outward appearances and in the absence of closer inspection, it would suffice for one last appearance at the wedding, but the suit was on a one-way ticket and would not be returning to Australia. On the other hand I could imagine no one in prosperous Germany interested in taking my suit off my hands.

This led to working out where we should go for a holiday after the Stuttgart wedding. We considered a number of sunny options but it was relative GDP that finally swayed the decision. One southern European place was pretty well as good as any other – they all had cathedrals, palaces, ancient ruins, trams, sunshine – and horrid tourist food. However, one candidate stood out. It had to be Portugal – and Lisbon in particular. When last there in 1961 I had noticed it was an impoverished place. This is where I would find lots of beggars and in particular a blind beggar to whom I could – noblesse oblige – donate my old suit.

Why, you ask, a blind beggar? The answer should be pretty obvious. A sighted beggar would doubtless ooze with Iberian pride and spot that my suit was a bit tatty and haughtily reject my munificence. The suit would probably be thrown back in my face. Yes it would have to be a blind beggar who would no doubt joyfully welcome the gift with a sincere obregado.

And so we flew to Lisbon. First impressions were highly favourable – the airport was crowded, grubby, old and decrepit. If I had any doubts, my spirits were lifted. This just had to be the place to part company with the suit.

Sadly Portugal had prospered in the preceding fifty years and, try as I might, during three tedious days of wandering the streets of Lisbon, I never encountered a blind beggar, nor regretfully any beggars. Later I discovered that the Portuguese had done wonderful things with their economy and their social welfare network: and beggars had become obsolete. As a trained economist, I suppose I should have known, but we all have our blind spots.

So one morning I crept out of our hotel, just before the garbos came round, and deposited my suit in the nearest green bin.

Illustration by Eleni Sen

It had been a humbling experience and one more of life’s hard-earned lessons. I reflect with shame at my arrogance in not reckoning that even if I had found a blind beggar, his compensating superior tactile skills would have soon discovered the frayed cuffs and the torn lining – and the suit would doubtless have been thrown back in where he thought was my face.


Sydney 2020

Letter to an Anti-Vaxxer

I FELT SAD as I stood by the German Cemetery in Bamenda, high on a hill in West Africa. Row upon row of gravestones commemorating young soldiers, eighteen and nineteen years old – boys really- who had not died in battle but who had succumbed to yellow fever or one of the other tropical diseases rife in these parts around 1900. At twenty one I was little older than these German lads. They did not have the benefit of the vaccinations which in 1960 would ensure my safe return home.

I FELT SAD when a few months ago I learned of the measles epidemic in Vanuatu, in which hundreds of children suffered and sixty died because, through their parents’ ignorance or through unavailability, they had not been vaccinated. Such an avoidable tragedy.

I FELT SAD for my mother who lost four of her sisters in infancy through various childhood illnesses which are now preventable by vaccinations.

I FELT SAD for the health workers murdered recently by the Pakistan Taliban because they were administering polio vaccines in the villages.

I FEEL GLAD that I and my family are fortunate to live in an era when we have been able, through vaccination, to avoid the disaster of all manner of diseases including typhoid fever, polio, TB, measles, rubella, diptheria, smallpox, yellow fever and many others.

I FEEL GLAD that BILLIONS of children and adults over the past century or so have avoided these horrific diseases through participating in government- and n.g.o.- sponsored vaccination programs.

I FEEL SAD at the lack of judgement displayed by opponents of vaccination, at their rejection of science, at their ignorance and misuse of statistics, at their misleading claims, at their naive willingness to be duped by unscrupulous purveyors of mistruths.

I FEEL SAD that the opponents of vaccination do not seem to understand that, accepting there may be slight risks in vaccination, these are outweighed hugely by its benefits to the great majority of people.

I FEEL SAD that those who actively promote anti-vaccination (for instance by sharing social media posts) do not seem to understand they are not just expressing an opinion, but, to the extent that they are able to convince others, are contributing to human misery, sickness and death.

I HOPE that the vaccination-sceptics will fail miserably in their cruel and deceptive scaremongering.

I HOPE the irony eventually hits home to at least some anti-vaxxers that they themselves might never have come into existence had they not had the good fortune to have been born into communities where most people, including perhaps their forbears, had been vaccinated.

I FEEL HOPEFUL that, due to the knowledge, hard work and dedication of thousands of scientists and health workers, Covid will end up like so many other evils – kept at bay with a friendly little jab.


Sydney, October 2020

Poppy for a Bobby

In class-conscious, snobby, mid-century England, the family kept quiet about my father, now a respected and much-loved general medical practitioner, having once been a successful market trader.


London 1943

“Won’t be long , sir” I said as I put the cork liners in the perfume bottles. I was almost five years old and helping my father as he set up his stall to sell perfumes.

This was my father’s first day in the business. Dad was a medical student. He earned his living, fed and housed his family and paid for his studies by a variety of jobs, always self-employed. At one time he sold tips at the races. At another he hired space in a department store and told fortunes, capitalising on his exotic Bengali appearance and the mystic East. At some time he and my mother ran a fancy goods store in south London.

His most successful business venture was going to be making and selling perfumes. During wartime there was a scarcity of luxury goods and perfume provided a great opportunity to earn some real money.

The night before he had mixed all the ingredients at home in our small flat in Brixton,, sorting them into a number of large glass jars. At the market the contents would be transferred, according to popularity, into small bottles for sale to the customers. That morning we had set off walking to the tram stop at the top of the road, my father carrying everything in a large leather suitcase. The case must have been unimaginably heavy, but this is where his early athletic fitness would have stood him in good stead. He had been an Olympic swimming triallist for India.

By tram we travelled to the East Lane outdoor market, a piece of London history dating back to the 16th century and still in existence today. Here he hired a stall and commenced trading.

Dad had an aversion to bureaucracy and had not bothered to get the obligatory traders permit from the authorities.

Not long after we set up stall we were approached by a burly London bobby who asked to see Dad’s permit. When my father was unable to produce it, the policeman asked, “Where’s my poppy?” My father was unaware that “poppy” was cockney slang for a bribe.

Innocently my father replied, “Sorry, we don’t have poppy. How about a bottle of June Rose?”

Remember this was wartime and luxury goods such as perfume were almost unobtainable.

The bobby burst out laughing and went away delighted with his bottle of June Rose, as was no doubt his wife or girlfriend.


The man who fooled the British Raj

Sometime in the 1920s, the British authorities conducted an audit of the political prisoners they had incarcerated in the Andaman Islands in a remote part of the Bay of Bengal. To their surprise they found that they had one more prisoner than shown in their records. This was especially amazing because the prison at Port Blair had an horrific reputation and no one went there willingly. To the British officials, schooled in belief in the omnipotence of the Raj, this revelation was not only puzzling. It was exceedingly humiliating. How had their efficient administration screwed up?

The British had been using the Andaman Islands as a place to imprison Indian freedom fighters since the rebellion of 1857 (a.k.a. The Indian Mutiny). By the beginning of the twentieth century the scale of Indian independence activity against British rule was so widespread that the Government opened the Cellular Jail in the Andamans in 1906. Designed to house almost 700 prisoners, many sent there for life, it was frequently full. Every cell was for solitary confinement and the authorities, mindful of the rebellious nature of their political charges, ensured there was no contact between inmates.

As the twentieth century rolled on, scores of pro-independence groups throughout India were active in speech-making, seditious pamphlets, sabotage, assassinations, bombings, robberies (to raise funds) and even in small military battles against British troops. All had the aim of driving the British out of India. The authorities often resorted to hanging those they caught. Those convicted of less serious offences like sedition were transported to the Andamans, some for life. As a result, the Cellular Jail was frequently at capacity.

Located far away from the Indian mainland, the authorities treated the inmates harshly and often inhumanely. Food and water were inadequate and often contaminated. Prisoners toiled long hours at forced labour in hot tropical conditions. Disease was rife and medical treatment almost non-existent. Prisoners were often flogged, sometimes to death. Suicide was frequent. When prisoners managed to break through the enforced isolation and rioted in protest at conditions, ringleaders were hanged.

By the 1920s there was a growing sense of resentment amongst Indians at the indignities of foreign rule. In Amritsar in 1919, General Reginald Dyer had ordered British Indian troops to fire on unarmed civilians, killing almost four hundred and wounding over a thousand. There was widespread condemnation, not only in India but worldwide. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore registered his disgust by renouncing his British knighthood. In 1920, Gandhi launched his non-cooperation movement of strikes and civil disobedience. In 1921 Gandhi became leader of the Indian National Congress and began campaigning for swaraj ( = self rule).

Against this background, enter my grandfather’s elder brother, Rajanikanta (RK), living in Cuttack on the east coast of India, a clerk on the governor’s staff. For over a hundred years educated Bengalis had made good clerks, serving the administrative needs of the Raj in a humble capacity. Though he depended for his livelihood on working for the Raj, RK like so many other Indians yearned for the day when the British were thrown out and, who knows, some of the top jobs might become available to well-qualified locals.

One day he saw his opportunity to get back at the Raj when he became aware a freedom fighter was scheduled to be hanged. He forged the governor’s signature on a reprieve and had the man transferred as a political prisoner to the Andamans.

Somehow the requisite paperwork did not accompany the man when he arrived in Port Blair but nevertheless he ended up in the Circular Jail.

When the misdeed was eventually discovered, you might think that the authorities would have taken revenge on RK and at the very least given him a long jail sentence, maybe in the Andamans. However it seems that the authorities realized that the resultant publicity might rebound on them and show up the incompetence of the mighty Raj in allowing the fraud to occur. Remember this was an increasingly sensitive time and they must have felt that the prestige of British administration should not be compromised in any way. The British Raj could not be seen to be ridiculed by an insignificant Bengali Babu.

So RK was asked to take a “Voluntary Retirement”. He was told to keep quiet about the incident on pain of prosecution and of course it remained a taboo subject which no one in the family talked about until after Indian Independence in 1947.

Meanwhile, RK managed to get himself a job as a clerk in an English company. He did not like the work but his attempts to resign were rejected by his English manager because RK was good at his job. In his frustration and in order to force the issue he snatched the manager’s hat from its stand, put it on and strolled around the office proclaiming that he was now an Englishman. He thus succeeded in losing his job, came home and declared that others would easily be able to bring up his children. That is how his younger brother Dr Durgadas Sen, my grandfather, came to bring up and educate some of his nephews.

Later RK earned fame and popularity as a street bard who lampooned Englishmen.

RK went to live in the family home in Bankura in rural Bengal where he died in 1931 aged sixty three, having a laugh about the English to the end.


An Unexpected Honour

Until I heard the siren I felt on top of the world. I had allowed myself three days for the trip from New Jersey to St Louis, Missouri, and was driving along the freeway enjoying seeing new places across middle America. It was the mid seventies.

The cop made me pull over, dismounted from his motor bike and declared “I’m going to issue you with citation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” That sounded pretty fantastic: my initial apprehensions were instantly dispelled. However, I could not fathom out why the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had singled me out for this illustrious honour.

My brain went into overdrive and for a few moments I enjoyed the fantasy of receiving an illuminated address from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, complete with crest and some unctuous words of gratitude honouring my service to the State – something I would be proud to frame and hang on my study wall.

The reality was of course quite different. The cop handed me over a piece of yellow paper, sure enough headed “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” and on the next line the word “Citation”. As I read further it told me I had been fined $100 for speeding.

The cop gave me the choice of going before a judge in the nearest town or sending in the money by postal draft. I opted for the latter and was allowed to continue my journey.

A couple of days later I went to a post office in St Louis, bought $100 postal draft and posted it to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

On many occasions I enjoyed telling this tale in the course of socialising with various Americans , many in the mid-western Bible belt. Their response was always the same: “You didn’t need to pay. You are not an American. You could have easily got away without paying”.

This gave me the glorious opportunity to put on my most sanctimonious voice and smuggest smirk and reply: ” But I have not come to your country to break your laws”.

There was invariably a gratifying lull in the conversation as my loquacious companions moved into embarrassed silence.


The Fox

I was sixteen and I was hungry. For two days I had lived only on bread and water and fruit filched from orchards. This was the flip side of hitchhiking through Europe and running low on funds apart from an emergency stash to get me to friends in Paris.

Dutch lad Wouter and I had met at a youth hostel the day before and agreed to travel together. We had got a lift in a truck just outside Grenoble and the driver had taken us about a hundred km north before dropping us off at an intersection a couple of km from a large village. We spent a long time hoping for another lift but nothing came our way. Looking back hitchhiking seems an idiotic way to travel and see places – I am left with distinct memories of hours hanging about by the roadside but only a hazy recollection of the sights I had set out to visit. At the time, however, it was a great adventure. Eventually we decided to walk into the village, keeping an eye out for fruit trees on the way.

Wouter, who was a bit older than me, was as broke as I was but generously shared his last bar of chocolate with me.

I remember it was a beautiful sunny September day and we walked through flat but agreeable countryside.

We spotted an object lying on the grass verge beside the road. As we approached it turned out to be a hit-and-run victim- a fox- newly dead as rigor mortis had not yet set in. At once I realised that our hunger problems were solved. No, not what you think. Even on an empty stomach, barbecued fox sounded singularly unappetising – not to mention utterly yukky.

I told Wouter that in England the authorities were dealing with a plague of foxes and were offering good money – about five pounds I believe – to anyone bringing in a dead fox. I was confident that there must be a similar program in France. All we needed to do was to take the fox into the village, find the local gendarmerie and collect our reward. Wouter was happy to go along with the plan.

In my hungry imagination a plate of steak and frites loomed tantalizingly close, followed perhaps by a creme caramel or one of those delicious raspberry ices the French were doing fifty years before anyone else.

We had to work out how we were going to transport the fox. We decided on an act of vandalism (such a relief to be able to confess after all these years). We broke down a sapling growing beside the road and stripped off its branches. This was how we were going to carry the fox. There was a further technical problem to overcome. How to attach the fox to our new pole? Wouter had a brain wave. Tie it on by the feet. No rope! Solution – use our shoe laces, one lace from one of his shoes and one from one of mine.

I must say we did a pretty good job with the fox upside down and front and back legs tethered to the pole. This we carried on our shoulders, one leading, the other following, just, we thought, like a couple of coolies (not a politically incorrect term at the time).

There was one downside to this arrangement – the fox was bleeding from the nostrils, leaving a trail of blood as we proceeded towards the village. Other than that the fox was in perfect condition – apart from being dead.

When we eventually arrived we stopped by a small bar. We were still shouldering our burden of dripping fox. Some old men were sitting in the sun outside and I must concede that, with the benefit of hindsight, we must have looked weird, to say the least. This was especially so as we both had a pronounced limp due to each lacking a shoelace. Asked what we thought we were doing, we asked the way to the gendarmerie.

“Why?” they demanded. With great self-confidence and bad French we explained we were going to claim our bounty for turning in the fox. At this the old men burst out laughing and one said something like”Sacre bleu. Ces etrangers sont absolument fous. Nous n’avons pas besoin de ces imbeciles dans notre village” (Trans: Oh dear, silly boys). “Allez vous en – fiche le camp” (Trans: Bugger off).

We were then advised not to go anywhere near the police station as the gendarmes were likely to run us in as vagabonds. Nobody paid a bounty for dead foxes in these parts.

One kindly old man did say that when he was a boy (must have been over seventy years previously) his folks would have skinned and eaten the fox but they didn’t do it nowadays. I still do not know if this was true or he just said the first thing that came into his head to soften our disappointment.

So off we trekked through the village with our sad cargo, which we dumped in the corner of a field.

And Oh! The luxury of having both shoes firmly laced once more.


Confession of an atheist

“I don’t believe in this heaven nonsense. When you’re dead you’re no better than a dead dog or cat”, said my maternal grandfather, John Milner. Aged seven I had seen my fill of dead cats during my foraging through bombed out buildings in south London and knew instantly what my granddad was getting at. Dead cats were smelly, fly-blown, shudder-making and disgusting. Oddly, granddad’s words did not make me hope for a more salubrious terminal destination. If anything they served to reinforce my incipient atheism, the feeling that if there really was a god then he would not allow all the horrible things to happen in the world (it was wartime after all).

Looking back, my grandfather’s atheism was remarkable in that in his working life he had been a highly skilled ornamental metalworker with Bainbridge Reynolds, leading specialists in ecclesiastical metalwork (check ’em out on Wikipedia). Granddad’s work was on display in churches throughout the country. So he owed his livelihood to Christianity and its trappings.

My father, a Bengali doctor, was what I suppose might be called a “social hindu”. He often took us to Indian functions celebrating some religious festival but his main motivation was to socialise with others of the Bengali diaspora rather than indulge in anything spiritual. True, he had from time to time officiated at Indian funerals as he knew Sanskrit and could give the deceased a respectable send off with appropriately holy words. We had no idols in our house and I had often thought that my father’s effective absence of religious belief was possibly a reaction to his mother’s piety. As I discovered many years later when I visited her in India, she spent much of her day in prayer, though whether this was because of deeply held beliefs or because it was the respectable thing for a widow of her generation to do, I never discovered.

At my primary school our teacher, Miss Mayhew, tried to give us a Christian upbringing with bible stories and hymns. Most of these were cloyingly sentimental Victorian concoctions such as “Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat; thank you for the birds that sing, than you god for everything”. I always enjoyed doing my own bit of sabotage by singing “thank you for the birds we eat, thank you for the food that sings”. At Easter we would sing the puzzling “There is a green hill far away without a city wall”. As a city dweller I could never figure out why it would have occurred to anyone to comment on the absence of a city wall around a remote rural hill.

The hymn that really irritated me was “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. I thoroughly enjoyed being a little boy, playing in the street with my friends, firing my hundred shot Colt 45 cap gun, riding my scooter. I didn’t want to be bloody sunbeam (I lived in a rough neighbourhood of south London and had an appropriate vocabulary). Looking back on it, I suppose that hymns like “sunbeam” must have been a great comfort back in the nineteenth century when high rates of infant mortality caused many a sibling or parent to hope that their lost one was now a heavenly sunbeam.

One of Miss Mayhew’s favourite bible stories was of Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the temple. Asked why, she simply said it was because they were evil. I was never satisfied with this explanation and later came to be even more puzzled at this amazing lack of foresight by the founder of Christianity in expelling these benign providers of seed capital. Fortunately no permanent harm was done or we could perhaps never have enjoyed the benefits of credit-based capitalism.

Seven years at grammar school provided a substantial exposure to Christianity with every morning assembly’s prayers, bible reading and hymn singing plus a weekly “RI religious instruction” class. Close to seventy years later I have a huge repertoire of hymns stacked away in my cerebral hard disk, there only because I have yet to locate the ‘delete’ button. In the first year sixth (= yr 12 in Oz) I even formed a ‘religious discussion group’ which met after school weekly in the library. Several masters commended my initiative, in ignorance of the fact that it was a front organisation for swapping the sort of jokes beloved of sixteen year old boys.

As a prefect I was required from time to time to read a passage from the bible during morning assembly. I once won a bet of five shillings that I would not dare read out a particular passage. This was to coincide with Trafalgar Day, 2 October, which celebrated the victory of one-eyed Admiral Nelson over the French and Spanish fleets about a hundred and fifty years earlier. So on that morning I chose to read from Matthew chapter 5, verse 29: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out….” For the rest of the day I nervously awaited repercussions for my flippancy. Curiously there were none, thus proving that neither the headmaster nor any of the masters paid the slightest attention to the bible readings in assembly.

Close to Christmas time a chorus of some five hundred boys in morning assembly (each assuming they were the only parodists in the hall) would sing “While shepherds washed their socks by night all seated round the tub, a bar of Sunlight soap came down and they began to scrub”. I like to think that some of the singers went on to fulfilling careers with Unilever, the maker of this useful washing product.

And now into the confessional. In my year there was a very serious boy, deeply religious (he toted a bible around with him all the time) called Ted Norman. He desperately wanted to come top of the “religious instruction” (RI) class. His piety I found deeply offensive to my atheism so I always made sure I came top of the RI class. His annoyance at this I found utterly satisfying. In some ways, though, Ted had the last laugh. I recently Wikipediaded Dr Edward Norman and found that he had taken holy orders, had been head of two Cambridge colleges, a bishop, a dean of a cathedral, an author of many religious and history books and had once provided spiritual advice to Margaret Thatcher. Still – he never beat me at RI !