How I love London. Vincent van Gogh, 1875

On Sunday, I made my way to Tate Britain to see The EY Exhibition, “VAN  GOGH AND BRITAIN”. To say I was blown away would be an understatement! I can’t do justice to the exhibition, but I will give it a go and try and capture why I found this to be an amazing experience. I’m really grateful to the Tate for allowing people to take photographs. I have relied very heavily on the exhibition leaflet and the information about the paintings in the rooms for which I’m very grateful too.

Vincent van Gogh in London

Vincent van Gogh spent nearly three years in England (1873-1876). London, at that time, was a technologically very advanced city but also had slums where people lived in extreme poverty. van Gogh worked for two years at the Covent Garden offices of the art dealers Goupil. He lived at Stockwell and Oval. He used to travel by boat and underground and loved walking in the city. Each day he would walk across  Westminster Bridge to Goupil, wearing his top hat. “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.” Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, London, 1874

van Gogh loved Victorian novels, describing them as “reality more real than reality.” He read Bunyan and Eliot and re-read Dickens’s Christmas stories every year. Of Dickens he said, “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.”

In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh wrote, “Reading books is like looking at paintings… must find beautiful that which is beautiful.”


The Arlésienne, Van Gogh, Jan-Feb 1890. French translations of Dickens’s Christmas Books and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be seen


Two of van Gogh’s favourite books feature weavers, Dickens’s Hard Times and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. He made a series of paintings and drawings of weavers when he was living in Nuenen. He described his work as, “weaver who must control and interweave many threads…so absorbed in his work that he doesn’t think but acts.”


Vincent van Gogh,Loom with weaver, Nuenen, April-May 1884. Oil on canvas


van Gogh liked the poem, Song of the Shirl about a seamstress by English poet Thomas Hood.


Vincent van Gogh, Woman sewing and cat, Etten, October-November 1881. Chalk, wash and watercolour on paper


During his time in London he visited various galleries. Among the works he admired he listed John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, George Henry Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church and John Constable’s landscapes. van Gogh liked the briskly brushed “stormy skies” for which the British artist Richard Bonington was known for.


Vincent Van Gogh, Bleachery at Scheveningen (recto), The Hague, July 1882 Watercolour and gouache on paper


Giuseppe de Nittis. The Victoria Embankment, London. 1875. Oil on panel

van Gogh saw the above painting in the Paris office of Goupil. He wrote to Theo, including a sketch of the painting, saying, “A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what’s it like early in the morning, and in winter with snow and fog. When I saw this painting, I felt how much I love London.”

van Gogh was homesick and also suffered the pain of unrequited love for his landlady’s daughter. His letters home from this time are depressed and religious. After being dismissed from his job he tried teaching and preaching in Ramsgate (in Kent) and Isleworth (west London). Later he would write, “I often felt low in England…but the Black and White and Dickens, are things that make up for it all.” Vincent van Gogh, 1883.

Hoping a change in scenery would help van Gogh, his uncle arranged for him to move to the Paris office of Goupil. Van Gogh left London in December, 1876 but his love for British art and culture influenced his style and subject matter. “When I was in London, how often I would stand on the Thames Embankment and draw as I made my way home from Southhampton Street in the evening.” Vincent van Gogh, 1883.

van Gogh painted three night scenes after moving to Provence in 1888 including Starry Night below which he described as “the town under gaslight and reflected in the blue river with the starry sky above.” His night  scenes remind one of the views of the Thames but without the fog.


Vincent van Gogh,Starry Night, Arles, August 1888 Oil on canvas

Vincent van Gogh’s love for autumnal scenes

van Gogh saw Meindert Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middleharnis (1689) at the National Gallery and admired the perspective.


Meindert Hobbema, The Avenue at Middleharnis, 1689


van Gogh drew avenues of trees in his letters and pictures. Road in Etten (below) was his first important experiment with a figure on the road in autumn.


Vincent van Gogh,Road in Etten, 1881. Chalk, graphite, pastel, water collier and ink on paper


Vincent van Gogh, Alley Bordered by Trees, 1884 Graphite, ink and chalk on paper

The woman in mourning dress and the autumnal scene makes this a picture of sadness. van Gogh would later write, “How perfectly simple death and burial happen, coolly as the falling of an autumn leaf.”


van Gogh had been reading about colour and this is reflected in the contrasting blues and oranges used in this landscape which shows a side-on view of the avenue.


Vincent van Gogh Autumn Landscape, Nuenen, October 1885 Oil on canvas


van Gogh had met John Everett Millais and had seen his Chill October (probably at Christie’s). He mentioned it often in his letters.


John Everett Millais Chill October, 1870 Oil on canvas


His Autumn Landscape at Dusk has a “personally intimate” effect that he admired in Chill October.


Vincent van Gogh, Autumn Landscape at Dusk, Nuenen, October-November 1885 Oil on canvas on panel


van Gogh copied out Keats’ poem “To Autumn”. He said Keats was“the favourite of painters here, and that’s how I came to be reading him.”

van Gogh had seen John Constable’s “The Valley Farm” (below) in the South Kensington Museum.


John Constable, The Valley Farm, 1835 Oil on canva


Years later, he would write to his brother,“I….always keep thinking about some English paintings- for instance, Chill October by Millais…the Hobema in the national Gallery, a couple of very fine Constables.”

van Gogh continued to love autumnal scenes. He painted The Bois de Bouligne with People Walking in Paris. He had adopted the bright colours and brushstrokes of the impressionists.

Vincent van Gogh, The Bois de Bouligne with People Walking, Paris, 1886. Oil on canvas


van Gogh spent his last autumn in hospital in Saint-Paul.


Vincent van Gogh Path in the Garden of the Asylum Saint-Remy, 1889 Oil on canvas

Vincent van Gogh The Stone Bench in the Asylum at Saint-Remy, Autumn 1889 Oil on canvas

Vincent van Gogh and the British newspaper, The Graphic

van Gogh admired the community of artists at the British social reforming newspaper, The Graphic, calling them, “the great portrayers of the people.”  He collected a series of prints called “Heads of the People Drawn From Life” by various artists at The Graphic. He learned from these prints and used light and dark shadings to emphasise the shapes of his figures as seen below.


Vincent van Gogh Paul Ferdinand Gachet. Auvers-sur-Oise, June 1890. Etching on pper


Vincent van Gogh, Old man with umbrella and watch. The Hague September-December 1882. Graphite on paper


Vincent van Gogh. Old man drinking coffee. The Hague November 1882. Graphite and lithographic crayon on paper


van Gogh collected most of the illustrations of Hubert von Herkomer, a leading illustrator at The Graphic.van Gogh had an engraving of Herkomer’s famous church scene. He produced his own (see below) by assembling his “heads” to represent a congregation.


Vincent van Gogh. In church. The Hague, late September-October 1882. Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper.


While living in Paris van Gogh started a series of self-portraits, using some of the principles of his British-inspired”Heads of the People”. In these he is seen as a dignified, modern man of depth.


Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait with Felt Hat. December 1886-January 1887. Oil on canvas


van Gogh painted the self-portrait below during his last months in Paris. The eyes are emphasised, strokes are bold and colours have been combined. This was featured in the first solo exhibition of his art in Britain at the Leicester Galleries in 1923. The Tate tried unsuccessfully to buy it for the nation.


Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait. Paris Autumn, 1887 Oil on canvas

Vincent van Gogh and Black and Whites

van Gogh learned about British “Black and Whites” while working at Goupil. British print makers wee portraying modern subjects using light and shade. van Gogh’s study of these prints helped him develop his drawing style.

“I often felt low in England…but the Black and White and Dickens, are things that make up for it all. Vincent van Gogh, 1883.”

van Gogh’s first known drawing from the time he took up art in 1880 was a drawing of men and women miners from the mining area of Belgium.


Vincent van Gogh, Miners in the Snow, Cuesmes, September, 1880 Graphite,chalk and watrcolour on paper


The cityscape below, commissioned by van Gogh’s uncle but was not to his taste.


Vincent van Gogh, Carpenter’s yard and Laundry,The Hague, LateMay 1882 Graphite, chalk, ink and watercolour on paper

Vincent van Gogh’s influence on others

Francis Bacon said, “van Gogh is one of my great heroes…[He] speaks of the need to make  changes in reality…This is the only possible way the painter can bring back the intensity of the reality.” Bacon’s brushwork shows van Gogh’s influence.


Francis Bacon. Study for Portrait of van Gogh VI 1957 Oil on canvas


Francis Bacon van Gogh in Landscape. 1957 Oil on canvas


Francis Bacon Study for Portrait of van Gogh IV 1957. Oil on canvas

Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and British flower painting

Alexander Reid, the Scottish art dealer, gave van Gogh the still life below. It influenced him greatly. He hoped that his paintings would be of commercial value as were Monticelli’s. He wrote to Theo, “If our Monticelli bouquet is worth 500 francs to an art lover … then I dare assure you that my sunflowers are also worth 500 francs to one of those Scots or Americans.”

Adolphe Monticelli. Vase With Flowers. c. 1875. Oil on panel

“Modern European art has always mistreated flowers, dealing with them at best as aids to sentimentality until van Gogh saw… the arrogant spirit the inhabits the sunflower.” Roger Fry, Art critic 1910

Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers 1888


Christopher Wood Yellow Chrysanthemums 1925. Oil on canvas


William Nicholson.Sunflowers c 1933. Oilon panel


Frank Brangwyn Sunflowers. Early 20th century. Oil on board


Jacob Epstein Sunflowers 1933 Watercolour and gouache on paper

Samuel John Peploe. Tulips in a Pottery vase. c.1912. Oil on canvas


Matthew Smith. Yellow Dahlias. 1940s. Oil on canvas

The van Gogh below  isn’t of flowers but I’ve included it here as I absolutely  love it! van Gogh was out walking with the Scottish art dealer Alexander Reid and was struck by the beauty of these apples. Reid bought them for van Gogh who rushed home and painted two versions; the one below he gave to Reid and the second was given to Lucien Pissarro. Reid and Pissarro brought these back home to Britain and they became one of the first van Goghs to come to Britain.


Vincent van Gogh. Still Life, Basket of Apples. Paris, Autumn 1887. Oil on canvas

A Toi, van Gogh!

Artists such as Walter Richard Sickert, Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore and Matthew Smith adapted van Gogh’s brilliant colours and brush strokes. Gilman had a print of a van Gogh’s self-portrait on the wallof hisstudio. Before he started to paint, he would wave his brush at the print and say, “A toi, van Gogh!” (Cheers, van Gogh).


Vincent van Gogh. Horse Chestnut Tree in Blossom.Paris, 1887. Oil on canvas


Harold Gilman had seen the above painting in Paris. Later, he would paint “nothing but trees” many of them with van Gogh’s brushstrokes.


Harold Gilman In Gloucestershire 1916. Oil on canvas


Vincent van Gogh. Olive Trees. Saint-remy, June 1889. Oil on canvas


Vanessa Bell’s The Vineyard reminds one of van Gogh’s Olive Trees. Bell, too,suffered from mental illness and found comfort in painting the Provence countryside.


Vanessa Bell. The Vineyard c. 1930. Oil on board


Matthew Smith. Winter in Provence. c. 1937. Oil on canvas


Walter Richard Sickert was a British art critic who supported van Gogh. The self portrait (below) was exhibited in 1907 during the Paris exhibition, Portraits of Men, with four van Gogh’s.


Walter Richard Sickert The Juvenile Lead 1908. Oil on canvas

Harold Gilman Self-Portrait. date unknown. Oil on canvas

Vincent van Gogh. Shoes. Paris September-November 1886. Oil on canvas


In 1920 William Nicholson was commissioned to paint a portrait of Gertrude Jekyll, a garden designer and writer. She refused to stop her work to sit for him so he, taking inspiration from van Gogh, painted her boots.


William Nicholson Miss Jekyll’s Gardening Boots 1920. Oil on wood

Vincent van Gogh’s use of prints of other artists as inspiration

van Gogh used printed images as inspiration. He said,“It’s not copying…It is rather translating into another language, the one of colours.” van Gogh knew about London’s prisons from the time he loved there as well as from Dickens’ “A visit to Newgate”. van Gogh had over 30 prints of prisons and prisoners, including two Gustave Dore’s illustrations of Newgate.


van Gogh’s personal copy after Gustave Dore Exercise yard at Newgate Prison.1872


The “translation” below was made while van Gogh was in Saint-Paul hospital. He described the hospital as, “The prison was crushing me, and pere Peyron didn’t pay the slightest attention to it.” pere Peyron was his doctor.


Vincent van Gogh The Prison Courtyard. Saint-Remy, February 1890. Oil on canvas

Vincent van Gogh and Lucien Pissarro

Pissarro was part of a group of artists experimenting with painting in dots and dabs of contrasting colours. van Gogh saw Pissarro’s La Maison de laSourde, Eragny in an exhibition.


Lucien Pissarro.LaMaison de la Sourde, Eragny. 1886. Oil on canvas


van Gogh started experimenting with neo-impressionism. Path in the Woods is one of a series of paintings he made during this time.


Vincent vanGogh. Path in the Woods. Paris, May-July 1887. Oil on canvas


Shortly after attending van Gogh’s funeral, Pissaro moved to Britain and shared his knowledge of van Gogh with British artists. His The Garden Gate, Epping, shows van Gogh’s influence.


Lucien Pissarro. The Garden Gate, Epping. 1894. Oil on canvas

“You may not always be able to say what it is that confines and yet you feel I know not what bars…and then you ask yourself, Dear God, is this for long, is this for ever, is this for eternity?” Vincent van Gogh, 1880

The following van Gogh’s really touched me.

In London, van Gogh had seen a print, Worn out” by the Scottish artist, Thomas Faed. He gave this English title to his work below. He wrote that he was also thinking of a scene in the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


Vincent van Gogh. Worn out. Etten, September-October 1881. Watercolour on paper


The war veteran, Cornelis Schuitemaker (below). Images of thoughtful people facing the end of the year and the end of their lives had along history in British and European art.


Vincent van Gogh Man Reading at the Fireside. October-November 1881. Black chalk, charcoal, grey wash, opaque watercolour, on laid paper


Vincent van Gogh. Woman Seated. The Hague April-May 1882. Graphite and ink on paper


van Gogh made drawings and lithographs of another war veteran, Adrians Zuyderland (below). He wrote that this was “to express the special mood of Christmas and new Year. At that time, in both the Netherlands and England, there’s still always a religious element.”


Vincent van Gogh. At Eternity’s Gate.The Hague, November 1882. Lithograph on paper


“I met a woman…who roamed the streets in winter – who had to earn her bread, you can imagine how. I took that woman as a model and worked with her the entire winter. Vincent van Gogh,1882. The model was the prostitute and seamstress Clasina (Sien) Maria Hoornik. van Gogh met her in a soup kitchen. She lived with van Gogh from 1881-1883. Their relationship was not accepted by his family, though Theo did not stop supporting him. At Theo’s urging,van Gogh left Sien in 1883 to paint in Drenthe, ending the only domestic relationship he would ever have. On 12th November 1904 she threw herself into the Schelde river and drowned as she had predicted to van Gogh in 1883, saying, “what the bad moods are is still more desperate…it’s bound to end up with me jumping into the water.” She was 54.

Vincent van Gogh Mourning Woman Seated On A Basket. The Hague, February-march 1883. Lithographic crayon and watercolour on paper


The painting, “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) seen below was done while van Gogh was at the Saint-Paul hospital. It is based on his lithograph made eight years earlier (see above). When he was not well enough to go outside, he used to make “translations”from prints. When van Gogh was unwell, his doctor said, “he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone.”


Vincent van Gogh. Sorrowing Old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’).Saint-Remy, May 1890. Oil on canvas






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Demystifying school governance matters

Governing Matters

On 2nd March 2019 I did a session on governance at researchED Birmingham. I’m very thankful to Claire Stoneman and Tom Bennett for  giving me the chance to talk about governance to teachers. My slides from the session are below. I’m also adding a few lines of explanation so the slides make sense to those who weren’t there in person.

Slide 2:

For teachers who haven’t worked as or with governors, governance may appear to be something mysterious that happens behind closed doors in the evening when all the teachers have gone home. You may hear your head say governors want data on X or governors are coming in to monitor Y. And that’s about it. So today I’m going to try and lift the veil on who we are and what we do and hopefully by the end of the session you will know…

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One month on; my tribute to my father

A month ago I lost my father; the man I hero worshipped, the man I looked up to, the man who moulded me into who I am today.

I lost my Superhero and, for me, life and the world will never be the same again. The birds are still singing in the trees but some of the joy is gone. The sun is still rising in the day but some of the warmth has gone. The moon still lights up the night sky but some of the luminescence is gone. Water still flows in rivers and streams but some of the coolness is gone.

Daddy gave the best hugs. When he drew me towards himself and encircled me with his arms I knew that he’d protect me from anything and everything. This is how I felt when I was a child and this is how I felt when I was a grown woman. I’ve lost the person who made me feel safe and the world will never be the same.

Daddy was the man you wanted near you when you were ill. He’d stay up the whole night with you. He’d rush out and bring the doctor home to see you. He would wipe your fevered brow and you’d feel better. When I was on the plane on my way to see him the thought of what I’d find when I reached the hospital made me feel physically ill and I had to use the sick bag. I remembered how he would hold your hair back and support your head when you threw up. Feeling ill while hurtling through the sky and dreading what I’d find when I got there is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

I’m the eldest of the siblings and my younger sister and brother call me aapi which is what you respectfully call your older sister in Urdu. This is what he called me too. I can’t remember a time when he asked for me by calling out for Naureen. Can you imagine how empowering it is to be treated with utmost respect by the man you adore since you were knee high to a grasshopper! Because he believed in me, I believe in myself. That’s my yardstick; would daddy approve of what I’m saying/doing? If yes, then that’s what I’ll say/do irrespective of what the rest of the world expects from me.

I can write and write and write but I’ll never be able to do justice to him. He was the man who, if I felt I was walking barefoot on hot sand, would scoop me up and carry me to an oasis. He was the man I looked towards for guidance when I was young. He was the man I looked towards for guidance when I became a mother myself. He was a superhero amongst heroes. He was a king amongst men. He was the best father a girl could wish for. To have him hold your hand was to feel safe and warm and loved and appreciated. When he was here he used to ask me to ring when I checked in, ring when I was about to board and ring when I landed. When he was in hospital I thought we’d have a day or so with him when they took him off the ventilator. Then, looking at his stats, I thought we’ll only have a few hours. In the end we didn’t get that either. Allah spared him the pain and us the anguish and he left us to be with the angels of heaven. I love you with every fibre of my being and I wait for the day when we will be reunited in heaven, In sha Allah.

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One month on; my brother’s tribute to my father.

P.A. to Paaji

Today, as I write this, is the 30th of November, 2018. The love of my life, the pillar of my strength, my rock, my role model, my stunningly handsome father, my source of pride and my source of joy, the man I so desperately wanted to imitate, the man I so wanted to be, the man I always looked up to and the man I always sought guidance from, heeded the call of our Most Merciful Lord, our Creator and our Sustainer and left us on the 31th of October, 2018 and so exactly one month has come and gone.

It has been exactly one month since I stepped down into my father’s grave and gently lowered him into it. This would be the last time I would feel his touch. This would be the last time I would feel his weight in my arms. This would be the last time I would look at his beautiful face. It was about 5:30 pm but the sun was still shining and my father’s left eye was slightly open and it still twinkled in the sunshine. He definitely had the most beautiful eyes. This would be the last time would see his eyes, the last time my eyes would see the twinkle in his eye. He was so beautiful. Truly a gift from the Almighty!

P.A. to Paaji – meaning “Personal Assistant to elder brother”. There is a story behind this, a story of my love for my father. Once my aunt called us and I had picked up the phone and she thought it was my father who answered the phone and in a display of respect which is common in our culture, she would always address my father as “Paaji” meaning elder brother. So she thinking it was not me but my father at the other end of the phone call, started the conversation with the Islamic greeting of “Asalam-o-alaikom Paaji”. It was a moment to EXTREME pride for me to think someone mistook me for my father!! I sounded like my father?? WHAT A COMPLIMENT!! But I knew very well that I would be the luckiest person alive if I could be half the man my father was. So my response to my Aunt addressing me as “Paaji” (elder brother) was to tell her in a way that she would know it was me and not my father who answered the phone and also convey the fact that I could never be as great a man as my father and the best I could be if I tried real hard would be to become a personal assistant to my father, be someone that reported to him, someone that had a habit of addressing his father as “Sir”.

Exactly one month ago, the Almighty with His infinite wisdom decided to replace me from the position of “P.A. to Paaji” with a shiny Angel from the heavens. Exactly one month ago, my father, my Superman, man I would always address as “Sir” left us and ascended in the company of Allah’s angels to go live in that shiny palace made of silver and gold in the heavens up above. Oh sweet God, I miss my father so much. I shall always be incomplete without him.

Oh my sweetest Daddy, may Allah’s angels wrap you in their wings, may Allah Almighty in His infinite wisdom and infinite mercy shower you with all His blessings and may we soon meet again in heaven and may I look at your beautiful face and proudly declare “P.A to Paaji reporting for duty sir!”.

Irfan Afzal 30th Nov 2018

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My father, my rock

The little girl, no older than five, sat by the window looking out. She was feeling unwell and was running a temperature. It was evening and the street was lit. The evening traffic was heavy; people were going home from work and others were out shopping. The street lights, the headlights of the cars, the pedestrians walking quickly to get to their destination were keeping the little girl engrossed. Suddenly she caught sight of a donkey cart on the road. She was fascinated by the cart which seemed out of place amongst the cars. She had been lethargic but on seeing the donkey cart she stood up to get a better view. Her father was sitting beside her. She was his princess and she was unwell and he wanted to stay near her, comfort her. When the cart passed from the little girl’s sight, she turned towards her father and, with tears in her eyes, said,” I want a donkey cart”. He gathered her in his arms, kissed her and stood up. He called out to his wife that he was going out. A little while later he returned. He had in his hand a little, wooden toy donkey cart. He gave it to his daughter who looked up at him and smiled. The father’s name was Mian Iftkhar Afzal. The little girl was me. He was and will always be my hero.

This was typical of my father. He loved us totally and made sure we lacked nothing. This isn’t to say he spoilt us. We were taught what Islam expects of us. We were taught that manners maketh the man. We were taught the difference between right and wrong. We were taught the importance of good education. We were taught to respect our elders. We were taught what’s worth doing is worth doing well.

He once said to me, “As long as I’m alive your problems are not your problems. Your problems are my problems”. And he proved this time and time again. Just one of a million examples of this was the time I was visiting him. My eldest daughter, Sara, was around three at that time. The time difference meant we were quite jet lagged and on top of that I wasn’t well. Daddy came to my room and said he would take Sara to his room so I could get some rest. Sara loved her grandfather and happily went with him. She then spent the whole night chatting with him. My father stayed up the whole night entertaining my daughter so that his daughter could get some rest. That was just the way he was; nothing was too much trouble for him where we were concerned.

Another example of this was when I went to Norwich for my MPhil. As this was an entirely research based course I used to go to the lab at a time dictated by the experiment I was running. This meant sometimes I was in the lab till quite late. My father was uneasy about my walking back home late at night. He called me and said he was sending me money and asked me to buy a car. The way his children travelled to and from educational institutions was something he was always concerned about. He would pick and drop us when we were at school. He only stopped doing this when I passed my driving test. My friends say that their memory of my father is of a tall, handsome man picking up his daughter, holding her hand and crossing the street to get to the car. After my Masters I started teaching at university. One monsoon season the city experienced a really heavy downpour. My father rang me and asked me not to drive home by myself as the roads were flooded. His office was at the opposite end of the city. He drove to the university himself (a distance of about 25km) and picked me up.

My father was a highly accomplished man. Research on cotton and textiles was his passion but he was interested in all manner of things. His knowledge of Islam, Islamic history, Pakistan’s history, literature and politics to name a few was legendary. He was writing opinion pieces for newspapers till the very end. I grew up surrounded by books and for that I’m eternally grateful. I loved sitting with him and listening to him; he could make the past come alive, he could make the future sound exciting. He would recite relevant verses from the Quran, he would recall ahadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad pbuh) which were relevant to the topic we were discussing. He would quote Persian poetry, he would recite poetry by Allama Iqbal. How many times did he make me smile by quoting Oscar Wilde.

Daddy was someone who wouldn’t compromise on his principles. An example of this is from the time he was working for the UNESCO in Sri Lanka. When we arrived in Colombo someone told him that in order to be accepted socially and to network he would have to serve alcohol. Being a Muslim buying, storing and serving alcohol was against his principles so this was something he wasn’t prepared to do. He said he didn’t want this social acceptance at the price of his principles. Turns out that that person was misguided; my father and the rest of us never faced any discrimination because of our religion and no one ever refused his invitation.

I have followed his example in my social dealings with people. I have a very large circle of friends and they know I don’t drink or serve alcohol. Seeing my father stick to his principles has made it easy for me to stick to mine.

My parents were married for 58 glorious, marvellous years. He treated my mother like a queen. Once my mother had seen and admired a gold necklace. The next day my father went to the shop and bought it. The shopkeeper was amazed that he didn’t look at anything else or haggle (something very common in Pakistan). The fact that my mother liked it was enough for him. The day they got married he added her name to all his accounts. All family decisions were hers to make.

He was proud of all his children (I’m the eldest and I have a brother and a sister). He told us that all he asked of us was that we did the best that we could. He treated us like prince and princesses. No matter how old I grew, it was comforting to have my hand held in his tight grip, to be enveloped in his hug, to know that he would never let any harm come my way.

The fact that family is important is something I’ve learnt from him. The fact that my teachers deserve my respect is something I’ve learnt from him. The importance of sticking to one’s principles, of doing what’s right is something I’ve learnt from him. Most importantly he and my mother have taught me how to be a good parent and for this I can never thank them enough.

My brother, Irfan’s tribute.

إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعون

                                       We surely belong to Allah and to Him we shall return

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I sometimes wonder if life would have been easier if the only person we cared for was ourselves. If you have loved and cared deeply for someone and death robs you of this joy, the resulting grief is all powerful; it engulfs you. Would life be simpler if we didn’t care about anyone and hence didn’t grieve?

Grief is like thick, thick fog. It descends upon you. It surrounds you. You can’t see through it. You know there’s a whole world out there but for the moment all you can see is the thick, grey fog. You move slowly, so slowly, through the fog, hoping and praying that it will lift.

This fog of grief can be short lived or it can last for days, even months. The interval between the foggy days can be short or seemingly endless. There is no pattern to this, at least not one you can see. People tell you it will become easier, the fog will lift but when you’re surrounded by it, that doesn’t seem possible.

When the fog eventually lifts it reveals either a grey, wet, miserable day or one where the sun has managed to push aside the clouds and make the day a bit brighter. If it’s the former, you carry on, acutely aware that the fog may descend again. If it’s the latter, you feel guilty for enjoying the sunshine, for welcoming the break in the clouds. If feels as if by letting the sun shine on your face you are dishonouring their memory. You feel scared that you’ll forget them. You wish that the sun would hide behind the clouds, that the fog would engulf you again so you can reassure yourself that you haven’t forgotten, that you’re still hurting, that you are still missing them, that you’ll always miss them.

One day, out of the blue, something reminds you of the day they had said something which had made you laugh, laugh so hard that you had cried. Then you think that though it hurts like hell now, you wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on sharing a laugh with them. The tears of grief that you shed now are a small price to pay for the tears of joy you had shed with them. So, life may have been easier if we just cared for ourselves but it would have been a life devoid of joy, of laugher, of happiness, of love.

Death, you took away the person but you can’t take away the memories, the memories which now help me move out of the fog into sunshine. And I know they would want me to feel the sun on my face again. They know that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten them.

I never will.

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Open Garden Squares Weekend 9-10 June 2018

Jo Penn and I spent last weekend exploring gardens which had been opened to public. Below are descriptions (taken from the Open Squares Guide book/website) and my pictures of the gardens we visited.

King Henry’s Walk Garden:

In this hidden organic garden, local residents grow their own vegetables, fruit and flowers; join in the year-round programme of workshops and events; or simply relax in a peaceful environment.

Visitors can enjoy the ornamental flower borders around the lawn, wander through the mini-plots that are rented out to local people, or watch the pondlife and the many birds that visit the garden.

As well as espalier and fan-trained fruit trees, the site  includes a small area of woodland, most unusual in this part of Islington, which is managed as an area of wildlife habitat. All planting has been planned to encourage biodiversity and attract beneficial insects.

The garden is run on sustainable principles: using recycled materials where possible; composting all garden waste; and collecting rainwater.

St James Close:

Private communal garden surrounded on three sides by a church and Victorian almshouses. The property belongs to the Church of England and most of the residents have some connection with the church.

The garden consists of a small lawned area and beds of herbaceous perennials and shrubs. It is a secluded haven of calm in a busy, densely populated area and much appreciated by the residents.

Gardener: Maggie Ford

International Lutheran Student Centre (ILSC) sunken courtyard:

The private courtyard of St Mary with St George German Lutheran Church and the International Lutheran Student Centre (ILSC), is a sunken haven.

It was created on a site damaged during WW2, to provide a safe, calm place for student residents and members of the Church congregation and community to work and relax, planted with a variegated Weigala and Japanese rowan tree surrounded by ground-level beds and hanging baskets.

In St Mary’s Church, which opens onto the garden, there is a sculpture of Christ on the Cross by Elisabeth Frink, who also created the wonderful Walking Madonna at Salisbury Cathedral.

British Medical Association Garden:

The garden of the British Medical Association is a hidden secret on the site of Charles Dickens’ house on the corner of Tavistock Square. It was designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and is today planted extensively with medicinal herbs.

Planting is refreshingly green around a central oval pool and the use of physic plants among the planting bears witness to the continuing role of plants in contemporary pharmacology.

Our 2017 planting explores medicinal herbs and their historical role in health and nutrition.

Gardener: Ms Daniela Sikora


MaRoCoCo Garden at Rococo Chocolates:

A small courtyard garden behind Rococo Chocolates. The layout by Dræyk van der Hørn of Bonnington Square Pleasure Garden was executed by Chantal Coady, the shop’s founder, who has also been closely involved with the Bonnington Square gardens.

Once a neglected city space, with a lone acacia tree, the garden now features a Moroccan tile mosaic and is filled with fragrant plants – all used in the Rococo repertoire: rose, lavender, geranium, mint, jasmine and a kaffir lime. The result is a stunning asymmetric mirrored courtyard in the middle of Belgravia.

Many elements in the garden are recycled: old mirrors came from the late Lady Rusheen Wynn-Jones’ house in Sprimont Place and tiles from Dar Interiors. The garden is now a favourite hangout for local birds, with a couple of resident robins, a family of blackbirds, and even a great-spotted woodpecker visiting the garden.

Ham Yard Hotel Rooftop Garden:

This leafy rooftop garden is set on the fourth floor of Ham Yard Hotel, with sweeping views over the London skyline. Designed to satisfy the senses, the garden is watched over by two ancient olive trees and surrounded by apple and pear espaliers.

Now over two years old, the garden blooms all year round with seasonal flowers, from poppies and lemon verbena to jasmine, creating a wild meadow.

Raised beds made of railway sleepers and picket-fencing form salad, herb and vegetable gardens. There is a lounge area scattered with Whitman benches and a settle with upholstered seats.

Gardeners: Clive and Kate Goodman

Courtfield Garden West:

A mid-Victorian garden, dominated by a spectacular London plane tree, containing a wide variety of shrubs and rare ornamental trees. Examples include: wedding cake tree, handkerchief tree, tobacco tree and giant sequoias.

The Square dates from 1873 and takes its name from ‘Court Fields’, a meadow in the estate of the Earl’s Court Manor House – demolished when the Underground was constructed.

Recent improvements include the reinstatement of perimeter railings which were sacrificed for the WWII war effort; wildlife haven with pond, several tropical beds; orchard of native fruit trees; play area and Victorian gazebo and arbour.

Courtfield Gardens West has received many London Garden Competition Awards over the years and is popular with visitors to Open Garden Squares Weekend.

Contract gardener: Garden Associates – Robert Player

I wonder if a fairy resides in this tree!

Courtfield Garden East:

In the mid 19th century most of the area between Earls Court Road and Gloucester Road was part of the Gunter estate.

When plans were being made to develop the area around Earls Court Manor House (next to the site of the present Earls Court Station) the Gunter family gave a portion of the fields as a site for a new church.

St Jude’s opened on Christmas Eve 1870 and closed as a parish church in 2004. Today the building houses St Mellitus Theological College.

The surrounding deeply sunken garden has ornamental flowerbeds and a bank of azaleas and rhododendrons with an abundance of self-seeded violets.

Wilton Crescent Garden:

Wilton Crescent was an addition by Thomas Cundy, the Grosvenor Estate surveyor, to the original 1821 Wyatt plan for Belgravia.

Today this crescent-shaped garden is planted with a white theme and is a tranquil enclave only a stone’s throw from Belgrave Square. Modern sculpture mixes with imposing London plane trees.

The garden was highly commended in the 2011 London Gardens Society Competition. Senior Gardener: Dean Evans

Eaton Square Garden:

Eaton Square is one of London’s premier addresses. The layout, along with Belgrave Square, was begun in 1826 by Thomas Cubitt for the Grosvenor Estate. The square was named after Eaton Hall in Cheshire, home of the landowner, the Duke of Westminster. The gardens flanked either side of what was the main approach to Buckingham Palace.

Today the garden remains a tranquil retreat of formal lawns, shady pathways and quiet seating areas divided between six main enclosures. The central garden on the south side is open for OGSW. In 2015 these perfectly manicured gardens received London in Bloom’s ‘Small Park of the Year’ award.

Mixed borders around two formal lawns are divided by a path and seating through a shaded enclave. In addition, there is a tennis court with a planted walking area around the outside and formal raised beds, which always offer a vibrant display in time for open days. Sundials, water features and garden sculptures by David Harber are currently on display around the garden.

Famous past residents include prime minister Neville Chamberlain (no. 37) and actress Vivien Leigh (no. 54).

Senior Gardener: Brett Domnall

Chester Square Garden:

Chester Square was laid out between 1828 and 1840 by the 1st Duke of Westminster and his surveyor and architect Thomas Cundy II as part of the Grosvenor Estate. St Michael’s Church on the west side was also designed by Thomas Cundy and still provides a backdrop to the garden today.

The garden is planted with shrub and herbaceous borders and contains a delightful central rose garden. Just under 1.5 acres in size, it was restored in 1997 to the layout that appears in the Ordnance Survey map of 1867. Rope-edged tiles and some original trees have survived.

The garden’s essence today is one of peace and tranquillity. Past residents include the poet Matthew Arnold (1822-88) at no. 2, and Mary Shelley (1797-1851), author of Frankenstein at no. 24.

Senior Gardener: Dean Evans

The change in the bark seen in the above picture is the graft point at the height commonly used in Victorian nurseries.

The Catalpa bignonioides (Indian bean tree) doesn’t come from India and doesn’t have beans. It’s grown for its large, heart shaped leaves (seen below) and long pods. It’s a native to eastern United States and takes its name from the Native American tribe located in the region where it was first located.

Almond tree (Prunus dulcis) is a native of Mediterranean regions of the Middle East. It is thriving in this sheltered corner of Chester Square.

Belgrave Square:

Belgrave Square Garden is Belgravia’s green and leafy centrepiece. This 4.5-acre private garden was designed by George Basevi and first planted by Thomas Cubitt in 1826 to act as a landscape to the grand new houses of the square.

Influenced by a design of John Claudius Loudon, the layout of the square remains faithful to its original network of paths and retains some of the original planting in the form of mature planes. A central path curves through pergolas overhung with wisteria and roses.

The garden is large enough to lose yourself in and grand enough to balance the imposing mansions that surround it. Four summer houses with covered seating known as ‘the temples’ have been added around the inner path. More obvious recent additions are the tennis court, children’s playground, and outdoor gym.

The statuary around the garden reflects the international nature of the square and offers a rare chance to see a collection of modern figurative work. A 1998 statue of Sir Robert Grosvenor by Jonathan Wylder at the corner of Wilton Crescent features a quote from John Ruskin: ‘When we build, let us think we build for ever’.

The Belgrave Square garden committee seeks to balance the maintenance of the garden’s historic character with the needs and expectations of modern users.

Senior Gardener: Stuart Camm

This was the first year I’ve explored gardens under the Open Garden Squares Weekend scheme. I’ll definitely be back next year! I would love to see more rooftop gardens (including the Nomura International PLC) as well as the Inner Temple and Middle Temple

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