In Praise of the Chapaterati

by Claire Chambers

Sake_Dean_MahomedIn 1810, a 51-year-old from Bihar named Sake Dean Mahomed opened the first Indian restaurant in Britain, the Hindostanee Coffee House. It catered to retired colonial administrators, whose Indianized tastes were no longer satisfied with British food and manners. At the Coffee House, these nostalgic epicures lounged on bolsters, smoked hookahs, and ate various spiced dishes. Mahomed was ahead of his time, though, as curry restaurants would not take off for more than a hundred years, with the founding of high-end London establishment Veeraswamy in 1926. After just two years, he went bankrupt. He had earlier published a book, The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1793), which was unique for having been written in English to give European readers a glimpse of his Indian homeland. Its creation was probably part of the author's attempt at integration in County Cork. He had lived there for over 20 years and married an Irish woman, Jane Daly, before moving to London after his Irish patronage was withdrawn. Now reinventing himself again, Mahomed, Jane, and their children shifted from London to Brighton. There Mahomed began offering Indian massages, eventually being appointed 'Shampooing Surgeon' to George IV and William IV. In 1822, he published another book, this one a quasi-medical tract on the benefits of massage and bathing.

Black AlbumAs the first proprietor of an admittedly short-lived curry restaurant in Britain, Mahomed must take some credit for this dish's popularity. Often now hailed as Britain's national dish, curry's centrality to British popular culture is underscored in one of the best jokes from Hanif Kureishi's novel The Black Album (1995). Against a backdrop of the racial and religious tension surrounding the Rushdie affair, Kureishi's Marxist lecturer character Brownlow ominously pronounces, 'I could murder an Indian'. As we will see, curry houses are a dominant setting in much writing by authors of Muslim heritage in the UK. This should not surprise us because, as Ben Highmore points out in his article about British curry history, 'the predominant food culture of the high street restaurant is Bengali (Bangladeshi)' − a nationality which is of course mostly Muslim. As a scribbling Indian restaurateur, Mahomed was a pioneer, and his culinary experiences have even inspired a self-published crime novel by the British writer Colin Bannon, The Hindostanee Coffee House (2012).

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Coronation! Westminster Abbey, London

by Sue Hubbard

6th May 2013 – 27th September 2013

3380301_10The day I went to Westminster Abbey London was sweltering. Long queues of tourists stood in the broiling sun in their shorts and sunhats. Listless children looked as though they rather be anywhere else. Another June day 60 years ago, the Queen's Coronation in 1953, was one of the coldest and wettest of the year. Perhaps there's something about the Monarchy that the weather gods don't favour. The Queen shivered through the recent sodden river pageant for her Diamond Jubilee.

As I made my way through the ancient cloisters to the Chapter House to find the small exhibition mounted to mark the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, I thought how strange it is that if you live in London you never come to these landmark locations and forget how redolent with history they are. Ostensibly the exhibition documents the energetic preparations undertaken at Westminster Abbey, the pomp and magnificence, and its prodigious transformation in the six months prior to the big day. The Ministry of Works, the government's building department at the time, carried out extensive arrangements to re-configure the Abbey and recorded it all in meticulous detail. Some of the original Ministry of Works prints, which are now all stored at The National Archives, Kew, have been scanned specially for use in the exhibition. David Eccles, the minister responsible, can be seen with his slick Brylcreamed hair explaining his vision to a press conference on 28th March 1953.

The Coronation caught the imagination of a nation ground down by post-war austerity and the photographs show how deeply enmeshed the monarchy is within the fabric of British society. Over hundreds of years it became a symbolic, almost magical institution at the heart of the nation. By implication, these potent photographs also emphasise that during the last sixty years it has slowly turned from something mystical and sacred into a plebeian soap opera that fills the pages of Hello and OK.

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