Van Gogh in Amsterdam & Ramsgate


We were in Amsterdam in for a couple of days stopover in October. It is still one of my favourite cities although it is suffering from over-tourism like many of the world’s top destinations. When I first went to Amsterdam over 30 years ago it was possible to visit the Ann Frank House museum as a walk-in customer without queuing. Nowadays even the museum’s website gets overcrowded and the server will put you in an online queue just to buy tickets which have to be purchased well in advance in order to secure a slot.


Worse is still to come for tourism hotspots like Amsterdam, Venice, London, Barcelona and Paris. The Chinese, Indians and Indonesians have only just begun to take foreign holidays en-masse. When ten million Asians book a Spring break in Paris it’s going to get a bit crowded around the Eiffel Tower.

amsterdam-streetAmsterdam is taking steps to prevent it being overrun by tourists, by banning Airbnb rentals in the busiest areas, diverting cruise ships and other measures. For now the city continues to retain its unique charm and culture and long may it last.

Famous Bench

My teenage daughter wanted to visit this bench which apparently played an important role in a film popular with her generation called The Fault In Our Stars. It looks like a regular bench apart from a lot of graffiti and a few of those love padlocks which no doubt have to be regularly removed.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Since we couldn’t get to see Ann Frank’s House we went to the Van Gogh Museum, which also requires advance online booking but I managed to get a slot in time. Visitor numbers are strictly controlled but it is still a bit of a melee in front of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings. Photography is banned throughout most of the museum otherwise you wouldn’t be able to move for selfie-sticks.

In the museum I learnt that Van Gogh spent some of his young adulthood in England, firstly in London in 1873 working at the London branch of Goupil, his uncle’s art gallery business, and later in 1876 in Ramsgate and Isleworth where, having had enough of art, he tried his hand at teaching.

In London he stayed in various boarding houses including this one at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton (the one with the blue plaque), the house of a teacher called Ursula Loyer. Van Gogh fell for Ursula’s daughter Eugenie and it is believed he proposed to her, unaware that she was already spoken for. This rejection seemingly weighed heavily on young Van Gogh, aged just 20, and he became reserved and withdrawn and may have prompted the beginning of his religious phase.

Van Gogh’s sketch of his Hackford Road accommodation.

After a spell at the Paris branch of Goupil, he returned to England at age 23 where he found an assistant teacher position at a boarding school in Ramsgate. The school, run by Mr William Stokes, was at 6 Royal Road within site of the harbour. It was a bit of a Dickensian dump with rotting floors and windows and Stokes sent his pupils to bed without supper if they were noisy. He didn’t pay Van Gogh a salary but just paid for his board and lodging.

Van Gogh taught here in 1876. This is how it looks today. If you pan around you can see the same view that Vincent sketched here:

Sketch made by Van Gogh of the view from Mr. Stokes’ school in April or May 1876.

He lived in an attic room just a few doors away at 11 Spencer Square, Ramsgate, then a dilapidated block which also housed a few of the boarders. Looks better nowadays:

Soon after Van Gogh’s arrival Stokes moved the school to Isleworth, a suburb of London. Van Gogh was offered an extension of his contract but since he was not being paid anyway Van Gogh moved to a paid position in a better school, also in Isleworth, run by Rev Thomas Slade-Jones school. This is how the building looks today:

He was allowed to give sermons at a local church and run Sunday school lessons which was more in line with his passion for the Bible but his family were concerned that he was becoming too pious and after a visit to the family in Holland in December 1876 he did not return to England.


Van Gogh often illustrated his letters to his brother Theo with sketches in the margins such as this one showing nearby churches at Turnham Green and Petersham. I believe neither of these buildings survives today.

Back in Holland

Luckily for art lovers Van Gogh was not a great success at either teaching or preaching and after his return from England he focussed on his drawing and painting career to leave us with pieces like this.

Bridge and Houses on the Corner of Herengracht-Prinsessegracht, The Hague Vincent van Gogh, March 1882
Bridge and Houses on the Corner of Herengracht-Prinsessegracht, The Hague
Vincent van Gogh, March 1882

Kuala Lumpur Cenotaph


Following the recent Remembrance Day ceremonies marking 100 years since the end of World War One I thought I would relook at our own cenotaph here in Kuala Lumpur.

This simple granite monument was unveiled in 1924 as a memorial in tribute to those who lost their lives in that war. It was designed by the architectural firm Stark & McNeill with offices in Penang, Ipoh and Johor. It used to stand on Cenotaph Road (Jalan Tugu), off Victory Avenue (Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin) outside KL’s famous railway station but it had to be shifted in 1961 to make way for a flyover and the cenotaph now stands proudly at the Tugu Negara (National Monument) garden near Kl’s Botanical Gardens.

Each of the four sides of the monument displays a bronze tablet engraved with the names of the fallen from WW1 (mostly British and Indians fighting for the British).

Compared to World War Two, which affected Malaya severely, Malaya was not greatly impacted by the First World War. Apart from a German naval attack on Penang there was no fighting in the country. Indeed the economy of Malaya experienced a boom as its main exports, rubber and tin, were in great demand. The British working in Malaya at the time were playing an important role in the war effort by supplying the home country with vital commodities and there was no obligation for young British men to go home and fight. Even so, many felt the need to volunteer and play their part and a good number paid the ultimate price.


Every year on Remembrance Sunday the British High Commission hosts a service of remembrance at Tugu Negara for those who served in both World Wars, the Malayan Emergency and other conflicts.  Representatives of various Commonwealth countries and other organisations leave poppy wreaths here.

Trawling though the internet I can find no list of the names inscribed on the KL cenotaph so I am including photos of each of the four plaques in case they are of use for people tracking down lost ancestors. I have also tried to find details of one name from each plaque, so that these souls at least know that they are not entirely forgotten.

We always say ‘We Will Remember’ and indeed we do remember the terrible cost paid by that generation but as the years have passed we are inevitably losing our collective memory of the individuals. There is probably nobody left alive today who personally knew anyone who died in that war.

Kuala-Lumpur-Cenotaph-A-DMajor Tom Lowis Bourdillon M. C. 8th Batt. Kings Royal Rifle Corps 14th Division,. Killed in action at Ypres 24 August 1917. Aged 29. Son of Sir James and Lady Bourdillon of Liphook, Hampshire. He is buried at Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.


Lieutenant Frederick St John Ford North Echlin died of wounds on 27 September 1916, aged 27. He was from Echlinville in Northern Ireland which today is home to a whiskey distillery of the same name. He had not long been married, to Dorothy Blanche Echlin (nee Dobree) of Guernsey, and they had one child. Prior to the outbreak of the Great War Frederick Echlin had been working in the Federated Malay States. He volunteered for service and was commissioned on 6 March 1915 to the 5th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. He joined the Royal Flying Corps on 27 October 1915 and became a pilot. He was buried in Achiet-Le-Grand Communal Cemetery Extension, France.

Kuala-Lumpur-Cenotaph-N-REric Herbert Justus Maule-Ffinch was a Second Lieutenant killed in action near Bray, France on 27th August 2018 aged just 18. He served with the 7th (Res.) Batt of the London Regiment. He is buried at Bray Military Cemetery. Son of Knightley Heneage Mauleffinch and Evaleen Massie Maule-ffinch (nee O’Dowd), of Hendon, London. Joined the Malay State Volunteer Rifles at 17 years of age


Uttam Singh. It is hard to be sure due to many soldiers with a similar name but the only Uttam Singh with a Malayan connection listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website is Sepoy Uttam Singh of the Malay States Guides who was killed on 9 December 1915. Son of Sher Singh of Tangri, Tarn Taran, Amritsar, Punjab. His name is commemorated on the Heliopolis (Aden) Memorial in Cairo. The Malay States Guides saw action in Aden in 1915 against Turkish soldiers threatening the British-controlled city.

Malay States Guides

Melaka Tourism



Melaka is one of my favourite places in Malaysia but whenever I visit I come away thinking that it could be better.

Melaka-Tourism-christ-churchAs a UNESCO World Heritage Site it attracts a lot of tourists; 16.7 million in 2017 according to press reports, with Chinese tourists taking the top spot.


They are not evenly distributed. On any day you can see coach loads of Chinese tourists milling around ‘Dutch Square’, taking selfies next to the Stadthuys, Christ Church, clock tower and the Hello Kitty trishaws. Then they are taken to selected souvenir and food shops in nearby Jonker Street, probably owned by associates of the tour operators, to buy chicken rice balls, durian products and pineapple tarts, before being bussed back to a hotel in KL. You have to wonder whether the ordinary small business owners in Melaka see much benefit from the daily invasion of tourists.

Deserted alleyway. Murals have been painted in many places in Melaka to brighten up the dreary and cover up the ugly.

By the time the sun sets, most shops in downtown Melaka are firmly shuttered and soon the streets take on a deserted look apart from a few eateries in Jalan Hang Jebat and side streets but even here they struggle to find customers on weekday nights.


Melaka’s tourism chiefs and real estate developers have plans to vastly expand Melaka’s attractions with ambitious developments under way on land recently reclaimed from the Straits of Malacca. These projects were agreed prior to the Malaysian General Election and it remains to be seen whether they will all be completed given the new Government’s emphasis on saving money.

Even fewer tourists venture beyond Melaka City to visit other places in Melaka State. At Kampung Duyong few example just outside the city is a large tourism complex, built at considerable expense, celebrating Malaysia’s famous hero Hang Tuah.

The Hang Tuah Centre includes a large museum, shops and a Malaysian martial arts arena. I was the only visitor there.
Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland

I was in Northern Ireland recently where we saw Dark Hedges, a tree-lined street which apparently featured in Game of Thrones. It doesn’t look anything special in my photo (probably need a zoom lens).

Dark Hedges, Melaka

This is Malaysia’s version of Dark Hedges, a street near Kampung Duyong, Melaka. It looks much more impressive.

The mausoleum of Sultan Ali of Johor near Merlimau, Melaka. He was in dispute with the Temenggong of Johor for his throne.

Perhaps Melaka needs to become the setting for a popular series like Game of Thrones with filming locations spread around the state in order to share the benefits to tourism more widely.

Sidney Street Siege

In the early hours of 3rd January 1911 police quietly took up positions outside a tenement flat at No. 100, Sidney Street in London’s Whitechapel District. They had received a tip-off that armed criminals were holed up there. These men were suspected to have taken part in a jewellery robbery in Houndsditch a fortnight earlier in which three policemen had been killed.

Once in position, the police, perhaps unwisely, threw stones at the first floor window to get the attention of the criminals. They were met with a hail of bullets, injuring a police inspector. Thus began a prolonged siege, which became known as the Siege of Sidney Street.


On hearing of the incident, the Home Secretary of the day, Winston Churchill, sensing a chance for self-promotion, rushed along to take personal command. Finding the police equipped only with out-of-date firearms he ordered a detachment of Scots Guards from the Tower of London to assist.


After several hours of unremitting gunfire, the house caught fire and eventually the shooting stopped as the flames took hold. Once the fire was out, police found two charred bodies in the debris.  These were later identified as Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, petty criminals from Latvia.

Peter the Painter, as he appeared on his wanted poster in 1911

The alleged leader of the jewellery robbers, Peter the Painter, was nowhere to be found and was believed to have escaped. Peter the Painter’s real name was thought to be Peter Piaktow, a Polish decorator. Interesting that even 100 years ago, Londoners were dependent on Polish handymen to maintain their houses!

One of the police detectives at the scene later claimed to have seen Peter the Painter in Australia while others believe he may actually have been Jacob Peters who became Stalin’s deputy head of secret police before being executed.

The original Sidney Street siege location no longer stands  but just down the street are some similar looking blocks.

The most surprising part of this story for me was that the two deceased criminals were known to have at one time frequented the Jubilee Street Anarchist Club, just around the corner from Sidney Street. Bomb-lobbing anarchists, hell-bent on revolution, are not the sort of people you would expect to have a club. But on further checking, it seems the meaning and image of anarchists has changed over the years. At that time there were at least 3 anarchist clubs in London. The one at 165 Jubilee Street was opened under the guise of a Jewish Friendly Society and catered mainly for Jewish émigrés fleeing persecution from Tsarist Russia. It served more as a refuge and it was described as peaceful and friendly with a library and reading room, a kids’ Sunday school, lectures, dances, recitals and no alcohol. The police would often point homeless East European refugees in the direction of the Anarchist Club knowing they would get looked after. No doubt many of their members would have held leftist and communist views and there were probably a few hotheads among them – this was after all only a few years before the Russian Revolution – but nowadays these people would likely be labelled Corbyn supporters rather than anarchists.

Elegant terraced houses in Jubilee Street.

What would the members of Jubilee Street Anarchist Club have made of today’s Whitechapel? They might wish they had hung on to their old premises. Their club was demolished but this terraced house with the blue door diagonally opposite where the club stood is on the market today for a cool £1,500,000.

Despite the inflated property prices however, the area is still an area inhabited by immigrants with a lot of social housing. The Jewish population has largely moved on and today’s residents originate mainly from Bangladesh and other Muslim countries.


The anarchist club members would have been amazed that Tower Hamlets Borough Council, which has always been at the radical end of London politics, in 2006 named two of the their community housing tower blocks Peter House and Painter House, much to the annoyance of the Metropolitan Police who felt the buildings would be better named after the Houndsditch burglary victims rather than an accused cop-killer.


Another nearby block is called Siege House.

The Sidney Street Siege affair led to a clamour among British newspapers for more stringent regulations regarding the entry of foreigners into Britain. That sounds familiar!  

You can read more about London’s Anarchist Clubs here.

Monte Palace Tropical Garden Madeira



On our recent family holiday to the gorgeous Portuguese island of Madeira we walked around Monte Palace Tropical Garden, reckoned to be one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world.


Madeira’s southerly location (same latitude as Marrakesh), moist Atlantic air and rich volcanic soil combine to provide ideal conditions for year-round, frost-free cultivation of all kinds of flora ranging from English roses to tropical bananas to native laurel trees.IMG_3309

Early British settlers on the island played an important role in the local economy and they spent their wealth on lovely estates and gardens where they could enjoy the healthy climate and great views.

Monte Palace was one of these estates, developed by Charles Murray, a Scottish merchant and British Consul from 1777-1801, high on a hill overlooking Funchal, the capital of Madeira. This home came to be known as Quinta do Prazer (Pleasure Estate).IMG_3276

The property was acquired by Alfredo Guilherme Rodrigues in 1897 who built the current house, inspired by castles he had seen on the banks of the Rhine. The house later became the Monte Palace Hotel until it was closed down in the 1940s. It is now owned by a charitable foundation which transformed the grounds into a tropical garden and museum open to the public.IMG_3319

The Tropical Garden covers seven hectares of sloping hillside and contains a fine collection of exotic plants from around the world including cycads, proteas, azaleas, hydrangeas, heather, sequoias, acacias and olives. People like us, visiting from Malaysia, can feel at home to see hibiscus, heliconia and orchids.

There are two oriental gardens with and koi fish ponds, with Japanese and Chinese style bridges, stone lions, pavilions and so on.

Panel of Tiles “Nymphs”, Jorge Colaço, Lisbon late 19th century

One of Portugal’s most important collections of tile panels dating from the 15th century up to contemporary works, depicting historical, religious or purely decorative designs is displayed along footpaths around the garden.

IMG_3300IMG_3295A separate exhibition centre shows off the Berardo Foundation’s collection of stone sculptures from Zimbabwe and rocks and minerals from around the world.


The best way to reach the Monte Palace Tropical Garden is by cable car (Teleféricos Da Madeira) from Funchal but it is possible to get a taxi or drive.

You can find details of opening hours, admission prices and location on Monte Palace’s official website,

If you still have energy after seeing the Tropical Garden there is another botanical garden in Funchal, Madeira Botanical Garden, which you can reach by a second cable car.

Malaysia’s Old Post Offices

Pos Malaysia has done a good job in preserving a number of Malaysia’s old post offices, some of which date back a hundred years or more. While most of the large cities in Malaysia now have large modern mail distribution centres and post offices there are still a number old post offices which can be considered heritage buildings.


In 2010 Pos Malaysia issued an attractive set of stamps featuring 28 post offices, mostly old ones.


The oldest surviving post office building in Malaysia is probably in Taiping. It was finished in 1884 and has recently been converted into the Telegraph Museum. My picture was taken prior to its restoration.


The old general post office in Kuala Lumpur (completed in 1907) still stands although it has not been used as a post office since 1984. Ipoh and Kota Kinabalu also have old post office buildings which are over a century old but they are now being used by other government departments.


The grandest post office building which is still being used for its original purpose is, in my opinion,  Kuching’s General Post Office, completed in 1932. It proudly displays the Sarawak State motto, Dum Spiro Spero, meaning While I breathe, I hope.

Here are some arty images of more old post offices which I have snapped during my travels around the country.




‘The Mouse That Roared’ Solution to Britain’s Brexit Dilemma

Britain has got itself into a hopeless muddle over Brexit. Two years of dithering and bickering have still not produced a viable exit proposal and the country remains as divided as ever. With the exit date fast approaching perhaps a radical new approach is needed.

Introducing …..

The Mouse That Roared Solution


Inspired by the 1959 comedy film The Mouse That Roared, the United Kingdom should apply to the United States to become part of the USA or, more precisely, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to become the US’s 51st, 52nd, 53rd and 54th States respectively.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea let’s consider the advantages:

  • The EU would not be able to bully the US on Britain’s exit terms.
  • No need to pay the £40 billion EU exit fee. Mr. Trump would never agree.
  • No need to renegotiate trade deals since USA already has global trade deals in place.
  • Scotland and Wales would finally be free of English domination and could call themselves autonomous States, albeit as part of USA.
  • London would not have to subsidise Scotland any more. That would be the job of the Federal Government.
  • Britons could once again be proud to have the world’s strongest armed forces.
  • UK’s enormous national debt would be merged with USA’s even larger national debt and seemingly disappear.
  • Britons would exchange their Pounds for Dollars and feel richer as a result.
  • Some Britons would benefit from America’s generally lower income tax rates.
  • Britons could sell their over-priced UK properties and move to the American ‘mainland’ where real estate is much cheaper.
  • Britons concerned about immigration should be happy as most immigrants would immediately move to California to become millionaires. Also President Trump would be in charge of UK’s borders.
  • Talented British politicians (can’t think of any off the top of my head) would be eligible to run for President. Tony Blair or David Miliband might fancy their chances since they are far more popular on that side of the Atlantic than at home.
  • Those Brits who dislike President Trump would have the opportunity to vote him out of office.
  • The Queen could remain Head of State for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with the equivalent rank of State Governor. After she passes away her successors would have to stand for election as State Governor if they were interested. Prince Louis of Cambridge would be the last royal to inherit a title. Future royals, earls and other nobility would be just regular untitled American citizens, only richer.
  • The National Health Service would become a State Health Service and, deprived of Federal support, would rapidly become bankrupt. It would be replaced by a self-funded health insurance scheme which is what the current British Government would secretly like to achieve but is not brave enough to suggest.

The issue of the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would remain. Maybe Eire would also like to join USA, as the 55th State, which would eliminate the problem. Since most Americans claim some Irish heritage they should feel very much at home.

England could be renamed Old England to avoid confusion with New England. Or better still, Ye Olde England, to maximise the tourism potential of the brand.

Those are some of the advantages of this proposal for Britain but what’s in it for America?

  • They gain 65 million new citizens who can’t speak a word of Spanish, thus swinging the language mix in America firmly back in favour of English.
  • They would be able to absorb Britain’s highly regarded armed forces into their own.
  • They get control of GCHQ and the other UK intelligence assets.
  • They get the City of London’s financial centre.
  • They will learn about cricket, football and rugby.
  • They acquire history, culture, royalty, entertainment, etc., etc.

Ok, Britain will lose its sovereignty but that’s an overrated commodity in today’s world. We would be able to celebrate America’s Independence Day instead.

The more I think about the Mouse That Roared solution, the better it sounds. What do you think?