November 20th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in London, Shakespeare, The Tudors 5 Comments »


Shylock. A thin, bent figure, with almost more venom and hatred and hurt in him than his old, frail, frame can take. He is a villain, rotten to the core, who tries in a most evil and unforgiving manner to take Antonio’s life and so revenge himself on the merchant: he hates Antonio, because he is a Christian and because he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance in Venice.

Yet I cannot help a grudging sympathy for him.

He is a Jew, proud of his religion and his ‘tribe’, and therefore subject to the cruel anti-Semitism of medieval Europe.

He is a father betrayed most callously by his only daughter, who walks out on him without a backward glance, to marry Lorenzo, a Christian.

And ultimately he is completely destroyed by a law that some in today’s world would consider unduly harsh: though the Duke of Venice grants him his life, he decrees that half his wealth should go to Antonio, the other half to the state. Shylock, beaten, begs:

Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.

Antonio magnanimously quits the fine for one half of his goods, provided that Shylock will let him have the half to render it, upon his death, unto the gentleman, that lately stole his daughter, and that he do record a gift, here in the court, of all he dies possess’d, unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.

Antonio is merciful, yes. And Shylock does not deserve such generosity from him.

But Antonio has one more demand - he declares that, for this favour, Shylock should presently become a Christian.

This breaks Shylock’s spirit, and makes me question this ‘mercy’ that Antonio shows the old man.

Shylock is a product of his own hatred as much as he is a product of the discrimination of the times. He refuses to show Antonio any mercy, and declares that he will have his flesh

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

I look at the world today, and ask: how many Shylocks are we still creating, how many Antonios do we still have, and how many Courts of Justice still exist that are as ‘merciful’ as the court of the Duke of Venice?

I do not like the answers that I get.

william shakespeare


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A walk into the past

November 19th, 2007 Rohini Chowdhury Posted in London, Napoleon, The Tudors, Wild places 2 Comments »


It is quiet on the Common, and very beautiful. The sun is shining warm and mellow out of a clear blue sky, gilding the trees with gold. The grass is still green and patterned with the gold and silver of fallen leaves. A bird calls, a squirrel rustles amongst the trees. It is autumn now - the time of year that I love best, especially when I can be out for a walk on the Common.

Perhaps it was a day as beautiful as this when, nine hundred years ago, Gilbert the Norman first viewed his new estate of Merton. He was an important man at court, and King Henry I had given him many honours - made him Sheriff of Surrey and Sheriff of Huntingdon and also given him the Manor of Merton. Maybe it was Merton’s beauty that made him decide to live here  - because, unlike other lords of the manor, Gilbert did live on his estate.

Gilbert was also a devout man, and in 1117 he founded Merton Priory with the help of the Canons of Huntingdon. Hence Canon Hill, the origin of the name of my Common, Cannon Hill Common. It has nothing to do with guns, though antiaircraft guns were installed here during the Second World War.

The Canons did not like the site chosen by Gilbert, and moved the Priory to the banks of the river Wandle. Gilbert used to take a great personal interest in the Priory - he would visit the Canons frequently, always making sure that they were never in want. He ensured an increase in the Priory’s wealth and lands through his contacts at court. It was said that Queen Matilda herself had visited the Priory with her son - who was later drowned at sea while trying to save his sister’s life. Gilbert finally became a Canon himself and joined Merton Priory, where he died. Strangely though, he is not buried here.

Today nothing remains of Gilbert’s beautiful Priory except a single archway. Merton Priory was destroyed in the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII. 

Henry VIII broke away from the Pope and set up the Church of England with himself as its head.  This made it possible for him to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. It also made him rich, because he could now claim for himself the wealth of the old monasteries, most of which he demolished. One such casualty was Merton Priory.

The Priory was pulled down and its stones used to construct the foundations of the Nonesuch Palace at Epsom. Henry VIII built this palace for his third wife, Jane Seymour and lost interest in it after her death in 1537. More than a hundred years later, Charles II gave the palace to one of his various mistresses. This lady had no use for it, and the building was torn down. The stones used to build Merton Priory were used for other buildings one of which is the bandstand at Epsom.  And that is where they are today. On the original site of the Priory there now stands a large supermarket.

The lands of the Priory passed into rich private hands. One Richard Thornton bought the area where the Common is today as well as the adjoining lands in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Richard Thornton was called the ‘unknown millionaire’ - when he died he left behind a fortune of three million pounds, most of which went to his relatives and was soon wasted. Richard Thornton built a large mansion, Cannon Hill House in 1770 for himself, his ‘housekeeper’, his children and his sister and her family. The earth for the bricks came out of the Common - Thornton filled the hole he had dug with water and stocked it with fish. The lake still attracts ducks and geese and sometimes swans, though fishing is no longer allowed there. Cannon Hill House was demolished towards the end of the 19th century.

Richard Thornton’s origins were humble. His father was a poor Yorkshire farmer, and Richard himself made his money running the blockade imposed upon British ships by Napoleon. He supplied hemp procured from the Baltic to British ships. His great opportunity came in 1812 when he became the first person to know of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia through one of his ships. He sold his hemp at very high prices and made his fortune before the news of Napoleon’s retreat brought down the price of hemp in Britain.

Thornton was a generous man and did much for the villagers and the surrounding areas. However, he is remembered today only by a single road named after him, Thornton Road, in Wimbledon, where he had held some property.

In 1924, George Blay, the man who is responsible for what the area looks like today, bought the estate. He undertook to build two thousand houses in the area, leaving seventy-five acres of open ground as a common. He received a government subsidy of £75.00 for every house that he constructed. The houses were designed by an architect called Taylor, who has not been heard of before or since. The housing estate was completed in 1939.The houses sold for £700.00 to £910.00. Each house had a front and rear garden, but the kitchens were small and not very well designed. I ought to know - I live in a Blay house! Blay had sold 54 acres of open ground to the local authorities for £17,500 in 1925 - and it is this land which is called Cannon Hill Common today. Blay disappears into history with his fortune - no records tell where he went or what he did after this project.

Today Cannon Hill Common is owned and managed by Merton Council. It is not a common in the strictest sense of the word, but more an unfenced park. It consists of woodland, meadows and the lake created by Richard Thornton. Oak and horse chestnut, willow, birch and ash are some of the trees that grow here. Many species of birds live and breed here. The red fox can also be seen, usually in the evenings but sometimes during the day as well.

The Common lies behind my house, and has given me many hours of peace and beauty.

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