Volume: 7, No: 11 ; November-2013
Walking down the Grand Trunk Road of Howrah in the searing afternoon heat, looking for a street that had apparently vanished, was an unusual way to discover India. Even locals stared at me as though I’d got off the bus at the wrong stop or perhaps in the wrong city. This sprawling, seething metropolis over the river from Calcutta, smelling in equal parts of spice and dust, is not a tourist destination. Nor is it pretty. However, I wasn’t looking for the India of palaces, deserts, monuments and holy places but the India of Cliff Richard, pop legend and product of the British Raj. I wanted to see where he was born, where he spent his early years, where he had first attended school and sung in a church choir.
The star – real name Harry Rodger Webb – was born in the city of Lucknow in October 1940, the son of Rodger and Dorothy Webb. His parents had also been born and raised in India, and the family spent their final few years in Howrah before coming to England in 1948, shortly after India gained its independence.
I had been told that Cliff had lived in Ross Road in Howrah. The street no longer existed, although there was still a post office bearing that name. Even the post office staff had no idea what had happened to Ross Road.
Fortunately, a cousin of Cliff’s in Britain, 85-year-old Ken Staynor, came to the rescue. He told me that the Webbs had actually lived in Dobson Road, still known as such by many locals but officially renamed Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Road.
This proved to be a typical Howrah street, cluttered with small stores, choked with traffic and lined with dirty, crumbling buildings. Ken last visited it in December 1946, when he and Cliff’s parents went to a New Year’s Eve dance at the Railway Institute.
Although Howrah then had only a quarter of today’s population of more than a million, he remembers it as being ‘slummy and congested’, not the sort of place you’d visit unless on special business.St Thomas School, where Cliff enrolled in 1945, was easier to find. The entrance was at the end of an alley off Church Road – and the white-walled St Thomas Church, where Cliff first went to Sunday school and sang in a choir, stood inside its grounds. The principal, Saurab Singh, was in the church when I arrived. Had he heard of Cliff Richard? ‘Of course,’ he said with great assurance. ‘Bachelor Boy, Evergreen Tree…’ Most of today’s classrooms were built after 1970. I wandered through the playground, where eager children swarmed around me, keen to know where I came from. A European in Howrah is now a novelty.
Mr Singh thought that, in 1945, a derelict-looking teachers’ training college, now outside the boundary, was the main building. It certainly fits Cliff’s memory of his school being ‘among trees’.
During his leisure time, Cliff used to walk to the Indian Botanic Garden with his Aunt Olive – the younger sister of his mother Dorothy. At the site, she probably showed him the world’s largest banyan tree that now has more than 3,000 prop roots and takes a good five minutes to stroll around.
On other days, she took him for high tea at Flury’s, an Art Deco tearoom on Park Street in Calcutta that still serves excellent cakes and pastries, or to see cowboy films and cartoons at the now worse-for-wear Bangabasi cinema in Howrah.
Cliff returned to Calcutta in 1976 to play a concert at the Kala Mandir Auditorium. He also visited Mother Teresa at the Mother House in Bose Road, where her sparse room and simple tomb are now part of the tourist trail.
He tried to see his old home in Howrah but, relying on his memory rather than an address and a map, he failed to find it. Having exhausted the trail in Calcutta – a city that was renamed Kolkata more than a decade ago – I decided to explore the two other key places of Cliff’s childhood.
Despite being born in Lucknow, he spent his first three years in Dehrandun, about 340 miles away. His father Rodger Webb managed the restaurant at the local railway station (a job he would later perform when the Webbs moved to Howrah).
The family lived in a railway bungalow and they clearly led a privileged existence – they employed a cook, a bearer, a sweeper, a gardener, a childminder and a washerwoman. My first stop in Dehrandun was St Thomas Church, where Cliff was baptised in November 1940.
Built as a garrison church in 1840 by soldiers of the East India Company, it is surrounded by uncultivated ground. As I was taking photos, the Reverend Merlin Clarance warned me about the possibility of cobras slithering through the thick grass.
Despite being well used, St Thomas has fallen into serious disrepair. The belfry of the square tower is crumbling, valuables from the sanctuary have been looted, the walls are damp and sections of plaster have blown.
Slightly dusty but untouched by time is the marble font where Harry Rodger Webb was baptised. The ministers wondered whether Cliff might make a donation towards the church’s restoration fund. I said I’d ask.
Cliff’s younger brother, Frederick, was born in June 1942 but died within a few months. I went to the British cemetery in the hope of finding his grave. There, an old man wearing a sleeveless mauve pullover and a taqiyah cap emerged from the gatehouse, bearing a huge, handwritten burials ledger.
I ran my eye down the entries for 1942 but, alas, there was no Frederick Webb.
And so to Lucknow, where the Cliff Richard story began. When I interviewed his mother Dorothy in 1992, she told me that she had travelled to Lucknow for the birth because the city had a reputable hospital, the name of which she couldn’t recall. All she knew was that it was ‘a popular hospital – very British as well’.
When I published my biography of Cliff a year later, I plumped for The King’s English Hospital in Victoria Street. I may have erred.
The local vote is for the Lady Dufferin Hospital, then renowned for its modern maternity unit. If this is indeed the correct place, then Dorothy wouldn’t have recognised it. The gatepost bore a garish yellow poster of Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan promoting polio awareness.
The pink-walled building was clad in rickety bamboo scaffolding lashed together with rope, while outside, stray dogs chased and fought each other.
Lucknow was also where Cliff’s paternal grandfather, Frederick William Webb, lived. He was an engineer at a local paper mill and Cliff once told me he loved visiting him during summer holidays.
I searched the internet for information on Cliff’s Lucknow days and came across people who claimed to have played marbles or gilli-danda (a traditional stick game) with him there. I also found Roy and Jenny Ramble, an Anglo-Indian couple who had grown up in the city.
They agreed to take me to the place where they believed Frederick William Webb had lived. After parking in a busy street where cattle lay sleeping in the gutters, they escorted me along some quiet alleyways to the walled compound of Maqbara Amjad Ali Shah.
We passed through a once-majestic but now dilapidated gateway and into an enclosure with about 30 small houses. At the far end was the huge brown bulk of Sibtainabad Imambara, an arcaded mausoleum for the Nawab of Oudh, who died in 1847.
We headed for house 27, home of the Rambles’ friend Marie Biswas. Grandfather Webb had lived next door at number 26. Mrs Biswas’s single-storey home was a picture of refinement and delicacy, as was she.
There were ornaments and plates on glass shelves, a neatly manicured garden with flowers and a copy of a Hilary Mantel novel on the table. But the house next door, where Cliff had spent his blissful summers, was now locked up, shuttered and untended.
The once-white walls were defaced with dark mould, small bushes sprouted from cracks in the masonry and the front gate was a rusty orange. The owner, a local high court advocate, now uses it only to store legal papers.
Mrs Biswas wished he’d sell up and let it be renovated. It had been a fascinating journey and as I left, I couldn’t help thinking back to the family’s final few months in India. In the run-up to independence, there were riots in Calcutta – at least 4,000 people were killed.
Cliff’s mother told me that during the worst of it, she couldn’t see the water of the Hooghly river for dead bodies. They took refuge with relatives before heading to Bombay and then sailing for England, a country none of them had ever seen.
Cliff has always said that he finds it hard to remember the India of his early years. After two weeks following in his footsteps, I’ll find it hard to forget it.
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