Review: Home Alone
Soldiering on solo in Marble Arch
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David Cohen: survival by humour
By David Cohen
JR Books, £16.99
Little could prepare David Cohen for the shock that awaited him once he turned 12. First his mother and then his father - both of them lawyers - left home. Cohen suddenly became a foreign-born child living alone in very English and middle-class 1950s Marble Arch.
A pupil at the prestigious St Paul's School, young David received a weekly allowance and met his father every Friday evening to celebrate a makeshift Sabbath at a French restaurant.
He learned to cook and clean, he barely evaded homosexual lurkers, and he forged letters to shirk cadet practice. He excelled at sports and schoolwork and eventually discovered romance.
Yet, he says, "I learned to wear a mask all the time" - something adults do naturally but not children. Plus he colluded with his absent parents in keeping his circumstances a secret; and he effectively helped his father exile his mother to their flat in Israel, which only deepened his later sense of guilt.
Cohen's Ashkenazi Romanian mother, a fitness fanatic with a penchant for French pastry, and his Sephardi, Palestinian-born father, who swore in Arabic and won an OBE for "wartime services", emerge less as monsters and more as flawed, volatile individuals with an uncanny ability to dig themselves into a mess. Both showered their son with affection at times, marvelling at how he could fathom the mysteries of cricket and recite the English kings by rote. That is, until financial worries and marital infidelities distracted them from their parental obligations.
At first, the deserted boy cried himself to sleep but generally Cohen's humour seems to have shielded him from grief. He luridly describes remarkable, yet credible characters, like Berg, his father's bête noire, capitalist by day and Communist by night. He imagines his schoolmaster asking if he wants to see his absent parents caned. Yet "simmering away in my neural networks are memories of not milk and not honey, but memories that made me".
Why, he wonders, do some sink under adversity and others overcome it? In isolation, the young David cross-examines God; later he rediscovers a schoolboy play he wrote which mirrors his Oedipal fantasies and inner desperation. Neither parent is there to share his joy when he wins a BBC national youth drama prize. Even his barmitzvah (nearly self-taught) passes with the most fleeting of parental visitations.
Cohen is a seasoned biographer, scriptwriter, filmmaker and author of self-help psychology works. This, though, is his first personal book, written once both parents had died, and it belies the comfortable myth of the idyllic Jewish family. It also traces the amazing journeys Jews made after the 1940s: in Cohen's case, from Haifa to Cairo, on to the French-ruled Indian enclave of Pondicherry and then to prosperous Geneva, before settling in London.
Likewise, it provides a compelling portrait of a pre-permissive Britain, emerging from post-war austerity and into post-colonial uncertainty, where polite antisemitism seems rife (one cadet master barks: "Who do you think saved you from Hitler?" unaware that most of Cohen's maternal family perished in the Holocaust).
Most of all, Home Alone reminds the reader of the simple virtues of normal family life - so often taken for granted.
Lawrence Joffe is a freelance writer and reviewer