Winner in the eccentricity race

By Geoffrey Alderman, February 5, 2013

I was saddened to learn of the death of Michael Winner, whose passing formed the subject of retrospectives throughout the media. I never knew him personally. I found his films vulgar and second-rate - though most were box-office successes. I had little enthusiasm for his claim to be a connoisseur of non-kosher foods and of the restaurants that served them. There were aspects of his lifestyle that I found gross and boring in equal measure. But one aspect of his character struck me as quite endearing He was not merely an eccentric. His eccentricity was not simply (as Louise Mensch tweeted) "something splendidly British". It was something splendidly Anglo-Jewish.

Winner was the latest - though hopefully not the last - in a line of great Anglo-Jewish eccentrics. The earliest I can recall was Gerard Hoffnung, born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1925, who came to Britain as a refugee in 1938. Hoffnung was a splendid cartoonist, a moderately accomplished tuba player, a brilliant broadcaster and a dazzling speaker; his 1958 address to the Oxford Union ("The Bricklayer's Lament") is - in terms of the timing of each sentence and of the deliberate cadences he introduced into his naturally rasping voice - a classic of the genre. Hoffnung was, in fact, a serious scholar and activist: he was a hard-working prison visitor and campaigned on a variety of issues then considered controversial, such as race relations. But, above all, he made it his business to cultivate a public façade as an oddball: the quintessentially crusty, ageing musician (He actually died, tragically, at just 34) who was known to whistle entire symphonies and who commissioned Malcolm Arnold to write an overture dedicated to Herbert Hoover, featuring various domestic appliances including vacuum cleaners.

While Hoffnung was entertaining us, another great Anglo-Jewish eccentric was, with equal deliberation, making a name for himself as a pompous English politician and TV personality. Sir Gerald Nabarro, a maverick Tory MP who sported a handlebar moustache, was responsible for what became the Clean Air Act, and, as part of a long campaign against anomalies in purchase tax, once had the chutzpah to exhibit a chamber pot in full view of the Speaker during a parliamentary debate. But the façade of an English country squire was just that: he was in fact born into a financially challenged Sephardi family in London and had left the local school to become, after army service, a machine-hand, factory manager and (eventually) the successful owner of a saw-mill.

One eccentric I did have the pleasure of knowing personally was the late professor Sir Geoffrey Elton, whose research into 16th century history revolutionised our understanding of Tudor government and politics.

Although he was a Cambridge man and I was at Oxford we became friends - a relationship cemented by our mutual hostility to Marxist pseudo-history and postmodernist claptrap. Elton was a plumpish, neatly dressed man with a small moustache who cultivated the exaggerated image of the English gentleman: he liked nothing better than to down pints of beer in a traditional pub, smacking his lips as he did so. Did other customers, I wonder, whose heads turned as they heard this knight talk loudly and unashamedly about English values, know that his real name was Gottfried Rudolf Ehrenberg and that he and his Jewish family had fled from Czechoslovakia to Britain in 1939?

He was the latest in a line of great Anglo-Jewish eccentrics

Two years before he died, Elton published a slim volume entitled, simply, The English. A careful reading of this affords a clue as to the impulse that led the Jewish refugee to reinvent himself as the cranky English gentleman scholar. It was the obsessive desire to achieve acceptance and legitimacy in the eyes of the host community. Elton over-projected his "Englishness" not so much to obscure his true origins as to endear him to those among whom he had chosen to dwell. And what better way to endear oneself to the English than to play the eccentric?

So it was with Nabarro, Hoffnung and - I believe - with Winner. Winner was (one site proclaimed) "infinitely eccentric." Bumptious and super-opinionated, he lived to shock, but in a thoroughly English manner. What's more, he was born a Jew and now lies, appropriately, at Willesden, among the good and the great of the Anglo-Jewish circus.

Last updated: 10:45am, February 5 2013