Helen Shapiro and me

By David Robson, May 31, 2011
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As an event in Jewish history, it doesn't quite rank with the crossing of the Red Sea, and maybe not even with the triumph of the Maccabees, but it was one of the very few occasions when we are all summoned to share in a moment of ethnic glory. I was at my Jewish boarding school and, wonder of wonders, Helen Shapiro, a 14-year-old girl from Bethnal Green, had a record in the "hit parade". We all filed into the rather grand, wood-panelled, parquet-floored hall where we were told the glorious news. Then the disc was played to us on the school radiogram: husky little Helen singing Don't Treat Me Like A Child.

Don't imagine it didn't make an impression. I have seen virtually every major music star of modern times but few have the clout of an eminent, deep-voiced rabbi playing pop DJ. It was half-a-century ago - 1961 - but it feels like yesterday.

Rarely were outside influences allowed into our Oxfordshire educational enclave. It may not have occurred to our keepers but Don't Treat Me Like A Child wasn't a message they would want to catch fire in a place where everyone was treated like a child though some had to shave twice a day. As a member of the school's elite 36 Club (named, somewhat ironically, after the 36 tzadikim who are always somewhere on earth), I would attend talks by eminences invited down from London: one of the first was the late Tom Driberg MP, former newspaper gossip columnist and Labour politician and for the worst possible reasons (though our teachers clearly did not know) one of the last men you should ever let loose in a boys' boarding school. He wasn't actually let loose.

At one point in my time, the army arrived to set up an officer training corps. It was not a success. The boys wouldn't stop talking; we couldn't read maps; we never mastered marching in step; and the only ones who were really serious about it wanted to fight for Israel. The British forces withdrew quite soon in the greatest disarray since Suez.

Books were open on desks. Only the people were missing

In 1997, shockingly, the school -Carmel College - closed down without warning. A few months later, I wandered round the site and looked through the windows. It was a deserted village scene from an English science-fiction film. In the library there were books still open on desks. Only the people were missing.

As for Helen Shapiro, in 1963 she topped the bill on a British tour with a band called The Beatles among her supports. She had a strong, smokey voice and she moved on from her pop career to sing jazz. She never, as far as I know, visited the school and as things turned out she would certainly have been less welcome than the British army or Tom Driberg.

Her biggest hit was Walking Back To Happiness, also in 1961. A quarter-of-a-century later, she decided to walk back to happiness through her new-found belief in Jesus and she's still walking - preaching and singing the gospel. Her website is called Manna Music. I am sure our childhood mentors would have thought we were not to the manna born (nor reborn) and would certainly have wished that situation to remain.

    Last updated: 11:30am, May 31 2011