I have been prevailed upon to pen my autobiography. Members of my family and two of my four remaining friends urged me to commit to writing certain facts that might otherwise, they alleged, be lost to posterity. And so, while waiting to undergo surgery, I have — reluctantly —acceded to their wishes. It has been a salutary experience.
As a practising historian, I can tell you that autobiographies are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they open up and promise a unique and often indiscreet window into the world you are researching. On the other, the vista that is set before you is, by definition, distorted and prejudiced.
This is not simply because an autobiography normally seeks to justify and rationalise. It’s also because it relies on memory, no matter how comprehensive the subject’s personal and official archives might appear to be.
To give you one example, in his autobiography, Trial and Error, published in 1949, the late first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, claimed that his first meeting with A J Balfour took place on January 9 1906, at the Queen’s Hotel, Manchester, during the general election that Balfour lost. In fact, they had first met a year earlier, at a gathering of the East Manchester Conservative Association. We know this because the meeting made such an impression on Weizmann that he recorded it in a letter to his fiancée, Vera Chatzman.
As for the 1906 meeting, the recollection Weizmann gave of it in Trial and Error differs considerably from his contemporary account — also in a letter to Vera.
So my initial thought on compiling my own memoirs has been not to rely on memory unless there’s no alternative. If you ever get to read them, you will notice plenty of footnotes.
But why write them in the first place? After all, I’m not so arrogant as to think that my impact on those around me, either within the Jewish world or within that of academia, has been anything more than peripheral. What is it, precisely, that my family, not to mention two of my four remaining friends, think might otherwise be lost to posterity?
It’s the story of an Anglo-Jewish childhood, growing up in Jewish Hackney, that was both ordinary and extraordinary.
It was ordinary because I shared it with hundreds of other Jewish kids. We matured within severely cash-limited households. We knew which streets not to walk down, as the likelihood was that antisemitic thugs (male and female) would beat us up. A researcher recently asked me what was my first experience of a swastika. My mother found one chalked on the front wall of our house, some time in 1948. I was just four years old and it’s one of my earliest memories.
All that was so very ordinary. What was extraordinary was that the home in which I grew up was a seat of learning in its own right. Arguments were the life-blood of our existence. Not about money, or relationships. But about the world, about politics, about justice and injustice. I’m convinced now that that experience — of learning to formulate evidence-based opinions and then to defend them — played a key role in my intellectual development. A school “debating society” is a poor, formalised substitute for the domestic milieu in which I spent my early years.
In one sense, that milieu prepared me well for life at Oxford. In another it did not.
In journeying from Jewish Hackney to Oxford I moved from a Jewish to a Gentile world. I experienced a new, much more dangerous form of anti-Jewish prejudice: not the street thugs and the chalked swastikas but the genteel antisemitism of the British upper classes. It caught me unawares, and I suffered — emotionally — as a result.
But I did make friends in that city of spires: pre-eminently the austere Cecil Roth and his flamboyant wife, Irene; my medieval history tutor, the Rev Vivian Green (on whom John Le Carré modelled the fictional spymaster George Smiley) and my doctoral supervisor, A F (Pat) Thompson, a genuine Bletchley Park codebreaker.
I learned that Christians and Jews could be good neighbours. This lesson served me well in later life. But if you want to know why, you’ll have to read my autobiography