When laughter’s no joke

November 24, 2016 23:21

Saturday, it was Dublin. Thursday, it was Glasgow. Soon it's Oxford. I like having a new book out and I enjoy talking about it.

My mother used to tell us not to "show off". Now, decades later, people are paying to have me do just that. But, sometimes, suddenly, mid-spiel, I find myself worrying about what I'm doing. It isn't another voice, exactly, more a slight unease that something I've said was said maybe too easily - too treacherously.

Often, the subject of my father's birth and upbringing in the very poorest part of the interwar Jewish East End of London comes up. And I talk about what I know about his parents and family - the grandfather and aunt who died before I was born, the uncle and grandmother whom I knew, but not at all well.

My Uncle Joe, who lived among the Jewish taxi-drivers in Ilford, was my father's older brother and would come and visit us each year on Boxing Day. I had no idea that he had children and a wife or why it was Boxing Day he came on and not Christmas Day. Wait! Now, for the first time, writing this, I realise why. It was my father's birthday. I am so dim.

My grandmother lived until I was 14, by which time she was well into her 80s. We used to visit her two or three times a year in her ground-floor flat in a house in Glenarm Road, Upper Clapton.

She was a small, wizened, yellow-skinned but rosy-cheeked old lady in a cotton flower-print dress and a headscarf, who would pinch our faces and give us matzahs from a box with Hebrew writing on it. My brother and I didn't know it was Hebrew and had no notion that these large cheese biscuits had a religious significance.

But what gets a laugh when I mention it is the fact that she spoke only Yiddish. Yet because she rarely put her false teeth in, I imagined for many years that she was speaking an unintelligible English.

It's the laugh that both pleases and worries me. The last time I induced this response I began to wonder what I was doing. By most standards, my grandmother had had a hard life. Though I knew little about her and very few (maybe four) photographs of her survive to help guess at her personality, what I had been told was that she was paranoid and might even have been mentally ill for part of her life.

I know she came to London with my grandfather in about 1904 and that they were living in cramped accommodation in Swedenborg Square, near the docks, in 1911. But I'd never really stopped to imagine what she'd seen and what she'd left behind. What village in Lithuania, from Alytus to Zhidik, had she been born in? At what moment did she and my grandfather decide to leave family and home and come to a country whose name they could not write?

What Baltic port did they leave from - Klaipeda, or Liepaja? On the Wilson line out of Hull, or some other? Were any relatives on the dock to see them go? And what was their first sight of England? Did she weep on the boat, or laugh to be away?

The biggest price is paid by that first generation that uproots itself and comes to a completely foreign land. And yet often it is the least well known and understood and properly remembered generation. It is always a quarter in and three quarters out of the place where it brings its children up and so those children, forced to choose, in effect choose something other than their parents. My father, as many second-generation immigrants do, dealt with his situation by not recalling too closely what his parents really were. And now I raise a laugh at their expense. Perhaps not admirable.

David Aaronovitch is a Times columnist

November 24, 2016 23:21

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