Life & Culture

Back when Brixton had Jews

Gerald Jacobs' new book is set in 1960s Brixton where he grew up


I can’t remember the pet shop’s exact location. I like to think it was in London’s most excitingly named street: Electric Avenue. But it could have been Atlantic Road or Brixton Station Road. It was certainly one of those three busy tributaries that flowed into the main Brixton Road well before the arrival of the Tube station in 1971.

I was with my friend Alex, who was slightly older than I was. He was also bigger, which was significant, because he was wearing a zip-up jacket capacious enough to contain the kitten that I bought for half-a-crown (12.5p).

The shop assistant made no observation regarding the tiny creature’s means of transport to my house (where she would live for about 15 years). He just took the money and handed her over the counter into my hands from where, once we were out of the shop, I placed her in Alex’s jacket.

This is one of a multitude of memories of the loud and luminous part of London where I grew up. Like Caliban’s island in The Tempest, Brixton in the 1950s and ’60s was “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs”. And in those days it had a handsome Orthodox synagogue, a kosher butcher, a Jewish deli, and a Joe Lyons’s tea shop.

Although Pomeranski, my new book, is set mainly in the days and the habitat of my growing up, it is a novel; all the principal characters are invented. But the atmosphere is not. Some scenes take place in the “Excelsior” shopping arcade, which is a lightly disguised version of an actual arcade in the heart of Brixton Market where my parents had a jewellery shop. The arcade is still there but is now part of a quieter, somewhat gentrified culture.

Back then, it was never quiet and would have been identified more with Jewry than gentry. Almost all of its tradesmen were Jews and quite a few were remarkably flamboyant. A lingerie salesman, for example, who peddled his wares at full volume to the passing shoppers and strollers, was proudly known as “Jack Panties”. Another trader attracted customers by singing and performing handstands.

Both were Jewish, as was the record-shop owner who pioneered new Jamaican music. This really took off in the early 1960s, a decade or so after the Empire Windrush immigration. By then, there was a sizeable demand for all things Caribbean — Pomeranski, too, has a Jamaican sub-plot.

The Caribbean influx helped my father turn his life around after his jewellery business collapsed. He bought himself a camera, knocked on doors and very quickly became the go-to photographer for Jamaican and other West Indian immigrants.

So well did this flourish that my dad became a fixture in the life of Brixton’s black community. Tellingly, when the Brixton riots flared in 1981, and the shops and houses along the street where his studio was situated were burnt and seriously damaged, the studio premises were left untouched.

The most eminent Brixton Jew I was aware of was the distinguished lawyer Victor, later Lord Mishcon. On Rosh Hashanahs, when the synagogue forecourt would be buzzing with teenagers in Yomtov suits and dresses, we would pause at the splendid sight of Victor Mishcon, solitary and upright as a Grenadier Guard, marching along Effra Road towards the shul that his father, Rabbi Arnold Mishcon, had founded in 1905. In my imagination, I can still see Victor in a top hat — though I can’t swear that he actually wore one.

But what was certainly very real was the enchantment experienced at the fabulous, Italianate, Astoria cinema, where my grandmother used to take my two cousins and me (making us change our seats every so often throughout the performance), and the Empress theatre, where hundreds of legendary variety stars played over the years.

It was at these two pleasure palaces where Brixton’s most imposing “noises, sounds and sweet airs” were to be had. But, of course, not all of the noises were wholesome. Plenty of villains have walked its streets — and indeed feature in the pages of Pomeranski.

Today, Brixton, with its ever-changing ethnic and demographic make-up, remains a dynamic location and is currently fashionable again. But little is recognisable from the mid-20th century. The Empress closed in 1957. The Astoria is now the Academy, a major rock music venue. Joe Lyons has gone.

The synagogue was in a conservation area and the building still stands, though its last services took place in the 1980s (one of its subsequent incarnations was as a school for clowns!). The kosher butcher has also long gone. The Jewish deli, too.

The Jews, too.


‘Pomeranski’, by Gerald Jacobs, is published this week by Quartet Gerald Jacobs is the literary editor of the JC 


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