Freedland on Freedland

Our columnist Jonathan Freedland has a new thriller out. Who better to interview him, we thought, than his proud dad, Michael Freedland?


It was my rabbi who, as rabbis should, gave me the answer: I had been in the habit of dedicating my books to members of the family. Now, it was my son Jonathan’s turn. I wanted a suitable quotation. My rabbi found one in Proverbs: “The wise son teaches the happy father.”

It might have seemed premature. After all, Jonathan was just 18. Who knew what was to come? But I was overblown by his having been offered a place at Oxford and, like most Jewish fathers, couldn’t help a little boast.

When he first went into journalism, people would ask him: “Are you Michael’s son?” That was long ago. Now he’s a columnist for the Guardian and the JC, a broadcaster and a novelist and people ask me: “Are you Jonathan’s father?” Usually, it’s admiration. Sometimes, it’s more critical — as in the case of the Israeli diplomat whose comments were close to defamatory.

What that official didn’t appreciate was that Israel, in all its complexity, matters deeply to Jonathan. As does America. A fact that is born (or should I say Bourne — and you’ll soon see why) out by his new novel To Kill the President.

And who is the president in that title? A former high-powered businessman who upsets people in high places. He is not named. Modelled on Trump? The book doesn’t say so. To his dear old dad, he borrows a phrase from another political thriller writer: “You might think so. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

The name Sam Bourne — which he adopted a few years ago as his pseudonym for a whole line of best-selling thrillers — is joined on the cover by two other names, commending the book: one is Jeffrey Archer, the other is the creator of the Inspector Rebus books, Ian Rankin. To Rankin, the book is “A Day of the Jackal for these dizzying times.”

The book really is proof of Jonathan’s feelings for America and its politics. He is not shy of admitting I had some influence there. It was a warm August day in 1974; we were in our then new flat overlooking the sea in Bournemouth and Jon Jon — a name I have always given him and used by no one else, you’ll be pleased to know — just seven years old, was under orders from me to watch television. A quite unusual occurrence. “Turn on the TV,” I said. My beloved late wife, Sara, thought I was out of my mind. His two sisters, Fiona and Dani, were happy to join in.

I didn’t want Jon Jon to put on Dr Who — heaven forbid. No, I told him, “this is going to be very important and you might always remember it. It will be history.” We sat down on the couch and saw a plainly unhappy man feigning a smile. His name was Richard Nixon and he was announcing his resignation. As I hoped, Jon Jon has never forgotten it.

When he was 14, he came to Hollywood with me while I worked on a BBC Radio 2 programme and a new book. I took him to interview stars, producers and a world famous writer who made him the best milkshake he’d ever had. We talked shop most of the time and for the first time he offered me advice.

We had seen a rather unpleasant agent. “That was OK, wasn’t it’” I remarked on the drive back. “I think you wasted your money on that lunch,” he replied. He was right.

Of course, journalism was in his blood. Sara used to edit the JC’s children’s page. I remember our walks, when he was still at his junior school, talking about newspapers. He came with me when I recorded my Radio London show, You Don’t Have To Be Jewish. Later on, he graduated to helping me twiddle the knobs and did the odd (and very good) interview. He says now: “I always knew I wanted to write, but back then I was thinking more about writing plays, which I’d still like to do. But, then, at university, I edited the Oxford student paper, Cherwell, and I was hooked. I remember how you [that’s me] and I discussed typefaces, page layouts as well as the stories we ran.” No surprise that his wife, Sarah is an acclaimed radio and podcast producer.

From university, he joined the BBC and then the Guardian. He spent four years in America as that paper’s Washington correspondent — after winning a fellowship that entailed a spell on the Washington Post. It fitted well with his passion for America. But the attachment to Israel did not fade.

That connection had been entrenched by his membership of Habonim, with whom he spent a gap year in Israel, including a spell on kibbutz. These days, he often faces criticism from a section of the Guardian readership, who think they detect pro-Israel bias in his column and, conversely, from those who read into his regular JC spot, excessive criticism of the country. It could be construed as a family thing — you don’t want strangers to hear you have problems at home, but we shouldn’t keep it back among ourselves. His answer to that, “it’s the fact I care about Israel and its future that makes me speak out when I fear it’s taking the wrong path.” As he wrote in his family memoir, Jacob’s Gift, published in 2005: “Sometimes it seemed I was explaining Israel to the Guardian by day and the Guardian to the Jews by night.”

He can claim to come, at least in part, from Israeli stock. His mother was a sabra. His maternal grandfather and great grandfather — who hoped the then 13-year-old would one day become a “rosh yeshiva” — were both rabbis in Petach Tikva.

Israel was in his blood but America was present in his environment. His childhood was spent in a house with a library of Americana. In Bring Home The Revolution, his much-acclaimed first book (the then Vice-President Al Gore was photographed reading it and it was the subject of a cartoon in The Sun), he writes : “It sounded vast and exciting, even to a four-year-old. America was where it was always sunny. Cowboys and Indians came from there. It was where films happened.”

And then came the acknowledgment I have always treasured. “My father encouraged this dreaminess. After all, he was infected by it himself. He had spent his youth lapping up Hollywood fairytales and had lived under the spell ever since. While other dads watched the football, mine settled in front of BBC2’s Saturday Cinema… I was the only boy I knew who could sing a song about the Swanee River.”

We were a “tribally” Labour household. My own mother said she had always voted Tory. “It wasn’t until grandpa was on his death bed that she finally confessed,” Jonathan now recalls. “She revealed that she’d been teasing him all those years. She had never voted anything but Labour.

“Supporting Labour is part of our family inheritance. Which is one reason why the current period has often felt quite painful. As I wrote fairly early on, my fear is that Jeremy Corbyn is someone who tends to look past antisemitism when it surfaces on the left.”

There are no such conflicts about Jonathan’s Judaism. He and Sarah keep a kosher home. (When they and their children were guests of Gordon Brown at Chequers, a fish meal was provided for them.) He is a sometime synagogue goer. He and a group of friends, including the Labour peer Lord Glasman, established their own Masorti synagogue, the New Stoke Newington Shul. “We called it a ‘shul’ because we wanted to emphasise that this would be, yes, egalitarian but very traditional, using all the old tunes. After all, many of us — like me — grew up in the United Synagogue.” The shul has done so well, it now has its own rabbi.

I ask if my grandsons, his two boys, Jacob, 16, and the newly barmitzvah Sam, would follow our two generations into the media. “Maybe,” he says. “Jacob may go more into film or TV, but Sam is talking about sports journalism.” If so, they will confirm that it really is a job for a Jewish boy.


‘To Kill the President’ by Sam Bourne is published by HarperCollins on July 4 at £7.99

 Michael Freedland’s biography of Ben Helfgott,  'Just One of The Boys', will be published  in the autumn.  

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