By Michael Kustow
Oberon Books, £18.99
Now 69, Michael Kustow grew up among North-West-London Jewry, did well in literature and drama at grammar school and Oxford, and from early on questioned the basics of both Orthodoxy and Zionism while revelling in the gastronomic, artistic, socio-intellectual, humorous-melancholic and spiritual aspects of Jewishness.
He has been director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in close collaboration with Peters Hall and Brook, and was the first arts commissioner for Channel 4 television.
This book, his fifth, chronicles his experiences in London, France, India and Israel over the year following Israel’s lethal blitz on Lebanon in July 2006.
Kustow deconstructs the way ruthlessly competing nationalist leaders and their demoralised followers go on bombing out the prospects of any true Jerusalem — one understood as William Blake’s transglobal state of unfettered imagination, in whose “… Exchanges/every land shall walk; and/Mutual shall build Jerusalem,/Both heart in heart, and hand in hand”.
Kustow asks his temperamental brother Lionel to “imagine that there were no Israeli state or Palestinian state, but a multi-ethnic, secular state of Semites, Jews and Arabs. It would mean Palestinians becoming less apocalyptic and more pragmatic — though the onus lies on our side to act first since we have such a massive superiority of force. It could mean something like a family quarrel about recognising and accepting relatives with whom we have fallen out. That would be a family worth belonging to.”
But the memoir features much besides trenchant political protest. At one point, Kustow revisits a 1961 jazz band ball he was stage-managing for his friend Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 festival in Bristol:
“I see an exquisite creature spinning in the glitterball light. A slim sparrow of a woman, with blonde hair and honey-coloured skin. I ask her to dance. She swings around me, I let her out, pull her in, the band’s pumping, I’m in heaven. This is how I meet Jane. She asks me back to her place, halfway up the hill to Clifton. We spend the night together; the sun streams in next morning across our spent bodies. Her skin is like silk against mine, her hair strewn golden across the pillow”.
This same woman, now a prime mover of the Stop The War Coalition, is lucky Michael’s soulmate today.
But lucky in love is not lucky in health. Kustow conveys in harrowing detail his suddenly malignant bowel cancer and heart conditions, and their erratically effective treatments — and achieves a kind of redemption in the process. The year’s physical and ideological conflicts and setbacks are confronted with increasing confidence and stoicism via the discipline of documenting them dispassionately.
Michael Kustow’s many-sided megillah is punctuated with eloquent poems, some of them audibly touched by the benign influence of his playwriting teacher Bernard Kops.
The last of these, from May 2008, is called Parade: “Dreams are your drink, hoping your food/Never-ending multitude/… The past a demolished disaster zone/Playgrounds rubble, shattered homes/The ground is burning under our feet/Don’t abandon the march, it’s your only chance/If you can’t go on walking, learn to dance/O multitude”.
A multitude inevitably, infinitely mixed today (and hence the authentic supranational Jerusalem Blake foretold) is at hand for us to grasp — open-minded, peace-loving, sharing, diversely civilised. A family, a culture, a worldwide race seriously worth running and belonging to: the universally human race.