Stand-up comedian, broadcaster and podcaster Ian Stone has just published a book which took me back to my JFS schooldays. To Be Someone is a memoir of growing up Jewish in 1970s and 1980s Britain, telling the story of his twin loves, music (The Jam) and football (Arsenal).
Although Stone is older than I am, much of what he says in the book reminds me of my own time at JFS. Fifteen hundred kids packed into a few concrete buildings half-way up the Camden Road, then one of the less salubrious parts of London. The school we went to was very different from the current one in Kingsbury. Playing fields, a theatre, none of that existed in our day.
“People forget,” Stone tells me. “It was an inner-city school in Camden.” Pupils like him, who weren’t exceptionally clever or bad, got no encouragement. It was “a place to house us for five years before releasing us into the workforce,” he recalls.
In his book, he describes how, every lunchtime, boys from the neighbouring Holloway School would walk down the road to stand outside JFS to hiss and sieg heil. Did they mean to be antisemitic? “Maybe they just wanted to wind up the Jewish kids.”
Looking back, he is surprised “it was allowed to go as long as it did”. No one did anything about what he calls this “casual” antisemitism until one day a legendary teacher rallied the troops and chased the boys away.
This was not a long-term solution because they returned when I was at the school in the 1980s. “It is shocking isn’t it?” he says.
Thinking about the present day he adds, “It’s shocking that these things still continue. My grandfather would have been chucking bricks at Oswald Mosley. It still feels relevant to today, industrial unrest, disillusion, racism, antisemitism but I would like to think things are better now.”
At JFS, Stone felt like a fish out of water. He came from a very unintellectual working-class background which set him apart from many of the other pupils. But the school overlooked class differences — antisemitism was enough to be getting on with without the need to throw the class struggle into the mix.
On top of that, and not without some irony, Stone was teased at JFS for the size of his nose — he was referred to as Concorde.
When I ask what, if anything, he learned from JFS he is dismissive. “Nothing. JFS was a place I had to visit five times a week for years.”
While nominally a modern Orthodox school, only later did it become more Jewish, more observant. Other than the obligatory modern Hebrew and religious studies lessons, enforced kashrut and kippah-wearing, Stone says “JFS was not a very Jewish school considering it was a Jewish school.”
Stone, though, does reserve special mentions for two teachers who had a subsequent influence on his life. Mr Sutcliffe, a physics teacher, who led him to be an engineer for ten years before becoming a comedian and English teacher Clive Lawton, who was later a founder of Limmud.
“I don’t think I’d be the comedian and have the career I’ve had without him. He was quite inspiring to me. He was my form tutor and taught English. It was a subject I loved.”
As a comedian, Stone has performed all over the world, and was ranked in the country’s top ten stand-ups by the Independent. He’s a regular on TV and radio. So I guess he has reasons to be grateful to JFS after all.
To Be Someone by Ian Stone is published by Unbound