Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

David Sylvester

I cannot recall the crucial incident itself, can only remember how I cringed when my parents told me about it, proudly, some years later, when I was about nine or ten. We had gone to a tea-shop on boat-race day where a lady had kindly asked whether I was Oxford or Cambridge. I had answered: ‘I’m a Jew.’

A good deal of indoctrination must have gone into that. Did it come from reiteration by family that I was one of the chosen people? Did it come from explanation by nannies that they went to church on Sundays because they were Christians while we went to synagogue on Saturdays because we were Jews? I had always had a double life, the one in the nursery and the one in parental country. Corporal punishment was the prerogative of my mother, who on being provoked would explode, push me to the floor, pull down my trousers and smack me at great speed with both hands. If my father was there he’d say repeatedly ‘Leave him alone!’ or, rather, its equivalent in Yiddish, a language he normally reserved for confidences about money. My mother used his mollycoddling of me – whom he called his ‘pet lamb’ – as her excuse for favouring my sister, saying that my father had so totally appropriated me, their first-born, with his adoration that, when they had a second child, she had no alternative to loving her more than he did and more than she did me. She was so blithely innocent about normal human feelings that, all her life, when questioned about her maternal sentiments, she’d say: ‘Well, it’s natural for a mother to prefer her daughter.’ But this preference had to be reciprocated. One day, when my sister was very young, our mother asked her whom she loved best, Mummy or Daddy. My sister did in fact love Mummy best but, being of an angelic disposition, lied diplomatically: ‘I love you both the same.’ Mummy didn’t speak to her for days.

Not speaking to people for days was a habit of hers. But it wasn’t always compulsive; sometimes it was calculated. Towards the end of her life she confessed to my sister how in the 1930s she would work up a row with my father which gave her a pretext for disappearing for a few days: the disappearance would allow her to meet a lover in Paris. That conversation took place after my father had died. He had made tyrannical demands of her in his last years, so that his death came to her as a liberation. She could watch television without constantly being interrupted by shouts from his bedroom to make him a cup of tea; she was free to immerse herself in reading the great Russian novels and writing a book of her own, a series of sardonic brief lives of her husband’s brothers and their spouses. She had as many visitors and invitations as she could wish, because she was immensely popular – and with people of all ages, including half a dozen grandchildren. Nevertheless, she was deeply unhappy. My father was missing.

Eight or nine months after his death she was taken to hospital with a minor respiratory ailment. She seemed to be on the mend when I went to see her one evening saying I couldn’t stay long as I’d made an absolute promise to visit an artist’s studio. When the time came to leave I asked her whether she’d mind if I were to go abroad shortly for a couple of weeks. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to die now … But I wish I could.’ When I got to the door of the ward and turned to wave goodbye, she was sitting on the bed looking like an ageing empress. Her wave across the intervening distance seemed curiously valedictory. My mission took an hour and then I went home. Very soon a call came from my sister to tell me that the hospital had rung.

I was born, reluctantly and with resort to forceps, on 21 September 1924, which is to say that I could well have been conceived on my father’s 27th birthday, 22 December 1923; my sister was born on 19 June 1927, which is to say that she could well have been conceived on my second birthday. I cannot remember at what age I made these calculations but do remember enjoying the arithmetic of the fact that my mother, born in 1901, had a birthday, 23 March, which fell just nine months before my father’s. I cannot remember the date or the year of my father or mother or sister’s death.

We moved house within a year of my sister’s birth. I can remember almost nothing of the house we’d lived in previously, which was at 39 King Edward’s Road, Hackney. I know from a photograph that it was a large, dark, Victorian house, but when I went to take a look at it around 1950 I discovered that it had been destroyed in the Blitz. The other thing I know about it from photographs is that it had a billiard-room, and I have a vague memory of being in that hushed, mysterious space. I’ve a more precise memory of cavernous kitchens in the basement and of two women who moved about in them – Mrs Benjamin, the cook, who was massive and dressed in butcher’s blue, and a diminutive grey-haired person in a drab overall called Janey, a sort of helper who may have been a poor relation. I also remember a plump middle-aged Irish nanny in a white nurse’s cap looking after my baby sister and a taller and somewhat younger nanny in a felt hat who took me to Victoria Park to feed the deer.

The new house was at 78 Teignmouth Road, NW2, built around 1910 and located two-thirds of the way between Brondesbury and Kilburn Station and Willesden Green Station on the Metropolitan Line. This was one of several neighbourhoods in North-West London to which prospering Jews tended to migrate from East London in the 1920s and 1930s, the most notorious being Golders Green, otherwise known as Goldberg Green or the Polish Corridor. We were to live in Teignmouth Road till 1940, so it is inevitable that I have been left with sharp memories of that house, but I actually suspect that my images of it were imprinted on my mind within minutes of moving in.

The entrance hall, which was big enough to contain a large fireplace, had probably been designed to be used as a breakfast-room. The first thing seen on coming in was a statue two-thirds life-size, a wood carving of a helmeted guardsman with a shield and spear standing on a pediment carved with animal heads. It was one of a number of pieces of furniture and pictures and other art objects which must have been acquired along with the house. Off the hall to the left was a large dining-room with oak-panelled walls and blue and white china on shelves; beyond it was a series of kitchens. Straight ahead was the foot of the staircase and beyond it a drawing-room with blue-grey walls and reproduction furniture in a Louis XV style, including a grand piano by Erard painted with putti and other pinky figures and a bow-fronted display cabinet containing porcelain and ivory figurines. French windows led to a terrace with steps down to a garden which had a long lawn and a large greenhouse.

Upstairs there were five rooms. A large bow-windowed bedroom at the front with a huge feather-bed belonged to my maternal grandparents. Next to it was the night nursery, where a nanny slept alongside my sister and me. To the side of the house was a bedroom occupied by two maids. My parents had a large bedroom overlooking the back garden. This had a dressing-room adjoining it which had a second door, allowing us to use it as a day nursery. It contained a bath encased in wood, with a hinged lid that made it useful as a stage but also as my sister’s hiding-place for food she couldn’t bear to eat. There was therefore only one bathroom in normal use and one indoor lavatory, to be shared by nine people: I don’t know how we managed this, since nobody deigned to use the outside lavatory.

The most attractive member of the household was undoubtedly Grandpa. His main preoccupation that I knew of (it was only later that I knew of his love of seducing the maids) was racing. Every day when he got home from work I would go into his bedroom and sit with him while he read out from an evening paper the runners for the following day. Quite often we would all go racing on a Saturday, especially when there was a meeting at Kempton or Hurst Park or Windsor, and this was the one sort of family outing I always wholly enjoyed, despite the long intervals between races. Grandpa’s own enjoyment wasn’t apparently hampered by his being on crutches. He had been knocked down by a car when stepping off an island in Bond Street, just before or after we moved house; I think it was before. It was a partial cause of his death at the age of 53, probably in 1931, but possibly in 1930: I am certain about the 53 because from then on my mother was always saying that that was the age at which she wanted to die. The shock of the accident haunted the family thereafter. For one thing it made my father utterly obsessed with our not getting run over. Every time we left the house, even in my adult years, it was: ‘Be careful how you cross the road!’ I was to nag my children in the same way. It is true that neither my sister nor I nor her children nor my children ever were run over, but the pressure has left me neurotically cautious about crossing the road. It also led to torture at school. My prep school was a fifteen-minute walk from home with only one main road to cross, but my father insisted on my being accompanied there and back by Nurse till I was 11, and the other boys made me pay heavily for that.

Another obsession sown in my father’s mind by the affair was that it was difficult for Jews, especially immigrants, to get justice in the courts. The family were, of course, convinced that the motorist had been to blame, but in any case Grandpa was a hopeless witness because he spoke English badly with a strong foreign accent: I was told the judge had bullied him as if that was his fault, which doesn’t sound implausible. I was to hear about that again and again, especially whenever the subject of the law came up. The one thing I didn’t hear about was that Grandpa had died. At the time it happened I was told that he had gone abroad to be with his own family. I somehow accepted it as normal that Grandma had stayed on with us and that we never got a letter from Grandpa. I learned the truth when Grandma died in 1935 and someone else’s nurse told me how ridiculously ill-informed I was not to know that my grandfather had gone long ago.

I got on quite well with Grandma, too. She was the ideal opposite of her husband: sober and dignified and quietly authoritative. She didn’t talk a lot, never mentioned family matters to me, often spoke of her love of Rudolph Valentino. Her time was filled by three activities. She was a wonderful cook of chicken soup, barley soup, matzo balls, gefilte fish, heimishe fish – fried fish to be eaten cold. She sat reading Yiddish books and newspapers. And she played patience, the cards spread out on the dining-room table. She taught me several varieties and I became and have remained so addicted that for decades I’ve not dared to have cards in the house.

These grandparents were the Rosens. His first name was Jacob; I cannot recall hers. They had come to England from Eastern Europe in the 1890s. She was not purely Jewish because a rape two generations back had infused her with Tartar blood. Settling in Whitechapel, they had had three or four children, two of whom had survived: my mother, named Sarah, which she changed to Sybil, to her later regret, and her younger brother, Montague, called Monty. Grandpa was a fishmonger. In the early 1920s he had had an offer from a friend in the film industry, Jack Hyams, to become a partner. Had he accepted he’d have owned a large share in Gaumont-British, but he hadn’t been prepared to take the risk of moving into unknown territory. Within his familiar trade he had done reasonably well in a modest way, owning two or three shops, moving upwards domestically, ensuring that his children were educated: Monty was taught to play the cello; my mother learned the piano, painted convincingly in watercolours, wrote good clear English prose, and was trained as a shorthand typist and book-keeper. When she got married in her early twenties, she went into her father’s business, behind the cash desk. I don’t think it ever entered her mind that she might stay at home and do some cooking or spend some time looking after her children.

She’d go to work in the morning around nine. She’d spend the afternoon in town or at a swimming-pool, come home to do the books and visit the nursery for a moment before dinner. In school holidays I saw more of her: we’d go frequently to Wembley Pool in the summer and in the winter she’d take me with her to the West End once a week, to shopping at Selfridges and tea at the Cumberland or the Regent Palace, often together with some gentleman friend. In the evening she’d go out to the pictures or the theatre or a whist drive or a bridge club. Her leisure activities tended to be different from my father’s. She was good at cards; he didn’t play at all. She loved swimming; he couldn’t swim. She was a wonderful dancer; he didn’t dance. Every week or two I’d see them dress up together, him in white tie and tails, for some evening event, often a charity ball, but I doubt whether they ever took the floor together; I imagine that she danced all night while he sat talking. There were some things they did together, including, she later told me, often making love (‘I can’t complain about him on those grounds’), riding, golf, racing, motoring (he had always been a driver; she learned late and drove much better). And they went together to the cinema and sometimes the theatre or opera or ballet, though not to concerts, other than charity concerts, but while she became a fervent balletomane, he loved Italian opera, especially when singing it himself around the house. He must have loved the sound of his own voice. With the possible exception of riding – which he did every Sunday morning on Rotten Row – talking seemed to be the activity he liked best. He sat on committees, he made speeches, and he prayed aloud, as Jews do, at length. There is little doubt that he should have been a rabbi.

He had had a fanatically Orthodox upbringing by a father with rabbinical ancestry and a patriarchal presence who was one of the more palpable carriers of the madness that ran in the family. One day, when approaching puberty, I was present at some sort of gathering at his house and received a message that Grandpa had something he wanted to tell me. I approached his throne, a rocking-chair, with trepidation. ‘Always remember this,’ he said with solemnity. ‘Be careful of girls. Don’t get too near them.’ I had no idea what he meant and remain unsure.

The effect of my father’s religious education was manifestly diluted in the early days of his marriage by the civilising influence of his father-in-law’s easygoing attitudes; otherwise my father would not have gone racing on the Sabbath. But Grandpa Rosen’s death and its causes brought back the fear of God. This was very bad luck for me, because it meant that the crucial years of my upbringing were spent in a deeply oppressive atmosphere. Every Saturday morning – and on quite a few weekdays in the course of a year – I had to go to synagogue and spend at least three hours there. On Saturday afternoons it was forbidden to write or draw or play the piano or cards or ball-games or to go to the cinema. And on Friday afternoons in midwinter, the season when the Sabbath came in early, my school was instructed that I had to leave the football field at 3.30. There were plenty of other Jewish boys there – the school was in Brondesbury – but I was the one who bore the brand. Was my father even aware of what a sissy I was constantly being made to look by his beliefs? If he had been, would it have made any difference? As if the tedium and embarrassment of restrictions were not enough, I also had to endure the tedium of his endless preaching about the Almighty and the embarrassment of his mocking diatribes against the heretic Yoshki, i.e. Jesus Christ.

There was one afternoon when both my parents excelled themselves in complementary ways. The occasion was a party at the house, a party for my birthday; it would have been my 11th or 12th. All the guests were boys and things got rough: at one point I was subjected to a violent ragging that made me feel I hadn’t got a friend in the world. Later there was a lot of rushing about that I certainly couldn’t control and didn’t even desire. A nice boy called Alan Mindel slipped on some polished linoleum as he raced around, hit his chin on the veneer of a rosewood dressing-table, and had to have a couple of stitches put in. My mother reacted with fury and gave me a beating in front of several guests. My father reacted with guilt and sought to placate Mindel, or his parents, by giving him a pair of white mice which I had received two days earlier as a birthday present. The deed was done behind my back; I was told about it after the party, without any apology.

Like my mother’s parents, my father’s had come to England from Eastern Europe in the 1890s, though not before going very briefly to America. When asked for his name by an immigration official, my grandfather uttered something unpronounceable beginning with a hiss and the name of Sylvester was conferred on him. His wife was Rose Waxman, a sister of two leading Yiddish actors, Maurice and Fanny Waxman, whose roles on the London and New York stages included Hamlet and Medea. My father was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, grew up in Darlington, and always had a slight Northern accent. He was one of a large family: Abe; then Bec, the one girl; then my father, Philip, called Phil but Phishel at home, from his Hebrew name, Feisal; then Jack, Harry, Sid, Dave and Louis. Their father was a tailor, one who earned too little, with all those mouths to feed, to be able to buy shoes for his children to wear to school. At 13 or 14 my father got a job in a billiard hall, and thereby became a useful player. When war broke out in August 1914, he volunteered, while still 17. His regiment was the Royal Artillery. He was in France and Flanders for four years, and was then invalided out suffering from trench feet.

Enlisting in the Army may have had a special significance for him in that it related to an element in his heritage of which he was as proud as he was of its rabbinical component: a recent forebear, he often told me, had been an officer in the Russian Army. My father’s obsession with his Army life was far more interesting to me than his obsession with Jehovah. He was always talking at length about his experiences at the Front, but he did so with eloquence: he could bring back Passchendaele in all its horrors without showing self-pity. Much later he made several appearances in a BBC TV series on the Great War.

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