1.) On the Roots of Jewish Writing; March , 2003:
Chair: Thank you very much, Anne. You’ve started Book Week. I’m just starting this particular discussion which I’m very privileged and pleased to do and I’m sure, looking at this quartet, we’ll get it right. I hope you have a good evening.
This is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jewish Quarterly. To run a small magazine, as everybody knows who runs small magazines, is very, very difficult, in this country, in any country. To run one of such distinction is even more difficult. To keep it going for 50 years is almost miraculous. The man who started it, Jacob Sonntag, deserves to be mentioned at this feast and I have found a quotation from him, just a paragraph, but I think it serves to be the epigraph for this evening. This is what he said 25 years ago at the anniversary then.
“If I were asked how I envisaged the Jewish Quarterly when I started it, more than 20 years ago, I would say that it was to cultivate literary journalism in the best tradition of central and eastern Europe and in particular in the best tradition of eastern European Jewish writing. I belong to the generation which looked for a synthesis between our Jewishness and our Europeanism; between our nationalism and our socialism; between the particular and the universal.
“Part of our upbringing was to revere the printed word, to adorn it with a power of its own. How could truth and reason not prevail? It was just a question of finding the right word: the right combination of words and everything else would follow from it. Literature was a living thing for us and the world of books knew no boundaries. We cherished the illusion that you only have to will it and your dreams would cease to be fairy tales. We felt as a collective. We’d a sense of community. We felt called upon to add a link to the golden chain handed on to us by an earlier generation.”
The Jewish Quarterly still flourishes, as I said, edited now by Matthew Reisz whom I knew as a boy.
The publication of The Golden Chain, an anthology edited by Natasha Lehrer, marks this 50th anniversary. “It encapsulates,” I quote, “half-a-century of Jewish life in Britain and beyond”.
And that’s on sale everywhere around this room.
It is fitting I think that this quartet should celebrate both everything I quoted in those remarks and Book Week itself.
Bernard Kops, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, all from the east end of London, all burst onto the British theatrical scene in the late ‘50s, dramatically, successfully and resoundingly. Since then, plays have come from them, novels, poems, screen plays have flown, essays. They have directed plays and films. Harold Pinter has also had a successful and considerable career as an actor and on it goes.
I didn’t know the work of Emanuel Litvinoff as well as the other three, and who is rather older than the other three, but one of the great bonuses for me of this event has been getting to know his work better. It has been an extraordinary pleasure to read what you have written, sir, and I am very pleased to meet you tonight.
The title of this is ‘The Roots of Writing’. I’ll ask questions around the table for a while, I was going to say ‘until we run out of steam’, but I can’t see them running out of steam, for a certain amount of time, and then throw it over to you if you would like to come in and ask questions of your own. That’s it. We’ll finish before ten o’clock and now we’ll try to begin. Thank you.
Ok. Bernard Kops, I’ll start with you. Just take the general title and the sub-title, ‘The Roots of Writing’ and the idea of the east end of London. What, generally speaking, as far as you are concerned, what was it about the East End that conspired to produce in the end so much fine writing? Not just so much writing, but so much writing on such a high scale. What was it about, as far as you are concerned, that conglomeration of peoples and cultures and whatever was going on? What struck you?
Bernard Kops: Poverty was one thing. What started me? I always felt very confident because, despite the poverty, I remember my sisters used to fight, they were older than me, they used to fight to hold me and say ‘It’s my turn! It’s my turn!’ and ‘You’ve had him for ten minutes, it’s my turn now!’ Because we had such a large family, my mother was so caught up in looking over the whole of it, my sisters had to take over. So my sister Essie took me over and that was fantastic really because that gave me a lot of confidence. So I had two things that were happening: the terrible poverty, soup kitchens, the community, everyone was involved with everyone’s lives. It was one square mile of the East End that was our universe really.
Then something happened, and I was quite young when Mosley came into the East End, right under where we lived in Stepney Green Buildings. And the Fascists came every Sunday morning, which sort of alienated me to a certain extent from the others. I don’t know, they were busy banging tins and saucepans and I was watching them. I think these three elements: kind of belonging, feeling slightly different from the Irish people living down the road who had no shoes, and realising there was another world out there and this was safe. My mother had always said: Don’t go beyond Cambridge Heath Road, ‘there be dragons’. There were, in fact, there be fascists. So those sort of enemies together that were my roots, I think.
Melvyn Bragg: Thank you very much. Harold Pinter.
Harold Pinter: Well I’m interested that Bernard talks about the fascists at the end of the ‘30s. I came into contact with the fascists in London at the end of the ‘40s, or just after the war in fact when what we would now call neo-Nazis, then they were called the British National Party, I can’t remember, but mostly were still around and the whole thing erupted and I was living in Clapton and there was a great deal of violence going on from the fascists throughout the whole of Dalston and Clapton, Hackney and so on and so on and so on. So that was the environment in which one was brought up. Equally, just before that of course, I am sure Bernard and Arnold and Emanuel will agree with this, but we were all in the war and we were subject to the extreme circumstances of being bombed and being terrified and so on. Or perhaps not terrified, taking it actually in our stride in some kind of ways. In other words, the two things went together. But to be bombed every day of the week was an experience which I think was a common ground for all of us. So one doesn’t get over those kinds of things easily. One never forgets them.
Melvyn Bragg: Arnold Wesker, what’s your first reaction to this first question?
Arnold Wesker: I think I almost want to resist the notion of ‘East End writer’. People are always wanting to categorise writers: working-class writer, Jewish writer, East End writer, and I’m not sure that my writing was shaped by living in the East End. First of all, there is a distinction to be made between the East End and east London. The East End is that sort of square mile between Commercial Street, Brick Lane and east London. I only lived in Stepney for nine years and then after that moved to east London where Harold lived in Hackney, in Clapton, Upper Clapton actually!
Harold Pinter: I lived in Lower Clapton!
Melvyn Bragg: Did anyone live in ‘Middle Clapton’?!
Arnold Wesker: In fact, I’m probably the only person in this room, and someone is going to jump up and say: No, you’re not! who saw Harold play Macbeth in school, and a very fine performance it was!
Harold Pinter: Thank you very much.
Melvyn Bragg: In Lower or Upper Clapton?
Arnold Wesker: Actually it was in Hackney Downs, middle Clapton! So I don’t view myself, out of the 42 plays I’ve written, only two and three-quarters are set in east London. I’ve written five plays set in Norfolk. I’m much more of a Norfolk writer than an East End writer.
Melvyn Bragg: He’s an impostor!
Arnold Wesker: But I think that what the question looks for is the atmosphere. It wasn’t the streets. It was my family. My parents were Communists. I had aunts and uncles who were Communists. There were books in the house. There were gramophone records. There were violent political discussions because not every aunt and uncle was a member of the Communist Party. ‘Whatever happened to Itzik Pfeffer?’ is what I remember one aunt screaming at my mother. So that there was an atmosphere in which politics, literature and a life of the spirit as well as political consciousness was lived. This affected me as a writer.
Melvyn Bragg: Thank you. Emanuel Litvinoff, how would you respond to that broad question about the influence of this particular place, because there’s a lot to say about whether the East End is a nostalgic place, become a mythological place, but it’s also a real place. And one of the things that distinguishes many, many, many literary writers across the world is the real place in which they were brought up, whether they are Russian, French, American, British or wherever they come from. So what was it about this real place, this East End, that you thought most influenced you as a writer?
Emanuel Litvinoff: Well, I was totally influenced by the East End as a writer, for a number of reasons. In the first instance, the fact is that I grew up in an atmosphere of, as it were, there was one community to which I knew I belonged. At the same time, I also felt that I was very English. And then there was another community which had hostile feelings towards us. For example, I remember when a friend of my mother’s once gave me a coloured ball and I was playing with this coloured ball. I lived in a street called Fuller Street, in a tenement there, and round the corner was Bacon Street. Incidentally, very few Jews lived in Bacon Street!
Arnold Wesker: My aunt did!
Melvyn Bragg: Upper Bacon Street …!
Emanuel Litvinoff: Anyway, I was playing with this coloured ball and two snotty-nosed big yoks, as we called them, came up to me and one of them grabbed the ball, he said, ‘You killed our Lord, I can pinch your ball!’
And I also remember across the road from the tenement in which I lived – the street, Fuller Street, doesn’t exist any more except in what I’ve written about it. Across the road there was a woman known as the ‘gypsy lady’. Every Saturday night she used to go to the pub on the corner and got her beer from the outside, through the window. They used to have a place where they served people beer outside. And she’d come along and she’d shake her fist at us on my side of the street which was full of Jews, and she used to say, ‘Christ killers all of you!’ And she had long jangling earrings which used to sort of rattle like mad. We regarded her as rather a comic character, actually.
So, in general it was an extraordinarily interesting atmosphere to grow up in because we had no doubts about one thing, and that is that we belonged in England and that we regarded ourselves as English. At the same time we obviously were Jews and we had our own customs and our own food, our own kinds of songs, for instance, that people brought from eastern Europe. And it never bothered me at all as I remember as I child, nor can I remember it bothering other Jewish kids I knew. But you could well understand it. We were the predominant people there.
I remember, I have one school photo. It shows rows and rows of boys sitting there and they’re all Jewish boys and there is only one non-Jewish boy there and he is standing at the back. Poor boy. He’s looking absolutely desolate and deserted. And I remember none of us ever thought about him at all. I mean I don’t think we ever spoke to him, or he didn’t speak to us. So it was extraordinary. We were living in a rather cosy ghetto in a way and it’s something that I certainly look back at with considerable nostalgia and affection.
Melvyn Bragg: You certainly write about it extraordinarily powerfully. Can I come back to you, Bernard Kops? Let’s try and get to this ‘roots of writing’. I know these questions are difficult, but let’s have a go. What set you off writing? Did you have a model through the writers you read or through people in the community whom you knew? Were you encouraged to find your own way? So how did the writing start in your particular case?
Bernard Kops: Well, there were no books in my house. That’s very strange. My father, however, said one night, ‘I have some tickets for the opera. Who wants to go?’ and I was the only one who said I’ll go. So we went to York Hall swimming baths where there was a performance of Aida. I was five at the time and I don’t know why I said I’ll go. My father was always poor, unemployed, poverty-stricken, but he loved opera. He knew every word. He would stand in front of a mirror conducting music that came out of the gramophone. He knew every word, every syllable, every beat. And so I went to Aida with him and I was totally struck. I couldn’t believe that this kind of other world that I knew nothing about, this world of theatre I suppose…That was the first time I realised there was something else other than the East End, other than the hard life, let’s say. And also the community and also the security of that community. Already that set an element in me that was trying to get away from it.
There was also Whitechapel Library where I started to go when I was about 10 or 11 and I found that an amazing escape from the family. When we were bombed out from Stepney, we moved to Shoreditch. It was part of the old Jago – it was the old Nico. In the 19th century it was the worst, most terrifying place in all London. We lived in the last remaining tenements and you could almost put your finger through the walls and they would break. There was a boy living downstairs who said, ‘Do you like poetry?’ and I said ‘Yes’. He went to a high school, a Jewish boy. And he gave me this book of poetry and it was by Rupert Brooke. I really had never read any poetry before and I read this poem called Grantchester. I loved the cadence. I loved the way it flowed. I didn’t quite understand the content, another sort of alienation.
When I finished that book I went to the library. I don’t know why, but I said to the librarian, ‘Do you have any other books by the same people who published this one?’ – this is Bethnal Green Library. And he said, ‘Try this one’. It was The Waste Land! And I read it and didn’t understand a word of it. But it lit a spark in me.
Melvyn Bragg: So it was The Waste Land?
Bernard Kops: Yes.
Melvyn Bragg: As specific as that?
Bernard Kops: Yes.
Melvyn Bragg: Isn’t it interesting? You read something you don’t understand, and it can set a spark in you? I think it’s fine. It’s not at all unusual, but it’s also remarkable. Was there a particular moment like that for you, Arnold Wesker?
Arnold Wesker: There was a person. There was my brother-in-law. He’s ten years older than me and he wrote. He used to write stories and poetry and he was my mentor and I wanted to please him. So I wrote this dreadful poem, aged 13, and that unleashed a lot more dreadful poetry, I must confess. But certainly I owe the beginnings to him, and then was encouraged by an English master at school. I could never spell and I still can’t spell and I don’t really understand grammar and he used to give me low marks for spelling and grammar but high marks for imagination. So I felt very encouraged. Those are the two people I remember.
Melvyn Bragg: And again, it’s often teachers, isn’t it? Harold Pinter, was there a particular moment or a particular person in your case?
Harold Pinter: Yes, I had a wonderful English teacher at Hackney Downs Grammar School who really opened the world of literature and drama to me when I was about 16. But I would like to say in that context and that reference that my experience, I think, is somewhat different to Emanuel’s and Bernard’s because Hackney Downs Grammar School in the late ‘40s, just after the war in fact, was a mixed school. In other words there were Jews and non-Jews. There was no other kind of people, as it were. I have to say that we all lived with greatest harmony. I didn’t detect any, not a whisper of anti-semitism in this school at all, or anti- the other way either.
There were the fascists around, as I said earlier, which was very much my practical experience in Dalston and so on. But in the school and in the group – I had a group of friends who were very, very close indeed and in fact remain so. And there were three Jews and two non-Jews. We never even discussed it as a matter of fact. We were just young men and there we were.
Later on, in terms of literature, the opening to my eyes from my wonderful English teacher meant a great deal to all of us, not just to me. So there were two different things here. I know I realise I’m talking about Jews and non-Jews and literature. But the point was that literature, I would suggest, at that time was actually totally non-political, if you see what I mean.
Melvyn Bragg: What was it about this particular teacher? I’m in a privileged position here because I’ve read what you’ve written about him which is the most wonderful poem, and other things. What was it about him? Can you just give us a little idea of what he was like?
Harold Pinter: Well, he was passionate about English literature. In a way I wonder how much that’s encouraged these days, or to what extent it exists in schools. He was really passionate. He was also pretty crazy of course. You have to be crazy if you’re going to be passionate. But he had no holds barred and he would challenge us all quite, very, very extensively and ruthlessly in a way, to look at the language we were using and to look at the language we were reading. And he opened up all sorts of frontiers for the boys which I suspect is not quite the case these days where things are so much more systematic and organised and uninspired really. So that was the great grammar school, you see, in Hackney Downs. A, it was burned down. B, it collapsed. It no longer exists. That was a school which meant a great deal to us.
Melvyn Bragg: Emanuel Litvinoff, what was your experience of getting started as a writer?
Emanuel Litvinoff: Well I always knew I was going to be a writer because when I was in the infants’ school I broke my left arm and as a result of that the teacher was rather fond of me. At that time my mother used to keep us in long hair, so I was probably pretty and the teacher was very fond of me so she let me sit outside the class and she said I could write a composition. I couldn’t think what to write about but I’d heard something about the ancient Britons. So I wrote a composition about the ancient Britons and I gave it to her and she was so impressed by it she read it out to the class. And from that moment on I knew I was going to be a writer!
Melvyn Bragg: How did you find out about the ancient Britons?!
Emanuel Litvinoff: Well I knew that they wore woad. They painted their bodies in woad and I thought they were cannibals!
Melvyn Bragg: Sometimes you can’t get it all right, but still. Before we move on, I’d just like to go back one last time. If you’ve got nothing to say about it, that’s fine. Do you see that particular place not superior to your other places but just as a place in its specificity, that particular place, as having had a direct influence on your writing as your life’s gone on. Again, starting with Bernard. And if so, can you give us some examples.
Bernard Kops: Yes. I mean it was Emanuel actually who helped to get me writing in the vein I should have been starting. Years later I wrote a book of poems that Emanuel… I was at a bookstall. I had a bookstall with my wife and I wrote these poems and a man came along and published them in a private press and Emanuel happened to see them. He came along, I’d never met Emanuel before, and he looked at this book and said, ‘Oh, do you mind if I take it away with me?’ So I said, ‘No’. I had no concept of a career or anything like that. I just wrote because I had to write. And he reviewed it, I think, in the Jewish Chronicle. I hated him for that!
“No doubt this boy can write, but why doesn’t he write about the things he knows?”
And I really fumed. And then…
Melvyn Bragg: You’ve been saving that up, have you?
Bernard Kops: He probably doesn’t remember this, but we always remember those sort of incidents, don’t we? And then, a little while later, my wife was pregnant and when I really got started I wrote a lot of stuff. In fact, I wrote a manuscript I couldn’t understand and someone else took it to the Bodley Head, to Leonard Wolf, and he sent for me. I’d never heard of Leonard Wolf. And he said, ‘This is quite nice. Would you like to re-write it?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not bothered!’ And he said, ‘Oh, well then, if you’d ever re-write it, I’ll publish it.’ I said, ‘I’m not really bothered.’ And later I sent it to Texas University and they bought the manuscript. And it was ridiculous. I couldn’t understand a word of it!
Anyway, my wife was pregnant and she was in bed and she was about seven months pregnant and I got very jealous of her being there and making a baby and I thought I’d done nothing with my life. And suddenly I thought: I’ll write a play! And then I remembered Emanuel’s words and I thought of the East End and the things I knew and it was a dying community already and I started writing my first play and it was about that area, about that world, about that community.
I once then wrote a poem and it ended like, “Real poverty came later when most of us did well and moved away.” So it was about the community. And I think that was the time when I got online, when I reached what I should be writing about.
Melvyn Bragg: Arnold, although you left the strict East End when you were nine and moved to east London, do you still see in your work…work can be set in different places but still draw from your place of origin. Do you still see drawing from that area?
Arnold Wesker: No. No, I don’t. I’m trying to think of the last thing I wrote that…
Melvyn Bragg: I’m actually not talking about placing it in that area. That’s the easy bit. I’m talking about the things that you might have absorbed as a boy, in terms of, as has been said on this platform by some people, family, community, by other people; Harold Pinter’s description of being surrounded by Fascists while the inner circle was Jews and non-Jews and his teacher. So I’m talking about what was absorbed, if you can bring that to mind for the guests this evening. What might have come out of that which you think has fed right through your writing?
Arnold Wesker: It’s not the place, it’s the people. It’s always the people and very specifically, as I said before, I was handed on a love of books and music. But what really pervaded, what I think pervades my writing, is a Jewish sensibility which I assume I inherited from my family. Now that pervades all my work. Whether I’m writing a play about an anchoress or doing an adaptation of a Dostoevsky story, I know that a sense of Jewishness, a Jewish sensibility, pervades what I write.
I know you’re going to ask me: What is a Jewish sensibility?! It’s a question of values. I can think of two things. There’s an absence of a spirit of revenge in Jews. Revenge doesn’t come easily to Jews. Pity comes to Jews. There’s also a need to build, to add to the sum total of human knowledge. There’s a sense of family. You can claim that for the Italians as well. But certainly it’s there for the Jews and that affected my writing. I mean I would have to present you with an essay to go through all the list. But a Jewish sensibility…I mean, ask people here what they understand by Jewish sensibility. I bet you would find a lot that they share in common.
Melvyn Bragg: I think there would be a lot to share in common with lots of other people as well, frankly. But that’s a different matter and it’s not my place to conduct an argument but a discussion.
Harold, was there any sense that there was a great culture that was part of your inheritance? Joseph Herman, the artist, said of Jacob Sonntag when he wanted to start the magazine that he wanted it to be ‘Yiddish in English’. The idea of a great culture out there in Europe, the idea of a massive, centuries-long culture of Jewish writing, Jewish intellectualism, is absolutely quite stunning and remarkable. Did that percolate through in any way? I know that it isn’t the sort of thing you talk about in the lower fifth and that, but was it around as something to live up to?
Harold Pinter: Yes. Yes. I both agree and disagree with Arnold, with reference to what you’ve just said, in that I can’t think one can properly attribute to a Jewish sensitivity particular characteristics and virtues which by implication don’t exist anywhere else and I don’t think, therefore, that there’s a specific and particular Jewish sensibility. Nevertheless, on the other hand, there is!
I would like to tell just one short anecdote in my own youth when I… in those days we had no telephones at all and I went round to see one of my best friends, Henry Wolf, who is still cracking away by the way. And he wasn’t there. His mother and father were there and they gave me a cup of tea and we sat down and waited for him and I suddenly asked them if they had a piece of paper and a pen. And they said, Yes, yes, we have, we have. And they gave me the piece of paper and the pen, Mr and Mrs Wolf, and I started to write a poem. And I remember looking up occasionally at these two people who were simply nodding, smiling and taking great pride in the fact that a Jewish boy was writing a poem, you know. And I think that answers your question, which I respect and I think is actually accurate: that they, these people, possessed a sense of their tradition and their history which, although they weren’t poets themselves, they had utmost respect for literature actually. And, as I say, history, and they were serious people. So they inherited that tradition and it remained a constant present and active thing in their lives, and therefore in my life.
Melvyn Bragg: Yes. I wholly agree with that. I find this sensibility argument something that one could discuss with profit I think on another occasion. Did you, Emanuel, did you feel that there was something that you’d inherited that was there to seize, to make use of, these great treasure troves of culture? Were they around? Was there time? Was there space for this to enter into your life as a young man when you started writing?
Emanuel Litvinoff: Well, as a young man I had access to literature in general, the same as everybody else. But growing up, no, not at all. I only knew one writer. He was a man named A. Abrahams and he wrote a book of poems and I was extremely impressed. I remember stopping him and speaking to him for about two hours about this awful book of poems which was really unreadable. But anyway, it was an extraordinary thing to meet an actual writer.
I was conscious of the fact that there was an extraordinarily rich heritage of culture and tradition coming from eastern Europe. I’ve never been able to identify with the State of Israel because I identify myself with the Jewish diaspora, the Eastern European culture and so on and so forth. Whenever I could find anything about it, it fascinated me.
Melvyn Bragg: What I found in preparing for this discussion were a number of references to writing, a number of profound references. I wondered, as you’d gone on as writers, let’s leave your childhood, did these apply to you? I mean, Raphael Scharf writing in The Warsaw Ghetto said, ‘writing made dying easier’ – which I think is a wonderful thing. Aharon Appelfeld said almost in a counterpoise after the war, ‘writing makes living possible’. Now what those two things have in common, as far as I am concerned, is putting writing at the centre of existence in a very profound and direct way which was startling. I want to know to what extent that is for you four.
I’m sorry to always lead off with you, Bernard, but you’re very good at it!
Bernard Kops: For me, I suppose, in scribbling away from the age of about six or seven already, I was always slightly distant from the rest of them. So much so that I was awful really because if we were walking down Stepney Green, all the kids, there were seven of us, I would consciously, I was almost the youngest, say to myself: Here we are all going to cross the road. And I would cross the road and they would kind of come with me. And so that was almost the beginning of my distance.
It was also a means of escape from the terrible things that were happening. I mean, the soup kitchen, the Board of Guardians, for clothes, and the bugs and all the horrible things of poverty and writing, in a way, distanced me from all that so that I was able to begin to write about Mosley and things like that. Or write about my sisters and my brothers rushing to the window or banging on drums and things like that. So, I don’t know. Writers. I was less involved in many ways than the others and my writing was my means of, I suppose, my ticket into the human family again.
I’ve since got back into the family, or the relatives or people like that. But there was this great urge to get away and the first thing I did when I got away was to start a family of my own, which was amazing really. But it was this desperate need to get away as well. And this terrible thing that the love that we had and the reverence we had for each other was the thing that held me, that stopped me from going. So I got into difficulties about that.
Also, it was the matrix of everything. For instance, when my mother died my father married again. He lived in Hackney with this woman, and when I walked into the house they were all listening to Radio Moscow and they were crying tears of joy listening to the Red Banner and things like that. My father called my sister into a far room and I wondered why and when we left she said, ‘Dad has said he’s taking care of all of when he dies’. And we couldn’t understand this because, you know, he was so poor. When he died, she got the shoe box out that was hidden in the wardrobe and there was £100 in there to be shared between seven of us. And he kept on saying, ‘I’ve taken care of all of you’. These things kind of inspired me. At the same time, I had to get away from it. Does that answer your question?
Melvyn Bragg: It’s a very good metaphorical answer indeed, I think. Arnold, do you want to address that question? Or there’s another question, please take your choice really, because it seems to me that one of the, I mean, these are big questions, but this is a big occasion really. By the end of the ‘30s, early ‘40s, the only surviving community of European Jewry was in this country. Did you feel – it’s difficult, but you’re capable of taking this on – was there a feeling of that on the consciousness of people around? I’m still trying to get at what stimulated, what…we have to keep remembering was an extraordinary explosion of writers out of a very small area at a particular time. These explosions have happened all over culture and they’re always concentrated and they always happen over a very short period of time. Wherever you look. Florence here, Athens there and so on and so forth, it’s always sort of the same thing. It’s very, very interesting. And there are big things around it as well as the personal and very important things. But do you think that the consciousness of what had happened in the ‘30s and ‘40s and what therefore this community here had inherited, had to bear, as it were, and had to carry forward, was that a big stimulant in any way? Or is this just essayistic and not in any way sort of getting to a personal writing consciousness?
Arnold Wesker: [Sigh] I don’t know. I don’t have much powers of invention as a writer so most of what I write is sort of bearing witness to what’s happened around me and the first play that was ever performed, Chicken Soup with Barley, was a re-creation of my family. But not simply because it was my family, but because what happened seemed to me to be a metaphor. The play covers 20 years and it’s about the disintegration of a family and a circle of friends, set against a background of the disintegration of an ideology. This struck me as rather extraordinary, the way it happened. I wasn’t conscious of the larger world. I was only really very conscious of what was happening close to me. And curiously, I can remember when, a few years ago, when the trilogy was done in Paris and there was a big discussion like this, someone said: ‘We noticed that you don’t mention, that you haven’t dealt with the Holocaust’. And it was absolutely true. There’s just one line in the play, the reference to six million dead. And that was because that outside world didn’t impinge. It was a very close family that impinged on me as a writer in the beginning.
Melvyn Bragg: Did this not impinge at all, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, what we look back on now as a sort of this furnace, an extraordinariness, which came out of it in the middle of the century? Arnold’s being very honest and convincing about that, and the reference to his own trilogy is extremely useful as a reference. Do you feel that these ideas, these massive things, do not impinge on a writer or on you particularly?
Emanuel Litvinoff: Oh no. They completely inform everything I write. I mean, there’s no question about it but it dictated the kind of writer I was going to be and in one way or another it’s in everything I write. So for me it seemed as though suddenly the whole of a certain normality had disappeared, you see, and that we were living all the time with a tragedy which our grief could not overcome. We could not overcome our grief and so on and so forth. So there’s no question about it. It informs, one way or another, almost everything I’ve written since.
Melvyn Bragg: Harold, do you have any, I’m sure you have views, what are they on the pressure of external events on a writer in terms of that affecting his writing?
Harold Pinter: Well I agree with what Emanuel has just said. I must say that my experience during the war and after the war was of a world which is extremely precarious, to put it mildly. Fraught with anxiety and fear and dread of what was to come the very next day. And this wasn’t a superficial thing by a very long chalk. This informed our lives and I think it remains with us. It certainly remains with me over all these years. The same characteristics, in other words, obtain. Even more so, in fact today, this very day if you like, when we’re sitting here, the world is now even more precarious than it ever was even then and the bombs now sixty times bigger than they were, to put it mildly, six hundred times more effective than they were then. And they were pretty effective then too.
Anyway, I was brought up in a world which arrested one every day with just total uncertainty, total insecurity. A kind of fearfulness. And also something else which was a threadbare. The world was extremely threadbare during the war and the late ‘40s by which I mean, as Bernard has talked about, poverty, poverty was part of our lives and deeply so. And we witnessed it all the time. And it was also a part of the life of the whole world. So I don’t quite see how – I’m very interested in Arnold’s position that he, as I understood it just now, that he really wrote from his specific personal relationships with his own family and his own intimate society. But I must say I would propose that the world was impinging in no uncertain terms on all of us, whether we knew it or not.
Melvyn Bragg: Just a final round-the-table because there are obviously differing and actually dovetailing views here. But trying to get at this, ‘in our ends are our beginnings’, and just before I throw it open, so after this it’s over to you: To get back to this renaissance, this outburst, this extraordinary explosion of very, very fine, of the highest quality writing at that particular time. We’ve gone at it a different way. Is it to do with the childhood? Is it to do with the family? Is it to do with this?
I just wonder another way, just a suggestion. Do you think an element might have been – I’ll start with you for just a change Arnold –an element might have been: so much has been lost, we’re going to build again. We’re going to show again. We’re going to move and we’re going to move through the word. We’re going to move through writing. I’ve read a few quotations. I could read many more. Do you think there might have been that? That might have been part of what turns out to be a fairly general impulse.
Arnold Wesker: Well that’s an interesting question … Having said that I write specifically, I don’t write about anything that I think isn’t resonant. So although Chicken Soup with Barleyis specifically about my family, I wouldn’t have written about it if I didn’t see that it was about a political disillusionment and that applies right across centuries and countries. So the specific is not an anchor for me, it’s a release. But Melvyn’s question… I’ve often wondered, why is it that these explosions do take place. The novel, was it the novel in the ‘40s? Poetry in the ‘30s? Italian cinema, French cinema. Has anyone written a book that attempts to identify the elements that come together or are released to produce such a wave? I don’t know. But when asked the question in the past, I’ve given an answer something like what you suggested, which is that there was the Cold War and it was arid and there was no spark of life and I felt that I wanted to react against the negativity of the Cold War. And I think that’s what there is in Look Back in Anger. But that’s another…
Melvyn Bragg: Bernard?
Bernard Kops: Yes. I mean, before we writers arrived there was the theatre of reassurance. I’m sure there were lots of politically motivated plays, poetic plays from Auden, Isherwood and people like that, first plays. And they were about the prostitute, the boss, the working girl, the man, the woman. I remember once going to the theatre very early and trays of cake and tea came along the aisle. You know, people went to the theatre and they went for reassurance. Suddenly this thing happened and I mean it was amazing that of all the writers who emerged at that time, maybe half of them were Jewish and that made me think about why and it was, I think, maybe it’s because we came from such a verbal society. Everyone talked all the time, often to themselves. But we talked.
Arnold Wesker: And quarrelled and quarrelled.
Bernard Kops: …And quarrelled constantly. My father would say, ‘I’m never going to talk to him again! It was 25 years ago, I remember he was coming down…’ You know, this was going on all the time. It was wonderful. In fact, when I got my play on the BBC, we couldn’t find actors with those kind of rhythms to do the work. They were all English sort of actors. So it took a time for these actors also to come. I went to Joan Littlewood with my play and she said, ‘Do you know what you’ve done?’ I said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘You’ve written a true Yiddish play.’ I had never really seen songs in a play before, or a comedy that was also sad. But that was my mother’s life. When things got too much for her, she would sing, sometimes. And when things were wonderful, she would sing. So Joan Littlewood said, ‘You know what’s happened? You didn’t come out of Russia, or Holland, or Poland. Poland came out of you.’ I suddenly became very aware of this kind of line taking me back.
Melvyn Bragg: … It’s a brilliant remark, actually, isn’t it? Emanuel, would you like to comment on the idea of – I suppose the easiest word to say is a sort of restitution, a fighting back, maybe a renaissance, isn’t it, a re-birth. It was a feeling there there was work to be done.
Emanuel Litvinoff: Yes, there was work to be done. I mean, there’s no question about it but you have to look to America to go and see it really at work. The renaissance of Jewish writing in America has been extraordinary. There was a feeling that Israel might supply in some way, you know, an outgrowth of enormous, vivid, brilliant writing and so on and so forth. And it has done to some extent. But there can’t be a renaissance as such because the world has changed so completely. You cannot go back into this, as it were, bombed and destroyed landscape and build on it particularly something that’s going to memorialise it and at the same time mean something to the present generation. You just move on and in fact one has constantly to say, I have said it on a number of occasions in Israel when I’ve been there, that you cannot in fact use the enormous tragedy of what happened to the Jews of Europe and hope to make out of that something transcendental. It just cannot be done and so you have to move on from there and create something that entirely fits the present time and present age and present consciousness.
Melvyn Bragg: I’m sure that’s very wise. Finally, from me Harold, a final question. Does the East End, do you feel, is it still some kind of yeast in your imagination this far on, the east London, the East End, that you lived in, the community there?
Harold Pinter: I think it is. Yes, I think it is. Because the language has never gone away. The language was born out of, as I tried to say earlier, out of this precarious life we were all living and was trying to articulate, which I think all writing probably does all the time, articulate the facts and make sense of the desperate nature of our existence. And that was certainly very acute when I lived in the East End, that sense of unease and, as I say, loss and desperation allied to joy of language and joy of living. It was an extraordinary compound really and it existed and certainly still, I think, remains in my imagination now. To what extent that I actually am able to explore it is another matter. But it does remain, yes.
Melvyn Bragg: Thank you. Thank you very much. Well, we’ll now go to the audience. [Procedural remarks.]
Q.1 [female]: There are three playwrights and nobody mentioned the Jewish theatre in the East End. I am not English born but the people I’ve met who lived in the East End, they all talked to me about the Jewish theatre, or Yiddish theatre. So I’m very curious to hear about it.
Melvyn Bragg: Would any of you like to take that on? The question is about Yiddish theatre.
Bernard Kops: This is an anecdote. Meir Tzelnicker said to me that the theatre was always crowded, always absolutely crowded, you couldn’t get in, and he said, ‘How did I know that the East End was dying? I’ll tell you how,’ he said. ‘One night I’m looking from the stage at the audience and I notice one place is empty,’ and he says, ‘Where’s Mr Gold?’ He’s saying this in his head, and maybe he’s not well? And fine, the next week, there were two places empty. He said, ‘Suddenly it dawned on me that something was going wrong.’ And then he said, a few weeks later, that a whole row was empty. And soon, he said that half the theatre was empty. ‘Then I knew the East End was dying.’
Melvyn Bragg: Anyone else like to comment on the Yiddish theatre?
Arnold Wesker: I had an aunt, who hasn’t, who was constantly raising money for Jewish causes and they would hire the Yiddish theatre at the Grand Palais and she would bully me into buying tickets and I’d go with my mother. I couldn’t understand Yiddish. It was an experience. I hope there’s no-one here from the old Yiddish theatre because they would be upset, but it was awful! It was sentimental. In the worst sense, it was schmaltzy. But what was really interesting was the audience, chewing their nuts and quarrelling with each other and speaking loudly across rows. And I once took George Devine to see the Yiddish theatre. Now George Devine, as many of you know, was the creator of the English stage company at the Royal Court Theatre out of which the so-called theatre revolution (I never believed it was a theatre revolution, but anyway that’s how it’s described) grew out of the Royal Court. And George Devine was the head of it, and I took George to the Yiddish theatre. I think he loved it. He obviously saw in it much more than I did, but I think he thought it was kind of exotic. I mean he was very, very English, very, very Gentile and here were all these very emotional Jewish actors prancing across the stage.
Bernard Kops: Can I just add one bit I’ve suddenly remembered. I went to see King Lear there and a woman stood up and shouted from the audience, ‘How could they do it?! The bastards! How could they do that to him!’
Q.2 [female]: I wanted to ask the panel whether that great English poet of the First World War, Isaac Rosenberg, who was after all also from the East End, whether they had heard of him. He was after all the first poet to write in the century probably of the alienation, the deracination, he felt in the trenches as a Jew, and the original ‘hanging man’.
Melvyn Bragg: Emanuel, would you like to reply to that? Isaac Rosenberg, had you heard of him?
Emanuel Litvinoff: Well indeed I had, yes.
Melvyn Bragg: Of course you had. But at the time –
Emanuel Litvinoff: No. In fact I unveiled a plaque to him outside, I think, the Whitechapel Art Gallery or the Whitechapel Library. He was an extraordinary, brilliant poet and also a wonderful painter. He’s very, very well-known indeed. I mean, Isaac Rosenberg has not been forgotten and he occupies a quite important place in the history of British poetry in this century.
Harold Pinter: I would like to support that statement. I’ve also heard of Isaac Rosenberg!
Bernard Kops: But Laurence Binyon in his Poetry of the Great World War left him out.
Arnold Wesker: I nearly wrote a film script on his life. Someone came to me and gave me a book about Isaac Rosenberg and I would love to have written it but, as usual, they couldn’t get the money together.
Q.3 [female]: To revert to the Jewish theatre in the East End, recently I heard a lecture from Anna Tzelnicker who came and told us about when she was at the theatre and all the Shakespeare plays were given in Yiddish. She said that one of the most compelling ones was Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish and it was a great success. I would love to have seen it because to hear Shakespeare in Yiddish must have been quite an experience.
Harold Pinter: Romeo and Juliet were Jews. Didn’t you know that?!
Melvyn Bragg: Only the latest scientific research will do for an occasion like this.
Q.4 [male]: Where do the panellists stand in connection with the Jewish religion and the State of Israel? [Groans from audience]
Melvyn Bragg: There’s a consensus of sorts. You’re here to ask questions and they can choose to answer or not. So we’re all grown-ups.
Emanuel Litvinoff: I would like to just recall a beautiful line of Yiddish poetry that’s come from Shakespeare. It’s: ‘Zu sein oder nicht zu sein: dos ist der Frage.’
Melvyn Bragg: Harold, do you want to comment on that?
Harold Pinter: Well all I’d like to say about that is that I think the Jewish religious parties, political parties, in Israel have an extremely damaging effect on the state of affairs in Israel in its relation to the Palestinians.
Q.4 [again]: That wasn’t my question, I’m sorry.
Harold Pinter: Well it was my answer!
Melvyn Bragg: I think it’s a fair exchange. You ask the questions: they give the answers, and if we’re lucky they connect.
Arnold Wesker: I don’t know. I knew this question would come up and I said to myself, don’t answer, steer clear. I have great difficulty in separating Israel from being Jewish but I think there have to be moments when you do. I am very defensive of Israel but it doesn’t stop me being critical. I think that Arafat has got the opponent he deserves in Ariel Sharon. I can remember that when the State of Israel was declared and we danced a hora in Kingsway, I was a member of Habonim at the time, and everyone was joyous and I said, ‘Well, they’ll get us all together in one place, it’ll be easier for them to get rid of us’. So I’m not ambivalent about the existence of the State of Israel at all. But I just wish that the Palestinians had accepted the first Resolution 181 which partitioned the disputed area and had they accepted partition they’d have had a flourishing state by now. And I believe that, more than that, the combination of a Palestinian state and an Israeli state would have been a supreme power in the area for good.
Q.5 [female]: Do you think part of the Jewish sensibility is an attitude towards English which comes from having a multi-cultural, multi-lingual background? That’s question one. And question two: Who do you think will be sitting behind this table in ten years’ time?
Melvyn Bragg: Right. Who wants to take that on? It’s Jewish sensibility, Arnold, so I think it’s your bag to start with.
Arnold Wesker: I can’t really get into it. I have to say this. I’m sorry, Melvyn. There’s been a slight confusion over this event. I was told that we were all going to talk for ten minutes and then it would go into a discussion so I prepared a 7-minute paper …
Harold Pinter: You’re going to do it now, are you?
Arnold Wesker: ….in which I spelled it all out. But it’s too late to deliver that. I can let you have it.
Melvyn Bragg: … the rest of us we weren’t told that … I make my chairman’s ruling on a democratic principle.
Arnold Wesker: Yes, yes. I bow to democracy.
Bernard Kops: I hope that those who sit at this table will be my great-grandchildren who will be half-Jewish and half-black and half-Jewish and half-Irish and will write from all those traditions.
[Chair turns to other panellists but they do not want to answer on this.]
Q.6 [female]: I know that getting published is very difficult and I just wondered if each of the panel can say how they got their first break into the publishing world?
Melvyn Bragg: Can you briskly and briefly tell us how you got your first break? By publishing, we can include having a play on stage, I think. That’s a form of publishing. Bernard, start with you again.
Bernard Kops: Well, I spoke earlier about writing my first play. It took me three days and on the fourth day I went into a bookshop where there happened to be David Archer who was a very, very eminent publisher of Dylan Thomas and he said, ‘What have you been doing?’ And I said, ‘I’ve written a play.’ And he said, ‘I know someone who might like to hear it,’ and he gave me this phone number and I phoned this guy. This was years ago. Nobody was writing plays in those days. Well. And he said, ‘Come over! Come over this evening. I’m babysitting.’ And I went over and I said, ‘I don’t want you to read it. I want to read it to you.’ And I read it to him and he said, ‘I want to take it.’ I didn’t realise how difficult it was. He gave me a cheque for £50. I rushed to the other room and phoned my wife because £50 was a fortune. He also got me to sign a piece of paper which, when he killed himself years later, I realised I was bound to him and his wife for ever. It took me ten years to get out of that contract.
Melvyn Bragg: Arnold, what about your first book.
Arnold Wesker: Oh, very easy. I was studying at the London School of Film Technique, which was the first ever film school in the country, and there met a man called Lindsay Andersen and I asked him would he read a story I’d written because I wanted to direct it as a film, and he could perhaps help me find finance. He read it and he liked it and he tried to help me get finance but failed. And he said, ‘Have you written anything else?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ I’d written this play The Kitchen which I’d entered for The Observer play competition and when it didn’t win any prizes I didn’t show it to him. But then I wrote Chicken Soup with Barley and I just knew that I’d written a good play and I asked him would he read it and he did and he wrote me this memorable letter, ‘Dear Arnold, You really are a playwright, aren’t you? Can I have your permission to show it to the people at the Royal Court?’ And that’s how it began.
Emanuel Litvinoff: Well I was in the army and I wrote some poems and it got into print. So that’s about all.
Melvyn Bragg: They just sort of stole away in the night, did they?
Emanuel Litvinoff: Absolutely, yes.
Melvyn Bragg: Which magazine did you send them to?
Emanuel Litvinoff: No, I sent them to something called ‘Poems from the Forces’.
Arnold Wesker: Incidentally, I named my first son after Lindsay because of that.
Melvyn Bragg: Harold?
Harold Pinter: I’m afraid it’s too long ago as far as I’m concerned. I can’t remember a thing about it.
Melvyn Bragg: Ok.
Q.7 [male]: I have a question over whether it is possible to identify a Jewish aesthetic? It’s definitely possible to see the structure in plays like Hamlet of Stepney Green or the Roots trilogy, or even Journey toa Small Planet or some of the linguistic patterns of some of Mr Pinter’s characters. But do you have advice for the young Jewish actors and writers as to what Aristotle should have said?
Melvyn Bragg: Well that’s about seven questions! So it’s quite a good way to end this session. Jewish aesthetic: what is a Jewish aesthetic? How can a young writer today get started? And what about Aristotle? I think I’m just going to ask the panel to pick one, poll two, do whatever combination they want, and this will be their final statement so if they want to include something that they’ve previously thought about, or just say a genteel Goodbye, that’ll be fine! And I think we’ll start with Bernard.
Bernard Kops: I suppose it’s surviving as a writer, never giving up. It’s necessary, if you can, to acquire a kind of a obsession. If you are obsessed, you are halfway there, because that doesn’t allow you to give up. So that starving in a garret, never getting your work on, doesn’t work against that if you will not take No for an answer. You just have to continue writing no matter what. The good and the bad. Failure, success. They become semantics. They interchange. It’s like me every morning at five o’clock, driven to go to the computer and write. And it’s terrifying and it’s wonderful, but it’s like breathing. If that’s the Jewish aesthetic, well, I was born with it.
Arnold Wesker: Persistence for sure. No doubt. Don’t give up. Nag the bastards. But my serious advice would be: Go into your father’s business. You all watch movies late at night so you won’t be offended. It’s important to have a ‘fuck you’ fund. And it’s terrible to be at the mercy of other people’s decisions so if you can get yourself a bank account, that will help. A bank account and persistence.
Harold Pinter: I’m going to bear those words in mind, I must say! I think there is quite a mystery about the Jewish aesthetic since while somehow it exists, and I think that’s true, it’s also impossible to define. So that leaves me where it leaves you really.
Emanuel Litvinoff: Well I edited a book of short stories, the Penguin Book of Modern Jewish Short Stories and one of the things that surprised me is that I discovered that Muriel Spark was Jewish and she wrote a very, very good story about her grandmother who was three-quarters Jewish. I thought it was interesting to discover that. I mean it was the most interesting thing about editing the book!
Melvyn Bragg: Well, to end with a fine writer is a good way to end a discussion about writing.
[Interjection from member of audience: It was not long enough!]
Well, it’s ten o’clock.
[Interjection: It would have been nice to last until eleven. We all would have enjoyed hearing them talk more!]
I’m afraid that the people here, although it might not look like it, the swans on top and the feet below, they’ve been working very hard. They really think that an hour and a half is it. I’m awfully sorry!
Arnold Wesker: That doesn’t include me. I could have stayed all night!
Melvyn Bragg: If anybody wants to stay all night with Arnold Wesker, now is your chance. As for the rest of us, I’d just like to say thank you very much to everyone and thank you very much to you.
Matthew Reisz: I’m Matthew Reisz. I’m the current Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and Melvyn Bragg said at evening. Thank you very much.
2.) Yiddish Plays in Translation
Michael Taub Reviewed work(s): God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation by Nahma Sandrow The Theater of the Holocaust. Vol.II by Robert Skloot AJS Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Apr., 2002), pp. 185-188 Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Association for Jewish Studies Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4131590
3.) Review: Post-War Jewish Fiction: Ambivilance, Self-Explanation and Transatlantic Connections by David Brauner
By: Edward A. Abramson
The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 34, Nineteenth-Century Travel Writing (2004), pp. 345-346
Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association
4.) The Birth of the East Ender: Neighborhood and Local Identity in Interwar East London Benjamin J. Lammers Journal of Social History, Vol. 39, No. 2, Kith and Kin: Interpersonal Relationships and Cultural Practices (Winter, 2005), pp. 331-34 Published by: Peter N. Stearns Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3790771