DIY Mania


One of the first things we encountered when we came to France was the prevalence of DIY shops. Actually, shops would hardly be the right term, as they’re more something of an emporium. On that first visit Yigal thought he had died and gone to heaven. All there was as far as the eye could see was a vast space, something akin to an airplane hangar, containing what seemed like an infinite array of shelves bearing any kind of tool, equipment or building material you could possibly imagine.

For me, this was completely uninteresting. I grew up in a home where my father was not at all handy, except on the typewriter, and it was my mother who mended fuses and changed light-bulbs, using a neat little tool-kit she had brought with her when she fled Germany in 1939. Whenever something more complicated needed to be done, there was our regular handyman, Mr. Quested, who was called upon to accomplish the task. And this, I thought, was the norm amongst the Jewish population of suburban London. That’s as may be, but in Israel (and possibly elsewhere, too, for all I know) things are different.

Yigal was brought up with a father who was an accomplished carpenter and handyman, and therefore many of those skills were passed on to him, as well as additional ones he acquired as a practical person with a scientific mind. Anything further removed from the inept scholar it would be hard to imagine.

So DIY (bricolage in French) is apparently a very popular occupation among the inhabitants of rural France, whether they be local French people or expats from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands or any other country whose population tends to gravitate towards the relatively inexpensive and often neglected houses of the villages and hamlets in the French countryside. This often means that a great deal of work is required in order to get a house into a state that is fit for human habitation (they are sometimes even converted barns or stables, representing a complete rebuilding project, often requiring professional involvement).

One particular task that Yigal undertook recently was to clear the basement of our house in rural France. It involved getting rid of all kinds of junk that had been deposited there over the years by previous owners, as well as insulating the area and making it water-tight. The fact that it contained a well did not make things any easier, and for this he enrolled the help of a local (English-speaking) friend and handyman.

Any mention of a basement (cave in French) in rural France brings to my mind the image of Jews being hidden there during the period of German occupation. In order for anyone to stay there for any period of time they would have had to endure very difficult conditions of cold and damp, not to mention privation, hunger and very uncomfortable accommodation.

That, however, is not the reason for the project of bringing the basement into a more habitable state, but rather to stop the dampness there from rising into the walls of the house. This required purchasing various items of insulating and draining material, and hence the errand that brought us to the biggest, most well-stocked DIY emporium of them all, Brico-Depot, in the nearby town.

On entering its portals one is confronted by an even more enormous array of shelves laden with all the items and equipment mentioned above, as well as many more. It is a haven for professionals and amateurs alike. I personally found it all quite intimidating, but it seemed to me that I was the only one to experience this. All around me I could see serious people, mostly men but also some women, clad in work clothes, wheeling huge trolleys loaded up with planks, sanitary equipment, plywood panels, and anything else that would serve in constructing, repairing or installing any and every part of any building anywhere. Luckily, there was a set of wicker garden furniture on display, so I could sit there and enjoy myself while Yigal roamed the shelves hunting for the items needed.

I presume that such emporia are to be found in Britain and the USA, too, but I have never been in any of them. All I can say is that my encounter with the world of DIY in France has left a deep and lasting impression on my mind, and I think my one visit has been enough to last me for the rest of my life.



The Angel of Charleston

The Angel of Charleston; Grace Higgens, Housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group

by Stewart MacKay,Published by The British Library, London, 2013

As a long-time aficionado of all things Bloomsbury, and the so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ of writers and artists in particular, I couldn’t resist buying this biography of the person who became the mainstay of the household in Charleston, the Sussex country home of Vanessa Bell, her children, Julian, Quentin and Angelica, her husband Clive Bell, and her live-in companion and fellow-artist, Duncan Grant.

Born Grace Germany to a Norfolk farming family, Grace entered domestic service at the age of sixteen as housemaid to Vanessa Bell at her home in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, moving with the family to their country house at Charleston as well as travelling with them to the south of France on holiday.

Grace was a pretty girl with a great sense of fun but little formal education. She had learned how to cook and look after a house as the eldest of seven children, and her role in the Bell household gradually evolved from that of housemaid to that of nanny to the children and later housekeeper. It was Duncan Grant who dubbed her ‘the angel of Charleston,’ presumably for her skills in the spheres to which she was appointed.

Vanessa Bell’s painting of Grace wearing an apron and standing at the kitchen table, in the throes of preparing a meal adorns the cover of the book. Her face and figure radiate a sense of calm and of being intent on her purpose, while the root vegetables on the table in front of her indicate the kind of meal that is being prepared. Vanessa gave the painting the title ‘The Kitchen.’

The book is based on the diary Grace kept for some of the time she was at Charleston, which became the family’s permanent home during and after the Second World War, having served as a weekend and holiday retreat beforehand. She also accompanied the family on some of their visits to the south of France, and in her diary she describes her impressions of the local town (Cassis) and its population. This was in the late 1920s and early 1930s, before Cassis became a fashionable resort for the rich and famous, and it is interesting to read her views that “The women here grow beards and moustaches and go bald… The Frenchwomen wash at stone wash places and always with cold water, and instead of soap they mostly use the ash of wood, after it had been burnt… That the women have to carry the things and not the men when out walking with them… That the women sit mostly just outside their houses to sew, in summer and winter… That women carry their parcels on their heads…”

It would seem that there have been quite a few changes in the way of life of people in the French countryside since then. While Grace was in France she received lessons in French, together with Julian, from a local teacher, and this enabled her to buy provisions for the household and talk to the local population.

There seems to have been a sense of camaraderie among the various members of the domestic staff of the Charleston household as well as with those of the households of Vanessa’s sister, Virginia Woolf, and of Maynard Keynes, both of whom lived nearby. Grace and others would sometimes spend an evening at the local pub, the Barley Mow, where they encountered local farming folk with many of whom they were on friendly terms.

It is interesting to note that, in contrast to common practice in England at the time, when Grace got married she continued to live and work at Charleston, together with her husband, Walter Higgens. Walter was employed for a while there as a gardener, but eventually found work elsewhere.

The diary entries are interspersed with comments from the editor of this little book (only 150 pages, with many illustrations), as well as with information gleaned from interviews with surviving friends and members of the family. Through them all Grace comes across as a person who was warm and caring, someone who kept the household going through thick and thin, and a figure who could carry off a relationship with her employers that was friendly but not intimate, respectful but not remote, and who loved and was loved by each and every one of them.

It’s Here Again!

It’s that time of the year again. Over the summer weekends every self-respecting village and town in central France holds its annual fete or saint’s day, meaning that bowls competitions are held, food and drink is served for a minimum fee and both local people and ‘outsiders’ can set up stalls for the annual flea-market sale of sundry goods, bric-a-brac and anything that’s surplus to requirements.

The flea-market, or ‘brocante,’ is the place to be on a balmy summer morning, when people of all ages, shapes and sizes turn out to inspect one another’s wares, possibly even to buy a trinket or ancient copper pot and to enjoy socializing with neighbours from near and far.

The brocante is everyone’s chance to bring out the contents of their basement or attic (some brocantes are also called ‘attic-emptier’), set up a stall and get rid of the porcelain service they inherited from their grandparents, the toys and clothes that their children have outgrown, old books, records and tools, and even the jewellery that dear grandmamma left them.

I really enjoy strolling along the rows of stalls, inspecting the goods on sale and exchanging a friendly greeting with the people manning (or rather womanning) the stalls. Sometimes one sees beautiful dinner- or tea-services, antique cutlery and interesting paintings. And it can be almost painful to see the linen tablecloths and serviettes upon which a young woman once embroidered her initials, as was the custom before marriage in former times.

I have seen ornate soup tureens that I would dearly have loved to buy, but really have no good use for. And of course there are also cups without saucers, saucers without cups, teapots without lids, pots, pans and ancient metal implements whose purpose is not always clear.

One of the items that caught my eye one Sunday morning was a large metal stand consisting of dozens of arms and hooks. When I asked the stall-owner what it was for he told me it was for drying wine bottles. Now, who has to dry dozens of wine bottles all in one go? This is not a grape-growing area, so I can only presume that the former owners used to consume a great deal of wine. I was later informed that such objects were taken by the early Dadaist artists and presented as ‘a fountain,’ revolutionizing modern art by the introduction of the concept of ‘ready-made.’

Every once in a while I have come across items that are both beautiful and serviceable. And so my tea-service has benefited from two cups with matching saucers that are almost an exact fit with mine. In addition, four handsome mugs matching my breakfast dishes and large enough to accommodate a generous cup of tea also now grace my table of a morning.

Arts and crafts aficionados can also occasionally find something to their liking, and I know several artistic types who use the opportunity to earn a few extra pennies by selling their home-made embroidered tablecloths, crocheted mats and even delicate items of clothing. Of course, there are also those talented individuals who make necklaces, bracelets, earrings and other trinkets which can be very attractive.

As long as I don’t have enough things I regard as discardable I am relieved of the onerous task of standing behind a stall for several hours, and am happy to leave the work to others. But perhaps one day my children and/or grandchildren will be doing that with all the ‘stuff’ I’ve accumulated over the years. Sorry, folks!

Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K.Scott Moncrieff; Soldier, Spy and Translator

The book was written by Jean Findlay, a distant relative of the subject, and was published by Chatto and Windus in 2014

As a former translator and great admirer of the works of Proust, both in the original French (a bit of a struggle for me) and in their delightful English version, I could not resist ordering this book from the Bibliophile company that offers hundreds of books at reduced prices.

My expectations were not dashed, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this well-written account of the unusual character and life of Charles Kenneth Scott Moncreiff (CKSM, or CK as he was known to his friends), from his beginnings as the scion of a somewhat eccentric Scottish family to his later life as an itinerant intellectual, literary luminary and intelligence gatherer in Italy.

His mother, to whom he was very attached, was something of a society beauty but also an artist and a professional writer, publishing essays, articles and stories in a variety of journals and newspapers. His father was a lawyer, eventually becoming a judge, so that his employment in various capacities meant that the family had to move several times in CKSM’s childhood and youth, though always remaining in some part of Scotland.

Much of the book describes CKSM’s education, first in a Scottish private school and then at Winchester public school, having been awarded a scholarship. There he developed his love for poetry and literature in general, made lifelong friendships, and presumably developed the homosexuality that formed an integral part of his adult life. Having failed to get into Cambridge, he went up to Edinburgh university, first graduating in law in order to satisfy his parents, and then following his own inclination by studying literature.

Born in 1889, Charles belonged to the generation of young men who fought in the First World War. Having been an enthusiastic member of the cadets, he became an officer in a regiment of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, and spent the war years fighting in France interspersed with periods of being sent home to recover from the disease known as Trench Fever, which afflicted him at various periods throughout his life. He relished the life of the soldier, displaying fearless fighting spirit and loyalty to his men, but eventually suffered a serious wound to his right leg that left him disabled for the rest of his life and caused him to endure several bouts of hospitalization for surgery in an attempt to save the leg from amputation. During the war, and possibly as a result of his experiences in it, he converted to Catholicism.

Inevitably, he was affected by the death in war of many of his friends and fellow-soldiers, particularly that of the poet Wilfred Owen, whom he admired tremendously and to whom he was particularly devoted. In civilian life he held positions in London in the War Office and in the offices of The Times, which was owned at the time by Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth).

Before the war CKSM had translated the ancient texts of Beowulf and Chanson de Roland, and it was while he was working at The Times that he began translating the first volume of Proust’s epic novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. His method consisted of reading a sentence, then translating it viva voce to a friend, and subsequently writing it down. To this particular translator this seems an impossible undertaking, but this was CKSM’s preferred modus operandi, and seems to have worked exceedingly well, as his translations of all the volumes that comprise the novel, as well as those of many other authors (Pirandello, Balzac, Stendhal, inter alia), are acclaimed as works of great beauty and profound understanding.

He spent most of his later life in Italy, living in a succession of rented rooms in Pisa, Venice, Rome, to name but a few, while undertaking intelligence work for Britain and also entertaining a wide assortment of literary figures from England and elsewhere. He also worked simultaneously as a literary critic, writing for various London journals, as well as conducting an extensive correspondence with many of his friends and colleagues.

He died in Rome in 1930, aged only forty, after being diagnosed with stomach cancer just eight weeks earlier, but having lived almost twice as long as those friends who had been killed in the war. He seems to have managed to enjoy his somewhat diversified life-style while at the same time working hard, combating disability, maintaining a wide range of relationships, and sending money to help support the families of his two older brothers who had died before him.

The Lady and the Unicorn

The region of France around the town of Limoges has been known since mediaeval times for its weavers, and the art of tapestry-making once flourished there for many generations, passing down from father to son. Today the towns of Aubusson and Felletin are no longer famous for that particular speciality, though remnants of those ancient times are still to be found there in the form of museums and studios. Shops in Aubusson’s main street still display coloured wools of all kinds in their windows for the benefit of the many local hobbyists.

In the castle perched atop the steep precipice overlooking the Creuse river in the nearby town of Boussac one may take a guided tour of the building and sense something of the mediaeval atmosphere that once prevailed there. The grand dining hall, where lavish meals were once served to hundreds of revelers, now stands empty, and the guide is quick to point out that this part of the castle was destroyed by the British in the fourteenth century (whereupon this British visitor felt obliged to apologise). A fascinating book describing the tapestries recently came into my hands, providing with me with an insight into these beautiful works of art.

One of the rooms in the castle, where much of the original furniture may still be found, was occupied by the French writer, George Sand (Aurore Dudevant) in the 1830s. In her novel, Jeanne, she describes the castle and the surrounding countryside, also mentioning the impressive set of tapestries entitled ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ that adorned the walls at that time. In later years, as the devastation wrought by time, rats and mould threatened to cause irreparable damage to the tapestries, they were purchased for the French nation and hung, after extensive restoration, in the Cluny Museum in Paris. One or two reproductions may still be seen in the castle, but not the originals.

The early history of the six remaining tapestries (there may once have been more), is not absolutely clear. What is known is that they were produced in France for one of the members of the nobility on the basis of designs made by a mediaeval master. In fact, the production of the tapestries required the skills of an artist or artists who could produce the basic design, those who could transfer it onto a cartoon, or basis for the weaver, and extremely skilful weavers who were masters of the intricate art of producing the finished tapestry.

The six huge tapestries, each one different but depicting similar principal figures – a lady, her maidservant, a lion and a unicorn – also show a myriad of smaller animals, as well as birds and flowers of various kinds and sizes in a wealth of colours, covering each tapestry in abundant detail that is both fascinating and a delight to the eye. Contemporary scholars have concluded that each tapestry concerns one of the five senses, smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, while the last one bears the inscription ‘Mon seul desir,’ which could mean either ‘My one desire’ or ‘Only my will.’ Whether this refers to some concept of romantic love or is a philosophical pronouncement is still an open question. It has been suggested that the tapestries were commissioned for the wedding or betrothal of the son and daughter of two noble families, but no records have been found to verify this assumption.

The lion and the unicorn are well-known heraldic figures, and are even to be found in the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, though no association with England is known. The production of the tapestries in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries connects the traditions of the mediaeval and renaissance periods of art. Be that as it may, the tapestries themselves are works of great beauty and interest, and make a visit to the Cluny Museum a must for my next visit to Paris.


Subservience, Suffering and Sex,

Doing His Will (Osah Kirtzono)

by Esti Weinstein

Published in Hebrew by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir, 2016

The poor woman who wrote this book (she eventually committed suicide) was born into a specific sect – tantamount to a cult – of ultra-orthodox Judaism known as the Gur Hassidim.

As a child and teenager the author accepted the rules, regulations and restrictions (and there were many restrictions) required by the sect. As disciples of the principal rabbi of the sect, the Gur Rabbi, both men and women were subject to strict rules regarding dress, food, prayer, family life and even sex. The key word in all aspects of life was subservience: men were subservient to the rabbi, who was considered the principal purveyor of the word of God, and women were subservient to men – to their father before marriage, and to their husband subsequently.

The author, who seems to have total recall when it comes to recollecting every conversation she had throughout her childhood and every thought that passed through her head, describes all this in almost painful detail, which can become rather tedious after a while. This applies in particular to her imagined conversations with God, whom she appears to have regarded as her best friend. Reciting the appropriate prayers at the appointed times also occupied a prominent place in her life.

The account of her upbringing and home life reveals a spirited youngster who toes the line dictated by the society she grows up in, a line that seems intentionally designed to cramp any individual thought or idea, focusing on preparing girls for marriage and parenthood as soon as they reach the age of sixteen or seventeen, and keeping them protected from and ignorant of life in the wider world outside the sect.

Thus, from an early age the heroine’s thoughts are focused primarily on the search her parents undertake to find her a suitable husband, the  process of considering and being considered by fitting suitors, and her joy at having been found acceptable by the scion of a respectable family. The ‘courtship’ process involved meetings between the two sets of parents, a single meeting between the two candidates, and a period of separation lasting several months while preparations for the wedding went ahead.

Naturally, the main concern of the seventeen-year-old was the fabric and design of her wedding dress, and also the triumph of getting married before her best friend. The actual wedding ceremony was long and arduous, with strict separation between male and female guests, and the inevitable disappointment in bed on the first night.

Nevertheless, the young couple must have overcome their initial shyness, as well as the various constraints imposed by the sect on the nature and frequency of intercourse (no expressions of love or displays of intimacy allowed), as they managed to have eight children in the next fourteen years. Sex is a duty to be undertaken solely in order to fulfill the commandment ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ This took its toll on the author’s body, and after seeing a non-orthodox friend in a swimming suit she felt impelled to undergo surgery to have her breasts enlarged.

Although her husband said he loved and admired her just as she was and did his best to make her happy, the heroine gradually found herself consumed by revulsion at his appearance and physical attentions. Notwithstanding, she did her best to fulfill her marital duty and succumb to his nightly demands. At some stage the couple embarked on visits to hotel spas for massages. These at first were separate, but then together, and this started a train of events that culminated in the husband initiating and encouraging his wife to experience treatment by a male masseur, leading eventually to erotic experiences, which the husband witnessed and apparently enjoyed.

Consumed by guilt and disgust the heroine felt she had lost her faith in her religion, and even her relationship with God. Disillusioned and disgusted by the hypocrisy of the other members of her sect-cum-cult she made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide, eventually left her husband, and as a result was prevented from seeing her children. Finally she sank into utter despair and depression, so that her last suicide attempt succeeded.

Her tragic story featured in Israel’s media for a while, but was soon pushed aside by other subjects. It is doubtful whether any lessons were learned from this sorry saga, either by the community which spewed her out or by the wider, secular society. But at least this book, which she must have written over a considerable period of time, constitutes her revenge from beyond the grave.


London in Jerusalem

British Mandatory rule of the region known at the time as Palestine but currently the State of Israel lasted only thirty years, from 1917 (the conquest of the region by British forces and the granting of the mandate by the League of Nations) to 1948 (the declaration of independence by Israel). In view of the region’s recorded history, going back several thousands of years, this is a mere blip, nonetheless the effects of that brief interlude can be seen still today.

The exhibition entitled ‘London in Jerusalem’ tracing just some of these effects occupies part of the exhibition space in the ancient Jerusalem structure known as the Tower of David (the rest describes the conquest of Jerusalem and entry into the city by General Allenby). There are those who believe the site to be the burial place of King David, but the archaeological evidence dates the structure to a later period. However, the building is certainly at least one thousand years old, and has yielded many interesting artifacts. It stands at the outer edge of Jerusalem’s Old City, and forms a prominent landmark, constituting part of the wall surrounding it, separating the old from the newer parts of the city.

During the period of the Mandate the Tower of David served as a focal point for cultural and artistic activities, as is attested by posters in the exhibition advertising exhibitions, concerts and art auctions held there. The influence of British rule may be clearly seen still today throughout the newer parts of Jerusalem, as the first Governor-General, Sir Ronald Storrs, issued an order stating that any new building erected in Jerusalem had to be faced with Jerusalem stone, thus preserving the architectural character of the city.

Under British rule Jerusalem flourished both physically and culturally, with the construction of important buildings, among them the YMCA building and the King David hotel, as well as the garden suburbs of Rechavia and Beit Hakerem. The period also saw an influx of new inhabitants, mainly from Europe but also from other parts of the Middle East, so that both the Arab and the Jewish populations grew. It goes without saying that in the 1930s Jews from Germany and other parts of Europe also made Jerusalem their home, although immigration by Jews became increasingly difficult with the restrictions imposed by the Mandatory authorities as they bowed to Arab pressure.

Nonetheless, alongside the surge in residential and public construction, social and cultural life in Jerusalem flourished. One wall of the exhibition is devoted to posters for concerts, recitals, plays, art exhibitions and dances open to the public. Alongside the growth in the population from former European countries, there was a general expansion of life in the cafés and restaurants of the city, and the exhibition contains a life-size reconstruction of an authentic Jerusalem café of the time, as well as of the famous Fink’s bar, where a large number of journalists and others spent many happy hours.

One of the most outstanding legacies of British rule was the establishment of the broadcasting service, known at the time as the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS). The broadcasts were in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and members of the three communities served on the programming board, although this did not preclude disputes over content and time slots. ‘Jerusalem Calling,’ as the station was known, played a significant role in fostering local culture, broadcasting news as well as live music, language lessons, radio plays, segments for children and youth and morning exercise programmes.

One intriguing display cabinet contains the delicate bone china tea service used by the King David hotel when VIPs came to stay. In addition, main roads were given English names, some of which have endured to this day. Thus, every Jerusalemite knows where King George street is located, though few remember that its continuation was once known as Princess Mary street. The exhibition notes point out that as well as turning Jerusalem into a financial and cultural centre, the British made it the administrative center of the region, a status it had not enjoyed under Ottoman rule.

All in all, it is possible to look back at that brief period as one of relative peace and harmony between the different cultures, as a time of cultural blossoming and economic stability. It was also the period in which the leaders of the Yishuv, as the Jewish comunity was then known, were able to focus on creating the instruments of self-government and forging the path for the future State of Israel.


Music in the Creuse

Summer in the depths of rural France is peaceful in the extreme, providing R&R (rest and relaxation) and constituting balm for the soul.

One does one’s best to take advantage of the quiet time, and even to enjoy the food and wine while endeavouring to maintain a modicum of moderation. This, of course, is particularly hard given the many temptations that surround one on all sides.

Cultural delights such as those we are able to enjoy in the city are rare, however, and one doesn’t expect to encounter first-class entertainment of that kind while in the countryside of any country, and certainly not in France, far away from any centre of any kind.

However, we were able one evening to enjoy music-making on a high standard in a church in one of the nearby villages. An ensemble consisting of a flautist and harp-player, both originally from the Netherlands, entertained the packed hall with a selection of classical music ranging from Bach to very modern pieces, in some cases written especially for these artists. The musicians, who also teach in Dutch music academies, are both members of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.

In between the two parts of the concert (which started at the very sensible hour of 6 p.m., leaving time to get home in time for dinner) we were entertained by the local choir of some forty adults, presenting a very eclectic programme of songs sung in a variety of languages. This took us far from the provincial and rural France we have come to know and love, with harmonious arrangements of French folk songs, the orthodox Serbian liturgy, a rendition in French of ‘Let the Sun Shine in,’ from the musical ‘Hair,’ and also of ‘Amazing Grace,’ as well as of Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Erlaube mir’ by Brahms. The grand finale, in which the choir was accompanied by the flute and harp ensemble, was Verdi’s ‘Va Pensiero,’ the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from ‘Nabucco.’

The choir seemed to consist mainly of elderly and middle-aged individuals drawn from the various local communities of the region. What was surprising was its particularly strong male section, which added considerably to the quality of the sound as it resonated around the tiny church. The enthusiasm of the lady conductor was also admirable, though I was somewhat distracted by wondering whether the sleeves of her jacket would withstand the strain of her energetic arm movements.

The audience also displayed considerable enthusiasm, and seemed reluctant to let either the players or the choir end the evening without a series of encores of various kinds. However, sitting on hard wooden benches for two hours was starting to get too much for us, so that we felt impelled to leave before the choir embarked on a repeat performance of ‘Va Pensiero.’ It was also becoming apparent that the choristers were also beginning to get tired, having had to stand for most of the evening.

After all, they must have wanted to go home and have dinner, too. They certainly deserved it.

Trump crumbled!


The recent furore over Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents and placing them in enclosures that have been likened to cages, seems in the end to have brought out the best in American society.

After all, virtually all Americans, Trump included, can trace their roots back to immigrant forefathers, whether relatively recent or distant. For many years immigration into America was permitted in almost unlimited fashion. In the 1920s America introduced quotas restricting the number of immigrants by country, thus putting paid to the hopes of many European Jews of finding refuge from Nazi persecution.

Initially there seemed to be general support for Trump’s policy of ‘zero tolerance’ regarding the illegal entry into America of people entering the country via the southern border from Mexico. However, as reporters and photographers provided evidence of the heartbreaking scenes of children being separated from their parents, this gave way to widespread indignation.

To America’s credit, except in a handful of cases, this indignation was expressed right across the board, regardless of party affiliation or political beliefs. The general outrage eventually persuaded even that most stubborn and presumably heartless of presidents to revoke his edict, which he falsely claimed had been introduced by the previous Democratic administration.

The whole episode brought back to me an episode from my own life, which I call ‘my epiphany in the library.’

When I was studying for a degree in Sociology at the London School of Economics back in the 1960s, we were told to read the work of psychologist John Bowlby on maternal deprivation. Sitting in the university library, I read about the deleterious effects of separating a young child from his or her mother. It was then, at the age of eighteen, that I remembered having been told that when I was one year old I was sent away to a children’s home in the countrside in the framework of the evacuation of children from London during the Blitz of the Second World War. My parents had said that before that I had sung and even spoken, but that when I was brought back, about a year later, it took a long time before I would sing and speak again.

At the time the account of what had been done to me left me unmoved, but as I read more and more about the long-term psychological damage that separation from a mother or surrogate mother does to a very young child I became more and more agitated. I don’t know if I burst into tears there and then, but I certainly had a lot of food for thought.

I was living at home at the time, and when I got home later that day I asked my mother, possibly with a note of accusation in my voice, how she could have done that to me, her only child at the time. I recall that my mother became very upset, possibly even breaking down in tears, and said that what they had done had been only for my own good, to save me from possible injury or death from the bombing.

At that time, my parents were house-parents at a hostel for some twenty-five refugee children who had come to England in the framework of the Kindertransport, which gave refuge to ten thousand unaccompanied children from Europe. So the concept of separating children from their parents must have seemed quite reasonable to them, although none of their wards were under the age of eight or nine, and some were already in their teens. Most of those younger children were also sent out of London in the framework of the general evacuation policy.

Many years later I wrote about this episode in my life, as well as others, in my first novel, ‘The Balancing Game.’ I have no actual memory of the event, but I’m in no doubt that it affected my psyche. Writing about what I imagined that I felt may well have served in some way to help heal the wounds.

However, it isn’t necessary to have experienced maternal deprivation oneself in order to feel empathy for the children of immigrants separated from their parents, as has been proved by recent events in America.

I can only say, well done, America, and thank goodness for its free press and social media. The uproar forced Trump to crumble. If only other countries had behaved in a similar fashion who knows how different history might have been. But at least the America of today has proved that it has a heart and that the vaunted American values still prevail.


‘Jacob and his Sons’ at the Israel Museum


The exhibition of paintings by  Francisco de Zurburan, a seventeenth-century Spanish painter, has been a major attraction at the Israel Museum for the last few weeks. I had never heard of him, so I made use of a free morning to go and take a look.

What met my eyes came as a huge surprise (with the emphasis on ‘huge’). Each of the thirteen paintings depicts Jacob and his twelve sons, as described in the Old Testament. As Jacob feels his last hours approaching, he calls all his sons to him and on each one by turn he bestows a blessing and a characterization, phrased succinctly and sometimes in a caustic or prophetic way. In the exhibition at the Israel Museum these quotations are given in both Hebrew and English alongside each picture, enabling the viewer to relate the visual depiction to the father’s analysis.

The twelve sons of Jacob are regarded as the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, and it is in that light that they should be perceived through Zurburan’s paintings. The actual pictures are extremely large, larger than life even, and clearly painted with a great deal of thought and attention to detail. The models for each painting were evidently chosen with the idea of revealing some aspect of the Biblical character. But that is only part of the story. Each model wears clothing that reflects his character and role in life. Thus, Judah, the son who is destined to be the predecessor of kings, wears regal robes of great delicacy and complexity, while Asher, who is described by Jacob as someone who both feasts on and provides good food and delicacies fit for kings, is painted as a ‘bon vivant,’ with an expression of satisfaction on his face.

What is most striking about all the paintings is the richness of the colours of various items of clothing. Thus, even the attire worn by Gad, who is depicted as a poor man, is painted in such great detail and with such artistic delicacy that to the viewer it feels as if one can almost touch the fabric of his dress.

The paintings apparently have a checkered history, and it is thought that they were intended to be used as a visual stimulus for the conversion of the natives of South America. The Spanish conquerors managed to overcome the physical resistance displayed by the local population, which nonetheless continued to adhere to their own beliefs. It is thought that the paintings were on board a vessel bound for South America that was captured by pirates and were lost for several years. Eventually, in the mid-eighteenth century, the pictures were bought at an auction in England by the Bishop of Durham, who hung them in Auckland Castle in Scotland. He did this in the aspiration that they would serve to further awareness of the need for tolerance and social, political and religious understanding between Christians and Jews in Britain.

Since Auckland Castle is currently undergoing renovations, the Israel Museum was given the opportunity to provide a temporary home for them in the form of the current exhibition, which is certainly well worth a visit.