Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 50: Death of a Pioneer

It’s taken two years and eight months for me to transcribe Volume One of Joseph Witriol’s Journal. There are 19 more, so I may have to start cutting out passages if I am to finish this project.

Wednesday, 30th December 1959 3p.m.

Nothing good with which to bring the year and this volume to a close. A letter from Sarah to inform me that Uncle Mendel had died (the husband of my mother’s sister). He was one of the early chalutzim [pioneers], had worked with Ben Gurion. Of well-to-do parents, I believe, he emigrated to Israel “to build and to be built” on its soil. He worked like a goy, as a plumber (?installateur? [i.e. dad is wondering what the Hebrew word is]). His daughter was a true Sabra, Hebrew her only language (apart from Yiddish which she used with her parents), a natural patriot. Uncle Mendel lived Zionism, I preached it in my youth.

From the solemnity and nobility of Menachem Kessler’s death – Milton’s lines – “a death so noble” – occur to me (shut up, H.L.[Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur] ) – to life with a small l. I picked up by chance at Alf’s [my mother’s brother, Alf Katz]  a most entertaining book, Rally Round the Flag, Boys by Max Shulman. It describes with brilliant humour the impact of a Nike battalion on a small town with its three vertical social divisions: the Yankees, the New York commuters and the Italians. The various liaisons, frictions, contretemps are brilliantly rendered.

E. [Edith Witriol] out 3-piece-suite hunting, leaving me to hold the baby. I held him on Monday for most of the day, miraculously succeeding in changing my first nappy. Philip is now beginning to grizzle slightly – he gave me a good hour’s quiet to write to Sarah and Aunt Dora and make this entry.

Since, as I believe I have repeatedly stated, I have no illusions about this journal being acclaimed as one of the showpieces of world literature, and my meagre income renders it desirable for me to keep some record of certain items of expenditure, I record

  1. the purchase of a raincoat, £11-0-6 ex local Moishe Burton; adjudged satisfactory by E. & Mum
  2. the purchase of a blazer, £5-19-9, from the same source. Adjudged unsatisfactory by both ladies (my mother was right; it is a tight fit); am going to try and exchange.


Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 49: Death by trivia

Wednesday 16th December 1959, 8.50 p.m. 

“Edith went to the chiropodist and had her corns sliced off in a most unusual place underneath her foot (??)” – E. gives me my opening entry, which is being made in the kitchen. I have a nagging feeling most of the time that I ought to be keeping up my entries; when I come to make them I find I have only trivia to record.

Still, as I believe I have mentioned before, the journals of many celebrities edited with all the flim-flam flummery appertaining to a monumental work seem to me, often, to be nothing but a collection of trivia. So, as they occur to me – the frail old lady died (her death was trivial, as mine will be – I seem to remember Rilke writing O Herr gib jedem seinen eignen Tod, der grossen Tod, den jeder in sich hat, – I quote from memory, I have the passage in one of my scrap-books – but frankly, I don’t mind the trivial death, the kuhtod – like Heine, Bin kein Held, es fehlen mir Die pathetischen Gebärden [Jetzt wohin?], I’ve “had” my schlachtfeldtod, and I certainly don’t want a Matratzentod, or rather Matratzengrufttod; I kid myself, moreover, I want to live to a ripe old age so that I can see Philip and his Geschwister safely launched into the world), E. & I went to see a French film locally ( I hoping, as I always used to do, that it would be good for my French, and finding, as I always used to, that I picked up nothing,we had our Christmas party at school this afternoon (66 kids, most of them “bubbly”, to use the stock teacher’s expression, managed by Harrow & myself; a bit of a flap, I had no games prepared, couldn’t find, though I have now unpacked all my books, one on party games which I have; only on the way home did the “one finger keep moving” thing occur to me; must try to think of it for the future; Harrow is very capable, but left me for about twenty minutes or more to keep the whole mob at bay while he and four of my girls were washing up plates in the staff-room, and then it was too late to put on the records about which he’d made such a brou-ha-ha previously), nipped out of school, by kind permission of E.S.Burden, Esq., B.Sc. (Econ), this morning to the dentist for a filling and scraping. Letter from Hugh, the easy, bawdy erudition of which, as usual, gave me an inferiority complex. Everybody well, except Mum, who complains of continuous noises in ear. Sad, I feel we ought to have her here, though there would inevitably be friction, I suppose, if she were with us – two women in the house. Meanwhile, one wishes one could pray, as she does, that she can be self-sufficient till her time comes – and this not simply to make life easier for J.W. Philip is a gedille; sturdy, full of fun and joie de vivre; a martinet, knows what he wants & insists on getting it.

Reading Eating People is Wrong by Malcolm Bradbury, a Lucky Jim type of novel, seedy provincial University setting, excellent. Also The Humbler Creation by Pamela Hansford Johnson, about a Parson who is still a Man (amazingly accurate – it would seem – description of parsonical settings) and Apologia pro Vita Sua. So far, nearly half-way through the latter find it easy reading (on train) but find it difficult to understand what all the excitement was about.


Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 48: North by South East

One aspect of dad’s polyglot nature was that  occasionally a foreign word came to mind before its English equivalent. The one I recall was French bureau for a sideboard/chest of drawers/cabinet in our dining room.  In similar vein , this extract includes the Hebrew קוֹמבִּינַצִיָה

Monday, 30th November 1959, 3.0p.m.

“Occasional closure” at school to-day. I rang up the office this morning and, as I hoped, there was no school for me to make up (the day I took off for Yom Kippur this year [balance of two days I have to make up for last year?]) at. Hurried Council of War this morning to decide best way of exploiting this unexpected gift. Edith [Edith Witriol, nee Katz] managed to get off 1.30 p.m. Her mission: to buy candlewick bedspread, etc. in Holloway (3/4hr. journey from here). Told her to be back by 4.15 p.m. as I have to take a French class at William Patten school. (My Clapton class conked out, but one door closes, another opens: the Instructress at the William Patten school class had a heart attack and Miss G. asked me to step into the breach for the rest of the term. The  instructress apparently a frail lady of 70, “much loved” by students. As usual, can think of no suitable comment. Why comment anyway? Because, H.L., [Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur] it is bad enough to be 70 even if surrounded by family and troops of friends. But perhaps I am working myself up into an unnecessary lather. Perhaps the lady has family and troops of friends?

Alf [brother-in-law] came round on Saturday and – wait for it – E. & I went to the flicks. Saw a thriller, West by North West [sic]. Good entertainment. But the excitement of being able to get out together, without Philip, for an evening. Splendid work on Alf’s part; he even had a pot of tea ready for us when we got back, at 11p.m. (he got home by making various L.T. “combinazies”.

Managing to bedside-read Harold Nicolson’s Journey to Java. Excellent, the discursive urbanity.

Philip flourishing, expect him to wake any moment now and bring this entry to an abrupt conclusion.

In the J.C. short story competition the 1st prize of 100 guineas was divided among three entrants, of whom I was not one. Have read two of these prize-winning entries; I give them B+, my own effort on the same scale B-. There is just a possibility that my own story may be published.

Clark now has the completed typescript of B.R.’s book. [God’s Wilderness: Discoveries in Sinai by Beno Rothenberg]. They’re evidently looking around for another translator for B.R.’s other book(s). If they came back to me I’d like to be able to say: O.K., for 4 gns. a thou., but discretion might be the better part of valour; probably one ought to think oneself lucky to have the chance of getting another commission to translate 60-70 M words at £3-3-0 a thou.


Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 47: Woodberry Down up; Mount Pleasant difficult

Sunday, 1st November, 1959; 7.40 p.m.

Back to school to-morrow after one week’s mid-term holiday. The rest has done me good. E. [Edith] never gets any rest. Since P [Philip] was born she has had [sic] enjoyed a clear nights’ sleep only once, when P.I.W. went right through to 7.30 a.m. Incidentally, apparently E. is in the family way again. Strordinry! It wasn’t really an accident – E. says people usually say the second one was an accident – but I felt that a considerable amount of limbering up would be necessary before one could clear the bar, but apparently we have already cleared it in the limbering-up process.

To Sam yesterday, just back from Dinmore House [in Hackney, where Edith Witriol’s mother, Esther, and brother, Alf, lived] to-day with the Babba. Very irksome, trying, un-gay and un-contemporary — this shlepping Phil on buses. One ought to be able to fling him in his cot in the car and purr along to his Boobbes and uncles. (Masochism dept: I wrote in my translation of Rothenberg’s book that their car – a Land-Rover or something similar – “purred”; Clark wrote in margin: “it wasn’t a Rolls.”)

I think I shall send 5/- to the B.B.C. for a Russian pamphlet & try to listen to their Russian lessons every Monday at 7.10 p.m. Talk about the triumph of optimism over experience! It’s well over ten years since I paid some ten guineas for a Russian Linguaphone course; I think I’ve heard the first record of it perhaps two or three times. Talking of Russian, I saw Vladimir Nabokov on T.V. this afternoon. He has written novels in Russian & English and is a lepidopterist. He spoke brilliantly, fluently & without a trace of accent. He spoke of “what I call Emigravia” (I remember racking my brains – all right, H.L. [my father regularly used this acronym for Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur]- at O.C.T.U. to think of fictitious names for countries – the best I could do was Octovia), of his choosing reason when faced with the choice between “rhyme and reason” in his massive annotated translation of Eugene Onegin.

Mrs Tresiman has had to go to make way for a Miss Myers (not Jewish, I’m told), incoming Deputy Head.

For the record. I take a French class on Wednesdays at Woodberry Down, on Thursdays at Mount Pleasant School, Clapton. The Clapton class down to one student Thursday before last, up to two students last Thursday. the Woodberry class with, I think, 9 students, should last the session, or the best part of it. Difficult, the students – most of them – have no academic background and expect me to chatter in French to them.

Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 46: Sun glasses, son guiltless

Sunday, 11th October 1959, 3 p.m.

Erev Yom Kippur. I face the fast, as usual, with distaste. As I always maintain, the fast defeats its own end. Instead of forgetting about the body, one thinks of nothing else all the time. But I am being superficial, and exaggerating.

We have had an extraordinary, brilliant summer. Alles kann der Mensch ertragen/nur nicht eine Reihe von sonnenvollen Tagen. We have had the R von s.T. The only reason I haven’t been able to endure it is that I have had no clip-on glasses this year. Every year I buy a pair, which I either break during the summer or fail to find at the beginning of the next summer. This year I jibbed at the 7/6 or 10/6 or guinea needed for a good pair and persuaded myself the summer would soon be over anyway. I suppose next year I’ll get Wally to make me a special pair of sun-glasses – and we shall have a wet sunless summer. Mentioning Wally, apparently he’s heading for a nervous breakdown (so Beverley to Mum). Wal can’t understand it; he has everything, but everything: son able to take over from him, daughter well-engaged, two cars, etc. Apparently, too much at a time – his silver wedding, Jennifer’s majority and engagement. But this doesn’t sound convincing.

The settling-in process continues. Am writing this in my “den” (as E. [Edith Witriol] reminded me – I had called it a study) on desk cost about £18, chair to match just under  £3. Am borrowing £250 from Bank; E’s Aunt Debbie [Coltonoff] is lending us £100 without interest.

Richard [Gabriel Richard Stern, a good friend who helped with Polish and Russian words in Mumme Loohshen] round the other day in newly acquired car. He has passed his driving test. Brought us contemporary vase. I gather he finds J. increasingly an incubus. Has taken out a Jewish girl for whom he schwärmed “in my romantic fashion”, but is now cooling towards her.

The General Election took place on October 8th. Conservatives in with clear majority. Can’t work up any feeling. Both parties committed to Welfare State.

One Grunwald accused of fraudulent conversion of £3¼m. He rigidly orthodox, solicitor. Says he has complete answer. Philip yelling. E. amusing him. He has great sense of fun – may he preserve it through life, unmarred by the guilt feelings his father experiences.