The 23 Enigma by Max Witriol

Many years ago I seem to remember Ben Elton doing a comedy skit in which he lampooned young people who voted Conservative – he could forgive older people for voting Tory, but to do it when you’re young was to his mind unthinkably pathetic. Leaving aside the assumption that young people can’t think for themselves and choose to vote Conservative, I must admit I went along with this thinking and, to my shame, was a bit of a lefty – mainly due to the musical influence of Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and the other “anti-Fatcherites” of that era.  

However, I would flip Elton’s diatribe (especially now I’m all grown up) and say that while it’s one thing for a young person to vote Labour, for anyone over the age of 23 to do so is unforgivable – especially given the current state of the Labour Party and its appalling leader. We still see “older people” and, even worse, Jews among them, clinging to the view that the Labour Party is not infested with antisemitism. At best they say that Corbyn hasn’t done enough to address the problem  – they apparently still haven’t cottoned on to the fact that Corbyn is himself a vile antisemite.  And they are working to get him elected.

But unfortunately we live in a world where Conservatives  have also been totally influenced by left-wing thinking, especially in the realm of what might loosely be termed political correctness. Take Theresa May – as much as she is infinitely preferable to Corbyn, what is there to say about someone who allows hundreds of terrorists who have been fighting for Isis in Syria back into this country?  Or who oversees 23 thousand people on the MI5 terror suspect watchlist, but takes no action against any of them. Then when an attack happens we inevitably get told that one of the attackers was on the list  – like it’s an accolade, coz, hey, it’s been proven even more accurate than the weather forecast. A classic case of bolting the gate and then blowing it apart with dynamite.

But of course when anyone suggests that these 23,000 traitors should be locked up, let alone deported, they are instantly branded as a raving racist lunatic. Not only are they not locked up,  let alone deported, they are allowed to roam freely and, in many cases, claim housing and all other benefits so that they can carry on their treacherous plots against their host country. Future terrorists not only walking freely but being financed by the government – so effectively the nation is paying for its own destruction.

23 again. That was the number of Russian diplomats that Mrs. May expelled recently in the wake of the Russian nerve gas attack.  Yes, she overnight grew a spine and acted with decisiveness, strength and alacrity when it came to the aftermath of a single incident. I’m not criticising her for that action per se, but contrast that with her behaviour vis-a-vis the Islamist crisis in our midst and you see someone who is only prepared to take action when she feels the media and world leaders will go along with it (and yes, they largely climbed aboard).  A truly decisive and effective leader would tackle the would-be jihadists with absolute disregard for the politically correct lunatics who have taken over the asylum.

Small wonder then that she aligned herself with critics of Israel’s actions in protecting themselves from being invaded and massacred. “Show more restraint” she chastised the IDF for doing what they had to do to stop the bloodbath that the Palestinians were craving. I have to say, the excellent Michael Freeman showed far more restraint than I thought was humanly possible when interviewed on various TV programmes and asked why Israel acted like it did in the Gaza crisis.  I would have been tempted to say: “because we’re not mad, suicidal lunatics like you lot”. Then again, that’s why he’s the diplomat and I’m not.

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Part 83: Thursday 7th September 1961, approx 11am

Overslept this morning, we awoke around 9.15 am. Dreamt a) Had received a bill for transport of books to Ireland, evidently – it seemed in the dream – the books I had sold to Sulzbacher. Clipped to the bills were miniature bottles of liquor. Dream. problem: How to get the bill to Sulzbacher (he had obviously sold the books to a customer in Ireland)? I could not send it through the post unless I packed it elaborately, to avoid the bottles getting smashed. I decided to give the bill to Sam [brother] when he next called, so that he could take it to Sulzbacher (whose house-and-business premises are near him) who, I took it, would stand Sam a drink from one of the bottles, b) I was worried about Philip and Max, I rushed into the shop (sic, at Newington Butts)…to find Philip tumbling down followed by Max. I grabbed hold of them and rushed with them to E. who was talking calmly to Minnie Blatt. E did not seem at all put out or in any way ashamed, her air was one of cool contempt. I remember thinking I must tick her off, but “correctly”, and saying: “Perhaps Mrs Blatt will excuse you now”, and waking to find Philip grizzling.

…It was not until yesterday that I manged to get down to a book on commerce; I am supposed to be teaching the subject to third-year kids next year…In the third year, I gather, it’s just waffle about various ways of retail distribution. Max now definitely walking. He’s a sturdy, happy boy. I can’t honestly say the same about Philip, who seems cantankerous. Philip, it seems to me, will be more emotional, more complex. Anyway, may they both make more of their lives than their old man has done. (And you pipe down, H.L. [ Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur])

Went to shool for yoortseit  [for his father] this morning. The new minister, Rabbi (?) Koschland, came up to me afterwards. Was I related to the Witriol who wrote for the J.C? It’s refreshing to find someone for whom the name rings the write-for-the-Jewish-Chronicle bell, and not the aren’t-you-related-to-Mrs-Witriol-of-the-Shabbos-bureau bell.

Part 82: Friday 1st September 1961, 2 pm

In the event [right charge for a translation job, see Part 81] I charged for 4000 Hebrew words at the Institute of Linguists top rate: £10-17-6 per 1000 words. No cheque has come as yet, but presumably this is just a question of office routine. Still, I shall be happier when the cheque does arrive, money seems to be poured into a bottomless barrel here.

Made a successful get-away yesterday, to Stoke Poges, following a Fieldfare ramble [Fieldfare was the pen-name for an Evening News columnist who wrote guides to walks in rural areas of the Home Counties]…

The church at S.P. seemed uninteresting. I didn’t inspect the inside as it was so dark, and I wanted to press on. A defect of this particular ramble is that there is nowhere to take tea en route. I suppose one ought to be thankful there is no “Elegy” tea-house, although I could have done with a cuppa.

Gray’s memorial is surrounded by a ditch; one gains access to it, presumably, via some gardens for which an entrance fee of one shilling is charged. I didn’t go in. Perhaps I ought to go again…spending an hour in the church and gardens and identifying, or trying to identify, the rugged elm and the yew tree’s shade. I have interrupted this entry for a moment – the train of thought will be obvious – to try to track down “joy cometh in the morning” – I got out a P.G.W. book with this title. My big Hoyt’s encyclopedia of quotations doesn’t seem to give it, but I find from Cruden that it’s Psalms 30:5 – I ought to have known. E. has dumped Maxy on me while I’m writing this, but he’s crawling around without giving any trouble.

The day before y., while Aunt Debby [Deborah Coltonoff, my mum’s Aunt] stayed with Max, we succeeded in getting to the Finchley swimming pool. Philip not a water-baby, but perhaps this will come. The pool is an admirable affair, really; a large children’s’ pool, cascades, refreshments, deckchairs. If one could get into it when it wasn’t overcrowded with schoolkids it would be very pleasant.

Part 81: Wednesday 23rd August 1961, 2.20 pm

Was going to say that I was writing this in peace, perfect p; when Alf [brother-in-law] rang, and now Max has awoken from his siesta. However, he is still at the stage of making giant-waking-refreshed-from-his-slumber noises and I may be able to get in a short entry before he demands attention. He now demands attention…resumed 9.20pm.

I suppose I ought to record that the buttock-ankle irritation seems more or less ok now…when I refer to my entry of 14 May, [Part 78] for example, I realise how well off I am.

Have done some translating of press-cuttings (Hebrew) on Orde Charles Wingate. D.F. Long got me the commission – said he wasn’t interested in these “casual” jobs…Perhaps he didn’t realise the extent of the job. I find it comes to 5100 Hebrew words and the Institute of Linguists’ recommended standard rates are from £7-7-0 to £10-10-0 upwards per 1000 words. I have been wrestling with the problems a) what number of words to charge (I can’t count individually 4-5000 words), b) what rate to charge…It’s all very, very sordid. Perhaps I’ll charge @£6-6-0 per 1000 English words, which may seem psychologically less devastating, but as I understand from Alf the English text will run to at least 700 wds, this may be the better bet for me. Ten o’clock, time to retire on this sordid note.

Chazonus v. Punk by Max Witriol

I’ll put my cards on the table – I was never a big fan of chazanus [cantorial singing].  It was basically something you put up with, accepting it as part of shul [synagogue] going – itself an activity I never participated in very willingly.  

But as  Rabbi Lerer [Rabbi at Barnet synagogue] is fond of quoting from Joni Mitchell: “ Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.   And now that chazonim [cantors] are all but extinct in London shuls, I’ve belatedly come to realise how important and undervalued they were.

Synagogue services have to a large extent gone the way of music in general.  As a reaction to the age of the big rock gods of the seventies, punk came along and said anyone can be in a band.  Rock music  was purveyed by self-indulgent and OLD musicians while punk proclaimed that three chords and loads of  youthful attitude was all you needed.

Shuls also took up the  “Breaking down the barriers” war cry and lay-members started to daven, [lead the service] bypassing the need to spend many long hard years studying nusach [melodic style of services] and voice production, melodies, pronunciation etc. Unsurprisingly, shuls were quite amenable to the idea of drastically reducing their wage bill by dispensing with the services of a paid officiant and replacing him with able volunteers.  The congregants weren’t too fussed either.  A lot of them, like me, were focused on reaching Adon Olam [a hymn sung at the close of the Sabbath service], which in turn signalled the kiddush [a small repast held after the prayer services] – and  a chazan often delayed that ultimate goal.  In any case shul was never the place to go for music – after all it never played any T. Rex or Slade. (Yes, I’m that old). But  now I can see the hugely detrimental effect this has had.

Whereas people of my generation can remember competent and decent services and all the grand pieces that chazanim effortlessly delivered, today there’s no importance given to trained and impressive voices being put to the service of God.  And it’s getting worse year by year, as a whole generation has grown up going to shul and hearing services that have no splendour, no grandeur and that can, frankly, be somewhat amateurish. Lay members do a very good job on a regular and voluntary basis, but there aren’t enough of them to go round and, understandably,  they’re not normally in the same league as a trained professional, even if they do have pleasant voices.  

But the real tragedy is that today’s congregants don’t know or expect any different. Yes, it is great and important to have audience involvement and good singable melodic tunes that everyone can join in with.  But that doesn’t mean to say you can’t also have someone with an excellent voice leading the sing-along and producing the notes your average Joe Rabinowitz can’t reach.

Unfortunately, the situation could soon get even worse.  The Chief Rabbi has proposed radically reforming the barmitzvah criteria by encouraging boys to lead a service,  i.e.  karaoke Judaism.  Now I realise there’s a reason why karaoke is popular.  It has stayed the course  and since initially bursting on the scene and being all the rage, it remains a standard and cheap alternative to having a band of talented musicians playing in a pub or party. It kills two birds with one stone. It engages larger numbers of people who aren’t very talented, and because anyone can do it there’s no shortage of people who are desperate to get on stage/ the bimah [platform in synagogue] and are more than happy to do so for nil remuneration.

But while some people might find it highly entertaining to see their drunken, tone-deaf  mates belting out  ‘Angels’ or ‘Mustang Sally’ or whatever , one has to question whether that’s the right road to go down for our shul services.  We now face the prospect of young boys being encouraged to lead our services, regardless of whether they have particularly pleasant voices or not.  As long as the boys get more involved, that is, apparently, all that matters – never mind that the congregation has to endure an ever-worsening quality of service.

As I said at the top of this article I wasn’t, and indeed still am not, a fan of chazanus.  I’ve never gone to a chazanus concert other than first night selichos services and don’t see myself doing so any time soon.  Nevertheless in a shul service that I’m attending anyway it would be nice to hear some very high quality singing even just a few times a year, and I think this would upgrade the status of a synagogue service in the eyes of  congregants.  For me it’s extremely embarrassing and rather a disgrace when there’s a big captive audience such as at a big barmitzvah – many of whom would not often come to shul – being treated to a shabby out-of-tune performance from someone who hasn’t got the self-awareness to realise he’s not up to the job.  

After twenty years of interactive Carlebach services I think it’s time the pendulum swung the other way.  Come back chazanim, all is forgiven.

Part 65: 3rd September 1960, 10.15 p.m.

Will it be believed if it is told? Even on “holiday” it has taken me a month, almost, to get round to an entry; once school starts al achat kama vekama [Hebrew expression – how much more so] will it be difficult to keep up the diary. However, it may work out differently in practice.

It’s been very much a save-the-mark holiday. E and I have been at it all the time coping with the kids, bless ’em; so much so, that it has been an achievement for us to get out, pram-pushing, for a couple of hours together; or for E. to get down with Philip to her mother, or for me to make a dash for freedom on a “day out.” On this day out I went to Hatfield — a 2/- or so Green Line journey from here — leaving about 10a.m. It was a drizzly day. The stately home at Hatfield was closed, it being a Monday. I tried to do a “Fieldfare” ramble, but found myself, as usual on these occasions, up against barbed wire. However, I found my way to St. Albans, where I gave the cathedral the once-over. It’s impressive inside, soaring Gothic, though unimposing outside – the external fabric is modern. I also tried to do the Roman ruins, but was too tired, and a new shoe I was wearing was pinching me. I set off earlier than I had thought I would for home and returned to feed Max about 7 p.m.

And so back to school on the Monday. Things will be pretty tough. I’m teaching two evenings a week, Southgate English for Foreigners at 42/- a time, Friern Barnet beginners’ French at 33/6. This latter came as a bit of a shock. I learned that another class I had agreed to take at Wood Green (“German for Tourists”) only rated 33/6. I had thought of turning down both lower-rate jobs, but eventually decided to take the Friern Barnet one; at least it will be within walking (though not easy walking) distance.

Financial situation is such that I will certainly take another evening at 42/- if it turns up. My bank balance is alarming. I was overdrawn for August. Only a couple of pounds, and only for a few days, but it’s annoying all the same. Last time something similar occurred the Bank charged quite heavily. Am cashing £30 worth of Philip’s National Savings Certificates, Edith’s £25 Premium Bonds. Even with this, & the £24 or so Thames & Hudson owe me, I’m pretty sure I shall have to ask Sam for £25; he’s already given me £75 of the £100 he said I could have. There you are; my gross schoolteacher salary is £1143 p.a. — £1141, I think — my extras between £100 to £200 p.a. net before tax — we have not gone away since before the children were born; I think the last time we were out together was on our anniversary, when admittedly it cost us £3-£4, I suppose; the highlight of our day is a cigarette, with coffee and ice-cream; and yet we cannot balance our budget.

I can’t see the situation ever improving, much. As soon as both children are at school E. will have to try to get a three-hour daily, 4 or 5-day weekly job, which will just about cover the extra needed for the children (their fares will have to be paid, their food bill will be substantial, etc. — these increased costs will, however, be to some extent offset by saving on nappies, cotton wool, cellulose, which comes to at least 15/- a week at present) and a very cheap, almost certainly do-it-yourself holiday. House repairs, redecorations will have to be left until the children can find their way to school and both E. & I can work full-time, with what resultant strain can be imagined. But there it is, it’s a common way-of-living pattern. E. has finished her Hoovermatic-ing, I think; she had a perm yesterday and bought herself a pair of trews to-day, which she is now wearing. I find myself positively approving. Strange to think I once found be-trousered women upsetting. I suppose I found it a usurpation of my masculinity, but since E. has demonstrated her femininity, I can afford to be “big” about the trousers. She is a very good girl really; her life consists of an unbroken round of preparing feeds, feeding babies, changing nappies. Inevitably she “lets fly” at times, but her terrific sense of humour — “terrific” is wrong, “strong” will do — comes breaking through. But is she scared of the possibility of another pregnancy! Makes me feel quite lecherous, as if I’d sired twenty-two, not two, children.

The children, ken en hora, [Yiddish –without the evil eye] are lovely; it’s unfair to think of them as simply something to be coped with. After all, Philip usually sleeps the night through. Perhaps every other night he starts screaming about 3 a.m., but even then, all he needs is a bit of a run-round and his bottle of milk and he’s off again. By day all he wants is paper and books to tear up and pots and pans to throw about and to have fun and games generally.

Part 64: 8th August 1960, 11.45 a.m.

Writing this in the study, Max in the carry-cot on the divan next to me. Philip gurgling in play-pen, E. & her mother pottering around. Philip after an exhausting afternoon yesterday “performing” for his uncles, slept like a log (tired simile, we had a discussion on this the other day in the staff room, two members of the staff saying kids should not be encouraged to learn these clichés, another chap, Lloyd – whom I have pigeon-holed as reactionary (militantly N.A.S., bachelor-in-his-forties-at-least, anti-feminist) – saying they should. I tend to agree with Lloyd. If you can think of better similes than sleep like a log, fit as a fiddle, right as rain (this sounds wrong – let’s pass on), sound as a bell, hard as nails, all right; but if you can’t, you should know your clichés. To get back to Philip. His long sleep – E. gave him some milk at 6, and the he went right on till 10 – gave E. a bit of a break, with a consequent lessening in tension all round. Must break off. Max demanding. 5.15 p.m. – resumed. Pouring. It’s been a tranquil day, mercifully. Philip was quiet in his play pen in the morning, slept (again!) in it this afternoon, Max has been sleeping well. Even so, I haven’t been able to “do” anything, except mow the lawn (20 mins.), but it’s something not to feel headache-y (through interrupted and/or insufficient sleep) and to have a reasonable atmosphere in the house.

Am getting through That Great Lucifer (Sir Walter Raleigh) by Margaret Irwin. Am “doing” it for the benefit of my next year’s history pupils. Surprisingly enough, to me, the book was one of the half-dozen best sellers, although it wasn’t particularly well reviewed.

Part 63: Monday, August 1st 1960, 10.15 a.m.

It has been a pretty grim week. At the moment the scene is peaceful. Max sleeping in his pram in the garden, Philip having a more or less tranquil breakfast with, or rather, at the hands of his mother and her mother. I have washed, shaved, dressed, breakfasted and feel, as of now, fairly rested. Max demanded food at 11.15 last night, as we went to bed. We got to sleep just after midnight, using an electric feed-warmer, installed by Alf (mum’s brother); saves someone going down to the kitchen at nights to warm up the feed. Max up again about 4 (I can’t remember whether I got up too – I think I did, but it wasn’t to do much more than lend moral support), then  – an unexpected complication – though nothing is unexpected in this lark – Philip up howling at 6a.m. He slung away the proffered bottle, but after a few minutes did take it and went off to sleep. By great good fortune he stayed asleep till 9.30. meanwhile Max created at about 7.30. I capitulated and lay dozing, E. giving Max water, which I believe sent him off by about 8. I must have then got in half-an-hour’s sleep, which has benefitted me enormously. P. is now seated on the divan (b night the visitors’ bed) in the study, guzzling his milk from his polythene bottle.

We are having mother trouble; inevitably, I suppose, my-mother trouble. Boobbe (my father had his own transcription system for Yiddish words) Esther, (my mother’s mother) afflicted with hard hearing and a gammy leg, gives no trouble. Boobbe Yetta, though, has the defects of her virtues; highly strung, ambitious, a “live wire”, she tends to lay down the law, “kommandire“. [? writing unclear] Nevertheless, in fairness to her, I must say that as far as I have been able to observe, she has behaved as correctly towards E. as any “foreigner” in her eighties (ken en hora) can be expected to. There was a painful “incident” last Tuesday, when she came round, from Clapton to here, a wearisome journey even for me. She gets no credit for this from E. In the past, we have on a number of occasions been able to miss out on visiting Boobbe Y. and visit Boobbe E. instead. It is only human nature, I suppose, for E. to resent* my mother’s being able to come to us whereas her mother is confined to her flat (she has come to us by car for a week, and will return by car – Alf got someone to do the job cheap). Must break off – P. is breaking up the study. I think he knows “book” — he says “boo-er.” The only other words he knows are “fleh” (flower) and “bubber” (rhyming with rubber) = baby. The incident arose out of the name question. E. and I. had agreed on Menachem as the Hebrew name, and Max for the English name. A few weeks before the confinement my mother had said (or was this after the birth? I think the latter because when E. became pregnant Boobbe Y. had started talking about names, and E. had said why not wait till she was safely delivered –  a rebuke which, again in fairness to my mother, I must say she accepted and I think didn’t revive the name question till after the birth) why not give the child a name Menahem Mendel, which, she persists in saying, was her late brother-in-law’s name. As far as I know, it was Mendel tout court, which at some stage he changed, in Israel, to Menahem. Although I don’t like Mendel particularly myself (though I don’t feel violently about it) and Menahem Mendel even less (because of Sholem Aleichem’s Menahem Mendel) I said all right, Menahem Mendel, my mother was tearful, it’ll be a blessing for the child. I dropped a clanger in not telling E. – “I’m only the mother.” Hence when my mother called Max Mendel the fat was in the fire, E. had a touch of hysteria, she’d, obviously, been under great strain, and my mother, correctly, left the house. Somme toute, she says she won’t come to us any more. This isn’t the whole story, which cannot be told here, but perhaps I’ve already given it too much space. The fault, if anyone’s, was mine, in not telling “E” about the “Mendel” in time; but it never occurred to me she would worry about the “Hebrew” name.

*incorrect. Do not resent. –  Booba Y. comes if she can to see the children & that way can see them more often. Booba E. must wait till we can come with them which is more infrequent — E.W. [my mum’s footnote to this entry]

Part 61: Sunday, 3rd July 1960 – 4.20 p.m.

Have just returned from Highbury House. Philip in bed with a temperature. Sam & Alf [my uncles] took him out yesterday afternoon. They told me he was lively then. Must try to keep this from E. as long as possible. She is making a fine recovery after her labour. Max too is doing well, his looks have improved also. His “Hebrew” name: Menahem Mendel. On his birth certificate: Max. This is acceptable English-wise, but to the cognoscenti indicates non-English origin, which is fair enough. This is not quite what I want to say. I would not have objected to a “neutral” but perfectly English first name, e.g., Joseph, Samuel; but think it would have been wrong to give him an English-and-English-only name, e.g. William.

I put in for a graded post teaching history in the Upper School. Davies (the H.M.), in reply to my query whether there was any point in my applying, urged me to do so. I am in fact “teaching” history to three 3rd year forms at present. I was unsuccessful. Chap who got the job was one Fishman. As, I believe, history is not his speciality, and there was a rival, very U type candidate who was, I believe, a history specialist, one cannot say anti-Semitism is prevalent in teaching.

Part 60: Monday, 27th June 1960 – 10.40 p.m.

A brother was born this morning at 5.20 a.m. Edith had a difficult labour, though this time, the birth, when it came at long last, was normal – not Caesarean, as was Philip’s. I suppose I had better stick to the factual record, and cut the rhetoric. A harrowing time was had by all – except E. and myself, and Alf [sic? – Sam, his brother?] & Lily [Sam’s wife] – I gather, before I was able to ring Alf [Edith’s brother] the news at about 6.30 this morning. Edith has certainly had two tough basinfuls, and this must be our lot. Sorry to write in this less than exalted strain about these tremendous events, but – well, I suppose I haven’t the stamina; and not even the energy to refer to my entry on Philip’s birth. Philip’s brother, E. & I agree, is less beautiful than P – the new arrival, Menachem (more about the name later), has a Hebraic nose. However, may he grow up to be wealthy – healthy, I mean (there is no Freudian explanation: I meant to write healthy and wise; it’s an example of “assimilation”) and wise and good, and perhaps “wise” includes “good.” One can’t recapture the emotions of one’s first begetting, but of course both children will share our love equally.

E. & I agree that the Hebrew name shall be Menahem [cf. spelling above]. I had suggested Menahem, even, on the English birth certificate, but E., understandably, jibs at this. I had thought of David Menahem (the David to commemorate the late Mr. Davidson, who was very good to me when I was a boy, and whom I admired greatly – and as an English “Jewish” name), the “Menahem” being a sort of parallel to Philip’s “Israel.” But Sam suggests “Manny”, which is, I feel, the recognised abbreviation of Emmanuel (not an O.K. name for Jews, surely, in spite of its pure Hebrew-ness), but could perhaps be regarded as an English approximation of Menahem. Perhaps Martin – Martin Menahem Witriol?