Joseph Witriol’s Journal – Part 1: Culture, schmulture

Wherever possible, Joseph Witriol’s Journal entries are transcribed exactly as written. Some background about both his Journal and my editing of it is in the introduction to the Hasmonean school entries already posted at Melchett Mike.  See also the note on Also Lived – The Autobiography of a Failure.


1 APRIL 1957 TO 30 DECEMBER 1959

Joseph Witriol's Journal: Volume 1

Journalist’s cover story

1st April 1957.

April Fool’s day not the best day on which to start a journal, perhaps. But perhaps appropriate perhaps perhaps (if I were James Joyce this would be hailed as revolutionary prose style, gangs of Ph. D. researchers would be unearthing the private allusions – there ain’t none) in a baal journal (that’ll stump ’em, but I’ll make it easy for them – baal = Heb. “master,” of course, so baal journal = the bloke who keeps a journal. Journalist?) who starts his journal a few days before his forty-fifth birthday.

Not wholly dissatisfied with this start, considering: a) ( Ph.D. researcher of 2157 please note, as representative of my daily routine) up at 7.45 a.m., bed made, shaved, dressed (presentably by a fluke – new suit left hanging over chair at night – no time to put in wardrobe and change for sports jacket – pullover – whipcord slacks), breakfasted (breakfast prepared overnight), usual Monday routine at school, sponged and pressed slacks collected, slacks for sponging and pressing handed in, heeled-shoes collected, ¼ lb. toffee (all eaten this evening), 1lb apples bought, Mum phoned too (Mum querulous, but I suppose at 75,* immersed in Pesach cleaning, a widow for over 30 years, both her sons divorced (but my brother Sam happily re-married, but no children unfortunately) understandable), supper made (admittedly facilitated by boiled fish collected from Mum last Friday and – 3 pages of Brod’s Cicero translated. Now 10.30 p.m. Basta. (The “x hrs” whenever it occurs indicates the number of hours spent on translation. To-night’s figure approximate; must try to time more accurately in future.) 2¾ hrs. Cicero 1/4/57. A

* 31/12/67. Actually – according to her Austrian birth certificate – 78. [original footnote]

Friday, 5th April 1957. 9.15 p.m.

Time only for a short entry before taking Friday night routine bath (“Routine! Sacred goddess” – opening for an ode – why can’t I, don’t I write it?). Another week over, another something-or-other. 1 hr 5/4/57 Cicero A

Sunday, 7th April 1957. 10.45 p.m.

Cicero finished – Schluss mit Jubel, as Joseph Sperling, my old Polish-Jewish (was he Jewish, I don’t remember his ever saying so, perhaps he wasn’t after all) boss used to say. With Sam [his brother] and Lily [Sam’s wife] to see Look Back in Anger at Golders Green Hippodrome last night. Seems extraordinary it should have had the success it has. I’ve no objection to its sordid naturalism, but its naturalistic dialogue struck me as being jejune. Presumably many people talk wittily or finely even in natural life, and I see no reason why such talk should not be given us on the stage, rather than the – sorry to repeat the word – jejune dialogue of Look Back in Anger. This is not criticism, too tired to give a critique, anyway what do I get out of it if I do get up a critique anyway anyway? (The repetitions in Witriol have a deep inner significance – I’m trying to be sarcastic and failing. Why can’t I bloody well do anything?) Last word on Look Back in Anger – Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea gripped me more. I see in today’s Sunday Times that phrases like Je te quitte (in Beckett’s Fin de Partie) are much more significant than they seem. Christ! (no anti-Christian bias intended). Liked the bit in the Sunday Times in a review of Robertson Hare’s biography of how R.H. said to the Censor: Can I say “You may smack my bottom?” Censor: Yes, I pass bottom, I was the first to pass bottom.  2hrs. Cicero 7/4/57 A

Sunday 14th April 1957. 9 p.m.

Chez maman at 58 Moresby Road, for Pesach.  A strain on the nerves, but que faire. The little adopted girl of the Blatts (Mum’s tenants) creating – actually “singing” above, Sam had to sacrifice a precious Sunday to “knock in a few nails” (i.e. do about 4 hrs’ handyman’s work) for Mum, had to keep tight hold on self to avoid tension exploding. Must be thankful Mum is mobile. I just don’t know what will happen if she becomes chair or bed-bound. Saw Mirele Efros last Monday, 8th, done by Polish Jewish State Theatre. Homely, unpretentious drama played with elegance (settings) and Kooltoor (no spitting, etc. as in the old-style Yiddish plays at the Pavilion pre-war). Tuesday stewarded at Islington Schools’ music festival at Northern Polytechnic Theatre, taken to his home by Mat (Rosen). Mat jawed as usual – he took me home at midnight. Can’t remember what I did Wednesday. Purpose of this journal is to remedy defects of memory, but not much point if entries infrequent, but just haven’t the energy to write-up daily or at least other-daily. Think I did couple hours translating – no, couldn’t have done, as I see “Cicero finished” under 7th April 1957. I think I just spent the evening putting together figures of my “literary” earnings, ready for H.M. Inspector of Taxes. Thursday to Mum, Friday nil, Saturday letter from Commentary with their edited typescript of my translation of Brod’s Das Unheimliche. Their editing discreet enough not to offend my amour propre, but I noticed no credit given me as translator on the typescript. Wrote saying I was keeping their cheque (36 dollars – my 3/8 share, as agreed between Brod and myself – 2,500 words) until I had their confirmation they would print my name. Revised my Brod MS before sending it off to Mrs Dorothy Shirley. This, with letter to Brod, preparing letter packet for, and writing letter to Mrs Shirley, took, say, 3 hrs. Am entering “actual translation,” i.e. writing translation out in rough as “A”; all other work involved in translation, e.g. revising MS, writing to authors, typists, agents, publishers, revising TS as “B.” So –   3 hrs. Cicero B 14/4/57

A review in The Times, noch

Lear mit a shmeer: Mirele Efros

Addendum. I ought to have mentioned that Richard [Gabriel Richard Stern, a good friend who helped with Polish and Russian words in Mumme Loohshen] had arranged for him and me to see the M. of V. at the Old Vic with Frieda Shafir (?), who played the part of Mirele’s faithful old womanservant. Frieda smart, 40-ish (?), extremely intelligent – I didn’t mean to be offensively patronising – a pleasure to listen to good Yiddish. She annoyed by Robert Helpman’s mauscheln – “Vell,” etc. But as she says, perhaps she is hipperemfindlikh. I enjoyed the decor and the excellent 10/6 stalls seats, recollecting the hard wooden benches of the gallery I had sat on as a kid nearly 40 ! years ago.


Lid Off Hasmonean

This article has already been referred to in connection with Journal entries relating to Hasmonean.

Lid off Hasmonean was published in The Jewish Chronicle, dated 4th November 1977 and under that date he added to his cuttings book:

Twelve years since the last feature article in the J.C; 5½ years since my last review in the J.C. In the meantime I had submitted an article – Jewish Forenames – which was accepted, but which I then asked them not to publish because, or rather unless, they printed G-d, which they declined to do.

I also submitted, unsuccessfully, two articles “lifted” from my (unpublished) book on Yiddish, and more recently an article on “Neologisms in Modern Hebrew” which, too, was rejected by the Features Editor Meir Persoff.

My title for the attached article was Hasmo, I wrote Hasmonean Secondary School (not Grammar) and the parenthesis about my retirement was added by the J.C. sub – good (I had mentioned the fact of my retirement in a covering letter).

Both this article and the one on Jewish forenames are mentioned in Part V of The Witriol Dairies as featured on melchettmike’s blog.

Hasmonean – the final chapter

The final part of the diary entries from my father’s journal as it relates to his time at Hasmonean is  here on the excellent melchettmike blog.

Post-retirement, the occasional reference to Hasmonean or contact with ex-colleagues came up. Here are two examples, transcribed from the hand-written entry with my additions in square brackets:

Sunday 28th January 1979, 1850

E J Frank came round on Wednesday. At 70+ he is fit, though constantly blinking. He knew nothing of my “Hasmo” article in the J.C., here , so that my fears that he might have been “broighiss” with me on a/c of it, were groundless….

…The story [E J Frank told] in the name of Mendel Block, who succeeded Rev. Rosenbaum at our  [i.e. dad’s family synagogue, when growing up]old Borough Synagogue, was of a discussion in the Hasmo staffroom, when MB was on the staff, as to whether a Jew could watch opera or ballet. “Certainly not ballet,” said MB, “Al tistakel lakankan (can-can)”. This was off the cuff, and as such first-rate, in my view. [my brother had to explain to me the wordplay – “Al tistakel bekankan” from Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers, meaning “Don’t look at the container”(continuing with”…rather, (look) at what’s inside”.)]

Monday 21st May 1979, 1218

Y’day to reception to Moishe Ellman [pictured in this photo on melchettmike] at Page Street, Hasmo Girls’ School. Very enjoyable. Had been a little surprised to receive invite in 1st place – thought was persona non grata. However Mr Baddiel [see melchettmike’s hasmo-legends-xiv]  was cordiality itself. Cd it be that he had not read my JC article in which he was obviously the target of my criticism of the ultra-O elements at Hasmo? Doubt it. Probably had forgotten it, or just thought it was shtuss and not worth bothering with. WWS [“Willy” Stanton, headmaster], too, was very amiable, though he hadn’t emerged all that well from my article. Albert Myer came over ostentatiously to Sam Balin and ostentatiously ignored me. I don’t quite know what I did to him. He saw me once on the bus with bare head. It’s hardly worth the bother of commenting on.

The whole thing was very well done. Moishe was presented with an illuminated address by a distinguished OB, a Ph D mathematician and, of course, ex yeshiva bachur. Moishe spoke quite well, said he’d been setting himself a multiple choice question as to the reasons why he had gone on so long past retirement age. Of the five possible answers (loved teaching maths so much, couldn’t tear himself away from such a fine bunch of colleagues, needed the money, was dreading his retirement speech and wanted to put it off as long as possible, had come to the conclusion that the last was the right answer. (I have forgotten the fifth choice).

March 4 2018

Going through my dad’s papers recently, I found a letter and a postcard from pupils as well as his retirement card from 1977.

The Hasmo Journal: A Son’s Introduction

My father, Joseph Witriol (1912-2002, Hasmonean 1966-1977), kept a hand-written Journal from 1957 for around forty years, running to some 17 volumes.

Some of what he wrote is highly personal, but there is also the trivia of daily life; the detailed observations of people and places; the sometimes extraordinarily analytical retelling of events; the philosophical, religious, political, cultural, and linguistic insights and musings. And, of course, his wife Edith (1922-2006), children (myself, Philip, born 1959, Max, born 1960, and Susannah, born 1963), other family, friends and work all feature. All expressed with a deep sense of morality and humanity, lightened though by an urbane, self-deprecating, cynical, and occasionally, ahem, vitriolic style.

Barmitzvah speech, Woodside Park shul, with mum and dad
The overarching theme is the feeling of being a failure. Among the many things this ‘failure’ did was to write his memoirs, Also Lived – An Autobiography of a Failure, chronicling his life up to the time the Journal begins. His hope, often expressed in the Journal, was that his children (especially I, his first-born) would not repeat his mistakes and would make something of their lives.

However, had I not stumbled across the superb melchett mike blog (in true failure style, from Googling my brother’s name during an aimless, late night surfing session), I doubt whether I would have even thought of ‘uploading’ these Hasmonean-related entries.  Thanks to the diligence of Mike the entries have gone up on his blog, here, here, here, here and here. He also forestalled some significant transcribing errors made by me.

More typically for me, another ‘project’, to transcribe and eventually publish in some form the work probably closest to my father’s heart, Mumme Looshen – An Anatomy of Yiddish, still remains uncompleted more than four years after I began working on it. Again, I hope to eventually publish it – if only via this site. [2012 update – now online here].

A recurrent theme of dad’s school-related (both Hasmonean and previous schools) entries is the struggle to control his temper in the face of pupil indiscipline, and his more than occasional recourse to physical punishment. This may shock even the most non-PC of readers. In dad’s (partial) defence, I would point out that this was in the late Sixties/early Seventies, before the enlightened, student-centred attitude of our own day. It is also worth bearing in mind that his Hasmo entries formed only a small fraction of his Journal writings, no more than 10% as a guesstimate.

Entries have not been altered unless an error is obvious or the meaning completely obscured. Indeed, dad sometimes noted his misspellings and wondered if they were Freudian slips. The occasional solecism, for example, is, perhaps, natural in an entry usually compiled after a day’s work. There are also minor inconsistencies which may reflect changes of style over time (such as various spellings of compound words, such as “staff room”). He sometimes, as in writing about the induction, in Part I, inadvertently repeated himself. And dad was not given to short paragraphs. Or sentences.

I have overcome my mixed feelings about printing ‘juicier’ items. Given the passage of time and the nature of such revelations, I have opted for disclosure. However, where something is too sensitive, I omit. Sometimes, dad would use a person’s initials if a comment was derogatory. He may have foreseen the possibility of his entries reaching a wider audience. He did refer to his children and grandchildren reading it decades hence and in one passage stated we should be allowed to communicate or publish (my emphasis) their contents. Reading some passages (for example, the description of colleagues) I am also tempted to feel he was not just writing for himself.

I have tried to keep my comments [in square brackets, thus] to a minimum. I rarely explain words and expressions merely because they are dated or obscure. Against my own deepest waffling instincts, I avoid explanation or interpretation. Occasionally, dad imagined how a future Ph.D. student/editor of his Journal (and his Autobiography) would exhaustively footnote a minor point. I hope the reader will get a feel for my dad’s character through his words without any ‘prompting’ by me. Nevertheless, in addition to the general remark already made about corporal punishment, let me break my own rule and make one other: In public, and when speaking with us at home, dad was very modest (and not in a false way). In this medium, however, he did indulge in self-praise from time to time.

Dad in a retirement photo for the school mag
Dad was a polyglot, etymologist and linguist who, without affectation, frequently used foreign words and phrases in his writings. Above all, he was a lover of, and expert in, Classical and Modern Hebrew. As well as a superb academic knowledge of Yiddish, he had grown up with a mother whose first language it was. The aphorisms of mumme looshen were imprinted on him. I keep his transliteration of Hebrew and Yiddish words (italicised for ease), even though these may sometimes seem unusual to the modern reader. The accurate copying of foreign words and expressions – whether in French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Spanish or Yiddish – is limited by the original’s handwriting and my lack of knowledge of the languages. Rather than always labouring to decipher them myself, I hope the meaning is usually inferable(ish) or that research by the still-curious reader will yield results.

Philip Witriol (Hasmonean 1970-1977)