POSTCARDS TO GRANDDAD

Note : This piece of writing, in which real events in my family  history  are interwoven with  those fictions of  self  invention  which Freud called the family romance, is in part a response to  the current  furore in the UK about antisemitism on the Left  and the problematic nature of Jewish identity politics.

1.Genealogy

This much I was told: by night you slept soundly, framed between pictures of Lenin and Kropotkin as if guarding still untroubled dreams of Power and Freedom joining hands in  Zion’s promised land.

By day you sold blankets  and Socialism  door to door to  miners wives  who bought them both on tick and left you broke but rich in expectations.

Your papers  said Place of Birth Vitebsk, by trade a tailor. It was enough   to allow me, years later, to picture you flying like Chagall’s bridegroom ,leap frogging over Tsarist police, making landfall in Glasgow,in time to build a new Statue of Liberty on Red Clydeside.

This  little conceit was clearly not part of Granddad’s script. He made his own arrangements with the past, changed his name to mine and disappeared into another life, taking with him stories I could never reach or tell. His photograph shows a middle aged man, vigilant in front of the photographer, wearing a dark suit and dapper moustache, balding but with a glint in his eye as if still expecting more from life than it had so far delivered.

Shortly after the picture, he  was taken ill with sinusitis, and went into Glasgow Infirmary for a minor operation. He died under the surgeon’s knife. This simple, almost anonymous sleight of hand  made one life vanish but also conjured up another to take its place. My father abandoned his  ambition to become a classical scholar  and trained to be an ear nose and throat surgeon instead. Perhaps he hoped , in developing his own skill with the knife , he could somehow repair the wound that had been inflicted on his early inherited optimism  that science and socialism could work together  at the cutting edge of change  to make the world a better place.

 

  1. Baptismal Naming

A train, decorated with flags , canters across the prairies of middle England. Inside the fetid wagons , they tell us to stop playing at cowboys and open our lunch boxes. Instead  of sandwiches we find labels addressing us  to foreign parts. Disappointed , we fling them out of the window, writing a sky poem to destinies we do not yet want to know. The lucky children get to fly Eisenstein, Larionov, Akhmatova, names made to swoop and soar on the cross winds of an infernal century. Granddad cast a different spell: K-V-A-K-T-U-N a duck’s arse of a name, all glottal flat and no lift off. No wonder he swopped it for something with a bit more class. That was how he got to father a high flier, whose own left luggage became my dead weight.

Later, at school, I waited  for them to fetch me back, to say you were misnamed, misled, you really are a Mayakovsky, but no message came. I learnt to say ’here’ when my name was called and mark myself absent when my second name was called. I watched, untranslated, while others answered to Curwen,Coen,Cowen. Coe, a beginner’s lesson in how to decline diaspora into an irregular verb.

Then one day a wealthy  but childless woman patient of father’s, with terminal throat cancer  offered to bequeath her entire fortune in exchange for a purely nominal son. All that was required that my name be changed to her’s which was Matthews. Father put the proposition to me  on her behalf. It was just another flag of convenience. Cohen might be one up on Goldschmidt in  the Barmitzvah stakes but you could never join a golf club with such a handicap.  Matthews was another story. Just look at our Stanley. Here was my big chance to trade places  and be on the winning side for once. And what with mother being C of E, and my not exactly being brought up Jewish, I could’nt have any religious objections of the transfer, could I?

Despite the fact that Blackpool, courtesy of  Stanley Matthews, had just won the F.A. Cup , I turned the offer down. Not for any of the good, or not so good reasons,  that might be imputed   in the age of ‘identity politics’. I had no qualms about dropping Granddad’s adopted name. And certainly not to spare my mother’s feelings. It briefly crossed my mind that all those name tags she had so carefully sown on to my hankies, socks, shirts and underwear would have to be unstitched and replaced.  But that did keep me awake at night. What did was how to explain the change of name to friends at school. They would never believe I had traded in my birth certificate for a silver spoon. And if they did, they would find it despicable. We had already learnt the parable of Jacob and Esau and what happens to people who sell their birth right for a mess of potage. No my only hope was to say that father had died and mother had re-married a Mr Matthews. A nice enough twist to the Oedipal plot but one that created a cover story even harder to sustain than the one I already had.

This calculation was informed by something that had happened to a boy in my class at school. His father had died in a car accident and his mother had decided to remarry. She was taking on a new name and her son had to follow suit. The headmaster made the announced at school assembly. Green would henceforth be known as Witherspoon.

To lose your father was exotic, heroic even. To lose your surname as casually as mislaying your rubber , that was an entirely different matter, one that as 12 year olds we  dared not think about , let alone put into words – of being at the mercy of a mother’s whimsical desire for someone else.

All that we knew was that the whole business stank. The graffiti  artists got  busy in the school bogs drawing picture of couples fucking under the caption ‘Whither Spooning?’ Our sympathy for the erstwhile orphan quickly turned to fear and loathing. The boy we had known and liked metamorphosed in front of our eyes into a shameful freak. No-one would risk friendship with this alien in our midst. Conversationally he was declared out of bounds. We avoided him in the tuck shop, turned our back on him in the changing rooms and refused to sit next to him at dinner.

This had been going on for about a week when one day, during English, right in the middle of  a recitation of  Wordsworth’s ‘Lonely as a Cloud’ there was a sudden , pungent and unmistakeable odour from the back of the class where  Green alias Witherspoon  sat. We looked in horror as the brown lava spread over the floor until it reached the door. Mr Berry, our genial English master  took him quickly out   of the room. We never saw him again.

The incident was never spoken about but intimate link between sphincter control, the name of the Father and  selfhood was indelibly imprinted on our minds. We had learnt the first law  of baptismal naming  written on the body and central to every kind of tight assed identity politics.  Under this toxic sign no amount of early toilet training will save you from shitting yourself whenever you have to stand up in public and answer to a nominal

At any rate it was the fear of some such humiliation that lay behind my refusal to trade in a false ID for full paid up membership in the Goyim’s golf club. In some story lines  this might be construed as a heroic act of defiance  affirming my residual Jewishness  in the face of father’s opportunistic disavowal. Instead it was an act of pure cowardice  which allowed me to thwart father’s plan to disinherit me while secretly identifying with all the bastards, half castes , confidence tricksters , and adoptees  who traded under assumed names. It also allowed me , as a mischling , to hold on to an entirely fictive kinship with a name that was not mine in the first place , to keep Granddad on his pedestal in my family romance. At the same time every night , before going to bed I would gargle the syllables  that spelt out my   vocation as an erstwhile Jew: Cowhein, Cowhein, Cowhein over and over, faster and faster, until the sounds lost all connection with meaning and fell into the melting pot of babble. Through this little ritual of misrecognition  I succeeded in reversing  an all too familiar  myth of origins  into a  phantasy of self invention.

It was only much later  that I realised  that this is just how the sneaky Muse of Jewish  History proceeds, doing her good works behind our back  while flaunting her bad side for all to see. Through  these do –it- yourself acts of baptismal naming , performed in my case in the name of the Grand father, the Grand son  and their respective Holy Ghosts, it was possible to distance myself from that symbolic kindertransport  which I had boarded all those years ago as it made its way across a white unpleasant land   to a country colder and more desolate than we ever imagined possible.

  1. The Golem Heights

In the special afterlife he bequeathed me without knowing it ,Granddad remained as incognito as ever. Without documents or souvenirs to encumber my memory work with material facts, I set about writing his life into a home movie script as part of my personal dream factory. My remake of ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ starred myself ( alias James Dean) playing Granddad  as an undercover Bolshevik agent  who meets  Ingrid Bergman ( or sometimes on hot Summer nights , Brigitte Bardot) while sailing up  the Clyde in a McBrayne’s steamer. He teaches her about Socialism, she teaches him about Sex and they both  live together happily ever after.

When I was much older and fully insomniac I often  found myself watching a porno version of the same film on the late ,late show. The lines are dubbed, the cast are not amused,  the bad dreams that Granddad refused to have come back as night battles with the nomenklatura in my head, like some bizarre game of Jewish Whispers played along an endless Wailing Wall by the cast of the Goon show.

One night , searching for comfort under unusually storm tossed pillows , I found an ancient gobstopper branded with God’s name. The instructions read: place tablet carefully on tongue, dissolve slowly in mind and so give form to feeling, voice to body, substance to what can only be conjured out of dust.

Suddenly I am walking with Granddad along  fresh, as yet untrodden tracks. Together we come down from the Heights , cross untimely burial grounds,  carefully avoiding the heroes and monsters of promised lands, until at last we reach the hidden shores of Palestine. There, in a garden dedicated to as yet unplanted memories of peace, we read the latest news: ‘Shalom’ telegraphed by wild mimosa scenting the barbed wire in every camp. ’Salaam’ headlined in asphodel amongst the ruined mosques. Hand in hand we explore these landscapes ,like tourists of the Uncanny, eyes straining to see the foreign in what is nearest home. We are bound to a common hope that these words might still blossom into a single alphabet and celebrate the dead for something other than their martyrdom.

Waking up but still dreaming with eyes open, I search the family album  for the missing snapshots of our journey. Failing better than usual to find Granddad’s last resting place, I stumble on these clues….