MY FATHER’S CHILDHOOD MEMOIR
[Note by Tom Gross]
Here, just for once, is something more personal. It is unconnected to the Middle East but I believe it is of interest to some of you on this list, especially those who know me personally.
My father’s childhood memoir, “A Double Thread: Growing up English and Jewish in London,” which was published last year in Britain (with the subtitle “A childhood in Mile End and beyond”), has just been published in the U.S. Yesterday it received a very good review in the New York Times. I attach the review, followed by some extracts from other reviews below. For those of you interested, it is available at bookstores in the U.S. and UK, as well as on the Internet at Amazon.com and other sites.
‘A Double Thread’: London, what’s not to like?
By Jonathan Wilson
The New York Times
June 2, 2002
The contemporary American memoir, with its unswerving loyalty to addiction, illness and family misery, has become, with a few solid exceptions, a lachrymose and dubious item. The British memoir still tends to exhibit a large measure of restraint, a quality that, if it was once irritating to American readers, can now seem only refreshing. John Gross’s delightful reminiscences encompass his London life until the age of 18, a span that might not seem long enough to provide adequate material for a memoir. But Gross’s song of himself is also a paean to his family, most particularly his mild-mannered father, and to the city – “an extraordinary city, London. A wonderful city” – in which he grew up before, during and after World War II. The result is writing that captivates because it frequently eschews personal inwardness in favor of depicting a broader social world. Ultimately Gross, a subtle and finely tuned observer, a walker in the city, cares more for other people and places than for himself.
The explanatory subtitle to “A Double Thread” (the title perhaps a nod to the tailors and seamstresses of Gross’s predominantly working-class neighborhood, the East End), “Growing Up English and Jewish in London,” is itself striking, if only because a similar declaration would be unthinkable for a New York Jewish writer. As in, So what? But London, although its Jewish East End closely paralleled New York’s Lower East Side throughout the first half of the 20th century, is a city with a tiny Jewish minority (less than 2 percent), and the experience of its Jews is skewed by that fact. Given the relative vulnerability of English Jews, by the numbers anyway, perhaps the most remarkable element in Gross’s book is his take on anti-Semitism, or rather, its absence. In almost every chapter he reminds his readers that throughout his life he has been treated rather well in England, his declared and open Jewishness viewed as neither an impediment nor a provocation. During his childhood and adolescence Gross “never suffered on account of being Jewish.” While he is aware that the unblemished experience of his youth may have been the exception rather than the rule, his own good fortune is a powerful enough persuader to lead him to wonder “whether recent historians have sometimes made out the situation to be worse than it was... The history of non-anti-Semitism remains an unwritten subject.”
Gross can speculate about dicey history partly because his sense of what constitutes anti-Semitism is quite different from that established by current standards. For example, at one point he reports an ugly incident that took place while he was on a stroll with his father in Kensington Gardens: a couple, having “spotted” Gross and his father as Jews, sit beside them on a bench and begin to spew invective: “I think they should all be towed out to sea in a ship and drowned.” But from Gross’s optimistic perspective moments like this are invisible dust on an otherwise clean screen.
As anti-Semitism is happily not the focus, other elements of Gross’s Jewish life have plenty of room to come to the fore, and he does a lovely job of sketching the intriguing personalities in his family and among his friends, in addition to the famous and infamous characters of his neighborhood: politicians, actors, boxers, gangsters. But above all it is his father, a turn-of-the-century immigrant from a small town on the Polish-Ukrainian border, whose life and work color and shade the book. Abraham Gross, a prominent East End doctor, emerges as an appealingly Chekhovian figure, humane, warm, modest, a community man, actively involved in dispensing “guidance and advice as well as medicine” to his predominantly working-class patients.
What separates John Gross’s early life from that of the majority of his contemporaries is the fact that, for redoubtable professional reasons, his family home remained in Mile End, at the heart of London’s East End, long after most of the neighborhood’s Jewish population, including its doctors, had decamped to the leafy suburbs in the north and northwest of the city. Gross thus experiences the paradox of a privileged life on underprivileged streets. Sent away to one elite school after another, sometimes as a boarder, sometimes not, he always returned to a place shunned or feared by most of his classmates. The result is the kind of collision between intellectual fervor and street smarts that we tend to associate with an older, upwardly mobile generation.
Gross, who grew up to become an eminent British man of letters, editor of The Times Literary Supplement and numerous Oxford anthologies and, in the 1980’s, an editor and critic for The New York Times, most certainly did not pass his youth running with the tough kids; he was bookish, careful and unathletic from the start. Nevertheless, scurrilous and charismatic East End figures – the fight promoter Jack Solomons, the “fixer” Sidney Stanley – hover over his life, offering a vital alternative to the lessons contained in the local library or the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
Gross relishes, and has an eye for, detail that tells a story of lost Jewish London (“a disused wooden gate just beginning to rot, with the legend ‘Evans and Son-Cowkeepers’ painted on it in both English and Yiddish characters”), but this is also a memoir, entirely unsentimental, of a boy plotting escape from a Jewish world that he frequently found “narrow, provincial and materialistic.” Gross’s way out is through a tried and true method, voluminous reading, and while it is hard to transform a litany of books into inspired text, Gross somehow manages to do so. It’s his enthusiasm that’s catchy.
Kafka once abjured, simply, “Never again psychology!” Gross is of this school, and the one weakness of “A Double Thread” is that too often he decides tastefully to “draw a veil” over this or that incident when full disclosure seems warranted. But the book holds many pleasures, not least a delight in recording the world of comic books and “impossibly polite” radio shows for children “in the days before television.” My brother, a Londoner born in the same year as Gross, once owned a button, purchased in New York City, that read “Dress British Think Yiddish.” I would hazard that this has secretly been the way of British Jews down the generations, and it’s certainly edifying to see Jewish thinking unveiled here so intelligently. John Gross’s memoir is of a lucky, happy childhood and adolescence. What is one to do with such a rare beast except praise it?
(Jonathan Wilson’s new novel, “A Palestine Affair,” will be published next year. He is chairman of the English department at Tufts University.)
Antonia Fraser --
“Remarkably readable and entertaining.”
Daniel Bell --
“A wonderfully evocative account... absorbing.”
Oliver Sacks --
“A Double Thread is a very beautiful and valuable book.”
The Wall Street Journal --
“Incisive... Mr. Gross’s voice - demure, measured, if at times overly cautious - is strikingly unique and unusually trustworthy.”
The Los Angeles Times --
“Intelligent, humane, highly civilized... the voice we hear not only holds our attention but also wins our affection and respect.”
Susan Hill --
“Extraordinary riches are crammed into this short book.”
Michael Holroyd (biographer of Bernard Shaw) in The Mail on Sunday --
“A Double Thread is subtle and deeply satisfying to read. Gross has shown how it is possible to have the best of both cultures.”
Hilton Kramer --
“Beautifully written and deeply moving, A Double Thread is, first of all, a memoir of a Jewish boyhood in and out of London during the years of the Nazi blitz. It is also a chronicle of cultural life that touches on everything from pop culture (movies and the comics) and Jewish jokes to a first encounter with the poetry of Rimbaud and T. S. Eliot.”
The Times Literary Supplement --
“Wise, witty, and good tempered.... The appeal of this book lies in its evocation of the pangs and pleasures of acculturation (as it was not then known); in the struggle for supremacy of Jewishness and Englishness, suggestive of Siamese twins at intellectual odds.”
The New Yorker --
“Gross’s nostalgia for the Jewish East End -- the Yiddish newspapers that his father read but he could not, the synagogue that, on a recent visit, he discovers is a Sikh temple -- is interwoven with a nuanced evocation of England in the era of rationing and bomb shelters.”
Robert Alter --
“John Gross’s memoir of his formative years from early childhood to the age of seventeen is both captivating and finely instructive. Written with grace and lucidity, it provides a vivid account of the complexities of negotiating between two cultures, British and Jewish, in the period during and after World War II.”
Theo Richmond (author of the award-winning Konin, the fate of a Polish town in the Holocaust) in the Evening Standard --
“John Gross has woven a tapestry of subtle contrasts and quiet charm. Relishing his ‘mixed inheritance’, he draws the best from each of his two worlds, doubly enriched. Reading his memoir, I recalled the words of the Jewish poet Paul Celan: ‘I drink wine from two glasses.’”
The New Statesman --
“A Double Thread is an elegy for the vanished world of East End Jewry, and, more unconventionally, for that of the literary essay - because, at its best, A Double Thread is less a book than an extended essay of the kind that has all but disappeared from English letters.”
Harper’s and Queen magazine (the British equivalent of Harper’s Bazaar) --
“A Double Thread is a book of unwavering honesty and elegance.”
Anthony Rudolf in The Jewish Chronicle --
“John Gross’s ambition is to evoke the lost world of Anglo-Yiddishkeit, the matrix of modern Anglo-Jewishness. This he has done lucidly, tenderly, and with good humor. Gross has succeeded in writing an essential book, which, much more than merely loving and nostalgic, is analytically sophisticated with an unerring eye for telling detail.”
A Double Thread: Among the “best books of the year” chosen by the (London) Evening Standard, the Observer, and other newspapers.
Runner Up: Wingate Literary Prize 2002