NOT ONE BUT ALL THE VERSES OF “TWO LOVELY BLACK EYES”
For those interested, this page contains a fourth selection of articles about my father, including interesting ones from today’s editions of The Economist and of the TLS, from the American magazines The New Criterion and The National Review, and from two London theatre magazines.
John Gross (above right) with the poet Lachlan Mackinnon in June 2009 at a party hosted by historian Robert Conquest for the launch of Conquest’s book of poems, “Penultimata”. Bob Conquest dedicated “Penultimata” to John Gross.
1. “John Gross, man of letters,” (The Economist, Jan. 28, 2011)
2. “The most civilized man you could have known” (Editorial, National Review (USA), edition of Feb. 7, 2011)
3. “Everything mattered” (By Lindsay Duguid, Times Literary Supplement, Jan. 28, 2011)
4. “The nicest man in England” (By Benedict Nightingale, Theatre Critic’s Circle, Jan. 26, 2011)
5. “Box-Office: Gross bows out” (By Michael Coveney, What’s on Stage, Jan. 11, 2011)
6. “Remembering the life of the writer, editor & raconteur” (By David Pryce-Jones, New Criterion, Feb. 2011)
7. A chapter from John Gross’s memoir, published in Commentary magazine
THE ECONOMIST MAGAZINE
John Gross, man of letters, died on January 10th, aged 75
January 28, 2011
IN THE heady years of his adolescence, John Gross sometimes fantasised that he might read everything. He would work, with slow but gathering excitement, through the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Tolstoy and the teeming streets of Dickens. He would bathe in Keats’s “Hyperion”, bounce through the limericks of Lear, linger in the “uplifting gloom” of Gray’s country churchyard. Not only that, but he would browse the faintly carbolic-smelling columns of the British Medical Journal, and scoff a hundred cow pies with the Dandy’s Desperate Dan. But even as he imagined this, standing in some London bookshop where every shelf sagged, sheer panic would take the books and toss them in the air in swarms, like the playing cards at the end of “Alice in Wonderland”. Sadly, his task was impossible.
Yet it seemed to his many friends that he must have managed it, somehow. If you asked for a poem that featured fountain pens he would find not one, but six. Mention some minor literary figure – Churton Collins, say – and he would wonder if you knew that when he died by drowning in 1908, some lines from Langland’s “Piers Plowman”, about resting “by a bourne side”, were found in his pocket. Drop another literary clue, and he would produce not one but all the verses of “Two Lovely Black Eyes”. And all this might occur in the course of a single, interweaving, almost fugal conversation which had begun with a beaming look through the large glasses and the words, spoken softly, “Did I ever mention that David Hare told Ferdinand Mount that I was an illiterate dickhead?”
Mr Gross’s love of letters embraced almost everything. It was never limited to books, though he was books editor for the Spectator, the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement, and an in-house reviewer, from 1983 to 1989, for the New York Times. He rejoiced in anecdotes, gossip, jokes, slogans, hoardings, advertising jingles (“Idris when I’s dry”), popular songs. On meandering walks with friends through his childhood East End haunts he would point out both the streets where writers had lived and the old signs, for fresh milk or synagogues, fading on the walls. Favourite scraps from Masefield (“salt-caked smoke stack”) rubbed shoulders with his father’s Yiddish sighs at a life that wasn’t too bad and wasn’t too good: “s’iz nit oy-oy-oy un nit ay-ay-ay”. And, for all the charm and emollience, he could produce sharp shards himself, such as the remark that listening to Margaret Atwood was like being driven back and forth through Winnipeg on a Sunday.
The title “man of letters”, which he adopted for himself, was a consciously nostalgic one. He agreed, with Evelyn Waugh, that the species was almost extinct in the modern world, like maiden aunts. It was also a modest claim. As he explained in his entertaining book on the breed, “The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters” (1969), it meant “a writer of the second rank, a critic, someone who aimed higher than journalism but made no pretence of being a major artist.” The times had once been different, he reflected, as he sauntered through the lives of these mostly minor, mostly unremembered, finely moustachioed men: the public had hungered for intellectual guidance, literary references were commonly understood, and the book-loving man could set the critical and cultural agenda, as only media pundits could now.
He might have been an academic, being more than bright enough. But the iron grip of T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis on English literary criticism appalled him; he wanted to write what he pleased, as he pleased. “Unattached” was a good word. Even his spells as a literary editor felt too constraining. As for the New York Times, he could never get on with its pomposity. Behind their backs, he called its two chief executives “Potash and Perlmutter”, after two bumblers in early Yiddish films.
His criticism, to many, seemed less brave. Aware that he was handling “the most explosive commodities in the world, praise and blame”, he was sparing with both. He showed most boldness at the TLS, where he stayed for seven years and introduced signed reviews. Literature should be loved, he insisted, simply for itself, and not because it allowed “Mr Puff and Mr Sneer” to settle anonymous scores in his pages.
All down the years, the books also appeared. Only three – “A Double Thread”, on his childhood, the “Man of Letters”, and “Shylock” – dipped a toe in the creative pond. Otherwise, he edited: the Oxford Books of Aphorisms, Parodies, Literary Anecdotes and Comic Verse, and an anthology of pieces inspired by Shakespeare. Once again, these often featured the minor and neglected. Once again, they suggested that he had read and relished everything.
He still wished he could. When he tried to get back to the beginning of his bookmanship, it lay partly in a Jewish reverence for texts, partly in a facility at writing other boys’ essays for Kit-Kats. But he also found himself thinking of inexplicable and almost magic events, of imaginings drawn from somewhere deeper than conscious memory. He knew he could not describe them. But perhaps others could. He decided then to keep humble, constant, happy company with the multitude of men and women who had tried to express such things. Somewhere lay the words.
“THE MOST CIVILIZED MAN YOU COULD HAVE KNOWN”
The National Review (USA)
Edition of Feb. 7, 2011
John Gross was the most civilized man you could have known. He had superb manners, and was versed in literature, theater, art, history, and virtually everything else. He was once called “the best-read man in Britain,” no less. But there was nothing stuffy or pompous about him. He was perpetually generous and amusing.
He was born in London’s East End in 1935. He became a famous man of letters, both in Britain and in America. He held a number of important positions. For example, he was the editor of The Times Literary Supplement. And senior book editor of the New York Times. He compiled many Oxford anthologies, the last of which came out only last year: a book of literary parodies (see John O’Sullivan’s review on p. 48). He was a trustee of London’s National Portrait Gallery, judged the Booker Prize.
People regarded him as a conservative, and he was, in a way. But this was mainly not a political matter. It was a matter of high standards in art, letters, and life. It was a matter of sticking up for the Judeo-Christian civilization.
John Gross has died at 75. The last of a breed? Maybe not, but there are precious few specimens left. R.I.P.
LINDSAY DUGUID IN THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
By Lindsay Duguid
The Times Literary Supplement
January 28, 2011
I was recruited by John Gross at a party, which in retrospect seems very typical of John and the way he liked to do things. Thus rescued from the British Academy and the Financial Times, I joined the staff of the TLS in September 1978, taking up an assistant editor’s desk in the old editorial offices in the Gray’s Inn Road.
This was long before any notion of the office as a place of pleasure. We worked in cramped conditions, sharing typewriters and telephones, and kept to a tight schedule in dusty cubicles, where the copy was piled in trays, galley proofs hung up in rows, and the shelves held old reference books with missing spines.
The review copies, which were casually sorted on to a couple of tables, somehow seemed of secondary importance to the dictionaries and the old volumes of Who’s Who. (There probably weren’t that many new books. A TLS editorial of 1974 had complained that too many books were being published: 35,000 in 1973, about a quarter of the number published today.)
My arrival coincided with a time of change. Since he had become Editor in April 1974, John had overseen the remodelling of the old Lit Supp with its short anonymous reviews and rigid layout. He had brought spring to the paper; signs could be seen in larger, more interesting illustrations – posters, cartoons, Victorian ephemera – and more playful headings. There were more poems – including Philip Larkin’s last major poem, “Aubade”, in 1977 (John often said that the morning on which he opened his post to find Larkin’s unsolicited offering was one of the best days of his life). And the removal of anonymity had done its work of lightening the detached and disapproving tone of the past.
Established writers and writer-academics such as Anita Brookner, Richard Cobb, Russell Davies, D. J. Enright, Rosemary Dinnage, Alistair Forbes, Victoria Glendinning, Dan Jacobson, Eric Korn, S. S. Prawer and E. S. Turner had discovered their TLS personae, and a new generation – Peter Conrad, Patricia Craig, Roy Foster, Jonathan Keates, Peter Parker, Lorna Sage – had been encouraged to write often, about subjects that interested them. They would have been sent one of John’s witty postcards with a message of thanks or congratulation in his tiny handwriting. The bedrock of academic reviewing remained the same, but there was more theatre, art, crime fiction, American literature, television and cookery, more dash and more humour. By the time John left in December 1981, the paper had established its recognizable style.
I enjoyed the fruits of this spring for about a dozen issues before the paper was shut down in December 1978, the victim, along with other Times titles, of a dispute between the papers’ owners and the printing unions. It was a fretful time. Over long months, John (who had often had to persuade the printers to print the paper) tried to keep his editors’ spirits up with regular meetings in the empty office, opening letters and parcels of books, discussing phantom issues and, eventually, hastily planning our return in November 1979.
Freed from the weekly production schedule, we were able to observe him practise the art of commissioning; wearing a suit and woollen scarf against the cold, he would take up a book from the new books table, examine it carefully, look at the acknowledgements page, then begin the process of choosing a reviewer, selecting and rejecting and reconsidering with increased refinement. These meetings distilled John’s wisdom, making use of his prodigious recall of books and their contents, and his extraordinary range, as he quoted from a pantheon of heroes which extended to Georges Simenon, the cartoonist Jules Feiffer and the comedian Roy Hudd. Through this one got a glimpse of an ideal of literary journalism.
John’s own ideal of literary journalism placed more than usual emphasis on encouraging the young – an emphasis that was reflected both in the contributors’ column of “his” TLS and in his editorial appointments. The young Martin Amis had departed, and the even younger Blake Morrison appeared, before the closure; when it dragged on, other desks became vacant as people drifted away to pursue careers in academe, publishing or writing, and in one case to work at the newly founded London Review of Books.
John happily replenished the sub-editing and production areas of the office with newcomers, some barely out of university, and he made sure they were involved in every aspect of the paper from proofreading to decisions about reviewers to the quality of some French translations of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His subtle and apparently encyclopedic intelligence was a continuing education in itself.
His commitment and nervous energy were part of his hold on the paper and on us; everything could go wrong, everything mattered, everything had consequences. Yet this dedicated, demanding man would easily relax and return to a charming and funny self; the shy intellectual, who often appeared not to notice people, would tell stories with a relish for personal detail; the fastidious scholar would suggest a drink at the Zanzibar Club in Great Queen Street, where he became a man about town.
John was a connoisseur of gossip of the higher kind; his anecdotes, which could be unflattering but were rarely malicious, were formal masterpieces, emblematic but without a moral or a punchline, finely constructed from a web of backstory, coincidence and connection, employing careful scene-setting. They were told with a selfconscious delight in the absurdity of the tale.
Dialogue was important; John never mimicked anyone’s voice, but he reproduced their actual words. A distant look would come into his eyes as he summoned up what he knew about one of a large cast of real-life characters – writers, editors, aristocrats, actors – asking rhetorically, “Do you know who I mean by . . . ?”, or saying, ironically, “Do stop me if . . .”. His interest in personality was of a piece with his interest in literature. It inspired his scholarly books, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and Shylock, and lay behind his liking for imaginary couples – Isaiah and Irving Berlin; the Reynoldses, Sir Joshua and Debbie. It also led to his inspired commissioning; the menu-style covers of the TLSes he edited, promising encounters with interestingly diverse individuals – here it perhaps echoed his liking for television soap operas.
Over the last few years, I would have irregular lunches with John (at the Ivy, his favourite London restaurant: in New York it was the Russian Tea Room), ostensibly to help him with a planned memoir of his literary life. But it was no good. Spotting a fellow luncher, he would say “You know who that is, don’t you?”, and I would then be told something scandalous and amusing about him or her.
His reminiscences were diverted by pen portraits of the doctors who were treating him, accounts of our old friends, surveys of the current theatre, praise of his children and grandchildren. We would share a taxi back to the Gray’s Inn Road, where the TLS had returned in 2006, and agree that next time we really would get down to talking about the paper in the old days.
FORMER TIMES AND NY TIMES CRITIC BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE ON JOHN GROSS
“The nicest man in England”
By Benedict Nightingale
(Former theatre critic for The Times of London and The New York Times)
Theatre Critic’s Circle website
January 26, 2011
It was always hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about John Gross, who died on January 10 at the age of 75. How could anybody of his extensive knowledge and intellectual distinction – the Spectator called him “the best-read man in Britain” – be so unpretentiously agreeable? I remember teasing him by suggesting he put on a T-shirt embossed with a remark by Bernard Levin, that he was the nicest man in England. He responded with an aghast grin and a sort of bashful burble, as of a telephone scrambler in deep distress. I didn’t remind him of the celebrated remark, I forget by whom, that there must be a man living in London called John Gross-Brilliant, because so many people added that adjective to his surname. But he would have reacted as diffidently, because he was intelligent enough to know the limitations of the mind – and, in and out of print, wore his knowledge with a lightness that remains an example to us all.
That was just one of qualities he brought to the Sunday Telegraph as its theatre critic from 1989 to 2005. To look through the reviews he wrote in an exemplary year, 2002, is to be deeply impressed by his wise and temperate judgements, his willingness to give performers and productions the benefit of whatever doubts he felt he had to express and, above all, his openness to the sort of experience you might not expect a former don at King’s, Cambridge, and editor of the TLS to appreciate. Here he is, praising the clever gadgetry, design and “exuberant choreography” of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and, despite finding the plot of We Will Rock You as silly as it was and is, doing the same for the show’s songs and performances.
He was a generous critic, who recognized that the theatre has many mansions and many different inhabitants and visitors, but he wasn’t a pushover. He disliked pretentious direction and, especially, the sort of gratuitous ugliness he found in Neil LaBute’s Distance from Here: “it proceeds on the principle that the quickest way to be taken seriously in the contemporary theatre is to make things nasty”. He could be sharp, calling Glen Close’s Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire “about as fragile as Donald Rumsfield”. But he also acknowledged that Close was a “strong, highly proficient actress”.
If there was a positive qualification to be made he made it, lauding Douglas Hodge’s “powerful” Leontes in a Winter’s Tale he thought crassly “Americanised” and Gwyneth Paltrow’s “magnificent” acting in David Auburn’s Proof, a play he found shallow and implausible. And when he praised he really praised: the “brilliance” of Jochum Ten Haaf’s Van Gogh in Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton; the “tremendous experience” of a hilarious Tartuffe at the National; the “wit, pathos, full-blooded displays of character and challenging confrontations” of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia; even Ed Hall’s War of the Roses, an updated and pretty potted version of the Henry VI plays which made him feel “the full horror of the events being portrayed”.
Myself, I knew John pretty well. He’d been my arts editor at the New Statesman and, though he went into appalled telephone scrambler mode when I told him so, the best I’ve had anywhere: acute, thoughtful, considerate, punctilious. He’d worked as a senior books editor and reviewer on the New York Times when I was its Sunday theatre critic and, everyone said, brought fresh depth and elegance to his section. But he always had his mischievous, gossipy, wryly funny side.The news raced through the Times’s office and into the chattering frogpond of Manhattan that he had called the paper’s top editors “sentimental gangsters” in a loud voice in Sardi’s. Coward that I am, I got a bit worried, since Sardi’s was and is very much a theatre restaurant and John’s voice was as British as mine. Would the great Abe Rosenthal, who took no prisoners, call me in and ask why I thought he was a mawkish Mafioso? But there was no trouble for me or, indeed, John.
I’ll miss John at others’ lunch tables and my own dinner table but, above all, in the theatre. We often chatted in intervals, me pompously asking if we’d studied William Empson or F.R. Leavis in order to review some dismal musical, him twinkling and chuckling but refusing to be categorized as Mr Superintellectual. He had written important books – The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters and, quietly drawing on his feelings as a Jew as well as on theatrical history, Shylock: 400 Years in the Life of a Legend – but many of us will remember him as a large-hearted, delightful man.
FORMER OBSERVER THEATRE CRITIC MICHAEL COVENEY ON JOHN GROSS
Box-Office: Gross Bows Out
By Michael Coveney
What’s on Stage (London Theatre Magazine)
January 11, 2011
One of the most civilised and erudite of theatre critics, John Gross, has died aged 75 after suffering ill health for some time. He served on the Sunday Telegraph from 1989 to 2005, quite a long stint for someone who was primarily immersed in the world of books.
He was a distinguished former editor of the Times Literary Supplement -- introducing unsigned reviews for the first time in that august publication -- and chief book reviewer on the New York Times for five years in the 1980s.
But he made lasting theatrical contributions with Shylock (1992), his brilliant tour around that difficult character in history and related literature, and with one of his celebrated anthologies, After Shakespeare (2002), which collected a rich bouquet of literary responses to our greatest poet from his own times to ours.
Gross often sat through first nights with an open text on his knee -- you felt that, like Clive James, he'd much rather read Hamlet than watch it -- but he was always the sprightliest and most stimulating company in the intervals.
And every theatre PR lady I know (including my wife) simply adored him; he was invariably witty and charming, with an attractive twinkle about him that no-one in the critical pack ever matched, then or now.
His first book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, will probably remain his most famous, though I suspect his modest memoir, A Double Thread (2001), will gain ground as a model of discreet, non-self-serving autobiography.
John's background was humble East End, born of Eastern European Jewish immigrants; he went down those same mean streets as Harold Pinter, who much admired his memoir, finding much he recognised.
He was a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, in the early 1960s, but he often abandoned his students to their own researches while developing his literary career in London and working on his own projects.
Famously dubbed by the Spectator "the best read man in Britain," it would be hard to think of anyone since Samuel Johnson who seemed to have read everything, or at least know something about everything, in print.
Funnily enough, this didn't really come through in his theatre reviews, which were always interesting, often impatient with contemporary playwrights and "conceptual" productions, but sometimes a little flat. But there was never a false phrase, or an ill-chosen word, and everything was expressed with perfect taste and well-modulated tone.
The theatre critic post on the Sunday Telegraph has always been something of a part-time job -- when Irving Wardle stood in for Gross occasionally, the temperature, and the stakes, rose considerably.
But there have been some highly distinguished incumbents, and Gross was more than a worthy successor to Frank Marcus, Alan Brien and Francis King, all of whom were more immersed in theatre to start with than was he. And now? Let's just say he's much missed, on and off that newspaper.
(Michael Coveney is former theatre critic of the Financial Times, The Observer and The Daily Mail.)
“THEY WERE EVERY BIT AS PENETRATING AS GEORGE ORWELL’S SIMILAR LONDON LETTERS”
I.M. John Gross, 1935–2011
Remembering the life of the writer, editor & raconteur
By David Pryce-Jones
The New Criterion
John Gross, who died last month at seventy-five, was an intellectual, even a highbrow, though neither word seems quite right for someone with so much humor in him, such charm, and whose social gifts were always in evidence. What with being the spare man who caught the eye of every hostess, when did he find the time to do all that reading? He appeared to know everybody and to know about everybody who was no longer alive. A name would lead to another name, a story to another story, each one a gem of gossip, irony, and quirkiness. His memory was flawless, his quotations word-perfect. For years he used to give a party in the Basil Street Hotel in Knightsbridge. He liked to call himself the Elsa Maxwell de nos jours. His guest list was so comprehensive that people mingled who normally would not have tolerated being together in the same room.
The parties, the people, and the apparent hoo-ha provided the raw material for an imagination that never rested. It is possible, though I think it unlikely, that in his inmost self John was timid, on the qui vive for fear that something nasty might be in the offing. More probably, he just agreed with Kingsley Amis’s gospel for today that change means worse: what might be intended as progress too often ends in degradation. John watched and weighed anyone who looked like provoking nastiness, above all change for the sake of change.
Temperament, then, drove him to enlist in the culture wars of the moment. The cause of these wars no doubt lies in unfathomable depths of history, empire, the death of kings, and who knows what besides. The effect is felt continuously in matters great and small. People have to adjust to the political goals on offer, to reinterpretations of the past, to the way reputations are manipulated to rise and fall, to the use and abuse of language. As a theater critic, John particularly held out against reading into plays and operas all sorts of moral or political messages at odds with the original work. I remember John asking at one point if I didn’t think that pop music was the great divide. Those born after the era of this immense novelty in taste were condemned never to understand those born before it.
John’s regular contributions to The New Criterion under the rubric “London Journal” were despatches from the front in the culture wars, and they are every bit as penetrating as George Orwell’s similar London letters to Partisan Review, written during the real war with the Germans. When Tony Blair had just become prime minister, John pointed out that he spoke of “rebranding” Britain as though dealing with a supermarket; the wider lesson was that this encouraged a people to declare war on its own culture. The bbc was also coarsening the culture, John believed, in one instance concocting the nonsense that Wordsworth knew Coleridge to be a better poet than he and had therefore pressed him to continue with drugs in order to destroy him. After 9/11, John was particularly incensed by a bbc television program on which Muslim extremists and their apologists accused the United States of bringing this outrage on itself, and his comment revealed his state of mind: “You start thinking you can’t be surprised anymore – not when it comes to left-wing opinion-makers at least – but you end up being surprised nonetheless.” Over the last twenty-five years, John often observed that nobody from the bbc had been in touch with him. Culture wars are fought in the trenches, in close combat.
John signed several of his books for me. I have a habit of stuffing correspondence from authors into their books, and a shower of postcards fell out when I went to remind myself of the books in which he had actually written his name. Most of the notes simply evoke good times: “I do hope that I didn’t outstay my welcome the other night; if I did I can only plead it was the pleasure of seeing you that kept me.” Writing from a Park Avenue apartment, he hopes we can meet in New York. For five long years, he had the Sisyphean task of reviewing two books every week for The New York Times. He seemed to manage this easily, and the goings-on of his colleagues on the paper added to his repertoire of irresistible stories. By this time, he was also a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and Commentary – in other words, he occupied a position in no-man’s land.
One postcard asks rather typically if I had read a review by a critic we both held in low esteem of a new book by a famous novelist we held in even lower esteem: “In a grim way it might amuse you.” And here’s another dated March 1981 with a portrait of Mao Tse-tung gazing with poster-like uplift into the distance. A strap across the bottom of the card reads, “Father’s Mind Was Set On A People’s Republic.” On the reverse are five printed lines all in capitals: “The Youth of Today – Narcissistic – Depraved – Dangerous. All over the World Right-thinking Folk Are Crying Out This Thing Has Gone Too Far – Our Young People Are Sick. A New Magazine Chronicles the Terrors of Teen Tyranny. Time Is Running Out – Final Days – Edited by John Stalin.” Underneath this inspired but presumably fictitious name John has simply jotted “T.L.S.” and he thanks me for a review I had just written for him of Saul Friedländer’s When Memory Comes. Now an eminent historian, Friedländer had described unforgettably what he had gone through as a child in the war, and drawn the conclusion, equally unforgettable, that Jews “obey the call of some mysterious destiny.”
John was only thirty-four when he published The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters in 1969, but the book has the scholarship and the poise of someone at the close of a long and thoughtful career. It also opened a front in the culture wars. John wrote that some English men of letters had been gifted while others were boring, but all had contributed to a literature that was a national glory. Academics with university salaries, however, had then driven them out. Critics had become either too specialized to be of interest or they were just doormen at the discotheque. Although he was cataloguing men of letters as a more or less extinct species, John chose to become that very thing himself, like a latter-day Eminent Victorian, but one who reserved the right to flick ink from the back of the classroom. At various moments in this role as man of letters, he was literary editor of The New Statesman and Melvin Lasky’s Encounter, a commissioning editor with the publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and, from 1974 to 1981, the editor of The Times Literary Supplement.
The official history of the TLS compliments John for maintaining an extremely high standard of reviewing “helped by the fact that he had no difficulty in discussing almost any subject with his contributors on an equal intellectual footing.” Roger Scruton, for one, tells me that he was virtually unknown until John commissioned long articles from him. Another contributor whom he introduced was Alastair Forbes, a member of a well-connected Bostonian family. For him, writing was an affirmation of social status. In 1976, I published a biography of Unity Mitford, a young English aristocrat who managed to strike up an improbable friendship with Hitler, becoming a fanatical Nazi and anti-Semite in the process. Forbes asked to review it and then took the opportunity to attack my father, who had been the editor of the TLS from 1948–59, for his supposed personal faults. John rejected this review, whereupon Forbes retitled it “The Piece the Jews Rejected,” and personally circulated a hundred or so photocopies around London, including one to me.
For a writer, as John put it, “the fact of having been born a Jew can mean everything or nothing,” or, he adds in a rather characteristic qualification, “(more usually) something in between.” Shylock, published in 1992, was John’s first attempt to discover what being Jewish might mean for him. Shakespeare’s Jew has long been a stereotype, a villain who has become part of world mythology. The demand for a pound of flesh has provided an enduring foundation for anti-Semitism. Actors have tried to play Shylock as a comic character, or as noble, heroic, and ultimately tragic. What’s always left, though, in John’s conclusion, is “a permanent chill in the air.”
John’s memoir of his childhood and upbringing, A Double Thread: Growing Up English and Jewish in London (2001), addresses his identity as an English Jew more directly. He dedicated the book to his children, Tom and Susanna, of whom he was immensely proud. His recommendation was that everyone with these two threads in their identity should feel relaxed about it. John did not enter the sea of the Talmud, as he put it in the words of a religious dictum, but his father, a doctor, and his bookish mother gave him a sense of Judaism, of Hebrew and Yiddish. His experience was very different from Saul Friedländer’s, but he too could come to think that Jews obey the call of some mysterious destiny.
John’s upbringing was, nevertheless, overwhelmingly ordinary and English, for which he was grateful. During the World War, the family moved from the East End of London to Egham – “A Small Town in Surrey” is the title he gives to the relevant chapter. What formed him were boys’ comics, the songs of those pre-pop music years, period films, teachers in friendly schools who led him to the poetry of Eliot and Auden and the prose of James Joyce, even cricket, and not an anti-Semite or a proper Communist anywhere on the horizon. The path was short and straight to an Oxford scholarship in a college whose warden, the majestic Maurice Bowra, liked to boom to the attending world, “All my geese are swans.”
An innately modest man, John made no claims for himself. A spasm of disavowal would certainly have crossed his face on hearing that he has influenced perceptions, and will continue to do so. His anthologies, the Oxford Books of English Prose, of Comic Verse, of Essays, of Literary Anecdotes, and the Oxford Book of Parodies that came out just before his last illness, when he was still able to take pleasure in the reviews, are statements celebrating the English literary tradition, its huge range, and its civility. I seem to hear the firing of heavy artillery in the ongoing culture wars.
A CHAPTER FROM JOHN GROSS’S MEMOIR PUBLISHED IN COMMENTARY MAGAZINE
A chapter of John Gross’s childhood memoir “A Double Thread” was originally published in Commentary magazine in June 2001. Following his death, the editors of Commentary have made it accessible to non-subscribers on their website:
After the book was highlighted in many newspapers in the last two weeks (for example, by Charles Moore on the comment pages of The Daily Telegraph last week), the British publisher, Vintage, has decided to print further copies, since the book was sold out, and say they should be available this week.
Cover of the British edition of A Double Thread
Growing Up Anglo-Jewish
By John Gross
In my youth – I was born in 1935 – every self-respecting Jewish family in England had at least one Uncle Morrie. My own family was no exception, but then it would have been very surprising if it had been. We were mainstream Jews; my father, who had immigrated from Eastern Europe in 1913, when he himself was around bar-mitzvah age, was a doctor who practiced in London’s East End, the center of the city’s Jewish population before rising fortunes allowed a movement outward first to north London and then to the sunny suburban uplands of Golders Green, Hendon, and beyond.
When it came to Uncle Morries, we in fact boasted not one but three, and among them they covered a nice span of Jewish possibilities. One – he was actually a great-uncle – was a minor official of the United Synagogue, the association of Orthodox congregations in London, with a beaming countenance and a set of well-tried jocular catch-phrases: at family gatherings, there usually came a point when he would turn to the table where the food was spread out and say, “Now where are the doings?” Another, also a great-uncle, was the oldest of the family’s Communists. As a schoolboy I once tried to get a rise out of him by telling him that I had heard that there was a particularly good book about the French Revolution by Edmund Burke. He immediately shot back, “Edmund Burke called working people ‘the swinish multitude,’ and that’s all I need to know about him.” Since my own knowledge of Burke at the time was virtually nonexistent, I was completely floored.
The Uncle Morrie who meant the most to me was a real uncle, my father’s younger brother. Partly I was impressed by him because he had a striking physical presence: he was unusually tall, much taller than anyone else in the family, with a long strong face to match. He also seemed to me to have style. Possibly this did not mean much more, in my boyish view of things, than the fact that he was rumored to have always taken taxis (which I had been brought up to consider a luxury), even in the days when he couldn’t afford them, and that, by the time I knew him, he and his family lived in a smart flat near Regent’s Park. But he was undoubtedly intelligent and independent-minded as well, and he had been determined from early on to get away from the more constricting aspects of family life.
One route he took was to Anglicize himself, more than anyone else in my father’s fairly traditional family. He changed the spelling of his name to Grose, because it was more English; he sent his daughter, who was about my age, to Bedales, a boarding school in Hampshire. But at the same time he was quite assertive about being Jewish, especially in the face of rising anti-Semitism, and he also responded strongly to the attraction of Zionism. It was his Zionist impulse that eventually won out.
He was an accountant by profession, and around 1930 he had gone to Palestine to work for the Palestine Electric Corporation. The founder and manager of the corporation, Pinhas Rutenberg, was one of the most interesting personalities involved in building up the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. An engineer, Rutenberg had also been a leading member of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary party; as a minister in the short-lived Menshevik-dominated government in 1917, he had consistently advocated taking whatever measures were needed to head off Lenin. In Palestine, Rutenberg’s work on hydroelectric power, beginning in the early 20’s, had helped to transform the economy. He developed political ambitions there, too, in which he was less successful; but my uncle greatly admired the technocratic, businesslike side of his character.
While in Palestine my uncle got married. His wife came from a well-known family, originally from the Polish town of Bialystok, and considerably higher up the social scale than ours, as we were more than once reminded. She was a trim, petite woman; my uncle towered over her, and I am told that in the early days of their marriage they were known as the lulav and the esrog (the tall palm branch and the small citron carried by Jews on the festival of Tabernacles).
Toward the end of the 30’s Morrie returned to London with his family. I didn’t see much of them on account of the war, and after the war they went back to what was soon to be the state of Israel. My uncle did not have any links with the Labor party, which was the dominant force in Israeli politics at the time, but he eventually found a niche as secretary of the Chamber of Commerce in Haifa. When I stayed with him on my first visit to Israel, in 1953, he seemed to be engaged in daily battles with the leader of the local dock-workers’ union. He was also ill, and he died a few years later, still in his forties.
My father was fond of him. So was my mother; and they both respected him. We were close, in other words, to someone who had chosen to live his life in Israel. Did it not follow that we felt close to Israel itself? Would we not have felt close to it anyway?
These are questions I find it impossible to answer with a straight yes or no. As a Jewish enterprise, the Yishuv was something my family had long wished well. As a refuge for Jewish victims of persecution, it was something they had naturally supported. The Jewish resettlement of Palestine had been brought home to them in many different ways, both private and public. But it had never been a central part of their existence: they certainly were not anti-Zionist, but they were not Zionists, either.
That much is what I was told, or what I deduced. By the time I had a clearer picture of what was happening, after 1946 or so, their attitude had begun to change. The period leading up to the establishment of Israel brought new emotions into play – anxiety, anger, admiration – or at any rate greatly heightened old ones. These feelings were inevitably colored by the revelations, still very recent, of what had happened during the war; the whole situation was also rendered more painful by what everyone perceived as the clear pro-Arab, anti-Jewish bias of the British government under Clement Attlee. The role played by the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, was particularly troublesome.
Under other circumstances, Bevin would have been a hero to many Jews – for his achievements as minister of labor during the war, and indeed for his general performance as foreign secretary. As it was, however, nothing did more to produce a closing of ranks than his notorious remark that “Jews must not try to get to the head of the queue.” He was talking about restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. Not only was the remark made in the context of concentration-camp survivors and displaced persons; it was also, so to speak, unnecessary. Realpolitik alone would not have dictated it; indeed, realpolitik left to itself would probably have shed a few crocodile tears. It felt like an emanation of pure prejudice.
When Israel became an independent state in May 1948, we joined in the general rejoicing. (In a fairly sedate fashion, however: Lou and Harry, the boys next door, stayed up most of the night celebrating with friends; we went over to have a drink with them.) Immediately after that, euphoria gave way to apprehension about the outcome of the Arab-Israeli war; and after that, there were excitements, good moments, bad moments, and readjustments. For a year or two, the sense of sheer novelty was still strong. I can recall the thrill we got from driving over to see the building that housed the first Israeli embassy, hard by the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square. Everyone was proud, too, that the first ambassador, Mordecai Eliash, was both distinguished and distinguished-looking. And then, Jews being Jews, there were the inevitable jokes. I quote one, purely for its period flavor: “A miracle! For the first time in 2000 years, Jews are driving their own trains!”
Israel was now a fact of life (except for those who wanted to destroy it). For Jews, or most Jews, it was a large fact. Before Israel became a state, my parents had not, as far as I know, contributed to the Jewish National Fund. They now made an annual donation to its much more streamlined fund-raising successor. Yet the change was only relative. For all its importance, Israel was not at the heart of their concerns, any more than the Yishuv had been. They never saw their future, or that of their children, as lying anywhere but in England.
My own enthusiasm for the new state was stronger than theirs. I was young, I was under the influence of contemporaries, I wanted to see the country for myself. I sometimes wondered, too, about going to live there. But only fitfully; and when I encountered genuine, 100-percent Zionists – people who had settled in Israel, or were planning to – I often found myself backing away from their rigidity and dogmatism, from the demands they laid on me as a potential recruit. I was even slightly put out by the fact that the textbook from which I tried, not very successfully, to learn modern Hebrew was called Hebrew for All in English, but Ivri, I’mad ivrit! – “Hebrew, Learn Hebrew!,” which sounded so very much more peremptory – in Hebrew itself. (The author of the book, who ran a couple of summer schools I attended, was anything but peremptory in person. He was an affable Scottish schoolteacher with a strong Glaswegian accent and a fondness for the essays of Charles Lamb.)
At the same time, I recognized that states are only likely to be built by men and women who make hard demands, both on themselves and on others; and I was equally troubled by the apparently iron logic of Arthur Koestler, who began arguing in this period that, now that Jews had their own state, they were faced with a simple choice. If they wanted to remain Jews, they should go to Israel; otherwise they should forget the whole thing. The only reply I could think of was that life wasn’t like that, that people are inconsistent. And so it has proved in the case of Israel and the Jews. But I must admit that Koestler’s argument can still ruffle me. At the Passover service, which ends with the prayer “Next year in Jerusalem,” I have sometimes imagined his ghost looking down and asking, “Why pray, when you can buy a ticket from El Al?”
My first visit to Israel took place, as I have said, in 1953, when I was eighteen. My parents saw me off at the station (in those days, you went by train and boat), and just before we said goodbye I had the distinct impression that my father wanted to say to me, “Don’t stay there. Be sure to come back.” In the event, he need not have worried. The visit was a success. My commitment to Israel was strengthened. I met some admirable people, and had some stirring experiences. But I came back.
The troubles in Palestine produced smaller troubles in Britain. Much smaller, but disagreeable enough.
I remember all too clearly one summer morning in 1947, when I was twelve, picking up the morning paper and seeing a picture on the front page of two British sergeants who had been hanged in an orange grove by the Irgun, the armed underground organization led by Menachem Begin, as a reprisal for the execution of three of its members. That episode provoked several days of anti-Jewish disturbances in London and the provinces. And there were lesser incidents that still sowed ample ill feeling, such as the notorious statement by the pro-Irgun Hollywood writer Ben Hecht that every time a British soldier was killed in Palestine there was a-song in his heart. (“What made him say it?” my father wanted to know. “What good did he think it would do?”)
Those were difficult times for British Jews. The great majority of them condemned the killing of the sergeants. Most of them, if pressed, would have agreed that an angry public reaction was inevitable, that it would have been inevitable anywhere. But in practice it was often hard to say where inevitable outrage ended and anti-Semitism began. Feelings were tense. Hostility came out into the open.
I can recall witnessing one incident myself. A few of us were fooling around on the edge of a playing field. There had been some talk about Palestine; then a non-Jewish boy suddenly pinned a Jewish boy down and said to him, “You killed Christ.” It was the first time I had heard those words uttered, and I was not so much afraid – the victim threw off his tormentor, and there was no further rough-housing – as incredulous. (The scholar Erich Heller, who was much more genial in person than one might suppose from reading such austere books as The Disinherited Mind, once told me that when he first heard those same words, as a schoolboy in Central Europe, he wanted to reply, “No, it wasn’t me, it was the Cohen boys down the road.”)
Anti-Jewish feeling specifically associated with the Palestine issue gradually subsided, even if it did not entirely disappear, and by the 1950’s the climate was very different. Nor, for all its unpleasantness, did it seriously hamper the social and economic advances that were being made by English Jews during the same period. And anti-Semitism in general, as a new postwar generation came forward, was also in decline.
In my own case, it had never been a practical problem. But alongside any direct experience – or non-experience – of anti-Semitism, there was also the knowledge that it existed. That knowledge had inevitably taken on a darker aspect since the war, so much so that I felt it important not to go too far, not to equate minor anti-Semitism (the golf-club variety) with major anti-Semitism. But neither could the two be altogether divorced.
Meanwhile, pockets of vicious prejudice were still apparent, above all with the postwar revival of the fascist movement led by Oswald Mosley. One of our routes to north London from the East End for weekend family visits took us past Ridley Road in Dalston – famous for its big street market, which was heavily Jewish but also a site much favored by fascists for their open-air meetings and the scene of frequent pitched battles when those meetings were disrupted by Jewish ex-servicemen who had joined together in a militant defense unit known as the 43 Group. We would make a small detour on our journeys through the area if there was any hint of trouble, or if we saw police vans waiting in the side streets; but one drizzly Sunday we found ourselves held up while a fascist parade marched by with an escort of mounted police. There was that jolt you always get when you see something nasty for the first time, however many times you may have heard about it. Perhaps seeing is the only form of completely believing.
Ugly though the postwar Mosleyites were, and frightening though individual fascists could be face to face, collectively they represented less a threat than a reminder: of what had happened in Nazi-occupied Europe, of what could have happened in Britain, of how things had looked before the war. In retrospect, it can be seen that the danger posed by Mosley in the 1930’s, of which I had heard a good deal, was itself exaggerated: his fortunes had been in decline by 1937 or 1938. But that retrospect is supplied by the outcome of the war. At the time, the essential menace of the British Union of Fascists had been the reflected menace of Hitler. It was not so much a matter of votes, of which Mosley never got many, as of the fact that he was part of an international pattern, and the fear that he might be riding the wave of history. After 1945, however, he was on his own, and by the end of the 40’s, with his revived movement fizzling out, he was a back number.
Around that time – 1950 is as close a date as I can get – I had a little reminder that, Mosley or no, pathological anti-Semitism lived on. The family had been spending the afternoon in Kensington Gardens. My father and I had gone for a stroll, and we sat down for a moment on a bench when a couple came and sat beside us. He was a small man with a slightly grubby and indefinably unwholesome look – the kind of man who even in those innocent days would probably have been turned down on sight if he had tried to become a scoutmaster. His wife (as I assume she was) seemed a mere mouse. Almost at once they started having a violently anti-Semitic conversation, with the man doing most of the talking and the woman egging him on. It went on for about a minute – we were transfixed – until he said, “I think they should all be towed out to sea in a ship and drowned.” Then we got up and walked away.
I was so naïve, or possibly so reluctant to face the truth, that it was a long while before I realized that the couple had obviously spotted us as Jews, and that the conversation had been conducted specifically for our benefit. What I did find myself wondering, immediately afterward, was why we had not said anything, and why I would not have been ready to hit the man if he had replied with fresh abuse. It would not have taken much courage: he was a puny specimen. Had my father and I, for a minute, assumed the role of passive victims? I felt renewed admiration for the tough tactics of the 43 Group.
One could argue, I suppose, that the couple were too feeble to be worth bothering about. But no doubt many Nazis would have looked similarly feeble if Hitler had not given them their chance. The old poison was still there. One could only hope that it would never again be put to use.
Jews growing up in England after the war (not all of them, I need hardly say) felt under a strong obligation to affirm their Jewishness. Attempting to deny it seemed peculiarly base. I recall a friend, in most respects highly susceptible to the charms of assimilation, saying to me, “I don’t want to be the one in whom the whole thing ends.” Not that it would have, whatever he had done; but putting the matter that way was an oblique statement of solidarity.
In my own case, a sense of solidarity helped to sustain my religious beliefs in the face of adolescent wavering. But my doubts did not go away, and one incident in particular helped to underline them as nothing quite had before.
Among the family members left behind in Poland after my father and grandparents left in 1913 there was a cousin, about ten years younger than he, called Moishe Roitenburg. By the time I first heard of him he was Maurice, pronounced in the French fashion (and hence not to be claimed as another Morrie). Unable to fulfill his ambition of becoming a doctor in Poland, he had studied in France and stayed on there after gaining his degree. For a time, I believe, he worked for a miners’ union, treating industrial diseases. In 1934, when my parents went to Paris on their honeymoon, he had shown them around, and after the war he had re-established contact. During the Nazi occupation he had inevitably been in deadly danger; juif was bad enough, juif polonais was worse. Initially he had gone into hiding in the woods, but after that he had been protected by French colleagues. He was now married to a non-Jewish girl, and working at a hospital at Evreux, in Normandy.
On our first postwar visit to Paris, in 1949, he came up from Evreux to have lunch with us. To my inexperienced eyes, he looked very French, but that was probably on account of the thick black frames of his glasses and the cut of his suit. Before lunch, my father made it clear that we still observed kashrut, the dietary laws; Maurice may have made it clear in turn (I’m not sure) that he did not. At the restaurant, he took charge of the menu. He first ordered the omelettes or fish that we had dutifully asked for, and then added with a flourish, “Et pour moi, veau au pot” (“and for me, the braised veal”).
The moment passed without comment, and I didn’t think there was going to be any fallout. But when Maurice left and we returned to our hotel, my father was furious. Not only that: his features assumed a jeering expression I had never seen before, and he repeated two or three times, in an attempt at mimicry, “Et pour moi, veau au pot; et pour moi, veau au pot.” I kept quiet, which is just as well, because I found his reaction detestable. To get so worked up over such a small thing! To make no allowance for what Maurice had gone through during the war! And wasn’t the whole Jewish taboo over food childish and primitive anyway?
Today, it seems to me that both men must have been under pressures I can only guess at. Maurice, after all, struck me as amiable and polite, not someone who would normally have been indifferent to causing offense. And even at the time I had to concede, on reflection, that my father, given how angry he was, had actually shown considerable restraint: things would have been much worse if he had said anything while Maurice was still there. I calmed down, and detestation faded. But distaste remained.
My father once said to me that no virtue was more important than tolerance. The remark hadn’t impressed me quite as much as it should have; I could not help reflecting that tolerance was something in which Jews had a vested interest. What did impress me, however, living with him and observing him, was the extent to which he lived up to his watchword in practice. He was patient, forbearing, and slow to condemn. He got on with people; he took it for granted that we had to live in a world where there were, in the great phrase, “all sorts and conditions of men.” Even in matters of religion, he was often prepared to relax the rules. But religion was also his sticking point. Every so often he would take a stand which was not only unyielding but, from my point of view, unreasonable as well.
I think there was another, unspoken issue lurking behind the veau au pot incident: the question of intermarriage. Part of my own heated reaction may well have been the result of picturing myself in a similar situation. I dreaded the explosion there would be if one day I were to announce that I was marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. And although my guess is that my parents would eventually have come around (my mother much more readily than my father), there would still have been enormous distress – and embarrassments and long boring arguments, too. But I also knew, without quite wanting to spell it out to myself, that if the problem ever arose I would follow my own path.
The meeting with Maurice was an undoubted milestone, but it would be quite misleading to portray my adolescence as one long process of emancipation from religion. My inner feelings fluctuated; my outward commitment became, if anything, more obvious. As my circle of Jewish friends widened, I spent more time with people who simply took the main framework of Jewish communal life for granted. In particular, I was introduced to a small youth movement, the Study Groups, which suited my needs very well for a year or two. It was religious, in moderation; it encouraged an interest in Israel without being burdened with an ideology. And it was fun. A good deal of our energy went into writing skits and comic songs. One number, which I thought and still think was brilliant of its kind, was a parody of a hit French song of the period, “Les trois cloches” (“The Three Bells”). It recounted the rise of an alrightnik who began life as little Moishele, transmuted himself into Maurice Conway, and ended up in full splendor as Sir Maurice Conway-Ferguson. We performed it, along with some other songs, at a student concert in Israel in 1953, and were warmly received – with one conspicuous exception. The guest of honor, Golda Meir (then a cabinet minister), sat stony-faced throughout. She was not amused.
Much of my continuing readiness to believe, and to pray, was based on loyalty – loyalty to the “little platoon” into which I had been born, and to the larger tradition of which it constituted a tiny part. But religion retained my allegiance on broader grounds, too. To put it minimally, I did not think that terms like soul, spirit, and holiness were meaningless words. It seemed to me that without the realm of religious experience, life would be a thinner and poorer thing, and that it supplied the poetry of collective existence, as rationalism never could. Thomas Gray had written “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”; nobody had yet written “Elegy in a Country Crematorium.”
These were arguments, or promptings, in favor of religion in general, rather than of any one religion. But religion in general was nowhere to be found. There were only religions; and although in principle, in an open society, one was free to choose among them, in practice one’s choice had been made by history, including personal history. (I might add that history had also instilled in me a tenderness toward the Church of England – toward its liturgy and literature and traditions rather than its actual creed. The decline of the Church in recent years has saddened me, although I suppose a believer might say that I am confusing religious judgments with cultural or aesthetic ones.)
Meanwhile, the forces tugging me toward unbelief remained strong. I was never much drawn to philosophy, but when I was, it was the hard reasoners who attracted me rather than the pseudotheologians; one of the few philosophers I could read for pleasure was David Hume. Had I known it then, I would have been struck by the truth of Heine’s observation that as soon as religion solicits the aid of philosophy, it is doomed.
Not that this was the end of the matter; there are more things in heaven and earth, etc. Religion was about faith rather than reason, and there was even a perverse satisfaction in yielding to its unreasonableness. I was thrilled, at the age of fifteen or so, when I first came across Tertullian’s credo quia impossible, “I believe because it is impossible.” But my enthusiasm soon cooled. I didn’t have the temperament to subsist on a diet of impossibility for very long.
In the end, here as in other respects, I wanted the best of both worlds. “Ambiguity” became a blessed word; the fact that so many things contained their opposite was on the whole a comfort. I could have said, with the literary critic Cyril Connolly, that I believed in “the Either, the Or, and the Holy Both.” In the real world, however, I edged away from both prayer and observance, giving up my own final food taboos on that first trip to Israel – in Jerusalem, no less.
But there were still limits. To have made a clean break with Judaism would have felt like making a clean break with myself. Wavering became a way of life, and by the age of eighteen I had settled, or seemed to have settled, for a world of token observance and demi-semi-belief.
My father died in 1960, when I was twenty-five. He had had a coronary – in those days almost an occupational disease of general practitioners – two years before, and his smoking can’t have helped. The second time around, he took to his bed for a week or so. Then, when he felt worse, he went into the London Hospital, a grim-looking building in Whitechapel where so many of his patients had been sent in their time.
During the last few days at home he managed to read a little. There were two books by his bedside. One was an account of the younger years of Lord Melbourne, the early-19th-century statesman and prime minister. (What would they have made of that in Gorokhov, the little town in Volhynia where he was born?) “He writes beautifully,” he said of the author, David Cecil. The other was A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, the anthology edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, which I had brought back for him from America. He read a story by the poet Chaim Grade in which the central character is a follower of the religious movement known as Musar, and it set him reminiscing. Only briefly; he is tired. But he spoke for a moment or two about the founder of the movement, the 19th-century rabbi Israel Salanter, and of the emphasis the Musarists put on morality – on self-examination and good deeds.
In the hospital he was much weaker, and often in pain. The last conversation we had, as opposed to exchanging a few words, was about Khrushchev, Eisenhower, and the shooting down of America’s U-2 spy plane, which had just taken place: he was worried about the consequences. (“They wouldn’t be mad enough to start a war?”) A day or two later, the young doctor who came out from behind the screen around his bed did not really have to say anything: we could read the bad news in his face.
Of the funeral that followed, I remember very little: it was simply something to be gotten through. One incident does stand out, though. On the way back from the cemetery someone introduced me to a small, smiling old woman, and told me that she had been my father’s wet nurse. It seemed incredible, a visitation from a world impossibly remote. But later I reflected that she need not have been more than eighty, and could even have been a year or two younger.
Afterward we “sat shivah,” observing the traditional seven days of mourning, while relatives and friends visited us at home. In some ways I found this a strain. Reciting kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, seemed profoundly right. So did keeping a memorial candle lit for the full seven days. But an elderly relative (not even a close one) had taken charge of the proceedings and insisted we cover the mirrors, which as far as I was concerned introduced a note of spooky superstition; and some of the conversations I was obliged to have with our visitors were either tedious or tense. There were also – a relief, under the circumstances – a few moments of farce. We were presented with a large number of well meant but unwanted gifts, mostly boxes of chocolates, including two containing a brand called Good News.
Work provided a distraction, too. In principle I should have abstained from it; but I had recently begun writing a monthly feature about paperbacks for the Times Literary Supplement, and the next one was due. So every so often I slipped upstairs and banged away at my typewriter, and when the piece was ready I took it around to the TLS by hand. In accordance with the ritual laws of mourning I had stopped shaving, and I showed up at the office with a four-day growth of beard. Today, it would probably be taken for designer stubble, and pass unremarked, but in 1960 I felt I had to explain why.
Some months later we assembled for the consecration of the tombstone. The inscription I had chosen, a verse from the book of Psalms, testified to my father’s upright character. And after that, it was more than 20 years before I saw the cemetery again. When I did, many newer graves had naturally been added. One that caught my eye was that of the East End boxer, Kid Lewis: the inscription on the memorial stone said that he had “taken the count” on such and such a day in 1971. My father’s memorial stone was nearby. It had begun to weather.
Further tributes to John Gross can be read here:
* A wonderful father (Jan. 12, 2011)
* “The Gentleman of Letters” (Jan. 16, 2011)
* “The Pleasure of His Company” (Jan. 23, 2011)
* “Remembering John Gross: friendship flooded the RIBA” (March 25, 2011)
* John Gross’s friends remember him in London and New York (Jan. 10, 2012)
* John Gross on the silver screen (Jan. 10, 2012)