The Jewish Chronicle
My mother, our history, my book
MY MOTHER swore at me in the limo all the way to my father’s funeral. She fell out of the car when we got to the crematorium and heckled the rabbi. Though it was exquisitely painful at the time, I realised many years later it would make a great scene for my novel.
It is not so much that great art is necessarily born of pain, more that the painful parts of life seem so much easier to bear if you can repurpose them. As the kind of unifying family occasion that I aspired to, my father’s funeral was rubbish. But as material from which to fashion a work of fiction it had potential.
It’s not either that I ever saw writing as a form of therapy. Straight after university, I’d been indentured to a local newspaper as a cub reporter and learned the craft of journalism. After that, whatever came out of my typewriter was primarily intended for an audience. But I came to fiction after decades as a TV producer and quickly realised that creating a novel has a lot in common with my day job. A director shoots far more footage than he or she can ever use so the critical part of making a documentary becomes how you select and organise what are called “rushes” in the edit.
I came to see that life — its big, grand moments, its little insights, its characters, frustrations and comedy, are the equivalent of rushes for my writing — they are raw materials that can be used in a book. What differentiates writing fiction for an audience from writing as therapy is — hopefully — the skill one brings to bear in shaping it. Just like many other writers from Dickens onwards, I’ve used bits of my experience in my novel, but only where it fits. Plenty more is made up, confected, synthesised. And I can only hope I’ve done a reasonable job at hiding the joins.
That Birmingham crematorium just after Easter and Pesach 1992 was a low point in all our lives, but not the lowest. Two weeks later, my mother tried to commit suicide and did a pretty good job. Luckily my cousin rang just as she was drifting off. At the time, I had a four-month-old baby, no job and a derelict Victorian pile in Hackney.
The mortgage rate was 15 per cent — and the only consolation was that, with inflation running high, at least the value of our debt was declining sharply. Trying to persuade my mother to cling on to life was a challenge I didn’t need and handled badly because I was still too angry with her for things that happened in the past.
Angry and yet sort of in love. Psychologists will tell you that a baby’s first love object along with the breast is its mother, and I’m sure that was true for me — the term love/hate could have been coined for me and Edith. Tall, imperious, chain-smoking, often drunk — and, worst of all, foreign, she was the queen of embarrassing mums. But, at the same time, other mums seemed less vivid — they were colourless by comparison.
She spoke correct English overlaid with a thick German Hungarian accent, and though she favoured Eau de toilette by Madame Rochas, it was usually overpowered by the smell of booze. Her larder was always full and her heart overflowing. As a character for fiction, she was really rather wonderful, but my hand was already poised to start writing before I even realised that.
Born Edith Muller, she’d survived the war in Budapest by hiding in a convent and eventually escaped the Russian occupation on forged papers her parents managed to acquire on the black market. Aged 18, she was a strikingly beautiful young woman carrying a single suitcase and a violin made by a pupil of Stradivarius. She managed to survive for 18 months in Paris with barely enough money for food. Nominally signed up to the Sorbonne as a law student, when an old family friend invited her to visit Cardiff she packed her bag and left. Technically, she
was permitted into this country on the back of an invitation to study at the Guildhall School of Music, which I still have in my possession.
As was common in those days when connections mattered more than qualifications, a musician known to her family had recommended Edith’s talents without ever having heard her play. He told me later that, when he eventually heard her, he was impressed at the accuracy of his own testimonial.
But the Guildhall was not to be. As soon as she arrived in Cardiff she met my father, Jindi, whose family’s Berlin factory had been transferred to South Wales before the war as Aero Zipp thanks to the prescience of my grandmother’s second husband Joachim Koppel. Edith and my father married within six weeks of their first encounter.
In suburban Cardiff, the émigré community had reconstructed the Kaffee Haus society they knew from their beloved Continent. Thus, my home-life often resembled a scene from The Godfather, minus the machine guns. Heavily-jowled Mittel European men and women sat around smoking and drinking thick black coffee, while eating rich cakes laced with ground almonds.
They seemed to be always at the bridge table, arguing in a mixture of German and English while the violinist David Oistrakh played Mendelssohn on the gramophone.
Why would that make me want to write fiction? I can trace it back to the moment when I started school and realised that I’d come from a place that was different in a way that was simply impossible to talk about. I harboured a huge sense of pride mixed with embarrassment at my polyglot, ragtag family with its collection of artists, musicians and engineers who all seemed so alien to the world I encountered outside our front door.
We had a secret life that seemed special and yet underneath it all was pretty dysfunctional too, because so many of our relatives had been wrenched from their homes when they were young. Whether they admitted it or not , there were a lot of psychological issues bubbling below the surface, which made life quite intense but also gave it a great sense of drama. I romanticised my family long before I thought of committing them to fiction.
As the children of immigrants, my generation shared a mixed identity — we were half-continental and half-British but knew how to pass.
My oldest cousin was the first to see this. The story goes that, at the age of three, he told his parents “I’m not a German boy any more, now I’m going to be an English boy,” and thereafter spoke only English. Maybe that’s why those of us who came after spoke German badly if at all though we heard it every day at home. Why did our parents not encourage us to be fluent in a second language? It certainly wasn’t because they associated everything German with evil. In fact, my parents seemed to revere Germany as a place where industry was run properly and therefore goods were manufactured to a high standard. They admired German engineering, food and efficiency with an odd lack of anger. It was too difficult to reject Germans en masse because my dad was one.
At school, we were simply expected to blend in and I must have known instinctively that my continental-flavoured home-life wouldn’t mix well with the external world of Cardiff and the village of Rhiwbina where I grew up. If a boy could call me a Nazi on the basis that my dad was German without anybody trying to correct him, it suggested to me that, even at the age of eight or nine, I understood my background and its historical context in a way that my peers simply did not.
On TV, it was the great era of the war film about bouncing bombs and brave British Tommies, usually played by Kenneth More or Anthony Quayle, breaking out of Colditz or reaching for the skies. For my playmates, the war certainly wasn’t about Jews and, with four of us in the school, nobody much knew what to make of us anyway. In the end, I divided my life into two completely separate halves, just as my parents did their Jewish and nonJewish friends.
I’ve thought long and hard about what drove me to write the kind of book that I have, and I think it comes from a deep need to explain myself and the world I come from. I’d spent so many years trying to blend in, that when I tried to work out what the nature, style and subject would be for a book that only I could write, I had to do that by delving into my family’s shared and troubled past.
A review of Gaby Koppel’s ‘Reparation’ published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press, will appear in next week’s JC.
At school the four Jewish pupils had to blend in