In Chekhov’s The Seagull Dr. Dorn is asked which is his favorite foreign city. Genoa, he replies: in the evening the streets are full of strolling people and you became part of the crowd, body and soul. “You start to think there really might be a universal spirit,” he says. I remembered Dr. Dorn when I was discovering Genoa in October. Then it suddenly came to me that I had been to the city before. Genoa was where my family embarked for the Far East, when I was eighteen months old, fleeing the Nazis.
I don’t know about the universal spirit, though. I’m reading Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 by Ian Black. I had reached 1953 when at midnight a text pinged in from an old friend: “Who will cross the street when we pass? Who will hide us in the attic?”
Who, me? When did it come to this? I remember a hum in Britain about “antisemitism in the Labour Party” when I was writing my play about a Viennese Jewish family who perished in the Holocaust, but there was nothing “timely” about Leopoldstadt when it opened in London nearly four years ago. Antisemitism was not a hot topic. When elderly Jews, often weeping, thanked me for “telling our story,” I felt a bit surprised that the story still needed telling. But they knew something I didn’t. By the time the play moved to New York in September 2022, antisemitism was the hook for every interviewer, and by the end of the run last July there were two extra security men patrolling the theater.
Six months later and 3,000 miles nearer home, the security guard at shul advised my friend to hide her Star of David if she was going to the West End. At midnight in a village in Dorset there seemed nothing I could do but return to my book, where it was still 1953, and where 700,000 Arabs had been expelled from Palestine with consequences that were still to come.
Some good news for a change. According to the papers, I am now less likely to get dementia because we have a dog, our first, a mutt rescued a year ago from a Greek dump. For her this has been a spectacular reversal of fortune. She has a knitted red coat, a yellow raincoat, several soft toys and a passport with her name on it. The name, Koko, came with her. It’s not a name I would have chosen, so, not wishing to confuse her, I call her Cocoa and she is none the wiser.
“Pedestrian on motorway” warned an electric sign on the M4 as we drove west, and in no time at all the traffic became a solid stationary mass stretching back for who knows how many miles for an hour and a half. “Stop Oil,” said my wife, but she was wrong. There had indeed been a pedestrian on the motorway. Police and ambulance vehicles squeezed through to deal with the incident. When things got moving again, we were able to see that the incident left no trace. Possibly a tragedy had occurred, but it seemed surprising that the police had been obliged to close all four lanes for the duration. One of the scouts who had been sent forward from stuck cars told us sagely: “They have to take measurements.” I’m afraid I had, for the thousandth time, the selfish thought that there is no inconvenience the authorities won’t put us to for the sake of conveniencing themselves. A case of health and safety, I suppose.
What was Nigel Farage thinking of? I assumed it was the million and a half pounds, but I’m told that’s wrong: it wasn’t the money, it was the optics. Really? The idea that plummeting dignity will enhance a chap’s standing as a serious politician seems about as likely as the Rector of Stiffkey advancing to a bishopric. I’m not convinced. Who, after all, was paying whom?
But now I’m wondering if the Rector of Stiffkey (mauled to death by a lion called Freddie in a seaside attraction) has gone the way of the clerihew. I made an allusion to this pithy verse-form (“George the Third/ Ought never to have occurred./ One can only wonder/ At so grotesque a blunder”) in a play years ago and was astonished that not a single member of the company had heard of the clerihew. The play is now in performance again at the Hampstead Theater, and even in Hampstead I can’t find anyone who tends the flame of Edmund Clerihew Bentley. I give up. The line has been cut.
In memoriam E.C. Bentley, Who did not go gently Into etcetera, adieu — The onlie begetter of the clerihew.