The International Literary Quarterly

February 2009


Donald Adamson
Robert Appelbaum
Rosemary Ashton
Sujata Bhatt
Stephen Burt
Rita Dove
Elaine Feinstein
Sophie Judah
John Kinsella
Ron Padgett
Pascale Petit
David Plante
David Shields
Susan Stewart
John Thieme

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Richard Berengarten
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Marilyn Gaull
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 6 Guest Artist: Anthony Whishaw

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Dreaming of Elsewhere (from an autobiography in progress) by Elaine Feinstein  

When the telegram came to tell me I had won an Exhibition to Newnham, I was hiding in the school washrooms to avoid a freezing hockey pitch.  I still remember the first elation, and then, almost at once, a puzzling half-thought: Cambridge will be my escape.

But escape from what exactly?  Mine had not been an unhappy childhood.

My earliest memories are of a semi-detached suburban house on Groby Road, Leicester; a road which led to the outskirts of town past the cemetery, towards a quarry where children were not allowed to play.  My parents came there from Liverpool just after my first birthday, leaving behind a larger house in Arundel Avenue, Bootle. Liverpool was in the grip of the Depression, which had not yet paralysed Leicester.

My mother and father lived together peaceably, though they were very different in background and temperament. She was a gentle, shy creature with a soft voice and a Grammar School education, while he had left school at twelve to be apprenticed  as a cabinet maker.  She was a small, delicate woman and he was powerfully built and, if not exactly handsome - in my adolescence I saw a resemblance to Humphrey Bogart - always ebullient. 

He had set up his own workshop, and I thought of him as rich because he drove a big car and liked to spend money.  He took us to grand hotels and expensive restaurants and enjoyed giving presents. 'Izzy,' my mother would reproach him, because she did the firm's books and knew their financial situation to a penny.  He laughed and shrugged while I gazed up at him with complete trust.

Naturally I adored him.

Once, though, in the Maypole grocery shop close by our house, I was shaken by a brief glimpse into what it meant to run out of money.  I can still smell the sweet tea and smoky odours of bacon sides, and hear my mother say nervously to the shopkeeper: 'We're going off on holiday this evening.  Will next Tuesday be all right?'  And I remember tugging at her sleeve, because I knew it was next week we were leaving for Devon.  When I said as much, my mother's face turned a peculiar red.  Then I realised with horror that she'd been lying because she couldn't pay.  She didn't take my hand as we walked silently home together along Groby Road. 

I was an only child, round-eyed and more shocked by my own mistake than my mother's embarrassment; she was a good, kind woman, but it was my father who stole my affections.  Wickedly, I never felt sorry for her, even though I knew she was often ill.  As soon as I started school, Dad made my breakfast - poached eggs on toast - while she rested.  He always took me there in his car.  And on holiday he enjoyed fairgrounds and seaside piers, roller-coaster rides and booths where you could win fluffy toys.  He watched patiently as I tried to lower a penny mechanical crane over trinkets lying on piles of coloured pebbles, never scooping up so much as a boiled sweet.  In a treasure hunt one afternoon on Skegness Sands we were luckier; we won a miniature boat with white sails.  He was triumphant.

Both my parents came from Russian Jewish families who left Odessa at the end of the nineteenth century to live in Britain.  The resemblance ended there.  Dad's father - Zaida as I was told to call him - was a scholar and a dreamer; his children kept the family timber firm going and my father was very proud of him because he had studied at a Yeshivah and could understand the sacred books.

My mother's family was dominated by Solomon, a small, clean-shaven patriarch, with starched triangles to his white collars and a single rose-cut stone in his tiepin.  He was a cold, scary man, but a shrewd one. He began life in Great Britain as an apprentice glazier, riding around the streets on a bicycle with plate glass under his arm.  By the time I knew him, he was a successful glass merchant whose firm put windows into the Cumberland Hotel in London.  On his rare visits, I could see he disapproved of my father profoundly.

I saw a good deal more of Zaida, who was large and affectionate, with a ginger beard and deep laughter lines round his blue eyes.  I liked to sit on his knee while he told me stories about the sunny Black Sea port of Odessa, where Jews were allowed to enter Russian schools and live wherever they wanted.  Zaida loved to describe the street music, the peddlers and the market stalls. 

As a boy, he had lost the top joint of one of his fingers when left in charge of a circular saw.  He showed me the stump of his smooth, unmarked knuckle.  Soon after that accident, he was sent off to study the arguments of the Talmudic Rabbis in Odessa.  He married there and had to earn the money to feed his wife and child by working on the docks unloading fish; though it may be, as one of my aunts told me, that his wife supported him by working in a factory.

He was not a fastidious man.  His cardigans sagged at the back and he smelled of peppermint and snuff.  He left his cigars half-smoked in ashtrays all round the house when he came to stay with us.  My mother folded her lips tightly as she gathered them up.

Zaida had complete faith in God's protection.  Once I asked him whether he was afraid of dying.  He shrugged and pointed at the ceiling. 'He will look after me,' he said, 'He always has.'  That faith led him to abandon his wood shop in London in the early years of the twentieth century and take his wife and children to Canada, where he hoped to become a farmer.  Perhaps he was remembering Southern Russia, where fruit and vegetables grow easily.  The land he was allocated by the Canadian government, however, was close to Montreal, where heavy snow and ice cover the ground for more than six months of the year.  He also found himself surrounded by distrustful Ukrainian Catholics, by no means enthusiastic to find a Jewish family in their midst.  They were amused at his efforts rather than helpful.

My father, who was four when they arrived in Canada, recalled some moments of sheer magic nevertheless: he liked to tell me how his mother threw boiling sugar out on to the snow which made a delicious brittle toffee.  He was a natural Romantic, and always had a wondering response to the world around him. 

My mother's family was an altogether different breed.  They didn't believe in God or his protection, and they were impatient with the Romantic temperament.  My mother was very proud of her elder brothers, Joseph and Maurice, who took First Class degrees and learned to speak a perfectly inflected standard English.  Both were thin men, with narrow faces, though Jo became redder and more corpulent as he grew older.  Soon after Jo came down from University, he persuaded Solomon that the family name should be changed from Goldstein to Compton.  The change was a move towards assimilation into gentile society.

I thought very little about being Jewish before the war, though I always took days off for Jewish holidays and never went into prayers at the school's morning Assembly.  Until the war broke out, there were not many Jewish families in Leicester and I knew them all.  Some of them were related to me.  My parents played cards with them, usually poker.  I thought being Jewish was like being part of an extended family.  Or, I suppose, a tribe.

How anglicised were we?  My mother in her hat and tweed coat at a bus-stop looked like any other Midlands housewife.  My father, built like a sportsman, was accepted without demur at Glen Gorse Golf Club.  Still, D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in his letters about his dislike of rich Jews at the seaside, would probably have detected something foreign in him.  There were not so many immigrants in Britain then.

My father had nothing but contempt for those who tried to deny their origins.  He liked to go to the Synagogue and sing the familiar tunes on a Saturday morning.  My mother lit candles on a Friday night.  On Passover, I loved the crackly matzos which I ate with butter and apricot jam. I remember, as a very small child, my father told me the story of the Hebrews escape from slavery in Egypt.  His version of the tale absorbed me completely; the account in the Haggadah read later was something of a disappointment.     Still, I enjoyed the game of searching for the afikomen he had hidden, and the reward when I found it.  

Ours was a very mild, almost English allegiance to the old rituals.  No one in the whole community wore the long side-locks or Polish gear of present-day orthodox Jews.  Even my rabbinical Zaida did not expect his wife to wear a sheitel.  My father was a genuine believer, though, and when I confronted him later in life with Evolution and Astronomy, he was not so much assertive as puzzled. 'What can we little human beings know of all that?' he would say. 

The Comptons were socialist and atheist, and found my father's belief in God tiresome, though they were far too polite to argue with him.  I liked them well enough, but loyally accepted my father's opinion of them for many years.  He was particularly dismissive of Annie, a handsome, sophisticated woman, Matron of a hospital near Durham, because she was a spinster.  Sometimes she shared a bedroom with me and I was amazed by her underwear of lilac lace, very unlike the functional white underclothes I had seen on my mother.  In turn, she remembered my mother's feminine prettiness as a girl, and was disappointed in my stronger, more foreign features, once sadly remarking that my looks resembled those of my father's family.

I was not anxious about that resemblance or my Jewishness, but in my Junior School some time in 1937 or 1938 I was given a brusque awakening.  I remember the smell of wet coats hanging up on the low hooks of the Junior Cloakroom, so it was probably just after lunch.  I had won one of the silver medals the Form Teacher awarded every week for good work.  As I was pulling off my coat, with the medal proudly pinned to my tunic, an unpleasantly red-faced girl, whose name I can still remember but won't use, came up to me and sneered: 'My father says you are nothing but a dirty Jew.'  I was in floods of tears as I told my father after school.  He laughed away her words, but I heard my parents talking about what action to take long after I had gone to bed.  My mother would not consider a change of school. 

She had taught me to read before I was four and I took to it so passionately that she wrote to her brother Jo to ask advice about which were the best schools.  Jo wrote back that she should save her money since, if I had any intelligence, it would come out whatever school I was sent to.  In spite of her admiration for Jo, my mother ignored this advice and chose an excellent Junior School at the other side of Leicester, for which I needed to wear a dark velour hat with a smart crest on it, and a navy blue coat.

Most of the girls there came from middle-class backgrounds, but it was a world in which my mother could pass easily; her whole upbringing had fitted her to do so.  And it was always she who came to the end of term Parents' Days - in tweeds, court shoes and wearing gloves.  She was, my Form Teacher told me after I had earned a reprimand for some piece of disgraceful behaviour, a 'perfect lady' who did not deserve such a daughter.

My father was not enthusiastic about Open Days, but he collected me from school every day in his Armstrong Siddeley; the big, heavy car smelled attractively of real leather and had a walnut dashboard.  It was somehow redolent of the man who drove it.  I watched for him from a curved metal seat in the school railings.

He was often a little late, but always reliably turned up until one day, when I was six or seven, he failed to appear.  I stared down the hill, looking for the V-shaped nose of his car with complete confidence, long after all the teachers had left and the school gates closed.  I can still remember my blind panic as I realised I would have to take two trams to the other side of town to get home.  The conductors, surprised to see such a young child on her own, let me travel for free but I was snivelling by the time I walked up Groby Road to the family door.

An ambulance was standing outside.  When my father saw me, he looked at his watch in astonishment, then got into the ambulance to join my mother.  Seeing this, I burst into wild tears, and the cousin who was there to look after me thought I was distressed to see my mother taken away.  I was too ashamed to explain, if indeed I allowed myself to know, that I was weeping because my father had put my mother first.  In fact, a foetus was lodged in a fallopian tube and she had haemorrhaged badly.  She was lucky to be alive, but there were to be no more children.

For all her delicacy, my mother was welcomed warmly into my father's family; indeed his sisters liked to tease my father she was far too good for him.  When we drove up north to visit them in Manchester, they made a pet of her.  She was uncomfortable with their praise, and quietly miffed by their comments on my olive complexion, skinny body and habit of retreating into a book.  For my part, I found their huge bulk, and the noise in the house, alarming.  They piled food on my plate: latkas, stuffed meats, roast potatoes.  I could never eat all of it.

My Manchester aunts had a tough independence which went back to the old stetl world, where women often earned a living for the family while their husbands studied holy books.  One of them, Clara, ran a wood shop all her life; her husband, Sam, was a commercial traveller who told amusing stories.  The youngest, Kitty, had huge eyes and straight flapper hair.  She ran a dress shop and supported a husband who had been invalided out of the army with tuberculosis. Leah, however, married a school teacher.  She had a single, beautiful child all three sisters mothered. 

On Southport Sands, I watched them dive straight into the freezing, grey sea and envied their muscles and protective layers of fat.  I turned blue in the cold, and had to sit miserably in a pullover at the edge of the sea even though I could swim well enough.

Sometimes my mother's brothers came to visit us in Leicester.  She was closest to Frank, who wore a dark blue blazer, played excellent golf and had something of the appearance of Bing Crosby, with a charming smile barely repressed at the centre of his lips.  My father used to taunt Frank about the length of time he spent in the bathroom flossing his teeth, or the meticulous care he took defrosting the windows of his car in winter before setting off.  But I liked Frank's superb white teeth, the way he always smelled of lavender and his superb two-seater sports car too.  Maurice, a Permanent Under Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, visited more rarely, and Jo only stayed in touch by letter.  None were family men.  Maurice had a happy marriage, but I remember him saying the world was too brutal to bring a child into it.  (He had a son nevertheless).  Frank never married.  Leslie's first marriage broke up, and he let his sister Annie bring up his daughter.

Apart from looking after my father's secretarial work, my mother's life centred on the home, and organising Bridge afternoons for charity; she baked prettily iced cakes, apple pies and coconut pyramids.  I am told she played Bridge with great skill, but I always resisted the chance to learn the game.  Quite early on, a steely determination grew inside me not to turn into her.  Underneath my round black velour hat and behind the shyly smiling face of my first photographs was a fierce spirit of which my mother would certainly have disapproved had she guessed it.  Like many only children, I preferred to sit and daydream of a more adventurous life.

Just before the war, we left our little house in Groby Road.  My father struck a deal with a builder for land in Stoneygate, the smarter south side of the city, and there designed a new detached house of his own in Elmsleigh Avenue.  I remember the delight he took putting in oak floors and wooden doors, the way he chose the colours of the walls to match the huge tiled fireplaces: the russet gold of the dining room, the pale lilac of the front sitting room.

The year before the war began, when we were still in Groby Road, my father dug an Andersen shelter in the garden: a dank, unhealthy place, he decided. War broke out when we were already in Elmsleigh Avenue, and there he put heavy sandbags around the washhouse and fitted it with bunks and electric light.  He did not want an underground shelter to wreck the look of our garden, which had been landscaped to his plan.  There were trees of Victoria plums and apples at one end, and a sunken lawn surrounded by a rockery of alpine plants outside the French windows. 

It was a source of some irritation to him that I preferred to play in the patch of wild ground beyond our fence, where there were pear trees to climb and grass came up to my armpits.  My younger cousins often joined me in the games I invented.  We made bows and arrows which we shot into the redcurrant bushes, or crawled on the ground like Indian trackers with the dry powdery earth hurting our eyes.

As war began, I was a nine year old tomboy stupidly excited by the drama of underground shelters, blackout curtains and streets without lights.  In school there was air-raid practice, and when the alarm sounded we formed orderly lines and walked over the hockey pitch into concrete bunkers, all of us carrying satchels of goodies in case we were forced to stay in the shelters for a long time.  I particularly remember the packets of Sun Pat raisins my mother tucked into mine.  Even now the taste of those fruity chocolate blobs evokes a memory of under-the-earth smells, and a heart-pounding excitement which never became terror because there were in fact no daylight raids on Leicester.

The first winter of the war nothing much seemed to be happening.  My father put his car away, because petrol was rationed, and we went everywhere on bicycles.  On a Saturday we sometimes went, in a great crowd of poker school players and their children, to Variety shows at the Palace Theatre in the centre of town: Murray & Mooney, Max Miller.  I didn't really understand the jokes, but I can remember the moonlight and the stars and the laughter on the long walk home up London Road.

When the wailing sound of the sirens began at night, however, I was suddenly very frightened.  The bombs on Leicester were mainly dumped by German crews who had failed to find the munitions factories of Coventry, but they were just as deadly and someone we knew was killed in a raid nearby.  My mother prepared thermos flasks of tea and we went into the washhouse and shivered there, obediently, half-asleep, until the All-Clear.

There were other changes.  Wartime suddenly made Leicester into a cosmopolitan city.  The provincial Jewish families of Leicester soon found European strangers living alongside them: German doctors and dentists who had retaken their exams after coming to England, entrepreneurs who set up factories, Viennese ladies who could hardly speak English but considered themselves inexplicably superior to local families.  Jewish market traders evacuated themselves to the safer Midlands.  Their children were lively, fearless and not altogether respectable; they wore suits with padded shoulders, and combed their hair into DA haircuts.  My parents gave one of our spare bedrooms to a refugee girl called Ilse from Breslau; and the other to a young boy from Hackney.  I am not sure I was very close to either of them, but when my parents went out for an evening we often played childish sexual games together. 

Once America entered the war, loose-limbed, casual young soldiers turned out to be Jewish too.  My father brought them back to eat with us on a Friday night.  In those years, everything about America was glamorous.  I kept my radio tuned to AFN even while doing my homework, loving the relaxed voices of the presenters as much as the music.  I read Raymond Chandler and used to daydream of becoming an elegant woman in his dark world.  Leicester now held the stuff of books and films, an elsewhere that could be found most vividly in the Palais de Danse, where I learned to dance as Americans did, and enjoyed their eager fumblings in the dark.

The people I most wanted to like me cared only about clothes, gambling and sex.  The girls I knew best were Jewish children of my parents' friends.  One was the daughter of a famous publican who promoted boxing matches.  Another went to the Wyggeston with me; a pretty girl with an enviably tiny waist.  We shared intimate sexual secrets, humour and hypochondria.

My face was too long, and my eyes large and round in my face for Hollywood good looks, but I was never a wallflower.  When the war ended in Europe, we danced wildly around the Clock Tower and I remember kissing soldiers with a guiltless and promiscuous passion.  The first boy I loved, and saw regularly, though, was a Londoner from the East End, with broad Slav cheekbones and a lovely smile.  He wore drape suits with padded shoulders, and was quick witted though he had little education.  When he went into the Air Force, I took up with a fair haired, very slender young man much older than I was, who had a pronounced resemblance to Danny Kaye.  He worked in his father's firm, but aspired to the stage and indeed found a place on it after we parted.


One passion, though, I never attempted to bring into this after-school life.

My own first poems were made up as I bounced a tennis ball in Groby Road, and then against our garage in Elmsleigh Avenue.  I showed one to my Form Teacher in the Junior School and she puzzled over my handwriting until I took the book back and said, 'It's a poem.  It sounds like this.'

The excitement of seeing that poem in the school magazine hooked me for life in an addiction as dangerous as any other.  I was soon sitting up and reading poetry aloud by the one-bar heater in my bedroom; and while other girls dreamed of princes or Hollywood stars, I dreamed of dead poets.

I wrote my first novel when I was about ten, on plain paper, securing the pages with my mother's stapler.  I can't remember the story, but when my mother was curious, I let her read it.  She expressed some dismay at the title - The Gatecrashers - and wanted me to understand that a gatecrasher was a very bad thing to be; the word meant pushing into a party when no one had invited you.  I was impatient with her criticism.  To break into some other and more exciting world seemed exactly what I wanted to do.

I always preferred the dramatic world I found in books to my own comfortable home and perhaps such ingratitude deserved punishment.  In the very same year I won my Exhibition to Cambridge, the life I had taken for granted began to collapse around me.

Looking back now, I can see how inevitably the disaster unfolded.  When the lease on my father's factory in Clinton Street expired, he was sent a huge bill for dilapidations which he indignantly refused to pay.  The rent remained low, however, and a more calculating man would have seen the advantages of negotiation.  Instead, he confidently bought a plot of land on the south side of Leicester where there was planning permission for new factories.  Once again there were drawings to pore over, foundations to tramp around, and euphoria.  Unfortunately, it soon became clear that my father's architect had seriously misjudged the cost of the building.  Moreover, everything took far longer than he had promised, and my father's capital began to melt away.  Even when the machinery was in, problems continued.  Import restrictions were beginning to be lifted, and the Czechs made far cheaper bentwood chairs than we could.  First the factory had to be sold, and then our lovely house.

When I first read Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge in the Fifth Form, I immediately recognised my father in Henchard; not as drunk, or surly, but as a stubborn man who made decisions based on emotion rather than reason.  I cried when Henchard's planned feast was ruined by rain as if my own father had suffered the disappointment.

All my childhood I had a recurrent nightmare.  In it, my father was gallantly fighting off a man with a shiny knife, holding the blade away from his throat, with one big hand securing the man's wrist.  But the man with the knife was stronger.  I always awoke screaming before the blade reached my father's neck but the terror of it remained with me.

My father wasn't broken when he lost his factory.  Even as I feared for him, I loved him for that.  He still had a cabinet-maker's skill in his hands. But he had lost his dream.  Elsewhere was my own dream, and in a way I was dreaming for him as I went up to Cambridge in 1949.  And perhaps I was dreaming for my mother, too, though I did not then acknowledge it.