These thoughts are to do with an exploration into the question of my identity.
I apologise in advance if that is too abstruse, written as it is in an impersonal way. But the fact is my journey is far from impersonal; the question ‘Who am I?’ has been something that gnawed and bothered me since a life changing event fundamentally strained and broke who I thought I was. A long sentence. I don’t like long sentences, yet my life has been a life sentence.
How did this happen and what has been my mental journey of identity?
Well since you ask I will tell you!
I guess the ongoing storm of icy stabs to the heart of my happiness started when, with the death of my beloved Polish Grandpa, we moved from the suburban large family home near Manchester to the leafier suburban middle-class home of Sale Cheshire. War had broken out in 1939 and my parents deemed it better that I go with the local school to the Valleys of North Wales where the German Heinkels and Dorniers had little interest in me. To be so precipitously abandoned aged 7 was devastating and etched into my memory.
‘Never mind’, said Miss Bullock, the Headmistress, ‘Your parents have given you half a crown!’ Why, a King’s ransom and obviously fair compensation for dumping me 100 miles from home.
Note the sarcasm, a trait from my Dad.
But I survived and came to enjoy the mountains, valleys and sylvan woodlands of Wales. Why even the Welsh Gardner told me, ‘I vow you are the best boy in Wales!’ This helped restore my self-esteem, that I was valuable in the eyes of an another.
At the age of 10 I was further unceremoniously ‘dumped’ without consultation in the Junior House of a fairly well known Public School. For USA readers Public School means fee paying private Boarding School. Don’t ask!
The House Master was a certain Mr. Milliken, a towering colossus with short cropped iron grey hair, monstrously obese and a penchant for stealing our Ration Cards to provide him and Mrs. M. with feasts Royal.
I had only been there about a week when after giving the class instructions to attend to a written exercise he left the classroom to hide behind the door. I being a lively lad began playing with my pencil pretending it was an enemy bomber. ‘Wheee – Bang’ went the bombs. The door opened and the monstrous ‘Hoggy’, that was what we called him, entered and summoned me from the class. I was led into a small adjoining study with a small fireplace and a Brass Fireguard.
‘Hold out your hand’ demanded the ogre.
‘Shall I close my eyes?’ I asked, thinking I was going to get a present.
‘If you like’ grunted his bellicosity.
I waited when with a feeling of surprise and terrible pain I screamed out as the cane came whistling down full force on my hand.
No explanation. Nothing, except, ‘Hold out your hand!’
There then followed a grim pantomime as every time he brought the cane down I pulled my hand back so he missed. Then after about the fifth attempt he compensated bringing the cane down nearer my body. Too far and hit my wrist on the radial and ulnar nerves.
The pain was excruciating and screaming in agony I staggered back to the classroom holding my injured hand under my arm. I remember to this day the classroom full of little boys, faces white with shock and fear.
That, plus the ridicule by the assistant house master for my goofing around calling me ‘Billy Goat Byron’, sealed my identity as a victim whose only purpose in life was to obey.
The school was Methodist Christian based on the teaching of John Wesley. Not sure what his teachings of Christianity were but I feel confident they didn’t include brutalising little boys into obedience.
My next shattering blow to my identity occurred a few years later still under rule of his Hogship.
Someone had written in my autograph album
‘Thus, saithe Moses, all Jew shall have long noses
All except Aaron
And he shall have a square’un.’
Side splitting stuff I agree and on home vacation I showed it to my mother, all unsuspecting.
Her face was like stone as she coldly with some anger retorted ‘Well you’re Jewish!’
To say I was thunderstruck would be like saying The Hog was the Risen Lord.
‘Do you mean to say we don’t believe in Jesus?’ I asked bewildered.
Perhaps it dawned on her that omitting to give me any instruction, schooling or any exposure whatsoever to a Jewish Institution and having had an exclusively Christian scholastic upbringing I might be a little confused.
She just turned away and never mentioned it again.
But the seeds of existential chaos had been sown.
Later in the Senior house where the mores of attainment were Rugby, Cricket, The Cadet Corps and imposition of fines and caning for such heinous crimes as having the wrong button done up on one’s jacket I had the final jolt to my sense of who I was. My identity was sealed.
I had started a musical education and was inducted into the choir. I loved the Chapel’s Sunday evening service where the light filtered through the stained-glass windows, the candles were bright with the slow swaying of a Bolero and the organ played beautiful melodic hymns.
I was transfixed in a kind of glory that never have I experienced since.
Never mind what mother said, I was a true Christian.
Then the hammer blow.
My uncle Tony who was married to my mother’s sister – Aunty Corrie – wrote to the headmaster, out of the blue, to express his outrage that a Jewish boy was receiving a Christian education.
He insisted, can you believe it? that I have a Jewish education!
So, I was yanked out of the choir, thrown out of chapel and made to sit in the cold gloomy Library and study books on Jewishness that Uncle Tony had kindly sent.
Difficult to imagine a crasser piece of arrogant insensitivity.
I stuck it for a month then just went back to Chapel. Not to the choir but in with the boys.
So, the tinder of racism had been lit.
‘Dirty money grubbing Jew’ was whispered.
‘Watch your pockets, look out, the Jew is about.’
Then in the dormitory the whispering began:
‘Hitler was right!’
‘My Dad says the Jew’s are to blame.’
And then the worst of it all. My prime tormentor, my only tormentor, was a big ugly brainless lout called Br*st*w. He picked on the one thing that designated me a Jew and was the badge of shame I could not avoid: My nose.
His heart piercing term for me was, ‘Hook nosed Horror’ which he repeated with interminable glee.