Wasting Our Time
Photograph by Fin Fahey
by Jenny Diski
In spite of The Poet and me being pretty old, we’re still young enough to remember from our childhood being told off for watching too much television and not, like the parents, making our own entertainment. That claim always makes me think of a small crowd gathered around an upright piano singing along and in harmony to the popular songs, provided on sheet music, of the day. It’s a very Edwardian image, more fitted to grandparents. Or at least The Poet’s grandparents, who is from proper middle-class English and Scottish stock. I imagine they amused themselves by playing bridge at parties, or playing classical music on the piano or cello. Not that jolly round the piano down the pub singsong of my imagination, which is not the heritage of either of us.
I have no idea how my grandparents entertained themselves in the stetl, or as itinerant sellers and providers of services. Plenty of songs, and Yiddish theatre but I imagine that would be for the wealthier Jews of Eastern Europe which my grandparents weren’t. Then, having taken the ship that had them arrive in London’s East End, rather than Liverpool or New York, where it seems to my brief memory of them, they kept themselves going by recreating their old world as much as they could. Speaking in Yiddish, keeping up religious and social traditions. Actually, I doubt that they thought much about entertainment, but when they weren’t working overtime tailoring or running a cafe in Petticoat Lane market, they – at any rate my grandmother – Bubba – came round to our flat and cooked special Jewish/Eastern European treats from the old country. For me, that meant bubbelehs, a word that bubbled up in my mind as The Poet and I discussed childhood food. I didn’t even know if it was a real word or something my memory or my Bubba invented because it sounded like my name for her. The Poet, being a man of the word, went to check in Florence Greenberg, the Bubba of Jewish cookery, and then double-checked with Claudia Roden, the more sophisticated matriarch of Jewish cuisine. There they were. Bubbelehs, not just a private name for the delicious treat Bubba always cooked when she came to visit, but the pancakes of suddenly Proustian importance, made simply from matzo meal and egg, moulded into patties, fried and then dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Food treats weren’t much part of The Poet’s childhood. He is more likely to recall having to sit at the dining table in front of a plate of overcooked meat and vegetables, which back in the 1950s was the way of English cookery, until he had eaten every awful mouthful. Sometimes, being a stubborn soul, he would be sitting there from lunch until tea-time, when sheer persistence eventually won the day and he was sent to his room. I definitely had the better food experiences from my nostalgic post-immigrant family.
But his English-inflected childhood, the eldest of five siblings, living in a large rambling house by the sea near Liverpool was in other ways, to my mind, idyllic. Roaming through unused rooms, cellars and attic of the big house, rambling the day long on the seashore finding jellyfish and building Robinson Crusoe shelters, owning a small rowing boat and putting out to sea, investigating tide pools, keeping jars of pond and garden creatures, snails, tadpoles, water boatmen, in his bedroom. All this sounds like the books I borrowed from the library and read avidly, of alien children who were properly English as I knew I wasn’t really. Books about middle-class children whose explorations in vast houses and country landscapes led them to all kinds of adventures. Through cupboards to other lands, solving mysteries that defied the police, creating theatrical dramas performed in huge living rooms in front of great log fires. There were children without parents because they were busy elsewhere, or they had died in the war, often they were living with amiable absent-minded uncles, or complete strangers as evacuees from the war. There might be mention of homesickness or sadness, but it was always subsumed by their life of imaginative play and adventure. At any rate, they were free to range widely and wildly in the world. The Poet talks about his childhood and I can only imagine it as being between the covers of books.
My world was much more constrained. A tiny flat, just two small rooms in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the ‘schmutter district’ that so many Jewish immigrants and their children worked in. An urban childhood of pavements and narrow blank corridors, just as magical and exciting, actually, as the real space of the English childhood, but darker and more enclosed, with parents who were inescapable, bearing down on their single inescapable child, each of us always aware of the other. Me always watched or known about, playing secret games inside my head; The Poet out of sight for hours, making his own way about the real world. The Poet now craves large houses with high ceilings, I am much more comfortable in the house we actually have, a small, former railway-workers’ terraced house, two small rooms up and two down and a long narrow garden leading down to the sidings where the trains pass en route to Ely and also stop to be cleaned. I’m very happy with the containing smallness of the little house, with low ceilings and rooms no larger than 3.5 meters square. Partly it’s because I’m small and he’s large, so space is differently defined, but also there’s a principle born into each of us in childhood about how much space we need to have around us to feel comfortable. He feels claustrophobic, I feel protected, for all my envy of his storybook English childhood.
I don’t know why we were always being told off about watching too much television. As I write, it seems that we were always busy in our different environments, inventing clubs with only a single member in my case, with the full complement of siblings in The Poet’s case; exploring landscape in The Poet’s childhood, investigating shadows and what happened when the corridors turned the corner, in mine. Still we did watch television and can spend enjoyable hours recalling the kids’ programmes we watched, even more satisfying because we can confirm it with the dozens of internet sites devoted to the TV of the 1950s. Our children, all very adult now, don’t watch as much TV as we do – mocking the worst, being surprised by the good. So we haven’t had a chance to become our own parents and complain about them not making their own entertainment. Even the grandchildren, who do watch children’s television are easily distracted by their mountains of Lego or colouring books. And truth to tell, only the other day the daughter phoned while we were in the middle of a cop show and wondered why on earth we spend our time together watching crap on the television. We read and write books all day long, and there are no corridors or seashore to explore where we are in the world, and at our age. We are probably the only generation to be told off for wasting our spare time by both our forebears and our offspring. But we still have enough time to tell each other stories of our strangely contrasting childhoods.
Piece crossposted with This and That Continued.
Originally published in Swedish in Goteborgs-Posten.
Cover image by Drew Leavey