JCR-UK

Swansea Jewish Community

Swansea, South Wales

 

              

         
 


Published in Oxford Menorah: Winter 1999
JCR-UK page created: 21 August 2005
Page reformatted: 22 December 2011

AMIS AND THE ORIENTAL

 By Harold Pollins
 

It has nothing to do with the fact that because I had moved westward from London I must have come from the east. It was 1950 and I had been appointed to a post as part of a research team at the University College of Swansea.  Coleg Prifysgol Abertawe. I soon learned its title in Welsh.

I knew very little about Wales. My first visit had been to the interview which I had not enjoyed. I didn’t think I’d be coming back and didn’t really want to. By chance after the interview, in that summer of 1950, I found myself as a madrich at a Habonim camp in the Wye valley (I think). My main task was to be the handyman/odd-job-man, making the fires for cooking, looking after the latrines. Some of the youngsters at the camp were from Wales and it was there that I first heard, from them, the Welsh hymn Cwm Rhondda, ‘Bread of Heaven’.

During the camp I got a letter or possibly a telegram from home, telling me to phone the college in Swansea.  I walked to the nearest village and phoned. I spoke to the head of the research team, a Yorkshireman. He came, I learned later, from a mining family and had had many jobs, the last being as bus conductor when, in his early twenties, he had been awarded an adult university scholarship.  He chose to go to Cambridge, King’s College no less, where he had rowed in the college boat. But he had retained his accent and also his stereotypical Yorkshire bluntness. It wasn’t meant unkindly, it was just his manner. His message on the phone was that the person they had offered the job to had turned it down and I was next on the list. Somehow it came across that I was very much second-best. Yet either on the spot or after a little thought I accepted.

The Swansea Jewish community was at its height then and I even found myself taking the Habonim Gedud. We went camping at Tongwynlais, a place in the valley north of Cardiff. The old Swansea shul had been destroyed in a wartime air raid and services were held in a chapel belonging to one of the Welsh-language nonconformist denominations. I can now visualise a Rosh Hashanah service when two or three men came in whom I’d never seen before. They spoke to no one else and – it was this that stuck in my mind – they wore flat caps. In South Wales I’d heard them called ‘Dai caps’ (pronounced ‘cups’ or ‘carps’, ‘Dai’ being short for ‘David’ or ‘Dafydd’, and was used colloquially for an ordinary person, a workman.) Other men in the shul wore trilby hats. I have often wondered who they were and have speculated that they worked in one of the local industries. They looked a bit small for steelworkers; perhaps they worked in the mines. I knew that some Jews had worked in them. A pity I didn’t take the opportunity to find out.

I soon got to know people. One was a science lecturer who lived near me. We used to walk to college together. A quiet man, rather pale and a little intense. We chatted amicably. Later I heard that just before I had arrived at Swansea there had been a contretemps in the nearby town of Neath. There had been a public meeting of some Welsh republicans at which the Union Jack had been burnt.  I was mildly surprised to discover that my walking companion had helped to burn it and I think had been charged with some offence or other. Fortunately, the fact that I came from England did not appear to disturb him too much.

The title of this piece refers to relationships with one of the people I met, a lecturer in English called Kingsley Amis. We got on very well and with others spent time in his local, and elsewhere. He was sophisticated and sure of himself, had a beautiful, young wife and was writing a novel. I happened to show him an offprint of an article which another lecturer had given me, on some minor aspect of history. The writer had made the mistake of saying that his (unimportant) subject had been ‘strangely neglected’. I next read the phrase when Amis’s novel, Lucky Jim, was published. It was made use of, quite early in the book.

I wasn’t surprised, after that, to read in his next book a description of some ghastly furniture which was in the room I occupied in lodgings in Swansea. He had seen it at the one and only party I put on – normally they took place at his house. In his Memoirs (see below) he describes various incidents in his life and gives the locations in his novels where he made use of them.

I was at Swansea for three years. Amis and I often talked about Jewish matters, such as novels by American Jews, like Irwin Shaw – that dates it. The new publication, The Jewish Quarterly, began to appear. I showed him the first issue and he wrote a short critical note about Jewish literature which the magazine published.  He claimed to know a little about Jews having met many at his school, the City of London School. One rather bizarre conversation ensued from my current reading in Anglo-Jewish History. I mentioned that there had been in Elizabethan England and in the early 17th century a converso family called Añes, spelled in various ways. I cannot now imagine the context in which I raised the matter. He was interested when I mentioned that the name was spelled variously, one version being, as I recall, Ames or Amis – I haven’t my notes handy to check - and he speculated that his family might have been descended from them. I think his suggestion rested on an ancestor of his, a grandfather I think, having a beard and looking ‘Jewish’. We did not get very far with that topic. It was some bizarre fantasy on his part.

After I left Swansea and went to back to London we corresponded for a time. I found recently a carbon copy of a letter I sent him, a rather tedious thing about Jewish literature, which may perhaps have been the basis for an article I wrote on the subject a bit later. The letters he wrote to me got lost at some point, perhaps when I got married and moved into a smaller house, or during several house-moves later on. A pity. They would have been worth a bob or two. I do have a signed, first edition of Lucky Jim. It contains a personal message to me from him but the book is somewhat soiled and doesn’t have a dust jacket both of which features reduce its value to collectors. The latter, it is well known, do not read books, they only collect them and such commodities should be in pristine condition.

I last saw him in 1961. I remember the year for I was employed on research for the National Coal Board from 1960-2 and my job was field research at collieries. One assignment was in the South Wales coalfield and we stayed with friends from my Swansea years. Lena and I travelled down with Joe, then a few months old.  A party was put on for us and Amis was there; he was to take up a post at Cambridge later that year. Back in London I got on with my life and growing family. We lost touch. When his Memoirs appeared in 1991 I consulted a copy at Blackwell’s but as my name was not in the index I didn’t read it. Coincidentally, while writing this piece I found a copy of it in the withdrawn books section at the Westgate Library. I didn’t mind parting with £1 (along with £1 for a copy of the autobiography of Lady Reading.)  The chapter on Swansea brought back memories and his pen portraits of some of the characters I had known were remarkably accurate.

Our close (temporary) friendship can be gauged from this incident. When my brother Bob got married in 1953 I inveigled Amis into sending a telegram. I wrote it out for him and gave him the money for its cost. As it was read out at the wedding there was an unusual quiet and a gasp or two. ‘Mazel Tov,’ it said, ‘from Harold’s goyishe friends in Swansea.’ If he had put his name to it that would also be worth something.  That year when our academic department at Swansea closed  Amis and Esmond Cleary - a colleague whose friendship has been longer-lasting – saw me off at the railway station, one or possibly both of them, blowing toy trumpets.

As part of our joking relationship he referred to me, not as Jewish, but as ‘The Oriental’.

 

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