On the origins of ‘Pomeranski’, by Gerald Jacobs

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Today we are delighted to be taking part in a short blog tour for the novel ‘Pomeranski’ by Gerald Jacobs, just published by Quartet Books.

Gerald Jacobs is the literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle. His book Sacred Games was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1995, Penguin in 1996 and re-issued by Faber in 2011. He published Nine Love Letters with Quartet in 2016. He lives in London.

Gerald has written a guest post about his novel for us. Over to Gerald…

On the origins of Pomeranski, by Gerald Jacobs

Both of my parents died in the second decade of the 21st century, my father at the end of 2011 and my mother at the end of 2016.  My previous book, Nine Love Letters, came out just in time for my mother to hold it in her hands and glance through it. It was a special book for me — my first novel. Before then, I had written exclusively non-fiction.

All of this propelled me into the new, second novel, Pomeranski, set in a place and time — Brixton in the 1950s and ’60s — of which I have colourful and youthful memories. And, while it is a work of fiction in which all the principal characters are invented, the atmosphere is totally authentic.

For example, quite a few events within the plot of Pomeranski take place in, or emanate from, the ‘Excelsior’ shopping arcade. This is a lightly disguised version of an actual arcade in the heart of Brixton Market where my parents had a jewellery shop. But the novel’s main protagonist, Benny Pomeranski, and his wife, Bertha — who own a dress shop in the Excelsior — are not based on my father and mother.

Similarly, the characters with exotic nicknames — ‘Sam the Stick’, ‘Fancy Goods Harry’, ‘Spanish Joe’ etc — are derived from my own imagination but they clearly arrived there from memories of various real-life individuals in and around Brixton Market during my boyhood who were known by their nicknames.

Benny Pomeranski himself is known as ‘Benny the Fixer’ but also as ‘the Macher’  — a Yiddish word meaning ‘big shot’. And there is also Maxie the Ganoff — Yiddish for ‘thief’. Which again is authentic; in my memory, most of the arcade’s tradesmen were Jewish and the local banter was liberally threaded with Yiddish wisecracks, most of them denigratory.

In addition, there are roles at the fringe of things for real-life people as themselves, including Ruth Ellis, famously the last woman to be hanged in Britain after she had shot her then boyfriend outside a pub in Hampstead. And there is a brief walk-on part for a man calling himself Ras Prince Monolulu (almost certainly not his real name) who vividly, and indeed insistently imprinted himself on the memory. He claimed to be an Ethiopian prince with a Jewish wife back in Africa and he wandered around Brixton Market with his evocative call: ‘I gotta horse!’ He was a street racing tipster well before the legalisation of betting shops.

One of the book’s deeper themes is self-education and the diversion of moral intelligence into the unconventional and the illegal — the self-taught and the self-made. Another is the seemingly ingrained human motivation for revenge.

But these are not dealt with theoretically. All in Pomeranski is enacted — a major thread throughout the narrative is a passionate love affair; others include criminal rivalry, professional boxing, and the nature of Jewishness. There is also a significant Jamaican sub-plot and at least one murder.          

Gerald Jacobs

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Annabel will be reviewing Pomeranski for Shiny New Books soon.

Gerald Jacobs, Pomeranski (Quartet Books, 2020). 978-0704374768, 256pp., paperback original. 

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