Review by Annabel
Gerald Jacobs is literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle. He grew up in and around Brixton in the 1950s and 1960s, and Pomeranski, his second novel, is an affectionate tribute to the South London of his youth. He wrote a guest post about the origins of his novel for Shiny New Books last month here.
The novel begins in 2000, at the funeral of Benjamin Immanuel Pomeranski, known as ‘Benny the Fixer’ (or Macher in Yiddish), survived by his wife Bertha, son Simon – and former mistress Estelle. Many others of Benny’s old gang are gone, but Spanish Joe (who is actually Russian) and ‘Fancy Goods’ Harry turned up to pay their respects. Estelle was there too in the background but didn’t intrude; Bertha and Simon both spotted her, Bertha later saying,
She had a lovely singing voice and was very beautiful when she was younger.
Simon Pomeranski fondly remembers his childhood,
the glamorous and exciting life led by Benny and his colourful, rule-breaking friends and associates with their obligatory nicknames.
Later, in part two of the book, Simon will discover another entrancing side to his father when he finds Benny’s journals hidden in an old suitcase. Benny pours out his worries and preoccupations onto the pages of these books, together with newspaper clippings and photos.
Benny from Bethnal Green and Bertha from Brick Lane moved south of the river to Brixton after the war to make their lives together in the rag trade. Benny ran the family business, Pomeranski Gowns in the Excelsior Arcade in Brixton Market.
Brixton had a sizeable Jewish community at that time alongside the Caribbean one and Benny gathered an eclectic group of friends around him, the ‘Astorians’ as they called themselves after the old cinema nearby. The group included his oldest friend Sam ‘the Stick’ Golub who had a limp from a childhood accident and a bad temper, which Benny did his best to keep in check. The gang were small time crooks, mostly involved in petty crime and shady deals, but just occasionally they did something riskier – notably a diamond heist in Hatton Garden. At these times Benny thought of himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, not leader of a criminal gang!
Benny met Estelle at a club in Mayfair where she was working as a hostess (alongside her friend Ruth Ellis). Benny sorts out gowns for Estelle so she can pursue her dream of being a singer, and the die is cast – she will be his mistress for many years – Bertha not being a fan of dressing up and going out on the town. Out with Benny one day, the pair are in a café and see an old couple,
She pointed out a rheumy-eyed man with a thin, erratic bush of white hair who was carefully placing a teacup into its saucer while his wife, a tiny, wrinkled sparrow-like woman, was inquisitively gazing around the room.
‘They’re sweet,’ Benny said.
‘They’re merged,’ Estelle said.
[…] ‘It’s not lovely,’ she said. ‘It’s not love that you’re describing. It’s habit. Merging, in the way I’m talking about it, is not a good thing because it involves giving up your individuality. Surrendering.
Merging is something that Estelle would never settle for; Benny has a more romantic view though. I was also delighted to find that Benny is a reader, he may not have formal qualifications, but he has intelligence and a strong auto-didactic streak, which adds to his entrepreneurial side considerably.
Although Benny’s life is the backbone of this novel, sometimes other characters takeover the main narrative. We hear about Sam’s marital troubles and his quest for revenge after Little Jack, the biggest, scariest gangster around, visits Sam’s wife Joyce. If Benny is Robin Hood, Little Jack is the Sheriff of Nottingham. Another subplot involves a Caribbean boxer called Joey who has to disappear, and there are detours abroad to Ireland and the Caribbean. Jacobs also builds in some real characters of the time, notably Estelle’s friend Ruth Ellis, and Benny mentions Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in his journals.
With its wide and eclectic cast of characters, the novel enables Jacobs to cover an equally wide range of experience of living in South London, bringing Brixton alive. From Benny’s shop and the market to jazz clubs and coffee shops it bustles with life. The home life of his characters is no less vividly portrayed; while you can’t help but adore Estelle, Bertha brings a sense of solidarity to be admired, contrasting with Sam’s situation which is less than happy. Little Jack and his henchmen exhibit some real menace, contrasting with the Astorians’ comparative amateurism. Holding it all together though is the sunny disposition of Benny the Fixer, the benign dictator of the Astorians, friend and lover, father – whatever you need him to be to get things sorted.
Having grown up just south of Croydon in the 1960s, we frequently passed through Brixton on our way into London as the A23 went all the way from Brighton up through Croydon into Lambeth, passing underneath the railway bridge at Brixton. I always remember it as being full of life, and Pomeranski brought memories of South London flooding back. Indeed, with its local colour, Pomeranski is a book I would add to the ‘South of the River’ reading list I compiled for Shiny a few years ago here.
Jacobs’ style of writing is interesting, bringing a biographical matter-of-factness to longer descriptive and historical passages, but then springing into life with the Astorians’ good-humoured banter. He also injects pathos where needed, especially in how he deals with Bertha and Estelle. A really nice final touch was the series of biographical notes like those movie credits that tell us what characters went on to do next. Pomeranski may be a nostalgic and affectionate tribute to the South London of author Gerald Jacobs’ youth, but it isn’t a sentimental one. Jacobs’ eponymous hero was a self-made man, and I very much enjoyed reading about him.
Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.
Gerald Jacobs, Pomeranski (Quartet Books, 2020). 978-0704374768, 256pp., paperback original.
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