My old school, Wanstead High, on the fringes of East London, was one of those admirable grammar schools which provided a first-rate education for able and aspiring working-class kids, many of them from tough-minded Jewish or radical East End backgrounds (it’s now a Specialist College in the Performing Arts). It provided a ladder of opportunity for youngsters like me to reach Oxbridge or other leading universities, on merit. I am eternally grateful.
Every couple of years the surviving members of the 1951 entry class gather for a boozy buffet lunch and nostalgia-fest. Most of us have done well enough — many in teaching, public service or industry (I’m the lone journalist). There is always a lot of teasing, usually good-natured, but often pretty barbed too. This summer I was on the receiving end. No complaints — I have long enjoyed winding up former classmates. But it was the nature of the jibes which hurt. I somehow assumed that we still had views and values in common.
I turned up sporting a T-shirt from the Falklands. “That’s bloody aggressive,” somebody said. “After all, the Falklands belong to Argentina, don’t they?” There seemed to be general agreement. When I said pompously, “I am really shocked that people like us should support aggression by a murderous gang of drunken fascistic, and incidentally anti-Semitic, military dictators, over the democratic wishes of the islanders,” I was regarded with bemusement.
Moving rapidly on, a peacemaker asked who I wrote for now, after a decade with the Daily Mail. “A number of magazines and weeklies, including the Jewish Chronicle,” I replied. Whereupon some bright spark commented cheerfully, “Typical of you to find a publication more fascistic than the Mail.” Set aside the stupid slur on the Mail. I assume the JC’s crime was to give (very critical) support to Israel. I was shocked that a group with roots deep in the East End could so casually smear a mainstream Jewish publication for showing sympathy to the Jewish state.
Then came the killer: “I bet you voted UKIP in May.” “You bet I did,” I replied firmly, though not necessarily truthfully.
“But it has no policies except opposition to Europe and hatred of immigrants.” Much nodding of heads.
I pointed out that my mother’s family was German. My first wife was Greek, my second wife, though British-born, was half-Indian and half-German. “As for official UKIP policies,” I continued, “here are a couple. Renationalisation of the railways — way to the left of Labour. And a grammar school in every city and every town. Just like when we went to school.”
I am genuinely fond of my schoolmates. I enjoy our get-togethers, I want to stay on the invitation list. But I would love to know how we drifted so far apart