An Incisive Observer

‘The first generation sweats on market stalls to give their kids the education that enables them, ultimately, to patronise their parents’

Family With Prejudice

My column is entitled “With Prejudice” in homage to Alex Berlyne, whose column of that name ran in the Jerusalem Post for many years. Alex was my husband Jack Rosenthal’s first cousin. He’d emigrated to Israel in 1949, and we didn’t meet until the Nineties, but I’d long relished Jack’s tales about Alex, his brothers and their shared Manchester childhood.

The three Berlyne boys, all geniuses according to Jack, were encouraged by their mother Annie to be erudite, creative and curious. It was, and is — can you ‘ear me, Mr Farage? — the way of immigrant families: the first generation sweats in sweatshops and on market stalls to give their kids the education that enables them, ultimately, to patronise their parents.

In Auntie Annie’s house, her incomparable jam pies shared the table with dictionaries and encyclopedias, and Alex — to young Jack’s delight — was grudgingly permitted to draw intricate illustrations all over the tablecloth. Jack visited almost daily after school, and maintained that his real education took place here. Alex became an art teacher, graphic designer and literary editor, Neville a consultant psychiatrist and Geoffrey a professor of nephrology.

Alex and I first met when he and his delightful, zaftig wife Edna flew to London on an ephemera-gathering expedition. The moment I saw him, I knew him. Knew him? I was practically married to him. He was Jack with snowy hair. They were even wearing the same heather-mix tweed jacket with discreet suede elbow patches: Marks & Spencer’s best. Both had square, nicely formed shoulders and a distinct inelegance in the shoe department. (This, after all, was how a local newspaper described Jack as he accompanied me to a ribbon-cutting event: “Her husband Jack Rosenthal followed at a respectful distance, wearing a dolorous expression and dusty sneakers.”)

He and Alex had the same overbite, the same nasal baritone and the same enthusiasm for life’s perceived failures. Jack believed there was no such thing as a truly boring person. “If someone’s that boring,” he mused, “it’s quite interesting, isn’t it?”

Like S.J. Perelman, whom he revered, Alex had a selectively photographic memory. In his words, he had “total recall of completely insignificant events in 1963, yet can’t for the life of me remember, when I get to the first floor landing of the Post building, what I climbed the stairs for.”

In the Forties, he taught an evening art class in Salford. One night, in shuffled a shabby old man who wanted to learn to draw hands. After two sessions he disappeared, never to return. Alex reassured himself that the old chap probably decided not to bother, since his paintings of folk with their hands in their pockets were selling quite well. He was, after all, L.S. Lowry. Occasionally, they’d meet for a cuppa in the Kardomah, where Alex gloried in the sign: “Why not have a coffee and roll downstairs?”

He called Lowry “an Orientalist” (shades of Conan Doyle) because, apparently, his entire character was a fiction. It is now common knowledge that Lowry was a rent collector — but at the time his closest friends were unaware of this. Indeed his friends were unaware of each other, and certainly had no idea that their drinking pal, who dabbled in paint, had sold a picture to the Queen and owned a collection of Pre-Raphaelites. His cloth-cap image was devised to cock a snook at the art establishment. When someone asked him what he did with his old clothes he replied: “I wear ’em.”

Alex died in 2000, and his obituaries were fittingly rich in anecdote. One told the following tale, noting how his funniest stories always sprang from the deeply serious. For 25 years, Alex was a volunteer policeman, since he had a heart condition that prevented him from serving in the army. One night, he and a colleague were patrolling the streets in torrential rain. As they passed a pile of sodden cardboard boxes, a homeless man peered out, gazed at the two drenched men and said cheerfully, “Well, I don’t envy you.”

I suppose my favourite Alex story was his sojourn in a sophisticated Israeli hospital, after heart surgery. He was woken by the sound of intense coughing. It came from a man recovering from burns who was lying in a special hammock, to alleviate pressure. The reason for his coughing was that feathers were sticking to the emollient used for his relief. Feathers in a hospital, I hear you query? Well, yes — they came from a live chicken being swung around the head of an visiting ultra-Orthodox character who had made it his business to transfer  any evil spirits from the ward to the chicken.

“And that,”said Alex wryly, “is the dichotomy that is Israel.”

His incisive observations and dry humour still resonate. I wish some bright publisher would reissue the collected anecdotes and illustrations of Alex Berlyne. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m prejudiced.