Everett Collection
Jean Gabin in Le Quai des Brumes, 1938

I always wanted to be a historian. I was twelve when I began calculating how long it would take to accumulate the necessary degrees. How did historians earn a living? The only one my family had ever seen was A.J.P. Taylor—and while I assumed that he got paid for his stylish television lectures, I never supposed that most historians got by thus. How did one make a “career” in history? Indeed, how does one “make a career”? Do you plan it, starting at puberty? Does it just happen? What if it doesn’t? There was a future in there somewhere, but until then I had to earn money.

My first job was in the music department of W.H. Smith Booksellers in London: at fourteen, I was only permitted to work Saturdays. The chief attraction was seventeen-year-old April. She ran the counter and resembled Janis, the television pop music panelist who acquired fleeting national celebrity for her trademark assessment of the latest pap: “Oi’ll give it foive!”

We were still BBE (Before Beatles Era) and the shelves were stocked with forgettable Elvis imitations. The American originals—Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane—were a cut above their pale English counterparts (Cliff Richard, already something of a joke, Adam Faith, and a dozen others). Jazz was a minority taste, folk virtually unknown—at least in Putney High Street, where I worked. It was 1962 but the 1950s were still going strong.

Four years later, having secured a place at Cambridge, I dropped out of high school and arranged to work my passage to Israel on a freighter. The boat was due to pass through the Kiel Canal, which bisects the Holstein peninsula a few kilometers north of Hamburg. Tramp steamers keep irregular schedules—when I arrived at the Kiel docks the Hechalutz (en route from Gdansk) was nowhere to be seen: it was “expected.” I found a bed in a local hostel, checking the port and the canal locks every few hours.

Kiel was grim. Wartime damage had been made good, but the result—as so often in postwar West Germany—was a charmless urban space shorn of history or variety. The hostel was unwelcoming: expelled onto the streets directly after breakfast, I was not readmitted until dusk. My money was stolen by a fellow resident; nocturnal visits to the dock, awaiting the incoming tide and its attendant ships, were fueled by sausage sandwiches—courtesy of a sympathetic stall-keeper. At last, the Hechalutz loomed through the Baltic mist. For an indulgent moment, shoulders hunched against the wind, I saw myself as Gabin in a Marcel Carné film: Le Quai des Brumes, perhaps.

The captain greeted me suspiciously. I was on his manifest, but he had no idea what to make of this eighteen-year-old wayfarer. “What can you do?” he asked. “Well,” I responded, “I speak French, German, and some Hebrew”—as…

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