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 though applying for a temping job in a translation agency. “Me too; az ma (so what)?” came the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.