I was in the same year as Harvey (see previous blog posts on Schooldays in Lancaster Road). Living directly across the road, I was naturally almost always late…well…almost. I wrote about the school in my autobiography. I only live about 200 yards from it now, here in the Portobello Road. The Solomon Wolfson School building is now ‘The Lighthouse’. Here are my memories as in my autobiography. After those, I’ll list a few of the people in my year whose names I remember.
At my 8th birthday party in 1955. The children, starting at the back and going anti-clockwise are…my cousin, Susan Awkin, then Geoffrey, Bernard and Barry (can’t remember their surnames) and the Whitesman brothers. The grown-ups are Pat Slifkin, mother of my friend Lawrence, and my own grandmother.
All were students at SWJS.
They always talk of school-days being the happiest days of your life. Well, unlike my secondary school-days, primary school really was. The Solomon Wolfson Jewish School was a normal London County Council school with a couple of exceptions.
Firstly, it was indeed a Jewish school, so that we had a Jewish assembly, with hymns sung in Hebrew, alongside a daily Hebrew class, just before lunch, I seem to remember. This part of school life was the only part which did not interest me in the slightest. I never became much of a Hebrew scholar and, since I became an Atheist by the age of eight, my attitude to the usual school religious indoctrination wasn’t very co-operative.
The other difference was that Isaac Wolfson, a major businessman, gave a regular grant to the school in recognition that the school had been named after his father (I believe that the original name of the school had been the Bayswater Jewish School), so we certainly had superior furniture and so on.
I think that it’s fair to say that it was a happy school. I can remember no bullying in the playground, for instance. Boys played football, while girls, for some unknown reason, liked to tuck their skirts into their dark blue underpants and do hand-stands against the wall.
We also had occasional games of kiss-chase, with some rather smelly outside loos as ‘home’ or ‘safe’ and there were sprinting races the length of the side playground. There were also occasional crazes, such as yo-yos, the annual conker tournaments and various forms of marble games adapted to respective designs of drains dotted across the playground.
I remember well, all of the teachers who taught ‘upstairs’, where older children were taught and they tended to stay for a long time and, to us, seemed as timeless as the building itself.
There was Mr. Rodney (I was never in his class, but he signed my autograph book when I left the school, nevertheless), Mr. Lipschitz, an elegant man with grey hair who played piano, ran the school choir, kept his handkerchief up the sleeve of his jacket and threw pieces of chalk at children who were talking and Mr. Jay, a strict but warm man who occasionally suffered badly from lumbago but came in to teach anyhow.
I was born as part of the post-war ‘bulge’ and so there were two top classes when I reached my final year in the school. One was in the charge of Mrs. Walker, the only non-Jewish teacher (she took all of the non-Jewish children, when it came to religious lessons). Ironically, I believe that she as the longest serving teacher of them all. She still taught at ‘Solly Woolly’, as we affectionately called our school even when I had become a school-master myself!
Last but not least was Mr. Shenfield, a medium sized man with a prominently bald head, who always seemed to wear the same suit and could be very funny when he wanted to be.
In general, we were pretty well-behaved children and, despite the odd grumble, were fond of all of our teachers.
The headmaster was Mr. Somper, who seemed to spend most of his time in his office, smoking a pipe. He was quite a kindly man, I think, but seemed very remote to children and when you were sent to him for any reason, you had to knock at his door and wait for that ‘ENTER’ sign to be lit, before daring to turn the handle and go in. However, his reaction did not please my mother at all when, early on, I had an accident, playing ‘had’ or ‘it’ soon after first joining the school.
I remember someone calling ‘had’ and pushing me in the back. The next thing I remember was colliding with a brick wall and having to get bits of my recently half-grown front tooth removed from my lower lip.
My mother went to complain about lack of supervision in the playground and Mr. Somper, after expressing sympathy then came out with what these days would not be regarded as a very PC remark, by way of comfort. ’Think how more upset you would have been, had he been a girl’. My mother was furious.
However, I wasn’t really upset and the experience certainly didn’t stop me running around the playground like a complete lunatic playing football, either during playtimes or after school, when I joined the Jewish Lad’s Brigade, a sort of Jewish Scout movement. It seems that my knees were permanently grazed or cut for the next four or five years in that short-trousered period of my life.
As well as I remember the teachers, I remember many of my fellow pupils. Here are a few of them; Henry Magrill and Michael Rath, my chief rivals when it came to exams and tests. At time of writing, I’m due to see Michael when I perform in Devon next week, where Michael now lives. Then there was Michael Levi, also very bright and who, along with the others, followed me to the same grammar school after I left Solomon Wolfson.
Judith Lowenstein, Michael Rath’s cousin wore plaits, and was dubbed the sex-symbol of the school among the other 10 year olds. Rumours as to whom she might have chosen as her ‘boyfriend’ went around the playground in a fashion that would do credit to today’s ‘celebrity’ magazines.
By contrast, and I won’t mention her name, there was a girl whom everyone decided was ‘smelly’. Behind her back, there were ‘stinky’ jokes and you were laughed at if you had to have your desk next to hers. The probability is that the whole thing was a complete fabrication.
Then there was Yvonne Wales, a pretty blonde girl, (who was some sort of relation of a then current TV celebrity called Ronnie Waldes, I remember), her friend Evelyn Schmulewicz, whose mother had survived one of the concentration camps, Jacqui Waterman, another very bright pupil who most impressed me, however, with the fact that she was one of the fastest in our playground sprint races.
Marion Mandel, was another girl with plaits, though I was chiefly jealous of her national health glasses with white frames! I couldn’t wait to wear glasses, I remember, but it was some time before I was given the chance.
Among the boys there was also Martin Atkins, whom we thought was a bit of a show off, John Krushner (I hope I have his name correct) who was the Stanley Matthews of the playground and always got picked first when we played football, and an amazing family with the surname of Moses.
Poor kids! Their parents had named them Miriam Moses, Aaron Moses and, I believe there was even a Moses Moses! Such was the standard of our school that Aaron Moses, the one in my year, (whom I remember as quite small and with dark wavy red hair), was regarded as not very bright. The last time I heard about him, he’d become a University lecturer!
Among those who were my closer friends was Wayne Alston, a little boy with impeccable manners (which impressed my grandfather very much; he would always shake hands with everyone most gravely whenever he came to my home). He had a mother who taught piano and an elder brother who actually played classical piano!
However, what I found much more fascinating was the fact that this elder brother also possessed a single eyebrow that went from one side of his face to the other without a break! This was much more impressive!
Wayne himself was surely destined to be a businessman, we thought, or perhaps a crook. There was a cinema next to the school, called the Royalty. It offered little postcards listing next month’s attractions. These were free. So Wayne, at the age of about eight, would take a handful and go around the corner and sell them to grown-ups passing by for a ha’penny each!
Then there was Graham Winefolk, always very bright but who could be a bit wild at that age. He later changed his name to Wines and, alongside his elder sister, emigrated to Australia, where he is now a leading architect. I caught up with him again when I started performing over there in the 1990s.
By contrast, I lost track of Norman Waidhofer completely. He was a very kindhearted sort of boy and another who went on to the same grammar school as I, later on. I remember going to his home where his parents seemed older than others. His father, I remember, had a strong accent, Viennese, I think, and had a limp. He also had a wonderfully warm personality and I always liked to visit them for tea. Then there was Maxie Marks, but more of him later.
I could continue with this list, but I’ll add just two more. Firstly, Yves Schama suddenly appeared at our school after the Suez crisis, when his family had fled to London. He had been born in Egypt and spoke French. He was put next to me and we started teaching each other our respective languages.
We got on well, but I lost touch with him until only a couple of years ago when I traced him through one of those Internet ‘where are they now?’ Web sites. He turned out to live only a couple of miles from me and I recognized him instantly, despite the 40 plus year gap. Incidentally, I also got to meet Wayne Alston again in the same way. He now runs a computer business with his son.
Last but not least was my best friend, Laurence Slifkin. He was small and slim with a shock of light red wavy hair. Had he been a girl, you would have called him a strawberry blonde.
Why we got on so well I can no longer remember and didn’t seen him for decades, but for a few years we were inseparable, playing cricket in the park, going out with our parents, taking the tube to Stamford Hill to go tenpin bowling, sneaking into bus and train depots where we weren’t supposed to be at all, to collect numbers (we were avid London Transport bus and train-spotters) and goodness knows what else.
In Stamford Hill, since we went on Saturday mornings, we used to watch all the ultra-religious Jewish families on the way to Synagogue, still dressed in 19th century clothing. With their wide-brimmed hats, we immediately dubbed them ‘Cowboys’.
Laurence’s father was some sort of businessman and drove what we at the time thought was quite a large limousine, unlike the Morris Minor that the headmaster drove or the tiny Fiat 600 that my father bought about that time. Laurence’s mother was rather pretty, very warmhearted and always impeccably dressed but perhaps not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
I remember once, for instance, when somebody had used the phrase ‘taking umbrage’ her remarking that Umbrage was a very strange name to give to a Jewish boy. Likewise, she would refer to ‘Hermesetas’, one of the brand names for saccharine pills, as ‘Homosexuals’, with no idea of the mistake that she was making.
Laurence went on to a different secondary school and I lost track of him completely after that. Somehow, we’d outgrown one another. Only recently have I found him again. By pure coincidence, he was in the audience at a show I gave in Shepherd’s Bush a few months ago. Like his father, he became a businessman. We are due to have a proper reunion very soon, maybe with another couple of ex-Solomon Wolfson pupils.
At this point in time, I can’t remember quite when, we moved from Arundel Gardens, though it’s quite possible that it was soon after the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the resultant trouble in the building below us.
Suffice to say, however, that we did finally move to Lancaster Road, bang across the road to my school and into a flat of four rooms which also sported what must have been another ancient bathroom with a water geyser that made a noise like the Titanic sinking as it gulped out hot water but we did at least have a proper working bathroom!
The landlady lived in the basement. Her name was Mrs. Hocking. She seemed ancient to me and was certainly crippled with arthritis. I remember now her swollen knuckles. Her pride and joy was a massive, impassive and somewhat lazy cat called Peter who enjoyed the unspoiled splendour of the unkempt jungle, otherwise known as the back garden.
Naturally, despite the proximity to my school, I was always either late or only just arriving in the playground as they blew the whistle.
It’s strange now, when Notting Hill has such a different image that, at the time, people would look extremely worried when we told them where we lived, for this was the era of race riots.
Indeed, I remember once watching from my bedroom window on the top floor a frightened looking West Indian running down the road, followed by a large group of racialist thugs who were throwing bottles at him. I never knew if they caught him. I hope not.
These thugs, however, were not local. They were bussed in from South London by right wing organizations. We called them all Mosleyites, after Sir Oswald Mosley, the ex-leader of the British Fascist Party who seemed to be the centre of such racialist activity at the time. As Jews, only a decade or so after the end of World War Two, we were naturally all very anti-Mosley!
Anyhow, all of this may explain why, one day, a tall black girl appeared in my class. Her name was Miriam. Probably, her mother thought that Jews would understand the problems of being a minority group and wanted her daughter to attend our school. Of-course, this didn’t work.
None of the kids worried about her being black, mind you. No, they excluded her from games because she admitted to eating bacon! Religious indoctrination had led them to believe that this was a sin little short of murder!
I remember someone else innocently mentioning that he’d eaten bacon in class one day. Oh my goodness! His life was made a misery for some time afterwards! (I quite liked bacon, myself, but kept this fact pretty quiet).
Well, young Socialist that I was, I wasn’t having this and made sure that Miriam and I became friends. She told me that she’d come from Spain, which I found a little confusing, but her mother later told me that they had actually come from Port Of Spain in the West Indies!
My sympathy for Miriam was increased when I found out that her mother (there was no father around) didn’t get back from work every day until long after school. Miriam had to let herself into her own empty home at the end of Ladbroke Grove with a key that she wore on a string around her neck.
She was, in short, a ‘latch-key child’! (I’d heard this phrase on some TV documentary of the time, regarded this state of being as the epitome of suffering and was convinced that I should help in some way).
So, I often invited her across the road for tea and she would stay until her mother had got home an hour or two after school ended. For this, I was rewarded with an invitation to her birthday party some months later. I remember even now all the highly coloured party dresses of the West Indian girls; bright pink, blue, green and yellow.
However, one winter’s rainy afternoon, my mother began to be alarmed when I didn’t show up. It was 5:30 at least when she came across to the school playground to look for me, and found me in the dark. When asked what I was doing, I replied simply that I was playing marbles with Miriam.
My mother was not impressed.
‘Well’, she said, ‘I see that Miriam’s had the sense to go home’.
Out of the darkness came a voice. ‘No I haven’t Mrs. Okin. Here I am’.
Miriam was very dark-skinned and was wearing a black duffel coat. My mother hadn’t seen her at all in the gloom and was very embarrassed. Naturally, we both went across the road for tea!
Miriam left the country after a while and I heard years later on that she’d had a child of her own, though I believe that the child sadly became a victim of sickle cell anemia.
Some of the people in my year were Harvey Groffman, Susan Awkin (my cousin), Michael Rath, Michael Levi, Judith Lowenstein, Marion Mandel, Yvonne Wales, Evelyn Schmulewitz, Henry Magrill, John Krushner, Wayne Alston, Jacqui Waterman, Janet Girsman, Laurence Slifkin, Yves Schama, Martin Atkins, Grahm Winefolk, Norman Waidhofer..and then there was Bernard and Geoffrey (whose surnames I can’t remember).