- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

At the beginning of the preface to his winsome (and were it not for his name, one might readily add engrossing) memoir,

John Gross characterizes his book with admirable clarity and succinctness:

"This book is the story of my early life, up to the age of seventeen. That means that it is also the story of the two separate but entwined legacies of being English and being Jewish. Hence my title: A Double Thread … . In describing this mixed inheritance and how it worked itself out, I have concentrated as much on atmosphere as on incident, on social setting as on anecdote. The book is an account of a childhood in which beliefs and a sense of cultural differences played a large part. To some extent, which may give it a representative value, it is meant to be a record of those beliefs and of the attitudes and feelings which went with them.

"… .To devote a whole book to one's childhood unless it was a childhood marked by great external dramas, which I can't claim is inevitably to lay oneself open to charges of being self-absorbed. But no memoir is worth writing unless it has the courage of its uniqueness, and if it isn't self-absorbed it is nothing at all."

Already the reader can see that he is in the hands of a scrupulous writer, one who chooses his words, and indeed his trains of thought, with intelligence and judiciousness. Those interested in a raunchy, tell-all exploration of childhood sexuality and family drama will have to look elsewhere: This is as far from a Mommy Dearest type of memoir as can be. But it is, to some extent at any rate, an account of the growth of a critic's mind and, just as significantly, it is imbued with the qualities one would expect but does not alas always get from the pen of someone who has spent his entire adult life as a practitioner of literary journalism.

Currently theater critic of the (London) Sunday Telegraph, John Gross was formerly editor of London's magisterial Times Literary Supplement. He is also known to American readers from his years on the staff of the New York Times. Although he is only in his mid-60s, Mr. Gross'childhood world in London's East End is light years away from today's, in terms of its mores, its customs, and its Weltanschauung, to say nothing of its lares and penates.

All this is summoned up in these pages with appropriate nostalgia, but also with a tonic dose of realism. It is one of the particular pleasures of this memoir that we see the past firmly in the context of today's society. Whether Mr. Gross is discussing the British Broadcasting Corporation or the British theater scene of his early days, what he has to say is salted with a sharp comment on what is happening to these institutions now. This not only makes for a livelier, more relevant book, but also gives those readers unfamiliar with the good old days a way of getting a fix on them and, indeed, on John Gross.

Jewishness is key to the East End of London in the first half of the 20th century and, as Mr. Gross has promised, it is central also to the story he is telling. He is sensitive to the attitudes of and about Jews in his native land, but no one could fairly accuse him of being unduly Judeo-centric in his outlook. Fortunate in his own experiences of anti-Semitism, which were few and far between in his childhood and schooldays, he is nonetheless acutely aware that this was not so for everyone around him.

Some of his memoir's most moving passages concern Mr. Gross' growing awareness of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry. Here again, he writes with an uncommonly fine blend of thoughtfulness and dignity: "It is impossible not to reflect, if only from time to time, on how different things might have been. It is impossible not to think of myself as one of the lucky ones. I am Jewish, I had a happy childhood, as childhoods go, and I grew up during a time in which at every moment the most terrible things were being done to other Jewish children. It would be an exaggeration to say that the contrast makes me feel guilty; but it does sometimes make me feel numb."

Not everything in "A Double Thread" has Jewish associations. Mr. Gross is the son of an idealistic but practical-minded doctor and his account of his father's medical practice in a poor neighborhood is particularly affecting in the context of today's health care system, with its vast expenditure of money and almost exclusive reliance upon laboratory tests for diagnosis. Mr. Gross was fortunate also in having a father whose "antipathy to Communism went back a long way…"

The son has clearly inherited the paternal acuity when he can characterize some British academics as a "group whose members transformed themselves from pillars of the Old Left into founders of the New Left, with remarkably little pause for reflection. There are those who believe that this is all ancient history, that in Britain, at least, the Communists accomplished nothing. I don't agree. Their political legacy may have been zero; their social and cultural legacy, as mediated through their New Left successors, has been immense, nor can I buy the view that most of them were innocents, who didn't really know what they were doing that, as somebody once said, 'they were more gauche than sinister.' They may have chosen not to know, but that is not the same thing."

A fine example of political judgment welded to a keen sense of history a phenomenon all too rare in historians, literary and otherwise. Not surprisingly, literature is a constant presence in the book. Mr. Gross' appreciation of, feeling for, and delight in literature is evident throughout. Whether he is discussing English poetry or even the detective fiction of Agatha Christie, he has something original and worthwhile to say. Following the youthful trajectory of his literary education and discoveries is not by any means the least of these pages' pleasures.

Anti-Semitism in literature is a topic which Mr. Gross explores with obvious anguish: "No one could read much English literature written before the second half of the twentieth century or, as far as I can judge, much European and American literature, either without coming across hostile characterizations of Jews, and derogatory remarks directed against them." Yet his reaction is characteristically measured, supple, and most of all practical:

"And how did one respond to literary anti-Semitism? A number of resolutions, though I didn't consciously formulate them, took shape in my mind. Firstly, I would try to judge each case on its own merits. Secondly, I would neither ignore instances of prejudice, nor exaggerate them. Thirdly, I would be careful not to assume that they were necessarily the most important thing about the work in which they occurred. Fourthly, having noted them, I would reserve the right, in the lesser cases at least, to turn a blind eye: dwelling on them would simply ruin a lot of literature for me. Finally, I would always try to allow for the date at which something was written."

But the anti-Semitism Mr. Gross finds in the poems of T.S. Eliot can still fire anger and disgust as well as sadness and his methodology for coping with such filth does not always work. "What," he exclaims at one point of Eliot's "Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar," "was I doing reading this miserable stuff? If only there had been a retraction… . But no such words were forthcoming."

All passion is clearly not spent in John Gross and as we finish this memoir with his entry into Oxford University, we long for more memories from the mind of this admirable critic and in the Yiddish word which has deeper connotations than its literal meaning of 'person' Mensch.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.


By John Gross

Ivan R. Dee, $23.50, 189 pages, illus.


Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide