Life in London

Westminster, from the South Bank.

It rained yesterday morning. The first rain of winter. The air was sharp, cold and grey. The grey light of days gone by. The wet street a deep blue-black. The grey of winter recalls what I have left behind.

The magic of a world left behind. Of touching the ground in a world without barriers and with no desire except to be where I was. Just walking.

The enchantment was not immediate. April 1947 and a clammy oppressive heat wave unlike anything I knew at home, and it gave me a skin rash.

Walking down Oxford Street in those early London days I heard two men talking.

Lovely weather! Let’s hope it lasts!

I had no summer clothes. Every piece of clothing I had was meant to keep me warm.  People kept saying, “I’m sorry!” “Sorry!”… people seemed to be saying it all the time. Sorry to draw your attention, sorry to ask for directions.   So I said sorry again and again and felt integrated.

I was issued a ration card to be used with care. I no longer remember the exact details concerning their use.

I do remember, however, that when one restaurant meal left you hungry, you could have another meal elsewhere.

Those were early post-war days.  The wounds of war were still evident.  Front doors needing a fresh coat of paint, bombed out buildings, food and clothes were rationed.

The Germans were here. Destroyed air raid shelter, London.
The Germans were here. Destroyed buildings, London.

I had the West Hampstead address of my student friend Agnes. There were other students from home and they all welcomed me with a raucous rendering of  “Open the door Richard”. “Open the door Richard, they sang, open the door and let me in…”

The only available room in that boarding house provided a bed, but no mattress. It was my first encounter with a London landlady. I spent the night sleeping on the bare springs, accepting the inconvenience as another feature of post war austerity.

Then came my encounter with my family-black-sheep uncle Max.  He was mother’s twin, and that was all I knew about him. Nor was I most probably supposed to know more about him.  I had no message for him, nor his address or telephone number. But I was in London, and

I wanted to meet my uncle Max. Mother’s twin.

He arrived in a taxicab and could barely stand straight. He was, dressed in what once had been a fine suit and a bowler hat.

“My flesh and blood”, he emoted as he saw me, swaying from side to side, tears running down his drawn face.

“He’s always like that,” the cab driver explained.

That was not what I had expected.

Later, I was told that Uncle Max had taken to drink when his son, my cousin whom I had never met or heard much of, was killed in the war…

I spent my second night in London at my uncle’s home.

My aunt, uncle Max’s wife, gave me a warm welcome.  There was plenty of room in the house.  A comfortable bed with a real mattress, clean sheets, and all the blankets I needed in those unaccustomed cold April nights .

I could hardly move under their weight. Now, this is something I do remember…

I was in London with an appointment for an entrance test to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  With my Palestine passport, I had been granted a student visa when I presented the terms and date to “speak” two parts of my choice “in character”. One modern, the other classic.

I was well prepared, I thought, having rehearsed both  texts with my teacher, the Habimah actress Miriam Bernstein Cohen.  A speech from Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and another from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Like all Habima actors and actresses in the ‘forties, my teacher,  was a dedicated disciple of Stanislavski. She made it quite clear that before your very first gesture and speaking your first lines you had to “get into your character” and that required behind the scenes preparation. Once you felt you were ready, your performance could begin.

Unfortunately, neither Miriam nor I possessed the necessary command of English to understand the terms of the entrance test.  It said “speak in character” which, to us, meant reciting the part. Speak meant speak.   So I failed the entrance test. When my aunt called and tried to plead with the RADA secretary, she was told “We have to be cruel to be kind”. And that was that.

I was, eventually, admitted to the reputable Central School of Speech and Drama, with rooms in the Royal Albert Hall.  Mrs. Acton-Bond, a retired actress, prepared me for the entrance test.

Mrs. Acton-Bond did not expect me to wait behind the scenes until I got into my part.  “You get into your part as you take your first breath to speak the first line of your text”, she told me when, during my first lesson I stood still behind a curtain, waiting to feel the part.

I did extremely well.   Even the improvised scene with the imaginary revolver on the table which so scared me, went well. And I got a laugh with my Cymbeline speech which begins with “I see a man’s life is a tedious one..”

Talented and promising as I was, I was not cut out for a career on the stage and my performances at school were mostly disappointing.

Post scriptum 25 Feb. 16

Photographs courtesy of Amro and RV1864. Published under a Creative Commons license.