I was barmitzvah’d in June 1956 at Alyth Gardens Reform Synagogue in Temple Fortune, North West London, by Rabbi Dr. Werner van der Zyl, who founded the Leo Baeck College in the same year. He was a kind man with high Slavonic cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. He was handsome too. As a boy, I thought of him as a sort of slightly distant, affectionate uncle. When he came to our house, sometimes his wife used to come with him. I thought of him as immensely wise, and sometimes I even believed he had the ability to read my thoughts, see into the depths of my soul. I remember the bar mitzvah he gave me as a gentle occasion: friendly, warm, encouraging, totally unfrightening, and not especially overloaded with burdens or obligations. I don’t know if all bar mitzvahs are like that but, thanks to him, mine was a happy experience. Even though I’ve rarely entered a synagogue since then, except for weddings and the occasional poetry reading, it was meaningful at the time as a rite de passage.
Then, in total contrast to that event, very soon after my bar mitzvah, I was taken by my mother to see a performance at the Golders Green Hippodrome, ten minutes’ walk from where we lived. In those days this theatre had a fabulous turnover of shows and musicals, many of which moved on later to the West End. There were Christmas pantomimes, and my mother took my sister and me every year. And there was every other kind of play imaginable going on there, as I was later to find out1, from The Gang Show to Terence Rattigan, from Noel Coward to South Pacific and Guys and Dolls, from Ibsen and Chekhov to West Side Story.
The play my mother took me to see on this occasion was a dramatisation of The Diary of Anne Frank. At the age of thirteen, one experiences everything super-intensely, and this play had an extraordinarily powerful effect on me. I think this was how I first really ‘found out’ about the Holocaust or, at least, had my first full and shocking emotional realisation of what the Holocaust meant – or should mean – to everyone, and above all to Jews. All the details and facts I was to find out later, all the powerful stories, treatments and interpretations in books, films and TV programmes, and from museums and monuments – which, like everyone else, I’ve kept finding out, and have had to keep on and on finding out ever since then – I believe have had a lesser impact on me than that first revelation.2
And only now that I begin to mull this over does it occur to me that, while of course I knew very well – even when I was just thirteen – that these events had really happened, this very first huge impact of the Holocaust on me, through The Diary of Anne Frank, wasn’t just that of documented facts, crude horror, unfiltered pain. What I was experiencing from this dramatisation, in the heart of safe, stolid, stable, suburban Golders Green, only eleven years after the end of the Second World War, was already history-interpreted-and-selected-as-story, was already suffering-dignified-and-distilled-into-art. Already, fact had been transformed into drama, and history had been heightened into living myth. Raw horror had been refined, reclaimed, reframed, even (perhaps) redeemed, as tragedy.
Tragedy, story, drama, art, poetry. I can’t help wondering now if the main key that I took away from all this, even then, was the conviction that the transformation of unimaginable pain and suffering into art was what the human imagination was designed for.
How, if ever, to confront the realities underlying such transformations, and how to make the transformations ‘real’ as well as ‘meaningful’, not just masks, disguises or cloaks? Ways of managing the unmanageable? Of presenting – by which I mean making present – the impossible? I’ve returned to these themes and questions repeatedly in various ways in many poems, from early attempts as a student in the early 1960’s, to ‘Angels’ and ‘The Rose of Sharon’ in the 1970’s3, and the sequence, The Blue Butterfly, which I began writing in 1985 and completed in 2005.4
Very soon after seeing the play about Anne Frank, I read the Diary itself, and was struck just as forcefully all over again, but in ways that were subtly different from the effects that the stage-production had had on me, even though, of course, each set of responses reinforced previous ones, whether by extension or modification, or both.
From the book, I felt even more strongly that Anne Frank was speaking directly to me. It now occurs to me that the fact of shared Jewishness may perhaps have receded at that particular point, may have seemed subsidiary to the plainer and huger fact of shared humanness, although I can’t help wondering now if shared Jewishness didn’t still constitute some subliminal and even conspiratorial bonding element, like a sort of constant underground hum. This hum has certainly come back to resound through-and-though me, later, and has done so many times, pitched at many wavelengths and levels of resonance. But, thinking about that first bonding, what I now trace as more important then, was that my sense of Anne Frank addressing herself to me involved several layers and perspectives, all at once. Here, I’ll try to unpack some of them.
First, at that time, the fact that Anne Frank was a girl seemed somehow irrelevant. I can’t trace any conscious element of desire, longing, anima projection, in my thinking or feeling about this Anne-Frank-of-mine who was so vitally important to me. Even so, now, if I examine this assertion more carefully, I can’t help wondering if I’d have felt quite the same about her if she’d been a boy. I doubt it. Were complex feelings drawn out of me more fully because she was a girl? I think so. And could she have perhaps been a sort of idealised sister?
Second, she was speaking as a person, to me, person-to-person, one-to-one.
Third, she was speaking as child-turning-into-teenager, to me-at-the-same-age, another proto-teenager. This meant that we shared a poignantly and passionately interiorised world, which neither adults nor children could fully register or understand. So our communication wasn’t just one-to-one: it was secret. She belonged to the secret of puberty, the secrecy of adolescence.
Fourth, she was speaking, from behind or from the other side of her own death, as a timeless immortal, through her words, which were still alive, even though she wasn’t, so that her death was no more than a screen that words crossed and could always cross with ease, at least in one direction – that is, from the dead to the living – even if not both ways, even if never both, as though death involved the filtration of some essence through a one-way valve or semi-permeable membrane.
Fifth, from reading Anne Frank’s Diary, I took away with me a powerful and delicate belief in the delicacy and power of words and in the communicability of ideas and passions through and by means of words. And this point links back to the fourth. I mean: that words and ideas could perhaps defeat Death, or at least cross over, go past or through death and deaths. Several years later, responding as a sixteen year-old to Shakespeare’s sonnets on this theme, and adoring them, was only to reinforce what I’d first learned from Anne Frank: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” And even though since then, especially in bad times, I've often doubted the ability of words to do much more than alternately scratch and polish the surface of reality – and at the worst times, have even despaired of them altogether – I've still somehow, even if wobblingly, always come back to maintain that first underlying belief in their efficacy, power, subtlety and beauty. Words can and do express and communicate meaning, meanings, meaningfulness.
Sixth, either along with or as an integral part of this developing confidence and trust in words, went a sense of their transformative power, their ability to show defiance in the face of injustice and oppression, and above all, the magnificent model of Anne Frank’s determination, despite everything, to believe in hope. This theme has surfaced for me again and again, especially in the poem, ‘Nada: Hope or Nothing’, in The Blue Butterfly.5 What’s more, I learned that defiance could transform into both depth and beauty – the former both heroic and noble, and the latter so unbearably poignant as to be transcendental.
Then, seventh, and finally, she, as a writer, and as a highly accomplished writer, was writing to me, not just as a reader, any reader, but as one who was also implicitly, or who (it was somehow taken for granted) was also going-to-be a writer.
I do have to confess now that I’m not sure whether the seventh and last of these elements was truly yet in place during that first reading of the Diary. But it soon would be. And if this phrase it soon would be means that I now talk about all this in a teleological way, as if all these factors were tributaries, or contributories, all leading up to a particular point, I think there’s at least some degree of authenticity in doing so, because that’s precisely how I remember configuring these events in my own mind, and how I’ve done ever since that time, perhaps even since before it.
In the process of ‘becoming a poet’, it’s now also clear to me that this was all preparation, even though I don’t think I could possibly have known that at the time.
More of the spurious wisdoms of hindsight? Perhaps. But although (I even sometimes think) I’ve got these ideas and priorities more or less straightened out in my mind at last, what I’m still not sure about, and can somehow never seem to be sure about, is the sequence they appeared in. In retrospect, I find, chronology always gets muddled. Perhaps that doesn’t matter too much though. Biography sometimes seems a bit like a boxful of family photographs. All the past and all possible versions of the past, of all and any pasts, sometimes seem like that. You can throw them all up in the air and wait for some or even all of them to land, spread them all out on the floor and shuffle them and collect them, recollect them, into any order you like. There’s no grammar of cases or declensions or genders to tell you how to parse them. There’s no authoritative Stanley Gibbons catalogue to instruct you how to file them neatly into sets, like postage stamps, or whether there exist some very rare and expensive specimen you’ll never be able to afford, at least in your present state or status, but that you really ought to leave blank spaces for, just in case you win the football pools or the lottery someday. And there are millions upon millions of permutations for you to improvise with, among and through, whenever it comes to sticking them into your own personal photo album or stamp album.
The next huge jolt to my system, which really did trigger the beginning of my writing, and my desire (wanting, hoping, longing) to be a writer, came a couple of weeks later. That autumn, on the viewless yet inflated wings of a Middlesex County Council scholarship to Mill Hill, I was to be launched off to another boarding school, equipped with the entire array of weaponry and survival gear meticulously itemised on the authoritative and demanding School List. This document specified a trunk marked in Indian ink, containing all the items of uniform I would need, from navy blue blazer with school badge on its pocket, ties, shirts and trousers, to essentials such as toothbrush, flannel and flannel bag. All uniform items were to be purchased from the school shop in Mill Hill village, which even had its own imperial-sounding name, Blenheim Steps. Each garment, towel, sheet and pillow-case had to bear a white cotton tag showing my name and house-number in fine red thread (R. S. Burns 253 BB). This name-tag would be carefully sewn into the seam or corner of every single item by my mother’s seamstress, Mrs. Foster. Then there was the so-called oblong wooden ‘tuck-box’, reinforced by black metal strips along each side and brass corners and lock, marked with my name on its top, with a small transverse cross-section compartment with its own inner lid. Mine was stacked full of goodies such as bourbon and chocolate wholemeal biscuits (childhood favourites), plus a sponge cake with bits of orange peel stuck into its white icing, caringly made by one of my mother’s elder sisters, Auntie Lily. My mother Rosalind had five sisters, all of whom were Elders, as were her two brothers, she being the youngest child.
My father Alexander Berengarten was known in the London musical world as Alexander Burns. He had died on his forty-sixth birthday, when I was three years old. He’d arrived in London’s East End of London as a small boy in the first years of the twentieth century, when his entire family had migrated from Warsaw in several well-planned stages. As a child he was a gifted musician and actor, and before the First World War had taken on small parts in silent movies. After training as a classical cellist alongside John Barbirolli, in the early 1920s he’d discovered the jazz saxophone and had been one of this instrument's first importers into Britain from the United States. He’d begun selling this instrument through small ads in newspapers. This activity took off, enabling him in the next few years to set up a musical instruments shop at 116-118 Shaftesbury Avenue, in the heart of London’s West End theatre district, under the name of Alex Burns Ltd. By the time he died in 1947, his store had expanded to sell every kind of musical instrument, as well as 78 rpm records. Alexander was well-respected in London’s musical world and well-off. Had he lived, he might well have become very wealthy. 6
He was also well-travelled and spoke half-a-dozen languages, including Polish, Russian, Yiddish, German and French. As I grew up, my mother told me that it had always been his intention for me to be the possessor of an English public school education, not only because this would afford some kind of social badge or passport, but for the inner grounding it would give me. And so, in fact, it later turned out. Following this, he’d wanted to send me off to study French and Philosophy at the Sorbonne, and Music in Vienna. Of course these dreams had gradually petered out in the wake of his death. My mother had neither the musical knowledge nor the experience of the musical world needed to keep up his West End business, even though she tried to make a go of it for a couple of years. Despite her efforts, income dried up, so she got a managerial and accounting job with her brother’s company. Uncle Dave was a wine importer in the City. But this was a big come-down. Gradually, money got tighter.
My mother had still been able to afford to send me to private schools until the age of eleven. But then, because of shortage of funds, I’d been moved from private to state education, taken the eleven-plus exam, and started at Hendon County Grammar School. In my second year there, in the junior school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’d played Theseus. So Shakespeare was a fairly early presence. In that year, an English teacher called Mr. Richards occasionally asked us to write poems. This was the kind of standard exercise that included imitations or parodies of Hiawatha. I don’t think my attempts were any better or worse than anyone else’s in the class, but I got a kick out of doing them. And Mr. Richards was an inspiring teacher.
With the Middlesex County Council scholarship, now at least the first part of my father’s dream for me was going to be fulfilled and, of course my mother jumped with alacrity onto the opportunity-wagon gifted by the announcement of the free ticket to Mill Hill. If anything, the mental model presented to me at that time was that, whether luckily or thanks to my own talent, I was now to be re-enabled to re-enter the pattern of personal development that had already been predicted and predicated for by my father. I was to be privileged.
Actually, the fact that I was admitted to Mill Hill School at all may well have been down to my mother’s ‘talent’ as much as mine. Selection was based both on reports from the candidate’s previous school and on two separate selection-panel interviews, one with the candidate himself and the other with the boy’s parent or parents. Rosalind Burns marched into the Head-Master’s office either just before me or just after her son, I don’t recall which. But I do remember her smiling with delicate satisfaction afterwards, as she told me that she’d delivered a genteel but explicit challenge to the selection panel. She hoped, of course, that “the fact that my son is Jewish won’t be held against him.” She may well have used the loaded term discriminated against, delicately barbed with opprobrium. In response, she’d been assured that of course it wouldn’t, but with one firmly stated addendum: “If Richard were to be accepted, he would naturally be expected to attend chapel each day, along with all the other boys.” Naturally expected of course meant that there could be no exception to this rule. Evidently my mother wasn’t too put out by this proviso.
I don’t think I was then fully aware of the elements of privilege and class snobbery involved in all this, even though I'd plenty of implicit intimations. My own main difficulty was that I’d been close to being happy at Hendon County. What’s more, I was busy with friends and activities outside school. My sister Alexis and I also had a dog, a smooth-haired terrier-mongrel, Bobby, which my mother had bought for us in Petticoat Lane Market. My friend Bill Foss, who lived up the road, had a dog too, Spencer. He, Alex and I often went out together to walk Bobby and Spencer on Hampstead Heath extension. Bill had also introduced me to tropical fish keeping and I had several tanks, in which I’d managed to breed Siamese Fighters. I was a junior member of Hendon Aquarists’ Club, and proud of being allowed to attend its regular adult meetings. I’d also joined the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, and had my own uniform, cap and badge. At that time, I wanted to be a doctor. Local branch meetings involved learning anatomy and first aid, as well as marching and drilling and, before Christmas, knocking on doors in the neighbourhood to sell raffle tickets. My schoolfriend Peter Leon joined me in these activities.
As for Hendon County, this was my first and only experience of co-education since kindergarten and, at the age of twelve, I’d even fallen hopelessly and secretly in love with a girl in my class, even though she never got to hear about it, and never will, unless for any unlikely reason she happens to read this, sixty years later. And even now, I still regret never having been able to tell her, and I still keep wondering what happened to her. Her name was Jacqueline Jacob and she lived very near Hendon Central tube station and she wasn’t Jewish despite her surname. Anyway, if you’re still out there somewhere, Jacqueline, and if you still have any memory at all of the blushing, tongue-tied, stuttering little squit who accompanied you to the cinema to see The Glenn Miller Story at Hendon Central but was too shy even to walk you home, in a foursome with your best friend, whose name was Sally Gould, and my best friend, whose name was Peter Leon – Jacqueline, if you’re still out there somewhere, hello. Où sont les neiges?
For all these reasons, it was hard leaving Hendon County.
Another thing was the fact that about a third of the school was Jewish, so each morning there were separate prayers for the Christian and Jewish pupils, after which the Jewish boys and girls would traipse from their smaller hall into the main hall for the rest of assembly. So far as I could see, this was an entirely tolerant and tolerable experience and I never experienced any sense of edginess from anyone else, even though, for some reason that I couldn’t identify, I did feel an odd interior embarrassment. I always felt uncomfortable and self-conscious as we Jewish pupils walked in line from the small hall to the larger one. Perhaps this was to do with a feeling that began to fascinate and puzzle me at this point, to which experiences like that walking-in-line into the main school hall contributed: my own private and inner sense of being on the border between both groups – being and belonging partly to both one and the other, but also being and belonging entirely to neither one nor the other. Let’s put it this way: I was different from the Christian kids because I was Jewish. But unlike most of the Jewish kids, I didn’t know any Hebrew, couldn’t recite the Shema Yisrael, didn’t understand the prayers, and had received an upper class English boarding-school and prep-school education, almost entirely surrounded by Christian boys and Christian culture, including Christmas carols. The only prayers I knew by heart were the Lord’s Prayer and, in Hebrew, the blessings for wine and bread. I was also completely used to being the only Jew, or one of the very few Jews, among many non-Jews. So at Hendon County School, as it was at that time, I bonded equally well with Christian boys and girls as with the Jewish ones. And I was quickly and easily able to see and read each group through the other’s eyes.
I had three other ‘inner’ experiences at Hendon County, all connected, that I still remember vividly from this time, which in my own mind have a strong connection with this sense of ‘belonging but not belonging’. These all occurred in my first year, when I was aged eleven to twelve. At one particular moment, during morning break, I totally astonished myself by very suddenly and self-consciously not wanting to play with the other kids in the playground. I wanted to be alone, and I wanted to watch them, and I did do just that, quite slowly, quite deliberately, knowingly, and knowing that I knew. And at that point, for the first time, quite dramatically and very suddenly, I had the distinct feeling that I was both among them and yet not among any of them at all, I was like them and yet not like them, and I was happy to be among them and to be like them – but at the same time I knew that I was utterly distinct from all of them, and equally happy about that too. I sensed that I’d emerged from Kenneth Graham’s Dream Days, and was coming out of his Golden Age too. And then, it crossed my mind very clearly– with that utmost seriousness of a child that can easily seem either merely comic or merely charming from an adult perspective – that I might found a new religion. It only occurs to me now to wonder if that fantasy might have been subliminally motivated by my awareness of the somehow-unbridgeable gap between Christianity and Judaism. The third of these experiences, which was of a different order again, came on the heels of the second. I remember telling myself around the same time that, whatever might happen to anyone else, Death certainly wasn’t going to get me. I would be untouchable by Death; and even if only for a very short while, I was quite sure of that. Fortunately, the second and third ideas, which both flashed briefly but powerfully into and out of my head, were swamped or quashed pretty quickly. As for the first, which was more of a physical sensation than a mere idea or fantasy, I quite consciously decided to step back into the whirl and swirl in the playground, to join the others, as one of the others. Sixty years later, some aspects of these experiences, though not their uncapturable entirety, resurfaced in The Manager (‘As a child on the playground edge’).7
Perhaps everyone goes through something like this during the time when childhood is overtaken by puberty. Even so, I don’t think my incipient sense of being ‘other’ than others – and even of sensing some kind of other or others in myself – was only part of growing up. In retrospect, while I continue to see these thoughts and sensations, these odd little perceptual flashes, as marks of puberty – indeed, as heuristic aperçus that marked life-changing shifts not only in perception but in my entire way of being-in-the world – they also constituted subtle variations and perhaps developments of my sense of not quite belonging to either Christian or Jewish groups. More broadly, though, it didn’t matter who the others were, or what they believed, or how they grouped or categorised themselves.
What’s more, this sense has remained with me ever since. And the reason I explore this here is that I now see this discovery as a precursor of one of the central self-perceptions in being a poet: that is, to belong to, to be of and among people, to treat all people as we, as us, as ours, but at the same time, to feel different, distinct and even at times alone, marginalised, cut off, set apart. Perhaps this awareness of being different from others is one of the prerequisites for and precursors of any kind of individuality and creativity at all.
Although I was sorry to leave Hendon Country Grammar School, I had no fears or qualms about going to boarding school. I’d already done my first stint as a boarder between the ages of six and eight at a little prep (preparatory) school in Sussex, and had survived that experience apparently without damage. When I’d first arrived at Normansal, that first little prep school in Seaford, I’d been the youngest boy there.8 I’d enjoyed riding lessons and swimming lessons, and had also been exposed to a bit of French and Latin. Five years later, I was to spend a further five formative years at Mill Hill, and these were the years in which I began to write poems in earnest, with Anne Frank as my first model and inspiration. So some account, however, brief, of my life at an English public school in the late 1950’s comes into the picture here.
In those days Mill Hill prided itself on its nonconformist foundation, which was one year short of being 150 years old. (As I write this, it has long passed its bicentennial too.) The Queen visited the school in the following year, and I watched her plant a tree on the lawn in front of School House. I was in Burton Bank, known as BB, which was regarded as the strictest and toughest of all the houses. A ‘house’ meant both a building and a community of sixty or seventy boys, each with its own House-Master, House-Tutor and Matron. There were seven of these houses, only one of which, Murray, was for day-boys. There were junior and senior inter-house competitions for each of the many sports on which the school prided itself, with cups awarded each year to the winning teams. The regime was standard public school: i.e. Culture, Christianity, Cruelty in a complex variety of concentrations and concoctions, ranging from the wonderful through the tolerable to the abominable and the absurd. There was of course a good deal of underlying kindness too, but this was meted out sparingly, and was hardly in evidence at all for new boys. Throughout my five years at Mill Hill, extraordinary qualities and extraordinary stupidities were, somehow, contradictorily combined into a very odd mix, which was summed up in the unquestionable word tradition. I believe this was typical of single-sex public schools at that time.
The school possessed the most stunningly beautiful landscaped grounds, with cedars and rhododendrons, and pots of ancient fuchsias that were set out in season. Some of the trees and shrubs in the grounds had been collected and planted by the botanist Peter Collinson (1694 –1768), and he had a house named after him too. The main building, School House, had a splendid neo-classical portico with six evenly spaced pillars, with a huge cedar to one side of it. Across the quad, there was a fine and famous library named after James Murray, the first compiler of the massive and wonderful Oxford English Dictionary, who had taught at the school. The path by the lower side of Top Field along which we BB boys walked to breakfast each morning, and then back again several times each day, was banked by a long line of rhododendron bushes, whose blaze of mauves and purples in the summer term was sheer delight. The beauty and spaciousness of this entire setting is still deeply engrained in me.
As for activities, there was a wide range of possible clubs and outlets for hobbies. While there were several teachers who were outright fools, others were dedicated and gifted, and encouraged inquiry and originality. And there was a huge set of choices in sporting activities. I benefited from all of these facilities and opportunities.
Whatever one’s religious background, attendance at chapel services was compulsory, once a day and twice on Sundays. Then there were more prayers each night in one’s house, led by the House-Master or his junior deputy, the House-Tutor. During these meetings, house-prefects had to take it in turn to choose a Biblical passage and read it out as a lesson. There were ridiculously petty codified ‘privileges’, entrenched bullyings, and meaningless punishments, including floggings by prefects. And there were weekly drilling sessions with rifles and in army uniforms that took up one whole afternoon each week, which I found idiotic, resented deeply and, later, at the age of sixteen, rebelled against, after reading T. E. Lawrence’s autobiography, at which point I decided I was a pacifist. At around the same time, when despite this rebellion, I became a house-perfect, at one of the BB evening house-meetings I read a passage from Thus Spake Zarathustra. In my Everyman edition, Nietzsche’s inflated German had been translated into a stylised English that was close enough to Biblicalese to pass itself off as coming from the King James Authorised Version, even if its underlying message was God is dead. Nobody seemed any the wiser and I got away with this blatant but surreptitious undermining of established religion without anyone blinking, let alone raising an eyebrow. If either the House-Master or the mild-mannered bachelorly House-Tutor had even noticed, neither of them let on.
W. H. Auden has described the public school set-up of the mid-1920’s as “liberal fascism”. In my generation thirty years later, there was still an applicable measure of truth in this quip, though at Mill Hill in the late 1950’s, it would have been more accurate to call the regime a contradictory combination of outdated Tory militarism and Liberal high-mindedness. This regime involved the so-called ‘fagging system’ and the so-called ‘year system’. Together, these enforced a sort of military hierarchy across year-groups, and a simultaneous bonding with other boys in one’s own year. The school’s entire ethos echoed, instilled and fostered twinned militarism and class consciousness in nearly every aspect and facet of structure, discipline and ritualised, regulated behaviour. To survive it effectively, you had to be alert enough to work out how to find the interstices and outlets within the system that could allow some sort and degree of freedom. In fact, if you looked hard enough, there were plenty of these available, whether positively approved or just tolerated.
Those who got treated worst were the first-year boys, aged thirteen to fourteen. We had to ‘fag’ for prefects, i.e. do jobs for them.9 We were constantly at their beck and call. We also had to get up at least half-an-hour earlier than everyone else to do regular house-chores, which we divided as fairly as we could among ourselves: sweeping, cleaning, polishing, and mopping up the filthy mini-kitchen the prefects were allowed to use. The second-year boys, who had just stopped being fags themselves, were the worst bullies of all; and the weakest, most ineffectual and most insecure of them would sometimes spend several hours yelling at an unfortunate first-year boy in the common room, especially on long boring Sunday afternoons. The second-year boys occupied one side of the common room, the first-year fags the other. Woe betide any fag who, without special permission, might have the temerity to cross the threshold of the ping-pong table in the middle of the room, which was the border dividing one side from the other. Fags very rarely got to play ping-pong. During the ordeal of the Sunday afternoon harangue, the fag was forced to stand to attention and, without flinching, listen to all the verbal rubbish that was thrown at him by the nastiest and most wheedling of the second-year boys, who possessed little short of patented licences to bully. The boys in my year were targeted by some particularly nasty specimens in the year above us, whom we universally despised rather than feared. During those afternoons it was our duty as fags to polish and re-polish all the house’s silverware: the cups and shields it had won in inter-house sports contests. By the end of each afternoons, our fingers and clothes stank of Duroglit, the canned chemically-saturated woolly tear-off stuff that we had to use for rubbing and polishing.
I still clearly remember one boy in my year weeping with homesickness during our very first full formal house meeting. The rest of us pretended not to notice, of course, and nobody said a word. I don’t think he ever recovered from that first exhibition of weakness. For it was as though this single episode was to stigmatise him forever as a blubberer, a cry-baby. I felt sorry for him, but made absolutely sure that nothing like that was ever going to happen to me. So, throughout that first year of deliberate, consistent and schematised bullying, if ever I needed a good cry or scream, I went for a walk, alone, and wept and stomped and ranted where nobody else could see me or catch me out, but always in rage rather than homesickness. I never felt homesick, partly because I was always busy, and when not busy, reading or writing. And because I’d successfully come through a boarding school experience five years previously, under no circumstances was I going to allow anybody the satisfaction of seeing me give in or go under at Mill Hill. It was taken for granted that a cheerful, strong and confident exterior had to be swiftly mapped (fixed, clamped, stamped) onto – and into – each and every boy, whatever sensitivity lay within him, and with no connection between outer mask or persona and inner subliminal feelings. In the 1950s, this was still the basic training for any traditional middle-to-upper-class Englishman, defender and upholder of Empire, hearkening back to Tom Brown’s schooldays.
I perhaps ought to add a word about being Jewish at Mill Hill in those days. This condition certainly continued to modify the sense I’ve already mentioned, of belonging-while-not-belonging, of containing, or embodying, or personifying otherness or strangeness inside myself, by the very fact of being myself, and in being most truly myself. As I’ve already suggested, I believe the beginnings of my writing poems were ineradicably enmeshed with this experience, and that the experience itself derived, as least in part, from the condition of being an assimilated Jew, a persona who was more or less as grata as anyone else in the community, but nevertheless qua Jew had to remain indistinctly distinct, or rather, distinctly indistinct.
I’ve been told recently that these days Mill Hill is full of Jewish boys and has very few boarders. I gather it has plenty of girls too by now. When I first heard that, it came as a huge surprise to me. It must be a far happier place. In the 1950s, the only chance we had to meet girls in any officially approved context was restricted to sixth-formers, who were allowed to attend weekly dancing classes, which involved girls visiting us from a local dance school, and at the annual school dance with Queenswood Girls’ School, Hatfield. As for Jewish boys, the school had a so-called quota, although it was never quite made clear exactly what the permitted limit to this percentage was. I personally got to know no more than a handful of other Jewish boys during all my five years there. And because we were in such a tiny scattered minority, even if there was a kind of unspoken recognition among us, there was no sense of communal solidarity, nor did we get much chance to consort together, especially in junior years, when everyone simply had to survive for himself. These days, there’s no fagging system any more, and I think there are a lot of boys and girls from outside the UK, especially from China, Russia and Arab countries. Well-off parents from many countries invest their money into this British system to give their children an educational headstart. Or at least they have done so until the Corona pandemic of 2020.10
At Mill Hill in 1956, the fact of being Jewish was a sort of open secret – not exactly a ‘problem’, but something one didn’t talk about overtly. Of course, there were bound to be hints here and there of a mild sort of anti-Semitism, more the result of uncertainty and inquisitiveness from boys who had ‘never met a Jew before’, and might have overheard and copied slurs or insults, rather than of any malice or nastiness. But on the very few occasions I did meet any, I contested or corrected it openly, and doing so never put me at a disadvantage. My mother had told me very clearly that if ever anyone insulted me on account of my being Jewish, I should simply hit him. I only once had to do this, early on, when a rather silly boy told me that I “walked like a Jew”, and then more as a sharp correction than with any force. I knew how to defend myself in any case. After all, I was in the junior school boxing team, the house Eton Fives team, the junior school swimming team, and the ‘Junior Colts’ rugby team. The last of these memberships was a fluke. When I arrived at the school, I’d never played rugby before. But in a practice-game on a soggy September day during the second week of my first term, when a ball tumbled loose on a sloping field, Mr. Anderson, the master refereeing, yelled “Dive on that ball, boy!” I happened to be closest to the bloated leathery egg and executed an apparently perfect dive onto it through the mud. Though never especially talented at the game, I somehow kept my place in school teams in each year and eventually made it into the First XV11. Watching international rugby matches on television is still a passion though I’m now in my seventies.
On the other hand, it never occurred to me to make any secret of the fact that I was Jewish. If this was as much a badge in its own right as the fact of attendance at a public school, then I was glad to wear it, perhaps even because of a certain element of enjoyment in the idea of ‘being different’ from the run-of-the-mill, and perhaps because of the pride bordering on defiance about being Jewish that my mother – and Anne Frank – had instilled into me.
My mother, Rosalind, always insisted that she wasn’t English, but British. To her, the condition of Englishness necessarily excluded Jewishness. This was more to do with ancestry, including family tradition and geographical origin, than with religious faith in any narrow sense. Other than for bar mitzvahs and weddings, she didn’t attend synagogue, and family funerals took place five minutes’ walk away, at Hoop Lane Cemetery or the Crematorium opposite. She was Jewish because her entire large family was, and the one was inseparable from the other. My mother’s parents, Barney and Sarah Schneiderman, had been immigrants to London from Latvia and Lithuania in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
But I’ve never felt as my mother did. I’ve always felt and considered myself fully English and fully Jewish, even if there’s inevitably some degree of tension between these elements. My mother’s attitudes, understandably, embedded several contradictions and ambiguities. On the one hand, she was intensely patriotic, and whenever God Save the King – and after 1953, God Save the Queen – was played on the wireless, my sister Alexis and I were expected to stop whatever we were doing and stand on the spot in silence. My mother herself was fully Anglicised. She’d followed her older brothers by legally anglicising her family surname from Schneiderman to Taylor by Deed Poll, and later, her married name from Berengarten to Burns. And although a Cockney at heart, and proud of having been born within the sound of Bow Bells, she spoke with a posh accent, having had elocution lessons in her early ’twenties. On the other hand, despite the fact that she’d done everything possible to ensure that her children integrated into English society, when at the age of twenty-three I told her that I was going to marry Kim Landers, a non-Jewish woman, this was painful and difficult for her.
My father, who died in 1947, had always legally been Alexander Berengarten. But in the 1920’s, as a musician and one of the first importers of the jazz saxophone from the United States, he’d adopted the name Burns – as had his older brother Seymour, who had worked in Hollywood for several years. Clearly both brothers adopted the name Burns in order to avoid anti-Semitism. After my father’s death in 1947, my mother’s legal adoption of Burns for her children was identically motivated.
It’s clear to me in retrospect that the differences between my mother and myself vis-à-vis assimilation, identity and anti-Semitism are typical of our generations. And it’s equally clear that I need to be grateful to her for being endowed with the relatively inconspicuous and neutral name Burns. Had I arrived at Mill Hill in 1956 with the name Berengarten, which was obviously not only foreign but both German-sounding and Jewish, I’m sure that an anti-Semitic stigma would have affected me, at least to some degree, and that I would have been inherently suspect to my peers and quite possibly also to some of my teachers, all of whom were practising Christians. That is to say, they all, without exception, regularly attended school chapel services. Even then, as things were in the 1950s, whenever I told another boy that I was Jewish, I’d come to expect the slightly embarrassed response, intended to be friendly and accepting: “You don’t look Jewish.”
Today I still carry this duality. Since my sixty-fifth birthday in 2008, all my books have borne the name Berengarten. At that time, as far as authorial identity was concerned, I decided to take on this name and to abandon Burns. Doing so meant three connected things: first, honouring my Jewish Ashkenazi ancestry; second, clarifying and acknowledging a somewhat complex identity; and, third, alongside and as an extension of Englishness, grounding an engrained internationalism, and even replacing the former by the latter, especially in a time when unpleasant forms of nationalism were being widely reasserted. In 2008, the first four volumes of my Selected Poems were being published. So this was the right moment to make this transition. In any case, I’d got tired of being introduced at poetry readings as Robert Burns. Even so, my legal name is still Burns. Contradiction? Complexity? Ambivalence? Yes, to all of these. Some aspects of identity, including changeability, are constants.
In September 1956, as a thirteen year-old ‘new boy’, at Mill Hill, I was still full of the impacts of my bar mitzvah – and of Anne Frank, even though nobody else around me knew this. In contrast to my experiences at Hendon County and the large Jewish assemblies and population there, this sudden transition to the complete absence – or repression and denial (?) – of any kind of public Jewish context in my new environment, was a considerable shock. And thinking more now about this absence or denial, I believe it would be more accurate to describe the new environment I found myself in, not as anti-Semitic but as non-Semitic or even a-Semitic. But inside me, my sense of Jewishness – or as one French writer, Albert Memmi, has described it, my sense of Judeity – was bubbling away, and even raging.12 What could I do about this? These deep feelings had to go underground. To express them would have been either irrelevant or tabooed, or both. But largely thanks to Anne Frank, I was able to channel them.
On the one hand, protective devices were needed, to maintain this precious identity. So, in chapel each morning, I invented a small ritual for myself. Superstitiously, every time the name Jesus Christ was mentioned, I traced out the shape of the Star of David on the pew in front of me with a forefinger. But it wasn’t long before I realised that if I wasn’t going to get very tired fingers, I would have to give up this talismanic practice, simply because this particular name was likely to be mentioned many times, even in the space of a single minute. But then I found another solution. Although I didn’t know it at the time, and had no name to describe or classify my own behaviour, this was pure passive resistance. I simply refused to bend my head in prayer at all or sing any of the hymns, and I doggedly stuck to this form of silent refutation for five years, even when I became a school prefect and, later, ‘Senior Monitor’ (head of school), and myself had to take turns with the other prefects in reading lessons in chapel from the Old or New Testament – and even when the Head Master pulled me aside one day and asked whether I wouldn’t be good enough at least to go through the physical motions of bowing my head in chapel during prayers, “to set an example to the other boys”. I declined, politely. No wonder that for years after that I was unable to sing a note in tune. The other side of the coin was that I got to know many passages of the Bible intimately, of course including much of its poetry, in the King James Authorised Version. And that was an unparalleled gift.
As I grew older, the Head Master, Roy Moore, a man whose honesty and integrity I greatly admired, occasionally showed himself willing to engage with me in individual argument, even to the extent of inviting me to one-to-one discussions on ethical issues in his study. For, example, when I was in the lower sixth, another boy (Bill Goyder) and I launched a school-wide petition to abolish the CCF (Combined Cadet Force – which involved playing army-games every Thursday afternoon). We succeeded in getting around half of the boys in the school to sign it. Then Roy Moore argued the case with me. He had survived as an RAF Squadron Leader in the Second World War and found it hard to understand my position. Even though my teenage anti-war arguments were clumsily and naïvely expressed, he gradually realised my sincerity, and allowed me a free afternoon instead of having to attend CCF activities. I sensed a mutual respect. Or was his tolerance a form of conventional and convenient co-option?
Aside from this, I explored all the out-of-class activities one was supposed to get involved in, including boxing, fives, rugby and swimming, and acting and debating. I wasn’t a great sportsman, but from my first year onward, I got into school teams for rugby, swimming and boxing. And sooner or later, I tried out every ‘hobby’ the place had to offer: for example, carpentry, pottery, painting, fish-keeping, acting in school plays, and then debating, and editing the school magazine. Even so, while I knew I was coping adequately in the eyes of others, and although I thoroughly enjoyed most of these activities – in the midst of all this, quite early on I also knew that very few of the needs in my interior world were being satisfied – throughout which, explosive things were going on, triggering and firing in many different internal zones and directions all at once, throwing me into emotional, intellectual and spiritual turmoil.
The fact of being Jewish and being unable to express this sense of Judeity was one factor. I suppose that in hindsight, one could make much of that, and perhaps too much. Retrospective selection is always slanted. Equally obviously, the absence of girls was another. Well, you might say, this was puberty, and puberty means inner turmoil and explosiveness under any circumstances. Puberty means self-questioning, and a sudden dawning sense of previously unimagined and unimaginable depths and horizons, and of depths-within-depths and of horizons-behind-horizons, not to mention gaps between subjectivities, mine and yours and theirs, and insubstantial longings, and overlapping realities.
Well, it certainly was puberty, and all this was certainly part of it. But how should I come to terms with all of this, comprehend it, express it? And is puberty all it was?
The solution was writing. Like Anne Frank, and modelling myself on her, I began keeping a secret journal, a very secret journal. To keep myself sane in that first year at Mill Hill – a year which had been systematically designed to occupy a developmental zone somewhere between mildly traumatic challenge and hellish ordeal for every single boy whose parents had decided to put him through the public school experience – during ‘prep’ in the common room each evening (i.e. the boarders’ equivalent of homework-time), as well as whenever possible after prep, I wrote in my journal. I called it, portentously, The Diary of an Adolescent. One of its first entries was a quotation from Anne Frank. And Anne Frank was my inspiration and guide.
Now, sixty years later, I can’t help wondering if, in some pubescent way, I wasn’t, at least partly, in love with her?
Then gradually, without my realising it, the writing took off in its own directions. And, suddenly, writing meant maintaining my interiority. Writing meant not going under. Writing meant staying on top. Writing meant being able to feel sorrow and sadness and anger and bitterness, and the shifts between them, and to express these states and go through to the other side of them, into a kind of clarity. Writing meant not just sadness but joy through sadness and then exhilaration and exploration. Writing meant protecting what was mine. Writing meant thinking and seeing through things, and seeing and thinking things through. Writing was the way out and way through.
And what excited me more than anything else from the verbal shapes and patterns that were beginning to get scribbled, or even scribble themselves more or less straight away into my journal, wasn’t the easily comprehensible, connected flow of prose-statements or even stories, but the far more surprising and mysterious patterning of images, proto-poems, poems.
I still have the journal. It begins with an attempt at an introduction, then an attempt at a poem, then a two-liner from Julius Caesar, then there’s this quotation from Anne Frank:
Yet I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.
Today, sixty years later, I still go along with that, and still find it amazingly wise, deep and beautiful. And I’m still writing poems, and shall go on doing so till I drop. And for as long as that may last, Anne Frank is still – and always will be – richly and fully alive in my consciousness, as the very first of my most admired and loved inspirations.
1 ‘One Thursday I skipped school’ is set in the bar of this theatre, during a matinée. The Manager, Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2011, section 22: 34.
2 The only exception was the much later experience of visiting the concentration camp at Majdanek. That was just as powerful but radically different. See ‘Meditation at Majdanek’ and ‘Tikkun, Majdanek’, in Changing, Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2016: 288 and 294.
3 In For the Living. 3rd edn., Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2011: 51-56 and 91-95
4 In The Blue Butterfly, 3rd edn., Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2011: 8.
5 ibid. 9.
6 I don’t often write explicit autobiographical poems, but the poem ‘May’ is an exception. Among other things, it explores both a Jewish childhood in London and the heritage of my father’s musicality. See For the Living: Selected Longer Poems 1965-2000, 3rd edn., Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2011: 179-184.
7 ‘As a child on the playground edge’. The Manager, 3rd edn., Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2011, Section 17: 28.
8 I later learned that Normansal was a combination of the first names of the headmaster and his wife: Norman and Sally. Sixty years later, this sounds like a prototypical email address. Later I also realised that, somewhat absurdly, this name embedded the inaccurate implication of ‘normality’.
9 So far as I know, there’s no connection between this word and the American slang fag, short for faggot, an insult to a homosexual. In the British school system a fag was a boy in his first year performing a menial task for a senior boy, usually a prefect. The expression ‘What a fag’ meant ‘What a slog, What an effort’. Much is made these days of homosexuality at British public schools. I personally had no experiences of this kind at Mill Hill, though I think most boy were aware of it going on.
10 I write this piece during the lockdown period, when many of us have been self-isolating for six weeks, i.e. not going out of our homes. Nobody knows the extent of the effects of this crisis on all aspects of our lives. One factor being discussed is that a British education will no longer be as internationally attractive as before.
11 Recently, I’ve been back in touch with Alan Stanhope. He and I were props in the First XV. He was on the open side and I on the blind side. More than half a century later, it amuses me to think that the 1960 school rugby team was propped up by two Jews. Alan has had a long and happy career as a doctor in Canada.
12 Albert Memmi, ‘Negritude and Judeity’, European Judaism, Vol. 3, No, 2, 1968-9: 4-12. “[H]aving decided to make an inventory of myself as a Jew, I quickly found the need to express, to the exclusion of other meanings, the fact of being a Jew. I noticed with astonishment and embarrassment that it did not exist; or to be more exact that the word Judaism possessed too many different meanings for it to be used with an unequivocal precision. Thus I had to adopt and if necessary forge a special term: I proposed Judeity.” ‘Judeity’, according to Memmi, designates “[…] exclusively the way in which a Jew is a Jew, subjectively and objectively: the manner in which he feels himself Jewish and reacts to the Jewish condition.” Memmi also distinguishes this term from another of his own coinage, ‘Judaicity’, which has a communal sense and ‘designates a body of Jewish persons’; and he elaborates: “Judeity is the fact and manner of being a Jew: the ensemble of the characteristics, experiences and objective, sociological, psychological and biological which make a Jew; the manner of living of a hew, at the same time his belonging to Judaicity and his place in the non-Jewish world.” I deploy his term here in precisely his intended way, preferring the Gallic precision of ‘Judeity’ to the woollier English notion of ‘Jewishness’.
13 I wrote this essay at various times between 2002 and 2020.
The Power of Prose