The first thing that strikes one about the Conway family is the noise. The air is filled with Father’s sudden roars of rage, the slaps he lands on his son Howard, and his two other children, the flying plates, the slamming doors. Then there’s Grandma with her noisy coos and kisses, her cries of ecstasy one moment and shrieks of woe the next. It’s no wonder Grandpa is always going off for a little lie-down. And, of course, behind all this hubbub there are family secrets.
Marrying Out (first published in 2001 as The Handsomest Sons in the World!) is a memoir of growing up in the 1950s in a Jewish family in Willesden, in north-west London, all monkey- puzzle trees and crazy paving. Written by Harold Carlton, thinly disguised here as Howard Conway, it begins when he is 12 and is reluctantly being prepared for his bar mitzvah by a chain-smoking rabbi who looks like a gangster. It is a very funny, very clearly observed book, with moments of outrageous farce but also layers of great sadness. Grandma, as a character, is as vivid as her orange dyed hair, her chalk-white powdered face, her scarlet lips and painted talons, and her magnificent histrionics.
While Howard was growing up in Willesden, I was just a year or two older, living with my parents in Camden Town, a few miles away. Our family, though not Jewish, also had its secrets which, at that age, I only half-understood. For me, Marrying Out brilliantly evokes what it was like to be an adolescent in London at that period – the bottle of Kia-Ora orange juice on the table, the milk-bars in the streets, Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds at the cinema, Alma Cogan and the sobbing crooner Johnnie Ray on the radio. It was a time when post-war drabness was just starting to brighten and we were beginning to be excited by the tacky glamour imported from America. Bubblegum had arrived. We also heard the first rumours that spaghetti was something other than flaccid worms in tomato sauce which came from a tin and you put on toast. Coffee bars opened and we saw the path to bohemia via cappuccino. I tried to smoke Gauloises.
I remember the sudden public excitement over, of all things, fried eggs. A brilliantly lit restaurant opened, just off Leicester Square, and as you queued on the stairs to get a table you could look through a window at men flipping fried eggs. The great thing about it was its brightness and the fact that it seemed a bit American. This was our idea of excitement and sophistication, the first sign that food could also be a spectacle. And there was more to come. Steak houses! Dark red velvet! Candles!
These memories come back as I read Marrying Out. I recognize the buzz when Uncle Frankie and Uncle Jack return from America filled with thoughts of business opportunities, the gap in the market, new ideas. They bring the message across the Atlantic: fast food is the new big thing and they want the family to invest in their enterprise. They set up a chain of restaurants, the Egg & I, and this is the first sign of a rift in the family, the first omen of disaster to come. You could say that, in the end, Howard Conway’s mother and father were brought down by a fried egg.
Then there was sex and the adolescent boy in the 1950s. Like Howard, I too felt the thrill of fascination and alarm when I first saw the prostitutes posturing and parading in the streets of Soho. I expect, like me, he took a furtive sideways look at the windows of the shops in Charing Cross Road selling marital aids and, maybe, like me, was mystified about the purpose of that rubber tubing and by the truss which always seemed to be the centrepiece of the display.
Being an enterprising 12-year-old, Howard also goes to Willesden public library to borrow copies of The Collected Works of Sigmund Freud, pretending they are for his mother who is ill in bed and bored. The librarian suggests Agatha Christie, but Howard insists on Freud. There is a certain piquancy to his choice, as he adores his beautiful mother and hates his father.
Like most children, Howard assumes that all families are like his. He believes it is normal to have a father who is an embittered, unhappy man, in partnership with his father-in-law in running a factory producing superior ladies’ handbags. He even thinks it’s normal to have a Grandma like his.
Grandma and Grandpa are well off and every Saturday the family gathers in their large flat in one of those grand Edgware Road mansion blocks for a gigantic tea. The rule is that you have to eat until you can announce that you are ‘bursting’. The kosher rules of diet are not so closely observed. The family’s Jewishness is not about religion – Howard’s father says it is a lot of baloney – but it is, as they keep insisting, in the blood. Being Jewish is what gives such intensity to their family life and such power to this story. This is why Howard’s bar mitzvah has to be so lavish and explains why Grandma is so outraged when her son Jack falls in love with a non-Jewish girl, a shiksa, and why she goes to such lengths to stop him marrying her.
When Jack finally has the courage to pack his case and leave home to be with his girlfriend there’s such a scene that Grandpa is driven, yet again, to go and have a lie-down; and the actual wedding, when Jack marries out, is one of the many magnificent set pieces in the book, at once hilarious and agonizing. It takes place at the Kilburn Liberal Reform Synagogue one drab November morning and, of course, it is more like a funeral, except there are no flowers. Grandma has commanded that Christine, the bride, must not wear white and nobody must dress up for the occasion. She herself is in a black dress and fur coat and an intimidating mass of jewellery. Her face, naturally, is the mask of Tragedy. As with all excruciating social functions, the question of placement takes on too much importance. Grandma is determined to prevent ‘Aunt Hilda’ (more of her later) and the bride’s father from getting even close to the chuppah, the canopy under which the wedding party is supposed to stand. It is at this point that Grandpa, astonishingly, has the courage finally to stand up to his wife.
In Marrying Out, Howard emerges as a serious-minded boy with a sketchbook and a dogged ambition to become an artist, in defiance of all family tradition. He is a worrier and, like many teenagers, even though he only partly understands the family situation, he feels the responsibility weighing on him. You sense he is really the most grown-up of them all; he is the one who always takes on the duties of peacemaker.
Above all, he is devoted to his monster of a Grandma. Her life is not just a performance, it is a gala performance, it is operatic. She lives constantly on the brink of catastrophe. When she watches her grandson crossing the Edgware Road she expects him to be run over at any moment and shouts her warnings at every step of the way. And when, against all the odds, he makes it safely to the other side, she yells, ‘Don’t forget to keep yer bowels open!’ When her darling, cosseted son Jack is sent to America ‘to get the shiksa out of his system’, she locks herself in her bedroom and goes into deep mourning, from the moment he buys his air ticket, days before the trip, to the time he telephones to announce the astonishing news that he has actually landed safely.
We, the readers, can see that Grandma can also be cunning and vengeful, often propped by whisky, and occasionally by smelling salts, but young Howard Conway stays loyal and affectionate.
Meanwhile he is also Grandpa’s confidant, accompanying him to the cinema on Saturday afternoons and keeping the secret of his visits to Aunt Hilda, who is, of course, not an aunt and not Jewish either.
Poor Grandpa. All he wants is a quiet life and the routine of his days at the handbag factory, his trips to the cinema, his weekly visits to the barber where he is pampered and given ‘the works’, but Grandma won’t even allow him a quiet death. When he has a heart attack she is at maximum volume, shrieking him back to life. ‘Max! MAX!’ she yells into his face. ‘Don’t leave me, Max. DON’T LEAVE ME!’ Later, Grandpa swears he died, but, hearing her screams, didn’t dare continue his journey to the other side.
Behind his lazy good nature, there is something cagey about Grandpa. He is reluctant to answer direct questions; he retreats for a little lie-down when the going gets tough. Did he really, as a young man, once sing at the Paris Opera? He is not saying. And, as we discover, at the end of the book, Aunt Hilda is not his only secret.
Grandma shares this secret. You could say it is the one thing in her life that she has kept quiet about ‒ until she finally confides in young Howard. At last, we understand the poignancy of her situation and we come to feel a true sympathy for her. For me, this is what makes Marrying Out a perfect tragicomedy.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 43 © Oliver Pritchett 2014
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 27: Harold Carlton, Marrying Out