The Trouble with Sefton

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Several years ago I described my mother’s and aunties’ interior decor as Hove Jewish Baroque Rococo and thought myself rather amusing. Then I read Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind. His description was far more impressive: ‘contemporary provincial Jewish Rococo’. Again and again I found myself identifying like mad with Mr J’s Protagonist Sefton Goldberg, English teacher in a West Midlands polytechnic. Sefton knew the furnishings, Sefton was not good enough in any sphere, he was not up to scratch physically, he was envious, guilty, sweaty and hairy, just like me, although I am a girl. How comforting it is to know that one is not suffering alone.

A rather bossy journalist once told me that the writer’s job was not to identify with the reader. What was it then? It was to amuse and entertain, she said strictly. I hope she was wrong, because it is heaven to identify – especially if one is a fairly tormented person. It can change your life.

It changed mine when I read Portnoy’s Complaint. There was a mother just like my mother, who hovered about outside the lavatory and bathroom, desperate for the latest news of bowel function and cleanliness. What had I done? What consistency? Which bits of myself had I washed after doing that? A child does not question such questions. They are part of everyday life. Then you read a magic book which demonstrates that this is not the norm and these questions do not have to be answered. You are free. You check with the rest of the world and learn that a gentile mother is different. She is restrained, polite, reserved and in her home, psychologically, there are no bottoms and lavatories.

Now here comes Jacobson, funnier than Roth I think, and so much more precise on Jewish life and gentile life, compare and contrast. How I have always envied those cool, pale Christians, as does Sefton. They are ‘hard y, healthy Protestants’ with ‘white, hairless bodies, buttons for noses’ and

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About the contributor

Michele Hanson lived with her mother, plus daughter, partner and dog, about which she wrote a column in the Guardian.

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