Building Jerusalem

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I met the novelist Ruth Adler thirty years ago. She was then in her eighties, an elegant, quietly spoken but forthright woman. For a while she had been, as my husband put it, one of his many mothers. For much of his childhood during the Second World War and in the years that followed, while his own mother was working after her divorce, Raphael was parked on relatives or close friends. All of them, like Ruth Adler – the pen name of Ray Waterman – were members of the British Communist Party, the majority having joined in the 1930s. ‘Party’ households were not renowned for their comfort; Raphael’s mother scorned domesticity as bourgeois. So he generally found himself in cheerless, spartan rooms strewn with a few utilitarian items, table and chairs piled up with pamphlets, as if awaiting a committee meeting. But Ray’s house was special. Soft furnishings, pottery, paintings and, above all, the feeling of a home.

These memories came to mind as I read Ruth/Ray’s novel Beginning Again (1983) for the first time recently. At its centre is Rebecca Lederman and her love for her husband, Morris, a man entirely given up to his political work. Rebecca shares and respects his views – they are both ‘Bolshies’ – but she also wants time to herself to write. Rebecca, Morris says, is a romantic. She would rather read Dickens than the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper. She argues that great art is universal, not to be reduced to a political point of view. What’s more she believes in beauty. Yet her writing always comes second, or third, or fourth, because she too feels a deep debt to the past, to those who have suffered before her, whose memory must be upheld, and to those who are suffering injustice in the present. How, she asks herself, can one be a writer, selfishly scribbling away, when so much in the world is wrong?

The book opens in 1945 as the Ledermans arrive at their new house in north London. Rebecca is 3

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About the contributor

Alison Light lives in Oxford. She has recently written A Radical Romance, a memoir of her marriage to her first husband, the historian Raphael Samuel, who was brought up, in his words, ‘a fanatic child Communist’ in Britain.

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