BookBlast reviews Pomeranski by Gerald Jacobs, a novel loosely based on his memories of Brixton in the 1950s and 1960s which was very different to the gentrified place it has become today. Now black-and grey-corporate outfits fill the streets, new hipster stores have purposely paint-chipped rustic interiors, and the over-priced street-food is largely for tourist consumption.
A motley crew is reunited at Benny Pomeranski’s funeral which “took place at a burial ground in Essex on a cold November morning in the year 2000, a week after his eighty-first birthday.” His son Simon recites the mourner’s prayer, the Kaddish, and then with his mother, Bertha, leads the way to the open grave where relatives and close friends shovel a handful of soil on to the coffin.
Images from Simon Pomeranski’s childhood bubble up in his mind’s eye as he remembers, “the glamorous and exciting life led by Benny and his colourful, rule-breaking friends and associates with their obligatory nicknames. Benny’s moniker, ‘Fixer’ – or sometimes the Yiddish term, Macher – fitted him well, as not only could he fix most of the day-to-day problems within his locally limited sphere, but he also possessed natural leadership qualities. If anybody asked him about his sobriquet, Benny the Fixer/Macher would say, ‘It’s because I’m decisive’.”
Despite the grim reality of life in post-war Britain, Benny “the Fixer” Pomeranski and his friends prospered and did well living in three-storey houses, and enjoyed the high life. Real-life characters of the period are woven into the narative giving an authentic flavour to the whole.
Simon is particularly intrigued by the presence of the once gorgeous singer and hostess, Estelle Davis, who “had certainly been at least loosely connected to that Brixton crew – the Astorians, as they called themselves.” His late father had met his mistress at the opening night of Cabaret Time at the Sly Fox club in Mayfair, along with her friend Ruth Ellis and her boyfriend whom she would shoot dead later, for which she would be hanged.
When Simon and Bertha go through Benny’s things they find an old suitcase at the top of the cupboard full of photos letters and scrapbook. Two diaries make for particularly revelatory reading.
London in the 1950s and 1960s
Benny Pomeranski was born in Bethnal Green in the East End of London while his wife Bertha Yanovsky’s early years were spent just off Brick Lane where her father bought and sold cloth to tailors. Benny ended up south of the river where he ran with the Brixton crowd that traded in so-called swag, “mostly, though not exclusively, cheap and shiny commodities sold from shops, stalls or barrows within a mile radius of Atlantic Road and Electric Avenue [ . . .] each of the gang also had his own personal moniker.”
Benny’s family business was Pomeranski Gowns in Brixton market. Little boy Simon was fascinated by the varied local characters who dropped by – the owner of a West Indian record shop, legendary horse racing tipster, the self-styled Ras Prince Monolulu,, Spanish Joe who was of Russian origin, performers from the local Empress Music Hall . . . and Benny’s friends and associates.
Whitechapel-born Samuel Golub had a pronounced limp and a particularly vengeful streak to go with it, due to an accident when he was twelve and he caught his foot in an open tram line. Petty pincher Max Baskin – Maxie the Ganoff – had an acknowledged chip on his shoulder and light fingers. Fancy Goods Harry is a versatile thief.
“Virtually all of the illicit ‘jobs’ and ‘operations’ carried out by both of Brixton’s recalcitrant teams took place well outside the local SW2 and SW9 postcodes, which, in combination, served as a secure base. For many, Brixton was home.”
After carrying out a diamond heist in Farringdon Road, the gang go on a little holiday to lie low in Bournemouth. Benny likes to think of himself and his associates “as a kind of Robin-Hood-and-his-merry-men team”. Gritty reality descends: Sam is dumped by his wife Joyce who sets up home with an Italian decorator, “Take it from me, Samuel, you are no big shot. You are a cheap little villain.”
But her Italian paramour absconds after eight weeks. At home, alone, she is visited by the most menacing local gangster and Astorians’ rival, Little Jack, who runs a successful jazz club. Samuel Golub wants revenge. And so begins a vendetta.
Boxing was Benny’s sport and he took his son to see Jewish lightweight fighter, Harry Gilbert, in action in Shoreditch Town Hall. A secondary Jamaican sub plot evolves in the shape of Joey the boxer and his unexplained disappearance which comes clear to Simon as he reads Benny’s diary. He uncovers a web of intrigue, desire and a murderous plot.
The Windrush Generation
In the fifties and sixties, Brixton had a thriving Jewish community as well as being home to West Indian immigrants arriving from the Caribbean. Gus Leslie, a Jamaican landlord, let out accommodation in the streets around Coldharbour Lane which became the nucleus of the Jamaican community in London. The arrivants had contradictory experiences, with welcoming interracial events being held by Lambeth council, while racist landlords let out run-down houses and locals displayed an unwelcoming attitude which culminated in the Brixton Riots of April 1981.
Gerald Jacobs’ father, Harry, was the de facto photographer to the black community for thirty years. He had moved to the area from the East End shortly after the Second World War, and went from running a jewellery stall in Brixton Market, to setting up a studio in Landor Road, Stockwell where he photographed local people in front of a distinctive yet never-changing backdrop. Harry Jacobs’ studio was the one of the few places in Landor Road which was not attacked during the Brixton Riots.
Pomeranski has the humour and dark undertow of Woody Allen’s romp, Small Time Crooks. Someone should send a copy of the book to Guy Ritchie. Through his memories of people and place, the author gives a sense of how Brick Lane and Brixton were almost like a village, set apart from the cosmopolitan centre of the heaving metropolis. Bawdy, vivid and entertaining, Pomeranksi is a perfect lockdown read.
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