The novelist and the Jewish pugilist

Ned Beauman on foxes, beetles and boxers.

At my cousin's wedding there was a lot of cake, a considerable amount of expressive dancing and some botched Hebrew from the rabbi. As raucous disco classics overtook the traditional klezmer beats, I learnt about Daniel Mendoza, an ancestor of my now cousin-in-law, from a solemn young man who -- once he was no longer eating mozzarella in a gazebo -- became something of a whirling dervish on that memorable Essex dancefloor. Daniel Mendoza was an 18th-century Jewish boxing champion. He reigned supreme in the ring until one opportunistic opponent -- "Gentleman" Jack Johnson -- grabbed his sidelocks and pummelled him into submission. Henceforth, boxers have had short hair. According to Wikipedia, Mendoza was "intelligent, charismatic but chaotic" and the first Jew to talk to King George III. He died in 1836, at the age of 72, leaving his family in poverty. (Since my cousin's wedding, a new Daniel Mendoza has been added to the clan; currently 14 months old and the proud owner of a T-shirt with a squid on it. Perhaps he will grow up to be a boxer -- but probably not).

This is why the phrase "Jewish boxing champion" caught my attention when I first heard of Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer, Beetle. Among other things, Boxer, Beetle tells the story of a nine-toed gay Jewish pugilist called Seth "Sinner" Roach and a repressed beetle-fixated eugenicist whose interest in Roach is both scientific and sexual. The backdrop is 1930s London. In the present day, the tale of these two characters is linked to a Nazi memorabilia collector, Kevin Broom, who suffers from trimethylaminuria, a rare condition that makes him smell of rotting fish: "Along with trimethylaminuria I also have asthma, eczema, cystic acne, mild irritable bowel syndrome and half a dozen other absurd non-terminal diseases." Consequently, Kevin spends much of his time trawling Third Reich-related internet forums (and in a brief self-reflexive flourish, "nbeauman" appears in an online chat).

Both past and contemporary fictional worlds are conjured with a kind of Dickensian vividness and relish for the grotesque. There are characters called Horace Grublock and Leonard Bruisleand. The latter's effeminate son appears as "two unctuous costly pale limp shiny things, one of which was a silk dressing gown that contained the other". Noir influences are also at work -- the novel contains murder, a (Welsh) hitman and a quest for truth undertaken by Kevin. In the 1930s sections, the narrator's use of startling metaphor evokes the spirit of Chandler, as when a boxer "crashed into the gamblers like a bad idea into a hungry nation".

Beauman's invocation of other authors is a combination of tribute and irreverence. The country-house scenes in which assorted fascists assemble bring to mind Ishiguro, Waugh and McEwan. Here, Atonement's Briony Tallis is re-imagined in the form of the precocious Millicent Bruiseland, a freckled 12-year-old who appears at opportune moments to make explicit sexual accusations about the adults: "Mr Erskine, I have just seen your friend Mr Morton brutally sodomising your dear mother!"

Far from being derivative, Boxer, Beetle has an expansive range that merges the outlandish and esoteric into a narrative propelled by wit and inventiveness. Here is a passage that illustrates this:

Gittins was a fat otter-faced bureaucrat in his fifties who for nearly twenty years had carried around a glass vial containing a small colony of cimicids -- bedbugs -- which every night he tipped out on to his hairy thigh so that they could feed on his blood as part of some obscure long-running experiment into mandible size versus nutritional preferences.

Beauman is now working on his next novel, The Teleportation Accident, and promises that another forthcoming work will feature urban foxes in a major way. A fascination with foxes is apparent in one particular episode in Boxer, Beetle, which becomes a rare moment of aesthetic wonder : "Mangy and thin, it had sinews like twisted telephone wires, a stink like a petrol station forecourt, and a coat the colour of a traffic cone left in a skip full of rainwater. It was -- if I'm not making myself clear -- impossibly beautiful. For perhaps a full minute, the animal stared at me with a strange scepticism and a boy's eyes." Personally speaking, as a fox enthusiast, this is possibly the best piece of fox-themed writing since Ted Hughes set pen to paper. Or Roald Dahl. A loftier encomium cannot be given.

"Boxer, Beetle" is now available in paperback from Sceptre (£7.99)

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times