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That “happy families are all alike” line is rubbish – just consider Ian Buruma's memoir of his grandparents

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War is a personal story of two German-Jewish émigrés as they make a life in England.

It is one of the measures of Tolstoy’s greatness that he has had us all repeating the first line of Anna Karenina – “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – as if this statement were both insightful and true. It is certainly striking and suits his purpose as a novelist, whose first job is to get the reader’s attention. If proof were needed, however, that this happy-families-being-alike stuff is rubbish, then turn to Ian Buruma’s moving memoir of his maternal grandparents, Bernard and Winifred Schlesinger.

They called each other “Bun” and “Win” in the decades upon decades of correspondence discovered in the attic of their son John Schlesinger (the film director who won an Oscar for Midnight Cowboy, and Buruma’s uncle). Why so much correspondence between a married couple? The plainest answer is that they met in 1915, at a musical soirée in north London, and were soon separated by the Great War and, a couple of decades later, by another. They were separated even after the First World War by their families, who believed that they were not old enough to know their own minds. They were not allowed to wed until 1925.

But from the beginning to the end – they were married for six decades – they were devoted to each other. “I am sitting in one now deserted & rather shambly room, with memories of your dear self still haunting it,” runs a typical letter from husband to wife, written in 1942, as Bernard is about to be shipped out of England. As a doctor, he had a relatively safe war – but at the time neither knew that he would not be killed, and one of the most striking things about the book is the way in which the letters convey the fear and uncertainty of those years:

Oh the partings. A dark cloud passed over the sun as your train steamed out this morning. I fear it may stay below the horizon for some considerable time for that is my rather gloomy vista whenever you are away from me . . .

Yet the dark cloud that hovers over this book is not merely one of separation. For, although Buruma’s book – part memoir, part biography, part history – begins with memories of Christmas festivities with Bun and Win that were as English as English could be, the Schlesingers were German-Jewish émigrés: Buruma’s great-grandparents were born in Germany. So the book becomes a meditation on identity and the complex place (though rarely acknowledged, either inwardly or outwardly) that such a family occupied in England. One of Buruma’s friends, taken to meet Bun and Win in the 1970s, remarks that his grandparents “were the most English people he had ever met”. Their home – a vicarage in Berkshire next to a mid-Victorian Gothic church – “was like something out of Agatha Christie”.

Buruma shows, with love and care, the forging of this identity, the balancing act required. One of the most fascinating aspects of the conversation between Bun and Win (reading their letters really is like overhearing a conversation) is the way in which they distance themselves from the people they call “45s”. To be “45” was to be overtly Jewish – less assimilated than the Schlesingers. (Buruma has no idea where this term came from: New Statesman readers, can you help?)

Yet they did not ignore what was going on in the world around them. Kristallnacht, starting on 9 November 1938, was the spur for many families in Britain to try to get people out of Germany; but the Schlesingers had begun planning to take in 12 young refugees months before that awful night, and helped raise them to adulthood. The widow of the rabbi who was called in to care for the children’s spiritual welfare says simply of the Schlesingers: “They were angels.”

Both at the beginning and at the end of this lovely book, its author wonders if he is doing the right thing in exposing his grandparents’ lives to us. They were people who believed in propriety: Win took care to burn her father’s letters. “I hope they would have forgiven me for making them public,” he writes. I feel sure that they would.

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War by Ian Buruma is published by Atlantic Books (305pp, £18.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.