The Earl of Petticoat Lane: from an East End childhood to a West End life
A few weeks ago, my sister and I attended a glittering event to mark the 350th anniversary of the Jews' readmission to England. It was a concert at Cadogan Hall in central London. The Israel Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta, played Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Beet-hoven's Fifth. I spotted Sir Malcolm Rifkind and also Pete Goldsmith, whom I last saw at a youth club New Year's Eve party when we were teenagers, and who now, as Attorney General, was representing the government. Looking round, I thought of how my grandparents, only 18 months in the country at the time of the last centenary celebrations, would have marvelled at one of their grandchildren having an invite to such a ritzy do. So it was true, they might have said, you can get to the top, here in Eng-land. Look at that Goldsmith boy.
The following morning Andrew Miller's family memoir, The Earl of Petticoat Lane, arrived in the post. Henry Freeman, the author's maternal grandfather, began as a barrow boy in the East End and built a clothing empire. In the 1950s, he and his wife (the probably illegitimate daughter of an illiterate seamstress) soared far beyond even Anglo-Jewry to move in circles so refined that he was eventually introduced to the Queen. Their grandson, now the Moscow correspondent of the Economist, tells a remarkable story that has the rare virtue of extensive documentation. Henry Freeman wasn't just an extraordinary man; he kept his records in apple-pie order.
Henry's parents, Fishel and Malka, were part of the huge wave of pogrom migration out of Russia and eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Most émigré Jews had America as their destination; it was those too poor to buy tickets the whole way, or those tricked into buying tickets that stopped short at Hull or Liverpool, who would form what became Britain's largest ethnic-minority group. Henry's future wife, Miriam, came from more obscure stock: at the time of their courtship, malicious whispers in the East End said that her mother wasn't Jewish and was only pretending to be so in order to grab some of the benefits of the various Jew-ish welfare organisations.
Since Henry could no more contemplate marrying a non-Jew than he could a mermaid, he had to undertake the journey in the other direction, to Poland, to check on his fiancée's bona fides. Her father, an obscure Frenchman, might or might not have been Jewish. He appears and then disappears, dissolving out of history. But the mother's documents are in order.
The early hardships give way to the classic rags-to-riches story of so many Jewish immigrants who, with no education, built up businesses through hard work and family solidarity. But Henry's big break came during the Second World War, in a chance encounter with the then 65-year-old Walter Sherman, an upper-class golfer and wearer of Edwardian pince-nez, and the owner of a Jermyn Street menswear outfitter. Miller does not quite get to the psychological bottom of this extraordinary friendship. The letters between them become warmer and warmer: did the English upper classes really sign letters to their male friends "Love"? The word "homoerotic" hovers in the mind, but can't find any purchase on the situation.
Walter opened the doors of society to his new friend. Where previously Henry had received fob-offs from suburban golf clubs, now he and Miriam were enthusiastically advising Lady this and that on how to shift the stock at a charity jumble sale. Henry's star rose. Soon he was moving among royalty. As Miller points out, the English class system in the early 1950s was not only less rigid than we think, but clearly in some kind of decay.
But as the couple rose socially, their fortunes declined. British-made clothes couldn't compete with cheap imports from abroad, and eventually the Daimler was traded in for a Humber Hawk and then something even less refined. As they aged, the Freemans got more Jewish, not less. After Henry's death, when she became somewhat senile, Miriam pined for the working-class songs of her youth, such as "Roll Out the Barrel" and "The Lambeth Walk".
There are three good reasons to buy and read this book: first, it must be the best-documented account of the class trajectory of British Jewry in the 20th century; second, it throws valuable light on contemporary debates about immigration and asylum - the Freemans, like my own grandparents, experienced all the racism and suspicion suffered by today's arrivals; and third, it is a fantastically interesting and well-written story. Andrew Miller has done his grandparents proud - and all of our grandparents, who a hundred years ago had their noses pressed against the window watching the Jewish upper crust rattle their jewellery. l
Linda Grant's most recent book is "The People on the Street: a writer's view of Israel" (Virago)