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26 June 2024

As anti-Semitism surges, tolerance resurfaces at unexpected moments

Also this week: The enduring glamour of America, and the agony of clichés.

By Philip Norman

She was not the kind of person you’d expect to see on a militant pro-Palestine march; she was young and golden-haired, with a smile that in other circumstances would have been thought charming. She brandished a home-made placard referencing the Keep Britain Tidy campaign’s logo of a silhouetted figure depositing something in a litter basket. Only here the binned item was a Jewish Star of David and the crudely lettered slogan beneath read “KEEP THE WORLD CLEAN”.

Anti-Semitism is said to be “a very light sleeper”, but, as a Gentile husband and father of Jewish women, I’ve come to realise it has incurable insomnia. I’ve learned how anti-Semitic remarks can pop up at any moment, often from people who otherwise seem perfectly nice. For instance, the holiday acquaintance who called anything he thought vulgar “a bit Golders Green” after London’s best-known Jewish community, and the Gentile guest at a bar mitzvah who described the dancing as “wall-to-wall Fiddler on the Roof”.

But these are trivialities compared with what has arisen in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war and made the two people I most cherish no longer feel safe in their own country. The echoes of Nazi Germany are chilling: the paint-spattered synagogues; the “unfriending” of Jewish children by classmates they’ve known since infancy; the flaunting of anti-Semitic placards before an inert police force; the resurgence of the ancient myth that Jews drink the blood of Gentile babies, and the modern one that they were behind 9/11.

Yet tolerance can resurface at the most unexpected moments. Recently, I went to Golders Green for a dental appointment, brooding about its place in the lexicon of British anti-Semitism. On my way out of the Underground, I almost collided with the station’s security guard, a towering Afro-Caribbean man. “Sorry,” I muttered. “Shalom, boss,” he replied and I realised he was wearing a yarmulke. He’d either converted to Judaism or adopted its headwear out of respect for the surrounding community. After that, my dentist’s appointment didn’t seem so bad.

The Great British Misnomer

Despite America’s decline, it remains a source of huge pride to its own people and of glamour to the rest of the world. Merely tacking “American” on to a film title lends it extra pizzazz: think American Pie, American Beauty or American Fiction. Even nasties such as American Psycho have that same sprinkle of stardust.

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In the UK, “British” in the title of a TV programme signifies irony and self-deprecation, particularly when accompanied by “Great”. The Great British Bake Off or The Great British Sewing Bee only underline how desperately little Britain can still claim to be great at.

Even more irony-laden and overused is the “very British” formula – as in A Very British Coup, A Very British Scandal or A Very British Crime Story, implying an almost lovable perverseness and ineptitude peculiar to these islands. That “very British” crime story was of the mass poisoner Harold Shipman, a blank-faced monster who could have existed anywhere on the planet. Shipman’s atrocities would fit perfectly into the new cosy-crime genre – whodunnits that make murder seem painless because no blood is ever shown. So very British.

You know I’ll be true

I have always resisted blogging, following Samuel Johnson’s maxim that “no one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”, but now you can call me a bloghead. For I’ve joined Substack, an online collective of authors and journalists, many of whom, like me, are newcomers to the blogosphere. Substack provides each of us with the means to create an email newsletter of unrestricted length, adaptable to any kind of writing.

My debut, “Read Me Do”, is the backstage story of my Beatles biography Shout!, first published in 1981 but still in print in numerous languages worldwide. As a print journalist, I used to regard my readers as remote and unresponsive; in contrast, Substacking feels like speaking directly to a circle of empathetic friends. It has taken the loneliness out of a writer’s life.

Never let it be said…

Which clichés are the most agonising? “It’s like Marmite”? “A perfect storm”? “Back in the day”? “The beautiful game”? “Fast-forward to…”? “It’s in my (his/her/their) DNA”? For me, nothing comes close to “The rest, as they say, is history” – that staple of minor celebrities bragging about their careers on television chat shows.

Were I the type given to shouting back at the television, I’d reply: “If your story’s so historic, why the f**k not finish it? And who precisely are ‘they’?”

Philip Norman’s latest book is “George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle” (Simon & Schuster)

[See also: The pain of writing a very personal memoir]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine