Fiddling while Melbourne burns

The column What with art installations and `Riverdance' with Hebrew prayers, the Melbourne Festival is no place for a man, says Howard Jacobson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For good or bad this has never been a confessional column. I respect our formal relations too much to embarrass you with intimacies. No writer should treat his readers as though they are his priest. Today, though, I have to get something off my chest. Bless me reader, for I have sinned. Earlier this week - O, shrive me, shrive me, holy man! - I went to see Fiddler on the Roof.

It isn't as bad as it sounds. I didn't laugh, I didn't cry, I didn't sing along with any of the favourite arias (except for I wouldn't have to work hard/Ya ha deedle deedle bubba bubba deedle deedle dum), and I walked out the minute Tevye turned his pleading eyes to God asleep in the dress-circle and put the big question: "Why?" If I want metaphysics I go to Aquinas and the Talmud, not Topol.

But I had my reasons for wanting to see Topol up close. When my father was alive people were always saying how alike he and Topol were. He was driving a taxi in Manchester when Topol first made it big. Passengers couldn't believe their eyes. My father would see them in his rear-view mirror nudging one another. Topol, it had to be; Chaim Topol, no doubt about it, maybe driving a taxi as a way of keeping his feet on the ground, staying in touch with ordinary warm humanity - who knows, perhaps even researching a new part. There was room, wasn't there, for an updated Fiddler? How many Jewish milkmen do you know these days? Whereas Tevye driving a black cab, bubba bubba deedle deedle dab ...

It was terribly bad for tips, anyway, however they understood it. How do you tip Topol?

One day a team of American impresarios piled into his taxi at Manchester Airport, saw who was driving them and immediately offered him a contract as Topol's understudy. "They actually took their pens out!" my father told us. "They wanted me to sign while I was waiting at the lights on Palatine Road!" He told them he didn't sing so well. That didn't matter, It wasn't for Fiddler on the Roof that they wanted to sign him, it was for a new James Bond movie Topol was making with Roger Moore. How was he at falling out of helicopters?

As it happens, my father had been in a parachute brigade during the war, so he would have been fine. But he didn't tell them that. He was more concerned that they shouldn't form a false impression of his physique. He pulled into the kerb and jumped out of his cab so that they could see for themselves. It wasn't that he was especially short - in fact, we are all preternaturally long in the back, we Jacobsons - but the leg department has always let us down. "OK, OK," they said. "Forget Topol. What about Peter Ustinov?" But he turned that down, too, to our relief: none of us really wanted to be uprooted to Hollywood.

Having now looked Topol over I acknowledge the resemblance. It would have been upsetting, a bit like seeing a ghost, had the part itself had a grain of dignity. But yes, a likeness: that same melancholy Pale of Settlement vitality, as though you're putting a brave face on things, having a good time only for the benefit of everybody else. And that same equivocal patriarchal benignity - bullying you might sometimes feel it to be, if you happen to be on the receiving end of it - a gift for being able to hector with charm.

That's a man's appreciation of a man's qualities, I freely admit it. No woman can possibly be expected to extend quite my degree of latitude to all that ya ha deedle deedle bubba bubba deedling, all that rolling of the eyes in the direction of a sympathetically masculinist deity every time your wife or daughter expresses an opinion.

But then I am in flight from women's sensibilities at present. The Melbourne Festival has just opened; the artistic director of the Melbourne Festival is a woman; there is dance - you know, dance - happening all over the city; there are installations - you know, installations, room arrangements - in every gallery; there are pieties about multiculturalism and violence - you know, violence, yidle-diddle wife-beating - on every poster; and, quite frankly, Melbourne is no place to be a biddy biddy man in.

You want to know why I really went to see Fiddler on the Roof when I did? To cock a snook at the Melbourne Festival.

Although I have never in my life enjoyed an arts festival, in principle I believe in them. I believed in this one when it opened last week. I joined the crowds at the junction of Swanston Walk and Flinders Street; waited for the street lights to be turned off at 7pm precisely; listened to the roaring silence amplified through a dozen speakers; and thrilled when the lone Aboriginal musician appeared in a circle of fire high above the clocks of Flinders Street Railway Station. Good. Out of the pulsing void, the Aborigine invented Australia. Let there be ... Australia! Excellent. Up yours, Pauline Hanson!

But thereafter the event rapidly lost coherence. First the cathedral went up in red smoke; then we got the bagpipes; then a species of Riverdance; then an army and navy band; then a posse of South Sea Islanders in native costume; then a Chinese dragon; then the Melbourne/Dalmatian Belly Dancing Group (any excuse to get into a big spangled brassiere); and then yes, straight out of Fiddler on the Roof itself, a Hebrew cantor in a yarmulke.

Multiculturalism, you see. But have you ever heard multiculturalism in simultaneous performance? Have you ever seen Riverdance done to Hebrew prayers? By a group of Melbournian matrons with opals in their belly buttons? And a hunting party of Aborigines painted white?

We are together in confusion, Tevye the milkman and I. We have a question we need to put to someone.

Whidle-diddle-why?

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