The Worst of Times: Frederic Raphael talks to Danny Danziger

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I WANTED to go to Winchester, I thought Winchester was the great school to go to, and I was of a quality to go to it. I took the scholarship exam, and I went for an interview with the headmaster, who was a clergyman.

After pressing questions of the order of whether I thought Cicero was a better writer than Tacitus, he asked me, 'What do you feel about going to chapel?'

Well, I'd been to chapel all through my prep school, I mean, 'Onward Christians Soldiers' was one of my favourite numbers. So I explained to him, 'I don't mind at all going to chapel.'

'Don't you think you should?' he said.

'Not really.'

'Ah,' he said, 'you go to chapel without caring about it, do you?'

I got the impression this interview had somehow gone wrong, for reasons which I both understood and did not understand, a common experience of mine.

Anyway, in the end I was told I had been given a scholarship, and a few days later, when I'd finished rejoicing, the headmaster of my prep school called me in and said, 'I'm afraid there's been a mistake. They find they haven't got a place for you.'

I burst into tears and cried for quite a long time. I was extremely distressed. For some reason or other, they had removed from me this scholarship which I had been given, or thought I had been given.

And then he said to me, 'Here's the Charterhouse paper, away you go . . .' And so I ended up having a Charterhouse scholarship instead of a Winchester scholarship.

Charterhouse was a school of certain traditions and, unlike Winchester, where the scholars lived in a sort of ghetto of privilege called College, Charterhouse scholars were supposed to leaven the lump by being distributed among the various boarding houses.

I was a classical scholar, known as 'a professional' at Charterhouse, not a term of endearment; it merely meant that you needed to be paid to do what, if you were a gentleman, you would have been able to do without being paid. Actually, the truth was Charterhouse bought clever young persons, who got university scholarships, and then claimed the credit for that.

It was the late Forties when I started my first term, and simultaneously, in Palestine, all sorts of people were seeking to displace the British, and to establish the state of Israel. All of this was as alien to me as anything could possibly be. I mean, I had no sense of solidarity whatever with what the Jews were doing in Palestine.

But I was alarmed, and I was alarmed for myself, not without reason.

There was a prevailing air of anti-Semitism at Charterhouse. A very thin boy in the house was given the nickname Belsen, and one of the houses which had more Jews than most was known as the Ghetto.

And then one day, early in 1947, two British sergeants were killed in Palestine. The British had, of course, previously hanged quite a number of Jews, but that was not, after all, a disreputable thing to do.

Suddenly, and without any warning, nobody in the house spoke to me. I didn't really understand it. I thought there was some kind of administrative error; they then talked about me as if I weren't there, and I felt extremely isolated. This went on for a number of days.

There was one person who was a serious anti-Semite. He was a particularly resolute and, I suppose, very effective sayer of anti-Semitic things, and the instigator of others. He was the one who, I later discovered, said, 'Let's have a Jew-bait.'

People arranged for my jam to fall out of my locker and smash on the floor, or my possessions would be thrown about my room. Once or twice I found shit in my boots.

The Easter term of 1948 coincided with the time of Israel's birth. One afternoon there was a football match. A goal kick was taken by the other side, and the ball was kicked very hard, and it was a mishit, and the effect was that the ball smashed straight into my face. It was very painful, and I heard all the people on my own side laugh.

Until that moment, although I don't think I'd actually denied three times, I certainly made no strenuous efforts to announce my Jewishness. I went to chapel - I didn't bow during the Creed, but I hoped nobody noticed that - it was all very despicable. But the effect of this incident was to make me realise, with no great joy, that concealment was actually not an option, that the hope of ever being indistinguishable from these people was not possible.

My nerves were somewhat affected. I was shaken, and I think I lost a good deal of faith in myself. I don't think I've entirely recovered it.

Frederic Raphael's latest novel, 'A Double Life', is published by Orion, pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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