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Lynn Barber’s An Education: Out Of Eden In London and Manchester

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September 1973 and I travel from Sheffield to Manchester by train to start a new job. It’s a journey I know well but my notoriously poor sense of space and direction kicks in and I get off the bus from Piccadilly Station at the wrong end of Prestwich.

A fatherly chap sees small, ungainly me struggling with an outsize travel bag, stops his car and offers me a lift. I accept and 10 minutes later after a chat in which I learn his own daughter is a Blue Bell dancer I’m dropped outside the front door of my first digs.

Several years and not much to yack about later, I’m still in North Manchester and walking down Bury New Road very late evening after a reporting job. A seedy character slows his car and offers me a lift. I keep my head down and trot home – by now a Salford bedsit – as fast as my pudgy pins can carry me.

Yeah, I’m still here – and so is journalist Lynn Barber who, 12 years before me, was picked up by an attractive guy twice her age while waiting for a bus in the pouring rain. But her story is glamorous enough to have made into a glorious film.

An Education — with a screen adaptation by Nick Hornby — is a semi-fictionalised account of her memoir so before I do the forensics, I’ll give you the official synopsis:

It's 1961 and attractive, bright 16-year-old schoolgirl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is poised on the brink of womanhood. Stifled by the tedium of adolescent routine, Jenny can't wait for adult life to begin. One rainy day, her suburban life is upended by the arrival of an unsuitable suitor, 30-ish David (Peter Sarsgaard). Urbane and witty, David introduces Jenny to a glittering new world of classical concerts and late-night suppers. Just as the family's long-held dream of getting their brilliant daughter into Oxford seems within reach, Jenny is tempted by another kind of life. Will David be the making of Jenny or her undoing? 

Neither my own tale nor the blurb even begin to scratch the surface of the film or the real-life story behind it, whose narrative is set just before the '60s really begin to swing. Not only is the unsuitable man shifty Jewish wide-boy, David Goldman, but wildly precocious Jenny’s parents encourage her to marry him as they see it as a cheaper, easier alternative to earning a degree at Oxford.

In a far briefer time than the more recent technological revolution changed life forever, people a few years my senior experienced free-love, dope, feminism, the legalisation of homosexuality, the near-abolition of capital punishment, and a massive lurch towards left-wing liberalism.

Even the Catholic Church got in on the act and while Jenny’s headmistress (a stunning cameo performance by Emma Thompson) mouths the traditional cant about Jews as Christ killers, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) dropped centuries of Holocaust-generating anti-Semitism and made Jew-hatred a sin.

I was fascinated to watch this scene on a second level knowing that in reality Thompson often babbles the ‘new anti-Semitism’ against modern Israel. Certainly age-old antipathies don’t disappear overnight and my guesses are several:

Jenny’s (Barber’s) headmistress would have had her prejudices reinforced when it was learned that ‘David’ (really Simon Goldman) was not only as shady as hell but an associate of the Jewish racketeering slum landlord, Peter Rachman. I’d love to know, incidentally, if Barber and novelist Linda Grant have discussed the latter’s novel, The Clothes On Their Backs, which features Rachman as ‘Sándor Kovacs’. Grant has said: “(I have been forced) to think of the moral dilemma posed by the sheer existence of people like Peter Rachman … His flashiness and lust for life. The ethical problem he poses – a man who is a Holocaust survivor and goes on to become a slum landlord – is the central one of our age …”

Goldman’s long-suffering wife stayed with him through innumerable affairs with much younger women, not only for the sake of their children but because in the early 1960s a divorce would have been far more difficult and twice as humiliating as the adultery. This situation would have been magnified a hundredfold in the tight-knit Jewish community during an age when one was “a Jew at home and a non-Jew in the street”.

A third – extremely shaky – hunch is that Barber’s eventual husband, David Cardiff, described in a newspaper interview as “an olive-skinned, dark-haired artist” was of Jewish stock. Her in-laws, Maurice Cardiff and former RSC actress Leonora nee Freeman had to elope to Gretna Green to marry as Maurice’s parents had disapproved of the match.

If I’m correct, then the self-willed Barber is as fair-minded as she is brainy. But her early life-lesson taught her to trust no one — least of all her parents — for whom she continues to harbour a spirited, robust contempt. I’m unsure whether I’d express such feelings publicly knowing that they are still alive and that such behaviour could injure associated, innocent parties.

While I must suppose that being an only child creates an obstinately self-centred attitude, I suggest that her very status forced her parents to concentrate their often misplaced attention on her from the outset. I must also muse that like many driven, excessively gifted people she’s also highly sexed and was born on the cusp of an era which allowed her to fulfill both that urge and a quite aggressive independence to the limit.

But her story is set in London. The north-west provinces – including Liverpool and Manchester – were far behind. I’ve been assured that in the early '60s local kids drank nothing stronger than coffee, even at hip city-centre dance clubs.

A few years down the line a trendy late-night supper club like the Garden of Eden in Manchester’s Whitworth Street didn’t last long and a young Irish comic named Dave Allen who performed there complete with fag-end and whiskey glass wished he hadn’t bothered to make the trip.

But all that was before 1973, the Yom Kippur War, and more than 30 years of intermittent and increasingly serious anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activity on U.K. student campuses. All of this seems to have turned the latest generation of Jewish kids to drink. But let me leave you wanting more…

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About Natalie Wood

Born in Birmingham, England, U.K., I began working in journalism a month before the 1973 Yom Kippur War began. I emigrated from Manchester to Israel in March 2010 and live in Karmiel, Galilee where I concentrate on creative writing, running several blogs and composing micro-fiction. I feature in Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoirs On Jewish Life and contribute to Technorati, Blogcritics and Live Encounters magazine.