Sadly, I’m needing at least three months’ notice to be able to fit in reading for review at the moment, but with Pomeranski piquing my interest, I’m delighted to welcome author Gerald Jacobs to stay in with me and chat all about the book. My thanks to Grace at Quartet Books for putting us in touch with one another.
Staying in with Gerald Jacobs
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Gerald and thank you for agreeing to stay in with me.
My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Linda
Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?
My new novel, Pomeranski, published by Quartet. And it was the obvious choice because it is only just out now. A sad and somewhat eerie time for a book to be published, with all bookshops closed, but it can be ordered online and one of the best lockdown activities is, of course, reading.
It is indeed. And you’re right. I should have been organising a literary event last Saturday which sadly couldn’t go ahead. However, tell me, what can we expect from an evening in with Pomeranski?
Well, if your guest had been the main protagonist, Benny Pomeranski himself, you could expect an entertaining evening. A self-taught, well-read man who was forced to leave school at the age of 14, he was at the centre of a group of colourful characters operating in Brixton, in south London, in and around the 1950s. He and his wife Bertha (both of whom grew up in the East End of London before moving across the river after the Second World War) ran a women’s dress shop in a shopping arcade at the heart of Brixton Market.
They sound interesting characters!
Although this ‘legit’ occupation was bustling and lively in itself, far more exciting were Benny’s extra-curricular activities, mostly on the wrong side of the law. Pomeranski was known as Benny the Fixer and his associates in these endeavours included Sam the Stick, Spanish Joe, Fancy Goods Harry and Maxie the Ganoff (Yiddish for ‘thief’). They called themselves the Astorians because they used to meet in the café attached to the fabulous Astoria cinema at the Brixton end of Stockwell Road. This was a beautiful domed building of Italianate design. It is still standing today under the name of the Academy and is no longer a cinema but a major rock and pop music venue.
Ruling the criminal roost in Brixton at that time was‘Little Jack’ Lewis, a cruel, self-regarding businessman — and gangster — who also owned a jazz club in Richmond. On the surface, he and Benny were courteous to each other but, beneath it, volcanic. And, while Benny considered himself and his crew as a kind of Robin-Hood-and-his-merry-men outfit, meting out — sometimes violently — their own brand of justice, Little Jack was concerned only for himself.
I love the sound of this cast of people.
One thread throughout the entire narrative is the passionate love affair between Benny and the glamorous night-club singer, Estelle Davis, whose friends include Ruth Ellis —in real-life the last woman to be hanged in Britain, after killing her lover.
Crikey. Benny had some scary connections.
An important theme of the book, examined at a certain level, is the apparently deep-seated human need for revenge, born out of an unfulfilled sense of self, whether in the streets, the home, the boxing ring, or just in the mind. In life as in business, people always want to square the account, balance the books.
I think you’re right Gerald. Humans do have the need for justice – even if it isn’t necessarily altruistic!
For all of these things —plus a lot of music and a Jamaican sub-plot — mid-twentieth-century Brixton seemed to me to be the ideally vibrant setting.
I’m sure it is. You’ve made me desperate to read Pomeranski. So, what else have you brought along and why?
What: A glass of red Bordeaux wine and a couple of photos of Brixton residents taken by my father who became the de facto photographer for the post- Windrush Caribbean community in Brixton.
Why: The photos fit in to Pomeranski’s context. The wine fits in to any context.
Actually, I’m not a great wine drinker so you can have mine too. I’ve been looking at your father’s photographs. They are hugely evocative of the era and the people. If blog readers google Harry Jacobs photographer, they will see many wonderful images, but a good place to start is here.
Finally, if I may, because I am so thrilled by them, I’d like to quote two endorsements for Pomeranski— by two leading writers:
‘The characters come rolling off the page… This is vivid, compelling and true to life. Indeed it is about a life long gone, but so much not forgotten.’
‘Fizzing with life both low and lower, hard to put down, impossible to forget.’
My word you must be utterly delighted with those responses. Thank you so much for staying in with me to tell me all about Pomeranski, Gerald. I’m very eager to read it as a result.
As Benny the Fixer Pomeranski is laid to rest on a cold November morning at the turn of the twenty-first century, a motley crew of survivors from his youth assembles around the grave, its members ‘identified by their lived-in faces – faces that indicated a singular kind of past, a chequered hinterland.’
This encounter with the past, and the discovery of his father Benny’s diaries, leads Simon Pomeranski back to his childhood and the post-war days of the Astorians, a small group of criminals and traders in ‘swag’ who ran their business from Brixton Market and exercised their own particular brand of justice.
From this wonderful assortment of characters we are introduced to ‘Spanish Joe’, the cultured Russian emigre, Sam ‘the Stick’, with his wounded machismo and penchant for violent retribution, and the dazzling songstress Estelle, among others.
Front and centre in their world, though, is Benny himself, the autodidact owner of Pomeranski Gowns, whose passionate affair with Estelle marks the beginning of a new era for the Astorians. Both riotous and profound, this novel resurrects a vibrant era that deserves a place in our collective memory.
Published by Quartet Books on 30th April, Pomeranski is available for purchase here.
About Gerald Jacobs
Gerald Jacobs is the literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle. His book Sacred Games was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1995, Penguin in 1996 and re-issued by Faber in 2011. He published Nine Love Letters with Quartet in 2016. He lives in London.
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