Book Reviews

When I Grow Up : A Memoir

By Bernice Rubens

Little Brown £17.99

Review by Anne Sebba, The Jewish Chronicle

review rubenISBN 0 316731277

Introduction by Beryl Bainbridge

Bernice Rubens was born with a novelist’s view of life. At 5′ 1″ she often had neck ache from looking up at people. But meeting the Queen Mother, who was shorter than her, gave her the opportunity to look down on her tiara; a generous cluster of diamonds. What Bernice noticed was the Woolworth’s Kirby grip fixing it to the royal hair.

Woolworth’s plays another part in this entertaining and evocative book. Aged seven, Bernice used to steal a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate from her local branch. “I could easily have grown up to be a thief,” she claims. Only cowardice prevented her. She was also, she insists, “simply a liar by nature,” who used to invent stories, or whoppers. “Though I didn’t realise it at the time, I was happily at home with mendacity. It was less boring than the truth. My natural home lay in fiction but it would be some years before I seriously settled in to those quarters.”

Yet, perversely, Rubens maintains she became a writer as a second choice. She was not a good enough musician. Here is one of the country’s most successful, most readable, Booker Prize-winning novelists as well as acclaimed documentary filmmaker, with films made of two of her twenty five books – I Sent a Letter and Madame Souzatzka – who still craved parental approval as a professional musician. Her cello (a therapy of sorts) is almost a character in the book. She vows after playing in a quartet with her talented and much loved brothers and sister that she will practise harder in future. Shall I be a cellist when I grow up, she muses?

Rubens is a natural story teller who knows how to make a good story of her own life. Starting with her childhood in Glossop Terrace, Splott, Cardiff’s unmentionable armpit, she describes how her Latvian violinist father used to pack and sell goods to miners in the Welsh valleys and her adored but over ambitious mother would send her a roast chicken by train to Paddington every Friday. In addition to the four Rubens children, during the War her parents took in a German refugee child, Hugo, whose parents were killed in Auschwitz.

She writes with great sympathy about all her ‘tribe’ – parents, siblings, daughters, and beloved grandsons – as well as many famous others who have touched her life. There’s the playwright David Mercer, a temporary lodger who used to crash out on the marital bed to sleep off his hangover; Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti, a man she considered wicked, depraved, vicious and spiteful who enjoyed manipulating her teetering marriage to Rudi Nassauer, poet turned wine importer; and her close friend Beryl Bainbridge, with whom she shared an intense interest in TV soaps.

Bernice Rubens could be outrageously funny in person yet there is a slightly muted tone to this memoir. People are more important than literature, she maintains. She does give vent to her loathing of therapy, the ‘whoring’ that writers have to do to sell books and her deep concern for the future of Israel and growth of anti-Semitism. She is ambivalent, too, about the value of teaching creative writing. Good writing needs imagination and lunacy. Rubens had both, as well as a musician’s ear for cadence and a sparky turn of phrase; married in 1947 she longs for a “brighter in-law future,” she refers to that area of Hampstead where she has always lived as “lost-dowry land,” while her desire to move, never sated, eventually leads her to a “kiss-me-quick place” in Majorca.

Bernice Rubens died a year ago this Autumn, just as she finished writing this memoir. One of the most poignantly prescient lines is her belief that God, or whoever is in charge of these things, would not take her mid-sentence. “An arrogant assumption, no doubt, but that is perhaps why I am afraid to stop writing.” And now she has, rather too soon for those of us who loved her work.

Anne Sebba is writing a biography of Winston Churchill’s American mother, Jennie Jerome