Monday 27 February 2012

Last day at Jewish Book Week

I spent all Sunday afternoon and early evening at the final day of this year's Jewish Book Week. I can't believe its gone by so quickly. The new venue is terrific, the attendance was impressive and there were lots of books to buy. But, most importantly, the programme was one of the best ever. A big thanks must be due to Jewish Book Week Director, Geraldine D'Amico who stood down at the end of the festival. She has made the Week into London's premier literary event. She will be missed.

I have already written about the early part of the week and how much I enjoyed it and yesterday represented the big finish for me. Although I didn't realise it when I booked for Sunday's events, there was a link running through all four of my choices - Europe and the politics of identity.

The first session featured two Kindertransport related novels - Alison Pick's "Far To Go" and Jake Wallis Simons'  "The English German Girl". The session began with an announcement that Simons would not be attending as he was stuck on a train between Windsor and Kings Cross, whilst ironically Pick had made it on time all the way from Toronto! Twenty minutes in, Simons arrived and joined an interesting conversation with Pick and chair Claire Armistead.

Pick related her own personal journey, discovering that her father was Jewish and that this had been kept secret by her Czech grandparents when they managed to leave Europe for Canada, leaving behind and never seeing again, most of their relatives and friends. As she grew older, she experienced a desire to know more about Jewishness which eventually led her to convert.  Six months later her non-Jewish husband also converted. One of her main reasons for this was that she wanted a clear identity for the daughter she was carrying during this time. This theme of identity recurred throughout the day, with Alison Pick encapsulating this desire to belong through her own experience.

She told of her amazement at discovering how religious Jews observe Shabbat as before considering living a religious Jewish life, her and her husband had kept their own weekend tradition called "24 hours unplugged" when the computer, mobile phone, blackberry and TV were switched off in favour of long discussions, walks, reading, eating good food and napping in the afternoon. She feels that it must have been some kind of "cultural memory" and was adamant that she hadn't known about Shabbat tradition until she took the course that eventually led to her conversion.

Both books follow the experience of middle class Jewish children in the former Czechoslovakia and in Germany during the 1930's, the developing threat of something terrible, the initial and sometimes continued denial of many assimilated Jews to believe what was happening and the eventual heart breaking decision to send their children away, knowing they were unlikely to see them ever again. Simons' book also includes description of the reception the German Jewish girl, Rosa, received from distant British relatives who show their disappointment that she is 15 and awkward rather than a cute toddler. Simons' research revealed that anti-semitic graffiti was widespread in the east end of London in the 1930's and describes Rosa's shock on being confronted with this on her arrival.

Prickly Croatian writer Dasa Drndic spoke about her novel "Trieste" recently translated into English from Serbo-Croat. She came over as a difficult, challenging although eventually endearing woman. The daughter of partisans, she has written a novel about identity, bystanders and perpetrators set in northern Yugoslavia and Italy over a period of more than 60 years, encompassing the many wars fought in this part of the world. A large chunk of the book concentrates on the second world war, German projects to establish a "master race" through breeding and, or, stealing children from the occupied nations, to be brought up as "ideal Germans".

Drndic told us that she does not write in a linear style and that the translation had been a challenge. She is interested in form and in the original Serbo-Croat, the book had more of a physicality. There are several pages in the middle of the book listing the names of about 9,000 Italian Jews who were deported to the camps. Drndic's idea had been for readers to locate the names of their families or friends, or of people they knew and tear the page with their name from the book - this section being perforated. She explained that this would demonstrate absence of these people and their descendants, and that without them, the structure of the book, the "whole" would fall apart.

Also in the Serbo-Croat edition, she had listed the names of several known but unconvicted war criminals. These pages had been sealed, as were the lips of many people who knew about these crimes. Her intention had been for readers to cut open the pages with a paper knife, releasing these long held secrets. She told us that some of the book shops selling the original print run thought this was a printing error and sliced the pages open! I would like to see a copy of the original.

She begin the session with single word answers "yes" or "no" but eventually warmed to the valiant chair, Amanda Hopkinson, and spoke passionately about speaking out about things that are wrong, that bystanders are not innocent but complicit in evil and that we all bear responsibility for our actions, words and choices.

This session brought home to me how far the Jewish Book Week has come over the last few years, bringing a Croatian writer, largely unknown in the UK to a discerning audience and getting a turnout of more than 50 to hear her speak. It also reminded me of the former richness of the diaspora and the terrible losses inflicted over the last century.

Professor Zygmunt Bauman stood in for the elder statesman of Israeli novelists -Aharon Appelfeld, who unfortunately was not able to attend. Now retired from his post of Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds, he explored the changing position and challenges of European Jews over the the last 100 years or so. He surveyed the rise of national identities in Europe, the issue of assimilation in the period between the two world wars and the fragmented nature of European Jewry during this period.

He spoke of how the Jews did not fit with the developing national identities in the Europe of the 1920's onwards and that for many, assimilation seemed to be the only route to being a part of national society. He described the "agony" and the "splendour" of assimilated Jewry. The agony consisted of never being able to really assimilate - "once a stranger always a stranger" and that even the most assimilated Jews would not fit the "ideal" national identity of inter-war German and other European societies. The splendour was the great tsunami of creativity and achievement of European Jewry over a sustained period, despite persecution, pogroms and anti-semitic legislation.

He went on to say that the time for assimilation has passed, that assimilation today means, to quote Cynthia Ozick, "thou shalt not step out of line with thy neighbour". As many American Jews in particular  become almost indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbours, he celebrated the end of the agony but mourned what he felt is the loss of the splendour, suggesting that the great creative legacy of European Jewry has now been inherited by other outsiders. I am not sure I can agree with this when Israel continues to supply regular Nobel Prize winners across a range of disciplines and when Jewish writers, actors, musicians and artists continue to produce stunning works, but his views were interesting and were presented in a much more accessible way than much of his writing which is aimed at a more academic audience.

Finally, SOAS Professor of Israeli studies, Colin Shindler discussed his new book "Israel and the European Left" with author and journalist Nick Cohen in front of a sell-out crowd - we were told this was the first of several of the week's events to have sold out.

Shindler and Cohen discussed the history of leftist anti-semitism and the failure of the left over many decades to understand that the Jewish struggle for self determination was just one of a number of national struggles. The book discusses the anti-semitic excesses of the Stalinist periodic the old communist bloc and the habit of using the original Jewish names of former leading politicians such as Trotsky (Bronstein) and Kamenev (Rozenstein) once they had fallen from grace.

Returning to one of Professor Bauman's themes, there was much discussion about "non-Jewish Jews"who not only assimilated but adopted an anti-semitic stance, siding with the Soviet Union when it established the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, even to the extent of supporting the Soviets handing reman communists such as Margarite Buber-Neuman over to the Gestapo once the treaty had been signed.

Shindler's book attempts to explain the antagonism of the left towards Israel, arguing that the European left was more influenced by the decolonisation movement of the 1960's than by wartime experiences, leading them to favour the Palestinian cause, with this identification developing into an accommodation of  nationalism in Arab states, anti-semitism wrapped up in an anti-Israeli package and to tolerate the most appalling excesses in non-western states. Where are the left protests over the current excesses in Syria, he asked. No million man (person?) marches over this one.

His book covers a complex subject and provoked a number of questions from the audience. Unlike a number of other sessions we really did get questions rather than comments, statements or speeches that a number of people just can't resist making. This may well be due to Nick Cohen's spirited warning that he only wanted questions, would not allow speeches and if anyone wanted to make one they should hire a room! Nicely put and greeted with a ripple of applause.

So, another year's Book Week is over. It seems a very long time to the next one, and it will be a hard act to follow. Its a good thing I bought so many books to tide me over!

Saturday 25 February 2012

A mosque, two synagogues and a cafe - Istanbul explored a bit more

The Istanbul sky-line is instantly recognisable due to its many and glorious mosques. The Blue Mosque, the Suleyimaniye Mosque, Yeni Cami and of course the cathedral/ mosque Aya Sofya all attract thousands of visitors every year and are rightfully near the top of this city's list of attractions.

The Rustem Pasa mosque is a little overlooked in this embarrassment of riches, but its attractions rival the better known "stars" of the city. The mosque, designed by the great architect Sinan, was built in 1561 above the shops of the Spice Bazaar, for Rustem Pasa, son in law of, and grand vizier to, the Sultan Suleyman I. Clearly ahead of their time in terms of ideas for regeneration, rents from the shops in the bazaar were intended to cover the costs of maintaining the mosque.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Detail of ceramics in Rustem Pasa mosque
The mosque is decorated throughout with staggeringly beautiful Iznik tiles. The tiles cover almost every surface from the floor to the cupola in a riot of colour, geometric patterns and floral designs, maintaining the Islamic prohibition of depicting living beings in art. The courtyard affords shade from the oppressive heat of an Istanbul summer and despite the fairly regular groups of tourists visiting, it is possible to sit quietly and undisturbed in this little haven hidden above some of the city's busiest streets. I enjoyed a few contemplative moments in the shade, watching groups of mainly German tourists moving in and out of the main prayer hall whilst the mosque attendants reminded visitors to remove their shoes and women to cover their head on entering the building.

According to Peter Clark in his excellent book "Istanbul: A cultural history" Rustem Pasa had a bit of a reputation for being "tight fisted, commercially minded and an exacting tax gatherer". He may well have been unpleasant but he clearly had the good taste and great presence of mind to engage the genius Sinan to design the mosque. Sinan is himself, a fascinating figure. Born into a Christian family in Anatolia, he was brought to Istanbul in the annual "devsirme"- a round up of talented young non-Muslims. Trained as a military engineer he later won the patronage of Suleyman l and in 1538 became the chief imperial architect. He died in 1588, aged 97, and in his time built 131 mosques and at least 200 other buildings.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Torah scrolls, Istanbul
In addition to Istanbul's famous and beautiful mosques, the city boasts many churches and a surprisingly large number of synagogues. There has been a Jewish presence in this city since Byzantine times, but the 1492 expulsion from Spain is estimated to have brought 40,000 Jews to the relative safety of Ottoman Istanbul. The Jewish population of the city peaked in the 19th century at about 55,000. This has declined significantly since then to something like 20,000 today, but with many choosing to leave since the move towards a less secular form of government in Turkey in recent years.

During the second world war, large numbers of Jews found refuge in Turkey and the Turkish Ambassador to France, Behic Erkin, was instrumental in helping several thousand Turkish born or descended Jews to escape either to Turkey or to live under his protection in France. His grandson, Emir Kivircik has written an interesting book about him called " The Turkish Ambassador" available in a somewhat idiosyncratic but readable English translation.

There are many examples of non-Muslims achieving high office during Ottoman times, but it would not be true to say that there were not periodic moments of danger for the Jews in Turkey. This included during the second world war when many people in Government were pro-German and large numbers of the Jewish, Armenian and other non-Turkish communities were impoverished by the Varlik Vergisi, or wealth tax, imposed on them. Morris Farhi writes about this period in his novel "Young Turk" which follows a group of teenage friends discovering adulthood. People who did not pay the tax were placed in a concentration camp near Erzurum in Eastern Turkey where at least 20 died as a result of the conditions.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Neve Shalom synagogue
On my first visit to Istanbul in 1996 I tried unsuccessfully to visit one of the city's synagogues. Unable to get access at the front of the building I went into a side street to see if there was another entrance. Spotting a gateway with a policeman on duty I thought that must be it. I couldn't have been more mistaken. It was a state run brothel and the guard laughed hysterically and told me to visit the Grand Bazaar instead! This time I managed to visit two of the city's working synagogues. This is no mean feat and requires careful advanced planning, involving making an application ahead of your visit and producing your passport on arrival at the synagogues. There are also strict security checks on arrival, especially at Galata's Neve Shalom synagogue.

Over the years, Neve Shalom has suffered three terrorist attacks. In October 1969 a stick of dynamite was thrown through a window in the early hours of the morning causing damage but not injuring anyone. On 6th September 1986, during the morning service, Arab terrorists managed to get inside the synagogue, throw bombs and machine gun 25 people to death within a few minutes. The synagogue has a clock where the time is stopped at 9.17 a.m. the time of the attack, whilst a metal frame encloses traces of the bomb explosion and gunshots on the wall. A third attack was thwarted in 1992, but on November 15th 2003 a van carrying 250kg of explosives was detonated outside the synagogue killing 6 Jews and 18 Muslims and injuring hundreds of people.

The calm interior of Neve Shalom belies these terrible events. Once through the security checks you are free to admire the spacious synagogue, the beautiful cupola and the women's gallery, protected with Ottoman style screens so as not to distract the men! On leaving the security guard lifted my yarmulke from my head. I thought this was because he didn't realise it was mine and not one borrowed from the synagogue. I was wrong. He told me it wasn't safe to wear it in the street.

Ashkenazim are a small minority in the Istanbul community, numbering about 700, down from a peak of 10,000 in 1925. The Yuksekkaldirim Ashkenazi synagogue in Galata was inaugurated in 1900. Much smaller than Neve Shalom it has a homely feel to it, boasts a beautiful cupola and an interestingly curved women's gallery. When I visited a few older men from the community were chatting in the doorway and after confirming my identity I was given a warm welcome by the shammes. Interestingly there is still a small Karaite community in Istanbul, and one Karaite man was present during my visit. Married to an Ashkenazi woman he complained that he was not fully accepted into the community.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Cupola of the Yuksekkaldirim Synagogue
There are still more than 20 working synagogues in Istanbul. Many others have closed and are now used for other purposes - the Zulfaris synagogue houses the Jewish museum whilst the former Tofre Begadim synagogue now houses the Schneidertempel arts centre. It is hard not to think there will be more closures as the slow but sure exodus of Turkey's Jews continues.

Some distance from the main tourist areas, at the top of the hill in Eyup Cemetery, stands the Pierre Loti cafe. The cafe is named after the French novelist Pierre Loti who visited Istanbul several times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He quickly became a Turkophile, wearing local dress, smoking the nargilah and allegedly frequenting this cafe. Most famous for his romantic novel "Aziyade" he was also an early travel writer. His book "Constantinople the Way it Was and The Green Mosque at Bursa" can still be purchased and is an interesting example of an early travelogue.

Whether this is the cafe he frequented or not, it is extremely popular with tourists who make the Pierre Loti pilgrimage here to see the pleasant 19th century interior of the cafe, to buy memorabilia from the shop (including some pretty good reproductions of old postcards) and to take in the fantastic views from  the hilltop across the Golden Horn. Sitting outside the cafe nursing a Turkish coffee with the obligatory piece of lokum (Turkish delight), breathing fresh air and enjoying the view, I could understand why Loti might have come here to relax away from the crush of the city and to hold court with his apparently many admirers. In his introduction to "Constantinople the Way it Was", Faruk Ersoz tells us that "Istanbul ladies had him followed so as not to miss the slightest detail of his conduct and his dress". Early paparazzi or stalking perhaps.

Istanbul by Yekkes
The kitchen of the Pierre Loti cafe
For more photographs of Istanbul, look here.

Thursday 23 February 2012

More from the Jewish Book Week and a musical detour

I seem to have chosen the best events to attend at this year's Jewish Book Week. Following a great start on Sunday, the fun has continued with a journey into the Jewish Europe of the 1930's, a thriller set in Jerusalem and a look at the work of one of the world's greatest designers!

On Tuesday evening, Bernard Wasserstein gave a preview of his forthcoming book "On the Eve" which examines the condition of European Jewry in the late 1930's with his objective being "to capture a glimpse of European Jewry in its final moments".

He explained that his book focuses entirely on the Jews themselves, not their persecutors, enemies or would be rescuers as so many books looking at this period tend to do. His findings were interesting, and, he claims, show that European Jewry was in terminal decline before the war started. His evidence for this  included the emigration from Europe of one million Jews in the inter-war period, including 400,000 from Poland alone - leaving for economic reasons in the 1920's and for political reasons in the following decade. In addition to this the Jewish birth rate in many European countries had fallen below the rate of replacement with more deaths than births.

Also from Poland he cites the decline in readership of Yiddish newspapers and the increase of Polish language Jewish aimed journals. The driving force of religious Jewish life, the Yeshivot was also in decline, with a total of only 20,000 students throughout Poland in the late 1930's,  whilst census details from the Soviet Union in particular indicated the collapse of Orthodox Judaism. Writings from the period included those of Misnaged Rabbi Rodzinsky of the Agudath Israel community lamenting the "spiritual decline" of the community in relation to the laws of shabat, kashrut and marital purity. Newspapers in Salonika, the heart of Sephardi tradition in Europe included articles criticising Jewish mothers for bringing food to the synagogue for their children. On Yom Kippur!

Wasserstein faced stern questioning from some of the audience who drew attention to the fact that Jews in the Soviet Union may have denied being religious in order to protect themselves, and that Jewish culture wasn't collapsing, but was merely evolving or secularising through the works of Kafka, Freud and others.

Fiercest questioning came from a woman who cited the works of photographer Roman Vishniac as evidence of the shtetl communities being alive, well and thriving to the end. I love Vishniac's work and have taken the opportunity to reproduce some it here, but I have to agree with Wasserstein that the reason Vishniac took the shtetl pictures was due to his fear that this way of life was nearing its end. Although the lady in the audience was not convinced, there is further contemporaneous evidence of this fear in the works of  author Joseph Roth, especially in his books "What I Saw" and "The Wandering Jews" in which he expressed his fears that the Jews were on the edge of disaster and warning against the impending deluge.

The session was interesting and troubling - Wasserstein ending with the assertion that if the Holocaust had not happened, that a specifically Jewish culture in Europe may have all but disappeared anyway, due to emigration, low birth rates, assimilation and increasing secularisation. The book will be a challenging read.

On Wednesday I attended a session with Tunisian born, French based and sometimes Israeli resident Chochana Boukhobza who spoke about her book "The Third Day", recently translated from French into English. The session was conducted in French with translation from an excellent and thorough interpreter, whose name I missed, but who has a beautiful speaking voice!

The book is a thriller based in Jerusalem, examining themes of revenge, memory and everyday life in diverse Israeli society. The book has a strong musical theme and Boukhobza described the various characters as soloists playing alone and also as members of the full orchestra, making a full concerto when playing together. She continued the musical analogy describing a gentle beginning to the book as being a few "trumpet sounds", followed by "notes from other instruments" so that the notes appear in the mind of the reader.

I liked Boukhobza very much and was fascinated by her intense expression as she considered the questions as they were translated for her, pushed her hair backwards and forwards or from one side of her head to the author and smiled at the audience as her responses were translated back to us. I loved the way she described her book as a bus and the characters as passengers who get on the bus, and may stay for only one stop having reached the end of their journey, some may stay the whole route  and others may get off and then back on as the bus continues on its way. She also described them as bulbs, saying she didn't know whether they would develop into tulips or crocuses and that she "scrabbled in the earth to create a garden".  I bought her book and am looking forward to reading it.

Later the same day I went to an idiosyncratic session with be-hatted Israeli designer and architect Ron Arad. He took a full house on a journey through his personal history as a designer from his early days in London, including the development of the famous car chair, the book-worm (he made much of not being a writer and though this design piece might be why he had been invited to speak) and of course the wonderful Design Museum in Holon, Israel. He illustrated the hour with many anecdotes, some clearly tongue in cheek, but many that demonstrated the sometimes unusual circumstances in which great things develop. He told the story of the Holon municipality saying they wanted a "building we would be proud to put on a postage stamp". He also told the story of deciding to open his former studio door one Christmas holiday to a man with a French accent who wanted to buy some of his chairs who later turned out to be John Paul Gaultier. This was in 1981 and Arad explained he hadn't known who Gaultier was at the time! He used the full hour and said he could go on for at least five more...and I think lots of the audience would have been happy to stay and listen!

Once again a great series of events, this time with a perfect mixture of history, suspense, humour and art. And once again, lots of money spent in the bookshop (well I don't drink or smoke, although I do like cake). And I've still got Sunday yet!

As if this wasn't enough I dashed from Kings Cross to the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston to see Daphna Sadeh, an Israeli bass player and her band, playing a selection of Sephardi, Arabic, Gypsy and Jewish traditional or inspired music. The first set consisted of a number of pieces from her 2007 recording "Walking the Thin Line", including the title track, "The Voyager Song", "Aziza" and a fantastic version of "Debka" which featured a terrific darbuka performance from Guy Shalom.

The second set was equally tight and included work from a later recording "Reconciliation" which can be found on John Zorn's Tzadik label. The title track was one of the highlights of the evening with Stewart Curtis shining (as he did all night) on clarinet but also playing the flute and piccolo on other songs. Trombone, oud and baroque violin completed the line up.

All this on a Wednesday night!

Monday 20 February 2012

A great evening at London's Jewish Book Week

I can't think of any other city in the world where I could replicate the last few hours spent at this year's Jewish Book Week at Kings Place near Kings Cross.

Topping the bill was Deborah Lipstadt, in conversation with Anthony Julius. Ms. Lipstadt is known to many as the woman that the British Holocaust denier David Irvine pursued through the courts, alleging libel for referring to him as a denier in her book "History on Trial". Mr. Julius, himself an accomplished author, successfully defended her at that trial and their respect and admiration for each other  could clearly be seen in tonight's exchange.

The focus of discussion was her recent book "The Eichmann Trial" which marks the 50th anniversary of that landmark event in Jerusalem. This included an examination of why the trial was so important. She explained that at the Eichmann trial, for the first time, the world heard evidence about the Holocaust in the first person singular, that stories were brought to the world in a much more personal way, beginning the process of opening the flow of survivor testimony. There is a myth that until the Eichmann trial,  survivors had not spoken about their experiences. Not true says Deborah Lipstadt - it was just that no-one had been listening.

There was much discussion of Hannah Arendt's controversial take on the trial, in her book "Eichmann in Jerusalem", including evidence of remarks made about Jews that would have been deemed unacceptable if made about other groups or by a non Jew. Ms. Lipstadt did give Arendt some credit however, for drawing attention to the fact that the Eichmann trial was the first time since the year 70 and the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, that Jews were able to sit in judgement on non Jews who had done them wrong. That's almost 1900 years in case you hadn't worked it out.

I have heard Mr Julius speak before and he is eloquent. I had not heard Ms. Lipstadt previously, but I warmed to her very quickly. She gave direct answers, did not embellish her arguments with conjecture and even managed to make us laugh. She made a reference to the sometimes prejudice of "Yekkim" against eastern European Jews, qualified by referring to her own part Yekkes heritage with the joke "I get places on time, but out of breath".

She is working on a new book, part of a series by several writers concentrating on a single word from Jewish history such as "shtetl" and "emancipation". Her word will be "Holocaust". She gave some clues about what the book will cover - an exploration of why this word has come to be used rather than "Shoah", what will the word mean when there are no survivors left to testify in the first person and what does the word really mean? I have already read the Eichmann book and look forward to the new one.

She illustrated the importance of first person testimony by relating a story about her older cousins, brought up in southern Ohio, close to Kentucky. The family had Black "help" including an older man who had been born a slave and who would take the cousins to meet other people also born into slavery. There are now no living survivors from that time. She explained that we know that slavery was evil, but we can't hear the victims speak of it and so are missing a vital link to that experience.

Evil came up in an earlier session when French writers, Agnes Desarthe and Fabrice Humbert spoke about their recent novels, both of which have Holocaust related stories. I was interested in Desarthe's explanation of why she wrote "The Foundling". Her grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 and she described her feelings about this as "carrying my mother's grief". She compared this to the type of grief or response to events such as September 11th, when in real time we can witness death on a massive scale, without leaving our homes. How do we cope with this knowledge? Is our grief real grief, or as she described it "recycled grief".

When asked about current French attitudes to France's behaviour during the Holocaust, she replied that she didn't think there had been a coming to terms with many things in French history, especially the Holocaust. She spoke about being invited to do a reading and signing in France, explaining to the audience that the Holocaust was the backdrop to "The Foundling" when the host cut across her saying "People won't like that, we have heard so much about that, people won't like it..." and that this is a fairly common response to discussion of this period in France.

Fabrice Humbert's book "The Origin of violence" links back to the Holocaust from current times but he felt that his book is more about memory than the event itself. He spoke about the third generation of survivors being able to speak more freely about this period and more able to speak to their grandparents about their wartime experiences than their own parents were. He agreed that his work forms part of a recent canon of French Holocaust related materials including movies such as "Sarah's key" and the forthcoming "La Raffle" - seen in London last year as part of the Jewish Film Festival. He was less critical of French attitudes than Desarthe, saying that the debate began to change in the 1960's, but agreeing there are still problems.

My first session was with writer Neill Lochery who has recently published "Lisbon - war in the shadows of the city of light, 1939-1945". He told a fascinating story of espionage, stolen (and as yet unreturned) gold and German and Spanish plans for the invasion of Portugal in 1941, postponed by the Germans due to being "engaged in the east" and never implemented by the Spanish - Franco having planned a "greater Spain".  He also told of the heroism of Portugese diplomats issuing visas to Jewish refugees against dictator Salazar's instructions, such as Aristides de Sousa Mendes who was rewarded by being driven from office by his own government. Other characters appearing in this book include British Royalty and actor Lesley Howard. Perhaps truth is stranger than fiction. I bought his book as well as Ms. Desarthe's.

Jewish Book Week is 60 years old this year and to celebrate this anniversary, it has moved to a new venue, leaving the somewhat down at heel Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury for Kings Place, a large, new cultural centre with great transport links.

The allocated seating for the major events is a well advised innovation making for a much more orderly entrance to events (dispensing with that Olympian activity of moving seats several times before the show starts) and the Kings Place cafe provision is at least one thousand times better than at the previous venue. The book shop is also better organised than in recent years with its own discrete space. I like it. Can't wait for my next event on Tuesday evening.

Monday 13 February 2012

Return to Istanbul

Grande Rue de Pera, now Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, late 19th century
I first visited Istanbul in 1996. I didn't go back until the end of 2010, when with some trepidation I arrived at a much improved airport and joined the queue to get my visa on arrival . The trepidation was due to the large number of Israeli stamps in my passport and Turkey's current attitude towards Israel.

Luckily, the bored looking woman behind the counter merely held out her hand for the passport (and the money), gave it a cursory glance and put the sticker into my passport saying I could stay for up to 90 days but that I wasn't to work. A nice thought, no work for 90 days. I was only staying for four days. Istanbul was much changed from my memories of the previous visit and I discovered many things I had managed to miss before.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Pera Palace Hotel
I had planned the visit for some time and the date kept changing. That was because I wanted to stay in the Pera Palace Hotel in Beyoglu. The hotel had been undergoing an extensive refurbishment which was delayed several times, but it was certainly worth the wait. Work on the hotel commenced in 1892 and was completed in 1895. Architect Alexander Vallaury, born in Istanbul but with French connections, designed the building in a combination of Levantine, Moorish and art nouveau styles that have been retained for the most part.

The hotel has had many famous guests over the years. Agatha Christie stayed here and was inspired to write "Murder on the Orient Express" - rather apt as the hotel's initial heyday coincided with many more people travelling across Europe and making their way to Istanbul. Many Orient Express passengers are known to have stayed at the Pera Palace. Greta Garbo, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway also stayed here, but the most famous guest was Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. He was first a guest in 1917 and the hotel has a small museum to commemorate the times he spent there.

The hotel was extremely modern for its time and had the first electric lift in Turkey. The lift, which can still be seen (although not used) today was described by Daniel Farson as "...the most beautiful elevator in the ascends like a lady who curtsies. Tourists cannot take their eyes off this utterly pretty and aristocratic elevator". The new look hotel includes a restored patisserie (interestingly), a beautiful lounge (pictured here) and a more functional dining room - the Agatha Room - named for Ms Christie. I asked for a room with a view of the Golden Horn and got one - which meant I could see great sunsets and early morning views of Yeni Cami (which means new mosque - well, it was in 1663 when it was completed) and the Suleymaniye Mosque on the other side of the water. Lovely.

One of my reasons for returning to Istanbul was to explore the art nouveau buildings I hadn't really known about the time before. Many of these are located on and around Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), formerly known in late Ottoman times as the Grand Rue de Pera. I love this street. Pedestrianised, day and night it is thronged with Turks and tourists, shopping, selling, talking, loitering, drinking coffee, trying to get on the single car tram that runs up and down its length or just promenading to see and be seen.

Istanbul by Yekkes
L'automne at the Markiz Patisserie
Istiklal Caddesi has lost many of the art nouveau gems it once had but a few remain. Perhaps the best known of these is the former Markiz Pastanesi at number 362. It started life as the Lebon patisserie and was once the hub of stylish bohemia in Istanbul. It is now owned by a pretty dreadful fast food chain. Thankfully, many of the original features have been retained at ground floor level including the gorgeous tile panels "Printemps" and "L'Automne". The Markiz was also designed by Vallaury whilst the panels were the work of J A Arnoux. Panels were originally produced for all four seasons by Ch. Boulanger at Choisy-Le-Roi and shipped to Istanbul, but only Spring and Autumn arrived intact and were installed in the 1920's. Beautiful art deco stained glass windows have also survived in the adjoining corridor. A must see for anyone interested in art nouveau or deco, and they don't mind if you take photos - but stick with coffee and pastry rather than eating a meal here.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Lift shaft of neglected art nouveau building on Istiklal Caddesi
Further down the avenue, at number 212, lies the Aznavur Pasaji, somewhat damaged by a poor quality upper extension, it still retains some of its nouveau features, especially the window grating over the entrance and the brackets supporting the bow window. There are many other buildings in the street with art nouveau features, some in terrible condition, others being lovingly restored. Look up as you walk along, or if you have the nerve, push on the main door to apartment buildings and peep inside the lobbies and stairwells where the bold will be rewarded with a glimpse of bygone splendour.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Aznavour Pasaji on Istiklal Caddesi
Istiklal Caddesi is also home to some excellent book shops, several of which sell books in English - and not just the regular tourist aimed books with post card style pictures, but more interesting items looking at the history of Istanbul, collections of photographs from the early years of the 20th Century as well as Turkish writing translated into English.

I especially like the works of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. Pamuk's autobiographical book "Istanbul" is a must read for devotees of this city, leading you through back alleys, inside the old yalis (wooden houses) by the water and also inside the culture of bourgeois Istanbul families of the middle and later part of the 20th century. His fiction is equally compelling, if not the easiest read. "The Black Book" transported me to some very dark places in this huge city. I could feel the biting cold of a winter's night in the poor parts of the city and the confusion of the narrator as he begins to assume the identity of a missing (murdered) journalist during Turkey's dark political days of the 1970's.

Both Ms Shafak and Mr Pamuk have been in trouble with the authorities for referencing the Turkish genocide of the Armenians before, during and after the First World War, something still not acknowledged in Turkey. Shafak is a more accessible writer than Pamuk and I love her well drawn characters, particularly the women and the ever present sense of how the present and the future are impacted on by the past. Like Pamuk, her stories are full of unfolding secrets, some shocking, others amusing. Try "The Bastard of Istanbul"  or "The Flea Palace". Her characters are diverse and include Armenians and Jews as well as "Turkish Turks".

My favourite shop on Istiklal Caddesi has to be Denizler Kitabevi. Small but beautiful, it is packed with new books, antiquarian books, prints of historical scenes of the city, paintings and "interesting little things". I bought a small collection of vintage cigarette boxes from the 1950's and so am the proud owner of fantastic packaging for brands such as "Aristocratic", "Sambul", "Pera" and "Jenedje" cigarettes. Some of the packages feature Egyptian images and appear to have begun life in Cairo. I have no idea what to do with them, but I take them out from time to time to just enjoy looking at them!

Sambul cigarette box from Denizler Kitabevi
At the western end of Istiklal Caddesi there is a very steep street called Galip Dede Caddesi. This leads down to the water, past the Galata Tower. In Sah Kapisi Sokak, the small square at the foot of the tower, there is a great restaurant - Enginar, which means artichoke. The menu is probably best described as  modern Turkish. The service is good and friendly and the interior is nicely decorated with the work of local artists, whilst jazz influenced Turkish music is played. Enginar has outside tables too, although the street can become a little noisy in the evenings.

Back on Galip Dede Caddesi, there are many small music shops selling instruments such as oud, saz and darbuka. There is also a fantastic little CD shop, Lale Plak, which has been in business for more than 50 years - be sure to check the retro business card and images of the original owners in the shop window. Heavily into jazz (which is good for me), the staff are very knowledgeable and helpful and introduced me to the music of Yinon Muallem. For the uninitiated, he is an Israeli percussionist and darbuka specialist, who spent some years in Turkey - his music heavily influenced by Sephardi Jewish culture. A nice introduction to his music is the album "Sultan icin klezmer".

Interestingly, Israeli musicians seem very popular in Turkey. Yasmin Levy who performs in Judeo-Spanish (sometimes referred to as Ladino) is well known here - her father having been born in Izmir in 1919, whilst bass player, pianist and latterly singer, top jazz artist Avishai Cohen regularly performs to sell out crowds. I also discovered two Turkish jazzers whilst in Istanbul - the wonderful female vocalist Julide Ozcelik and pianist Kerem Gorsev. Her "Istanbul Jazz" album is full of smooth numbers whilst Gorsev sometimes comes close to a more classical style on his "Orange Juice" album (Update - Julide now has a second album - Jazz Istanbul Volume 2 - also excellent).

Istanbul is full of cafes of all styles. You can find traditional hole in the wall style cafes in the bazaar areas where Turkish coffee, teas and sweets are served from early morning to late night; branches of Starbucks and other global brands; local chains and modern independent good quality coffee shops and of course the small number of survivors from the Belle Epoque era, such as Markiz or the cafe in the Pera Palace.

Tucked away in a back street behind Istiklal Caddesi and off Yenicarsi Caddesi, is Kafe Ara. I only discovered it on this visit, but it quickly became a favourite. The cafe is named for Ara Guler, the quintessential Istanbul photographer. The walls are decorated with prints of his photographs of ferries on the Golden Horn surrounded by thick black smoke, crowds of people crossing the Galata Bridge and views of the desperately poor back streets of the Balat neighbourhood. A nice touch is the use of his images as paper place mats - if you ask nicely, they will give you some clean ones to take home as souvenirs. Good pasta, great coffee, great ice cream and a great location for a break from exploring this part of the city - the cafe is a little hidden from the main drag and appears to be a favourite with locals, including students, professionals and arty types.

If you would like to see more pictures from Istanbul, please go to the Istanbul set on my flickr account.

Galata, Istanbul, late 19th century

Thursday 9 February 2012

Stepney Green - my part of East London

Stepney Green has been my home for almost ten years now. Although it isn't trendy like near neighbours Spitalfields and Shoreditch, it has many treasures and much history.

My own building, Dunstan Houses, is a case in point. Built in 1899 by the East End Dwellings Company, it was intended as affordable accommodation for working class people, was set up with work shops in the courtyard, a caretaker service and was overseen by a board that took regular reports on issues relating to rents, repairs and modernisation works, and the caretaker's annual salary increase!

The hand written Director's Minute Books of the East End Dwellings Company can be consulted at Tower Hamlets Local History Library in Bancroft Road, Mile End. Amongst the dense but easily read text, are some gems such as the comment from a board member on 6th April 1908, that there was " for further tidiness and cleanliness in the buildings..." whilst on 16th November of the same year "the Chairman was requested to deal as he may think best with certain difficulties that had arisen in connection with the superintendent". What he had done is not specified but I hope he enjoyed it.

The flats were not much different to how they are now, mostly two rooms, both of which would have been used to sleep in and several flats had more than ten people living in them. The 1901 census report shows a family called Davis living in my flat, he a 29 year old cloth merchant, with a 27 years old wife, Alice and three children - Leah aged seven, Hyman five, Esther two and Alexander just one. Although going by the name of Davis, it is almost certain from the forenames that the family was Jewish. There was also a sixth resident -  Bessie, listed as "sister-in-law", a Dutch subject and employed as a cigar maker.

A long term resident of Dunstan Houses (pictured below) told me that when she first moved here 30 years ago and gave the address to taxi drivers, they often said "Oh, you mean the Jews' houses". Very few Jews still live in the area.

A little nearer to Mile End Road, at number 4 Stepney Green is a building that bears the legend "Daren Bread Best For Health" (pictured below). Now residential, this was once a bakery - a 1976 photograph of the building has the word "Hovis" superimposed over the original slogan but this has been lost with time. The 1923 Kelly's Directory entry for this address lists a bakery belonging to one Samuel Weinbaum. The 1973 edition still lists the address as a bakery, but this time under another owner's name, A. Lewis. By this time, most of the once dominant Jewish community had already left for North West London, for Essex or in some cases for Israel.

Stepney Green, London by Yekkes

Stepney Green has not been without famous residents. Rudolf Rocker, the German anarchist and trade union organiser (can you be both?), who incidentally was not Jewish, and who organised sweated labour into unions spent a few years in Dunstan Houses - although we don't have a blue plaque to prove it. Come on Tower Hamlets...

Writer Bernard Kops was brought up on the opposite side of the green in 23 Stepney Green Buildings, now Stepney Green Court. He has written widely about the East End, including "East End by the waters of Whitechapel". He tells a story of a very different East End and of a naive childhood born out by his story of the stranger in the park with the magnifying glass..."He'd catch the rays of the sun and burn pieces of paper, and we'd all stand around and fan the flames...we had been warned not to go near him. On this Saturday morning he burned the paper as usual, and touched us all, boys and girls, between the legs. The next moment a policeman was gripping hold of him and pulling him away. We followed him as he was being dragged along the Green. I couldn't understand why the policeman was hurting him so much, all because of a magnifying glass and a few pieces of paper..."

Opposite Dunstan Houses, on the other side of the green, there are some very beautiful houses, some of which date from the 18th century. Amongst these are numbers 35 and 37 - formerly the Jewish Old People's Home, whilst close by the Rosalind Green Hall, now a boxing club was once an Orthodox synagogue. This stretch of properties now exchanges hands for seven figure sums, but the Local History Library has an interesting estate agent's advert from 1985 offering one of them, grade two listed, with nine rooms, two bathrooms and a garden for the princely sum of 85,000 pounds! If only...

Other, now defunct, Jewish establishments were the Stepney Jewish School which closed in the 1970's but is still there and is now residential whilst the old East London Synagogue(pictured below) is also a block of flats called Temple Court. There is little on the outside of the building to mark this but I am told a few of the internal features have been retained.

Stepney Green, London by Yekkes

Victorian municipal pride was often expressed through the provision of monuments. We have several in Stepney. On Stepney Green itself, there is the sadly neglected Montefiore drinking fountain. The cup has gone, there is no water and the text is wearing away badly. Adjacent to the fountain is a small enclosed and well kept area with a clock tower monument to one Stanley B. Atkinson, who we are told lived a short life from 1873-1910 but in that time was a Stepney Councillor, Guardian of the Poor and member of the Metropolitan Asylums Board. There is a further tribute to him on the first floor of the Local History Library. The monument is pretty but none of the clocks work. Tower Hamlets?

Out on Mile End Road, just around the corner from the Green stands the magnificent former Wickham's Department Store. The Wickham family were originally drapers who traded from 69-73 Mile End Road. In 1892 the proprietors of number 75, the Spiegelhalter family of clockmakers and jewellers agreed to move to 81, allowing the Wickhams to expand into 75. In 1927, the Wickhams, by this time doing very well acquired the entire block except number 81 and this time the Spiegelhalters were not for moving. This meant that the planned department store had to be built around their shop which continued to trade, landlocked by Wickham's. It also explains the lop sided shape of the building.

The Spiegelhalters saw the Wickhams out as the department store closed in the 1960's whilst the jewellers remained until 1982 finally selling out to an off license. From then onwards, the beautiful classical style building was sadly neglected becoming home to a DIY store and a branch of Blockbuster - both now closed. In 2011 the upper level of the building re-opened as banqueting rooms with a Tesco Metro and a sports shop on the ground floor and the promise of more shops to come. We shall see, but not quite the grand scheme the Wickhams (pictured below) had of rivalling Selfridges.

Stepney Green, London by Yekkes

This part of Mile End Road has hidden treasures. Behind the old department store and behind a heavy wooden door is a tiny row of cottages with what can only be described as English country gardens with foxgloves, snapdragons and other delights. I am told that these homes were once tied accommodation for brewery workers and that the rents were fixed at a ridiculously low level for the last families connected with the business. Is this true? There is also a luxury hotel called Forty Winks, located in a Queen Ann townhouse dating from 1717.

Alittle further down Mile End Road and you come to Trinity Green, a horseshoe of almshouses with a chapel at the bottom. The houses were built in 1695 and carry the legend "This Almes House wherein twenty-eight decay'd Masters and Commanders of Ships, or ye Widows of such are maintain'd, was built by ye CORP. of Trinity House 1695. The Ground was given by Capt. Henry Mudd of Ratcliff an Elder Brother, whose widow did also contribute" (sic). Eight of the houses and the chapel were destroyed or badly damaged in the second world war, but some restoration has taken place and Trinity Green has a mixture of residents today. Peep through the railings to get a glimpse of village life on the noisy Mile End Road in the heart of the East End.

There are yet more monuments near Trinity Green, including statues of William Booth and King Edward Vll, whilst on the other side of the road is a plaque to mark the spot of a house once lived in by the famous explorer Captain James Cook.

So, we don't have a cafe society or thriving bar scene in Stepney Green and we don't have a market or niche shops, but we do have some fantastic buildings, lots of history and the best cheese cake in London at Rinkoff's bakery in Jubilee Street, just off Mile End Road. And for a cool million or so you can have an 18th century house overlooking the Green...

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Ze'ev Raban: painter, illustrator and father of Israeli design

2012 saw the 100th anniversary of Ze'ev Raban's arrival in Eretz Israel at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, first as a student and then as a teacher.

Born as Wolf Rawicki in Lodz, Poland in 1890, he studied decorative arts from 1905 to 1911, first in his home town and then in Munich, Paris and Brussels. Many of the influences he absorbed during this time would emerge in his later work, but with a distinctly Levantine take on them. It is this combination of styles and influences that appeals so much to me. I love the boldness and the optimism of his work, the rousing use of colour and the stylised depiction of biblical scenes and figures.

Raban came to Eretz Israel as part of the Second Aliyah, one of a wave of immigrants who revived the Hebrew language and worked on the land, creating a new type of society, different from diaspora Jews and not wishing to live on charity as some of the established communities did.

On arrival he joined the Bezalel at the invitation of its director - Boris Schatz, remaining there until 1929 as director of the repousse workshop and teacher of anatomy and decorative arts. Working with other departments, he designed a number of large objects including the beautiful Elijah Chair of 1925 that can be seen in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He came to be considered the main proponent of the Bezalel style, bringing together European influences, techniques of Eastern applied art and Jewish and biblical themes and motifs.

Over time, he took a stronger "eastern" approach to his work, particularly adopting the image of the Yemenite Jew as the model for biblical or Hebrew figures in his work. The second wave of Yemenite aliyah between 1908 and 1914 saw whole families arriving in the country and many were employed in the school, especially in the silversmith, stonemasonry and carpet making departments. Several also acted as models.

Raban was a committed Zionist and was commissioned by the Jewish National Fund to design posters to encourage tourism. He designed two which are still reproduced and sold today, original copies changing hands at huge prices. One depicts a western tourist pointing at a map of the country beneath the legend "Come and see Erez Israel", with a series of important Jewish religious sites displayed around the edges and a prominent advertisement in English and Hebrew for the Bezalel and its products. The other is a biblical scene overlooking the city of Tiberias and the Kinneret.

These themes were repeated in his illustrations of biblical scrolls, including the Song of Songs (1914-18), Book of Esther (1927), the Book of Ruth (1930) and his famous Ten Cities of 1930 which shows ten of the holiest Jewish sites in Israel.  My own copy of the Ten Cities is a personal treasure. Leafing through the tissue divided pages and gazing at the images of Rachel's tomb and Hebron stir me to want to visit these sites. It is still possible to pick up original copies of these and other Raban works from time to time. Trionfo at 9 Dorot Rishonim Street (off Ben Yehuda) in Jerusalem sometimes has copies as does Pollak in King George Street, Tel Aviv.

Trionfo is especially worth a visit as serious customers are offered strong arabic coffee and invited to take their time to look through the stock and chat with Abraham Medeisker or his son Gali, both of whom are extremely knowledgeable and able to locate just the right item! The shop is crammed with Israeliana, old books, posters and artefacts. It is a real treasure house.

Raban's tourist poster designs led to broader based work in advertising. In  1925 he was commissioned by S.Tokolwsky, the owner of the Jaffa Fruit Company to prepare labels for the orange crates. This resulted in an icon of early Israeli design showing a man dressed in a white blouse, red sash, blue narwal and turban standing on the beach and a robed arab figure. The city of Jaffa is visible in the background. The text reads "'Lord' Jaffa Oranges Famous for Flavour". Other advertising work followed including for Nur cigarettes, Ariel cigarettes, Carmel Oriental wine and, my own favourite, Havilio Halva. There is something about Raban's skills as a story teller that makes me want to buy these products, despite not being a drinker or a smoker!

I have often thought about the seeming contradiction between his use of biblical motifs and the production of commercial art to sell cigarettes and oranges. Some people argue that like all artists Raban needed to put bread on the table and this would certainly be true. However for me, the beauty of the commercial works and the iconic status they have achieved lead me to believe he approached this field with equal seriousness and also considered them to be important artistically.

Raban lived through some of the most turbulent years of Israel's history, including the Mandate period, the  War of Independence and the wars of the 1950's and 1960's. A story is told about how in 1922 during a period of strained relations between the British forces and the Jews, the Bezalel students were sent out to collect used gun shells for decorating vases or to be melted down for other works.

Normally the British would ignore this, but on one occasion arrested a young student, holding him for several days, believing the School was collecting weapons for combat. The episode ended with a surprise attack on the School, with the soldiers breaking the doors down only to find the shells being used for artistic purposes. To commemorate the event, Raban created new doors, now on display in the Artists House, Jerusalem.

It is still possible to see some of his ceramic designs used to decorate buildings in Tel Aviv in the 1920's. Several of these are on the exterior of buildings - real gems being the Municipal School in Ahad Ha'am Street, the exterior sign on the Ismaylof home and the Moshav Zkenim synagogue on Allenby Street. These works conjure up times of great creativity in Israel, a time when great artists, poets, writers, actors and musicians frequented cafes and salons, creating a unique Hebrew and Israeli culture from their many different backgrounds and influences, with Raban being a key figure in this renaissance.

Topping the bill has to be the recently restored Bialik House on Bialik Street in Tel Aviv. A beautiful, eclectic style building, whitewashed on the exterior, the interior is a blaze of reds, blues, greens and other vibrant colours showing scenes from Jewish history interspersed with the motifs of the 12 Tribes and the signs of the zodiac. Normally photographs are not allowed, but I managed to get a dispensation on my most recent visit. 

Raban died in 1970, blind and suffering from Parkinson's disease, a sad end for a man inspired to create beautiful images and who chose to communicate his view of the world through such visual means, but he has left a legacy that still inspires admiration today.

Sunday 5 February 2012

A Musical Interlude

Last night I got to see Mario Biondi and his fantastic jazz ensemble at the final night of a short residency at Ronnie Scott's in Frith Street, Soho.

I discovered Mr Biondi about a year ago on one of those great JazzFM compilation albums through his best known track - the extremely danceable "This is what you are". I followed this by trying (and buying) his album "Handful of soul" where accompanied by the High Five Quintet he treated us to the original take of "This is what you are" as well as a couple of well known songs "Rio de Janeiro blues" made famous by Randy Crawford and "On a clear day" the all time Barbra Streisand favourite together with a number of new songs. His style is a mixture of jazz, bossa-nova and what JazzFM terms "luxury soul".

Of striking appearance - he is bald and extremely tall, he took to the stage dressed in black leather trousers and what appeared to be a mixed fabric black frock coat with a massive black leather cravat and huge glasses. Normally I would expect such attire to be way too hot for Ronnie Scotts, but it was snowing outside and the temperature had dipped below zero, so maybe he wanted to be warm! However, the most striking thing about Mario Biondi is the extremely deep voice that sounds exactly the same live as it does on his recordings.

He ran through some of his better known songs including "I love you more" "I'm her daddy" and "Can't keep from crying sometimes". Biondi was very relaxed throughout and happily engaged with the audience to the point of encouraging a sing along version of the Temptations "My Girl". He also performed one of the two songs that Burt Bacharach wrote specifically for him.

At one point he invited singer Samantha Iorio on to the stage to join him in a brilliant duet of the Deneice Williams classic "Free" and of course closed with "This is what you are" that had half of the house on its feet - well, it's hard to stand up if you are on the benches! For an encore he treated us to his reading of "Nature Boy" - I can't seem to find a recording of him doing this song, so maybe its coming soon?

As well as great vocals and engaging chat from Mr Biondi, we were treated to a fantastic performance from the band, all of whom were excellent, but for me two musicians particularly stood out, pianist Claudio Filippini and trumpet player Giovanni Amato. In fact, Mr Amato almost stole the show with a breath taking display of improvisation and interplay with both Biondi and his band mates. The gig was a real feel good experience before braving the falling snow to go home - although braver still were the hardy souls waiting outside for the second house!
Biondi was born in Catania in 1971, began singing in church at the age of 12 and has worked with some very big names including Chaka Khan, the Crusaders and Incognito. He also recorded "Everybody wants to be a cat" and "Thomas O'Malley" for the Italian version of the Walt Disney movie "The Aristocats". The "Handful of soul" album is a good introduction to his work, but a live performance is something to look out for.

A week earlier I had been in the tiny Vortex Club in Dalston, Hackney to hear all time great British jazz vocalist Norma Winstone. This gig was part of a series of jazz concerts sponsored by the Goethe Institute and included a second set of Ms Winstone's interpretation of Kurt Weill songs. She confessed to being a little nervous about the arrangements of some of the songs and about how they would work as jazz vehicles.

She didn't need to worry as the arrangements worked very well and the audience seemed to love her versions of "Bilbao Song," "My Ship", "This is new" and especially "September Song" - one of Weill's most poignant compositions. If she really was nervous, she didn't show it and shared some humorous asides including about the title of one of Weill's shows "Knickerbocker Holiday". She closed with a humour injected "Mack the knife", swinging in the style of Ella Fitzgerald and leaving us wanting more - which unfortunately we didn't get!

Norma's style is old school, relaxed and sincere and she can scat along with the best of them. I particularly like her 1997 album "Manhattan in the rain"which includes a Kurt Weill song - "It never was you" whilst she was also the featured vocalist on the "Will you walk a little faster" track on Gerardo Frisina's 2010 "Join the dance" album.

For fans of Kurt Weill, Dee Dee Bridgewater, who was at Ronnie Scott's herself last year, did a whole album of his songs a few years back, entitled "This is new" - well worth checking.

New York may well be the jazz capital of the world, but London certainly runs it close with Ronnie Scott's, Pizza Express and the new look Vortex as well as a whole range of small, local clubs and pubs. We really do have it all here!