This is an excerpt from “The Swag Man,” by Howard Jacobson, an Amazon Kindle Single Tablet Magazine published this week. To buy the full story, visit Amazon. You do not need a Kindle to read the full piece after purchase. Any computer, e-reader, tablet, or mobile device will do.
I believe my father forgave me in the end for not being the easy-going, rough-and-tumble son he would have liked and, from a practical point of view, could have done with. My younger brother got closer, though he too was shy and introspective. We were an arty, sensitive pair of mother’s boys—he destined from an early age to be a painter, I a writer: makers of worlds in which we could feel more at home—but he at least knew which end of a screwdriver was which and could mess about under the bonnet of a car. My sister, the youngest of us, got closer still; hers was the confident, courageous personality my father had been looking for. She was one of the first women in Manchester to drive a taxi, as my father also did for a while—a big, noisy black cab fuelled by diesel, not easy to handle in the days before power steering, and not without its dangers on those mean Mancunian streets. She also assisted my father on his magic nights, packing his little box of tricks, remembering to fluff up the rabbit’s ears (remembering to check it was alive, come to that, my father being careless about where he left it between acts), and dressing either glamorously or as a clown, depending on the venue, a veritable sorcerer’s apprentice even if my father’s sorcery was of the innocent sort, most suited to mollycoddled Jewish children’s birthday parties, and sometimes too tame even for them. She worked with spirit and alacrity, too, in our family’s forever ailing, profit-averse business enterprises, the shops and market stalls that interested my brother and me not at all, no matter that they paid for our education. That she was, to a degree, a sacrifice on the altar of her brothers’ sensibilities and ambitions I have more and more come to believe, but there’s no saying whether that was a deliberate choice on anybody’s part. And it’s a bit late in the day now to talk about it.
The market phase of my father’s varied career came before the shops, the taxis and the magic, and coincided with my adolescence. Most of my friends’ fathers worked the markets. It was what Jewish men who came out of the army in the 1940s and had no profession did. Second generation immigrants from the stetls of Eastern Europe, whose own fathers had worked in raincoat factories, or were at best small tradesmen, tailors and upholsterers, and whose progress had been interrupted by two World Wars, they had to start from nothing, and selling nylon stockings or pillowcases on a market stall was as good a nothing as any. A hundred years before, they’d have been pedlars selling reels of cotton in Kishinev or Kamenets Podolski, and at least in the poor working-class markets of Ancoats or Grey Mare Lane—not to be confused with the chic farmers’ markets you find in more comfortable and euphonious suburbs today—they didn’t run the risk of being pelted with stones by superstitious peasants or drowned by Cossacks with no better way of passing the time.
Bearing in mind what’s owing to readers for whom market life in northern England in the 1950s is unexplored territory, I must at this point introduce a few terms without which it will remain obscure. Not a glossary exactly, just a handy colloquial phrase-book. How many of the following words are Yiddish or even Hebrew, how much leshon hakmah (the secret language of the Jews), how much parlari or fairground slang, how many were expressions simply made up to meet a specific need by a market man with an uneducated linguistic gift, as I believe my father had, I didn’t know at the time and am not sure I can distinguish, or want to distinguish, today. It was the lingua franca of the gaffs, that’s all I can say, gaffs meaning markets. So, if you had a market stall you worked the gaffs. A worker was a grafter. Those who did more than just stand behind their stalls like shtummers waiting for the punters to come to them, those, that’s to say, who yelled and shouted and performed like auctioneers or snake-oil salesmen, were pitchers. The crowd they pulled was called a pitch, or more usually an edge. Plunder was what you gave away for nothing or next to nothing. Bunce was profit. Bunce was what my father rarely made. If you had a bad day you took gornisht—not a sausage. But you might at least have had a nobbel—a laugh. Or even a shtupp, but my father wasn’t going there, as neither, though for different reasons—reasons of shyness and incompetence—was I.
Of the less specific mix of furtive Yiddish and Hebrew, evolved over time to amuse and protect and, all right, occasionally deceive, so much remains in use today on both sides of the Atlantic that I will let examples fall as they will. I am not going to insult readers by telling them what a schnorrer or a tchotchke is.
By the mid-fifties, the period of my most excruciating diffidence, and the time my father most needed my practical assistance, working the markets in the north of England had, for thousands of Jewish families, become a respectable way of life. Having a market-man for a father wasn’t like having a QC or an opthalmologist, but there was no shame attached. (All right—no great shame attached.) Many of them were making good livings and moving their families out of the old ghettos of inner Manchester and Salford—where their parents and grandparents, Ashkenazi immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, had first settled in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries—to leafy northern suburbs close to the countryside, or at least close to a golf course which was all the countryside they needed. The days of trudging off to Stockport or Ashton-under-Lyne on the bus with a battered suitcase containing a dozen pairs of nylon stockings and a few pillow cases were over; now our fathers, if they hadn’t already sold their businesses, powered to markets further afield in huge vans whose sides would open to reveal what were virtually travelling theatres, wonderlands of bright lights and cheap goods and stages from which to auction them, more in the manner of a master of ceremonies than a hawker. It was nothing for the best gaff workers—and many were famous for the eloquence of their pitching throughout the north of England—to pull an edge of three or four hundred people. The crockery men juggled whole tea-sets, won gasps of amazement and told old jokes; the bedding boys, while making suggestive proposals to the women in the crowd, would throw open blankets and bedspreads as though dancing girls would soon appear from behind them. Some of the slicker operators, the run-out boys, sold gold watches and perfumes from trays they could fold up and scarper with when the police turned up. The illegality of their business consisted of their getting punters so tsemisht, by the rapidity of their patter and the speed of their computing, that they parted with their money before they could work out how much they’d spent or what they’d bought, and by the time they realised the run-out boys had vanished. Run-out was the dark, spivvy underside of market life and was not something fathers did. Run-out was for raffish uncles or older brothers who’d gone to the bad.
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