Author Judith Kerr dies age 95

Author Judith Kerr dies age 95

This morning it was announced that the author and illustrator Judith Kerr passed away at her home yesterday aged 95. She was best known for her debut children's book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which was first published in 1968 and has been in print ever since. Born in Weimar…

Arnold Wesker tribute: The playwright still packed them in at the Royal Court in an affectionate and celebratory look at his life

jr-arnold_wesker “He shone with the sun”, lilted singer Rosie Archer in a soaring paean that took place as part of many poignant moments during an afternoon of tributes to the playwright Arnold Wesker, who died age 83 on 12 April 2016.

Held at the Royal Court Theatre, Wesker's spiritual home despite the theatre having turned down Chicken Soup with Barley (it premiered in 1958 at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre), the evening was filled with warm memories of the late playwright from luminaries across the arts world.

Mike Leigh spoke of his delight in his teens at discovering this East End working-class dramatist. “What a hero he was. We sought out his plays and read them avidly,” recalled Leigh, reading from a piece based on an article first published in the July 2016 issue of Jewish Renaissance. Later in the Royal Court’s bar, Leigh told me that he had been approached to participate in the event after Wesker’s wife Dusty had shown the organisers the piece.

David Edgar spoke of Wesker’s groundbreaking representation of “political disillusion”; director Fiona Laird remembered her surprise at finding the playwright “charming,” instead of the curmudgeon she had been led to expect. A frail looking Bernard Kops, one of the last of those ‘angry young men’, recalled Wesker’s desire to broaden the reach of culture with his Centre 42 project.

There were some great performances too: Samantha Spiro’s delivery of Sarah Kahn’s final speech (she played Kahn in the Royal Court’s revival of Chicken Soup in 2011) brought tears to my eyes, although puzzlingly she omitted the ultimate rousing imperative, “You've got to care, you've got to care or you'll die!” Ian McKellen performed an excerpt of Chips with Everything with gusto, and Henry Goodman made a mischievous Shylock in a speech from the 1976 play of the same name. Finally, Jessica Raine, who played Beatie in the Donmar Warehouse’s 2014 production of Roots, movingly reprised that character's astonishing final speech.

And there were surprises: who knew Wesker had written lyrics for a Eurovision Song Contest entry? Sadly, Jonathan King rejected Shone With the Sun as “too classical”, otherwise Britain’s Eurovision history might have told a different story. He had been a talented artist too, said set-designer Pamela Howard, who presented several of his fine ink drawings.

As the audience left, speakers played Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a favourite with the playwright, and a reminder of the compassion at the heart of Wesker’s own art.

By Rebecca Taylor

CLICK HERE to read Mike Leigh's tribute to Sir Arnold Wesker from our July 2016 issue

Former Israeli president Shimon Peres has died aged 93 - Colin Shindler pays tribute to one of the giants of Israeli politics

jr-shimon_peres_-_world_economic_forum_on_the_middle_east_2009 Shimon Peres was the ‘almost’ man of Israeli politics who was expected to win, but always lost. He was prime minister for a few months in 1977 after Yitzhak Rabin’s resignation and then for a similar period following Rabin’s assassination in 1995. His longest time in office as prime minister was in the national unity government with the Likud from 1984-86. He was expected to succeed Yitzhak Shamir in 1990 but then was thwarted by a last minute about-turn by Charedi politicians on orders from their rebbes. He was then expected to defeat Netanyahu in 1995, but the advent of Hamas’s suicide bombers put paid to that hope. Even when he stood for president in 2001, the walkover never happened and Moshe Katsav succeeded to the post instead. Peres only became president in 2007. Such an unprecedented string of disappointments would have crushed most politicians.

In his late 20s, Peres became deputy director-general of the Ministry of Defence and was instrumental in persuading France to supply arms to Israel amidst a widespread embargo – including the UK – in the run-up to the Suez war in 1956. He was also present at Sèvres when the collusion pact was agreed between Britain, France and Israel prior to the Suez campaign.

Peres was elected to the Knesset in the 1959 election as a candidate for Mapai, the forerunner of the Labour party. He aligned himself immediately with Ben-Gurion and sided with him when he broke with Mapai in 1965 to form Rafi.

Rafi was the party of the Mapai princes and included Moshe Dayan, Teddy Kollek, Chaim Herzog and many others who saw themselves as future leaders of the country. Peres essentially organised Rafi on Ben-Gurion’s behalf with little funding. He made the first contact with Menachem Begin’s Gahal to investigate whether they had common political interests. Although such contacts were low key, this was the precursor to the defection of this faction of the labour movement to the Right.

Rafi only achieved 10 seats in the 1965 election while Mapai triumphed. For Peres and Dayan this was a disaster since it severely reduced their opportunity of becoming a future prime minister. In 1968, Peres opted with the rest of the Rafi MKs to join the newly established Labour party. Ben-Gurion refused to return and led the rump of his party, now called the State List, which later became one of the founding components of the Likud.

Peres and Dayan led the hawkish wing of Labour and were strongly opposed by Abba Eban and Pinchas Sapir. They wished to integrate the West Bank into Israel’s economy and were often reluctant to offer constructive territorial concessions. This acute factionalism in Israeli Labour meant that there could be no meaningful peace initiatives. With the debacle of the Yom Kippur war in October 1973 with over 2500 dead and up to 8000 wounded, the Agranat Commission’s findings on culpability led to the resignations of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. In 1974 Yitzhak Rabin narrowly defeated Peres for the party leadership – and this initiated a 20 year-long rivalry.

As Defence Minister in the first Rabin government, Peres continued to be a standard bearer for the Right and adopted an accommodating position towards the West Bank settlers in cabinet discussions. This was integral to his ongoing war of political attrition against Rabin. His visit to the settlement of Sebastia in December 1975 was seen as a statement of his being amenable to the settlers’ demands.

Following the increase in oil prices, the Arab states used this weapon to isolate Israel. Many countries in the developing world now broke off diplomatic relations with Israel due to Arab pressure. With limited options, Peres paid a clandestine visit to apartheid South Africa in November 1974 and offered to sell the Chalet missile to Pretoria. While the Likud exuded no qualms of conscience, the Labour party did so with great reluctance – and Peres was its chosen candidate to implement this task.

Rabin’s attempts to cure the Labour party of corruption and sloth met with limited success – and he himself resigned when his wife was found to possess an unlawful foreign bank account in Washington. Peres took over as caretaker prime minister and went down to a resounding defeat by Menahem Begin in the 1977 election a few months later.

Peres continued as leader of the Labour party, welcoming the Camp David agreement and peace with Egypt. Yet a late comeback by Menahem Begin in the 1981 election allowed the Likud to pip Labour at the post. Begin’s second government was far more radical than his first and ended in the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982. During this period Peres turned from the Right to the Left and now aligned himself with Israeli doves. Following the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists in the camps of Sabra and Shatilla at the end of the war in Lebanon, 400,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv – including Shimon Peres.


Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat receiving the Nobel Peace Prize © Saar Yaacov/Government Press Office

The electorate in 1984 was divided in their allegiance and this led to the ‘rotation government’ of a Labour-Likud coalition. Peres was prime minister from 1984-86 with Shamir succeeding to the post to serve a further two years. Peres proved to be a very capable leader, withdrawing the troops from Lebanon and fixing a badly damaged economy. It was also a period when Israel moved from a command economy, based on long-held socialist principles to a globalised capitalism – and Peres adjusted to this prospect with great ease.

During Shamir’s premiership, Peres forged the London agreement in 1987 with King Hussein during secret negotiations at the home of Lord Mishcon which was later vetoed by a critical Shamir. Peres expected to become prime minister once more in 1990 with the defeat of the Shamir government in a vote in the Knesset. Haredi backpedalling produced another failure for Peres, but this was a defeat one too many for Labour members and soon he was replaced by the more electable Rabin. As history records, the Labour government, led by Rabin with Peres as Foreign Minister, signed the Declaration of Principles – the Oslo Accord – with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993. Peres significantly appeared far more confident in clasping Arafat’s hand than the reticent and startled Rabin.

The peace process was perhaps the pinnacle of Peres’s career with his vision of a New Middle East and it earned him a Nobel Peace Prize together with Arafat and Rabin.

With his unexpected defeat in 1996 and the election of Netanyahu, Peres’s career seemed to be over. He held secondary positions within Labour and he and his Oslo colleagues were marginalised when Labour returned to power under Ehud Barak in 1999. Peres held the nondescript post of Minister of Regional Cooperation.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the al-Aqsa Intifada and its toll of Israeli victims, targeted by Islamist suicide bombers, persuaded the electorate to bring back Ariel Sharon to protect them. Peres was brought in as Foreign Minister, but he differed fundamentally with Sharon in that he wanted to negotiate with Arafat and to utilise his good relationship with him. Sharon, however, repeatedly commented that there could be no negotiations while the violence continued. A new generation of Labour politicians finally displaced the octogenarian Peres in 2005 and he lost its leadership for the last time.

Peres and Sharon were both disciples of Ben-Gurion and members of Mapai in the 1950s. While Peres led the right wing of Labour and eventually became a dove, Sharon became a founder of the Likud in 1973. Neither were attached to keeping Gaza and the West Bank for either ideological or religious reasons. Peres could therefore easily support the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and to leave Labour to join Sharon’s new party, Kadima.

In 2007 he left formal party politics to finally become president. His inspiring and confident statements in the depths of adversity chimed with Diaspora and western sentiments, but clearly grated on the nerves of the Likud and parties on the far Right. After seven years at the helm, he retired from the presidency in 2014.

Peres was a cultured man who spoke several languages and wrote poetry. Like Abba Eban, he was seen as ‘foreign’ and, for some, untrustworthy. Yet he managed to survive in the bear-pit of Israeli politics and to weather every twist and turn of fortune. His charm and sophistication will be missed in diplomatic circles. His transformation from Szymon Perski from Vishnyeva in Belarus into Shimon Peres, builder of the Hebrew republic, is a reflection of how the Jews have moved from the margins of history to its mainstream after two millennia of dispersion. Israel has lost a unique voice.

By Colin Shindler, an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London

British playwright Sir Arnold Wesker died aged 83 on April 12th: JR's arts editor Judi Herman recalls the pleasure and privilege of sharing lunch and confidences with the great man

Sir Arnold Wesker Sir Arnold Wesker, who has died at the age of 83, first came to prominence in the late 1950s as one of the playwrights dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, though he later rejected this label. I would say advisedly so, for his famous trilogy of plays drawing on his background in the Jewish East End and upbringing in a family with a strong Communist identity, introduced one of the most memorable positive heroines of post-war literature. Beatie Bryant, the Norfolk-born heroine of the middle play in the trilogy, Roots (the first being Chicken Soup with Barley, and the last is I’m Talking About Jerusalem).

I was lucky enough to meet Sir Arnold when Roots was wonderfully revived at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013 and I was invited to meet this great, delightful and erudite man at the Brighton home he shared with his beloved wife, the supremely resourceful and devoted Dusty, on whom the radiant Beatie was modelled. I say invited, because the hugely hospitable Dusty made what she called "a light lunch", to which my husband Steve was also invited and it was truly memorable – both for Dusty’s cooking and for the conversation over lunch. And that’s on top of what I was privileged to record for JR OutLoud with Arnold while lunch was cooking, when he spoke at length about the inspiration for Roots and much more about his life and work.

Arnold was still supremely articulate despite the Parkinson’s Disease that dogged his later years. I had also had the pleasure of speaking to him on the phone some years before about Shylock, his take on The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock and the Merchant of Venice are close and supportive friends and the pound of flesh the result of a nonsensical bond, genuinely made as a gesture to the draconian Venetian authorities, that goes horribly wrong. But meeting him in person and being welcomed into their home by this wonderfully complementary pair will always be a very special memory for me. My heart goes out to Dusty and I am sure all readers will join with me in wishing her long life.

By Judi Herman

Listen to Sir Arnold Wesker discuss his life and works in 2013 on JR OutLoud.

"An extraordinary man" – Judi Herman reports on the sad passing of humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton

sir nicholas winton Sir Nicholas George Winton MBE 19 May 1909 – 1 July 2015

At the age of 106, Sir Nicholas Winton peacefully passed away in his sleep at Wexham Park Hospital on 1 July 2015. The poignant day also marked 76 years since 241 children – of the 669 Sir Nicky saved from Czechoslovakia – evacuated Prague by train. Sir Nicky was a true humanitarian; on the eve of the Second World War he instigated the Czech Kindertransport, which saw hundreds of children escape safely to homes that Sir Nicky had arranged for them in Britain. For this selfless act Czech President Miloš Zeman awarded Sir Nicky the highest honour of the Czech Republic, the Order of the White Lion (1st class).

In May 2003 I had the honour of meeting this extraordinary man. Sir Nicky was in his mid-90s at the time and I was lucky enough to be asked to make a feature for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour with Sir Nicky and the daughter of one of his "children", pilot Judy Leden, a world champion microlight flyer. She had planned a very special treat for his 94th birthday – a spin in a microlite aircraft. It made Sir Nicky the oldest person to fly in a microlight and by doing so he raised money for one of his favourite charities, Abbeyfield, who provide housing and support for the elderly.

Recording their in-flight conversation as they circled his Berkshire home was quite a challenge, but a total joy. I got to record him at his home afterwards too and he was witty, charming and welcoming – a truly great human being.

By Judi Herman

Another loss for the original 1968 Oliver! cast – Ron Moody will be missed

Ron_Moody_and_Lord_Dahrendorf,_1975Ron Moody (left) with Lord Dahrendorf, 1975

"My proudest moment was the number Reviewing the Situation. I suspect that, because I gave my all to the role, and because I was working with such a fine team of people, it inhibited my future career. I turned down quite a few offers afterwards because I thought the people didn't come close to those I'd worked with on Oliver! which, in retrospect, was a mistake." – Ron Moody, 8 January 1924 – 11 June 2015.

Judi Herman reports on the recent death of actor Ron moody, one of the last remaining adult actors, bar Shani Wallis, from the 1968 musical Oliver!.

Readers will no doubt have heard a great deal over the last week about the long life of Ron Moody. Of course he is best known for his creation of Fagin, unforgettable for his gleeful physicality and for his musical phrasing. He relished rolling Bart’s delicious lyrics around his tongue, something I was lucky enough to experience live when I was not quite old enough to be in Fagin’s gang.

Much later on I went with Steve, my husband, to see him live in his one-man show at the also late-lamented Mermaid Theatre in London’s Puddle Dock. Doing a shtick about Hamlet, testing the audience's knowledge about Shakespeare’s play, he barked out the question: "Where did Hamlet live?" Moody had done a lot of stuff about the East End that night and before I could stop myself, I heard my voice yelling "Tower Hamlets!" After that there was no stopping Moody, he picked on me mercilessly for the next hour and I loved every minute of it (as did the rest of the audience). A true great, apparently sprightly right up to the end – he’ll be missed!