A novel idea

BY 2010, I HAD DONE a great deal of research on the backgrounds of both my parents’ families. I had published a few papers in prestigious genealogical journals, such as the former “Stammbaum” published by the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. I felt that it was time to combine the results of my investigations into a great compendium. I started compiling this with a view to publishing it eventually. After writing a couple of chapters, I sent them to a wise friend to get her reactions to what I had done so far. She wrote back that she was impressed by the research I had done but found that the chapters of my great compendium made for dull reading. She suggested that I should abandon the enterprise and instead choose one of my ancestors and write a novel based on what I had discovered about his or her life. I liked the idea.

ALI BLOG

Adam Yamey at the grave of his ancestor Heinrich Bergmann. In Aliwal North, South Africa

I chose Heinrich Bergmann (1831-66), my mother’s grandmother’s cousin. He was the first person to whom I am related to have left Europe for South Africa. He sailed from London to Cape Town in 1849, hoping to meet someone who had migrated from his village in Bavaria to South Africa. That person had left Cape Town by the time Heinrich arrived. He soon became employed by the German Jewish traders, the Mosenthals, and within a year of landing in Africa, he was put in charge of opening and running a branch of the firm in the newly established town of Aliwal North. Within a short time, Heinrich became very wealthy and was regarded by a highly respected banking family in Frankfurt-am-Main as being a suitable bridegroom for their daughter. The happy couple returned to Aliwal North from Germany, after they married. However, Heinrich’s rapid increase in prosperity led to problems that could only be resolved by taking a drastic measure. 

I wrote a novel, “Aliwal”, based on what I knew about Heinrich and the times he lived in. As the cause(s) of his downfall are not clear, I invented a sequence of events to replace the gaps in my knowledge of his short life.  I embarked on my novel-writing not having read a novel for over twenty years. Some people who have read “Aliwal” say that can be seen in my writing and what I produced was more like a narrative than a modern novel. I cannot argue with that. Except for the last few chapters, the denouement, which I invented, what I have written is largely based on historical research. I tried to transport myself back to mid-19th century Germany and South Africa to explore the kind of experiences that my ancestor may have encountered. For example: how did he learn English so quickly? Did he need a passport to travel? How did he find his spouse? What was it like landing in Cape Town in 1849? What was it like travelling through the arid interior of the Cape Colony? How did a young Jewish man interact with the English, the Boers, and the Africans? What was it like doing business in rural communities? I hope that all of these and other matters have been adequately covered in my novel.

When I read through what I wrote 10 years ago, I wondered if it would be worth bringing out a revised edition with a new ending. Let me think about that. Now here is an excerpt from the original version. In it, Heinrich is travelling from Cape Town to Graaff-Reinet in the heart of the Cape Colony soon after landing from London and meeting Mr Caro, with whom he is about to work.

THE EXCERPT FROM “ALIWAL”

They travelled for well over a week, lumbering from one pothole to the next, leaving behind them clouds of dust that hung above the road along which they had come. Heinrich clung onto the bench on which he was perched in order not to be thrown to the ground. This journey was more uncomfortable that any he had made in Europe. He thought that even the worst tracks around Dittenheim were not as bad the one along which they were travelling, and this was the main road to Graaff Reinet! They crossed numerous dried up streams and riverbeds. Most of these were without a bridge. This made the crossings slow and dangerous. The wiry, muscular native helpers sweated profusely as they eased the wagons down one bank of a riverbed, and then steadied them as they were hauled up the other. They had to take care to avoid damaging the wheels and axles of the wagons. Whenever they reached a pool or any other water, Caro ordered the convoy to stop to allow the oxen to rest and drink. Heinrich used these breaks as an opportunity to stretch his legs and give his aching backside a rest.

The days slipped by. They met few other travellers apart from the infrequent wagon trains heading back to the coast, and post carriers who hurried past them on horseback. The few Europeans they encountered were mostly Dutch speakers, eking out a living on their isolated farms. After having drunk coffee with some of these farmers, Heinrich remarked:

“These Afrikaners are friendly, open, and welcoming.”

“Yes, Heinrich, they are, especially to us Jews, because they regard us highly.”

“That makes a change!”

“They welcome us because they read in the Old Testament, whose words they follow closely, that we are God’s ‘Chosen People’, and understand our flight from Egypt.”

“Why?”

“Not so long ago, many of the Dutch fled from the British, whom they regard as oppressors. They piled their possessions in to wagons like ours, and left the Cape, crossing the Orange River – their ‘Red Sea’ – in search of their ‘promised land’. They are trying to live the way they choose, without interference from outsiders. The main thing is, as far as we Jews are concerned, that the Afrikaners respect us as fair and honest people, and like doing business with us.”

“And how do the English regard us?”

Caro did not answer immediately. He looked ahead towards the flat horizon, and then said:

“The English are not easy people. They say one thing, but often mean something else. Mastering their language is one achievement but deciphering what they really mean is quite another. Their attitude towards us is more of tolerance than acceptance. It is odd that the British, who have spread themselves all over the globe, are wary of foreigners and what they consider to be foreign ways. They put up with us Jews because we are useful to them and we don’t make trouble, but they’re not at ease with us.”

He turned away from Heinrich, and, standing precariously on the wagon’s seat that tilted as the vehicle crossed a pothole, ordered the men to stop and set up camp for the night. Then, turning to Heinrich, he said:

“To succeed with the English, we need to try to be, or at least to seem to be, more British than they are. We must emulate their ways when dealing with them, so that they feel that they should treat us as equals rather than ‘inferior foreigners’.”

After the sun had set, Heinrich and Caro sat by the embers of the fire having just eaten tasty steaks from a small hartebeest that Caro had shot earlier that day. They were enjoying a post-prandial brandy when Caro announced:

            “We must do something about your name.”

 “My name, what’s wrong with it?”

 “Even when your accent fades away and your English improves, your name, ‘Heinrich’, will always label you as foreign.”

Heinrich remembered the shipping agent in London: Gladstone, formerly ‘Goldstein’.

Caro plucked a meerschaum pipe from his jacket pocket and lit the tobacco in its ivory bowl carved in the shape of a sheep’s head. His face, barely visible in the dim evening light, brightened for a moment. He sucked on his pipe, and then, after blowing a cloud of smoke towards Heinrich, he coughed, cleared his throat, and said: 

“From now on, you must call yourself ‘Henry’. It is a name which you will share with eight kings of England! Keep ‘Bergmann’, but change the way you pronounce it.”

Heinrich looked puzzled. Caro sucked noisily on his pipe, and then said:

“From now on you are ‘Berg-man’, not ‘Berch mun’ – try to express your name in your mouth, not in your throat!”

Caro looked at Heinrich sternly for a moment, and then asked him his name.

“My name is Henry Berg … mann.”

END OF EXCERPT

ALI cover

In case you feel intrigued and want to read more, my book is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/144618322X/ and also on Kindle.

 

Voices from Ancient Rome

DOES IT REALLY MATTER how an ancient Roman, may his or her soul ‘requiescat in pace’ (RIP), pronounced the letter ‘V’? It did to the Reverend Gowing, one of my teachers of Latin at Highgate School back in the mid 1960s. Did they pronounce V as in ‘verb’ or as ‘w’ in ‘word’? To vee or not to vee? That was the question in my mind. At the school I attended before Highgate,  we pronounced the Latin v in the same way as the English v. Oddly, I felt disturbed that  Gowing believed that the toga clad Romans pronounced it as a w, as in ‘wobbly’.

LATIN ancient wikipedia commons BLOG

We questioned Gowing about this problem. Our venerable teacher decided to prove to us that he was right, that the Romans pronounced ‘veni, vidi, vici’ as ‘wayny, weedy, weeky’. His method of proof involved use of technology that was unavailable to Julius Caesar and his contemporaries.

One morning, Gowing brought a gramophone (a name derived from two Ancient Greek words) record player into our Latin classroom. He placed a record on its turntable and told us to listen very carefully. We heard someone speaking in Latin, and … enunciating words beginning with v as if they began with w. QED (three Latin words that do not contain the letter v), our Latin teacher believed.

The Reverend Gowing was old enough to believe that the gramophone record was a technical miracle that could capture the voices of those who died long ago, even around the time when BC became AD. It still amazes me to think that Gowing might have believed that. However, his ‘proof’ of the pronunciation of the Latin v did not convince me.

Some years later, I mentioned the V/W controversy (not ‘controWersy’) to someone who had a degree in linguistics.  Her view was that the ancient Romans were more likely to have pronounced v as v, and not as w. Her reasoning was based on the evolution of languages derived from Latin. For example, we neither watch a ‘wideo’ nor do we say say: ‘in wino weritas’.

Unwittingly, Reverend Gowing did something important for our class with this discussion about v. He made us question the academic authority of teachers and that is important if knowledge is to advance.

True to the spirit of what I have just written, I have just challenged what I have long believed.  I decided to  look at various sources (on the Internet) to see what they say about the current understanding of the pronunciation of V in Latin. First, the English V and U are both represented by ‘V’ in Ancient Latin. Thus, on an Ancient Roman statue of Julius Caesar, one would read ‘JVLIVS’ rather than ‘JULIUS’. Also, it appears the pronunciation of the written Latin V varies. It seems, although I do not know on what evidence this is based, that the Ancient Romans probably  pronounced v as the English say ‘w’ or even ‘oo’ (JVLIVS is a good example of this). Whether it was pronounced as ‘w’ ou ‘oo’ depended on the letters close to it in a word. For example, the name ‘FLAVIVS’ would have been pronounced ‘Flawioos’. So, our Reverend Gowing was at least half correct, and us doubters in his class were all in the wrong as far as usage of Latin by the Ancient Romans is concerned.  However, as time passed and the Roman Empire declined and fell, languages related to, or descended from, Latin adopted the V pronunciation, as did ecclesiastical users of Latin.

Finally, I have looked at the Latin textbook, which we used at school, “The Revised Latin Primer” by Benjamin Hall Kennedy. Had I not been so averse to opening this much-hated book, I would have discovered that its author, once a Fellow of St Johns College, Cambridge, wrote that ‘v’ is a “Labial Spirant (sounded as w”). If only I had taken more interest in this book instead of avoiding it whenever possible, I might have been more convinced about my teacher’s opinion about the Latin V. It seems as if I really do owe Reverend Gowing a belated apology.

 

[This is a somewhat new version of something I wrote earlier]

 

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

A light bulb moment: sudden enlightenment

bulb

 

After I had completed my first (Bachelor’s) degree, I decided that I would like to apply to become a doctoral (PhD) student. In order to do this in the UK (and elsewhere) it is necessary to enlist a supervisor, an academic who guides you through the process of researching and writing a doctoral thesis.

I knew roughly in which field I wished to pursue my further studies. Someone in Cambridge was looking for a PhD student to work on something that sounded interesting to me. So, I visited the academic in Cambridge. First of all, I was not particularly keen on the man’s personality (albeit having only met him once) and also the project he was offering seemed far too difficult for me, way beyond my ability. 

After the Cambridge episode, I discovered that the Imperial Cancer research institute was offering amazingly generous scholarships for PhD stuents working in their laboratories. I applied, choosing two of the projects that seemed to be in harmony with my interests, and received an offer of interviews at the institute in Lincolns Inn Fields.

At the first interview, I was introduced to the eight or so members of the team i was applying to join. They sat around whilst the senior members of the team interviewed me. It did not take me long to feel uneasy about my future colleagues, and as the questioning continued I could not wait for it to end. Near the end of the session I was asked if I was interested in cancer. In an attempt to cut short the proceedings, I answered that I was uninterested in that subject. 

After an equally unpromising interview with another of the research groups that I had applied to join, I left the building and began walking across Lincolns Inn Fields, feeling relieved that the interviewing ordeal was over. It was then that an important tought entered my head.

A PhD takes about (or at least) three years to complete. During that time, I would have to work in a laboratory with the rest of a research team and in regular contact with my supervisor. I realised while walking in Lincolns Inn Fields that it would be important for me that I enjoyed the people with whom I would be working. A pleasant environment was more important for me than the precise nature of the research topic.

I returned to University College, having made the decision to ask Professor Robert Harkness, whom I liked and whose research interests attracted me, whether he would take me on as a PhD student. To my great delight, he accepted me. As one of his doctoral students, I spent a very happy three and a bit years working in his laboratory with his other researchers, all of whom were friendly and helpful.

Since that day in Lincolns Inn Fields and my ‘light bulb moment’, which happened there, I have attended other interviews (for positions in various dental practices). At each occasion, I have asked myself: would I feel happy working five days a week with the person(s) interviewing me? If I have not felt the right ‘vibes’ at the interview, I have always turned down the job however attractive it seemed. On only one occasion, I have been mistaken with that approach, which I was fortunate to have been able to take when looking for work.

Facts and opinions

NEWS

 

The title of this brief blog article was inspired by the name of a Russian magazine  Аргументы и факты (‘Arguments and Facts’).

When I was a PhD student back in the 1970s, I did my experimental research in a laboratory.  For a while, the maintenance of this lab was supervised by a technician, ‘H’ by name. H was left-wing in his political views and made no attempt to keep his views to himself.

One day while I was working, H and I started talking about the newspapers we read. In my case, it was simple. I hardly ever read them. H said to me:

“I read two papers every day.”

“Which?” I asked.

“Oh,” he replied, ” I read the Times for the facts and the Morning Star for the opinion.”

For those who do not know, the Times used to be Britain’s most authoritative newspaper and the Morning Star is published by British Communists.

So, for H, the Times provided the facts which he coud use in arguments inspired by the Morning Star.

 

Looking for something?

Archive

 

I write a great deal in my spare time. Apart from blogs like this one, I write books about subjects that require a considerable amount of research. I have a British Library (‘BL’) reader’s card, which gives me access to an unbelievable collection of material. However, even though I live not far from the BL, it is quite time-consuming getting to and from the material inside the library. Apart from security checks at the BL, one must leave many items, which are forbidden in the reading rooms (e.g. food, drink, all kinds of writing implements apart from pencils), in a locker in te basement. Once in the reading rooms, the BL becomes a joy to work in.

 

Over the years, I have been using another kind of library. It is on-line, and is reached by typing https://archive.org/ . Using its superb search engine, you can explore its collection in many ways, such as by author, by title, by keywords, etc. What comes up, if you are lucky, is a set of scanned volumes of relevant books or pamphlets. By clicking on an item, you are given the option of downloading it (.pdf, Kindle, and other formats), reading the scanned book using a very practical online reader, or reading a typed transcript of the entire text online. If the item is one you need, it is a lot easier reading it via this website than having to ‘schlep’ to the BL. This is especially the case if you do not live in London.

 

If you have not come across this website and you are looking for texts published long ago and not so distantly, head for archive.org, and give it a try!

 

My picture is part of a screen-shot of a page of results from archive.org