Strange Case Of Dr Green And Mr Knipe…And Beluga Caviar And Scotch Whisky And A Bust Of Hitler, c22 December 1981

There is an internet adage known as Godwin’s Law, which states (I paraphrase) that any internet discussion will eventually descend into a Hitler comparison.

But surely my own safe space, Ogblog, can be a Hitler-free site? Well, up to a point.

I had a massive recovered memory over New Year 2018, because Janie, bless her, decided to treat us to a quiet caviar-fest:

I don’t suppose this is making any sense at all to the casual reader, so I had better get on with it and explain.

From my infancy all the way through my childhood in Streatham, we had a wonderful lady doctor, Dr Edwina Green. I learn by Googling that she died in 2012; I have scraped her impressive BMJ obituary for you to click here – see page 2.

Edwina was a GP who went way beyond the call of duty.

For example, because I was…how should I put this?…more than a little fearful of my jabs as an infant, she came round to our house to dispense the vaccinations. On one famous occasion, when I was feeling particularly averse to being stabbed, Edwina indicated to mum that my rump might make a better target in the circumstances. I worked out the coded message and tried to bolt. The end result was a chase around the room and eventually a rather undignified bot shot delivered by Edwina under the dining room table –  I was, later in life, oft reliably reminded by my mum.

Not even the trike was fast enough for me to escape Edwina’s needle

This extraordinary level of pastoral care and attentiveness went beyond zealously inoculating reluctant Harris miniatures – Edwina and her family became close friends with our immediate family, Uncle Manny’s branch of the family and especially Grandma Anne:

Grandma Anne With Dad (left) & Uncle Michael (right), c1930

In the early 1970s, at Christmas-time, my parents would go to Edwina’s house for a seasonal party, along with many other patients and members of the local community. Naturally, my parents plied Edwina and her family with gifts…many of Edwina’s other patients and guests most certainly did the same.

A strange tradition arose around that time, in which Edwina reciprocated our present giving by handing down a generous gift she would always receive from a family of wealthy Iranian patients; an enormous jar (I think a pound; probably twice the size of the jar shown in the photo below) of Iranian Beluga caviar:

By Mai Le [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Edwina and family didn’t like the taste of caviar. Nor did my dad, as it happens. But mum loved it and I acquired a seasonal taste for it too.

Each year, mum and I would eat Beluga caviar on toast for breakfast for the first couple of weeks of the year.

Even back then caviar, especially Beluga caviar, was very expensive. Not equivalent to the “critically endangered, barely legal, hard to get hold of” price levels of today, but still very much a pricey, luxury item.

I remember mum warning me not to tell my friends at school that I was eating caviar on toast for breakfast, because they would surmise that I was a liar or that we were a rich family or (worst of all) both.

There was only one problem with this suburban community idyll; Mr Knipe. Don Knipe. Edwina’s husband.

Don liked his drink. Specifically Scotch whisky. More specifically, Teacher’s, as it happens. A bottle of Teacher’s always formed part of our family Christmas gift offering, but that sole bottle formed a tiny proportion of Don’s annual intake.

By ramkrsna (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ramkrsna/384365364/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Even when I was quite little, I remember being warned that Don Knipe was eccentric, that I shouldn’t pay much heed to some of the silly things he says, etc. But I guess as the years went on, Don’s eccentricities gained focus and unpleasantness. Specifically, Don’s views became increasingly and extremely right wing. He joined the National Front, at that time the most prominent far-right, overtly fascist party in the UK.

I recall one year, when I was already in my teens, my parents returned early from the Knipe/Green party. I learned that Don Knipe had acquired a large bust of Hitler, which was being proudly displayed as a centrepiece in the living room. My mother had protested to Don about the bust, asking him to remove it, but to no avail. Mum had taken matters into her own hands by rotating the bust by 180 degrees. When Don insisted on rotating Hitler’s bust back to its forward-facing position, mum and dad left the party in protest.

Mum explained to Don and Edwina that they remained welcome at our house but that she would not be visiting their house while Hitler remained on show.

One evening, just a few weeks or months later, I think, my parents had Edwina and Don (and some other people) around at our house. The topic of Hitler and Nazi atrocities came up. Don started sounding off about the Holocaust not really having been as bad as people made out.

Edwina And Don At My Bar Mitzvah, Natch.

My father stood up and quietly told me to go upstairs to my bedroom. I scampered up the stairs but hovered on the landing out of view to get a sense of what was happening.

My father was a very gentle man. I only remember him being angry twice in my whole life; this was one of those occasions.

“You f***ing c***!”, I heard my dad exclaim.

I learned afterwards that my father, not a big man but a colossus beside the scrawny form of Don Knipe, had pinned Don to the wall and gone very red in the face while delivering his brace of expletives.

I heard the sound of a bit of a kerfuffle, a few more angry exchanges, ending with “get out of my house”. Then I heard Don and Edwina leave the house. Edwina was weeping, apologising and trying to explain that Don doesn’t know or mean what he says.

Dad – a supremely gentle fellow…usually

The story gets weirder as the years roll forward. Edwina remained our family doctor, although social visits were now at an end. Uncle Manny’s branch of the family and Grandma Anne continued to spend a great deal of time socially with the Knipe/Green family.

Most importantly, for this story, the seasonal exchange of gifts remained sacrosanct.

For reasons I find hard to fathom, I became the conduit for the seasonal gift exchange. Why my parents (specifically, my mother, who organised the errand) felt that I would be less defiled then they were by visiting a household that displays a bust of Hitler, I have no idea.

Maybe it shows that mum had great confidence in my judgement such that, even as a teenager, I wouldn’t be corrupted by Knipe’s vile views…or his habits. But perhaps the lure of a huge jar of Beluga caviar was so great that all other concerns and considerations went out of mum’s mental window.

Anyway, for several years I would go to Edwina and Don’s house to deliver our presents and collect the fishy swag. I think there was an unwritten rule that I didn’t go into the large living room where Hitler’s bust lived; the Knipe/Greens had quite a large house – I would usually be received in a smaller front drawing room.

As I got a bit older, Don would ask me to join him for a whisky and a cigarette on these occasions; offers which I accepted.

My diaries are utterly silent on this annual ritual, other than, each year, the mention of the word “shopping” on one day in the run up to Christmas. I vaguely recall that I would always bundle the errand with my single little shopping spree to get small gifts for my immediate family. The shopping trip provided a suitable time window; a smoke screen (as it were) and a bit of a sobering up period from the underage drinking involved.

Don never raised political topics when I made those seasonal visits. He’d make the occasional oblique reference to it being a shame that he didn’t see my parents socially any more. I can’t recall what we talked about. I think he just asked me how I was getting on and we chatted vaguely about my family and the weather.

But I do recall what we talked about on my last visit in this ritual. 1981.

Uncle Manny had passed away suddenly and rather dramatically in May that year – explained here in a piece about Hoover Factory:

Hoover Factory, 15 May 1981

Grandma Anne never really recovered from the shock of Uncle Manny’s demise and died in the autumn that same year.

By late December 1981 I had completed four terms of University at Keele and was far more politically aware/sensitive than I had been in earlier years.

Don greeted me at the front door, as usual, but this time said, “come through to the living room and have a whisky with me.”

“Not if Hitler is still in there,” I said.

“Oh don’t start all that”, blustered Don, who I think must have made a start on the whisky before I got to the house that morning. “I really want to chat to you about your late uncle and your grandma.” Don started to cry.

I relented and entered the forbidden chamber.

There was the bust of Hitler, resplendently positioned with books about the Third Reich and such subjects on display around it.

I accepted a generous slug of Teacher’s and a Rothmans; then I reluctantly sat down.

Don was crying. “I miss your Uncle Manny and your Grandma Anne so much”, he said, “you have no idea how fond of them I was. I love your family.”

I remember saying words to this effect, “Don, I understand that you sincerely love my family, but I cannot reconcile that love with Hitler, Nazi memorabilia, your membership of the National Front and you keeping company with those who hold such views. Those are antisemitic, out-and-out racist organisations and people. It makes no sense to me.”

“It’s not about Jewish people like your family. I love your family.”

“So what sort of people is it about?” I asked.

“Other people. You don’t understand”, said Don.

To that extent Don was right. I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand. It isn’t as if members of our family were so secular and Westernised that you wouldn’t recognise the family as ethnic. Uncle Manny’s branch of the family were (I believe still are) traditional, orthodox practitioners of Judaism.

“Godwin’s Law, Godwin’s Schmo, Don Was Always A Mensch Towards Me”

Grandma Anne, who spent her first 30 or so years in the Pale of Settlement, spoke with a thick Russian accent, peppered with “bissel Yiddish”. The old lady shouting out “give him some chicken soup” in the 30 second-long sketch linked here (or at 22:15 if you click through the embedded link below and end up at the start of this YouTube), sounds just like Grandma Anne:

So I don’t understand who or what these “other people” might be, nor why someone like Don Knipe would be attracted to racist ideologies, despite knowing (and even loving) plenty of good decent local people from diverse ethnic groups.

I think I was polite in making my excuses and leaving fairly quickly. The visit certainly didn’t end in any acrimony or hostility. But I did resolve not to run that errand again and (as far as I recall) didn’t visit the Knipe/Green house again.

Strange case.

All that memory came flooding back simply as a result of sampling caviar with Janie…

Proust can keep his madeleines – pah…

…and we weren’t even sampling Beluga – Janie’s generous New Year’s Eve offering was Ossetra caviar, so although we couldn’t afford to eat again for a week, at least we can afford to eat for the rest of the year ;-).

Hoover Factory, 15 May 1981

I recovered this Hoover Factory memory vividly at a pilot of Rohan Candappa’s new performance piece on 31 October 2017:

What Listening To 10,000 Love Songs Has taught Me About Love. It’s an exploration of love, and music, and how the two intertwine. it’s also about how our lives have a soundtrack.”

Here is a link to my review of that performance piece.

Somewhat unexpectedly (to me), one of the songs Rohan featured in the show was Hoover Factory by Elvis Costello.

In case you are not familiar with the piece (and/or the building), less than two minutes of divine vid, below, will give you all you need:

I came across the song in March 1981- click here for the story of my cassette swaps with Graham Greenglass and my trip to see Elvis (sadly a Hover Factory-free concert) with Anil Biltoo, Caroline Freeman and Simon Jacobs.

I listened to the cassettes Graham made for me a lot in that final term of my first year at Keele. I especially liked the Hoover Factory song, even before the events of mid May.

Wednesday 13 May 1981

I was in the Students’ Union that evening (as usual) when I got tannoyed.

The sound of Wally across the tannoy saying:

would Ear Narris come to reception please. Ear Narris to reception…

…became a commonplace in my sabbatical year…

…I even have a towel emblazoned with the legend “Ear Narris”, a gift from Petra…

…but this was probably the first time I had ever been tannoyed in the Students’ Union.

It was my mum on the phone. My father’s older brother, Manny, had died suddenly of a heart attack. I was needed at home. Rapidly. Traditional Jewish funerals are conducted very soon after death and that branch of the family was/is traditional. I went to bed early, knowing I would need to make a very early start (by student standards) the next day.

Thursday 14 May 1981

A flurry of activity.

Early in the morning, I went round to see a few academics to reschedule my essays and excuse myself from a tutorial or two. I recall the topology tutor (professor?) seeming incredibly strange. Twice I told him that my uncle had died and twice he said back to me, “I’m sorry to hear that your father has died”.

Once I had agreed my absences and extensions, I legged it to London, having arranged to stop off at the place near Euston where the religious paperwork for births, marriages, deaths and stuff used to get done. Was it Rex House in those days? Anyway, I was suitably “family but not immediate family” (the latter are officially in mourning and are not allowed to do stuff) to help get the paperwork sorted out.

I learnt that Uncle Manny was (officially) born in Vilnius, although the family hailed from the “twixt Minsk and Pinsk” Belarus part of the Pale of Settlement. The family might have already been on the move by the time he was born or that answer might, at the time, have seemed more acceptable when the UK arrivals paperwork was being done.

When I got home, I recall that Grandma Anne, 88/89 years old, was in our house and in the most shocking state. Apparently Uncle Manny had collapsed in her kitchen and she was unable to get past the collapsed body of her son to try to call for help. A nightmarish scenario that would seem unlikely & overly melodramatic if used in fiction. Grandma Anne never really recovered from the shock of this event and didn’t survive that calendar year.

It was the first time I had witnessed death at close hand. I was very small (8 or 9) when Uncle Alec, the oldest of the four brothers, died; in truth I had been shielded from it. But this time I was very affected by witnessing and being part of this family bereavement.

From left to right, Uncles Manny, Michael and Alec

Friday 15 May 1981

The funeral, at Bushy Cemetery. We were driven out as part of the funeral cortege of course.

I had only been to one funeral before – as it happens at the same cemetery – that of Bernard Rothbart, a teacher at Alleyn’s – perhaps two years earlier. I’ll write that one up for Ogblog when I come to it.

I’m not sure I had ever been out on the Western Avenue before – at least not knowingly and not with senses heightened. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had no idea where we were until I saw that magnificent Hoover Building loom into view.

Oh my God. That’s it. That’s the Hoover Factory…

“Yes, dear”, said mum. “Your ‘Uncle Josh’ used to work for Hoover”.

I don’t think mum got the point.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the line from the song, “it’s not a matter of life or death. What is? What is?”  Because my family was suddenly experiencing something that really was a matter of life or death. And people really did, profoundly care who does or doesn’t take another breath. I wanted to understand, but Elvis wasn’t helping; his song was just stuck in my head.

Hoover Factory remained stuck in my head for the rest of the day…the rest of the week…the rest of the term.

And the rest of that term turned out to be a very eventful few weeks indeed for me: