Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Review of The Fighting Jew in the JC

Daniel Sugarman's kind review in the JC, back in November,  I missed it completely.

The Fighting Jew by Wynn Wheldon (Amberley Publishing, £20)
Daniel Mendoza was the first British Jewish celebrity. And, as this fascinating work by Wynn Wheldon relates, the champion boxer would break new ground in a variety of different ways. Even his boxing style, which was considered abnormal when he first employed it, became orthodox.
In his celebrated three-fight rivalry with Richard Humphries Mendoza would employ, together with his competitor, an early example of “trash talking”, two fighters taking pot-shots at each other in the recently established British press via mocking letters covered with a thin veneer of civility.
After his retirement, Mendoza wrote what could be viewed as the first proper sporting autobiography, sprinkling the text with a variety of anecdotes from his career. For a century after he stopped fighting, “a la Mendoza” was an idiom used to describe settling a dispute with one’s fists.
While Mendoza was not the first Jewish boxer, he was the first to reach such heights, becoming the acknowledged “champion of England” in a period when the sport had no official federation (and, more dauntingly, no weight classes, so that a fighter could find himself facing someone much larger in the ring). The Jewish pugilist would meet the Prince Regent, a follower of “The Fancy”, as devotees of the bare-knuckle contests referred to the sport. He would even, in 1792, while convalescing in Windsor, conduct what he described as “a long conversation” with George III. As Wheldon writes, while Mendoza would probably not have been the first Jew to meet the king, it is likely that he was the first to have had a long discussion with him.
Wheldon’s passion for his subject shines through — perhaps augmented by the fact that his interest is not just general, but familial. As he reveals in the introduction, his wife is a Mendoza, descended from the champion’s uncle. But the book is filled with information designed to provide a sense of familiarity for present-day readers. Such-and-such a pub, the author tells us on a number of occasions, still stands today (then, more so than now, it was customary for retired sportsmen to operate drinking establishments).
The Fighting Jew charts Mendoza’s rise to fame, his years at the top of his game, and his descent into extreme poverty as his star waned.
Contrary to the popular tropes, then and now, that Jews make bad sportsmen/are good with money, Mendoza was an excellent boxer but woeful with his finances, having somehow managed to spend everything he made (a considerable sum) and then some.
Although not religious, Mendoza was proud of his faith and conscious of the fact that, to Jews and non-Jews alike, he was seen as the physical defender of both the bodies and the pride of his co-religionists. While, as the author is careful to point out, public antisemitism certainly did not vanish due to Mendoza, the idea that he “liberated Jews from attack” as a result of his rise, helping boxing gain popularity among young Jews, is “largely true”.
While there is a certain amount of speculation in Wheldon’s description of events, this does not detract from what is an entertaining and informative book, offering a picture not just of Mendoza himself, but of the conditions of late 18th-century Britain and some of the remarkable characters present in genteel society at the time.
We are told that, after one fight in which he had triumphed, Mendoza was carried to a nearby inn on the shoulders of a friend, with a crowd made up of many Jews shouting “Mendoza Vekhayam” — “Mendoza is alive and well”. Wheldon’s book will surely help keep the story of Daniel Mendoza remain “alive and well” for many years to come.
Daniel Sugarman works at the Board 
of Deputies of British Jews, and is a former JC reporter

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

MISTLETOE by Walter de la Mare


Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Sunday, 8 December 2019


Just watched Dr Zhivago for maybe the first time in 40 years. Tremendous film. Maurice Jarre's quite brilliant score sometimes meld into sound effect. The cast, mostly British stars - Courteney, Richardson, Guinness, Tushingham, Christie, Chaplin - somehow manage not to overweigh Robert Bolt's script. Perhaps the sheer magnificence of Lean's direction puts them all in the shade. Omar is, well, Omar, and properly intense, but the outstanding performance is Rod Steiger's - all passionate malevolence and moral ambiguity. A treat.

Friday, 29 November 2019


RSC at the Barbican
Director: Greg Doran
Designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis

Talent: Antony Byrne (Duke), Lucy Phelps (Isabella)

Club: Self, RW and Mr Peter Huhne

Shakespeare set it in Vienna, so so did SBL and Doran, though three hundred years later.  Plus ca change, eh?  Well, it kind of worked.  The set design - very clever photographic projection and lighting (the famously long final scene was set in a magnificent railway station, fit for dukes and punks alike).  I didn't really get a proper sense of the decadence and moral decay that is one of the themes of the play.  Still, that may be because I missed much of the language of the first half, as my new bluetooth loop app-fangle didn't appear to work (I had head phones for the second half - a treat).  It is a terrifically intriguing play, that can be done in all sorts of ways.  Usually the duke is played as a rather neutral deus ex machina, but the truth is he is not ex at all - he has almost a third of the lines.  It is HIS play.  This production seemed to recognise that, and Antony Byrne gave an energised, driving performance.  Lucy Phelps was a bit too shouty for me.  I tend to think of Isabella's anger as controlled.  Anna Maxwell Martin, ten years ago at the Almeida, is my model.  It also has to be said that last night's Angelo maybe lacked a little sleaziness.  Then again, it is interesting that it is a Nun who gets the character going, so perhaps Shakespeare intended to suggest that even the upright can succumb, given the right temptation.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Miller and James

With difficulty Flick forbore to cringe
In terror at the sight of DR FRINGE.
He loomed before her like a basketballer
Who if unwound might well be even taller,
And in his bulging optics blazed unchecked
The flames of his amazing Intellect.
(from 'The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media' by Clive James)
RIP Jonathan Miller and Clive James

Thursday, 31 October 2019

George Steiner

George Steiner has died. Among other things, he wrote 'The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.' about Jewish Nazi hunters who track down Hitler in South America, which I read fascinated. An extremely erudite man, and one I was rather thrilled to meet, he scolded me for failing to inform The Times of a lecture he was giving, one I'd organised as part of an American Festival, at the Royal Society. 'Your father would not have forgotten', he told me. He seemed extremely put out. I was embarrassed, though I thought his barb rather cruel. He was a genuine intellectual, rather than an academic, his audience the public; his writing was always engaging.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019


I don't write much poetry these days.  Here's a short, simple one.  I don't seem to be able to set it in the lines in which it was written, so I've run it together, separating the lines with a slash.

What is your book about, asked the critic / and she said running.  Running? He frowned. / Yes, running.  But it’s set in 1950. / We ran in 1950, she said. But - / But nothing, she said. It was 1950,  / and it was our turn to be alive.


Saturday, 5 October 2019


There are no pigeons.  There are crows.

They cycle on the pavements.  The metro in Tokyo is splendid.

They have drink-vending machines on every corner, but no fizzy water

Wires.  They have a lot of wires.  They don’t care how they look.

They put quails’ eggs into the heads of small octopi and eat them.

The lavatories (electric) are equipped with provision for enema and bidet.

Beer is more expensive than whisky.

The rivers are straight. The gardens are exquisite.

Fucking futons. Fucking, fucking futons.

Talking on the phone on public transport is really not on.  Bumping is fine.

Mount Fuji does not actually exist.