A stranger at home.
The terrified residents of a Cardiff street in World War Two who had cowered in their cellars while German bombers had unleashed their deadly cargoes triumphantly broke into 'There'll always be an England' once the danger had passed.
Among them was the young Bernice Rubens, the daughter of an immigrant from Latvia, who already showed the born-writer's ability to record the telling details of life around her.
She would go on to become one of the best English-language novelists of her generation, the winner of the coveted Booker Prize. She was also a documentary film-maker who travelled the world in search of her subjects. But throughout her long life - she was officially 76 when she died in October last year, but her true age was almost certainly 81 - she remained the young girl caught in that cellar.
She was, as she confesses in her latest book, as confused about her national identity as her fellow Cardiffians. When I Grow Up is a loving memoir of her often troubled, high-achieving life. Completed just before her death it is the last of her 29 books and, as you would expect from its predecessors, beautifully written. It faithfully recreates her powerful personality.
In person she could be daunting, acerbic, impatient and dismissive with those she felt were wasting her time. She was also warm and generous with her time, going out of her way to help those she felt could benefit from her support.
It is entirely typical that in the book she refuses to turn the full force of her scorn on the living who might be hurt by her words. People, she insists, are more important than literature.
The dead, though, are not spared. She labels Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian-born novelist and Nobel Prizewinner, a 'scrounger' whom she hated. His only talent was for self-promotion. Ideas and the people who clung to them could also trigger her derision. Among them was Welsh Nationalism.
Her attitude had an ambivalent edge to it, a resentment touched with envy. It was, perhaps typical of her city and her generation.
Her father was a Jewish immigrant from Latvia who when he boarded the ship for Cardiff had been conned into believing he was bound for New York. Her mother was the daughter of a Jewish tailor who had arrived in Cardiff from Poland. Bernice was one of four children, all of whom were gifted musicians and three of whom went on to become professionals.
After completing her degree at Cardiff University, she left her native city for good. She moved briefly to Birmingham before settling in London where she lived for the rest of her life. She taught briefly, flirted with the careers of lady's maid and actress and dancer before becoming a film-maker and novelist. Critical success came comparatively early. She won The Booker Prize with her fourth novel, The Elected Member.
Her private life was not as successful. She married a fellow novelist and wine merchant, Rudi Nassauer, whom she had met among the debris and austerity of post-war London. They had two daughters, Sharon and Rebecca.
But Rudi was a serial philanderer who guiltily bought Bernice an expensive present every time he was unfaithful. The marriage ended when he moved in with a mistress who had borne his child.
Like so many others who grew up during World War Two in South Wales, her sense of national identity was complex, even confused. As with those with whom she huddled in that cellar during the Cardiff Blitz, she had no difficulty in identifying with the 'England' of Churchill, Battle of Britain pilots and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve.
Cardiffians, she writes in When I Grow Up, 'were ambiguous, equivocal, double-tongued..... The Welsh nationalists of the north harboured a great mistrust of us hybrid dwellers in the south, while the English insisted we were Welsh.'
After she had settled in London she returned often to her home city without quite knowing why. But at one point in the book she returns to attend a literary festival and notices something different. As she travels across the Severn Bridge she sees the road sign 'in a foreign language', Welsh, of course.
Those who erected it at least have the good grace to add an English translation, 'Welcome to Wales.'
Her anger has a defensive edge. 'Once upon a time, I had thought the land was mine. But now I am made to feel a foreigner.' Once her Cardiffian ambiguity offered her choices. 'Exile or home. Now those choices have been withdrawn - the notice at the end of the Severn Bridge has told me so. Cardiffian I may be, but I am Welsh and I had better believe it.'
She does. As she crosses the Severn Bridge to re-enter England she feels 'a foreigner' for the first time. When she and her friend and fellow novelist Beryl Bainbridge travel to North Wales to teach a creative writing course she finds the natives unselfconsciously and confidently Welsh. 'They are Plaid Cymru through and through and like all intense patriotism, it smacks of elitism.'
But reading When I Grow Up you feel the first demands on her loyalty come neither from Wales nor England. She is first and foremost a Jew, a sense of identity reinforced by the murderous anti-Semitism with which she grew.
As World War Two approaches, her family recognises with a growing sense of horror the full extent of Nazi persecution of the Jews. They take in a child refugee from Germany, Hugo, who becomes part of the family.
After the war and the Holocaust, they continue to fight for the establishment of Israel as a place of refuge and security and pride for the Jews.
They and their daughter face a bitter disillusion when the Israelis develop their war-like and repressive policies towards the Palestinians. 'Anti-Semitism,' she says in one brilliant passage from 'When I Grow Up', 'is a light sleeper and Israel under its present government had served as a certain and sure alarm clock. Its policies are indefensible.'
It is a measure of her integrity as a human being as well as a writer that she can be so clear-eyed about a country in which she and her family had invested so much hope.
And it is a measure of her commitment that she continues to be loyal to Israel, praising it for the many good things it has done for her people.
Those of us who are not Jews can only be grateful that we have not had to pay such a high and painful price for our sense of belonging.
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Nov 19, 2005|
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