Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

In Praise of Four Score

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 6th July, 2007

george-melly.jpgLunch today’s at Francis King’s, with his publisher, Gary Pulsifer, and three other friends. Francis’s latest novel — With My Little Eye (Arcadia £10.99) — is just out. If I’m still having books published when I am 84, I shan’t be complaining! My honorary grandmother (not a blood relative, but that’s the role she played in my life), Edith Bisch, who wrote under the pseudonym Edith de Born, saw 19 of her novels into print, but died a sad woman in her 80s, because no-one would touch Number 20. That was at the time when ‘old’ equalled ‘unwanted’ — a concept that is now illegal (thanks to the EU), as well as unfashionable (except at the BBC). Actually, it was at Edith’s house in Brussels that Francis and I first met, almost exactly 30 years ago. She has long since departed, but Francis is still very much alive and kicking.

Not, alas, my pal and occasional drinking companion, George Melly, who expired yesterday, at the age of 80, after a riotous life in which he brought much pleasure (and some tears) to many. Jazz musician, all-round performer, and self-confessed ‘tart’, he could be huge fun. Towards the end, knowing he was dying, he also started to display signs of dementia, but typically with George, one never quite knew whether things he did or said really were because of encroaching senility, or whether he was having you on. He alarmed one lady who showed him a photo of herself with the Pope and asked him ‘Do you know who that is?’. ‘Oh,’ said George, ‘That’s you! But who’s that man?’  When she replied, ‘The Pope!’, he declared testily, ‘No! I’m the Pope!’ I am sure I will not be the only person raising a glass or two in his memory at the Soho Festival on Sunday, 15 July.

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2 Responses to “In Praise of Four Score”

  1. Since you knew George Melly, you might find mildly interesting something I posted to my blog today.

    http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2009/09/london-1953.html

    Chris Albertson

  2. William Freund said

    Dear Mr. Fryer,
    I was very interested in your comments on Edith de Born. I am a retired historian and have recently written, so far just for my own satisfaction, an autobiography with as much family history as I have been able to recover. I have a particular interest in Austrian Jews, their lives before Hitler and how they sometimes reinvented themselves in remarkably varied ways if they survived. One of Edith’s books gives her name as Kemendy Ausch as well as Bische. This is how I traced her identity in fact. Ausch was the name of her stepfather and Kemendy is a slight variant on Kemeny, the maiden name of Netti Ausch, her stepfather’s mother. Both the Ausches and Kemenys were Hungarian. You can find the genealogy easily on the Web. Frau Ausch, the grandmother, was the sister of my own grandmother’s mother, the person who introduced her to her husband so that my grandmother grew up a very typical Viennese. Tante Netti was a character who appeared in the stories of my grandmother and mother. She died only in 1942, probably just before she would have been sent to a camp or ghetto.

    What I can figure out from the Web and cinched the identification is that it jibes with what a woman I met many years ago in England told me about her sister. Edith’s sister’s name was Franziska Enns, she was a teacher who lived in Guildford. Actually she was the half-sister. There was a Herr Rosenzweig, Edith’s actual father but the parents apparently divorced. Franzi Enns told me briefly about a sister who lived in Brussels, was married to a French banker and had two sons, one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg but nothing about the authorship of novels. This must have been 45 years ago when I was young. Edith and Franzi had an uncle in Vienna who was my mother’s family’s dentist. His daughter Marianne Ausch also managed to emigrate to England; I did meet her and she was quite important in the lives of my mother and aunt until they left Vienna in 1938, a very intelligent and interesting woman who was forced to abandon her studies at the University with the Anschluss. It must have been Marianne who had me look up Franzi and I suppose they were the only family each had in England. So far as I can tell, Edith’s other uncle and aunt and cousin together with her parents all died terrible deaths in the Holocaust.

    I have now got hold of The House in Vienna and I found it a very well-wrought account of the disaster of World War I and its consequences for the old Austrian upper class and how they schemed to survive. Some of the little traits of the Austrian character come out very well in it. But why she wrote in English is a mystery to me since she never lived in England so far as I know and why she chose to write about the upper class rather than her own, the large Jewish middle class which actually coped much better with 1918 but of course not 1938, I don’t know. Maybe just strategic choices. I can see why her work, a kind of amalgam of a historical novel of manners aimed more at women readers, would struggle to find a contemporary audience but it is by no means worthless. The novel is far too full of Viennese worldliness and cynicism to be anything like a Barbara Cartland. All of the romantic experiences of the heroine are embarrassing to disastrous.

    The one other thing I remember from that conversation with her sister was that she seems to have more or less run off with her husband and the marriage was very much disapproved of, about which Franzi had some bitterness. I guess it was out of the ordinary for the Ausches. I also guess that she shared much of the narrator’s despair about Austria in the early 20s and was eager to move out.

    In any event, I would be very interested if you could share thoughts about Edith de Born and her life as you knew her so well.

    Yours sincerely
    Bill Freund

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