FIVE THOUSAND YEARS OF BITTERNESS
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’
Once when no one was buying my cartoons I took a job ripping off the Tom of Finland books for an unscrupulous pirate publisher of gay eroticism. Deltoidal, no-necked, peach-bottomed sadists and cock-suckers wearing leather caps and curiously benign expressions, romping in a spunky never-never sodomitic kindergarten unimpeded by the needs or interdictions of wives and mothers. For a straight man who couldn’t see what Tom of Finland had to offer, other than the clean lines of the illustrations and the absence, beyond twenty-four-hour on-tap buggery and fellatio, of any supererogatory fantasy or fuss, I reckon I made a reasonable fist of copying his creations. It was good for me too, I thought, inhabiting this alien demi-Eden for a while. It relieved some of the stress I was under. The stress of a failed marriage and a failing career – the usual – but also the stress of coming from an ethno-religious minority, or whatever you call us, whose genius doesn’t extend to irresponsible recreation. Jews don’t do Paradise Regained. Once you’re out you’re out with my people. The gates swing shut behind you, the cherubim flash their flaming swords, and that’s that. This is what it means to be Old Testament. You’re always conscious of having blown your chance of a good time. Now here I was enjoying a proxy frolic in the Garden again.
Where I messed up professionally was in the straining bulge all Tom of Finland’s characters carried in their trousers. To begin with I failed to notice there was a bulge there at all. But even when the bulge was brought to my attention I couldn’t copy it with conviction. I couldn’t capture the anticipatory strain. Couldn’t render the explosive tension between the glans penis and the denim. In the end I had to admit that this was because I had never worn denim or leather myself, and didn’t understand the physics of the pressure from the inside. Jewish men wear loose, comfortable trousers with a double pleat. And maybe, in chilly weather, a cardigan on top. It is considered inappropriate by Jews to show strangers of either sex the outline of your glans penis.
No commandment against it that I know of. Just not what you do.
And for this, as an uncle of mine used to say, apropos anything Jewish, the Nazis tried to exterminate us.
My father’s response, if he happened to be around, reminded me of someone swatting a fly. ‘Since when did any Nazi try to exterminate you, Ike? You personally? Had I thought the Nazis were after you I’d have told them where to find you years ago.’
Upon which my uncle, who had lived with us for as long as I could remember, would turn white, accuse my father of being no
better than Hitler himself, and flee to his room to hide.
Were they playing? Did they go on repeating this exchange because they thought it was amusing? Hard to decide when you’re small whether people twice your size are joking or not. Sometimes everything they do looks like one big joke. But Hitler didn’t sound a funny name. And ‘exterminate’, as I discovered from the little dictionary which my mother kept in her display cabinet, as though it were as precious as her china or my father’s boxing cups, meant to destroy utterly, to put an end to (persons or animals), to drive out, to put to flight, to get rid of (species, races, populations, opinions). From which I inferred that no, my father and my uncle could not have been playing, but must have intended their jousting as a sort of magic, to ward off evil. To keep us from being driven out, got rid of, and the rest of it.
Thus did I grow up in Crumpsall Park in the 1950s, somewhere between the ghettos and the greenery of North Manchester, with ‘extermination’ in my vocabulary and the Nazis in my living room.
So when Manny Washinsky swapped me his copy of Lord Russell of Liverpool’s The Scourge of the Swastika: A Short History of Nazi War Crimes for a bundle of comics, I was already softened up, though I couldn’t have been much more than eleven at the time, to receive its contents. ‘The murder by Germans of over five million European Jews,’ Lord Russell of Liverpool wrote, ‘constitutes the greatest crime in world history.’ A conclusion which electrified me, not because it