Books Monthly September 2014 The Jerry Dowlen Column

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Wolf Mankowitz


 

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives

 

WOLF MANKOWITZ

 

'A Kid for Two Farthings' by Wolf Mankowitz: A joyful “lost classic” from the 1950s.


It is a pleasure to be reminded of the published books and plays of Wolf Mankowitz (1924 - 2001) a writer who came from the east end of London.

'A Kid for Two Farthings' (1953) was probably his most famous book. It is certainly my favourite of his works. Can it be described as a children's book? - or is it a short novel? Or a hybrid of the two? I feel sure that children and adults alike can gain enjoyment from a story that operates very cleverly on two levels.

The story is set in the rag trade streets of Jewish east end London. All the colourful characters and incidents are no doubt modelled on Mankowitz's real-life knowledge of the area. (He was born in the appropriately-named Fashion Street, in the Aldgate and Spitalfields district).

The action unfolds through the eyes of six-year old Joe who has a loving mother and an absent father who is away in Africa. During the daytime while his mum works at making hats in a rag-trade sweatshop in the Whitechapel Road, Joe is looked after by old Mr Kandinsky who lets him play inside his workshop or in the yard outside.

Mr Kandinsky's trade is making and mending trousers. He shares the same lodgings as Joe and his mum. His young assistant Shmule is into body-building and wrestling, a pastime that he shares with his formidable and muscular young fiancee Sonia.

In the film that was made of 'A Kid for Two Farthings' (London Films, 1955) Diana Dors was a natural to be Sonia. The role of the affectionate and wise-worried Mr Kandinsky was of course tailor-made (sorry!) for David Kossoff.

The wonderful David Kossoff starred too in some of Wolf Mankowitz's theatrical works, as did Jewish actors and actresses such as Alfie Bass and a very young Maureen Lipman.

Joe of course reacts as a child to all the things that he sees and hears going on around him in his local streets where the market traders sell things like jellied-eels, salted herrings that are kept in barrels, pet animals and birds.

But thanks to Wolf Mankowitz's subtle narrative we older readers are shown or can discern for ourselves the parallel grown-up world that Joe inhabits, with all its conflict and emotion, its humour and competitive edge.

We see for example how it really transpires that Joe's pet goat eventually comes up trumps to convince Joe that it truly is the fabled magical unicorn that he believes it to be. We see too that the ladies busy at their factory sewing-machines like best to pass the monotonous hours by enjoying gossip. And we see that although Shmule is consumed by the prospect of his tough showdown versus the dreaded "Python" in a forthcoming wrestling match, he and Sonia will need to make a much tougher decision about how they will spend their lives together.


At times, there is a poetical and uplifting note in Mankowitz's writing. It breaks through into his narrative when he engages in descriptive scene-setting:

"The morning that spring came, Joe woke up in a circle of sunlight with a breeze blowing softly upon his face. With the sun up in the sky, ripe and heavy like a solid gold watermelon, everyone feels it will be a wonderful day, and sometimes it is."


Other works: ‘Make Me an Offer’ and ‘Expresso Bongo’

 

Mankowitz was a versatile writer whose output of published work included further novels and also work for theatre and cinema. 'Make Me an Offer' and 'Expresso Bongo' were made into films in 1954 and 1958.

 

‘Make Me an Offer’ drew on his real-life expert knowledge of dealing in antiques. The story gallops along and is filled with delightfully droll passages of narrative and wisecracking in best Raymond Chandler style. (“Mr Mindel was looking at me through half-closed eyes and fishing for that valuable smile of his again. He nearly found it.”)

 

The film of ‘Expresso Bongo’ starred the sensational new young pop star Cliff Richard who was making his screen debut. Stealing from the famous film director Alfred Hitchcock who liked to be glimpsed in his own movies, the opening credits of ‘Expresso Bongo’ showed a nocturnal street-scene in Soho where Mankowitz himself carried a sandwich-board bearing his own name.

In 'Expresso Bongo' the part of the wheeler-dealer Soho music promoter Johnny Jackson was played by the actor Laurence Harvey (pictured, with Cliff Richard and Sylvia Syms). How closely did the fictional Jackson resemble the real Mankowitz? An early scene in the film showed Jackson conferring with Kakky (Martin Miller), a veteran movie mogul, outside a neon-lighted Soho strip club. In later life Mankowitz skirted the "big time" in cinema when his association with Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman landed him the opportunity to write some of the 'Doctor No' film screenplay (1962) and afterwards the Bond-spoof film 'Casino Royale' (1966).

Wolf Mankowitz also had on his CV the scripting of the stage musical version of Roger Longrigg's hilarious book 'Passion Flower Hotel' (published in 1961 under Longrigg's pseudonym of Rosalind Erskine).

 

Bloomsbury Publishing was founded in 1986. Later in 2009 there came its specialist section the Bloomsbury Group with a mission statement to celebrate and re-publish lost classics from the early twentieth-century. All hail to them that they decided to rekindle the memory of Wolf Mankowitz by re-publishing his delightful story 'A Kid for Two Farthings'. Originally published by Andre Deutsch Ltd in 1953, it is a glowingly joyful little book to read.

Jerry Dowlen

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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