You are here: Books Monthly » Articles » The Jerry Dowlen Column »
Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives
'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
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
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
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
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’
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.
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.”)
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.
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
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...
The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.