My son, the movie director, has flown over from LA to shoot a reboot of The Merchant of Venice, at locations in Golders Green and Kenwood. The title has been adjusted accordingly, needless to say. How many times do I get to see my son? Not often enough, now that we inhabit different continents. I haunt the sets. There are long lines of white trucks, each truck with its own transformative power; the ability to turn night to day, for example, and ordinary human beings into immortals of the silver screen. And above them all, like some latter-day Zeus, sits my son. I do not like to interrupt him at work, so I take the opportunity to revisit my childhood in nearby Hendon; a melancholy business, given that I am its only survivor. Hendon is but two stops from Golders Green on the Northern Line. Emerging from the underground I immediately spot that the Gaumont has become a gym called Virgin Active, and that WH Smith, my emporium of extra-curricular reading, has been swallowed by the adjacent Nat West. Turning left down Queen’s Road I note that the Sydney Francis School of Dancing, where some poor woman did her best to teach me how to waltz and foxtrot in preparation for my barmitzvah party, is another absentee. And where oh where is Wittakers, retailers of Dinky toys and Meccano sets? I continue along Queen’s Road, almost to its very end, seeking out the location of the Crest, my first school. As it happens, the building, a large suburban semi-detached, is still there, but the institution is long gone. Across the road is the flat green expanse of Hendon Park, where we were often let loose at playtime. I have no recollection of what we got up to in the park, as a rule, but I do well remember the occasion when we were hurried back to school, even before we had – as always instructed – looked both ways. On the far side, among the shrubs, a uniformed constable was wrestling with a miscreant, like Jacob with the Angel. We watched in fascination as they rolled over the dry earth, before our teacher was able to shield us from this vision of the real world.
To my astonishment, when I take a second look, I see that the fight is continuing, as though part of a perpetual lesson. It takes a few more moments to register that the opponents are actually different: one is wearing some sort of a costume – long black gown, long black pantaloons, and a red three-cornered hat – that clearly marks him out as a Jew; while the other is some category of antisemite. If the semiotics of his clothing, haircut and tattoos are not sufficient to identify him as such, his yells leave no room for doubt: “Take that you fucking Jewish cunt!” is one. To his evident surprise the fucking Jew receives his blow, and repays it with interest. That being the case, my intervention is not strictly necessary, but I can hardly turn my back on a co-religionist in trouble. Outnumbered and outfought, the belligerent goy exits from the drama, having served his purpose.
“The joke is on him,” says the victor, brushing soil from his outlandish costume, “I am not in fact a member of the unforeskinned race, though I am pleased to be mistook for one. That being the purpose of this outing: to test my costume and complexion, which is much lighter when I am out of costume, as befits a bold son of Eireann. The results have been most gratifying. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he continues, holding out his hand. “Charles Macklin, out of County Donegal, a hard drinker, a general lover, great bruiser, and an actor of high regard.”
“A method actor, I presume?” I say.
“I know not what that might be,” he says, “except that there is surely method in my madness.”
That’s when it occurs to me that he must be the actor cast as Shylock in my son’s magnum opus.
Right character, wrong production.
It turns out that Mr. Macklin is seeking Hendon Hall, a colonnaded mansion in the classical style, now a hotel, offering temporary sanctuary to my son and his crew, but formerly home to Sir David Garrick, the great actor-manager of the Georgian age.
“I am looking,” says Macklin, “to bow the knee to the new king of Drury Lane, and thereafter persuade him to commence his reign at the Theatre Royal with my lauded impersonation of the most famous Jew outside the Old Testament.”
Out of curiosity I offer to be a guide to this deluded thespian, perhaps on day release from one of the local loony bins. So what to make of the fact that, at the end of our hike along Brent and Parson Streets, then Ashley Lane, we are announced by a servant in full livery, and finally greeted by a man who introduces himself as Sir David Garrick? Surely I am dreaming? We are invited to take our seats in padded armchairs.
“Your majesty,” says Macklin, “I am not interested in playing Shylock as a comic buffoon, as is the custom nowadays, but as Shakespeare writ him, as a vengeful daemon. This was how I presented him six years ago, during the prior era at Drury Lane, when it was said that my performance so terrified George II that he was robbed of sleep for a week.”
“Contracts will be drawn up,” says Garrick, with a smile. “I have already heard it whispered that the announcement of Macklin as Shylock sounds as attractive on the playbill as Garrick in Hamlet.”
Macklin exits the Hall a happy man. Having secured the role, he wonders where he may obtain a pound of flesh, so that he may know properly what he is demanding. If there is a Garrick still in Hendon Hall, I think, there is every chance of finding Leslie Mann – family butchers – in Vivian Avenue. So we retrace our steps to Hendon Central – where the Gaumont is showing Shane, and WH Smith Booksellers has magically reappeared. Vivian Avenue too is the Vivian Avenue of yesteryear. As well as Leslie Mann, there is Martin’s, the grocer; Graber’s the delicatessen; Carmelli, the Israeli fruitier, with exotics such as pink grapefruit, persimmon and pomegranates on display; and finally Grodzinski, with its strong aroma of baking bread.
Standing outside Leslie Mann, Macklin asks: “What does ‘kosher’ mean?”
“That the animals are slaughtered in a particular way,” I say, “and their flesh drained of blood.”
“Not a drop remaining?” he says.
“Not a drop.”
“Portia would approve,” says he.
I emerge from the shop with a pound of anaemic mince. With the meat as an offering we proceed to the end of Vivian Avenue, turn right into Station Road, and before I know it we are standing before my parents’ house, exactly as it was when I last saw it. Out of habit I dig my hand into my pocket and, incredibly, feel the distinctive front-door key within. It still fits in the lock.
“I’m home,” I shout, as I always do. Following me Macklin decides to reinhabit the role of Shylock, perhaps to see if he can pass amongst Jews.
“Mrs. Salmon,” he says, on being introduced to my mother, “forgive my emotion, but your looks put me in mind of my lost daughter.”
My mother blushes and says it is her sister, not she, who is the family beauty, but she is clearly charmed.
“You must stay for dinner,” she says.
“Only if you will allow me to provide the main course,” says Macklin.
At first my mother hesitates, but as soon as she sees its provenance she relaxes. Over dinner she rehearses an ancient bone of contention– the destination of our next summer holiday– looking to our renowned guest for reinforcement.
“For goodness sake,” she says, “if you don’t make up your mind soon we’ll end up in Bournemouth. Are we going to Venice, or are we not?”
“I’m waiting on the payment of some overdue debts,” says my father. “If the money comes through, we’ll be on our way.”
“Look what I have to put up with,” she says. “It is a great pity Mr. Salmon is not more like you, Mr. Shylock. But he is too soft, like a two-minute egg. And he forgives his debtors too easily.”
If this is a dream, it is not a healthy one: I feel as though trapped in a ghost story. I decide to return to the real world, where the actor playing Shylock is not two centuries old. I make my excuses, and kiss my parents goodbye. It is like kissing clouds. I return to Golders Green, and follow the orange arrows to the film set. My son is directing the trial scene. I do not want to disturb his concentration, but I cannot resist blowing him a kiss. A gesture he elects to ignore. Indeed, rather than acknowledge my presence, he looks right through me, as if I were as insubstantial as a kodachrome.