On the back cover of Arnold Wesker’s book Say Goodbye: You May Never See Them Again, Alan Tapper is the third boy from the left seated on the ground and Arnold is the fourth.
British playwright and author Arnold Wesker passed away in April. He and I were good friends, and I miss him greatly.
I went to school with Arnold 80 years ago. We were in the same class at Commercial Street School. I am among the students in the photo on the back cover of his book Say Goodbye: You May Never See Them Again – I am the third boy from the left seated on the ground and Arnold is the fourth. The book’s paintings, by John Allin, were of the old Jewish East End of London, England.
We grew up together in the Spitalfields area of Stepney. We regularly visited each other’s homes; his house was on the next street to mine. His family were staunch communists and his aunt – who lived on the same street I did – was involved with the local garment workers union. I was introduced to political discourse at an early age through the discussions that regularly took place at his home, but we also enjoyed playing games, like Monopoly. And we did so often.
Arnold, like me, was evacuated to Barnstaple in North Devon during the war. I was evacuated three times: when war broke out in September 1939 to Aylesbury; in the early 1940s to Barnstaple; and, in 1944-45 to Newcastle upon Tyne, returning to London the day that the last rocket landed on a tenement building not far from where we lived, killing and injuring many people. One of my friends, Mossy Berkovitch, was a survivor from the rubble.
Arnold and I kept in touch after returning to Stepney after the evacuation to Barnstaple. I remember visiting with him the different air-raid shelters in the local area but we lost touch after the war. We both served in the Royal Air Force – he wrote about his RAF experiences in two of his plays, The Kitchen (1957) and Chicken Soup with Barley (1958).
We connected again in 1953, when I went to see a production of R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech futurist writer Karel Capek. Arnold was in a local drama group, called the Query Players, who performed the play. The show and his performance gave me the theatre bug and I also joined the Query Players a short time later, appearing in many of the group’s productions. Arnold was my mentor, and. I continued to act and write, but became involved in local politics. Since moving to Canada, I have been involved with and worked on committees of many Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, and presented and produced Anthology of Jewish Music on Vancouver Coop Radio for 35 years.
I am currently re-reading Arnold’s autobiography, As Much as I Dare, which he wrote in 1994. It is a vivid account of his life to that point, and I am pleased that he remembered me in his story. He was a prolific and multi-award-winning writer and his plays have been performed all over the world. He was one of the first among the Angry Young Men literary group and was knighted by the Queen for his service to English literature. But, mostly, I will remember him as my friend.
Alan Tapper is a local freelance writer. His work has been published in the Vancouver Sun, Province, Courier, National Post, among others, as well as the Jewish Western Bulletin, now the Jewish Independent, and online publications. His first story was published in the London Evening Star when he was 14.