June 7th, 2015


Wot? No fish!!

"Have you ever had gefilte fish?" asked a middle-aged man as he proffered a Tupperware container of fishballs on cocktail sticks. We were among the first into the New Wolsey Studio for the last show of Pulse Festival. He produced more containers and arranged for other members of the audience to pass them around as they took their seats. As a child I remember boiled balls of fish, onion, eggs and matze topped with slices of carrot. This time we were being offered the tastier fried version with a small dish of chrain sauce in which to dip them. "Have you tried chrain? Can anyone tell me the three ingredients of chrain?" People were still being seated as the answers came back: horseradish, beetroot, and love. I had forgotten the love and was too busy trying to decide whether his third ingredient was sugar or salt. Love was the most important ingredient of Shabbat for me as my gentile family ate with reform jewish friends.

With his audience seated and enjoying their fishballs and chrain, Danny Braverman stepped into a pool of light and told us how these foods were significant to him by telling us a story that introduced us to his parents and his wider family of East London Jews. He told us how his great great grandparents came to Dalston to escape the pogroms and how his great-uncle Abs Solomon had married the girl across the road in 1926. Abs was a shoemaker and every Thursday when he made up the wage packets for his employees he also prepared one with the week's housekeeping money for his wife Celie. On the outside of each packet for Celie he drew a picture derived from the events of the week. Every week he did this for over fifty years. When Ab's son died childless the boxes of drawings were discovered by Danny's mother and she gave them to him. There are thousands of them but he has selected about a hundred and uses them to illustrate a retelling of the story of Abs and Celie's life together and of that part of his family and his own life.

The drawings grow in assurance over the years. Drawn on office stationery, it feels like outsider art but Ab's childless son was Jeffery Solomons of Fischer Fine Art and it seems improbable that Ab was unaware of the currents of contemporary art. For me there were echoes of Ardizonne, Searle, and my mother. I even saw echoes of sketches by Daumier and Lowry. Of course, I do not imagine any of these were influences; my point is that his style is not primitive

With an overhead projector to cast images of the original packets on a screen, white gloves to protect these precious fragile things, and a sense of narrative honed in over thirty years of theatre work, he weaves a sensitive portrait of his family, their Judaism, their aspirations, and their frailties. He reveals the challenges that faced Abs and Celie: financial worries, the institutionalisation of a son on the autism spectrum, and the hazards facing their other son who was a gay man at a time when this was illegal and widely deplored. Like all family histories this is a social history but it is a living thing as he creates his own metaphors and reveals his own concerns about compromising the privacy of his dead family. Much of the story is speculative because Braverman can only work from the illustrations, the memories of his mother and his own recall of these lovely people. These speculations allow him to highlight the love that runs through all of this. In the gaps betwen the pictures I found the affecting power of this performance and the humanity that makes it so much more powerful than the book that would be a more obvious vehicle for this wonderful assemblage.