Novelist Howard Jacobson thrived on aggression and infidelity

Howard’s way? Turn misery to comedy gold: Novelist Howard Jacobson thrived on aggression, alcohol, late nights and infidelity — all perfect material for his highly acclaimed comic novels

  • Howard Jacobson was a ‘holy terror’ as a child growing up in Manchester 
  • He went on to become an academic before pursuing a career as a novelist 
  • In a memoir, reveals his life experiences were waiting to become comedy gold 



by Howard Jacobson (Cape £16.99, 288pp)

Did comic novelist Howard Jacobson (now in his 80th year) become a writer because he was always moody and morose? Or was it being a writer that made him moody and morose?

It’s the conundrum he explores with wonderful verve in Mother’s Boy, where the somewhat boastful and certainly self-delighting paradoxical conclusion seems to be that, ‘The miserable employ a wider vocabulary than the happy because they have more to express’.

Howard Jacobson (pictured) shares his upbringing as a Jew in Manchester and how his life experiences became comedy gold in a memoir

Jacobson has a lot to express, to be sure, starting with his upbringing as a Jew in Manchester.

His parents’ heritage, topically enough, was Ukrainian — but ancestry was never mentioned. ‘Think about something else,’ the young Howard was told if he broached the subject. ‘We’re English now.’

There was one exotic relative, an ill-tempered and drunken grandfather, whose toenails were so abhorrent and gnarled that cutting them was a task for a tree surgeon.

Jacobson’s father, full of ‘Ukrainian audacity’, sounds a case. Known as Jakey, he was always busy, fixing cars, rewiring houses, repairing washing machines. ‘He was a great neighbour to have when your pipes burst.’ He also worked as a tailor and an upholsterer, and had a stall at the market selling candlewick bedspreads, non-stick pans and spoons that bent in boiling water.

And he was a semi-professional magician, too. The house was filled with wands, cloaks and white rabbits.

Though a practical man, Jakey was not the most observant of Jews. He once thought the Passover Table was his surprise birthday party.

Neetie, Jacobson’s mother, was perhaps over-protective. When he went to Cambridge, she made him take a supply of emergency toilet rolls. She always encouraged her son’s love of reading and would recite the poems of Tennyson. ‘She had a thrilling voice, full of warm vivacity.’ She enjoyed ballroom dancing with off-duty policemen.

As for the young Jacobson himself, he was a holy terror. He pulled wallpaper off the walls, gouged out the eyes of soft toys and scribbled on everything with his crayons. He couldn’t — still can’t — climb, draw maps, wrap parcels or ride facing backwards in a taxi or bus. At school he couldn’t sing, play the recorder or use the lavatory if other cubicles were occupied.

Howard (pictured) emigrated to Australia to become an academic in the Sydney University English department after studying at Downing College in Cambridge 

Nevertheless, his grammar school got him into Downing College. The first time he took the train to Cambridge, the man sitting opposite dropped dead — an omen of some sort. When Jacobson arrived, he spent a term trying to impress the college porter with intellectual chat, mistaking him for F. R. Leavis.

One way and another, Jacobson was taught that ‘a judgment was a richer thing than an opinion, and that tone could tell us what literal statements could not’. Fair enough — but he received a poor degree.

The only option was to emigrate to Australia to become an academic in the Sydney University English department, where the staff were ‘sarcastic, cruel, alert, scurrilous’ — as they reliably are in all English departments.

Married upon graduation, in 1964, Jacobson was accompanied by his bride, Barbara Starr. Jacobson says that, Down Under, ‘I forgot to be shy. I forgot to be depressed. I forgot to be Jewish.’

Instead, he became a loud-mouth drunk. Far too often, Barbara had to ‘scrape me off the floor, drive me home, and contrive to get me up the stairs’.

Being carefree was confused with obnoxiousness. Jacobson admits he went in for ‘aggression, alcohol, cigarettes, late nights, infidelity and falling in love with a student’, an offence that would get a person ‘cancelled’ today without mercy.

We are told, however, that ‘the heart is a rogue organ, and will love and betray at the same time, if you allow it’. I don’t think the organ in question here is the heart, but, as the saying goes, the past is another country and they did things differently there, especially in Australia.

Howard’s (pictured) book Coming From Behind was published to acclaim in 1983, which led to the author being a worthy successor to Tom Sharpe

Back in Britain after three hedonistic years away, Jacobson taught English to hairdressers and sold handbags at the market. Because of his Mancunian accent, people thought he was selling humbugs.

‘I was sleeping badly and waking worse.’ He split up with Barbara, though by now there was a son, Conrad, named after Joseph Conrad, Jacobson’s favourite novelist.

Returning to Australia on his own, he gave classes at a Melbourne technical college. Here, Jacobson met Ros Sadler, a swimmer, sailor and cellist who, in 1978, became his second wife.

Back in England once more, Jacobson was employed as a lecturer in Wolverhampton. He genuinely couldn’t get over the ‘utter forlornness of the place . . . the utter negation of natural beauty’.

Living in Wolverhampton, he says, would today ‘be called self-harming’, but he stayed there for seven years.

Meanwhile, Ros, not fancying Wolverhampton either, set herself up running a handicraft shop in Boscastle, Cornwall, where she sold novelty paperweights, made in China, and unisex cheesecloth pirate smocks.

MOTHER’S BOY by Howard Jacobson (Cape £16.99, 288pp)

If Jacobson commuted between Cornwall and the West Midlands for 12 years it’s because although he ‘hated Boscastle a little’, he ‘hated it less than Wolverhampton, which I hated absolutely’.

What a lot of hatred and restlessness there is in this man, stretching all the way back.

Jacobson is unforgiving of many of his teachers, as well as ‘angry with myself for having wasted my student years’. The relationship with Ros was filled with resentment — his sulks were matched by her ‘withering sarcasm’. The marriage only went ahead so she could obtain British citizenship. On their honeymoon in Paris, neither spoke.

Of course, the torrent of ‘disappointment, degradation, frustration, animosity, envy, futility’ as discussed in Mother’s Boy was waiting to be turned into comedy gold. Lightly fictionalising his experiences, Jacobson sat down and wrote Coming From Behind.

His potential was spotted at once by Chatto editor Jeremy Lewis — my late cousin. But when the feminist new broom Carmen Callil arrived at the publishing house, she took against the novel: ‘If you ran naked down Bond Street, I couldn’t sell this book,’ she told him.

It was published to acclaim in 1983 and, along with Peeping Tom a year later, marked the new author, already in his 40s, as the worthy successor to Tom Sharpe. Jacobson won the Booker in 2010.

Callil was, he remembers, a harbinger of how ‘the fun was beginning to go out of everything’. Presumably we’ll hear more of that in a further volume, to which I look forward with massive eagerness.

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