We all need a Fiddler to remind us of our roots

The revival of an old musical has new lessons for a city which is a modern melting pot

Published in the Evening Standard

I saw Fiddler on the Roof before I was born. Or rather, I heard it. My parents were in Her Majesty?s Theatre on the night of February 24 1967 watching the now-legendary Topol production of the show ? and I was born the very next day. I?m sure that as he belted out ?If I were a rich man,? I was tapping my foetal feet in the womb.

Maybe that?s why the show, now energetically revived at the Savoy Theatre with the spirited Henry Goodman in the lead role, strikes such an instant, visceral chord with me. I only have to hear the opening strains of the Fiddler?s melody to feel myself welling up. Somehow this story of Tevye, the impoverished Jewish milkman struggling to bring up five daughters in Tsarist Russia, goes straight to the Jewish gut ? via the heart.

Part of it is the sheer technical skill of the show. Unlike so many of the musicals which followed it, Fiddler packs one cracking tune after another, from Tradition to Matchmaker to Sunrise, Sunset ? such a contrast with the one-melody- multiply-reprised efforts of more recent times. Andrew Lloyd Webber, take note.

The story has an almost classical simplicity. Tevye has three older daughters to marry off and each girl?s choice presents a successively greater challenge to the existing order. Tevye wants to see his children happy ? but he also feels compelled to honour the traditions of his people and his past. It is a timeless, universal dilemma.

What?s more, it?s a great pleasure to see a parade of Jewish characters on stage who are not the product of an outsider?s imagination but are crafted lovingly from within. Some critics have suggested that Goodman?s gestures and shrugs inch uncomfortably close to caricature. Many others will wonder why we don?t mind seeing Tevye this way, but would recoil at a similarly-styled Fagin or Shylock (whom Goodman has also played).

But there?s a crucial difference. Unlike Dickens or Shakespeare, the creators of Fiddler on the Roof were rooted in the Jewish community they chose to depict. Tevye, Golda and Yenta were not alien, exotic creatures, but the composers? own ancestors. There is little ethnic tourism in this show; rather it is a genuine Jewish cultural expression. One small example: when Perchik the radical wants to indoctrinate Tevye?s daughters about the wickedness of all employers, his chosen example is the deception perpetrated on the biblical Jacob by his boss, Laban. (Given all this, I?d liked to have seen a few more Jewish performers playing the Jews on stage: these days, you don?t find many non-Asians taking Asian roles, or white actors playing black characters. Why can?t that logic extend to Jews?)

The overall effect is to make Fiddler on the Roof a show which speaks to contemporary Jews like no other. I look at the fictional shtetl of Anatevka and I see the small rural hamlet of Dunilovich, the tiny speck on the map (now in Belarus) where my father?s family lived more than a century ago. I watch Tevye warned by the Cossack constable that a pogrom is coming and think of my own great-great-grandfather, Iddle Mindel the tailor, who was himself warned by the local nobleman that trouble was on the way. When I see Tevye and daughters pile up all that they own on a wagon as they leave their beloved Anatevka, I can picture my own forebears, packing up their own lives and heading for a new start ? as immigrants in newly-Edwardian London.

And I am not the only one for whom Fiddler performs this function. Plenty of today?s Jews would admit that the clearest sense they have of their ancestors? lives comes from a Broadway show that is just four decades old. Hard to believe, I know: but the immigrants of a century ago barely talked about the lands they had left behind. Instead most set about changing their clothes, their language, even their names ? and settling into their new country. Their eyes were set firmly on the future.

I?m sure that partly explains why Fiddler is still so moving, even to those who are now four or five generations away from the experience it portrays. It shows us a world that would otherwise have slipped from the collective memory, a vanished realm of Yiddish, of wedding dances, of rabbis and matchmakers, all scratching out a precarious existence, surrounded by perils ? like a fiddler on a roof.

But this is not only of value to Jews. The enduring success of the show, and the film, testifies to an appeal which goes far beyond one narrow ethnic constituency. It has become one of the great musicals, taking its place in the canon alongside Guys and Dolls or West Side Story. For those non-Jewish audiences, Fiddler serves primarily as a good night out. Yet it does something else too: it shows them where many of today?s Jews came from. Now any Londoner can go along to the Savoy Theatre and see that Jews did not always live in Golders Green or Stamford Hill; that they have a history.

It strikes me that in this city of immigrants, where close to 40% of Londoners were born outside Britain, we need rather more of that. Until now, the films or novels about Britain?s ethnic minorities that have broken into the mainstream have tended to be about the immigrant experience, from Brick Lane to Bend it Like Beckham to East is East. There has been all too little that tells us not about the life of these communities once they got to Britain ? but about the worlds they left behind.

Black Londoners still speak of the early segments of the 1970s TV mini-series Roots the way I speak about Fiddler on the Roof - as one of the rare moments where their own heritage was made visible. The scenes of Kunta Kinte in the African village from where he was stolen into slavery live on in the collective memory ? they were a glimpse of the life before.

There have been some efforts in this direction, with the likes of Monsoon Wedding and, in the West End, Bombay Dreams. But we need more of it. A Polish Fiddler on the Roof perhaps, or a Nigerian one. Something that will tell us that the people driving the mini-cab in Streatham or working at Starbucks in Soho did not start like this: that they have a story. Who knows, it could even become a tradition.

There’s a good idea somewhere in HIPs

We should not write off the Home Information Packs - they might help first-time buyers and the environment

Published in the Evening Standard

It?s been like watching a train wreck - in very slow motion. The government?s plan to change the way we buy and sell houses ? by obliging sellers to pay for a detailed Home Information Pack (HIP) before they put their property on the market ? has crashed and burned before our very eyes. On Tuesday, cabinet minister Ruth Kelly finally had to face a jeering House of Commons to announced that HIPs would not be legally required on June 1 after all, but would kick in on August 1 instead.

That was not the only retreat. Now only four-bedroom houses will need a HIP: smaller properties will be included at some unspecified time in the future. And all this on top of last year?s climbdown, when the government dropped its requirement that the new packs include a ?home condition report,? so eliminating the need for buyers to commission a survey.

Even if you don?t go along with the Tories? chant that this is a fiasco, demonstrating the government?s ?arrogance and incompetence,? you?ve got to admit it looks a mess. The usual rule when governments try to make a big change like this is to get all the relevant players ? the ?stakeholders,? in ministerese - on side. HIPs have indeed got almost all the relevant stakeholders in the housing market ? estate agents, surveyors and lawyers ? on the same side. The trouble is, they?re all against the government.

Some of their objections do bite hard, especially in London where the ever-surging housing market looks out of control at the best of times. Estate agents are warning of a rush of sales to avoid the August 1 deadline, so warping an already warped market. What?s more, they predict a new form of linguistic deception. To add to phrases like ?opportunity for development? (meaning ?it?s a dump?) or ?part of a lively community?(meaning ?noisy?), make way for ?three bedrooms and a study? ? meaning, ?it?s a four-bedroom house but we didn?t want to do a HIP.?

Others have warned that HIPs could incur extra costs, especially in London where one estate agent initially predicted charges of

Yes, there is a solution to the housing shortage

Published in the Evening Standard

Such is the power of a prime minister-in-waiting. Gordon Brown only had to mention the housing crisis in the south east this week for the issue suddenly to gain the prominence and airtime campaigners have craved for so long. They have been sounding the alarm for years, but a word from the man destined for Number Ten ensured that everyone started listening. Brown better get used to it: this is how things are going to be for the next couple of years.

The PM-to-be accepted that the south east housing shortage was becoming desperate; that too many young people are being priced out of the property market before they can even enter it. His proposed solution sounded great: a set of five new eco-towns, providing 100,000 carbon neutral homes. That way, we?d alleviate much of the housing problem and do our bit for climate change. And if it meant nicely trumping David Cameron?s green credentials, well, that?d be a happy bonus.

Unfortunately, it hasn?t taken long for the shine to dull on Brown?s big idea. Green groups say any benefit in reduced carbon from these eco-homes could be cancelled out if their occupants have to commute by car to their jobs, doubtless in London. And the Nimby crowd have wondered where exactly these new settlements are to be built. They might like the idea of green homes in theory, but they don?t want a big new town in their backyard thank you very much.

That?s just how it is with the great housing conundrum: name a possible solution and you immediately come up with two more problems. Little wonder it has our leaders paralysed.

Think of the pressure on the south east. First, London is growing, with more and more people keen to squeeze in. Latest figures project a leap in London?s population to 9m by 2031. That?s 1.5m more than live here now.

Much of that growth will come from immigration, so that pretty soon more than half of London?s people will have been born outside Britain. But it?s compounded by the sheer dominance the capital has over the rest of the country, as businesses of every kind are drawn to locate themselves here rather than anywhere else.

The effect of this vastly expanded population is clear. Suddenly there are not enough homes to go around. And the infrastructure begins to creak under the strain. Hospitals have more patients to treat; schools have more children to teach.

Think of a remedy and you soon hit a brick wall. Could we somehow reduce the flow of people? It?s hard to see how. The Poles, Lithuanians and Hungarians who are here are now citizens of the European Union, granted the right of free movement. Besides, not many politicians are in a hurry to position themselves as anti-immigration: it sounds too much like hostility to the ethnic mix that already exists here.

Above all, London has clearly shown that it needs immigrants. As Ken Livingstone pointed out this week - noting that in the last seven years of buying a coffee on his way to work he has only been served by a native-born Londoner once - it seems there are some jobs which only migrants are willing to do. With an ageing population, the pensioners of the future need these young workers to provide for them in their old age.

So much for immigration. What of shifting the national set-up, so that things are not so tilted towards London? It would certainly take the pressure off if more businesses upped sticks for Birmingham or Glasgow. But past attempts to encourage relocation have always failed. And if it was tough to make people move north in the 1960s and 1970s, how much harder now, when London is a global city. The focus of most firms is not Britain but the world; they want to look outward and London lets them do that.

OK, you might say with a sigh. It?s clear we?re going to have to accommodate all these people in the south east somehow. But where? Point to vacant terrain ? like the 9% of farmland in the south east said to be subsidised for doing nothing - and you instantly collide with the Nimby problem. The defenders of the green belt are a mighty lobby, hard to beat. Would-be house builders can?t even rely on Londoners to be on their side: most of us tell pollsters we don?t want the countryside to be concreted over. We may not live surrounded by green and pleasant land ? but we want to know it?s there for a visit.

In other words, people keep coming ? but we don?t want to build on the land that might house them. Surely, something?s got to give. The answer might not be some new radical masterplan but a typically British one: to muddle on as we are.

For London has already absorbed 800,000 more people since 1986 ? equivalent to a city larger than Leeds. We?ve done it simply by squeezing more of us into the space we already occupy.

The key is housing density. We may go on about how crammed we all are here, but if London was as densely populated as Paris there would be 35m of us living here. Only one pocket of London currently matches Parisian levels of density - and it?s not some slummy hellhole, but Bayswater packed with well-heeled apartment blocks.

It?s density the mayor is aiming for when he gives permission for new developments, combining a ground-floor store with multiple flats on top. And it?s density we?ll get as onetime family houses get filled up with half a dozen rent-paying singles, whether from Australia or Nigeria.

But the government cannot just stand aside and watch this happen. This crowding is a consequence of policies it has pursued, from EU expansion to the pursuit of surging growth. If it wants a denser London, it will have to provide the infrastructure that will make that possible. That means transport, like Crossrail, so that all these people can get around, as well as ensuring local councils can carry the extra strain on their services. The easiest way to do that is to allow local authorities to keep more of the revenue these new residents will bring. If they are going to pay the cost of a rising population, they should at least get the benefit of it.

These are the problems of success in London, but they are problems all the same. And they now find themselves on the desk of one Gordon Brown.

Olmert out? Little would change

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

You?ve got to hand it to Ehud Olmert: the man is, to use his own word, ?indestructible?. Last week, when Judge Eliyahu Winograd delivered his searing, interim report on what Israelis call the Second Lebanon War, most observers were giving the prime minister the life expectancy of a hedgehog on a motorway. One poll found the number of Israelis who would vote for Olmert a cool, round 0 per cent. The mass rally which gathered in Rabin Square ? united by the simple message, ?Go home? ? seemed set to give him the last, decisive push. Surely Olmert would be gone within days.

Yet, as I write this, he is still in his chair, his position secured by comfortable victories in a series of Knesset no-confidence votes. It is a remarkable recovery, reversing all expectation. Olmert is a first: gone today, here tomorrow.

Even if it turns out to be only a temporary reprieve, and Olmert is driven from office by Winograd?s final report later this summer, it is still an extraordinary feat. As several Israeli commentators have noted, if Olmert had only fought the Lebanon war with the same strategic acumen and energy he has dedicated to saving his own skin, very many lives could have been saved.

He has been helped by his enemies. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert?s widely presumed successor as Kadima leader, has been slammed for failing to seize her chance and drive the PM from office. That criticism reveals just how utterly different Israeli political culture is from Britain?s and almost anywhere else?s. In fact, Livni went into Olmert?s office and told him, to his face, that he should go. She then repeated the demand to the media. In British terms, that would count as the greatest political assassination since Brutus. Yet in Israel she was accused of bottling it, of failing to stick the knife in. After all, she hadn?t rallied her fellow Kadima MKs formally to oust the PM. Whatever else you can say of Israeli politics, subtle it ain?t.

That, says the conventional wisdom, leaves Livni damaged: she is a vegetarian in a world of carnivores. Besides, if one of Winograd?s key complaints against Olmert and defence minister Amir Peretz was their inexperience, especially of military affairs, why would Israelis turn to the equally undecorated Livni?

Let?s say their search for a new prime minister takes Israelis outside Kadima; who might they choose? Not Peretz, obviously, who was condemned just as mercilessly by the retired judge. He, like Olmert, is living on borrowed time.

I confess to a twinge of sadness about both of them. I was among those who, back in the spring of 2006, saw something healthy in Israel at last being ruled not by military heroes, nor by aged titans from the first days of the state, but by regular, technocratic politicians ? just like any other country.

In this view, the Olmert elevation, after the era of Ariel Sharon, was a small Israeli step toward normality. As for Peretz, I was excited by the prospect, at long last, of a major Israeli party led by an authentic voice of the Mizrachim. Besides, Labour?s alienation from Jews of North African background had cost it badly, denying it power for three decades. Peretz suggested a way that rift could at last be healed. It is a great shame that the advance of both men will now be remembered as a dreadful mistake.

Peretz might well meet his fate sooner than Olmert, when he is ejected in Labour primaries later this month. Jostling for the succession are the former intelligence chief, Ami Ayalon, and former premier Ehud Barak. Neither can be accused of military inexperience and, importantly for Labour, neither can be branded as soft on security.

Still, if Olmert falls and takes his coalition with him, thereby triggering elections, the chances are that none of these people ? Livni, Ayalon or Barak ? will succeed him: on current polls, the next prime minister would be the last but three, Bibi Netanyahu.

I will follow all this with unswerving interest, of course. But something will be missing. Recent years have cured me of the once strong hope that, if only the right person could somehow land the top job, Israel?s core problems could be solved. I remember thinking just that, with spirits high, when Yitzhak Rabin was elected in 1992 and again when Barak took office in 1999. In the end, though, even they were thwarted, Rabin tragically so. This conflict between Jews and Muslims is just too fraught for a neat Christian solution: a saviour riding into Jerusalem, bringing peace with a wave of the hand. For that to happen, it is not the leaders who will have to change ? but the peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, who choose them.

And that might take a little longer.