MICHEAL KUSTOW' S unholy trinity produced a pained but powerful chronicle
PUBLISHED: 13:56 16 April 2009 | UPDATED: 16:06 07 September 2010
Crouch End author Michael Kustow tells Bridget Galton about his new book and his life as a dissenting British Jew IN HIS late 60s, theatre and TV producer Michael Kustow experienced several shocks to the system that jolted him to the core. The death of
Crouch End author Michael Kustow tells Bridget Galton about his new book and his life as a 'dissenting British Jew'
IN HIS late 60s, theatre and TV producer Michael Kustow experienced several shocks to the system that jolted him to the core.
The death of his mother Sadie; a cancer diagnosis and Israel's 2006 bombardment of Lebanon forced him to reassess his life.
This unholy trinity set him off writing fragmented "personal chronicles" about his treatment for bowel cancer; efforts to publicly denounce Israel's action, and flashbacks to the past.
He has entwined these strands in In Search of Jerusalem (Oberon Books, £18.99) which is part autobiography, part cancer memoir, and part political/spiritual quest to come to terms with being a "dissenting British Jew".
"This cataclysm came upon me and hit me in my 60s and made me question everything," says the 69-year-old, who lives in Crouch End. "Who I was, what I had been doing, had I fulfilled myself? It's a very, very naked book, not very English in that way. But you ask these things with more acuity when you think you may not go on."
The book starts with his upbringing in Golders Green and ends with his near fatal heart attack in May 2008.
"I didn't set out to write a book but when my mother died I decided I ought to keep a journal. Then when the cancer was discovered all my friends wanted to know how it was going so I started a blog.
"The limitation of a blog is it's so close to what's happening that you have no perspective. So I followed it through with other reminiscences and portraits of people I have known.
"It's not a linear story because it was a fractured year of my life, and it's not a straightforward cancer memoir - but I have gathered those fragments and I hope it is richer for it."
Kustow, who ran the Institute for Contemporary Arts in the 60s, helped run the National Theatre in the 70s, and commissioned arts programmes at the fledgling Channel 4 in the 80s, describes himself as an "enabler" of other people's creativity.
But although he has written books - including a biography of his friend and collaborator Peter Brook - his brush with death inspired him to take a playwrighting course with West Hampstead writer Bernard Kops.
He has just completed the first draft of his debut play set in Israel and Golders Green.
"Bernard Kops is a magnificent teacher. He told me to start enabling my own creativity and helped me take the stopper out of the left side of my brain. I had always been happy to look at new plays and think I could never do what those playwrights did. But when there is a possible end to your life you think - why not have a crack at it?"
In Search of Jerusalem is threaded through with anecdotes, erudite references and passages from plays Kustow has worked on at the RSC, The National and elsewhere. It also repeatedly returns to his background.
"Jewishness comes into it in a profound way. Israel and Palestine dominates because I am a dissenting British Jew with all the conflicts that raises with my family and community."
Kustow hails from a family of East End tailors. He grew up in Cranbourne Gardens, Temple Fortune and his father ran a children's clothing shop in Bermondsey.
After leaving Oxford University in 1961, he became embroiled in left wing political theatre, including supporting CND and damning the Vietnam war.
He remains ardently anti-war and the book relates his attendance at peace rallies, how he signs a joint letter denouncing his right to return to Israel, and organises signatures for a protest letter to the New York Times against Israeli military action
His stance earns him heated disagreement from both family and Israeli friends.
"This is just as much a book about my struggle with Israel as my struggle with cancer. Israel started bombing Beirut the day my mother died and I was jolted into coming to terms with my Jewishness. In what ways am I Jewish? What is my homeland? asks Kustow, who also admits that despite moving easily through English society: "I don't feel entirely at home here."
Now in remission, he is looking forward to finishing his play, and remains passionate about the theatre - which he calls "the main activity of my life".
"I love poetic theatre that is complex and full of meaning, anger and hope. I love Shakespeare, where on a bare stage the actors conjure something through language and movement and make you imagine this world. I feed on that. It makes me feel alive."
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