I grew up in one of those red bricked council estates in Hackney and most of my family seemed to live in the same block. Beneath us was my Uncle Sid and his four boys. Known locally as 'Joe Cunt', he was a taxi driver and street fighter who also minded door at the Kray's Regency Club, just down the road. Opposite was my Auntie Bessy who weighed in at a trim 33 stone. She was apparently a good looking woman in her day, though no-one could tell me precisely when that day was. Her husband was a bald little bloke named Will whom she always affectionately referred to as 'shithouse'.
The only thing these two had in common was that his weight went into hers exactly four times. They also had a son called Beezle, who had a stutter that could have won prizes. A few doors along the balcony from us lived my nan and granddad. My nan's sister, Auntie Jinny also lived with them. Today we would say Jinny had special needs. In those days the phrase most commonly uttered was retard. She liked to keep budgies, who after a while, spoke in a chirpy version of her own rather strange voice. Jinny once told me 'I had three budgies. But they both died.'
Welcome to my world.
About five years ago Auntie Jinny passed away. I visited her in those final days and she had thought I was Paul Gascoigne. No idea why. The funeral took place on a miserable, rainy day in a Jewish cemetery in Waltham Abbey, where no Jew ever settled while still breathing. My mum asks me to look over the eulogy she's written. I tell her that she cannot not open with the phrase 'Jinny was a retard'. She replies 'but she was a retard'. I back off. This is no day for giving notes to a difficult writer. As Jinny had outlived most of her contemporaries the ceremony is sparsely attended. This creates a problem. At a Jewish funeral the head mourner has to say 'kaddish', a prayer for the dead spoken in Hebrew, just before the coffin is lowered into the ground.
There are precious few heads present yet alone a head mourner. So the rabbi asks me if I would say the prayer. I'd rather have a serrated, rusty spike stuck up my arse but agree, as he looks extremely holy and I don't want to incur the wrath of the almighty, or for that matter, my mother.
I should point out that I can just about read Hebrew. I was taught it as a kid and I have said this prayer before – when I buried my father. But this is still not a performance I am looking forward to. The rabbi says he'll give me the nod at the point where I have to come in and I say cool bruv, sorted, or words to that effect.
The ceremony begins, I open my prayer book and reach into my jacket pocket for my glasses. Shit. Fuck. Wank. Cock. Bollocks. They're still on the kitchen table. Which as it happens is not in my jacket pocket. I glance down at the prayer book and am met by a misty, grey blur. Without my glasses I cannot read a newspaper headline yet alone an ancient Aramaic based text running from right to left.
I am, for all intents and purposes, a blind man. I start to panic. It's brass monkeys out, but I'm sweating buckets. I consider doing a runner, but I procrastinate. Before I know it the rabbi looks at me and gives me the nod. I remain silent. Sweaty and silent. All assembled eyes are on me...
I can offer no real reasoning for what happened next. There was no eureka moment. No lightbulb appearing above my head. Just a seamless segue into the desperately absurd. I begin to rock. Not like AC/DC, but back and forth. Rhythmically. Like documentary film footage of Hassidic Jews at the wailing wall. It is a motion that says 'I am a Jew doing Jew stuff'. And the boy is off at a canter. Next comes the mumbling.
Very low, fast indiscernible mumbling chanted in time with my rocking. Every now and then and I throw in a sequence of guttural throaty noises. Now they sound really Jewish. I glance around. All good. I hit my stride. This is exhibition stuff. Imagine, if you will, a flamboyant performance of meaningless gibberish intended to embody the entire history and spirit of an ancient religion. Baby, I owned that kaddish.
Glancing up again I see my cousin Stephen. Our eyes meet but do not otherwise exchange pleasantries. His mouth is agape and a look of abject horror is ambling slowly across his face. He knows exactly what I am doing. He shakes his head at me, in disbelief. I continue my good work unabashed and make a mental note to smite him down with a plague of locusts at a later date.