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Three Men Spend a Night
in a Cold Birmingham Hotel Room

The first time I visited Israel was at the end of 1973 in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. The world was suffering its first oil crisis and reactions were different in the various countries around the globe. Some European countries, such as Holland, made Sundays a carless day.

In Israel each vehicle owner had to declare (with a little colour coded sticker on your windscreen) one day in the week on which you would not drive. So if you placed a gimmel sticker on your car, you could not drive from midnight on Monday night until midnight twenty-four hours later. When I arranged to visit my cousins up north, they said they would put me up at the bus station in Hadera unless I chose to come on a Tuesday when they were officially carless. Needless to say, I went up there on a Wednesday.

If you were religious, then you most probably chose the blue shin sticker which made your vehicleless day the sabbath. Because Israel is a Jewish state, shabbat was exactly that and not Saturday, so you could drive on Saturday night from sunset rather than having to wait until midnight. If you were caught driving on Friday night with a shin sticker, that was OK too. So shabbat had two meanings.

Of course, then as now, there were religious goodie-goodies who said, "We shouldn't choose Shabbos because then we are not contributing to the welfare of the world nor to good of the local economy. As is generally the case today, this "kindness" and "good heartedness" were misdirected. Back then, Israel, (when Jews were once a clever people) still had access to the Sinai oilfields; Israel, for a period of time, was self-sufficient in oil. But since antisemitic governments blamed Israel for the worldwide oil shortage [who attacked who guys?], our politicians had to put on a good show. Of course some "religious" Jews thought this was a nice gesture towards the non-religious Israelis who "really" had to suffer through a carless day.

Since I had travelled such a huge distance to Israel from Australia (the first time I was allowed to venture outside Oz) on a three months trip, I thought I'd take a small detour to London to visit Uncle Leslie and Auntie Celia Gluck. Leslie is my mother's big brother. If I thought the carless day in Israel was, let's say strange, in London they were much more extreme. You could drive your car around Piccadilly Circus all day long for all the British authorities cared. But businesses were allocated only three days a week of electricity. Yes, on the other three days (Monday to Saturday inclusive) you either closed up, like many offices did, or used gas lighting which many shoppes on the high street did. And, unlike back in the Holy Land, being a religious Jew was a marked disadvantage re the sabbath -- my uncle's office was only open twice a week because one of his three assigned days was Saturday -- you could not choose your day, and there was no correspondence to be entered into on the issue.

I didn't know too many people in London -- or rather, other than my Aunt and Uncle, I didn't know any. I had a long lost aunt I knew was there somewhere amongst the ten million population, but I would just wait until I bumped into her the following week, maybe on the Tube one morning.

No, there was actually another person, an Australian, and I went to look him up. His name is Ron Finkel and I know him from Melbourne where he had been the president of AUJS, the Australian (or maybe it was Australasian) Union of Jewish Students. He was now living in London, working as the president of WUJS, the World Union of Jewish Students.

We were having a good old yarn, when one of the guys who worked for WUJS, Gabby, walked in. Gabby was about to leave London for Birmingham where the British Jewish students were having their annual conference. (I don't remember their acronym -- I don't think it was UKUJS or JSUUK, but then again.) Ron said, "Why don't you go with?" I thought that was a good idea, and rang my aunt to tell her that after spending one day with them, I was going walkabout, up north. She wasn't home. I had two minutes to make a decision. Not to worry.

Gabby drove me over to my aunt and uncle's house to get some clean clothes for a few days and to let them know I was disappearing. When we arrived to the house, no-one was yet at home. Now remember the closest thing we knew to a mobile cell phone in those days was Dick Tracy's radio watch. And I didn't know my uncle's office phone number either. To further complicate matters, my aunt had put just about all my clothes into the wash that morning. I search the whole house desperately. Where do the Limeys put clothes after the wash? Gabby didn't know either -- he was Israeli. High and low, nowhere to be found. Gabby was already running late. He was itching to start our journey.

I took what I had: my suit (fortunately auntie had planned to dry clean that the next day, before shabbat), maybe one pair of undies (luckily it was winter). I left my relatives a note saying I was on my way to Birmingham for a few days -- see you soon -- love Menachem -- and off we went. I should add this point that my cousin, in whose room I slept the previous night, was studying at the Law School in Birmingham. So this side-trip was rather fortuitous as I did not expect to meet Laurence on this visit.

I'll relate a couple of incidents of a rather interesting four days. We had to pick up another passenger in London, a young, single, Scottish rabbi. He was the religious darling of the Jewish student movement and Gabby was driving him up to the conference too. Finally, after a few more delays, we left London on the (I think) M1 motorway, which heads due north out of London towards the Scottish border.

It was a good couple of hours drive to Birmingham as I recall and by the time we arrived, tired, at the original Spaghetti Junction, the intersection of the three motorways above two railway lines, three canals and two rivers at the entrance to Birmingham, it was after 11 p.m. We all had billets arranged, with three different families, but the rabbi felt that it was a wee late to go to someone's house at that unearthly hour (we were no longer in London). Remember, no mobile phones and no public phones on the highway -- and of course my new rabbinical friend was staying with a local rabbi who probably turned in at 9:30 p.m. on these cold winter nights. So what to do -- we drove around looking for accommodation: a hotel, a motel, a guest house, a caravan park, any warm bed please. It was also freezing -- Birmingham in February is not the place of choice for a night on a park bench.

Eventually we found something. I think the proprietors called it a hotel, but that's a moot point. But it was getting close to midnight. They had one room left (funny, it's the same in the movies -- low season, and only one room left), with three beds. It was a large, grey, cold room. Ah, one saving grace -- there was a gas heater in the chamber. Good! Only one problem -- you had to feed the gas metre with a tenpence coin. It was one of those wind-up meters. I remember them from my childhood. You needed to pay to get gas for the copper (a Fred Flinstone precursor of the washing machine we had back then) into which you placed your clothes, heated the water, added some soap powder, and stirred the whole thing with a large stick, round and round -- all very reminiscent of a witch's cauldron.

The meter worked like this: you put in a 10p coin (no change given and no smaller denominations accepted -- mechanical operation) and turn the knob. The coin drops into the guts of the device, never to again see the light of day. This action opens the gas input for the next, approximately, half an hour. As the knob unwinds to its starting position, the gas supply gives you some heat -- but you need to light it with a match each time. You see the problem. First we didn't have too many tenpenny coins (sorry, seven-eleven had not yet come into existence, not even in America), there was no front desk, and no open corner store. Second, even with the seven or so coins we had, some had to be awake to stoke the metre and strike the match. We set up a roster, woke periodically to feed the metre, and when we ran out, we froze a bit -- and I had no pyjamas (in those days I was still used to wearing them).

It was a funny night -- three men in a room with a lunatic coin eating metre and matches that mysteriously break in the dark. Eventually morning arrived and three hungry men arose. We thought we'd try our hand at the hotel's English breakfast. Since the archetypical English breakfast is bacon and eggs, we didn't do too well. So three famished men left their meagre lodgings for the opening of the conference.

Unlike the Australian conferences I was used to, this one had many more delegates from a large number of universities. I really enjoyed being there. Of course I did. I was a real novelty. If they every had an Australian there before (unlikely) I was eligible, good humoured and good looking -- I had to pretend to fight the girls off! Later in the week I even looked into doing my Masters degree at Imperial College, and quite a few people encouraged me to do so.

The family with whom I stayed were quite pleasant (for Birmingham -- just kidding) and I had enjoyable Shabbat. My rabbi friend looked very different in the synagogue to our night in the hotel, all dressed up in his clergy gear. The only exception to the enjoyable shabbat was one of the sons of the family. He had this infuriating habit of calling me Bruce for some unknown reason. Drove me bonkers, totally around the bend. I couldn't understand why. All he said was, "All Australians are called Bruce". News to me. I knew only one Bruce, a kid in my class right through school called Bruce McCaig -- and his family originated in Scotland. The mystery was solved after shabbos when the kid put on a long play record. It was a Monty Python recording. They have some skits, of which I was then still unaware. (I knew the cheese skit.) One was of the Ashes Test Cricket Match, Australia versus England, where every player on the Aussie team was called Bruce. Another was the Philosophy Department of the mythical University of Woolloomooloo. Every member of the department was Bruce something. A "pommie bastard" comes out from England for a Sabbatical year to teach at Woolloomooloo. The ensuing conversation goes something like this: "Is your name not Bruce then? -- no it's Michael -- it's not Bruce then -- well that's going to cause a bit of confusion around here -- mind if we call you Bruce. Then things will be a bit clearer", and they go on to refer to Michael from then on as "new Bruce". The penny dropped as to why I had been Bruce all that day.

On Saturday night I went to a party, one of the social events of the conference. Word got around that I was Laurence's cousin. The Birmingham Jewish student population was quite small so the locals all knew my cousin. I can't know how many people came up to me and said, "your Laurence's cousin?" "Yes, is he here?" "No not yet." As I had never met Laurence before, I didn't really know what he looked like. I had seen his barmitzva photographs a few years earlier. So basically any male attendee that evening (except for the black guy and the two Asians -- I still don't know how they got there -- I guess gatecrashers) could have been my cousin for all I knew, and many seemed to claim the title, 'No, not really -- just kidding around". Eventually when the real Laurence did appear, I was sure my leg was being pulled once again. But it was he -- in the flesh and blood. We got on really well and have continued to do so whenever we are together, which unfortunately is not very often.

I spent the next couple of days at the conference. I met so many interesting people. It was really the highlight of my trip. I might write some more about it another time.

Please feel free to and don't forget to stop by my site to look at my latest (and classic) photographs.


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