Nathan Abrams speaks to Jewish comedian Ian Stone about his new book To Be Someone.
Ian Stone might not be the first Jewish standup comedian you’d think of, but he’s been around for over twenty years, appearing on television, radio and podcasts. In his newly published memoir, To Be Someone, he recounts his lifelong passions of listening to The Jam and following Arsenal, while growing up Jewish in 1970s and 1980s Britain.
The back-cover blurb from Henning Wehn, pretty much sums it up ‘Music. Football. Judaism. What’s not to like?’ The only caveat is that, being a Jewish Free School (JFS) alumnus, there isn’t much Judaism in the book (but more on that later).
The seventies in Britain were not a pleasant period. It was a time of casual violence, sexism, racism and Thatcherism. As Stone’s idol, Paul Weller, is quoted as saying, ‘I’d forgotten how shit it was in the 70s’. Although I am much younger than Stone, a great deal of what he tells us resonates with my own youth.
One rarely, if ever, reads about JFS (also my alma mater) outside of the Jewish Chronicle. This is possibly because, unlike other London schools, it hasn’t produced the glittering alumni that they have. Even within the Jewish comedy circuit, which might include David and Ivor Baddiel, David Schneider, Ashley Blaker, Alexei Sayle and Matt Lucas, they often went to the better schools like City of London, Haberdashers’ or UCS.
JFS was an inner-city London comprehensive then situated in Camden Town, suitably located so as to be mutually inaccessible to the children of London’s Jews who didn’t want to send their kids to eitehr a private or more Orthodox Jewish school like Hasmonean.
I spoke to Ian, via Zoom, fresh from a gig in a car park in Tring. After the initial fiddling about – what he accurately described as ‘Two Jews trying to work out some technical shit’ – we had a wide-ranging chat about the book, his life and career.
‘People forget. JFS was an inner-city school. It was an inner-city school in Camden’ where pupils like him got no encouragement. It was ‘a place to house us for five years before releasing us into the workforce.’
Stone’s descriptions of the school nail it. Of the neighbouring Holloway School, he writes,
As well as terrorising any kids who had the temerity to walk past their school just because they happen to live near Holloway, their regular lunchtime entertainment was to wander down the road to our school, stand in the street where we could see them make gas noises and Nazi salutes. Even writing a sentence is shocking to me. Nowadays, I could see it happening perhaps once or twice before the authorities got wind of what was going on and finally put a stop to it. This abuse went on for years it probably went on longer than the Second World War. It happened so often I think it became part of the curriculum.
When asked if the Holloway boys meant it, he paused, ‘maybe they just wanted to wind up the Jewish kids.’
Stone is surprised ‘it was allowed to go as long as it did’, though. ‘It’s shocking isn’t it? It’s shocking that these things still continue’, he tells me. ‘My grandfather would have been chucking bricks at Oswald Mosley. It still feels relevant to today, industrial unrest, disillusion, racism, antisemitism but I’d like to think things are better now.’
His recollections chime very much with my own experiences of JFS. I recall those playground experiences of when the boys from Holloway School walked down the road to make gas hissing noises at us while giving Nazi salutes and telling us that Hitler hadn’t finished the job. We also had the occasional brick lobbed over the fence as an added bonus.
Like me, Stone was also teased at school for having a big nose — a source of much humour in the book — and he’s aware of the irony. But where he was referred to as Concorde, I was teased for having what was called a boxer’s nose.
When I ask if JFS gave him anything, he responds. ‘Nothing. JFS was a place I had to visit five times a week for every year.’ While nominally a modern orthodox school, only later did it become more Jewish, more observant. As Stone put it to me, ‘JFS was not a very Jewish school considering it was a Jewish school.’
Other than the obligatory Ivrit and religious studies lessons, bar mitzvah and attendant shul attendance, he stopped believing in God around the time he discovered Paul Weller. ‘I haven’t been to shul in God knows how long. I’m a cultural Jew.’
However, he does single out one teacher. Where he changes every other teacher’s name in the book, he specifically mentions Clive Lawton. ‘I don’t think I’d be the comedian and have the career I’ve had without him. He was quite inspiring to me. He was my form tutor and taught English. It was a subject I loved.’ The other teacher who influenced him was Mr. Sutcliffe, a physics teacher, who led him to being an engineer for ten years before becoming a comedian.
The book is also unusual for its descriptions of growing up in an unintellectual west Hendon working-class household. ‘Class is not talked about enough among Jews’, he told me. And as he puts it in the book, ‘Jews may have invented the whole idea of the class struggle, but at the Jewish Free School, they told us that if we were being oppressed for anything, it was for being Jewish. That was enough oppression to be getting on with.’
Those who, like Jeremy Corbyn, have an affinity with the downtrodden and view all Jews as fairly well off, he suggests, could do with reading his book.
Stone’s dad was a News of the World reading blue collar worker. He first worked in a shop and then the post office before being fired for telephoning in a bomb threat one day as he wanted to take the afternoon off. He ended up as a market trader. This is a far cry from the stereotypical booklined middle-class home in northwest London one has come to associate with Jewishness in British popular culture. ‘We never ever sat around a table eating dinner. We sat in front of the telly and no one spoke to each other. It was not a calm house.’
For that reason, he spent a great deal of time with the Baddiels, especially Ivor who was his best mate from primary school. He became very close to the family. Ivor is mentioned a great deal in the book. The other comedian was Dave Schneider who ‘was a huge influence on me.’
When I asked him how his book had been received by Jews, he says I’m the first person from the Jewish community who’s shown any interest. But his Auntie Irene loves it.
On the subject of music, Stone is also a maven. The first music he ever loved was Fiddler on the Roof because his grandmother adored it. He describes The Jam as
the most goy band you can imagine. That was the attraction. I stopped going to synagogue around the time The Jam came along. Weller to a certain extent replaced God. Weller was the guy I looked up to rather than Him upstairs.
As mentioned, Stone is also a massive football fan. He grew up watching Arsenal and his favourite player was Liam Brady. He toured the country, visiting its many away grounds. Of course, he witnessed the open racism of the era. About antisemitism in football, he says, ‘I absolutely don’t think Spurs fans should use the “Y word”, absolutely not. I felt sick when I heard the Spurs are going to Auschwitz song.’ But, he reminds us, ‘We need to make distinctions, or it loses its power.’
Stone has also experienced his share of antisemitism on the comedy circuit. In the book, he talks about physically assaulting one antisemitic heckler. When I spoke to him about it, he replied that it still happens from time to time. He asked someone in his audience once what his name was, and the person replied, ‘Josef Mengele’. Stone told him to fuck off. Another guy in the audience in Birmingham tried to – humorously he thought — give him a comedic Nazi salute with a finger on the top lip. Afraid that Stone might beat him up, the club ejected the person. On yet another instance, when talking about nut allergies in the seventies, he does a gag about an imaginary friend dying of a nut allergy and then taking the peanuts out of his dead hand, one heckler then shouted at him, ‘Typical Jew’. This prompted him to write a show called ‘Typical Jew’ which he’d be performing in Edinburgh right now if it wasn’t for Covid.
Now that’s a show I would like to see. Ian Stone isn’t your typical Jew.