Credit drapers in family gave J David his initial success

IT must be the nomad in J David Simons that has prompted the themes of his books. The author’s works has taken in Glasgow, Japan and pre-state Israel.

And the 64-year-old was just embarking on another adventure when he spoke to me from Prague.

Prior to that, he had spent two months in Spain and is now going to travel the globe over the next 12 months.

Visiting — and working — in different places is nothing new for the native Glaswegian, either.

He left Scotland for Israel in 1978 and has since lived in Japan, Australia and Brighton.

And David, as he prefers to be called, was never one for placing down roots.

Born Jonathan David Simons, he was raised in the King’s Park area of Glasgow by mum Rose and dad Aaron. Rose still lives in the Scottish city.

“There weren’t many Jews in King’s Park — it was more of a Catholic area,” David said.

“We belonged to the Queens Park Synagogue, which was where I was barmitzvah and went to cheder a couple of times a week.”

His father died when David was 14 and his mother married George Stone, whom she was with for around 33 years.

“The death of any parent when you are young is bound to have an impact,” David recalled.

“I was the oldest son, so I had to take on a lot of responsibilities in the family.”

The family later moved to the more Jewish area of Newton Mearns. But it was while living in King’s Park that his creative imagination first came to light.

David and his family lived near Hampden Park, the Scotland national football team’s home ground, which hosted domestic cup finals.

In April, 1964, his team, Rangers, were playing Dundee in the Scottish FA Cup final.

He said: “Because we lived near Hampden Park, we could always hear the crowd when games were being played there.

“I remember this particular match, listening to it on the radio and hearing the roar of the crowd.

“Dundee’s goalkeeper Bert Slater had such a fantastic game that I changed my allegiances to Dundee and have supported them ever since.

“In those days, select players from the English leagues would take on select players from the Scottish league and I ran away from home when I was 14 to see this game, as I thought Slater was playing.

“I met him later in life in Spain and we had a nice evening together. I told him the story and I later discovered, having tracked down the match programme, that he didn’t play.

“I had convinced myself so much that I even told him I saw him play — and he didn’t correct me.”

After reading law at the University of Glasgow, David became a partner in an Edinburgh law firm at the age of 22.

But it wasn’t what he wanted to do. He had always craved taking a gap year, even though at that time, in the early 1970s, such a thing was rare.

“I took a gap life, instead,” David laughed.

Having visited Israel with a friend a few years earlier, he moved to Kibbutz Adamit, near the border with Lebanon, in 1978.

“I had been a member of Habonim, so I had socialist leanings. The 1980s was the pinnacle of kibbutz success as the socialist dream coincided with a comfortable material lifestyle.

“The quality of life on the kibbutzim was high then, but now a lot of those socialist ideals have disappeared and the ideologies diluted.”

Ever the intrepid traveller, David moved to and fro between 1978 and 1984, visiting India and working for homeless charity the Cyrenians in West London, where he first met Kazuo Ishiguro, who later became a Nobel-prizewinning novelist and with whom David still remains good friends.

David settled permanently in Israel in 1984, on Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov, where he worked as a cotton farmer until 1988.

“The first intifada had broken out a year earlier,” he added. “Although we were unaffected by the Palestinian violence, we could feel the tension.

“Another issue was that, if I was going to stay on the kibbutz, I felt I needed to get married, as the community was built around family, otherwise I would have stayed an individual in a family-based kibbutz, so thought I would end up lonely.”

Instead, he moved to Australia and taught English to Chinese students, before heading to Japan, where he taught at Keio University, Tokyo.

David’s time in the Land of the Rising Sun later inspired his 2013 book An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, which tells of a British writer returning to a resort hotel in the Japanese mountains where he once spent a snowed-in winter.

Keio University was one of the first institutions outside the military to use the internet before it exploded around the world.

And David’s early proficiency with the World Wide Web led to him writing for the publishing house Informa on the subject after he had moved to Brighton.

He had his first short story published in 1993, but it wasn’t until 2008 that his first book, The Credit Draper, was released.

“I always knew that I would write, but I felt that I had to wait until I had something to say,” David explained.

“I have great admiration for young writers who are in their 20s and who have the confidence to feel they have something to say and write about.

“I was never one of those people who was always writing growing up — I wanted to gain experience and wisdom first.”

The Credit Draper tells of 11-year-old Avram Escovitz, who is shipped off by his mother to Scotland to escape conscription into the Russian army.

He is brought up by the Kahn family in the tightly-knit Jewish community in the Glasgow Gorbals, where he discovers he has a talent for playing football.

He dreams of turning out for Celtic, but is sent to work with his adopted uncle, Mendel Cohen, as a credit draper, peddling goods on credit to the crofters and villagers of the Western Highlands.

“My grandfather was actually a credit draper and my stepfather told me that he had an uncle who worked as a credit draper in the Highlands, so I thought it would be a great setting for a story,” David said.

“I thought there must have been a huge cultural clash between these Jewish credit drapers and Highland crofters, but there is quite a lot in common between the Jewish and Scottish cultures.

“There’s the thirst for whisky and schnapps or brandy and they both like betting and herring, so I had to make up a lot of conflict in the book that maybe didn’t exist in real life.”

The Credit Draper led to The Liberation of Celia Kahn, which was followed by The Land Agent, about 1920s then-Palestine and the conflict over a strategic piece of land that doesn’t exist on any map.

“There are no Zionist or Arab nationalists in The Land Agent,” David continued. “I wanted to show other parties involved in the whole land issue.”

His fifth novel, A Woman of Integrity, was published last year.

“Writing first drafts is extremely painful,” David said. “I always quote Dorothy Parker, who said, ‘I hate writing, but I love having written’, as that sums me up, too.

“Ninety per cent of writers are not earning the minimum wage, so we aren’t all JK Rowling.

“However, like most writers, I am able to do other things around it, such as editing work and mentoring people while they write their novels.”

He also believes that the eBook trend appears to be on the wane, while the internet has become an immense help while researching for his books.

“People do apologise to me when they have brought an eBook of my work, but I do think that, because most people sit in front of a screen all day, when they get home, they would prefer to sit down and read an actual book,” David added.

“Without the internet, because a lot of my work is about researching history, I would otherwise be spending years in libraries, taking books on and off the shelves.”

He is halfway through writing his next book and plans to finish it while travelling in Canada and America.

David is also going to spend time in the Pacific island of Samoa, where one of his heroes, the legendary Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, lived and died.


© 2018 Jewish Telegraph