Ear­li­er this week, Francesca Segal wrote about recast­ing a clas­sic nov­el and about being asked the ques­tion Who are your char­ac­ters REAL­LY?. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

It was sev­er­al years ago when my moth­er went for a flu shot to our fam­i­ly doc­tor, an avun­cu­lar, beard­ed South African whose med­ical prac­tice com­fort­ably ser­vices at least half of north-west London’s Jew­ry. It is a posi­tion that requires front-line hero­ism when one con­sid­ers the demo­graph­ic; the arm­chair physi­cians and proxy-hypochon­dri­acs and tire­less­ly fran­tic Jew­ish moth­ers. His desk is a con­fu­sion of stuffed ani­mals and rub­ber chew toys, bright­ly coloured and eas­i­ly dis­in­fect­ed, the armoury of the fam­i­ly prac­ti­tion­er. Dr Win­ter over­saw the removal of almost half the ton­sils in my junior school class­room, and has attend­ed to the food poi­son­ings and hol­i­day vac­ci­na­tions and slipped discs of most of our syn­a­gogue. My fam­i­ly has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs Segal. But the doc­tor was con­scious of a far more seri­ous threat to her well-being.

Nu?’ he demand­ed, set­tling back for a chat. Why isn’t she married?’

At the time I was twenty-seven.

Nev­er mind, I have some­one. Nice boy. Old­er. West­min­ster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.’

And so my moth­er left, inoc­u­lat­ed against both flu and, it was hoped, social dis­grace, clutch­ing the pre­scrip­tion for a son-in-law.


A lot about north-west Lon­don is embod­ied in that anec­dote. No one involved is remote­ly reli­gious. My par­ents, unlike many of the neigh­bours, couldn’t have cared less than I hadn’t mar­ried young; they were proud I was doing well at work, and only gave my roman­tic sta­tus a moment’s anx­i­ety when some­one else drew their atten­tion to it. But the com­mu­ni­ty here is small and tight­ly-knit and has remained social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, even as reli­gious prac­tice falls away in favour of tra­di­tion. Every­one knows every­one, and can prob­a­bly name the where­abouts of all kinder­garten class­mates. There are sim­ply not enough of us to ren­der the shid­duch defunct; that charm­ing man you met at a din­ner par­ty is, sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, unlike­ly to be in the tribe. It’s a love­ly place to grow up, but in ear­ly adult­hood in par­tic­u­lar, the warmth can bor­der on claustrophobia.

Despite the Cross­ing Delancey parochial­ism of our intro­duc­tion, I actu­al­ly spent six rather tem­pes­tu­ous months with the doctor’s pre­scribed gen­tle­man. He was hand­some, and it there­fore took a lit­tle while to realise that he was also, as the end­less­ly applic­a­ble say­ing goes, Not That Into Me. But if noth­ing else, the whole episode illus­trat­ed the strength and vigour of the north-west Lon­don grapevine, nour­ished as it is by the fer­tile soil of local gos­sip, because less than a week after we broke up, Dr Win­ter was on the phone to my mother.

Did it work?’ he demand­ed. This was mere feint; fif­teen patients that morn­ing had no doubt already told him that it hadn’t. No? Nev­er mind, I have a backup.’

This time, valiant­ly, my moth­er tried to fend him off. Dr Win­ter would not accept her refusal. But I must thank him because it was the back­up, in many ways, who defined my fate.

Dr Win­ter has called and giv­en me your num­ber. I am very flat­tered,’ read his email, as if I had been declaim­ing son­nets beneath his win­dow when, in fact, this email was the first I’d heard of him, but I’m sor­ry to tell you that I have just start­ed see­ing some­one. If it doesn’t work out with her then I will cer­tain­ly get in touch in the future. PS. Did you go to King Alfred’s School? I think my sis­ter knows you.

It was short­ly after that email (which I did not answer, lest you were con­cerned) that I decid­ed to move to New York. And it was short­ly after mov­ing to New York – safe­ly buffered from home by the Atlantic – that I decid­ed to write a nov­el set back home. North-west Lon­don and I have made up now, and these days I spend most of my time there. But two years away afford­ed me a fan­tas­tic per­spec­tive – and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to remem­ber all its strengths, as well as to smile at its foibles with fondness.

Vis­it Francesca Segal’s offi­cial web­site here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twit­ter Book Club con­ver­sa­tion with Francesca.

Francesca was born in Lon­don in 1980. Brought up between the UK and Amer­i­ca, she stud­ied at St Hugh’s Col­lege, Oxford, before becom­ing a jour­nal­ist and writer. Her work has appeared in Gran­ta, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Finan­cial Times, and Vogue UK and US, amongst many oth­ers. She has been a fea­tures writer at Tatler, and for three years wrote the Debut Fic­tion col­umn in the Observ­er. The Inno­cents won the Jew­ish Book Award for Fic­tion and the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture in 2013.