I wrote right near the top of the acknowledgements pages of Being Jewish Today: “To my father who, at the age of 94, read the entire manuscript and objected only to my self-deprecation”.
Just think about that. At the age of 94, he not only wanted and was able to read the manuscript – as he’d read several previous drafts; he both grasped and identified with what I’d written.The only thing he couldn’t cope with – and repeatedly objected to – was my self-deprecation – born out of self-doubt and uncertainty – attributes which Dad seldom if ever allowed himself!
Ronald David Bayfield was born on the 1st May 1924 at 61 British Street, Bow. His father Ernest – we’ll never know the story – had become a much valued protégée of the German-Jewish fine printing firm Raphael Tuck, converted to Judaism in 1919 and married Amelia Goudeket (they’d come to pronounce it ‘Goodycat’ . . . thank you, Dad, for Bayfield). She was the youngest child of a large and impoverished Dutch Jewish family from Amsterdam with origins both in the Alsace and Portugal.
My Papa Ernie and Nanny Millie (the names by which I instinctively remember them) had three sons – Len, Ron and Des. They moved to the brand new Becontree estate and immediately became members of the almost equally new Becontree and District Synagogue. It was where their future in-laws – Nat and Pearly Mann – were founders, movers and shakers. OK: ganze makhers. Ronnie Bayfield and Sheila Mann met at the cheder at the age of seven and were never parted. Until now.
a well-educated and intelligent young man
Dad passed the Eleven Plus, earning a much-prized place at the Royal Liberty Grammar School, Gidea Park. But the War and evacuation cut short his education and obliged him to leave school at sixteen. He was soon called up and joined the 23rd Hussars – a posh name for a mechanised infantry unit, part of the 11th Armoured Division. Dad told the story of his first parade where he stepped forward and announced: “14319842,Bayfield, Jew”. The next in line thought Dad was taking the proverbial and stepped forward announcing “Mohammaden”. Ron went to war wearing those tags round his neck and each time I was privileged to stand with other faith leaders at the Cenotaph, I had Dad’s tags with me – clutched in my gloved hand.
Early in his training, Ron revealed himself as a well-educated and intelligent young man. He was recommended for officer training perhaps with intelligence work in mind but opted for service as a tank wireless operator. He could never explain to me this apparently inexplicable decision.
His tank was the last in the squadron to be out-gunned and destroyed by German Panzers concealed in a wood
Ron and Sheila married at Beehive Lane Synagogue, Ilford on 3rd March 1944, aged nineteen, and Ron soon landed in Normandy and was in the thick of bloody skirmishes and desperate battles around Caen.
His tank was the last in the squadron to be out-gunned and destroyed by German Panzers concealed in a wood. Regaining consciousness, Ron somehow managed to get out of the burning tank and, though badly burnt himself, carried a wounded member of his crew back behind British lines.
He was patched up and shipped back, often in excruciating pain, to hospital in Perth in Scotland, where Sheila – having endured a month of no news and expecting the telegram every day – was able to resist the attentions of Polish airmen on the train and visit him. He recovered, endured rehab and eventually returned to service as a sergeant in a training unit. It was a lifelong regret – the only one Dad ever shared – that he hadn’t been able to re-join his unit which was amongst the liberators of Bergen Belsen.
a determined innovator and pioneer
As soon as he was de-mobbed, Ron did a crash teacher training course (he got a First) and began a distinctive and distinguished career devoting himself to the needs of educationally deprived boys in the most materially deprived areas of London. He began in Bow Secondary Modern School and later taught in Hornchurch (as Head of the Department for Backward Boys!) and then White City before becoming Head Teacher in Notting Hill and finally Head of Homerton House Comprehensive School in Hackney.
As ever, Ron was a determined innovator and pioneer. From the beginning, he defied convention and instructions, seeking to ensure that boys in his charge were taught a syllabus and in a manner that met their needs rather than a perception of what every child, regardless of the circumstances, should have imposed on them. He introduced televisions with headphones at the back of the classroom with boys working individually and even pioneered West Indian steel bands. In Hackney he once defied a strike called by a far left dominated trade union (he was a solid Labour man himself) and personally supervised school lunches for a week so everyone would get a hot meal. He retired in 1988, greatly dismayed and finally defeated by the cuts which stripped his school of all the ancillary programmes that he’d put in place.
Whilst teaching at Bow, Dad ran evening classes for women and men in their late teens on the Isle of Dogs – where he worked with the late and much missed Professor William J Fishman, doyen of East End historians, my honorary Uncle Bill who looked down on me from a great height and taught me to hold in high esteem the socialists and anarchists of the Jewish East End.
Dad also undertook a part-time degree course at the London School of Economics – his drive and determination were phenomenal. But just as she’d been left distressingly alone during the War, so Sheila was still spending the bulk of her time alone at home, first with me born in July 1946 (Dad had celebrated the end of the War on leave the previous autumn) and then I was joined by my brother Jeremy in 1950.
many arguments and tussles – but always l’shem Shamayim
You’d have thought all this was quite enough but not for my parents. They’d both been brought up in a context of deep commitment to Jewish identity and Judaism – but one expressed in behavioural, ritual terms: kashrut and Sabbath observance. They’d moved from a flat in Newington Green (from where it’s alleged I was pushed in my pram down Balls Pond Road in the direction of Highbury) to Ilford. And when a new Reform synagogue was proposed, they immediately enlisted.
For Sheila and Ron, South West Essex Reform Synagogue was a bright light in what had been a fog. For Ron, it offered him a rational expression of Judaism, stripped of the superstitions that had come from the far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And Rabbis Alan Miller and Dow Marmur offered him the ethic of Prophetic Judaism, of compassionate justice which grounded the values that drove him both personally and professionally. He became Head Teacher of the religion school at SWERS and eventually President of the shul. I was talking to Rabbi Maurice Michaels, one of his longest-standing friends, and mentioned to Maurice my experience of Dad’s stubborn conviction in his own rightness (a characteristic I’ve only elsewhere experienced in the women in my family!). Maurice reacted both vigorously and warmly, recalling many arguments and tussles – but always l’shem Shamayim.
Dad also went on to succeed the late Ben Bardi as the pioneering Head of the Leo Baeck College’s Education Department and I’ve already received so many testimonies from former students like Jonathan Romain not only as to the helpfulness of the course but to their respect not just for Ron as a professional and a Jew but as a person of kindness and conviction, concern and humanity, a gentleman.
You may have picked up on the fact that Dad retired at the age of 64 – over thirty years ago. For a while he was deployed by the Inner London Education Authority as a consultant which he much enjoyed. But if you’d told him then that he would have more than thirty years of retirement ahead of him, he wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, Mum and Dad – along with every one of their generation – had no conception of what the rise and rise in life expectancy would mean. All their plans – for instance to be able to leave money to their sons – were confounded. And a long, slow process began – perhaps accelerated by Dad’s triple bypass operation – of withdrawal into a smaller, more sedentary lifestyle.
four weeks ago celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary
It eventually brought about a growing dependence on others which both Sheila and Ron deeply resented. And when Dad suffered a stroke eight years ago, he was never quite the man he was. Not quite. And I will forever be left with memories of his irritating stubbornness which finally expressed itself in a determination to go to the toilet under his own steam day and night – which was unnecessary and caused endless trouble for my mother who couldn’t help him and the staff of Jewish Care who had to. I remember being with him and trying to stop him by blocking his way until a nurse arrived. Shamefully, I shouted and he finally said to me: “You don’t understand; this is about my self-respect and I’m not going to give that up”.
There were, however, enormous benefits that accompanied the longevity. Dad lived to see both his sons enjoy different but successful careers and take different but rewarding paths through life.
He was immensely proud of his five grandchildren. Of Lucy who he realised was a clone of her mother and he was deeply appreciative of both the fact that she is co-chair of the Governors of Grandma Linda’s beloved Akiva School and of the fact that in those last months Lucy sat beside him more frequently than anyone and stroked his hand. He always asked her not to leave. Of Daniel, the QC he’d once hoped I’d become and not only wanted to understand the details of his cases but was awestruck by his success; of Miriam – it took him a little time to revise his views of women as rabbis – but he made it and, after a lifetime at SWERS, joined FRS where the rabbi is a woman; of Laura, who gave him such joy by providing Jeremy with his first grandchild and Sheila and Ron with their seventh great-grandchild. And Paul: he followed Paul’s cycling exploits with rapt attention, heard about every trip to sea which Paul the geo-physicist undertook and, by marrying Holly, at long, long last he had a doctor in the family.
But most important of all, the great-grandchildren. How many people are privileged to go to their great-granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah, see Chessy go up to university to read music – Ron himself had a very good voice – and set her sights on Hebrew Union College, and Cantorial School, in New York. And Oli, who put right for his great-grandfather my betrayal by supporting Arsenal. And Zachary and Harry and Rafa, whose exploits and constant achievements just astonished and delighted him and whom he forgave for being claret and blue. And Ben, who always behaves in the way that Mum and Dad would have liked Jeremy and me to behave but we didn’t. And Amelia who was one of the few joys and delights in the closing months of Dad’s life. If he had a further regret, it was not living to see the birth of Paul’s child.
a person of kindness and conviction, concern and humanity, a gentleman
Ron’s death is not a tragedy. I know of few other people who have almost reached 96 and lived such a full and fulfilled life. But it is the most painful imaginable parting for Mum – his childhood sweetheart, who married him at nineteen and four weeks ago celebrated their 76th wedding anniversary.
Sheila endured the unknowing waiting of the War. She sat beside him, first at Birnbeck, then at Anita Dorfman, angry at her own inability to continue to care for him personally and in all respects, but watching every move and listening to every breath with anguished concern. That Ron should have had to die alone – wonderfully cared for under impossible circumstances at Northwick Park Hospital – but without Mum at his side or anyone to hold his hand is unutterably painful. That Mum has had no-one from the family with her in the last weeks, no-one to hold her when the “dreaded telegram” finally came and no-one from her family to be with her as she watches this funeral on a Jewish Care IPad – that’s pain beyond endurance and the last thing that her life-long love and companion would have wanted for her.
Mum, if you’re listening, let me put my arms round you and say that he was an exceptional man and the two of you founded a remarkable dynasty. But he couldn’t have done the half of what he did without your active support, courage and self-sacrifice. Thank God we still have you. Ron, Dad, Grandpa, Great-grandpa, may your precious soul rest in peace.