Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

09 January 2011

The Man Who Wrote ‘Oliver’

Some years ago I wrote the following article which was published later in ‘The Oldie’ and ‘The Fourth Oldie Annual’

 I Once Knew Lionel Begleiter

On 10 April 1948, fifteen years old and the personification of inexperience, I started my new job as messenger boy and trainee at Zec Limited, the Baker Street commercial art studios founded by Philip Zec, the Daily Mirror’s political cartoonist.

It would be my job to sweep the floors, wash out and refill the artists’ water jars, run for cigarettes, tobacco, Chelsea buns, rubber nails and buckets of steam, and to deliver parcels of artwork to stylish advertising agencies around the West End. My arrival ipso facto promoted the previous boy who would now show me the ropes and then move on to the drawing board, leaving most of the drudgery to me.

He was a little older and bulkier than I. Olive-skinned beneath a mop of black curly hair, he had a bulbous nose, a thick, cocky, cockney accent, and an East Ender’s swagger. He over-awed me, the new boy up from the north Surrey suburbs, full of innocence yet instinctively aware of his street-wisdom which, I somehow knew, might be the saving of me if I could tap into it.

As the weeks went by he showed me how to go by bus and pocket the taxi fare. He revealed the whereabouts of J.Walter Thompson, Erwin Wasey or S.H.Benson, and he fired my youthful lust with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the minds and bodies of their receptionists. He made known the secret ways: the narrow, smelly connecting tunnels and alleys or the fast nip through Browns Hotel from Albemarle Street to Bond Street. He pointed out the street girls in Lisle Street and Shepherd Market; showed me how to fiddle the Waygood-Otis pre-selector in the housing on the roof of our building to cause the lift to stop between floors so that we could rescue the office girls from the Sta-Blonde Laboratories; and I joined him, with an enormous sense of audacity, pouring Coca-Cola over the barrow boy in the street below the studio after he’d sold us a bag of rotten cherries for sevenpence.

But in a serious vein, perhaps the most important thing he ever did for me was to kill an unquestioned prejudice inherited from my childhood.

One day, walking along New Oxford Street, wanting to show off my grown-uppedness, I nudged him and pointed at a black-clad, Homburg-hatted figure and said, ‘Look at that greasy old Jew.’

Lionel stopped me dead. ‘Why did you say that?

‘I-I don’t, know,’ I stammered, shocked by the look of anger and hurt on his face.

‘Don’t you know that I’m a Jew?’ he asked.


‘Look at my skin, my hair, my nose; listen to my voice – my name is Begleiter! What did you think I was?’

The plain fact was that, too young, too wet, I had no idea. ‘Italian?’ I hazarded, awkwardly.

He shrugged, palms upward, and looked to heaven. The he laughed and put his arm around my shoulders. ‘Think before you speak in future.’ he warned.

My unthinking prejudice and his understanding forgiveness are lessons I have never forgotten.

Years later, when I had gone to live abroad, I read an article about the brilliant man who had written the musical, ‘Oliver’. There was his photograph. I knew that face. It was Lionel Begleiter.

Excitedly, I wrote to him care of the London theatre which was staging the show. Although it was a long shot, I hoped the letter would find him for I wanted simply to remind him of our days as messenger boy-commercial art trainees and to congratulate him on his success.

Some weeks later a mauve, slightly scented envelope arrived in my mailbox. It contained a mauve, slightly scented letter from his secretary.

‘Mr Bart is unable to answer your letter as he is fully engaged in working on his new musical...’

I never did hear from him, in person. I wonder whether he ever read my letter? I believe his fortunes later fluctuated and I have no idea what has happened to him. I’ll not forget him, though. He was a good teacher.

Now that he’s an ‘Oldie’ he might read this. It’s a reminiscence by way of saying ‘thank you’.

After the above was published I received a Christmas Card (yes, a Jewish Christmas card!) from Lionel.

© In text DON DONOVAN. The portrait photograph was taken from an Internet image - my apologies and prayer for forgiveness to the photographer.

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By Don Donovan