When I was a young boy my mother used to take me to visit a friend of hers. Geraldine Jackson was bedridden. She always looked happy. In my childhood innocence I thought she was fortunate to be able to spend so much time in bed. One day she gave me a little book. It was entitled ‘Hoffnung’s Musical Chairs’. Before giving me the book she wrote on the flyleaf, ‘To “Gerard” with best of wishes from G. Jackson’. The book had little text but was full of amusing cartoons, all with a musical theme. Hoffnung meant nothing to me at the time, except that his first name was the same as mine. Much later, when I was at university, I discovered Gerard Hoffnung’s recordings. The most famous is his speech to the Oxford Union on the 4th December 1958, particularly ‘The Story of the Bricklayer’. Another is his ‘Advice to Tourists’ which includes the following (a letter from a Tyrolean landlord in response to a query from Gerard);
‘Having freshly taken over the propriety of this notorious house, I am wishful that you remove to me your esteemed costume. Standing among savage scenery, the hotel offers stupendous revelations. There is a French widow in every bedroom, affording delightful prospects. I give personal look to the interior wants of each guest. Here, you shall be well fed-up and agreeably drunk. Our charges for weekly visitors are scarcely creditable. Peculiar arrangements for gross parties, our motto is “ever serve you right”’
Gerard Hoffnung was born in Berlin, on 22nd March 1925, into a prosperous German-Jewish family. In 1938 they were forced to leave Germany to escape persecution. First they went to Florence. Their stay was short lived, however, after Hitler’s influence over Mussolini resulted in a decree that Jewish pupils were no longer accepted in German schools. Gerard and his mother, Hilde, moved to England; his father, Ludwig, went to Palestine were he opened a small bank. It was to be a temporary arrangement.
Hilde and her son rented a house on Thornton Way in Hampstead Garden Suburb. This too was to be a temporary arrangement. As it turned out Ludwig became a successful banker in Israel and Hilde died in Hampstead in 1948 after a prolonged illness. Gerard remained in No 5 Thornton Way until his own untimely death at the age of thirty four.
Gerard Hoffnung, during his short life, created a wealth of drawings, cartoons, performances, and happy memories. He was an accomplished illustrator, cartoonist, broadcaster, and musician; he played the tuba. His obituary, published in The Times on 29th September 1959, included the following tribute:
‘Hoffnung was among other things an artist, a musician, a linguist, a raconteur, a Quaker, a bon viveur, a prison visitor and a mime. It is usual to say that a man has left behind a gap that cannot be filled. For Gerard Hoffnung there would be needed a handful of men, all of them greatly gifted’
My little book, ‘Musical Chairs’ is one of six volumes of drawings on musical subjects. These were reissued as a uniform set in 2002 with forewords by Gerard’s daughter, Emily, Ian Hislop, Harry Enfield, Ronald Searle, and Sir Simon Rattle.
Hoffnung is the German word for hope.
Sources: ‘Hoffnung, his biography by Annetta Hoffnung’, Gordon Fraser, London 1988
Images: Photographs and illustrations taken from ‘Hoffnung’, and ‘Musical Chairs.