When Sidney Vauncez died in April this year, he ceded his place in the Guinness Book of Records … as the world’s oldest working journalist on a nationally available weekly paper. At the age of 97 he was still penning his regular piece for theatrical journal The Stage. He had had a long and varied career. Novelist, journalist and playwright, he was also a keen documenter of the Jewish East End. His own history though was a little more mysterious, and it was a mystique Sidney positively encouraged.
Vauncez was a nom de plume for a start. Simon Blumenfeld was his real name, as Jewish as you can get, though Simon embraced the culture and not the faith: a confirmed Marxist, he was no fan of religion. He was deliberately vague about his roots, though his son Eric was to dig out what little he could of the family tree, revealing that his father’s family (then called Composiore rather than Blumenfeld) had come from Sicily, where they grew olives until a volcanic eruption destroyed the business. Simon’s grandfather had been a sailor, possibly a pirate, while Simon’s father was born in Turkey. His mother came from Odessa in the Ukraine. Certainly, during a brief stop in Bavaria, en route to London, the Composiores were practising Catholics. Towards the end of the 19th century they came to London and settled in the East End.
The young Simon was born here on 25 November 1907, and his early years were formed by the radicalism of the Jewish East End. He became a Communist and soaked up the works of Israel Zangwill, becoming determined to make it as a writer. He was a friend of East End boxer Jack Berg (once sparring with him). Largely self-educated he became involved in organising volunteers for the Spanish Civil War and against Mosley.
During the 20s and 30s, Blumenfeld produced plays and novels. His first The Iron Garden, set in the East End, was published in America in 1932. It came out in Britain in 1935, re-entitled Jew Boy, and was reissued in the 1980s. A 1937 novel, Phineas Kahn, was reissued in 1988, with an introduction by Steven Berkoff.
But during the 1930s, Simon realised that journalism was more likely to pay the bills. He became a correspondent for a French news agency, simultaneously hacking out cowboy novels (a hugely popular genre at the time) under the soubriquet Huck Messer. From the Yiddish for ‘carving knife’ it was only one of Simon’s colourful pen names. Literary friends at the time included Aldous Huxley, who had penned the dystopian fantasy Brave New World in 1932.
His political beliefs didn’t stop Blumenfeld signing up at the outbreak of World War II – he considered the Nazis a far greater evil. A curious posting saw the talented writer assigned to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in the Midlands, where he became an authority on German ammunition. The Army got it right second time around, transferring Simon to the script-writing crew of Stars In Battledress, an army talent show. His station was now the rather more glamorous Grosvenor Square, where he began rubbing shoulders with future stars such as Charlie Chester. It was Blumenfeld’s entrée to the world of showbiz.
Simon began writing for titles including Band Wagon, and here he adopted the alias Sidney Vauncez. From the Yiddish for ‘moustache’, it reflected the luxuriant handlebar job he had now cultivated. He founded the Weekly Sporting Review with army pal Isidore Green, the paper combining their twin loves of showbiz and boxing. But a libel suit from the managers of Tommy Steele sunk the title.
Blumenfeld became light entertainment editor of the Stage in the early 1960s, a pivotal time for the business. Rock and roll and TV light entertainment had all but killed off variety (the successor to the music halls). But the astute writer realised traditional talent was flowing into the club scene, largely based in the north but soon to cover the whole country.
He had an extraordinary breadth of showbiz friends and acquaintances: Paul Robeson, Mistinguette, the Beatles and Barbara Windsor to name but a few.
Legendary East End villain Jack ‘Spot’ Comer asked Simon to ghost his autobiography … his wife then dissuading him.
In 1987 he penned a play for the Edinburgh Fringe, The Battle of Cable Street – a modern look at the East End, which drew on his own past. A video produced a few years ago, East Endings, took Simon and friends back to their East End beginnings. Released to mark the 80th birthday of Simon’s pal, the artist and illustrator Harry Blacker (aka the cartoonist Nero), the film was set in Bloom’s in Whitechapel and featured a diverse cast of East Enders, including Barnet Litvinoff. Bill Fishman, Anna Tzelniker and Simon/Sidney himself.
· Simon Blumenfeld, journalist and author, born November 25 1907; died April 3 2005