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Report from the East End

By Bill Goldman.

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East End My Cradle, the modern classic first published by Faber in 1940 and republished three times since – most recently this February by Faber Finds – was the subject of a mini-conference held recently at Queen Mary University of London, fittingly the London University campus of the East End. Goldman has been called “a sort of Proust of the Whitechapel Road” and compared – favourably – with Dickens, Gissing and Gorky, yet his work has suffered neglect since the ’40s, even East End My Cradle. His photo in Penguin New Writing of 1940 is placed alongside those of Eliot, Auden, Isherwood, Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene and a handful of others, yet of them, his name alone is not widely recognised. Yet this is the literary company he really belongs in, though to be sure he can be discussed alongside such Jewish writers of the East End as Israel Zangwill (Children of the Ghetto) and Simon Blumenfeld (Jew Boy). He can, that is to say, be bracketed with ‘Jewish [or Anglo-Jewish] writers’ or with ‘working-class writers’ but his quality transcends the limitations implied by these categories.

The first speaker at the QMUL conference was Prof. Valentine Cunningham of Corpus Christi College Oxford, who gave his usual brilliant performance for his 15-minute talk, demonstrating a knowledge of, familiarity with and understanding of Willy Goldman’s works that set the tone for an excellent conference. Valentine Cunningham devoted several pages to Goldman’s work in his British Writers of the Thirties (1987) and also wrote a full-page obituary for him in the Guardian in 2009, when Willy died aged 99. Two of the speakers were Anglo-Jewish academics, one of them being Tony Kushner who spoke on East End historiography, the other being David Cesarani, who had interviewed Willy in 1987, for the Jewish Chronicle.

Cesarani seemed a little piqued that, as he saw it, Goldman had portrayed East End Jewry in a negative light, had not written about the plight of the European Jews, who were under the Nazi regime at the time, nor about the Battle of Cable Street. It seemed a negative “list” of what Goldman had allegedly left out of his books. When Goldman’s son was interviewed by Dr Nadia Valman after the speakers had done, he pointed out that in fact, Goldman had married his first wife in order to help her escape Nazi Germany and obtain a British passport; Valentine Cunningham pointed out from the floor that there was indeed at least one character in one of the novels who was a European Jew, and that the Battle of Cable Street was mentioned too. The writer’s own avowed aim had always been “to get the East End down on paper” as he said himself at the time. As Valentine Cunningham wrote privately after the conference, “He was … more a sniffer-out of bad odours (Orwell style) than a lovely whiffs of Chicken Soup with Barley man.“

William Goldman Jnr also told the conference that Willy Goldman’s first wife used to live in Vienna, where she had regular meetings with the leader of the underground resistance to Hitler. She passed the information thus obtained to the Daily Worker (the title of Britain’s Communist newspaper before it became the Morning Star). The mainstream press were always amazed at the Daily Worker’s up-to-date information about what Hitler’s forces in Vienna were up to, my father told me.

Ian Haywood gave a brilliant talk in which he placed Goldman in the tradition of working-class writers, thus providing another perspective on “this good writer” as Prof Cunningham called him. Goldman Jnr, the son of the author, who is also the present writer, very much enjoyed being interviewed and responding to questions, at the end. The event was well-attended; those who had been sent invitations were sent 20% discounts on the book with them. It is hoped that this conference served to promote and arouse new interest in Goldman’s work. The tradition of the East End’s welcoming refugees from different countries in each generation continues. They enrich our culture, but only occasionally does one of them prove to be a genius.

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After the conference, four of us went exploring the East End a little, in particular to find some of the streets Willy Goldman mentioned a lot while alive. We found a couple, as well as the synagogue, now a mosque, in Brick Lane that he used to attend reluctantly as a boy.

The present writer can testify, as Willy’s son, that he did indeed keep up his stance of being “a sniffer-out of bad odours (Orwell style)” right to the end. In his late 70s he took part in a radio panel for Radio 4, the other members including a bishop who said something about ‘mellowing with age’. The interviewer turned to Willy and asked him if he had mellowed with age. ‘”Mellowing with age?”, responded Willy, “sounds like corruption to me.’

Willy was an activist writer, yet human feeling always came first, not ideology. That is why he left the Young Communists when he was about 19, disillusioned by Stalin’s purges as well as by the behaviour of the Stepney Communist Party, whom he likened to the revolutionaries in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (or The Devils as it’s more recently been translated).

East End My Cradle includes a couple of chapters that have been published separately as short stories, one of them in particular, a tale of first love and TB, being called “a work of genius”. Willy’s last original book, The Forgotten Word, was not set in the East End at all and has been said to anticipate the Angry Young Men of the following decade. It was also said at the time to represent a whole stage up in Goldman’s literary ambition and achievement.

He did write a story in 1950 (or ’51) that came second in the Observer short story competition of that year; a story by Muriel Spark came first, but H.E. Bates thought Willy’s story superior. It is a funny, moving and touching tale about his father, an East End Jew from Moldavia who hardly spoke English and who went around the streets pushing his barrow and calling out “Ripe fish!”, despite his children’s remonstrances with him that “ripe” was not the appropriate adjective to use for fish. This man was cajoled and bullied by his wife into applying for a job in a local, Jewish-owned or at least -run department store, as a Father Christmas for the season. Of course he transferred his liking for the epithet “ripe” to this job, calling out “Ripe toys!”, ’til the manager reasoned with and persuaded him to change it. I do not know how much, if any, of the story is true, but the characterisations of the mother and father certainly are.

In the early 1950s he produced a book of short stories collected from the 1940s and published together in 1952, called Some Blind Hand and with the handwritten inscription by Willy: “In memory of the days of hunger and love”. Also in the very early 1950s, living in a Somerset village called Butleigh, Willy Goldman conceived and edited a little magazine, the Butleigh Beacon, which, while offering genuine local information to villagers, also had a satirical strain to it that anticipated Private Eye. It seems good that this good writer has not disappeared from public attention, but that his book about the East End – the best one about the Jewish East End – continues to be read.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Goldman, born London 1950, grew up in the Home Counties, mostly. Between taking hallucinogens and helping the striking miners’ pickets, he managed to fail his degree first time around at Essex University. Subsequently investigated poverty, madness, and the derangement of the senses, found them wanting. “Surprised by joy” in Christ, completed a PhD in poetry, lived in Paris, Beijing, Hangzhou for four years altogether, teaching English in universities and backpacking round Tibet and amazing places such as Guizhou, the Heavenly Lake, Lake Karakul, Yunnan and Vietnam. Now back in England, preparing doctoral thesis for publication as a book.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011.