Another exploration of the East End, and so much a better one. This is beautifully written, candid, and by one of the young men who for Harkness probably ‘looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39). Written about a period a just a little later than Harkness to be sure, this opens a window onto the thoughts and dreams and intense individuality seething behind what to middle class eyes apparently looks all the same. How could we all look the same?
Until I was sixteen I lived in the East London borough of Bethnal Green, in a small street that is now just a name on a map. Almost every house in it has gone and it exists, if at all, only in the pages of this book. It was a part of a district populated by persecuted Jews from the Russian empire and transformed into a crowded East European ghetto full of synagogues, backroom factories and little grocery stores reeking of pickled herring, garlic sausage and onion bread. The vitality compressed into that one square mile of overcrowded slums generated explosive tensions. We were all dreamers, each convinced it was his destiny to grow rich, or famous, or change the world into a marvellous place of freedom and justice. No wonder so many of us were haunted by bitterness, failure, despair (9).
He returns to it as a much older man, finds it completely changed, can no longer see himself in the tenement room he grew up in. Who cannot identify with his sense of loss?
I felt indescribably bereaved, a ghost haunting the irrecoverable past (10).
and so he began writing this…
So much resonated, it is a wonderful coming of age story of a smart kid facing a very hard life — and facing the blossoming panic in his stomach that he is trapped in a working poverty for the rest of it. There is love and friendship and violence, along with a couple of evocative sections on what it means to live in a packed tenement block full of Jewish immigrant families, the closeness of the world:
In as close a community as ours, each newcomer added a new complexity, changing us all a little and sometimes even influencing the whole pattern of our fate. For Mendel Shaffer, the arrival of Kramer’s sister, Freda, was momentous (52).
And I loved this passage so evocative of the streets — and one of the things that changes over time as customs and culture and people change, one of the things that is lost forever once it is lost, and that we can only find again through the pages of books:
A further disagreeable surprise awaited. The Welfare Officer chose to deliver me to my new lodgings in person. Even blindfolded, I’d have known where we were by the smell of the different streets — reek of rotten fruit: Spitalfields; scent of tobacco warehouses: Commercial Street; the suffocating airless stench of the Cambridge Picture Palace; Hanbury Street and the pungency of beer from Charrington’s brewery. Then Brick Lane with half the women from our street jostling among the market stalls (115).
I’m looking forward to his fiction.