15 MARCH 1975, Page 19

Rough trade

Johnny Speight

Point of Arrival A Study of London's East End Chaim Bermant (Eyre Methuen £5.00) East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914 W. J,

Fishman (Duckworth £6.50) • One of the good things about reviewing a book is that you get the book for nothing, and with the kind of taxes which I'm paying this is no small thing — just ask my accountant. Also, being self-employed, I've been shanghaied into the service of the Government as an unpaid tax-collector: a job I bitterly resent and which I don't have much time for. They all thought that Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery, but it was an idea too good to let go that easily.

At one time I couldn't go into a bookshop without feeling sorry for the authors of all those unsold volumes, of their self-inflicted hard work, on display there. Now I look upon them as shelves and shelves of as yet uncollected inland revenue and resist the temptation, as strong as it may be — especially if the author is a _particular favourite of mine—to donate any more of my hard-earned money to the Chancellor. It will be a good idea, my accountant says, if I could arrange that I only review those books which I would normally buy anyway. It's just my luck that the first books I have ever been given to review are ones that I would not have bought under any circumstances. This has nothing to do with their literary quality — they are first-rate books, and they contain enough murders, hard drinking, violence and whoring on a large enough scale to satisfy the most avid fans of Sam Peckinpah and Harold Robbins. But the price is a bit forbidding — and I am going to have to give up reading.

Professor Fishman's book deals with the East End between 1875 and 1914 and could be, to quote the jacket, "of absorbing interest not only to political scientists and historians of the period, but to anyone receptive to the atmosphere of immigrant life in Victorian and Edwardian London." And I have a feeling that the Chancellor won't make too much out of it — I'm sure that Healey would rather have a piece of Sam Peckinpah and Harold Robbins. The plot of Chaim Bermant's book takes place during the time when the Distillers Company were laying the foundations for their enormous fortune. Hugenots had arrived, unwelcome anct unwanted, but the Jews and the Irish get mose_ of the stick:

The Irish are not regarded as human beings, they.: are looked upon as some noxious animals, some creature poorly imitating the human form, some., outlandish, extraordinary and monstrous thing, carefully excluded from all social intercourse and society. They have small, ill-shaped skulls with:. foreheads monstrously. low, and make up 90 percent of London's criminal classes. At wakes, the body is never absent from their sight, it is still by;; their side. .. it is not seldom the hiding place for the" beer bottle or gin if any visitor arrives inopportun-ely.

I heard of a case in Canning Town, when I was a boy, of an Irish woman, who kept her dead '' husband's corpse for weeks without funeral so'' that she could beat it around the head with a'. rolling pin. Mr Bermant goes on:

There were swarms of men and women using .; jointly one single, common privy . . . persons of — both sexes sleeping in common with their married parents, a woman suffering travail in the midst of males and females of three separate families of fellow lodgers in single rooms. A son sharing his mother's bed during her'confinement.

How the Irish have improved. It is only the West Indians and Pakistanis who do that kind of thing nowadays! And the Jews were, of course, no better. Mr Bermant quotes from a Patrick Colquhoun writing in 1771:

They lived chiefly by their wits, and established a system of mischievous intercourse all over the country, the better to carry out their fraudulent designs in the circulation of base money. Stolen goods, as well as other articles pilfered from the dockyards, holed up in the provincial towns . . . noses seem more hooked, ringlets more greasily blacked, harbouring and disputing in that harsh, snivelling Jewish accent. Theirs is the prevailing feature in the streets, in the houses, in the men and women. The Jews are the most assiduous and hitherto the most successful street traders who were supplanted not by a more persevering or a more skilful body of street traders, simply by a more starving body, the Irish. The Irish could live harder than the Jew, often in his own country he subsisted on a stolen turnip a day . . . the Jew requires some evening recreations, the penny or twopenny concerts or a game Of draughts or dominoes, the sole luxury which the Irish. sought was a deep sleep.

There is nothing there which Alf Garnett would disagree with!

Jack the Ripper takes up a large place in both books. He was always a big hero of mine. Apparently, some people thought he was a Jew with a taste for koshering whores. When I was young, everyone in Wapping knew that Gladstone was Jack the Ripper and, as everyone said, of course he was Prime Minister: if you are going to be a sex pervert and attack girls and women in Wapping, what better way to remain undetected than by becoming Prime Minister? If you happen to be Prime, Minister, and you happen to meet a copper just after leaving the scene of your foul crime he isn't going to say " 'Alio, 'alio, what are you doin' with that black bag?" but he'll say, " 'Alio, sir, Mr Prime Minister sir, Mr Gladstone sir, 'ow are you?" It wasn't only the people of Wapping who knew who Gladstone really was. Queen Victoria knew also — that is why Her Majesty wouldn't leave the safety of Windsor Castle while Gladstone was Prime Minister: "Oh, Mr Disraeli, I am not venturing out on the streets of London while Gladstone is roaming about with his little black bag. Restrain Gladstone," she said, "first put him under lock and key." Anyway, whoever he was he cut quite a figure in his day.

Johnny Speight writes the television series Till Death Us Do Part