24 MAY 1940, Page 19

Misery in East London

East End My Cradle. By Willy Goldman. (Faber and Faber. 8s. 6d.) IN East End My Cradle Mr. Willy Goldman tells the story of the growth of a Jewish boy, presumably himself, in contem- porary East London. It is a grim story, untouched by grace notes or lightness of heart. Of such humour as it possesses the roots are in bitterness. There is caricature, often brilliant, but no mirth in it.

The story begins with memories of childish battles between Yids and Goys—that is, between Jews and Gentiles—and of school days. Mr. Goldman hated school : both Kheder, the Hebrew school which he attended on certain evenings, and the L.C.C.. which he attended by day. And he hated the teachers. The Head of Kheder was an obscurantist, kill-joy Rabbi, nick- named Squinty. The L.C.C. teachers were no better ; " there was scarcely a teacher in the school under middle age. One sus- pected that they had spent the earlier part of their lives qualify- ing for the post, as prison warders." School was hateful Much worse was work. At the age of 14, while still a child, the grow- ing boy is thrust into employment in a tailoring " sweat shop," to which even school was preferable. School. however distaste- ful, had moments in which its inhabitants came into their own as children. The " sweat shop " had no such moments. The writer resents the shocking abruptness with which childhood is brought to an end on the day of school-leaving " to say that it was inevitable, that leaving school at the age of 14 implied that you were no longer a child with a child's instincts is unconvincing. You do not change your nature overnight. Yet that is what you were expected to do." About the transition from the school to the sweat shop in which the working day was one of twelve hours ; and about the de-education and demoralisation which accompany premature employment and undo the work of the

school, Mr. Goldman writes like a master—he is vivid and most moving.

The burden of life in East London does not apparently grow less with the passage of years. Poverty inflicts new humilia- tions and the misery of working in sweat shops is exceeded by the misery of not working in them—of being unemployed. Mr. Goldman is familiar with unemployment. He enlarges on its tedium, its lessening of opportunities already too narrow, its power to estrange a man from his kith and kin and to expose him to their contempt and to his own. To him, unemployment is a complex of horrors in which soul and body are soiled and life loses its taste.

" The mist is dispelled when a woman appears." Not for Mr. Goldman. Minka, a light at a Jewish Girls' club, " the members of which were the dowdiest collection of girls possible," promises for a moment to touch his despondent pages with romance. Alas! Minka is consumptive, and before a love interest can develop, she succumbs. Romance retires and does not re-appear. Equally dolorous is the affair of Ephraim Wise, an eccentric artist, perhaps a genius, whom no one aids and many deride. He has the quality of a Hugo character, " to suffer wrong that hope thinks infinite." He is homeless and ragged and starved and ill-used, but, nevertheless, is happy in a dream of great pictures which one day his brush will bring to life. The pictures, however, are not born and the artist dies—of madness induced by starvation. Only at the end of the book is there any break in Mr. Goldman's dark sky. A story, perhaps this story, on which the unemployed young man had toiled in pain and dis- couragement, pleases a publisher, who may publish it.

What is one to make of this extremely able but scarifying book, written with pessimistic animation and gloomy skill? It is clear that Mr. Goldman does not like " his cradle." The East End inspires him with devastating dislike. It is foul. Its in- habitants—Gentiles who are brutal, quarrelsome and tipsy, and Jews who have itching palms and venal and sordid souls—are all unsavoury. In this narrative of crowded Whitechapel only Minka and Wise are not in some way unpleasant.

Is it a true picture? Are authorities like Mr. Lowndes, who wrote recently of the silent social revolution which in our time has transformed the poorer districts of London, to be ignored? There are many such authorities. Are they wrong?

On this one has one's personal opinion. But it is easy to obtain significant evidence from Mr. Goldman himself. Of the 4,000,000 habitations which have been built in this country since the end of the last war, East London possesses its share. Mr. Goldman, who writes only of insanitary or bug-infeKed property, is apparently not aware of any rebuilding. He states that he began work in the " sweat shop " on a wage of 6d. a week, and does not mention, what every tailoring worker ought to know, that for twenty years in the tailoring trade legal mini- mum rates of wages have been fixed by a Trade Board, against whose regulations the payment of such a wage would be a grave offence. Nor does Mr. Goldman seem to have heard of the Factory Acts or ever to have met a workshop or factory in- spector. He refers to his " hunger " when out of work and in receipt of the " dole." Admittedly the " dole " is exiguous, but it is not insufficient to banish hunger. Others in Mr. Goldman's book suffer from hunger—the artist whom it kills and an un- employed husband impelled towards crime by the utter desti- tution of himself and his pregnant wife. Impelled towards crime! Why, one asks, was the husband not impelled towards the Relieving Officer, whose business—conscientiously dis- charged in East London—is to relieve destitution?

The truth seems to be that though a good story-teller, Mr, Goldman is not a good witness ; suffering, perhaps, has blurred his vision. He sees bestiality, greed, drunkenness, dirt and suffering in East London. But are these all there are to see?

Are these all that George Lansbury saw? Not by a long way!