A note is in order here concerning a quite splendid seminar that was held a fortnight ago at the Queen Mary, University of London, in honour of Willy Goldman’s East End My Cradle on the occasion of its return to print through Finds.
The afternoon’s discussion, convened and introduced by Dr Nadia Valman, provided a wealth of fascinating insights into the working class Jewish East End milieu from which Goldman and his writing emerged; and thanks to erudite contributions from (inter alia) Valentine Cunningham, Ian Haywood, and the author’s son Bill Goldman, one felt a stimulating sense of the larger social and aesthetic issues that attend the idea of ‘working class writing.’
Of course Finds is pleased to have other distinguished examples of same on its list, including James Hanley’s Furys sequence. But Ian Haywood made an intriguing point early in the session about the problems of ‘authenticity’ that are commonly (rightly or wrongly) thought to apply to writers of working class origin. Haywood cited the example of how Alan Sillitoe wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning while in the company of Robert Graves in Mallorca, and further amused the audience in noting that he had spoken to the Guardian for a piece on this very subject to be published the next day. Sure enough, said piece included a version of what Haywood told the QMU seminar: “the term ‘working-class’ writer has always been something of an oxymoron because at the point at which this writer gets published, they must have moved away from their original circumstances.”
There was a vaguely analogous experience to Sillitoe’s in Willy Goldman’s life, in that thanks to the fine patronage of John Lehmann (characterised with fondness by Willy’s son Bill as a certain type of ‘Etonian socialist’) Willy was able to draft a substantial part of East End My Cradle while resident in Vienna. But otherwise his material circumstances were generally straitened, and they certainly hampered his hopes for more ambitious writing projects; instead he was, like so many writers of proletarian background at that time, primarily an author of ‘vignettes, small things, bits’ (cf. Valentine Cunningham). But – and by common consent – what magnificent ‘bits’ they were! (If you’re in need of testimonials just look at some of the glowing tributes paid to East End My Cradle as are gathered here.)
In such good and learned company your correspondent learned many things over two hours, among them the story of Stephen Duck, the agricultural labourer who became a poet at the court of Queen Caroline; also the history of that declension whereby the ground-breaking demotic ‘wot?’ of Charles Dickens became the ‘vot?’ of Jewish dialect writers.
Probably my favourite contributions were those of Bill Goldman, obviously an unbeatable witness in respect of his father’s character, who spoke of being taken as a child to anti-fascist demos of the 1930s where he got the chance to shout at Oswald Mosley from three feet away; and who also related Willy’s hardly improvable verdict upon The Devils, Dostoyevsky’s great novel of a violent and fissiparous Russian nihilist ‘cell’ – namely that the book seemed to Willy a thoroughly accurate portrait of the Stepney Communist Party…
Thanks are due to Nadia Valman and QMU, to Bill Goldman and to all the speakers for making such a fine day happen. East End My Cradle is available to order here.