Book Review from the July 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard
No Tears in Aldgate, by Ralph L. Finn (Robert Hale 18s.)
When we are young, particularly in our childhood, we may live in the most degrading slum conditions but often fail to appreciate the fact fully. Indeed, with kindly parents, we may even manage to get by with a tolerably happy childhood, unappalled by the stench around us. Maybe that's as well. There is no evidence to show that an unhappy childhood makes better people of us, or that we are any more able to face the rigours of adulthood having had severe parents. The reverse is more likely.
To say all this is one thing, but it does not excuse nostalgia as we grow older. having once got away from slumdom, no one in his right mind wants to return to it, although it is, of course, understandable that he may miss his former friends and neighbours and long for their company again. Now Mr. Finn is a very able writer. He has painted a vivid picture of the early years of his life in London's East End. Yet it is difficult to avoid the feeling that he yearns to go back and live there even after all these years.
Who knows, perhaps the nostalgia, the quiet little sighs for the old days, are a luxury which he can allow himself since it seems pretty certain that he will never go back to them. Broughton Buildings, the slum tenement in London's East End where he spent his youth, was bombed to the ground in the second World War. But he and his family had left there, anyway, some years before. They had shifted just as soon as their financial position allowed them to.
Nostalgia apart, this book is interesting for its description of life in London's dockside slumdom not so very long ago. Mr. Finn was born there in 1912. His parents were Polish Jews and had come to England in search of a better life. "Go to England," they were told, "the streets are paved with gold." But all that they could find was the grime, dirt and decay of the East End. It is interesting to see how history has repeated itself many times since then and, although the immigrants in recent years have had darker skins, behind their arrival has been the same desire to escape from poverty. Again, many of them have drifted into broken down hovels where they have met resentment, prejudice and even downright hatred.
But racialism is not a failing from which only white men and gentiles suffer. Mr. Finn rightly condemns anti-semitism, but in his haste to do this, betrays a similar weakness. To read his comparative descriptions, you would think that most Jews—in his home area anyway—were thrifty and hardworking, yet very kind, while their Gentile brothers spent most of their spare time boozing, neglecting their children and being stingy. Yet on his own admission there was something common to Jew and Gentile alike, and that was the poverty and degradation from which they all suffered, and which had little to do with personal faults or virtues. Incidentally, we find it incredibly naive of him to suggest in one part of his book that anti-semitism did not really appear on the scene until the rise of the Nazis.
Mr. Finn has been mainly concerned with reminiscences, of course, although he has not been able to resist riding one or two pet hobby horses here and there. For example, "Let's face it," he says early on, "Intelligent people in those days did not frequent pubs. Nice people didn't. They were home from home of the loutish, the stupid, the ignorant, the intolerant—the salt of British democracy. Long live the working class sots!"
But the book is worth reading and there is a lesson to be learnt from it, which Mr. Finn himself would do well to heed, intensely proud as he is of being a Jew. And that is the hard fact of working class identity which cuts right across all other divisions and makes them trifling by comparison. It is in the interests of every worker to recognise this so that the day will be that much nearer when all the Broughton Places of this world will be no more.
E. T. C.