Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A vivid picture of the East End (1963)

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.

Obituary: Mick Cullen (1951)

Obituary from the March 1951 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mick Cullen, a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland, died in his sleep on the 23rd Jan. He was formerly a member of the S.P.G.B. which he joined a few years before the first World War. Those who knew him will miss a comrade who was solid, untiring and full of zest and humour. He had one absorbing pursuit, the propagation of the socialist movement, and no difficulties dimmed his ardour or broke his heart for he was convinced of the ultimate success of the movement he so much to help along. For years he carried on in Ireland alone, putting over the socialist case at every conceivable opportunity—a thorn in the side of all the established movements of one kind or another.

The first time the writer remembers actually meeting him was in circumstances that were typical of Mick. It was in the winter of 1916 at a meeting in Belfast organised by the I.L.P. In those days we used to attend all the opposition meetings we could in order to put questions and take part in discussions. At the meeting in question the speaker had sat down after finishing his address when a stentorian voice came from the back of the hall criticising his statements and arguments. The chairman pointed out that discussion was not allowed and endeavoured to silence the voice. He was out of luck. The voice roared "What, you can't hear me? All right I'll come to the front," and up the aisle marched Mick grinning. He then proceeded to address the audience for twenty minutes, the chairman having meanwhile dropped back into his chair with a gesture of despair. Mick had only arrived in Ireland that day, a fugitive from the operations of the Military Service Act, and this was his idea of "lying low"!

Perhaps a more revealing picture of Mick is that given by someone outside the Socialist movement who had obviously been impressed by Mick's sincerity and enthusiasm. It appeared in the Dublin Evening Mail on the 25th Jan., under the heading, "The Socialist Party of Ireland."
DEATH OF MICK CULLEN—The weekly meeting of the Dublin Branch last Tuesday adjourned as a mark of respect upon hearing of the death of Comrade Mick Cullen. He had died in his sleep that evening.
Mick Cullen's life was devoted to the struggle for Socialism. An early member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain—he was speaking from a Socialist platform during the 1914-18 "War to End War"—he propagated Socialism wherever and whenever the opportunity arose, throughout Great Britain and in Belfast, and Dublin.
Lloyd George knew him—and the force of his oratory against conscription, war and capitalism. The late George Bernard Shaw was another of the many "eminent figures" of his time who had the misfortune to have Mick in their audience. That was in the Abbey Theatre in the 1920s', when Shaw threatened to wipe the floor with "the red-headed Socialist, Cullen," only to refuse the inevitable challenge to put his threat into practice.
Wherever workingmen and women collected for a political meeting, lecture or debate, Mick Cullen's voice was often raised on behalf of the Socialist cause. In fact, he was so familiar a figure at such gatherings as to become almost an institution—and one that seemingly would never pass away.
Quite a number of his acquaintances in the early days who made a show of preaching revolution are, today, in high office, but Mick Cullen never put a price-tag on his principles. That he was widely known as "The Socialist Painter" is proof sufficient of the value he placed on principles. No compromise."
And now he's gone, having died for that which he'd lived and worked for—Socialism. But, truly, only physically gone; for the memory of his life of struggle will be constant inspiration to his Socialist comrades who stay behind to continue the same struggle. And while one Socialist yet remains, Mick Cullen will never be wholly dead, for he was one with the cause of Socialism.
"Fame is not popularity, the shout of the multitude . . .  it is the spirit of a man surviving himself in the minds and thoughts of other men, undying and imperishable." (William Hazlitt).
We will not attempt to improve upon this excellent tribute. We will only add that Mick appeared at our last conference as full of energy, enthusiasm and conviction as he always was, and it was a real shock to learn that he had so unexpectedly passed out. His parting words to the writer last year were that he would be over this year and hoped to bring us good news of progress in Ireland. But, alas, it was not to be. Socialism has lost another of those sturdy advocates who leave a gap that is hard to fill, and some of us mourn an old and very "Good Companion."

An Ancient Russian Custom (1936)

From the December 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard

When Mr. Pritt, K.C., was asked to explain why the prisoners in the recent Russian "Terrorist" trial confessed so readily and abjectly, he thought he had answered the question by saying that the Russians do this sort of thing—it is a characteristic of the Russians. Now we learn that a new batch of 21 prisoners have been arrested in Russia, charged and found guilty of military and economic espionage, distributing Fascist literature, and plotting terrorist acts in company with Trotsky. Reuter's Moscow correspondent states that he was told by M. Litvinov, the Russian Foreign Minister, that the majority of the prisoners "had already confessed to the charges made against them" (Daily Telegraph, November 18th).

The prisoners are not, in this case, Russians, but Germans.

We now await a statement from Mr. Pritt that it is a characteristic of the Germans to confess.

A statement published by the Evening Standard has bearing on this point.
Certainly a Russian trial bears no relation to democratic ideas of justice. But the Bolshevists, wo are cynical in these matters, may point out that German methods of justice differ little from their own. When a Communist, spy, or traitor is tried in Germany the proceedings are secret. No doucments are produced, and, as often as not, the public is informed that the victim has confessed to his alleged misdeeds.—(Evening Standard, November 23rd, 1936.)

The drudgery of work (1963)

Film Review from the December 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

The life of the worker in present day society is one of the weary round of working and sleeping, with brief intervals for relaxation, overtime permitting. What a drudgery work is for the mass of us: boring repetition, dreary surroundings, whether in office or factory, with the reward, a wage packet barely sufficient to keep one going until the next pay-day, a long week away, especially so if one has a family to support, and most people do, sooner or later.

Billy Fisher, the main character of the film "Billy Liar," finds life quite intolerable, from his job as a clerk in a firm of undertakers to his home life with his nagging parents and his television doting grandmother. Well, Billy in his own way rebels, not by sliding into crime, but by letting his imagination run riot, he can conjure up a dream world named Ambrosia where is all the dictators rolled into one or the conquering hero with the cheers of the populace ringing in his ears. Billy also tells ridiculous stories in his efforts to illuminate a drab existence, hence the name of the film.

Billy plans to leave his northern home town with a roving girl friend for London, where he supposes life will magically change for the better. But he hurries from the train just before it leaves the station, as if he realises that in London his problems would be with him just as inexorably as if he never left home; in fact, would be with him wherever he roamed.
D. R. West.