Bill Fishman, foremost historian and champion of the Jewish East End, was remembered at a warm and well attended memorial meeting in London's East End this afternoon. Bill knew he was part of a vanishing tribe, those who grew up in the Jewish East End as well as chronicled it - he described himself with his customary mischief, recalled colleague Nadia Valman, as "the last of the Mohicans".
Bill's great work was East End Jewish Radicals - retrieving the world just before the First World War when many poor Jewish immigrants in Whitechapel, Stepney and Spitalfields looked to anarchism as an ideology of self-respect and hope.There was a bit of the anarchist about Bill - and he was certainly in some ways anarchic. But Lord Trevor Smith, speaking this afternoon, caught the ambiguity about Bill when he described him as "an anarcho-conformist".
He found romance and valour in the tales of East End anarchists - and it was wonderful that among those present today was the grandson of Rudolf Rocker, the German goy who was the key figure in the Yiddish-speaking movement in the East End in the twenty years before twin events, World War and then the Russian Revolution, utterly changed the political landscape.
Bill also relished his army service during the Second World War, serving in India and Burma and picking up a smattering of Urdu which he used to theatrical effect in later life. And while of working class roots, the life his family led - as one of his sons pointed out - was determinedly middle-class, not in Whitechapel or Bethnal Green but first in North Kensington and later in the suburbs of Kenton.
I remember going on one of Bill Fishman's flamboyant guided walks round the East End back in 1981. A few years later, he was a key part of two radio documentaries I made - one for Radio 4 about Arthur Morrison's 'Jago' and the other for the World Service about Rudolf Rocker (the audio of both is here). He was warm and enthusiastic, and incredibly generous - he gave me two rare old socialist pamphlets, an act of great kindness ... though I found it disconcerting to be addressed in my late twenties as "boy", meant kindly of course but also putting me in my place.
The last time I saw Bill was at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Cable Street - an event he witnessed on 4th October 1936. He was very frail, but proud to be present to mark a defining political moment in the East End, when left-wing opponents of fascism made common cause to stop Oswald Mosley and his followers marching through the Jewish East End.
The venue for today's memorial meeting was so appropriate - Queen Mary in the East End, the academic institution with which Bill was most closely linked .... and surely the only university anywhere which is built around a Jewish cemetery, where today the harebells put on a marvellous display.
I first met Sanchita Islam quite a few years back in the lobby of what was then the Whitechapel Library. Arnold Wesker was there too. For a radio programme, I was taking them through the streets just to the north, their East Ends, and looking at the different meanings and memories tied up with the buildings on and around Brick Lane. I wasn't sure they were going to get on. But after a tricky moment early on, they hit it off just fine, and it was one of the more memorable pieces of radio I've pulled off.
Sanchita's style of art is eclectic. This is an oil painting entitled 'Dadu' - the Bengali word for paternal grandmother. I find it wonderfully evocative and affectionate. Sanchita is British of Bangaldeshi heritage, and has taken an unconventional route to being a well known and regarded artist, writer and film-maker. Don't take my word, here's her own account:
'Her path towards becoming an artist has been an unconventional one.
A former model, a former Miss Bengali beauty queen, a double graduate from the
London School of Economics, the recipient of a Channel 4 bursary to attend Film
School, and a Chelsea School of art school drop out, her education has been eclectic
to say the least. She has always been somewhat of a maverick, eschewing the gallery
system, Sanchita set up her own Pigment Explosion Gallery, off Brick Lane, in 1999,
engaging in international art projects and showing her work in both galleries and
unconventional spaces in London and abroad.'
You can find out more here about pigmentexplosion - and in March, she's going to have a mid-career retrospective entitled 'The Rebel Within'. It will be at Rich Mix on Bethnal Green Road. Thanks to Sanchita for allowing me to post these images of her art - and see you there!
LATER- Sanchita Islam comments: The painting of Dadu is based on a very poor quality digital photo I took of my step-grandmother in Barisal Bangladesh. The bed on which she sits, where we see her absorbed in the Koran, was as hard as wood, but she didn't seem to mind. The house is over one hundred years old - relatively untouched with its crumbling, cracked walls - and very charming. I am a great admirer of Vermeer, his use of light and the elevation of the ordinary folk into something monumental. I was trying to create a modern day Vermeer in a Bangladeshi setting, a subject we see rarely in contemporary modern art. I'm not saying I am anyway near Vermeer, but that was my point of reference and inspiration.
The other piece is the beginning of a 30-foot scroll of the panoramic view of East London executed from the top of Shoreditch House, which I completed during my residency there. I've been drawing the East End of London from rooftops for many years and am constantly fascinated by the rapid state of change of urban landscapes. The view was quite dramatically different by the time of completion with the fat concrete arm of the new train line brutally obscuring everything in its path. The landscape has altered irrevocably as a result.
What a remarkable film clip! This is Max Bacon - a radio and music hall comedian - performing 'Cohen the Crooner, the Crosby from Mile End' in a 1936 movie: 'Soft Lights and Sweet Music'. Part of it was filmed on location at Mile End market.
I owe this to Alan Dein. He's just bought a 78 rpm copy of this number at his local charity shop. And scouring around the internet to find out more, he came across the wonderful YouTube clip posted above.
As you can see, the sleeve of the disc Alan bought (thanks Alan for screening it and sending the image on) shows that it originally came from a shop in - yes - Mile End!
_There's a brief biography of Max Bacon here. He was a drummer with the renowned Ambrose orchestra, and did occasional comedy songs, before later going into variety and making radio appearances.
He is on the left on the accompanying photo of two Jewish comedians - an image I came across on a site I warmly recommend, run by Phil Walker and devoted to the Jewish East End http://www.jewisheastend.com/london.html
_Doing my own digging about the song and the singer, I found another YouTube clip - which said it was Adele performing 'Cohen the Crooner'. Really?!!! Well, yes and no - not that Adele, but worth watching all the same:
And the lyrics of the song, courtesy of mudcat ... all together now!
As I push my barrow along
You'll hear me sing the latest song
I'm Cohen the crooner
The Crosby from Mile End.
I sell peanuts penny a bag
To the tune of Tiger Rag
I'm Cohen the crooner
The Crosby from Mile End.
I sing jazz or [h]opera
My customers to suit,
But I don't give a hoot
So long I sell my fruit.
Radio singers may be swell
But they can't sell you fruits as well
Like Cohen the crooner
The Crosby from Mile End.
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