Socialist Worker

The real lives of Eastenders

London’s East End is a picture of mixed communities, of racism and resistance, and of a political history which includes the recent election of Respect councillor Oliur Rahman. Socialist Worker spoke to different generations of East Enders about their

Issue No. 1915

HAROLD ROSEN

I was born into a Jewish Communist family in the US, just after the First World War.

We moved to London’s East End when I was two.

My mother was on the committee of Stepney’s Communist Party (CP).

Before the First World War my grandfather had been a member of the Social Democratic Federation, which was about as left as you could get then. Later he supported the CP but wasn’t a member.

He was a very sophisticated politician in his way. He knew Tom Mann and George Lansbury, two giants of the labour movement in east London.

During the 1926 General Strike I remember standing in Commercial Street as troops went by in armoured cars to go to the docks. My mother and grandfather were holding my hands and cursing under their breath.

We lived in an area that was 99 percent Jewish,with immigrants from Russia and Poland.

My mother was unusual in that she was born in England. She taught my grandfather to read English. He was fluent in Yiddish and Russian, but he would get me to read to him from the CP’s Daily Worker paper and from other journals.

The whole family were atheists. But my grandfather had a very sophisticated approach to how to relate to the majority of people who were religious.

He said you mustn’t offend people unnecessarily. Like many young people I thought it was easy just to say, “I’m having nothing to do with religion, as it’s just a means to keep people passive.”

So I would say things like, “I’m not going to fast in public during festivals such as Yom Kippur.” He would say, “Don’t be silly. If they see you eating bread they won’t understand.

“If there is a funeral for one of the neighbours, what do you expect me to do? Refuse to go to the synagogue?”

These were his neighbours, his friends. He was respectful of them.

You have to understand that for many Jews practising their religion was a way of asserting your identity, just as it is for Muslims today.

He was very hard on religion, but did not make futile gestures to offend religious people.

“If all you are doing is giving offence, you are not being understood,” he said. “When you collect money and sell papers, what are you going to do? Sell papers to one another?”

At 15 I joined the Young Communist League. I used to sell their paper, Challenge, in Brick Lane’s markets and tenements. There were so many strands to the East End culture – political strands, religious, Zionist and so on. But I often feel there was a certain shared humour and culture, and there was always political argument.

That was due to the fact that people mostly shared an immigrant experience of pogroms where they had come from, and at this stage, in the 1930s, of facing the fascists.

My first wife came from Bethnal Green. It was the interface between the Jewish and non-Jewish areas, and somewhere Oswald Mosley’s fascists built support.

The fascists had a policy – a gang would find an old man somewhere and attack him. It was a serious business organising to protect ourselves and to launch a counter-offensive.

The most famous counter-fascist event was at Cable Street in 1936, where tens of thousands of people stopped the fascists marching.

The whole day was a tremendous victory. It also exposed the craven attitude of the Labour Party and the Jewish authorities. They just told us to stay off the streets.

There were many good people in the Labour Party. But it was so right wing that one of its East End MPs supported the fascist leader Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

The barrenness of its meetings also contrasted with the CP.

We always had cultural activities. There was the workers’ theatre movement that culminated in Unity Theatre, which was an extraordinary achievement. And by taking up the social questions people faced the party really undercut the fascists.

There was a terrific battle against rent rises in Bethnal Green, which the Communist Party led. It exposed the fascists, who were not going to come out seriously against the landlords.

There was political competition within the Jewish area as well.

For some reason the Liberals were regarded as the mainstream Jewish Party, and there were many different kinds of organisations. By the mid-1930s the Zionists were very active and quite powerful.

They say the devil has the best songs. Well, the Zionists had wonderful songs, though we had some wonderful songs too.

In a sense you felt it was a choice between Zionism and the Communist Party.

If you look at any immigrant community there are political divisions. Today I think there is a similar radicalisation taking place in the East End to what happened in the 1930s.

You can look back and see how we made all sorts of mistakes. But one of the things we got right is, I believe, terribly important for any attempt to restore the left.

We constantly discussed political ideas, history and general Marxist education. We discussed every subject under the sun at meetings.

There was a stream of socialists visiting our house – Jewish and non-Jewish. They were dockers, factory workers, trade unionists.

Our family may have been unusual in the strength of its Communist preoccupations.

But under the impact of huge world events there was political discussion of one kind or another across the East End.


MAUREEN ISMAIL

I’M 70 now. I had some hard years because I had a relationship with, and married, a black man in the late 1950s.

When I was young you’d go up to the city to a dance and there’d be signs saying “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. I used to think, “Why?”

I’ve had three kiddies – two girls and a boy. My eldest daughter’s dad was a black US airman. When he went back to America we wrote to one another, but my parents intercepted the letters.

I got a job on the buses, where I met my husband. When we moved to Upton Park we were the first black family in the road.

When I took my children to the greengrocers he said, “How many more have you got at home?” You wouldn’t have anyone saying that to a white woman with white kids.

Me and my husband split up after 12 or 13 years – not because of race, but because he was a swine. I walked out and brought my three kids to East Ham. I was a single parent with black children. All my neighbours were white, but they were great. They would do anything for me and my family.

But the things people said to me were disgusting. A lady upstairs used to say to me about “flaming blacks – but not yours though”. It made me so annoyed. I said, “But they’re black. Do you know any black people?” She’d say no. It was just ignorance.

We had a National Front family living across the road from us for 15 years. They picked on my family. They put poo on our doorstep, put things through the letterbox.

My eldest daughter was courting a chap, a six foot four black guy. One night he heard them cursing me. He opened the door and just said, “What did you say?” They were totally shocked.

They were bad years. I wouldn’t like to go through them again.

The kids all play together here. It’s like the League of Nations. I’m the chair of the tenants’ association and we all get on well together.

My girls say to me that I don’t know what it’s like. I say that I’ve had racism around me for 40 years.

But my daughter said, “Put your black skin on and then you’ll know what it’s really like. ”

I think things have improved, although there’s still a lot of bitterness and hatred around.


BERLYNE HAMILTON

I came to Britain from Dominica, in the West Indies, 44 years ago.

My brother picked me up at Victoria station and brought me to Newham. I spent years in Forest Gate.

Me and my friends laugh about the old days. We were living in digs with no bathroom or anything. But you managed to cope.

We were getting the jobs other people didn’t want whenever they were available.

I worked in a metal refinery in Stratford, a paint factory in Silvertown, making carbon for high powered burning lamps at Queens factory, at the Co-Op milk factory in East Ham and at Main bakers before ending up at Ford Dagenham.

There were a lot of incidents. This chap called someone a “fucking monkey”. My friend didn’t respond.

He had a terrible cold and he kept the muck in his mouth. When the superintendent spoke next he spat it straight into his mouth.

My friend said, “I’ve only seen monkeys in films or at the zoo. When I went to the zoo I saw a chap throw his empty sweet wrapper into the monkey cage. When the monkey realised it wasn’t a sweet, it spat on him. If I’m a monkey, I’ll react like a monkey. ”

This superintendent still didn’t learn his lesson. A few weeks later he called my friend a “fucking nigger”. This time he did react with his fists and knocked his front teeth out.

We worked alongside this chap, who didn’t like any of us. He said to me, “What colour’s your crap?”

I said, “I’ll show you. ” I took off my overalls, turned round and leaned forward, saying, “Have a look, and if it’s too black for you I’ll give you a torch so you can have a good look. ”

We had a damn good laugh about that one.

One fella had a daughter who worked in the hospital. She got a doctor as a boyfriend and he was really proud. She brought him home one day – he was an Asian. He said to his daughter, “Your boyfriend could be a thief, a murderer or a rapist just as long as he wasn’t an Indian or a black man. ”

People told you on the street to go back to where you come from. Now we have got a different situation. The young ones brought up here don’t know anything about the West Indies, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Africa. They’re English.

They believe they are entitled to the same rights and freedom as anybody else.

I worked at Ford Dagenham for 30 years. In the last general election I stood for the Socialist Alliance there.

I come from the Third World, and I don’t see any difference in Dagenham to from where I came from.

Ford’s has always been a multiracial workforce. When I started a great percentage of the workers were Irish. The West Indians and Asians started working there.

There was a great amount of racism. If you weren’t white you wouldn’t get a chance to get on. But there was always support among people from different groups, unless you were a complete bigot.

I was a union steward and the first non-white from the piant factory to get on the joint works committee. I broke the mould, but only because I had a loud mouth.

We walked out and stayed out for two weeks to get rid of a foreman who used to carry stories to management about how blacks were being allowed to get away with things.

The majority voted to walk out – that was black, white and Asian.

I never thought of me and my wife, who is white, as crossing barriers. I saw her, fancied her, she fancied me – maybe because I was good looking and had a sweet tongue.

Love has no barrier. The only thing I can say is, as an individual, I’m extremely lucky. I find myself in a family where no one has looked at me cross-wise.


Union power

BOSHURA KHATUN

I was born in Stepney and lived here all my life. I’m 23 now. I don’t think I could ever move out.

There’s so many different people, different characters and different kinds. I’ve just become the only Muslim woman PCS union rep in the East London Department for Work and Pensions branch.

In our unofficial strikes over pay it was good to see that everyone joined in and supported the union.

For me, being active in the union shows other people from the same background that it can be done, that being a union official isn’t just for white people.

If members go to management there is always the fear inside them that nothing will happen. That’s why the union is there.

Things have improved for Asians since the 1970s and 1980s. My parents and grandad really struggled. They suffered racism and discrimination. But their struggle means that we can have a better education and life.


Music united us

KAREN WALSH

The area I was brought up in, East Ham, was overwhelmingly white in the 1960s. I remember when a black girl from Jamaica joined our school. The teachers told everyone to be nice to her, but that just marked her out as different from the beginning.

I came from a poor family, even by the standards of east London. My dad was a welder, and worked in factories in Poplar and elsewhere. He was a trade unionist and often talked about injustice. When I was 15 I had to go out and get a job, even though I wanted to do my A-levels.

Despite all that, I think people were happier then. I know that sounds like a cliche, but there was far less pressure on people’s lives, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s you felt things were going to get better.

That was reflected in young people’s music and lifestyle. All the pubs round here had live music. At the bingo hall on the Barking Road we’d get big bands like The Four Tops. There’s nothing like that for young people here today.

One thing that is a lot better is the level of racism. It still exists, of course. But in east London in the early 1970s there was real hardcore racism among working class people.

Parents of friends of mine wouldn’t think twice about using racist terms. At the same time quite a lot of the girls at my secondary school were dating black guys. I was 15 years old and dating a black guy. A group of us, mainly white girls and black boys, went to a dance at Stratford Town Hall.

A couple of cars drew up with white men in them, and they set about attacking the black guys with hammers and chains. When the police arrived the white guys sped off in their cars and all the black guys were arrested. My boyfriend ended up spending three months inside.

At 18 I became a single parent. I remember when my daughter, who is mixed race, was one year old and the National Front held a march in East Ham. I knew guys I grew up with who became skinheads and used to go “Paki bashing”.

Today we live in a much more mixed community, and that is not going to go away. But that’s only because good people have pulled together to oppose racism.

At the same time people’s lives are being really squeezed. Opportunities are declining, and things are going into reverse in so many areas.

That’s led to one big change. There never used to be any question that you would vote Labour. Now more people are open to something to the left. The election results for Respect are a real sign of hope.


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Article information

Features
Sat 21 Aug 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1915
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