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Willy Goldman, who has died aged 99, was an outstanding member of the small group of “proletarian” writers encouraged into existence in the 1930s by left-wing literary operators. East End My Cradle, Goldman’s hard-eyed autobiographical vignettes of immigrant East End Jewish life – impoverished, tough, in thrall to the sweat-shop boss and perennial fluctuations in the garment trade – is a classic. First published in 1940 by Faber & Faber with the blessing of TS Eliot, it has, rightly, kept coming back into print.
Goldman was born in Welk Street, Stepney, east London, into a recently arrived Yiddish-speaking Russian-Romanian Jewish family. He was his father’s second child, first-born of his father’s second wife, who bore a further six children. As East End My Cradle reveals, Goldman grew up in a rough atmosphere of local goy against local yid. The Talmud was dinned in violently at religious school. He was dragged off to the Brick Lane synagogue every sabbath by his fiercely pious grandfather, a Petticoat Lane barrow-man, terrible in black.
Goldman dropped religion straight after his barmitzvah: “Yiddisher goy,” his grandfather raged. Goldman’s rather lackadaisical, occasional fish-selling, father insisted his son leave school at 14 and go into tailoring. But he hated the oppressive, “barbaric” Jewish master-tailors, and was soon trying for work down at the gentile-run docks. Saving his own soul, he took to self-education, reading in the Whitechapel reference library. Physically weak, he toughened himself up in boys’ club boxing rings and, when he got political, joined the Young Communists. As a young boxing champ, he captained a team on a boxing tour of the Soviet Union sponsored by the leftist Workers’ Sport Federation.
In the early 1930s he took to writing, short fact-fictions. He wanted, he said, “to put the East End down on paper.” The Left Review, the British home of Soviet-inspired socialist realism, took a story. John Lehmann, the Bloomsburyite cultural missionary, welcomed Goldman into the pages of New Writing, which was started up in 1936 to promote otherwise mute Miltons from the docks, mines and ordinary urban streets. It is said that Frieda Eisler, the German-Jewish communist who became Goldman’s first wife, introduced him to Lehmann. It is also said that he married her to prevent her from being deported to Hitler’s Germany. (As Frieda Goldman-Eisler she became a distinguished psycholinguist.)
Lehmann made himself a sort of father to Goldman, taking him into his editorial team and helping him to spend months in Vienna, where he worked on East End My Cradle and other narratives. With a rising reputation for documentary-style stories, Goldman became a regular of the smaller magazines, the various series of New Writing, its successor, Penguin New Writing, and of short-story collections.
Despite the working-class writer’s perennial problems of shortage of funds and conducive writing conditions, and the distractions of the second world war – unfit for military service due to his old TB condition, Goldman worked clearing up bomb sites – the books poured out: The Light in the Dust (1944), A Tent of Blue (1946), Some Blind Hand (1946), A Start in Life (1947) and The Forgotten Word (1948). He published a short wartime play, That Thy Days May Be Long (1945), about the agricultural Home Front. Socially observant, satirical, especially of leftist-literary pretenders, his prose volumes make him a precursor of the Angry Young Men.
In 1951 Goldman was runner-up in an Observer short-story competition (Muriel Spark won); but by then he hadn’t much new material in him. The writing drought coincided more or less with his third marriage (his second, to Barbara Rogers, had ended in divorce), in 1950, to Joan, a schoolteacher, then the birth of a son, a move to rural Somerset, and soon after that another, to leafy Beaconsfield. Two daughters were born in the 1960s.
Goldman did labouring jobs, worked for a while as an usher at Marylebone magistrates’ court, and then at ferrying patients to hospital, but was essentially a house husband. An angry old man of the still-smouldering left, he turned out fierce missives to the papers on his ratty old typewriter. In his six terrible pullovers and tatty old mac, bashing away at a punching-ball in his wrecked greenhouse, he resembled nothing so much as his grandfather.
Latterly he and Joan settled in Richmond, Surrey. She died in 2008. Shortly before his death, Goldman was gratified to learn that Faber planned to reprint East End My Cradle.
His son and two daughters survive him.
• William Goldman, writer, born 4 April 1910; died 25 April 2009
Source: The Guardian
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