Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The King of Schnorrers: Israel Zangwill

Although it is a name that has largely disappeared - although I did hear it recently in Columbia Road flower market - the Schnorrer, or beggar, was very much a part of London life at the time of the Jewish ghetto. Zangwill, although an educated and successful writer, could never leave the subject of the ghetto, nor could he emotionally disassociate himself from it. The ghetto gave him inspiration, and was the subject of his greatest works.

The King of Schorrers, first published in 1894, tells the story of Manasseh Bueno Barzillai Azevedo da Costa, a proud and resorceful Sephardic Jew with a very confident view of his place in the world. An irrascible rogue, Zangwill places his beggar in late-18th century London, which he describes so brilliantly that the book has is only entertaining, but also has historic value. The city is real, the social settings are real, and the fictional Manasseh strides like a lord through it all.

When it was first published the book took London by storm. Zangwill never made the same impact as his contemporaries and friends, such as H.G. Wells and Jerome K. Jerome, but his work remains amongst the best social commentary of its time. Manasseh was possibly the Arthur Daley or Del Trotter of his day, and this book (which is available through Amazon) is one of the most under-rated of English classics. 10/10

Isreal Zangwill The King of Schorrers (2003 edition) Dover Publications

Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Child of the Jago: Arthur Morrison

The tragic story of the doomed Dick Perrot, a young denizen of Morrison's "Jago" - a fictionalised account of life in the Old Nichol - was first published in 1896. The characters may be fictional, any student of the subject will instantly recognise the surroundings, and indeed many of the individuals and events that pass through the story.

Brutal, nihilistic, but a superb representation of life in London's late-Victorian slums.

The setting is discussed in more academic detail in Sarah Wise's "The Blackest Streets".

The book is available through Amazon: buy a copy, then sit and read it in Dirty Dick's pub, near Liverpool St station. Almost untouched by the passage of time, Dirty Dick's was hugely popular with those residents of the Old Nichol at the time the book was written: It was also the scene of one of the most brutal gangland fights of the day, when Arthur Harding vanquished his arch-rival, the pimp and hooligan Darky the Coon. Darky went on to win a chest-full of medals in the trenches, and Albert was to become onr of the last survivors of the Old Nichol.

Learn more about Arthur, and hear his voice here:   http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=1196

Arthur Morrison: A Child of the Jago (1995 edition) Academy Chicago publishers

Friday, 30 October 2009

London's Docklands: Fiona Rule

This book is well researched and well written. However, it fails to do its subject justice, as it is really a narrative - a time line of the history of London, which becomes ever more focussed on London's Docks as it progresses.

Beginning with Roman London, historically the book is faultless, and it fills in a lot of the gaps that most people seem to have about the Anglo-Saxon period of our history. But it is only towards the end, when we come to the early Victorian period that the pages come to life. By the end of the 19th century, more personal recollections begin to enter into the tale, and with this genre of book, these are always the most captivating of the details. The role of the workers in shaping the future of the docks is covered particularly well, and the reasons for the eventual decline of the docks is discussed without falling into the political bias that too often blights such discussion.

The book is subtitled A history of the lost quarter, and Rule has successfully placed the Docklands in its own space, albeit one that is, spatially speaking, in a constant state of flux. 7/10

Fiona Rule, London's Docklands, Ian Allen (2009).

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Sarah Wise: The Blackest Streets.

Historically accurate, and highly evocative of life in late-Victorian London. The subject of the book - the ghetto made up of thirty or so streets in Bethnal Green known collectively as the 'Old Nicholl' - comes to life in this book. Indeed, such is the nature of the East End, that whilst to Old Nichol was demolished more than a century ago, many readers will instantly recognise parts of neighbouring streets and lanes that Ms Wise describes in such detail. People come and go, but Brick Lane for example never really changes. May it always be so!

The squalor and suffering, the cold acceptance of a miserable life and an early death, all are discussed. Of particular interest is the discussion of infant mortality amongst the lower working classes, and Ms.Wise's questioning of why these wretched people were so readily accused by society of inflicting death on their offspring. The numbers, she suggests, do not support what was accepted as fact at the time.

There is inevitibly something voyeuristic about such books, and this one does shock as well as fascinate. That, however, does not detract from the educational value of the work.

To make the most of this book, I would strongly advise first reading Arthur Morrison's "A Child of the Jago" (1896), which was effectively a fictionalised account of life in the Nichol, but one which features cameo appearences from a number of real life characters. Indeed, one of the greatest forgotten heroes of social reform, "Father" Anthony Osbourne Jay, of Holy Trinity, is immortalised as "Father Sturt" by Morrison. The latter book is small and easy to read, and it will give the reader a familiarity with the subject.

Likewise, I would always advise anybody interested in the history of the Jewish ghetto in Whitechapel, which lay just across the Bethnal Green Road, to read Isreal Zangwill's "Children of the Ghetto" (1892). Dramatisation was often used as a means of making social points in the period in question, and Morrison and Zangwill are required reading for anybody interested in social reform.

There seems to be a renewed interest in the history of the East End at present, and this book capitalises on that. It is clearly meticulously researched, well illustrated, and of high educational value.  8/10

Sarah Wise. The Blackest Streets, Bodley Head (2008)

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Bernard Cornwell: Azincourt

Cornwell is the current master of historical fiction. It seems that there is no period of history that he is unable to bring to life for the entertainment of the thrill seeker, whilst still remaining true enough to historical fact to satisfy the more pedantic reader. His Nathan Starbuck quartet, set during the American Civil War, are a case in point. As one who is particularly interested in this episode of history, I found the books absorbing in every aspect.

Azincourt is no exception to the Cornwell formula. Following the fortunes of Nick Hook, a young forester, the book tells the story of this epic battle through the eyes of a footsoldier; an archer in the army of King Henry V.

In the buildup we learn of the relationships between Lord and Serf, and Cornwell even manages to include a fascinating chapter on the persecution of the Lollards, so-called heretics who challenged many of the practices of the Catholic church. His hero, Hook, is present at the slaughter of Lollards in the City of London, and it is this brief but engaging episode, with its description of the brutality of London life at that time, that led me to include a review of the book here.

Fiction overlaps with both history and social commentary in this work. As is his custom, Cornwell acknowledges those areas where he has taken advantage of his right to artistic license, and it would be a fussy reader indeed who found cause for criticism therein. There was actually a Nick Hook on the roll of the English army on that glorious day in 1415.

No novel has been written about the battle for a century - this may be long overdue, but it makes up for the wait. 8/10

Bernard Cornwell (2008). Azincourt. Harper Collins, London.
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