Hessel Street

Hessel Street

From the Summer 1955 issue


My boyhood was spent, not in the East End, but within its orbit.

Among my earliest memories are visits to Sophie, a friend of my mother’s. At Sophie’s there were 15 children, whose ages ranged precisely from one to fifteen. Sophie's husband had a stall at the Caledonian Market, and he sold everything, “shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings.” On this miscellaneous stock, literally, the family lived. Children rolled on obscure mattresses overshadowed by piles: of second-hand clothing; babies lurked amid basins and saucepans; here and there, a clearing, in which a meal was snatched or a guest seated. The whole was gaslit and dim, enormously confused and alive, and filled two rooms in a black, black house in a black, black street in Shoreditch—“London’s garden suburb,” as the neighbours used to say.

Now Sophie and her husband live alone in a council flat. They spend their evenings in silence watching the television. But they have, in various parts of the world, their 15 children, their 56 grandchildren, their 14 great-grandchildren. No one can say they have had an unfruitful life.

Later I visited relations in Stepney, in what may be called the most fashionable part of the East End, between Whitechapel and Commercial Road. They were all in the meat trade and their houses were full of poultry, alive and dead. Feathers bestrewed the chairs and meat quivered on the tables. When the family met, the men fought in vain against sleep and tried inarticulately to convey the saga of the early hours. Wives nudged their husbands: “Wake up, wake up! How does it look sleeping in company?”

“I was up at 3.30,” mumbled one. “The market...”

“Three-thirty!” murmured another, blinking. “I was up at 2.30! The poulterers, the pickers, the slaughterers…”

The slaughtering took place in the ritual slaughterhouse near by. The floors ran with blood. Bearded experts passed their fingernails learnedly along the edge of the gleaming knives. The bodies of hens with throats cut twitched in the long rows of conical receptacles. Chased by a housewife, a recalcitrant fowl squawked vainly to elude the knife. Sealers stood by to affix the ritual label: “Kosher.”

From the age of eleven I was sent every evening to study the Talmud at a rabbinical school near Brick Lane. One day I may seek to learn more of the ingenious Rabbi Eliezer, the saintly Rabbi Akivah, the irate Rabbi Popper. But then I had two passions: for sport and for poetry. So I used the trip to the East End as a means of training for the school marathon. The two-and-a-half miles from our house to Brick Lane I covered at a fair trot. And on the way I composed poetry.

They were not unpleasant, those winter evenings when I pounded through the dark back streets… across London Fields, past the Children’s Hospital and the teeming tenements, over Hackney Road and Bethnal Green Road, under the arches and alongside the brewery and then, with a final burst, into the bright lights of Brick Lane.

I arrived at the class late, but glowing with exercise, and was greeted sarcastically by the rabbi. The pallid talmudist beside me breathed unwholesomely over the yellowing pages; the rabbi laboured on. At last it was time for break, time for refreshment and amusement. The standard refreshment was pickled cucumbers, which cost a halfpenny each; and amusement was to be found in the streets, Next door was a frightful “doss-house”; at the corner stood two stout and monstrous professional women; over the road two rival sellers of hot rolls called out their wares and mutual abuse. The first old lady intoned on a rising scale: “Beigels! T’ree a penny, t’ree a penny, t’ree a penny!—Thief! Harpy! A curse upon you.” And the second old lady intoned on a descending scale: “T’ree a penny, t’ree a penny, t’ree a penny! Beigels!—Liar! Scoundrel! May you rot!”

At the age of eighteen, I moved out of the orbit of the East End forever. Soon afterwards, the East End itself changed. Today it is a foreign land for me; and a journey to Stepney has something of the interest and excitement of foreign travel.

Some ten years after leaving the East End, I lived it anew, vicariously, in the books of Willy Goldman. I met Willy when he lived in Bloomsbury. At one time we found so much to say to each other, that if we began a conversation at nine in the evening, it did not conclude till nine the next morning. For the most part, like true sons of the East End, we spoke in the street. Our steps might lead us slowly northward round Regent’s Park and through Maida Vale; then, two or three times, we would circle the West End, coming to rest at four in the morning on the steps of the Marylebone Library. Since by now it was too late to think of going to bed, we would eat at some all-night restaurant, scrutinising and scrutinised by professional burglars on their way home from a job. At eight in the morning, Willy would suggest that we stand outside Holborn tube station for the pleasure of watching other people go to work. Once he had been confined in a sweat-shop. Ever since, it was his greatest consolation merely to reflect that he did not have to “clock in.”

Willy’s was not the East End I had known. It was harsher, tougher, and no doubt more authentic, true to the experience of the Jewish proletariat. It was located in what one might call the deepest East End, between Commercial Road and the docks. Hessel Street is in the heart of this district. Petticoat Lane, on the borders of the City, is swept by the main stream of Cockney life. But Hessel Street belongs to Jewry. It is a backwater, a lively backwater, of the ghetto. And the ghetto is strange and ghostly today when the sources which, underground as it were, fed it from Eastern Europe, have been cut off for ever.

Willy's feeling for the East End was of a mystical intensity. Wherever we walked, in our night-long strolls, he would refuse to let our feet wander eastwards. That territory was his own. But he went alone, I knew, to tramp the haunted streets and to brood over the black waters of dockland. Thus he remained true to the vows which in youth the writer takes, for better or for worse…

Several more years passed, and I re-discovered Jewry in the course of my travels: not only in Israel, but in France and Italy, in Spain and Greece—and in Swiss Cottage.

Dov Markansky was a fellow-spirit whom I met in Montparnasse. His journey had begun in Warsaw in 1939, continued through Russia and Persia to Israel; and thence to Italy and France. His career had perforce been to a large extent highly unofficial, and as a stateless Polish Jew he was still unable to enter England and see his father, who was living in Hessel Street.

The elder Mr. Markansky was a religious Jew of the traditional kind, whom the war had separated from his family and who had found a natural refuge in the East End. Neat, quiet, cheerful, greybearded, he lived alone in an obscure basement underneath a tenement. He dealt in “returnables”: the stoppers of bottles and the feathers of poultry, trimmings of cloth and the wire round boxes.

Eventually, Dov secured a permit to spend a month in England. Having booked a room at the Piccadilly Hotel, he asked me to meet him there and accompany him to Hessel Street. So I found myself present when the two Markanskys met again after fifteen years, sole survivors of their family.

We spent the afternoon in the tenement basement. When Dov and I prepared to leave—I was to show him round London—Mr. Markansky suddenly went over to his narrow bed and rolled back the mattress, underneath which I caught sight of four flattened packets. He withdrew three and let the mattress fall to; then he lifted it again and withdrew the fourth. He thrust the packets into Dov’s hand. “No!” Dov protested. But with a smile Mr. Markansky more or less pushed us out of the basement. “What do I want money for?” he said, “I've got everything here.” He indicated the bed, the gas-stove, the small square table, the one chair, the many religious books… Each packet contained a hundred pounds.

Over the little shops and stalls and tenements loomed a great, multi-storey block of council flats, which would soon swallow up Hessel Street. Negroes lounged at the corner. In Cannon Street Road, the Moslem crescent was painted on a shop which I remembered as a kosher butcher’s. We hailed a taxi. “Piccadilly Hotel,” said Dov.

There ought to be a moral in all this. The only one I can think of is: Life goes on.