The small Nottingham-based publisher New London Editions [think Five Leaves with an East London accent] specializes in reviving interest in forgotten London writers such as Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, and their latest reprint is quite a find. Robert Poole’s only novel was originally published in 1961 and reviewed in The Yorkshire Post by Anthony Burgess who praised its “vitality and flow”, and expressed an interest in the author’s future work. There wasn’t to be any – Poole died two years later, aged forty, from an accidental overdose of painkillers.
Details of his life are sketchy. The youngest of nine children (like the novel’s protagonist), Poole was born in the East End in 1923, near the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane. He had various dead-end jobs, joined the merchant navy, jumped ship in New Zealand and became a popular radio broadcaster. He was then arrested and spent a month in jail before being deported. Back in London he drifted aimlessly and in 1958 moved to Margate where he ran the bingo concession at Dreamland Amusement Park.
London E1 is set during the 1940s in Poole’s native Stepney, beset by breadline poverty, random violence, crowded slums, anti-Semitism and the Blackshirts. The novel’s narrator, Jimmy Wilson, is in prison for murder and recalls events in his life from the age of eleven when he earned a few pennies as a “Shabbas Goy”, lighting fires and candles for Orthodox Jews on Friday nights. The story then follows the next twelve years of Jimmy’s life, from his experience of the Blitz (with a tremendously powerful account of a direct hit on a crowded pub) to the mid-1950s. Young Jimmy – bright, articulate, selfconscious and clearly based on the author – falls in love with Pinkie, a haughty mixedrace girl whose mother works as a prostitute to pay for her daughter’s private education. Poole is especially adept at portraying the arrival of new immigrants from India, and their cultural impact on the working-class populations, both Jewish and Gentile.
There is plenty of evocative period detail: an all-day wedding party with gallons of booze and piles of boiled bacon sandwiches; hacksaw-wielding “gas-pipe kids” scavenging bomb sites for scrap lead; teenage girls going on the game; newly arrived Indians sleeping ten to a room and setting up the first curry houses (quite possibly, as the publishers claim, the earliest treatment in fiction of this new wave of migrants to the East End). There’s little sentiment and no nostalgia, but there is a real understanding of the consolations to be found amid ignorance and poverty, especially in the rough affection of family, friends and neighbours.
Rachel Lichtenstein rightly admits in her introduction that London E1 is no masterpiece. The writing is plain, sometimes uneven and, in a pleasing way, quite artless; the situations are memorably dramatic and clearly ripe for screen adaptation: producers should be fighting over the rights.
TLS, 1st March 2013