Jewish East End Celebration Society
P.O. Box 57317, London E1 3WG
enquiries@jeecs.org.uk

"I feel completely overwhelmed by everything everybody has said today that has helped make this wonderful celebration of Bill's life. I know that Bill touched many lives in many ways and we all have our own memories of him. He was my best friend, my lover, my soul mate, he was just my Bill," said Doris Fishman at the end of a celebration honouring the life and work of her historian husband Professor Bill Fishman, honorary president of JEECS.

Over 200 friends packed into the lecture hall at Queen Mary, University of London, on Mile End Road for an event that was by turns funny, emotional, and, thanks to Professor A Robert Lee, who worked with Bill and went on to become an eminent academic, included a delightfully surreal poem/wordcloud of Fishman, his life and the places he lived and loved.

Above all the celebration, on April 25, was full of affection and respect for a champion of the East End, a historian who made it his duty to tell the story of its people: Jews and Gentiles, anarchists, villains and saints.

                                    Doris Fishman, surrounded by her husband's friends and admirers

Bill Fishman was one of those academics who put "meat on the bones of history," according to Dr Anne Kershen, who followed Bill's footsteps as a Barnet Shine Research Fellow at Queen Mary.

Speakers described Bill, who died in December 2014 aged 93, as "an anarcho-conformist", a "generous academic", and a "giver not a take"" and "very un-pc".

Dr Nadia Valman, a senior lecturer in English at Queen Mary reminded us that in his later years Bill described himself as "the last of the Mohicans .... And we all know in how many ways that was true".

Author Rachael Lichtenstein, who wrote On Brick Lane and Rodinsky's Room (with Iain Sinclair) with help and assistance from Bill, recalled his East End walks. "He loved the idea that 'an old white man, a 100 per cent Jewish Cockney too', could be speaking in their language. Bill would offer a cheery 'salaam alaikum' to baffled Bangladeshi elders followed by a stream of Urdu.

She also recalled how he appreciated the relationship between the tiny Fieldgate Street synagogue and the East London Mosque complex, which enveloped it on both sides, whose Imam ordered building work to stop because it was Yom Kippur.

Lord (Trevor) Smith, a professor of political economy and a Liberal Democrat spokesman in the House of Lords, paid warm tribute to Bill, whom he first met at a London School of Economics lecture in 1955. They became "firm friends", despite Bill's being 17 years his senior.

Lord Smith filled in Bill's biographical details: volunteering for the Essex Regiment in 1939; a posting to India "which utterly fascinated him as the British Raj resounded with him in a very Kiplingesque way"; a transfer to the Royal Army Education Corps that determined his civilian career. After the war he trained as a teacher under Clement Attlee's emergency teacher training scheme. Then, while holding down day jobs first at Morpeth School in Bethnal Green and at Tower Hamlets Further Education College, he went into full time study, completing his degree at the London School of Economics. 

At the LSE, Lord Smith recalled, Bill got on very well with Kremlinologist Professor Leonard Schapiro in spite of their divergent political views. In 1965 he gained a student fellowship to Balliol College, Oxford, and four years later published his first book, The Insurrectionists, which traced the influence of French revolutionaries on Lenin and the Menshevik leader JuliusMartov. At Oxford he came under the influence of the historian Richard Cobb, "an anarchic personality of the right", who encouraged him to trace the social history of his own East End.

There followed a whistle-stop tour of Bill's life: the visiting US professorships; the poetry of Avrom Stencl; the fact that, though not particularly religious, he liked the cadences of the Jewish year; the walking tours bringing a social perspective to that cast of East End usual suspects – Jack the Ripper, Annie Besant, Lenin, the Elephant Man – and "his deep sense of the absurd".

"We are all the better for knowing him. L'Chaim," Lord Smith concluded.

                                Family and friends united in admiration of a warm and wonderful man 

Anne Kershen, director of the Centre for the Study of Migration at Queen Mary, called Bill "an inspirational teacher for generations of students".

"Bill brought to life what E.P. Thompson called the lives of the 'losers of history'. His painstaking research for East End 1888 took seven or eight years "but my goodness was it worth waiting for".

Novelist Alexander Baron was one of the most memorable celebrants and observers of the Jewish East End. His son Nick, professor of history at Nottingham University, said Bill was his mentor and teacher through school and university. When Bill first met his parents there followed some "eye watering Russian swearing". Telephoning Bill to inform him of the death of his father Nick said he "let out a gut wrenching howl, a groan at his own pain at the loss of a friend".

Ross Bradshaw, Bill's publisher at Five Leaves, who championed his work after long time publishers lost interest, read out a Twitter comment from the eminent historian Simon Schama: "Sad to hear of the death of Bill Fishman the great historian of the Jewish East End, a mensch with a heart to match his fabulous brain."

He also told of the brief note of condolence from Arnold Wesker sadly too unwell to attend public events. Eminent historian of the holocaust Professor David Cesarani of Royal Holloway, University of London, and JEECS own Clive Bettington read extracts from Bill's work.

                                The table display could give only a taste of Bill's many achievements

In addition to the literary and academic accolades Bill's sons Barry and Michael provided a glimpse of an "utterly middle class", but anarchic, home life. Barry revealed that his father turned up on his first date with Doris "pissed as a parrot".

"He sent a letter of contrition suggesting a walk in Epping Forest." Bill could not play football but liked cricket and taught Barry spin bowling. Holidays meant trips to the Science Museum or the Commonwealth Institute, or to the pictures to see Sink the Bismarck or the John Wayne classic The Searchers.

Michael felt that the death of his father's Essex Regiment comrade Stan Shuster, killed during an air raid while guarding North Weald aerodrome, could well have helped form his view that he wanted to kill the Nazis "slit their throats and pull out their gizzards out". He hated extremists and "ran into the garden to dance a jig" at the news that "old Verwoerd" – Hendrick Verwoerd, one of the architects of South African apartheid – had died.

Bill gave his sons' schoolmates nicknames "as he had a terrible memory for names". Some were a near approximation of the real names but others were totally abstract.

"Dad spoke a lot of gibberish," Michael said. His absentmindedness was legend. "It was a standing joke; we would watch him leave for work and come back minutes later shouting 'where's my effing pipe, Doris?' as if mum had been smoking his Balkan Sobranie and had hidden the pipe."

Michael concluded with an evocative personal memory. "It was after eight o'clock on Saturday morning after the chores. I was having a cup of tea and listening to Sound of the Sixties with the Troggs and Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch. I had a vision of that jig of joy he did when old Verwoerd died and I smiled. In life and in death you made me smile and laugh. Thanks, Dad."

The celebration ended with tea and some very elaborate cream cakes, which would have made Bill smile too.

Photographs: Mark Gould

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