Review: Goodbye East End

Comfortable ride on the crest of a wave of nostalgia


By David Merron
Corgi, £6.99

Since the 1970s, a powerful genre has emerged: novels and dramas about child evacuees during the Second World War. Some of the best-known titles are Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, Jack Rosenthal's The Evacuees and Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mr Tom. They are all moving accounts of displacement and culture-clash, describing how children from the East End, often Jewish, came to terms with being moved to very different parts of Britain, placed with uncomprehending, sometimes even unwelcoming families.

Born in the East End in 1931, David Merron was evacuated when war broke out as a young child with his older sister, Rita, and his classmates from Buckle Street Jews' Infants' School. His memoir, Goodbye East End, is a clearly written, accessible account of his experiences.

Anyone who has read a few books in the genre will recognise many of the key episodes early on: David and his sister are the last to be offered a home; he initially gets settled at the local vicarage; later, when he joins Rita with a childless couple, there is the trauma of being offered pork sausages; and there is the first encounter with an angry farmer when he's caught stealing apples. So far, so familiar.

However, Merron's memoir also offers plenty of more specific good things, especially for older readers. There are evocative references to reading comics, especially the Wizard and Hotspur and to Force flakes, "my favourite cereal". Best of all are the small details that could pass unnoticed: the Fifty Shillings Tailors "where Dad bought his suit" (note it is "suit" not suits); old Max's fish-and-chip shop in the East End, "where we used to buy a ha'porth of chips and a penny gherkin" (not fish- too expensive); and when David sees his name on the list in the village hall, waiting to see who he has been placed with, he notices "in a small square at the side, the capital letter 'J'. I supposed that meant 'Jewish'."

Unfortunately, however, Merron's memoir is not only formulaic, it is not very exciting. His grandfather is a sweet, gentle man and his father causes him embarrassment whenever he comes to visit in the village: his strict Orthodoxy brings him into conflict with both his son and the gentile families who have taken in young David.

But, in general, the characters, including the three host couples he stays with, don't offer much drama. Apart from one girl, Marion, who disappears under mysterious circumstances, the other children are also uninteresting.

So why has it been published? There is the popularity of the genre but there's something else. The cover offers a clue. It is in the style of Call the Midwife and I suspect the publishers hope this book will draw on a strain of current British nostalgia for the good old days of the East End and country village life. Merron has served them well and offers a fond portrait of both.

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