Prof Bill Fishman

I’ve just returned from one funeral of someone (Michael Hare Duke) who inspired me when I was in my late twenties to hear of the death of another one.

I knew Prof William (always Bill) Fishman when I worked in the chaplaincy at Queen Mary and Westfield College – now just Queen Mary, University of London. He was one of those academics at whose fingertips knowledge sizzled.

As well as his formal academic duties he was unofficially the professor of the East End of London. He had been there through all the great upheavals of the 20th Century and no day was more burnt into his memory than the battle of Cable Street, which he witnessed at first hand in 1936 when he was 15. Cable Street was a street I walked down to get to church on a Sunday morning but it was a street that I walked down politically and emotionally with Bill every time I met him.

“It was a day when we all stood together, see. We all stood together against the blackshirts. I saw them – the Irish dockers and the Jews all linking arms to make sure they wouldn’t pass”.

Bill was passionate in his atheism but more passionate to describe himself as a Jewish atheist and even more passionate when lecturing people about what God wanted us to do to make the world a better place. He would come into the chaplaincy regularly when he was in college and march straight into the chapel and start muttering incantations.

It turned out that these were yiddish curses against the Tory government of the day from whom he believed most evil came. I remember the particular obscenity of the curse that he had devised in which he translated Virginia Bottomley’s name into Yiddish and back again into English. He said with a grin that his yiddish curses were more powerful than our domesticated Christian blessings.

But he was a blessing himself. Countless students learned of the great movements of modern history from someone who had witnessed them. Whether it was formal lectures or tours of Jack the Ripper’s London, Bill was eloquent, passionate, angry and fabulously funny all at the same time. The rise of UKIP must have horrified him. But he taught and inspired a generation who will fight them and win.

Bill didn’t have much time for a lot of religious leaders but he was never more at home than standing in chapel preaching, really preaching, against poverty, racism and fascism.

Bill didn’t believe in a far off heaven. He was proud of the struggle for an earthly heaven where all will be fed and housed.

And I’m proud to have known him.


  1. Do you have some of those Yiddisher curses….we could probably use them agin’ the Tory government in Australia?

  2. Lawrie Nerva says

    It was my privilege to have known Bill Fishman. A fine academic and
    a passionate persuader for a society that does treat everyone as equals.

    May he long be remembered.

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