Poor Boys

Karl Miller

  • In Search of a Past: The Manor House, Amnersfield 1933-1945 by Ronald Fraser
    Verso, 187 pp, £15.00, September 1984, ISBN 0 86091 092 X
  • Growing up in the Gorbals by Ralph Glasser
    Chatto, 207 pp, £10.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3148 9

These are books by middle-aged semi-Scots who have chosen to publish accounts of their early lives which lay stress on the troubles they experienced, on the troubles inflicted by poverty and servitude, and on the responsibility of relatives for some of what the writers had to suffer. The question could be thought to arise of whether they are seeking revenge. Authors are not supposed to avenge themselves in their writings, but they do, and if they were to be prevented, there would be far fewer books. I am not confident that either book may be said to be well-written; that question, too, could be thought to arise. In Search of a Past affects not to be written at all – so much as researched, recorded and compiled. But the editorial method which is applied to the data has much to display that is well-spoken. They are both interesting books because they tell interesting stories, and are arranged to dramatic effect in interesting ways. Ralph Glasser’s is fresh from the oven, while Ronald Fraser’s appeared in 1984, gained a second impression last year, and is still being discussed. Juliet Mitchell has called it ‘a miniature masterpiece’, and it is a work which should have been discussed in this journal long before now, and would have been but for a miscarriage of plans. Growing up in the Gorbals, too, is liable to be called a miniature masterpiece. According to Chatto, it ‘may well become a classic of modern autobiography’.

Both men made for the Mediterranean eventually, for reasons which may have involved a respite from British miseries and injustice. These were located, in Fraser’s early life, amid the flatlands, and the privileged high ground, of Southern England, and, in Glasser’s, amid the antique squalor and grimness of the old Gorbals district of Glasgow, now erased by developers and replaced by the squalor of the high-rise estate. Fraser was to be the author of Blood of Spain, an oral history of the Civil War. Glasser was to be the author of a study of a Calabrian village, and the Spanish war bears a bleak meaning in the story he tells here. His adult life has been spent as a psychologist and economist, engaged on problems of development in the Third World. So in a sense he has flown back to Glasgow. Neither man has turned away from the miseries and injustice of which they became conscious when they were young.

Ronald Fraser’s book arranges a marriage between Freud and Marx. One law for the rich and another for the poor, as the two systems can be made to seem, are laid down together in a book which commemorates a desertion of the rich for the poor. He had hit on the ‘aim of combining two different modes of enquiry – oral history and psychoanalysis – to uncover the past in as many of its layers as possible’. He is saying this – outlining the aim – to his analyst in the course of the therapeutic sessions whose speech forms part of the oral record that constitutes almost all of the book. He is to learn about the troubles of his early life by interviewing the servants of the family and by submitting to the interviews of psychoanalysis. The analyst had previously referred to their sessions as a ‘voyage of inner discovery’: Fraser thinks that his tape-recordings make possible a ‘voyage into the social past’. The latter trip may enable him to discover the ‘external objects’, the analyst thinks: ‘now, through analysis, you’re seeking the internal objects.’ ‘And the two don’t always coincide,’ Fraser replies: ‘That’s my split vision. Formed by the past, a person is also deformed by it.’ The exchange has roused the analyst to contributions that are firmer and more energy-consuming than those he generally vouchsafes: ‘it’s not the past but what we make of the past that shapes our future and present.’ Fraser observes that ‘analysis is more limiting because it recreates the past only in the forms in which it was internalised or repressed.’

Not every reader of his book can have come to it believing the chauvinistic claims that have sometimes been issued on behalf both of psychoanalysis and of oral history, or prepared to believe that these pursuits could be successfully combined. But it does not take long to decide that the experiment is being conducted with skill, and that the pursuits have at least a little in common. A piece of oral history may be meant to do without a presiding historian in much the same way in which an analytic session may be meant to do without a presiding analyst; theoretical presuppositions are subject in each case to a show of suspension, though it is clear that the theories of Freud and others will be present in the consulting-room, and that oral historians may be sympathetic to socialism and to the methods of Marxist historiography. Fraser’s book is not without its evident presuppositions, and not every reader will feel that this autobiographer, having perused and digested his tape-recordings, talked to his analyst and completed his inner and outer voyages, knew something radically different about his past from what he had known before: that something had been found, or proved. This is partly because he had lived with his past for the best part of fifty years and because his book tells what he had come to know of it over that interval of time, with help from the theories of Marx and Freud. But it is also because a past is not a thing to be discovered. As the analyst said, and as Richard Rorty has been saying in this journal, it is not discovered but made.

Ronald Fraser was not trying to determine, like certain historians of former times, what his past ‘really was’. But there is some question of a pathogenic secret, of the recovery of material hitherto repressed which influenced his perception of his mother, and the understanding of his past is certainly enlarged by his researches. He talks of himself as ‘split’, and as implicated in splits of wider incidence. A split appears to be spoken of in the conversation from which I have just quoted: formed by the past, he is also deformed by it. But this is only one aspect of the bifurcation he describes.

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