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.

Fraser’s fork took several forms, as I say: or one might prefer to say that there was more than one fork to reckon with. Born in Hamburg, he was transferred to the Manor House at Amnersfield, the son of a remote German-American mother and of a sour, withdrawn, irritable Anglo-Scottish father, who would retreat behind the Times and spend the evenings in lonely state, smoking his pipe in his kilt. He was never to say hello to you, and he once said that he would not be interested in his child ‘until he can go out shooting with me’. (Elsewhere, another angry gentleman of the period, Evelyn Waugh, had waited for his children to be of an age to converse with him, before bestowing an interest.) The household shot, and it rode, to hounds and in all directions, but Ronald Fraser had no love for horses. The poor little rich boy was looked after by a second mother in the person of strict Ilse, from Germany: this did a great deal, but not enough, to relieve the isolation he felt – which, as his researches disclosed, was to be a factor in the isolation and rejection suffered in turn by his younger brother, who also left for the Mediterranean. When friendships finally occurred, they occurred among the children of the lower orders. His parents did not get on and parted during the war, which put an end to the old hierarchic world of Amnersfield, where you were not to look at your masters when they came up the drive, but to hoe on regardless, and during which Mrs Fraser remarried, to a jolly, but for the son disturbing, wing-commander, having been suspected in the neighbourhood of being an enemy spy. The testimonies in the book were obtained mostly from the underlings of the house, led by sly, supportive Bert, a man who was able to take and to give pleasure – a fine portrait, which is also a self-portrait, of a second father.

Bert’s testimony, and Ilse’s, are probably paramount. ‘The image you give,’ Fraser tells Ilse, meaning the image she gives of him, as a boy (the ‘you’s’, ‘she’s’ and ‘he’s’ can be taxing), ‘is one of dependency, extreme docility. It was my natural character, you think, evident from birth ...’ Ilse had been trained in an orphanage, and he then tells her, with a smile: ‘I wouldn’t claim any privilege that an orphan wasn’t entitled to.’ He reverts to the point with the analyst: ‘Supposing I didn’t have what a child objectively should be entitled to ...’ In coping with the unsaid and unsayable, oral history is impelled towards aposiopesis. The analyst’s response is apt to consist of an ‘...’ But if the work is oral history, it is literature too – a disclosure of predicament and bereavement. The enigmatic three dots to which it is impelled are those of a romantic orphan, as well as those of his reticent doctor. A romantic orphan, though, who was able to accept that he had caused his brother to suffer.

In all this there was plenty of scope for an awareness and endurance of contradiction. Contradictions, splits, can readily be perceived, by those minded to perceive them; pursuits that can be married, like oral history and psychoanalysis, can be found to separate. What matters is what happens when the individual, who incorporates his past, incorporates and transforms the divisions which are part of that past. Fraser reflects: ‘Two mothers and I’m torn between them ...’ Torn between ‘the distant star and the cold, close moon’. And neither of the women was to prove ‘sufficient’. ‘You split them,’ prompts the analyst, ‘into the good and the bad mother.’ The analyst proceeds: ‘All mothers have to be frustrating as well as loving. But being consoled by another mother who seems unfrustrating makes it harder to reconcile the two ...’ This appears to be a key point, but it is one that is left controversial. It is possible to imagine that for some people such consolation might make it easier to reconcile the two, and to wonder what it was that made the difference in Fraser’s case. There were other things that had to be reconciled, and we hear presently of ‘a role of inherent superiority which came to me from outside, from the servants among others. Inside, however, I felt inherently inferior, inadequate to fill the role. That was the split ...’ (Fraser’s dots). He asks the daughter of the refugee cook, remembering the days when he made love with this daughter, if she had known two different boys.

Later in the book Mr Fraser recognises that he has talked both of rubbing out the past and of preserving it: ‘The aims seem contradictory, don’t they? But they’re the same. I kept the past alive out of a desire for revenge. One day I would write it – and them – off the face of the earth ...’ He is referring to his parents, I think. Later still, the analyst suggests that Fraser may want to offer reparation, by writing this book, for the guilt he had felt in relation to his father, and Fraser asks: ‘For wanting to destroy him so I could have my mother to myself?’ ‘Uh-huh ...’ ‘And for wanting,’ Fraser adds, ‘to destroy her ...’ Is the book, then, a ‘monument to destruction’? The servants, who did much of the living which is commemorated here, and his parents, who did so little of it, are placed well within reach of an impartial sympathy in a work which nowhere feels vindictive, and which declines to settle for any final understanding of what went on. Despite its title, and for all Fraser’s demeanour as a grave, civil detective inspector not unlike the enquirer in P.D. James’s fiction, the book does not exhibit this past as something to be searched for, uncovered, so much as something which is unfindable, interminable. Understanding is deferred, rather as it is in certain recent theoretical accounts of the way literature works. But this does not diminish the importance of the provisional discoveries which it contains, which the writer has moved to incorporate.

From the point of view of the people of the Gorbals in the Thirties, fox-hunting and psychoanalysis would have been practically indistinguishable concerns of the rich in the Sassenach South, of the ‘high heid yins’ of the world – an expression of the poor in Scotland then, which Ralph Glasser uses. And there is a point of view from which Ronald Fraser might be seen as a man of Marxist leanings who paid a professional to enquire into the deficiencies of his affective life. This is a split that can rarely have been witnessed in Glasgow – which does not indicate that he was at fault in consulting his analyst, but does indicate that these autobiographies are sited in very different places. Nail on the Banister by R. Stornaway, alias R. Scott, is an eloquent Scots joke of the Thirties, and it allows one to say that Glasser’s banister was a bed of nails, but that his slides may have been less painful than Fraser’s. He could well have been called a victim, and his book consigns itself, as Fraser’s does, to that large literature in which the sufferings of victims are recounted: but he does not see himself as a romantic orphan.

He belonged to a family of immigrant Jews which had fled to a Glasgow tenement and a community of Yiddish-speakers within the city. Round the corner was Dixon’s Blazes, a blast furnace, and the Workers’ Circle, where dreams of socialist emancipation were debated – dreams which were soon to fade for Glasser. Nor was he able to believe in the religion of his community. Anti-semitism was not, it appears, a severe threat in an environment where many kinds of threat and affliction – such as its gangster debt-collectors, the ‘menodge men’ – competed for consciousness. His mother died early, worn out by making ends meet and by her husband’s gambling. Glasser still stands in awe of this formidable, feckless man. His sisters were to flee the family, precipitating an ordeal of severance which compounded others and marked him to the quick. He wants to go to university, turns up to listen to Einstein, studies hard: but his father won’t have it, and at the age of 14 he becomes a soap boy in a barber’s and then a presser in a garment shop.

The Gorbals comes across, in careful descriptions, as a ferocious place. It should be seen for what it was, and especially by those who feel like regretting its erasure, and alleging its replacement by an environment which may be even worse – by tower blocks filled with heroin and despair. The trouble is that the allegation has begun to seem convincing. ‘The hovels and the vennels’ of the 19th-century Scottish city have been projected into the sky; the lower depths of the Thirties have not gone from urban Britain. And we have a government which has yet to worry whether the people there die of Aids.

At one stage Glasser is invited to look at a tenement close – by Bernard, a Communist who was to fight in Spain and to return with an altered mind. In Spain Bernard questioned the principle that the end justifies the means – ‘the human price was too high’ – and it had almost ‘cost him his life’. (But can this be said to have been what happened? The book has explained that, having been a murderer of unreliables for the Republicans, he was shot at by a rival and went straight back to Glasgow.) At this earlier stage Ralph goes into the close and takes his look at the human price of capitalism.

Nearly all the stone steps in the first flight up to the half-landing were broken, with jagged edges where bits of tread had fallen away. Some had almost no tread left. Plaster had come away from the walls from ceiling to floor, and along the lower part the bared cement, originally grey, was stained yellow and smelt of urine. On a patch where the rough surface of brickwork was exposed, someone had vomited, probably a passing drunk whose sense of propriety, demanding privacy, had deterred him from being sick in the street; or a returning resident who could not wait to climb the few steps to the communal toilet on the first half-landing. The detritus had stuck to the pitted surface in a wide streaky band as it slid lumpily from chest height to the floor. Judging by the strength of its smell, a mixture of beer and fish and chips, the vomit was recent. Another powerful smell, of decaying rubbish, came mainly from the ash-pits at the far end of the corridor, but also from a deposit scattered over the floor. Despite the cold wet wind blowing in hard from the street, the cloud of mephitic vapours lingered stupefyingly about our heads.

‘Mephitic’ might be compared with Fraser’s ‘ulcerous’ in ‘Resentment wells up like an ulcerous vapour.’ Glasser’s vapours are different from Fraser’s. They stink, while Fraser’s are mental. Both men lived through the Depression, but Fraser’s depressions were only indirectly linked with the hardships of people he knew. At the same time, these hardships are a focus of his attention.

The two words carry a note of declamation – a note otherwise absent from Fraser’s account. Glasser’s prose is sometimes declamatory and sententious in an old-fashioned sort of way, and sometimes awkward (‘Hidden in the near future, he was to be proved right’). But it rises to many of its ferocious and grievous occasions. We are in the Scotland of TB, pneumonia and drink, in which sex is a matter of men attacking women. At the end of the corridor he describes, before you get to the rubbish, is where the young make love. Their elders make it upstairs in the flats, attended by small children – brothers and sisters who grow up in the Gorbals, Glasser says, to try it with each other. About these matters it seems to me that he writes really well, in a manner that might suggest the intent translation of a Latin author anxious to tell the truth.

Afterwards she parted the curtains and came out naked to lift the unsleeping, finely aware child back into bed, to lie between her and the man lying open mouthed in post-coital sleep. And then mother and child might lie awake for a while, locked in unique perplexities. She, her body prompting her still, with no finality in her, turned her world over and over again in her mind’s restless fingers. The child, possessed by wonder and nameless hauntings, tried to join together the heavings and creakings and groans and gasps and little cries he had heard as he lay on the floor, his mother’s disturbed concentration now, his father’s stillness as if felled, and the sticky warmth in which he lay between them, something more than the sweat that was there before, a substance he divined as elemental, mysterious, newly decanted, that touched his flesh and his senses with profound, unattainable meaning.

At the beginning of the book a dear friend, Charlie, another immigrant boy, leaves for Russia with his family – for the land, they hope, of the free. Ralph strives to address ‘the high heid yins of Russia’ to solicit news of the family, and receives his letter back from the embassy in London, stamped: ‘Communication not permitted.’ And the family was never heard of again. Glasser orders his events thematically, while also wanting to tell a story and to spring surprises. Charlie’s departure is the first of several departures, and this event is succeeded by the announcement of a further theme when the rabbi’s thunderings pass over the heads of his congregation and the writer notes: ‘in later years I would wonder how different my life might have been if a few people, those closest to me, had been frightened – just a little.’

Among those closest to him who should have been frightened was Annie, his girl for a while. Annie left him, and then, pregnant, offered herself in order to saddle him with someone else’s child – and this when he had just received a telegram awarding him a scholarship to Oxford. Just when his ship was coming in she might have set fire to it. He condemns her for trying this trick, which is followed by a terrible fall downstairs in the course of an attempt to end her pregnancy. She had known that his love for her would remain, and ‘for her to have acted on that knowledge ... made her deed unforgivable.’

Those closest to him who should have been too frightened to behave as they did include his father, but they also include his sisters, who struck out for themselves in a fashion which has him siding with his father. Lilian, the older sister, errs by studying hard to become a money-minded businesswoman with a grudge and a smart flat, and by blackmailing her employer, also her lover, by means of an abortion. Glasser talks of her as if, in walking out, she had gone on to walk the streets. She is seen to suffer for what she did, and Mary, the other sister, likewise ‘paid heavily’: let down by an Indian student with whom she had been having a long affair. ‘She set higher store by emotional security’ than her sister, ‘and thought she would find it with a man softhearted and caring and pliant, far removed, as she thought, from father’s toughness and uncontrollability.’ Glasser thunders on: ‘Both Lilian and Mary invested too much emotional capital in their opposition to father, whose influence naturally remained dominant, try as they might to escape; and this imbalance distorted their view of relationships and of the world.’ This is a male view of the matter, in which women are attacked, and which had me admiring these ugly sisters. The boy was exposed to serious danger by his father’s irresponsibility and by his sisters’ departure: but his sisters had been exposed to this father too, and had had to defend themselves. A father’s influence, which has been revealed as destructive and all but disastrous, is thought to have remained dominant – as of right, perhaps. An author is taking his revenge in setting down these judgments, begrudging the grudges of others – while uttering the cry of the deserted child.

As with the Fraser, however, confession or recognition of an element of vengeance should not dictate a judgment of the book. Glasser presents a full picture of the behaviour, good and bad, which he encountered in an area of maximum difficulty, and it is not often that such a picture has been presented. The familiar and approved accounts of Scottish life have long favoured a country of hills and fields and firesides, where braw lads and bonny lasses dance reels and go on, after early struggles, to better things, where the best thing of all is the kind landed family that comes up from London to visit them, famous for its stables, castles and ceremonies.

Another fallacious account comes to mind. The literary naturalism of the last century went to the poor and itemised their way of life, producing for adversity truthful, distressing inventories and interiors – as in George Moore’s novel of the Nineties, Esther Waters, which starts with a manor house, servants and horses, and travels to Soho for compulsive gambling and a fatal cough. In Glasser’s book, and in Fraser’s, the activities of the poor can be seen as activities which had been performed, and written about, in the past: but these are books which intimate that the lists and specifications of a caring naturalism – features by which they have indeed been influenced – were never exhaustive: that the truth-tellers did not tell it, and that the omissions were systematic. The sexuality of the past, and the extent of the intimidatory violence, were only very faintly registered. Esther had quite as hard a time of it as Annie, one might feel, but even so, Moore’s spirited novel can be thought to settle for an anodyne poverty. To say this is not the same as complaining of his acknowledgment that poor people can have a good time. No lie in that.

There were pleasures for both boys in the course of their growing-up. For Glasser, there was Annie, study, socialist hikes and campfires in the hills outside the city; for Fraser, there were model aeroplanes, and a mute attraction, shared with a boy of lower status, and there was Bert and Ilse. But what is most striking about both books is the sense they give of how desolate and enclosed an adolescence could be, at opposite ends of the society. Here at least, ends met. When Glasser left Glasgow, the first sight to greet his sore eyes seems to have been Oxford. In a further book he will write about the better things he may have found there.