Strait is the gate

Frank Kermode

  • Gorbals Boy at Oxford by Ralph Glasser
    Chatto, 184 pp, £11.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3185 3

It is said that one can’t hope to tell the truth in an autobiography, that the very desire to write one may be proof of an incapacity to do so veraciously. In any case there is likely to be a conflict between the writer’s wish to make sense of his or her life, and the need to cut, however modestly, a figure of interest to readers. Only people stupid and dishonourable in the way very bad writers are stupid and dishonourable would suppose that they could make sense of their lives by dispensing with the truth, but much better writers still need to practise certain economics; some extenuations or embellishments must be permitted, not necessarily as concessions to shame or vanity, but because any narrative requires them. The difference is not one of ordinary morality, but of the morality of fiction.

It is clearly an advantage to have had a life which has a bold outline even before you begin to start easing it into more subtle poses. Mr Glasser’s Growing up in the Gorbals recounted the first years of such a life. Its basic pattern has the added advantage of being, in less striking forms, familiar to a quite large number of British citizens. To begin life in the working class, climb out of it by self-help and the educational ladder, and find oneself, in early adulthood, living in a world almost inconceivably different from that of one’s childhood: the familiar story was successfully told by Richard Hoggart thirty years ago, and it was a recurring topic of Raymond Williams’s. But their tales of privation, upward mobility and cultural contrast were very mild compared with Glasser’s. The poverty from which he emerged was far more disastrous and spectacular, and the shock of his translation to the world of the well-off that much greater.

So Growing up in the Gorbals has many bleak advantages. It is rich in nauseating details of the famous Glasgow slum, doubtless often described, but surely never with this degree of intimate contact, recollected not so much in tranquillity as in a mood of prosperous unease. For a native of the Gorbals to escape was to reverse the Wordsworthian progress: you had the prison-house first and the imperial palace afterwards.

It didn’t help, but now helps, that Glasser is a Jew. His Yiddish-speaking father was further distinguished by his being an addicted gambler. Gambling, not unemployment or drink, was the chief cause of the family’s poverty, all those indignities and stratagems of concealment and desperate visits to the pawnshop. In spite of all this, the father comes through as a rather dignified figure, loved but impossible. They were all to abandon him; the mother died and the two sisters each in her own way also got out. The book has powerful social themes: what it was like to live inescapably in filth; how such a community dealt with sex, which, like every other problem, becomes infinitely more difficult under such conditions; how to respond to Communism and the lure of Spain. But what gave it distinction was the way it made sense of a somewhat untypical family, and of the gifted adolescent who worked all day with a huge pressing iron, keeping up with the dangerous piecework pace, all the while regarding the public library as his natural habitat.

That first book ended with the promise of another: an Oxford scholarship award, apparently quite unexpected, put an abrupt end to his youth in Glasgow. The war, now imminent, threatened further uncontrollable incursions into the individual life. As the new volume begins, the young man is biking south with virtually all his possession. He arrives in an Oxford where working-class students are rather freakish anyway, and where a Gorbals boy would be an even more amazing rarity, quite likely, in the manner of the Thirties, to be taken up as a pet, a specimen of the class one needed to get to know, as a possible enemy or an almost inconceivable ally. To thrive in Oxford might call for all the toughness conferred by Gorbals. So one takes up this new book with lively expectations.

They are disappointed; something has gone wrong. It is partly that the detail, though plentiful, seems now to be not so much remembered as invented, or taken from stock; this is admittedly a difficult point, and even in the earlier book one occasionally had doubts, but here they are harder to still; the recollections are distorted by so much overwriting, the discrepancy between the figure-cutting and the honourable minimum of veracity seems wider. Glasser arrived in Oxford as an outsider, how much of an outsider any reader of his first volume already knows. So little is added by this set-piece in Radcliffe Square: ‘I stood and contemplated the combination of lumpy ostentation, dignity, simplicity, baroque detachment and coldness ... Where among these blind strongholds would I find a weak point, a sympathetic wicket gate, to enter and find my rightful place?’ Even if such sentiments really did occur to him at the time, this sort of thing – and it is typical – will not persuade the reader that they did.

Anyway, we are not at this point in doubt that he will penetrate the blind strongholds, for on the opening page we have had a glimpse into the future: the young man is working for the British Council in Blenheim Palace, and being gently patronised by John Betjeman. The sympathetic wicket wasn’t all that hard to find; indeed it might have been less yielding if the suppliant had been a lower-middle-class boy from Leeds.

It must be said that some of the writing manages, by avoiding overemphasis, dimming the rhetorical colours, to be more persuasive than this. It is best when treating quite soberly aspects of middle-class life too commonplace for notice by anybody except a young man coming upon them for the first time. For instance, he found it hard to get used to lying in bed after five in the morning, was puzzled that the word ‘work’ could be applied to the reading of books. He had to get used to eating at regular intervals, to playing tennis when he felt like it, to being addressed as ‘sir’.

That all this was difficult is made quite credible. Though he does not stress the point, it is obvious that Glasser was as quick to adapt himself to these new conditions as he was sensitive to their novelty. He seems to have become a local celebrity, admired for his intransigent manner and (though he doesn’t say this) for his good looks. Soon he is castigating Richard Crossman for his ‘moral laziness and hypocrisy’, exposing the bogus proletarianism of Philip Toynbee and William Beveridge’s remoteness from the lives of the people whose social welfare he is planning. Later he courts, but sees through, Harold Laski and Victor Gollancz. He takes tea with the Master of Balliol, sails expensive boats, gets on well with the girls: but here the colours reappear in the prose, as when two girls sing a Zionist hymn, ‘their silver voices carrying the song up into the sky triumphantly, joyously’, meanwhile radiating ‘an energy, a womanly earthiness, that crackled through the dark air and touched my flesh like sparks of electricity’.

Glasser early discovered that when he expressed an opinion the comment ‘most interesting’ was a coded put-down; he developed an understandable contempt for parlour socialists who found his views on Orwell ‘most interesting’ (he had suggested that the people Orwell described in The Road to Wigan Pier were by Gorbals standards relatively well-off). This didn’t prevent him from enjoying the sort of life they took for granted, any more than it prevented him perceiving that most of them were out for what they could get. Their civilisation, he decided, was at least as selfish and treacherous as the one he’d abandoned.

Though he talks about his ‘Stumbling efforts to unlock the codes’ of Oxford, he seems to have done it more skilfully than most outsiders. One wonders whether the doubts, hesitations and regrets, like a lot of the prose, don’t belong to the present rather than to a past in which his energies went into code-breaking rather than blank misgivings. He met fascinating refugees, resisted attempts to recruit him into the intelligence services, had a serious affair with a rich Jewish girl, attended a rather orgiastic house party at Cassis. The outbreak of war caused a brief delay in the process, but soon he had ‘crossed the social divide’, still wondering if it was worth it, knowing that people born to power rarely intend to give it up, but recognising that now he belongs to their world, not to the Gorbals.

The mere facts are indestructibly interesting: what comes close to spoiling them is laboured hindsight, expressed in unpersuasively heavy-handed prose. A pity; but what makes autobiographies ‘worth it’ is good writing. Underneath the thick paint there is a document of some historical value, but the technique that served well enough in Growing up doesn’t really work here; the figure is unconvincingly cut. It seems there is to be a continuation: perhaps, with the tumult of wartime Oxford safely in the past, it will stay cool and make better sense of this interesting life.