Ronald Fraser

  • Gorbals Voices, Siren Songs by Ralph Glasser
    Chatto, 209 pp, £13.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3445 3
  • A Place for Us by Nicholas Gage
    Bantam, 419 pp, £14.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 593 01515 0
  • The Hidden Damage by James Stern
    Chelsea, 372 pp, £17.95, February 1990, ISBN 1 871484 01 4

Ralph Glasser’s and Nicholas Gage’s latest autobiographical instalments find their authors making good in their countries of adoption, England and the US respectively. The cost to each of their ascent from exceedingly harsh social beginnings has been different, but in ways that are not surprising: in England the struggle centred on class, in the US on money. Not that class and money are separable in either country, only that their precedence is reversed. Class – learning the codes of Oxbridge language and conduct – opened the gates to Glasser’s professional future, while in the US Gage had first to accumulate the money to get a university education before entering the ranks of the middle classes.

Glasser was brought up in the Gorbals of the Twenties and Thirties, the only son of a Jewish working-class family. Set to work at 14 as a barber’s ‘soap boy’ and later as a presser in a garment factory, he won a scholarship to Oxford shortly before the war. As he left the factory, a workmate and friend warned him: ‘Ye’ll have thrown away the wurrld ye knew ... And if ye try tae find yer way back it’ll be too late, because yew’ll ’ave changed as well – an’ there’ll be nowhere tae go back tae.’ The prediction was true and, because he knew it, Glasser accepted the scholarship, for what was there in that ‘wurrld’ to keep him? Unlike his older friend, Bernard, a Communist Party militant who had escaped, disillusioned by Comintern practice, from the International Brigades in Spain, Glasser refused politics as a solution to a personal predicament. He chose instead to make his way among the Oxbridge élite. By the end of his time at the university he had camouflaged his origins sufficiently to fool Harold Laski, who suggested that he go into social work to get to know the working class.

The present, and last, volume of Glasser’s autobiography covers his post-Oxford, post-war years. It begins with his marriage to an anti-semitic middle-class English gentile and ends with his remarriage to a Jewish woman, symptomatic in a way of the anxious quest that orientates the volume. It is a reprise of his father’s voyage through life from der heim in the Russian Pale to the Gorbals. In a rare moment, his father once confided to him:

I wanted to be ‘who I was’. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew that I must go somewhere else to find out. Yes – that’s what you’ve got to do, find out who you are, and then be that person – and nothing else. But if you don’t know – ah well – then it’s hard to live at all. And let me tell you – it’s even harder when you do know.

Once the young Glasser had learned the Oxbridge codes, it proved easier to shrug off his working-class origins than his Jewish inheritance. His first marriage was a masochistic attempt to deny that inheritance, to refuse to be who he was, even when his wife produced from its hiding-place her treasured possession: a Nazi armband. If ever there was an example of Sartrean ‘bad faith’ it was in this couple’s relationship. Indeed, Glasser appears in this period to have suffered from an almost ontological guilt which gives a savour of wormwood to much that he writes. But a guilt-ridden search for identity is something so rarely acknowledged amidst the established verities of English society that one can only welcome the author’s honesty in confronting his feelings.

It is a curious point of coincidence between Glasser and Gage that they both held their fathers responsible for their mothers’ deaths: Glasser’s from cancer, Gage’s by a Greek Communist partisan firing-squad. Both fathers were gamblers, losers, who, in their only sons’ eyes, had sacrificed their wives to the card table. When they were young, both authors harboured considerable aggression for their fathers, perhaps (as Gage hints) as a way of dealing with the pain of their mothers’ deaths. And both, in the portion of their lives covered by the present volumes, set out on a journey of reconciliation with their fathers, realising that they were not the murderers they had once fantasised but ordinary, fallible human beings coping as best they could with the pressures of impoverished immigrant life. It is these respective journeys that are the most satisfying parts of both books – the escape from the neurotically anguished past into an understanding, sympathetic but not necessarily condoning, of the present.

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