Revenges

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.

In Glasser’s case, this reconciliation takes place after his father’s death; and, as with everything he writes about his youth in the Gorbals the memories evoke an immediate response from the reader. Without seeking effects, the writing vibrates, is fresh and direct. Is there something about childhood and adolescence which so often makes it the most compelling part of an autobiography? Do childhood fantasy and adult recollection have a way of turning early experience into a drama whose limited points of reference can, in their unlimited representations, always be shared? The seeming emptiness of much else of the life recalled in this volume only sharpens the contrast, quickens the Gorbals pages.

Lucid analysis of the contemporary English condition has frequently come from the UK periphery – Scotland in particular. From the vantage-point of his double marginality as a working-class Jew, Glasser might have been expected, with greater acuity than most, to see into the heart of Englishness, and into its ‘boss class’, as, in the idiom of the Gorbals of his youth, he continues to call it: to tell us, perhaps, how this class reproduces its hegemony over people like the author himself, who came from a slum where ‘the only thing of value a person possessed was himself’ – over the classic proletarian, bearer of human values, member of the only class capable, for Marx, of liberating capitalist society, as Glasser points out. Regrettably, he has little new light to shed, except for the evisceration brought on by his own ‘incorporation’ into the English intellectual élite. How etiolated, sclerosed this stratum and the boss class in general appear! When his upper-class Oxford friend Bill, who seeks power in business deals, uncharacteristically admits to repressing spontaneity and passion, even the confession has a false ring about it, as though unable to overcome its own repressed cause.

This sort of class sclerosis is brilliantly depicted in a chapter of James Stern’s The Hidden Damage. Arriving unannounced in London shortly after VE Day from the US, where he has spent the war, Stern rings his parents in the country. His mother fails to recognise his voice and when he gives his name replies: ‘Stern? But that’s our name! I don’t think I know a Jim – I’m afraid you must have got the wrong ... What? My son? Son? Good gracious!’

Waiting for him the next day in the shadow of the creeper-covered porch, his father greets him. ‘Very pleased to see you,’ he says. ‘Sorry that infernal train was so late. When’ve you got to leave?’ (A welcome that perhaps only the sons of a certain upper middle-class generation will recognise.) The only thing that makes both his parents laugh, his mother to the point of paroxysm, is the confession that their butler now turns down their beds at night and puts in the hotwater bottles. ‘Makes the beds in the morning too,’ his father adds.

So what? one might ask. Well, it would take another volume to explain the what if it isn’t clear, and that is not Stern’s purpose in this book. But in the space of just a few pages he produces a superb snapshot of the fading remnants of the Edwardian upper middle class. (It has its world-view: ‘Extr’ordinary people, the Germans – damned if I know what to make of ’em!’ exclaims his father, while his mother asks about America as she has asked about every other country her son has lived in: ‘What’s it like out there. At all like here? The country, I mean, of course.’)

Naturally enough, Glasser’s London does not produce such survivors: but then it produces sadly little of interest about London or England in the Fifties and Sixties. Even the recognition is missing that, as one of a handful of pre-war working-class youth to get to university, he had pioneered what was to become a considerable post-war phenomenon, the cause of new cultural divides and personal tensions, as David Mercer’s television plays of the Sixties so clearly portrayed. For Glasser, the Sixties represented nothing much more than a ‘rejection of cultural tradition’, a nihilism ‘soon to become a badge of conformity’.

His entry into the English intelligentsia seems for a time to have eaten into his soul and left an emptiness there. ‘The less you needed to fight, the less you felt the astringent tang of life stirring in the soul ... Where had the passion gone? ... How could one live and have no strong feelings about anything?’ And then, in the best Glasser tradition, he recalls an incident from his youth when a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce had attempted to park where he was standing, his worn boots protruding over the kerb. He had just been laid off and was hungry, desperate and determined to show it. ‘Capitalist bastards,’ he muttered, refusing to move. The chauffeur leaned out and said: ‘Whit d’ye expect me tae dae aboot it? Ah’m just earnin’ ma livin’. So for Christ’s sake move – an’ let me do that!’ Glasser comments: ‘Yes, the old class hatred had gone deep, and yet it had faded ... Where would I find an equal conviction again?’

He found it, at last, in a return to his Jewish roots – ‘there was nowhere else to go, no other identity would fit’ – and even more significantly in work that took him beyond English middle-class confines into the sort of world he had escaped and yet never been able to replace in his heart: the marginalised and impoverished populations of the Third World.

This volume is the least satisfactory of Glasser’s three: the author’s ‘emptiness’, reflected in the atemporality of much of the book, does not help the reader to identify with his quest for himself. And yet the book also contains many new and moving recollections of his youth which make it an essential sequel to the earlier volumes. Overall, the trilogy must be one of the finest autobiographical works to have come out of Britain in a long time.

Gage’s book scores vividly where Glasser’s falters in describing the travails of a poor newcomer in his adopted land. Gage was only nine when he and his three sisters joined their father in the US in 1949; his is the story of ‘an immigrant who arrived at mid-century old enough to be moulded by the traditions left behind but young enough to belong to the new world’.

As readers of his first volume Eleni will recall (and viewers of the film of the same name), he had left more than tradition behind. He had left a mother executed by Greek Communist partisans for having planned the family’s escape to the Nationalist zone: a mother who had died so that he and his siblings would live. And in the new world to which he was going lived his father, who, had he wanted, could have saved them all in the interlude between the end of World War Two and the outbreak of the civil war in 1946 – and for some reason had refused his wife’s entreaties.

None of these memories could be left behind, and many of the village traditions Gage thought he had left behind – particularly the patriarchal domination of life – he found reincarnated in the Greek immigrant community in Worcester, Massachusetts. But what definitely now dropped over the horizon was the roadless village in the Mourgana mountains from which he had come, a village so remote that it appeared to him later as living still in Medieval times. A harsh, brutal and squalid life, without running water or electricity, where everyone sat on the floor and ate from the same pot and there was no way to keep clean except a rare sponge-bath. ‘The hard, isolated life made people vengeful, suspicious and superstitious. When I was a child, I knew nothing else and so never noticed the desperately primitive conditions.’

There is no new ground broken in the account of Gage’s experiences as an immigrant youngster. The fascination lies in seeing how the commonplaces of childhood immigrant life are lived out: as with the importance of the cinema in teaching English, imparting myths and defining role-models. ‘In the gloom of the Greendale Theatre I realised that if I played my cards right I could be anything from a Mafioso to a matinée idol – a revolutionary idea to a refugee from an impoverished and class-dominated country.’ Alongside the cliché of evil-doers always being ultimately punished and the good rewarded, the cinema unexpectedly suggested a real course of future action: ‘revenge was a theme of many of the first movies I saw, igniting a thirst for vengeance in me ... and I decided that one day I would return to Greece to avenge myself on the murderers of my mother.’

Baseball, boxing and, somewhat later, TV further the process of integration: but above all there is school. Here again, we have that traditional catalyst, the brilliant, inspiring teacher who leads the child way beyond the family confines into new and exciting worlds. And, paradoxically in this case, into a new vision of his country of origin. ‘I had considered Greece a small, poor, war-ravaged country of little importance compared to the rest of the world, but Miss Hurd seemed purposely to pick out stories and lessons that emphasised the literary wealth of the Greeks. She taught me that my country was the touchstone of Western civilisation.’ It was for this teacher that he wrote his first account of his mother’s trial, torture and execution. The essay’s sharply anti-Communist edge slotted into the ‘ardent patriotism’ prevalent in the US during the first Cold War and won the young author an award from the Freedom Foundation. The written word had unsuspected power. ‘The seed of an ambition sprouted in me: one day I wanted to write my mother’s story. That would be a way to preserve the memory of how she gave her life for us. Perhaps through journalistic investigation, I might even discover the identities of those who killed her, so that she could be revenged.’

The cost – in dollars as well as to the psyche – of achieving his goal are clearly spelled out. As a teenager, however, his first revenge was on his father for abandoning the family to its fate. And here there was a massive irony: his mother had been persecuted in part because, thanks to the money received from their father in the US, they were the wealthiest family in the village: and yet when Nicholas arrived in Worcester his father was poor and out of work. ‘I could send you enough money to live well in the village, but not here,’ he confessed at last in response to his son’s bitter questioning. ‘I believed what I read in the papers. They never wrote about the murders, taking the children from their mothers’ arms. They said the guerrillas were fighting for democracy. I believed it. I never thought Greeks could kill their own countrymen.’ It was from this point on that the son’s slow process of reconciliation with his father began.

Making good – ‘stealing America’, in the idiom of Greek immigrants – doesn’t apparently permit much of a critical spirit towards the underbelly of the Hollywood myths. But there are insights here into the defensive strategies adopted by immigrant groups to maintain themselves in a hostile environment. In this case, it has to be said, most of these were based on ferociously patriarchal customs: honour surviving on the fragile foundation of women’s behaviour; arranged marriages; and endogamy (only a partner from the same mountain villages was considered eligible) – these were among the more blatant. The café, church and picnics, while still male-dominated, provided moments of relief: but most important of all in protecting the individual and giving him or her a sense of identity was the closeness of the family. ‘Until I left Worcester,’ comments Gage, ‘I hadn’t understood how much of an advantage my family’s love and emotional support gave me – a strength and self-confidence that many of my American classmates lacked.’

In best movie tradition, Gage’s dream of avenging his mother came true. James Stern’s mission, on the other hand, might have been conceived in a Hollywood scriptwriter’s brain. To discover the effects of the war, and especially of the Allied ‘saturation’ bombing of Germany, the US Government sends out a team of oddballs to interview a scientific sample of the civilian survivors in the days immediately after World War Two. A poet (W.H. Auden), a clergyman, a German-American sergeant, a social-scientist corporal, a six-foot wisecracking private and a writer-translator (Stern) make up the team, which, united only by speaking German, goes from one bombed-out city to another; every 50th name between the ages of 16 and 65 on the district’s ration list is summoned for interview.

Stern’s powers of observation, his sensibility, his fine writing skills, turn this investigative scenario into an outstanding memoir which reveals not only the state of the shell-shocked vanquished but also that of the victors, the Americans at least. There are the defeated staring in silence at large notices in immense black letters asking WHO IS GUILTY? above a number of photographs: hundreds of naked human skeletons piled high on the open wagon of a goods train: men in striped prison clothes hanging from gallows; a mountain of ash and charred human bones; children and babies dead from starvation. Soon the notice is changed to: THIS TOWN IS GUILTY! And more photographs. ‘Standing behind these groups of spectators, I never heard anyone utter a word. A woman would occasionally put a hand or a handkerchief to her mouth as though to stifle the moan or cry of horror; an elderly man with his mouth open would stare as though hypnotised for a few minutes; then one by one they would walk slowly, silently away.’

Stern had lived in Frankfurt before the war. On his post-war return he discovered that nothing ‘remained in so unharmed a state as to convince me I’d really been there before.’ At the time he was writing – the book was published in the US in 1947 – he was evidently unaware of the debate over the military effectiveness of saturation bombing, for it goes unmentioned. As a memoir and a record of the experience of ‘ordinary Germans’ living in the ashes of Nazism before the Federal Republic’s emergence, this is a fascinating book, published here for the first time.