Growing Up In The Gorbals

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

2012 was the wettest summer in recent Glaswegian history. Often stuck indoors because of this, I decided to read as many local writers as I could possibly find on the shelves of my daughter's library. The one who stood out was Ralph Glasser, whose autobiographical trilogy--GROWING UP IN THE GORBALS, GORBALS VOICES and SIREN SONGS--held me in thrall for the better part of a rainy month.

Glasser (who died in 1995) grew up in The Gorbals, Glasgow's infamous slum district. His picture of life there in the 30s and 40s is shockingly raw, uncompromising and vivid. Home to the city's poorest citizens, most of whom were recent Jewish arrivals from the shtetls of East Europe, The Gorbals was packed with decaying Victorian-era tenements in which, as Glasser writes, "Splintered and broken floor boards sometimes gave way under your feet. The minimal plumbing hovered on the verge of collapse. Interior walls carried patchs of stain from a long succession of burst pipes or ill-mended leaks. Rats and mice moved about freely, seeming to share the accomodation with us grudgingly, as if we were the intruders and they the rightful occupiers."

At fourteen Glasser became a barber's soap boy, then a presser in a garment factory; but he managed to fight his way out of poverty by dint of his innate intelligence and hunger for knowledge.

Having educated himself in the reading room of Glasgow's Mitchell Library, he entered an essay contest, "Has Science Increased Human Happiness?" His answer was so well-argued that it not only won him first prize but a scholarship to Oxford College. All of this before his eighteenth birthday!

GROWING UP IN THE GORBALS ends with him saying a painful farewell to The Gorbals and all which he had experienced there: not just privation and misery but community, fraternity and love. Above all, though, what Glasser took with him from The Gorbals was its values--values learned the hard way in its streets, pubs, pawnshops, dancehalls, factories and union offices. These were the things that had shaped his character, propelled him into the world, and remained with him all his life.

What also drove Glasser was his relentless questioning of himself. "Self-enquiry has taken me deeper than I ever imagined, to show me that nothing, no perception, no vision...will ever answer the questions that possessed me when I left The Gorbals to cycle to Oxford long ago," he confesses. "Yet the ineluctable pursuit remains in command, intransigent as always, and of course no settlement, no halting place will ever be found. And Gorbals works upon the spirit implacably--how could it be otherwise?--still kneading the original clay, continuing its questioning, the Sphinx constantly changing the terms of the riddle, never to be solved. The temptation grows--more dangerous than all the others--to create my own, and usurp her sovereignty once and for all."

At Oxford Glasser was often patronized as a low-class Jewish kid, but such faculty members as John Betjeman, G.D.H. Cole, Philip Toynbee and Harold Laski treated him with respect. Glasser writes appreciatively about these illustrious men, but does not romanticize them. They had their weaknesses and self-deceptions--especially when it came to politics--and he isn't afraid to deal frankly with them.

Glasser spent most of WW II in Oxford (weak eyes kept him out of the army), working at a government propaganda ministry. His reminiscences of that period--the air raids, parties, love affairs, impassioned debates over the fate of democracy--are so vivid and palpable that they practically leap off the page.

Equally worthy are the chapters in book three dealing with Glasser's post-war, bohemian years in London and Paris. Again, public figures and personalities abound: meeting Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Tynan ("Here I come, a star, watch me soar!" the budding theatre critic shouted), and Louis McNeice. There are also related chapters dealing with Glasser's two marriages and his job at the BBC. Good, interesting stuff, but for my money it's book one, the Gorbals volume, that stands out as the most powerful and memorable.

Its essence is contained in one of Glasser's favorite quotations, one which sums up the motive that impelled him to write his trilogy: "Here are the tears of things, mortality touches the heart."