Gorbals Boy at Oxford

Ralph Glasser (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1389641/Ralph-Glasser.html) was born of Jewish parents in Leeds but when only a few months old his family moved to a tenement flat in the Gorbals area of Glasgow that gained notoriety as a one of the biggest slums in Europe. His mother died when he was six and his two older sisters were decamped quickly leaving him to be raised alone by his father who had a gambling addiction. As he observes: “The streets were slippery with refuse and often with drunken vomit. It was a place of grime and poverty…The Victorian building, in red sandstone blackened by smoke… was in decay. Splintered and broken floorboards sometimes gave way under your feet. Interior walls carried patches of stain from a long succession of burst pipes. Rats and mice moved about freely….” Whilst working as a presser in a garment factory Glasser studied hard at The Mitchell Library eventually gaining a scholarship to Oxford.

In this memoir (of 1988) he tells of how he was so poor that he had to cycle the 400 miles to ‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires’ of Matthew Arnold. This he did in army surplus shorts, carrying his worldly goods in a saddlebag and sending his only three books ahead by post. It was 1938, when Oxford’s intellectual devotees were still flustered by Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. It would be hard to imagine two worlds more socially distant in these damp islands than a Gorbals tenement and Magdalen College, Oxford. Glasser was warned by the great Fabian, G.D.H. Cole, that the enlightenment he sought at Oxford, with its rigorous conceptual disciplines, would destroy his profound instinctive knowledge of the working class. But Cole was mistaken. This extraordinary book is an act of spiritual retrieval, a kind of ‘Wigan Pier’ in reverse. One does wonder how much of Glasser’s memories have been ‘redacted’. Even if true, this is a marvellous evocation of a place and time delivering acute insights into topics of class, power and snobbery in Britain. Glasser writes well enough to give this a read.


ISBN 978-0330309196

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