Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Gorbals boys

This is a great piece of journalism from a few years back. It seamlessly incorporates a number of different layers of story, each of which informs the others, and includes a brave bit of reporting from the front line of a Gorbals pub:
Then someone is at my table. He is about 5ft 6in, with long wavy grey hair, wearing a dark shirt and dress trousers. He looks like Roman Polanski on heroin, face heavily lined, eyes watery. “You could be polis,” he says casually. “I met two polis earlier today and do you know what really pissed me off? They were nice guys. I hate polis. What’s your name?” I tell him. “Kenny? You orange bastard.” The tone is still calm but the watery eyes have turned to ice.
He bends close. “You know what I am? I’m 47 years old and violent as f***. I just don’t care, and I’ve never been caught. You know how a knee-capping works? Get him right there.” He stabs a forefinger into a hollow on the side of my right knee. “You know what they say when you do it? They say, ‘Oh ya bastard!’ That’s what they say.” I make an innocuous comment as he turns away, and he swings back, anger whitening his face. “Don’t shout after my back! Don’t call me a c*** behind my back! Calling me a c***!” He stalks back to the bar and sits watching me.

Thankfully, the reporter, Kenny Farquharson, escapes intact.

I wonder, how do people around here rate James Kelman's 'How Late It Was, How Late', which is set in the same milieu (if I may be permitted to use such a poncy word in this context)? I thought it was dazzlingly well written, quite poetic in places and altogether very moving.

I also wonder whether anyone still reads Ralph Glasser's autobiographical trilogy, which includes the fascinating 'Gorbals Boy at Oxford'. (Having googled the latter and entered it into Amazon's search tool but in both cases had no predictive text offered, and having also noted it's out of print with plenty of second-hand copies available for £0.01, I guess not.)

For those who don't know, Ralph Glasser (who went on to be a psychologist, economist and consultant) won a scholarship to study at Oxford despite being brought up in the grinding poverty of a Gorbals tenement. His mother died when he was six, his father was a gambling-addicted tailor and as a boy, unable to continue his school education for want of funds, he worked in a garment sweat shop by day and studied by night.

The book begins with him cycling down to Oxford from Glasgow as he's too poor to get the train. His arrival in the city is one of most memorable things I've read. It's partly the perspective, as he relates elsewhere:
In pre-war days for a Gorbals man to come up to Oxford was unthinkable as to meet a raw bushman in the St James club, something for which there were no stock responses. In any case for a member of the boss class, someone from the Gorbals was in effect a bushman, the Gorbals itself as distant and unknowable as the Kalahari Desert

And vice versa.

In the course of the book, he goes on to provide some telling pen portraits of Oxford luminaries including an unforced evisceration of Richard Crossman, which succeeded in forever putting him beyond my sympathies. From memory (I lent/gave my copy away) the piece starts with Crossman airily enquiring at a seminar: 'Why do people work?' Glasser answers: 'Because they'd starve if they didn't'. Crossman, the archetypal arrogant Wykehamist bully, didn't appreciate having his balloon pricked. It's all beautifully written too.

Mind you, I recall Norman Stone - another Scot in Oxonian exile - commenting that he thought the selling point of Glasser's book was a bit of a swiz. Glasser having an intellectual Jewish background one shouldn't find it remarkable that he'd got on. And he had a point: Glasser's Wikipedia entry tells us that he attended a lecture by Albert Einstein at the age of thirteen, the sort of thing that Gorbals boys of that age, both then and now, don't ordinarily do. You're more likely to find them aspiring to get in The Brazen Head pub.


worm said...

in the case of the 'begbie' character from the first extract, he sounds like one of those blowhard drunks you get in plenty of bars, full of swearing and tales of violent bravado, but mostly talking total shite. Being tall, you get to meet quite a few of these kind of short, drunk chaps who always mumble on about their SAS training and their ninja skills and how they could 'kill you with one punch if they wanted, you lanky piece of piss' etcetc.

Gaw said...

And then there are the ones who really are more like Begbie...

BTW I believe Mel Gibson's a shrimp.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the bigmouths, when drunk and riled up, can be as dangerous as anyone, especially with a bar stool or broken bottle.

Talking of Crossman, i can understand why Cambridge bred Soviet spies: those boorish, stupid, smug upper class jackasses seem to represent everything bad about the English "system" as it was, then. i guess if you come from privilege and go to Cambridge or Oxford, and meet dozens of these perfumed ponces, the Soviet ideal of hard work on a farm might seem alluring, even if it was never more than bs.

Gaw said...

Elb, I'm fascinated by the mentalities of those people. I wrote a post last year about Goronwy Rees and Guy Burgess, two interesting examples: