The Gorbals Boy Who Went to Oxford

This is a writer that I would love to have met.

Ralph GlasserRalph Glasser was famously the Gorbals boy who went to Oxford.

Glasser was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who lived on the top floor of a three-storey slum tenement in Warwick Street in the Gorbals, Glasgow. He was left motherless at six, cursed with a father who was an incurable gambler, and abandoned by two older sisters who fled the house. He left school at 14 to became a soap-boy in a barber’s shop and then presser in a garment factory. After each 12-hour day, Glasser would head for the Mitchell Library while his father headed for card schools or the illegal gambling dens that prospered in Glasgow. Glasser studied diligently at night school and won a scholarship for Oxford University. He famously cycled the 400 miles to the land of the dreaming spires. From Oxford, Glasser went to work for the British Council and later into public relations and Third World consultancy. He became a distinguished psychologist and economist. Glasser’s life can be traced in his writings.

“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….”

Bert Hardy Gorbals 1948His life had all the cliches of a tale of rags to some kind of riches, but it had substance, too. Glasser could never have been accused of living a life that was unexamined. Those who read his trilogy of Growing Up in the Gorbals, Gorbals Boy at Oxford, and Gorbal Voices, Siren Songs as simply the tale of the physical journey of a Jewish boy to manhood, missed the greater significance of his work; Glasser was capable of producing an enduring narrative, but it was his self-searching that made much of his work irresistible. This spirit of indomitable inquiry was shown to its greatest effect in Gorbals Legacy, almost an afterword to his Gorbals Trilogy. If the reader is looking for tales of black sannies, dispirited men huddling on street corners, or the consolations of poverty, Gorbals Legacy is not the place to go. It is, rather, the chronicle of an inner journey. It pays no service to the conventions of time. No dates are mentioned. The mundane world of jobs and money are ignored. It is a psychological, even spiritual, investigation of an individual psyche and its motivations and desires. There is a tide of human experience and Glasser produced a singular, spectacular wave in his last words in print. Gorbals Legacy looked back at a life that contained too little happiness but had ultimately produced a gentle acceptance of existence and more than a degree of contentment.

“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.”

“…Self-inquiry 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.”

The search for these answers included a stay in San Giorgio, a small Italian village, and in Acharacle in the Highlands where Glasser, an adviser on environmental matters for the UN, attempted to find solutions for the wasteful way many communities lived. This was typical of the restless seeking that so characterised Glasser.

“…the Gorbals at my shoulder always, like the Hound of Heaven”

Dark, heavily bespectacled and softly spoken, Glasser had an elusive, magus-like quality in person, and on the printed page: acquaintances longed to learn more, and felt that he had not only done and seen a great deal but might also have some of the answers.

Ralph Glasser, writer, economist, environmentalist; born April 3, 1916, died March 6, 2002

Excerpted from The Sunday Herald.

More at The Telegraph.

Image: Bert Hardy, Gorbals Boys, 1948.

Glaswegian

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