Category Archives: history

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.



The Forgotten Gorbals

Forgotten GorbalsIn January 1948, the illustrated magazine, Picture Post, published an article about a working-class district of Glasgow which it described as “The Forgotten Gorbals”. The article advocated urgent social reform and was accompanied by thirteen photographs, three by Bill Brandt and the rest by Bert Hardy. This photograph of Mary, a sixteen-year-old bakery worker, was the most powerful of all the images. As Picture Post’s caption suggested, Mary’s future – like the salt on the Sifta packet – was pouring away: “futility and frustration stretch ahead her dreams are losing their battle against reality”.

Image: Bert Hardy, silver gelatine print, National Galleries of Scotland

The Gorbals



Let’s go!

StarmanThis week marks the 50th anniversary of the historic first flight into space by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. At the time, it was the biggest victory yet for the Soviet Union in the space race that had begun with the launch of Sputnik four years earlier. And the rocket that catapulted Gagarin into space also launched him to global celebrity.

Gagarin, however, never flew in space again. In 1968, seven years after his world-changing flight, he died in an airplane crash.

Due to the secretive nature of the Soviet Union, much of Gagarin’s life was a mystery to Western historians for many years. But that changed when Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony published the first biography of Gagarin in English, Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin.

Originally published more than a decade ago, Starman has been released in a new edition to mark the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight. This remains the definitive biography of the famous cosmonaut, tracing his life from his roots as a young child on a collective farm to his untimely death at the age of 34. Along the way, Doran and Bizony reveal some surprising truths. Although Gagarin completed close to 95 per cent of a full orbit (taking off from Kazakhstan and coming down in Russia somewhat short of where he departed from), he didn’t complete that orbit by staying in the capsule the entire time. Shortly before plunging to the ground, he ejected and descended under a personal parachute.

According to Bizony, the decision to eject was made for safety reasons. But fears the Soviets would be denied the honour of having been the first to launch a person into orbit meant that piece of information stayed tightly under wraps.

“It would be a very churlish world indeed that didn’t give [them] the honour of having been the country to first launch a man into orbit, but that’s what the Russians feared. They feared that if it got out that Yuri Gagarin didn’t stay with his capsule those last few thousand feet as it plunged through the atmosphere to landing on the ground, somehow the prize of claiming the world’s first human orbit would be taken away from them.”

After his descent, Gagarin became an instant celebrity and spent the next few years struggling to deal with his fame, the public relations it required and the strain it put on his marriage.

As people around the world come together tonight to celebrate his achievement, it’s clear his star has yet to fade. As Bizony says, although Gagarin’s life may have been cut short, his legacy most certainly won’t.

“He was, and for as long as human beings still have the words to utter the phrase, always will be the first man in space.”

Облетев Землю в корабле-спутнике, я увидел, как прекрасна наша планета. Люди, будем хранить и приумножать эту красоту, а не разрушать её!

Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!

Source: CBC Books

One Month After

Source: SOS Japan

Kan-i, Ryosei, Soboku

The Shiba Inu is smallest of the original races of dogs of Japan. It is a small, agile dog, used for hunting in the mountains.

In 1936, the Shiba Inu was declared National Treasure of Japan. In spite of the efforts to preserve the race, this one was on the brink of extinction after World War II.

Traditionally, there are three words to describe the Shiba Inu temperament:

The first is kan-i : bravery and spirited boldness combined with composure and mental strength.
The second is ryosei : good nature with a gentle disposition.
One cannot exist without the other.
The last is soboku : artlessness with a refined and open spirit.

That this little dog is a National Treasure is no coincidence.  The people of Japan deserve our admiration and respect for their preparedness and their stoicism in the face of this awful disaster. There is a lesson in all this for the rest of us.

National stoicism helps Japan manage disaster recovery – story in the Globe & Mail.

Still image from: Mari and Three Puppies, a movie about the 2004 Niigata earthquake.


Never Walk AloneIraq War veteran Troy Yocum is walking 7,000 miles across the nation, banging his drum, gathering followers and trying to meet his goal of raising $5 million for U.S. Armed Forces veterans and families in need.

His 16-month journey, dubbed “The Drum Hike”, began April 17 at the Kentucky Derby Thunder Over Louisville celebration. With Emmie the SuperDog by his side, he took the first step of his 16-month quest that day. Now they are on track to complete the western leg of the journey. They’re travelling all the way from Kentucky to California by Veterans Day.

After serving in Iraq,  he was honorably discharged from the military on Jan. 5, but his service carried on.

Troy Yocum and Emmie“After my contract was up, I signed a new one,” said Yocum. “I signed up for a 16 month, 7,000-mile hike across America to help military families. Now, I am a Soldier for the Soldiers.”

He began planning his hike while deployed to Iraq. “Some played video games to pass the time,” said Yocum. “Some read, some wrote. I looked for ways to raise money for charities.”

Yocum has raised the money necessary to fund the walk through sponsors like Soldier’s Angels, and many other organizations and businesses.

With the money donated by sponsors he was able to acquire recreational vehicle to trail him along his hike, providing him shelter when needed, medical supplies inside and food and water.

Armed with the bare essentials for the estimated 50 million steps it will take to walk across the country, Yocum’s plan to return his gratitude to veterans is slowly becoming a reality.

Travelling with Troy is his support crew made up of his wife Mareike, his long time friend and assistant Terry Carmickle, Harley the joking Chihuahua, and Emmie, a black and tan shiba inu!

Find out more at Drumhike

Follow Troy and Emmie on Facebook

Lightfoot Illustrated

There are few songs that embody this country more than Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy, which was performed live for the first time on New Year’s Day, 1967, in honour of Canada’s centennial. Now, more than 40 years later, Lightfoot’s paean to the national railroad gets a second life, a remix of sorts, in the form of an illustrated book. The six-minute song has been transformed into a 56-page picture book, illustrated by award-winning Canadian artist Ian Wallace.

Canadian Railroad Trilogy

The idea to turn song into book actually belongs to Patsy Aldana, publisher of Groundwood Books, who called up Wallace a couple of years ago and pitched him the concept. Wallace was a teenager when the song debuted, and part of him was terrified at the prospect of adapting the lyrics of a songwriter he’d long admired.

“I’ve always believed that the illustrator is only as good as the words a writer lays down, and so in that sense, I was dealing with a master,” says Wallace, 60. That said, he also knew the song would make a perfect book: “The building of the railroad is one thrilling saga, full of fascinating characters: entrepreneurs and capitalists and politicians and ordinary men, navvies and ladies of the evening — a great cast of characters that an illustrator can certainly sink his teeth into and find visual stimulus.”

Wallace lovingly recreates the country from coast to coast. From sketches of the mountains to the Prairies to the Maritimes, the book could almost be used as a tourist brochure. He credits Lightfoot with making his job easy: “Lightfoot is such a masterful storyteller. The lyrics that he wrote were so succinct, so spare, so well chosen that it was in fact as if I was dealing with the text of a picture book. He really understood less is more.”

Canadian Railroad Trilogy

While Lightfoot wrote the original in a blistering three days, Wallace took a bit longer — 21 months in all — to complete his work, though some of that was for research, which included reading books such as Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike, and scouring the Canadian Pacific archives and the Toronto Reference Library. Additionally, Wallace had to master a medium he’d never worked in before.

“I’ve always believed in the uniqueness of the writer’s voice, and my responsibility as an illustrator is to hear that voice,” he says. “In this instance, I wanted to capture [Sir John A.] Macdonald’s dream and Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic song all at the same time. And the only medium I thought could do that was chalk pastels … In one moment it can look ethereal and dreamy and as soft as clouds and in the same stroke you can create concrete rock and reflective surfaces of steel. That’s the real beauty of it.”

Just as those who built the railroads worked under dangerous conditions, so too did Wallace (albeit to a much lesser extent). During the process, he discovered that the chalk was toxic — he had to avoid breathing in the dust, and couldn’t let it linger on his skin lest it seep into his bloodstream.
I was so intent that this medium was just the right one that it was worth the risk to my life and lungs.

Canadian Railroad Trilogy

While Wallace never worked directly with Lightfoot on the book, the singer was there in spirit. He’s unsure how many times he listened to the original song, but adds
it never ever let me down or became boring.

“It was inspirational,” he says. “It kept me on track.”

Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot, art by Ian Wallace, is published by Groundwood Books.

Unabashedly sourced verbatim from: Mark Medley, National Post, October 8, 2010.