A Long Life in the Making

Book Details

Coming of age in the Jewish Gorbals and the East End of London between the wars

By Ben Cohen
Edited by Phil Cohen

Published May 2021
Reprinted January 2022
ISBN: 978-1-9164719-9-3
Spec: PB Paperback size 120x195mm 172pp
37 B/W illustrations. Gloss laminated covers.
Mail Order: £9.99 including P&P.

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Reviews of ‘A Long Life in the Making’

‘…a memoir which paints a vivid image of the life, struggle and political activism of the Jewish community in Glasgow in early 20th century’
THE origins of Ben Cohen’s memoir lie within the late 19th-century Jewish community of Vitebsk, Byelorussia. In the 1890s around 35,000 Jews lived in Vitebsk; over 50 per cent of the total population, making the city a major hub of Jewish religious, cultural and political life. For example, the Art School produced two painters of world renown – Chagall and El Lissitsky.

The gross discrimination against Jews, their generally dismal living conditions with the constant presence of malnutrition and disease gave rise to political organisations such as the General Jewish Labour Bund, whose goal was to attract Jews to the growing Russian revolutionary movement.

One of the first branches of the Bund was established in Vitebsk and Ben Cohen’s father Philip was a member. During the 1905 revolution the activities of the Bund led to such persecution that Philip Cohen had to flee for his life, ending up in Glasgow where his son Ben was born in 1915.

In the early 20th century most of the 7,500 Jews in Scotland lived in the Gorbals, largely immigrants from the Russian empire. Philip Cohen became a pedlar of drapery goods which he hawked around the mining villages of Lanarkshire and brought his family up in a tenement.

Philip was a founder member of The Workers Circle, a Jewish socialist society, later joining the ILP which Ben joined too aged six. Here began a lifelong commitment to working-class struggles from which he never wavered. His description of standing on a horse-drawn cart at the age of six, ringing a handbell and shouting “Vote for John McLean” is a memorable one.

Ben grew up in the Gorbals in a tightly knit immigrant community and it is his reminiscences that form the main part of this book, which takes the form of a series of letters to his son, in which he reviews his early life and sets it in its historical and social context.

His memories of his upbringing are vivid in their detail, yet neither sensational nor sentimental. The clarity and directness of the writing, with its dry sense of humour, give the impression of the spoken word rather than a piece of prose.
Trained as a doctor in Glasgow, Ben first practised in the London Jewish Hospital in Whitechapel and peppers his memoir with many amusing, but also some very serious anecdotes about his early years in medicine before the NHS.

Having had several run-ins with sadistic teachers and the police as a boy, Ben retained his anti-establishment views all his life. He recounts one confrontation with the police which happened when he was a mature, highly respected surgeon, commenting contemptuously: “Bullies and liars. Police, church and state, the unholy trinity of oppression, guile and force.”

The introduction to the book, its afterword and appendix have been the contribution of Ben’s son Phil and deserve discussion in their own right.
While editing the text for publication, Phil Cohen ensured that content relating to the labour movement, pre-NHS medical history and the culture of left-wing Jewish life were retained and he explains his father’s desire to impart knowledge of working-class struggles such as Red Clydeside, the General Strike and the Spanish Civil War to him.

Phil’s appendix is particularly interesting, containing a discussion of literature about the Gorbals, generally written by outsiders trying to shock with tales of razor gangs, or else creating an unrealistically nostalgic impression of life in a slum.

Ben Cohen’s writing however takes its place alongside other oral history produced by people who actually lived and had their roots in the Gorbals, and is a valuable addition to the genre, enhanced by the additional material and reflections of his son Phil.

Ben had once said to him “We never quite know what the times we live through will mean for future generations, but the least we can do is help them understand what we were fighting for.”

Sue Turner
Morning Star

‘There is no shortage of books about growing up in the Gorbals, an almost mythical district which was once a byword for urban deprivation. As Phil Cohen notes… it ‘has attracted a large literature documenting its culture, values and patterns of everyday life’. Ben Cohen’s memoir is both a valuable addition to that literature and a challenge to its conventions. This poignant narrative avoids the cliches of some of the more lurid accounts of the Gorbals… and transcends the limitations of ‘slum writing’ by providing a nuanced appreciation of working-class life and culture in Glasgow’s East End between the wars. Both the richness and limitations of a vibrant, close-knit Jewish immigrant community are wonderfully evoked in a memoir ripe with magnificent storytelling. It is particularly insightful on the, often hidden, political culture of Jewish socialism. At funerals, Jewish sons say Kaddish for their fathers. ‘It has occurred to me,’ writes Phil, ‘that putting this little book together, is a form of kaddish.’ The book mourns a lost way of life, whilst eschewing the temptation to romanticise the so-called good old bad old days. It also refuses to romanticise the experiences undertaken by a left-wing, socially mobile ‘scholarship boy’…conflicted by the inevitable contradictions of his extraordinary journey.’
Anthony Clavane
Author of ‘Promised Land: A Northern Love Story’

‘Phil Cohen has put together a small gem of left-wing Jewish remembrance over three generations. A Harley Street doctor tries to connect with his counter-cultural son through his memories of a working-class childhood in the Gorbals between the wars. But it is the grandfather, a refugee from Russian pogroms, who emerges for the son as the real hero.’
James Hinton
Author of ‘Labour and Socialism’

‘A tantalising glimpse of another world emerges in these 1980s letters from a Glaswegian Jewish father to his estranged son Phil, who in turn reflects on their meaning for him today. Memorable and hauntingly evocative.’
Richard Kuper
Jewish Voice for Labour

‘…an acute and sometimes humorous observation of everyday life in the Gorbals by someone who grew up there during the period of Red Clydeside and applies his subsequent medical training to give us vivid descriptions of the crowded housing conditions and religious rivalries of the time. The account of medical training at the London Jewish Hospital in Stepney Green is equally rich in detail. I found this a really fascinating autobiography, a treat to read.’
Paul Thompson
Author of ‘The Voice of the Past (2000)’ and founding editor of ‘Oral History’

‘This is a wonderfully well-written account of Glasgow’s Jewish community prior to WW2. And then remarkable detail of a life in medical practice always with an eye open to prevailing social conditions. A pleasure to read.’
Angela McRobbie
University of London. Author of ‘Feminism and the Politics of ‘Resilience’

‘Ben Cohen’s parents were Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia, as were mine. His memoir,engagingly written – no fuss, no frills, recreates his growing-up years in the Jewish community of the Gorbals, documenting in vivid detail his family’s social, cultural, religious and political lives. Equally absorbing is his account of his later life as a medical student and young doctor in the London Jewish Hospital and Addenbrookes in Cambridge. I particularly enjoyed his sidestepping of the narrative – life is not lived in a straight line after all – to offer an observation on illegitimacy in rural Scotland, a humorous anecdote or a recommendation for Grodzinsky’s macaroons. Ben Cohen rose from slum tenement poverty to respectability and prosperity but he never forgot his Jewish socialist roots. His sympathy for the exploited working class stayed with him, as did his contempt for unaccountable Authority: “Bullies and liars. Police, Church and State, the unholy trinity of oppression, guile and force.”’
Leon Rosselson
Author of ‘That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority’

Order (Card)

Now reprinted for 2022!

We are happy to announce that this popular title has now been reprinted.

By Ben Cohen
Edited by Phil Cohen

Order (Transfer)

Now reprinted for 2022!

We are happy to announce that this popular title has now been reprinted.

By Ben Cohen
Edited by Phil Cohen