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
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.

(Booksellers and quantity discounts available, please email for trade terms).

Reviews of ‘A Long Life in the Making’

‘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’

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By Ben Cohen
Edited by Phil Cohen

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By Ben Cohen
Edited by Phil Cohen