harry diamond's memoir

bookUntil the age of 18, I celebrated my birthday on December 14 because that was the date my mother told me. My birthday turned out to be December 15. I found that out when I got a copy of my birth certificate before I joined the army. I always thought my mother's name was Minnie, but when she died I discovered among her papers that her name was really Millie. My father was always known as Joe. His real name was Julius. Sometimes people of my faith are given a new name when they are very ill in the hope that a benevolent Almighty will make him or her better and give them a new start, so to speak, in their new name. It's a nice idea but didn't apply in our case. Accurate, reliable information was not a highly-regarded commodity in my family.

I was born in December 1926 in a room near Queen's Park which my parents rented when they were married in March of that year. The Glasgow Herald still carried only advertisements on its front page, including births, but not mine. The people from whom I sprang didn't read the Herald . In fact few of them could hardly read at all.

A few months after I was born my family moved to a small flat in Abbotsford Place, Gorbals, where we lived until I came out of the army in 1948. I have read several books about Gorbals, most of them sentimental, nostalgic drivel. My Gorbals had ignorance, stupidity, every disease known to mankind and a few still to be identified, malice, violence, illiteracy and unbelievable cruelty to partners and children. Most of the people I knew lived in grim, dank-smelling, dingy tenements although they did look after their own homes well. There may have been good times but I don't remember many of them. I do remember we kept odd bits of furniture in the bath because there was no hot water unless we boiled it in kettles and we would have to boil a hundred kettles to fill the bath. I remember the bed recess in which my younger sister Sheila and I had to sleep until she got too big to go into the same bed as me. Then I had to move to a bed settee in 'the front room,' which also served as the dining room although it was never called that. We didn't dine in those days. We just ate. I remember that Sheila and I went to sleep every night to the accompaniment of drunken singing from the public house next to our close.

I remember the smell of damp plaster in the close, gang fights, boys snatching my cap off my head and throwing it about the street as I was on my way to cheder (Hebrew School) every evening. I attended Abbotsford Public School from 9a.m. until 4 p.m. and cheder from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. and then had to do homework from both schools when I came home. No wonder I learned very little from either.

I remember falling over a body lying face down in vomit in the close one night and running up the stairs to tell my father. He came down and turned the man over on his back and said, "That's Benny Lynch, son. He used to be a famous boxer." Lynch was dead drunk. My father dragged him clear of the vomit and propped him against a wall. I've also read a lot about the new Gorbals with its luxury flats occupied by lawyers, doctors, journalists and according to one newspaper even a judge, but I'm unimpressed. There isn't enough money in the Royal Bank of Scotland to persuade me to live there again, which I suppose is not a very relevant comment as no-one is asking me to live there. I have to laugh when I think of the difference between public schools in Scotland and England. In many autobiographies I have read people have written about how their school contemporaries later became famous lawyers, doctors, army generals, politicians, and film, stage, and televisions stars. As I've said, my contemporaries took totally different directions.

Some years after I left school I met one of my old teachers and he asked me what I was doing for a living. "I'm a newspaper reporter," I said proudly. "I always knew you would come to no good, Diamond," he said. I always told interviewers I was the first person in my family to be born in Britain because it sounded more interesting. The truth is my mother was born in London but her parents and my father and his parents came from Lithuania at the beginning of this century, as did so many others at various times, to escape the clutches of malevolent Russian rulers who had dominated Lithuania since the end of the 18th century.

Because my father was registered as a Russian alien during the 1939-45 war he had to observe a curfew decreeing he had to be home by 10 p.m. One night a policeman stopped him in the blacked-out street and asked him for his identity card. Minutes later he was in the local jailhouse. The desk sergeant phoned a neighbour of ours who was wealthy enough to have a telephone and I raced down to the police office to rescue my bewildered father. Another night he was stopped by two hooligans who demanded money. My father was a better actor than Laurence Olivier. He turned his coat pockets inside out and told the hooligans a hard luck story about not even having enough money to get a bus home. The encounter ended with them giving him a shilling for his bus fare and a couple of cigarettes. As it happened he was near home so he saved the bus fare My father claimed to have been a soldier in the 1914-18 was but was very vague about his unit or regiment. He used to tell me he was in Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, when the war ended and he and some mates just walked out and went home without being officially discharged.

He never bothered to become a naturalised British citizen because it would not have made any difference to his life, but it did have an effect on mine. In the days when I still had an ambition to become Scotland's Walter Winchell the BBC rejected my application for a job on the grounds that my father was an alien. Nowadays, judging by some of its programmes, you have to be an alien to get into the BBC, or at least have a near relative from outer space. I don't want to be judgemental about my parents because I loved them both and they loved me and Sheila but they certainly didn't get on with each other too well.

They just couldn't communicate. My mother wanted my father to "make something of himself" but his mind just didn't work the way my mother wanted. Apart from his work as an upholsterer, at which he was an acknowledged master, he was an incurable gambler, his only interests being cards, dogs and horses. Sometimes when we were out together and someone passed in a Rolls Royce I would say to him, "Look, Dad, there's a bookie driving your car." He always laughed wryly. My father didn't like responsibility or making decisions. One morning before he went to work my mother gave him a slip of paper with an address near Queen's Park. "Come to that address after work, Joe," she told him. "We're moving." Not once in our lives did Sheila and I ever go on holiday with our parents. In fact I don't remember us going anywhere as a family, to a cinema, or a picnic or the circus or any of the places other families went. On school holidays my mother took Sheila and me to her family in London.

My father stayed behind and passed the time in whatever way he could. My mother's mother and father had a grocer's shop in Bow in the East End of London. Their name was Steinberg, which was printed in large letters above the shop. One day when I was playing on the pavement at the door of the shop a parade of Blackshirts, the gang of thugs led by Sir Oswald Mosley, founder in 1932 of the British Union of Fascists, marched passed the shop. As they passed, one of their number stepped out and hit me hard on the face with the back of his hand sending me reeling across the pavement. My face stung for days afterwards.

My mother and father had a battle every Friday night when he handed over his wages. She wanted to see his pay packet showing the amount of his pay and overtime if appropriate and he stoutly resisted what he considered to be an invasion of his privacy, not to mention the slur on his integrity. This was a common attitude, even among the indigenous population. Men just didn't want their wives to know what they earned because they feared being left with less than they considered their due.

For many years I used to fantasize about winning a lot of money on the football pools and going into the workshop where my father worked, taking his hammer and scissors from him with the words, "You won't need these any more, Dad," and throwing them through the nearest window, without opening it first. I still have a sentimental attachment to his hammer, which I have carefully preserved. My mother once persuaded him to go to night school to improve his English. His spoken English was quite good, if rather fractured, but his attention span for the written or printed word was short. His teacher was fired a few weeks later for going to the dog track with my father instead of looking after his classes.

I still remember the very first thing I had published. It was a few lines to the effect that £25 had been raised for charity at the wedding of a friend. I went down to the machine room, as we called it, to watch the huge rotary presses thundering out thousands of copies of the paper, each with my wee story in it. I was tingling with excitement. A friendly machine man gave me a couple of copies of the paper and I raced home to show my parents. My father mouthed the words slowly and looked blank. My mother's comment was, "That's good, son." I know they were pleased for me but they didn't understand the implications of what I had done. I had written something that would be read by hundreds of thousands of people all over the country. I have never lost the feeling of excitement at seeing something of mine in print.

My father was an unschooled man and good-natured with a keen sense of humour and was a marvellous story-teller. If I have any talent in that direction I am sure I inherited it from him. He used to tell the story of how, when he was about 12, he and his parents and a lot of other refugees fled from their village home in Lithuania to travel to Britain. At the port of Hamburg they were all ushered into a giant shed where he accidentally leaned against a wall switch. Lights went on all over the place and everyone ran out of the building shouting "fire, fire" because they had never seen electric light before! My father's family name was Chatzkind, not Diamond. That came from the fascia board of a shop at their port of entry to Britain.

An immigration officer who couldn't understand what they were saying bestowed the name on them. My father couldn't tell me what port it was. When my parents died I wept not so much because I had lost people I loved but because I think life was not kind to them. Because of the many frustrations in her life my mother spent day after day lying on her bed with a vinegar-dampened cloth round her head in the belief that this would take away the nervous headache she always seemed to have. It never did. One day in l966 a telephone operator told me my mother was trying to reach me. I went round to her house and let myself in and found her lying on the hall floor in her nightgown with the telephone in her hand. I telephoned for an ambulance and took her to the Victoria Infirmary.

I walked up and down for half an hour until a young doctor came out and said, "Your mother has just had a bad turn. You can take her home now."

"I'm sorry, I can't do that," I said. "She is living alone at the moment and is obviously not fit to look after herself. Besides, I don't think she has just had a bad turn. I would like someone else to look at her."

The young doctor called someone else and I walked up and down for another half hour and the second doctor came out to tell me my mother had had a stroke and would be kept in.

"Why didn't he know that?" I asked, indicating the younger doctor. "Everyone has to learn," I was told. I couldn't trust myself to say anything so I just went away. A few weeks later I arranged for my mother to go into a nursing home and she was there five years before she died.

Four years later I visited my father one afternoon and found him sitting in a chair staring silently into space. I tried to talk to him but there was no answer. I called a doctor who told me my father was senile at which I blew up and told the doctor, "You are more bloody senile than he is. Last night he was in very good form and you don't become senile in 24 hours." I insisted on his going to hospital where he was diagnosed as having had a cerebral haemorrhage. He died a few hours later.

Sheila, whom I loved very much and who was seven years younger than me, died at the age of 45 from cancer, leaving a 12-year-old son Mark. One afternoon a hospital nurse phoned my office to tell me she was in a coma and I went to the hospital and held my sister's hand until her breathing stopped almost 12 hours later. She didn't even know I was there. My younger son Michael arrived early in the morning to keep me company and was with me when Sheila died. I was very grateful for his presence.

I still miss Sheila very much after 20 years. Rightly or wrongly she looked on me as some kind of hero because I helped her in a number of ways throughout her life when things weren't going too well. I wish she were here now so that I could weep on her shoulder when things aren't going too well with me. My nephew Mark is married now and lives in London with his wife Bella and their young son Zachary. They are very happy and live a sensible life and I keep in touch with them.

Both my parents had brothers and sisters. My father's two brothers, Jack and Henry, were mean-spirited men. I don't know exactly what they did for a living but I know it was probably something on the edge of the law. Jack gave me a wrist watch that didn't work for my bar mitzvah and Henry gave me a gold ring that was so thin it blew off the kitchen table one day and I never found it again.

Henry did some dealing in gemstones and when I was getting engaged I asked him if he could get me a diamond ring at a reasonable price. He came back a week or so later with a ring for which he charged me £80. It was every penny I had. Another couple of weeks later a friend asked me, "Did you like the ring I gave your uncle for you? It's good value for £60." Never give a sucker an even break, even if he is your nephew.

Henry lived very near me in the years when I was a newspaper reporter. Often the night news editor would send a taxi for me in the middle of the night if a story broke. Unfortunately he would give the taxi driver my uncle's address so Henry was awakened by thunderous knocking at his door and would appear, in a foul mood, in his long drawers.

"Taxi, Mr Diamond," the driver would say and Henry would slam the door wordlessly and let the driver wait for ages until he finally got fed up and went away. Henry would never tell the driver he should go to my address a few hundred yards away and I never seemed to be able to get it over to the night news editor that he was giving taxi drivers the wrong address.

My father had three sisters. Two of them were crumpled, defeated little creatures from what I remember of them. The third was very well off indeed by our standards. They couldn't talk like normal people; they bludgeoned you with words spewed out at a high rate of decibels. Some of their children were the same. Whenever I came in contact with them I felt disorientated, as if I'd walked through a mysterious, hidden door and landed in a madhouse.

The well off-sister lived with her husband and children in a big house a world away from places like Gorbals. How they became wealthy I don't know although I suspect she married someone with money or the business acumen to acquire it.

Money was the yardstick against which people like my aunt judged their fellow humans. It didn't matter how intellectually impoverished her friends were as long as they had money. Music, art, literature meant absolutely nothing to them. They could go through a lifetime without reading a book or going to a concert.

My aunt had a friend who owned a chain of cinemas. When Sheila was married in the 1950s my mother worked very hard to scrape enough money together to give her a "good" wedding. My mother and I agonised for weeks on who to invite to the celebratory dinner because we had only a limited amount of funds. My father had no opinion on the matter.

Just as the dinner started my aunt swept regally into the hall with her wealthy friend, who had not been invited and for whom my mother had made no provision. She stayed anyway. A week or so later she sent a gift for my sister, a set of highly-tarnished electro-plated teaspoons in a well-worn box. My mother didn't know what to do. She didn't want to let Mrs Thing away with her insulting behaviour but neither did she want to start a family feud. I had no such inhibitions because I was angry that my mother and sister had been hurt so I typed a note to Mrs Thing and took the teaspoons round to her hotel with a note that read, "As you were not invited to my daughter's wedding we do not think it is appropriate to accept your gift, which I now return secure in the knowledge that it did not involve you in any great expense." I had a way with words even then. My aunt went berserk and didn't talk to any of us again for a long time, which was no great loss.

One of my relatives was "intellectually challenged" to use a modern euphemism. He refused to have anything to do with anyone in his family, which on second thoughts may have indicated he wasn't so odd after all. Although he was in business and could hardly be said to be penniless he was once taken into hospital with malnutrition. His wife, who was no intellectual heavyweight either, wore a black eye patch but kept forgetting which eye it was supposed to protect with the result that sometimes it covered the right eye and at other times the left.

My mother's family were very different, although there were one or two eccentrics among them, too. One uncle took out his hearing aid so that he could hear better when someone was talking to him, then he would put it back when they were finished.

Most of them were kind to me and my sister Sheila and we both had great affection for them. My maternal grandmother was a kind, good-humoured, handsome woman. I enjoyed talking to her in Yiddish. The family were amused when I talked to her about one thing and she would give me a totally irrelevant answer because she really hadn't heard what I'd said. My grandfather was a good man, too, and I enjoyed playing dominoes with him when I was a boy. Both grandparents died in 1947 when I was a soldier in Egypt but I wasn't told until I came home as the family didn't want to upset me when I was so far away. I have only a faint recollection of my father's parents.

My mother's sister Debby and one of her three brothers, Myer, are still alive. Aunty Debby was 94 in November 1995. Any time I feel depressed I only need to phone her to feel better again as she is the only person in the world who thinks I can do no wrong. There aren't many of her kind left.