Michael Rosen, the pisher king
So They Call You Pisher is a journey through the first part of writer and radio presenter Michael Rosen’s life that leaves us with an unashamed cliff-hanger
14 December, 2017 — By Ivor Dembina
Michael Rosen’s anecdotal account of his family relationships and schooldays remind us all of the uniqueness of our own childhoods. Photo: Dave Stelfox
MICHAEL Rosen’s enjoyable memoir, So They Call You Pisher, is about a young man’s north London upbringing in a family of Jewish atheists. Now a much-lauded writer and radio presenter, Rosen’s parents were active communists in the 1950s.
For Jews in Britain it was an age very different from the one we inhabit today. With Belsen’s gates just torn down, surely, we thought, the doors to future anti-Semitism were now closed? And the State of Israel, founded in 1948, seemed to many like a dream fulfilled, not the geopolitical nightmare it has now become.
Like many Jews, Rosen’s family migrated from London’s East End to the leafier attractions of north-west London and beyond. Brought up in Pinner, a suburb on the outer reaches of the Metropolitan line, a place, despite being the birthplace of Elton John, culturally defined by little more than its Underground sign.
Michael Rosen trying to play the harmonica at Oxford
Not perhaps a hotbed of creativity. But, in suburban places like Pinner there was a creative ferment, where grammar school boys like Bowie, Lennon, Jagger and yes, Michael Rosen – found themselves at the interface of post-war domestic class conflict. Art and political protest were joining forces to provide young people with their own form of expression.
These youngsters may have led comfortable enough lives themselves but they sought expression for their feelings of injustice elsewhere, notably around the Vietnam War, the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
In Pinner, gentility, the accepted norm, became synonymous with Englishness. Your Jewishness something you kept indoors, either because it was felt safer to keep your head down or, as in Rosen’s family you wanted no truck with religion at all.
For the Rosen family the tribal connection was expressed indoors through diet, humour, family crises and liberal use of Yiddish phrases. The “Pisher” in the title means a person of no importance.
Rosen’s anecdotal account of his family relationships and schooldays remind us all of the uniqueness of our own childhoods. Rebelliousness didn’t have to be learned, it was in his mother’s milk.
For Rosen, contradiction appeared on all sides, his Jewishness versus the surrounding Christian orthodoxy, his parents’ communist activities in the face of anti-Soviet fears. And then, their own assimilation of the realities of capitalist life after the class betrayals by Stalin and those who followed him.
Taking part in a demonstration in 1968
Throughout the book I found myself envying Rosen’s energy, curiosity, love of knowledge and big mind. There are unsettling moments when he seems to assume you know all his literary references and that you share his understanding and mastery of the power of language. As a youngster he admits he was something of a creative plagiarist, wanting in turn to be a Rolling Stone, a blues harmonica player and a satirist in the mould of Beyond the Fringe. But each passion, however short-lived, contributed to his three true loves: writing, performing and thinking.
He had two magnificent assets, his parents Harold and Connie. Pedagogy was in their blood. Teach and learn, teach and learn seemed to be their driving force. But learning never for its own sake, but always guided by a social and moral compass.
There’s a revealing anecdote when his Mum and Dad attend a student review in which Michael plays a part of a downtrodden working-class character portrayed as a donkey. Not for Michael Rosen the routine praise of proud parents seeing their son on stage at university, but rather a verbal slap from his father Harold for portraying working-class people as inherently thick.
It’s a journey through only the first part Rosen’s life. He leaves us with an unashamed cliff-hanger, cunningly placed in the postscript in a letter to his beloved dead father. It’s a remarkable departure from the memoir’s earlier tone and content, and it might feel artificial if the book didn’t end with a terrifying account of conjecture around the fate of some European Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
Researching what happened, he shows us letters written by those who were to perish to relatives in America, desperate appeals to please rescue their children at least. To feel the chill, as they say, you don’t have to be Jewish.
• So They Call You Pisher! A Memoir. By Michael Rosen, Verso, £16.99