There’s a rather intriguing portrait of Michael Rosen in the National Portrait Gallery in London by the artist Lee Fether. In the painting Rosen is staring directly at you, unsmiling but with a weird gaping crocodile puppet on his right, a clown puppet behind him on his left, and a Heidi-type puppet lurking behind them. In the background is a set of tools – a handsaw and hacksaws. It’s a brilliant portrait because it captures Rosen entirely, or rather in summary: his playfulness, his seriousness and the sheer hard work that has characterised his long career.
Over the past 40 years or so, Rosen has written poetry, fiction, non-fiction and just about everything else in between, sometimes publishing more than a dozen books a year. He has been the children’s laureate, is now a professor of children’s literature at Goldsmiths, and is also a keen campaigner for Jeremy Corbyn. Listeners to Radio 4 will of course be familiar with him as the presenter of Word of Mouth, and parents and children throughout the land and indeed worldwide will know him as the author of the children’s classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and – possibly one of the saddest children’s books ever written – Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. He has also been married three times. When he sleeps nobody knows.
Part of the secret of Rosen’s great success is that he has the knack of instantly grabbing your attention. So They Call You Pisher! begins “About a year before I was born, my brother died; he was not yet two.” (Of course, even before this, many readers will be asking, what’s a pisher? To which the answer is: it’s Yiddish for a nobody, a nothing; although the whole phrase, “So they call you pisher”, or “So call me pisher” means something like “What does it matter?” or “So I should care?”)
The book is a memoir that’s mostly – and most memorably – about Rosen’s parents. (Interestingly, one of his other best books is Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss, a book of prose-poems about the death of his 18-year-old son: Rosen seems to have the unusual gift of being able to write affectionately and intelligently about his family, without quite tipping over into schmaltz and sentimentality.) He fondly recalls his father, Harold, smattering his conversation with Yiddish, and his mother, Connie, who grew up “with a group of girls with names I used to conjure with, like Dinah Kesselman, Alice Kissin, Rene Roder, Bertha Sokolov, Fanny Greenspan – names that were nothing like the names of girls I knew. And these girls, my father said, were all knakkes [know-alls].”
Working-class Jewish East Enders, his parents become teachers, and communists, and start shopping at Heal’s in Tottenham Court Road, and then his mother starts presenting programmes on the BBC and writing books and his father does a PhD, and so they become slowly and inexorably middle-class and comfortable. And something is lost, something that Rosen’s father can’t quite identify:
“If Judaism and the social life around a synagogue was not for them, what was the alternative? You became as English as you could and hoped that people would accept you; and yet, even in the midst of that hope, there was part of him that disliked the way he’d had to ingratiate himself.”
For Rosen’s parents, communism and assimilation were alternative religions, which failed them as surely as their own religion.
Of his own childhood, Rosen recalls the camping trips and the stewed apples and the Sunday visits to grandparents, which will doubtless be familiar to anyone over the age of about 50:
“We sat in the back room on dark brown “rexine” armchairs or round a dark brown table. On the wall hung a picture of our parents on their wedding day. A ship in a bottle, an ocean liner with four funnels and stuck to a blue painted sea sailed along the mantelpiece.”
Young Michael goes on the Aldermaston march, discovers folk and blues, gets hit by a car, gets a girlfriend, is persuaded to study medicine against his will, and ends up enjoying the kind of university life the rest of us can only dream of: getting up to all sorts and meeting everyone, including someone called Jack, “who was needing help to be elected leader of the Students Union (on his way to becoming the Home Secretary)” and someone else called Yentob, “who was wearing a black velvet suit. . . on his way to being head of everything artsy at the BBC”.
For all his adventures, the most telling moment comes when a teacher bids him farewell, saying, “Don’t get rubbed out.”
“Weirdly, it’s about the nicest farewell that anyone has ever said to me. It feels like it’s the most tuned in to whatever it is that makes me do what I do. I have some idea of why no one wants to get rubbed out, but no real idea of why I have spent so much of my life making marks I don’t want to see get rubbed out.”
This memoir marks another notch.
So They Call You Pisher! A Memoir
Verso, 320pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire