Mark Glanville is nothing if not eclectic. There cannot be many who have sung a Yiddish song cycle at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC and written a first-hand account of what it was like to be a football hooligan with Manchester United’s notorious Cockney reds.
His latest project is Di Sheyne Milnerin, described as Schubert’s cycle of love forlorn retold in Yiddish, a second Yiddish song project and one about which he is passionate. Glanville is determined to do what ever he can bring Yiddish culture into the lives of a new generation of Jews, and at the same time, to re-establish the link between German and Jewish culture destroyed by the Holocaust.
The dichotomy in Glanville’s CV seems perplexing until you delve into the history of this author, journalist, baritone and part-time cantor, and Oxford classicist. His voice is deep and booming yet his accent still has an edge of the West London streets about it.
Glanville’s unusual childhood took him off on different directions. The son of the feted football writer, Brian Glanville, he grew up in some splendour in London’s Holland Park. However, he was unsettled and was referred for psychoanalysis at the age of seven and was eventually pulled out of his exclusive Hampstead prep school in favour of Pimlico Comprehensive, which was a tough place for a posh kid. Glanville had problems with his accent and if this was not enough, his beauty-editor mother decided she did not like the school blazer and so fashioned a bespoke one from flannel on which she emblazoned the school badge.
The consequences were brutal. “I was a punch-bag for a while. I was smacked all over the place. There was this one day where three of them were holding me against the wall while one of them punched me repeatedly. But I managed to get a hand free and landed one flush on his jaw. He reeled backward and I got a tremendous feeling of exhilaration.”
As a teenager, he discovered football culture. Although a Manchester United supporter from a young age, he went to a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge in the early 1970s and decided to stand in the infamous Shed end section of the ground. “I was right in the middle of it — it was a fantastic buzz. It was packed with working-class Fulham kids who were lighting bangers and surging down the terraces. The Old Bill were storming in, nicking people. It was a huge adrenaline rush.”
At the age of 14, Glanville became a member of the London Manchester United fan club and started travelling around the country, getting to know the notorious Cockney Reds hooligan “firm”. The chameleon tendency he had developed at school enabled him to blend in. “I was mixing with people who were much tougher than anyone I encountered at school and I never had to deal with bullying again.”
In his memoir, The Goldberg Variations, Glanville talks at length about the scrapes he got into. While he is sickened by what he describes as the “really hardcore football violence” which developed in the 1980s, he refuses to condemn hooligan culture. “There was a fantastic loyalty about that time. That’s why you will never hear me putting down the world of the hooligans.”
However, there was another side to Glanville — that of music and academia. These collided amusingly on the terraces during a United game. “I didn’t tend to tell people who my dad was because I didn’t want my identity blown. When I was about to go to Oxford I told one bloke I saw regularly at games that I was going inside for manslaughter. He said he’d save the programmes for me while I was away.”
Glanville read classics at Oxford and trained as a singer at the Northern College of Music.
His childhood had been devoid of any religious content although the Holocaust was discussed on “a daily basis” by his father and mother, who had fled Germany as a child in the early 1930s. But at the age of 22 he had an epiphany strangely similar to that he underwent at Stamford Bridge a decade earlier.
“My singing teacher was a marvellous man called Mark Rafael. When he died I went to his service at the West London Synagogue. I had never been inside a synagogue before. They gave me a black, paper kippah. I didn’t know what it was and I put it in my pocket. Someone said, no you’ve got to put it on your head. I got in there and thought, wow, this is wonderful. It was so beautiful, I felt completely at home. It was like, this was my club, where I belonged. It was a very intense feeling.”
Glanville began to attend services. “I’ve got a good ear and picked up the music quite quickly. They sussed out that I was a singer and I found myself standing by the organ, singing. Within a year or two they asked me do the High Holy Day services as well. I’ve been doing them for 20 years now.”
As much as Glanville enjoys the liturgy, he realised that his real passion was for Yiddish recital. As a young classical singer on the cruise circuit, he would occasionally throw a Yiddish song into his repertoire, and found audience members loved them. Then at 3am one morning he awoke with a start with an idea for a Yiddish song cycle. He would base it on the Schubert’s Winterreise, which told the story of a man’s journey through a winter landscape reminiscing about his lost love. Glanville says: “I called it the Yiddish Winterreise and gave it a Holocaust context and made it about someone who had seen his world destroyed — walking away from the burning of the Vilna ghetto. I managed to persuade Alexander Knapp to arrange it for me, which turned out to be a much bigger job than either of us had thought.”
The new song cycle, Di Sheyne Milnerin is, Glanville feels, an evolution of the concept. If the Yiddish Winterreise he was an attempt to re-establish the connection between German and Yiddish culture, the new album tries to build on it. “The problem for our generation is how to find our secular Jewish culture. It occurred to me that there was no need to mourn the past because you can find that identity through this long line of Yiddish culture. We have shown how you can draw on something from deep within your past and develop it.”
Glanville pauses in his contemplation of Schubert and Yiddish culture to offer an analysis one would associate more with the football terraces. “Keeping this flame alive means that those bastards didn’t destroy us after all.”