MICHAEL ROSEN is known to numberless children as a marvellously entertaining performer of his own poetry, to grown-ups as a regular broadcaster on BBC language programmes and to Guardian readers as the regular writer of Letter from a Curious Parent, which reveals the crass and destructive policies that the government imposes on the education system.
This hugely engaging memoir excavates the theatre of the mind and memory both as a search for identity and a way of expressing his deeply affectionate but ambiguous feelings for his own father who, unlike his mum, he calls Harold throughout.
Michael’s parents, Harold and Connie Rosen — both prominent educationists — came from a working-class, secular Jewish background.
They were committed socialists and, during most of Rosen’s early life, members of the Communist Party.
The final chapter of the book details Rosen’s extensive efforts to trace all the uncles, aunts and their children who were among the great “disappeared” in nazi Europe, people that Harold had been strangely reluctant to show or communicate interest in.
Rosen tells his father posthumously that he is using the education his aspiring parents had worked so determinedly to give him because “I didn’t want the nazis to be successful in disappearing” his unknown family and his and Harold’s human heritage.
The Yiddish term pisher, Rosen tells us, means “a pissy little person, a nothing” and he emerges from this feast of detailed memories from childhood and through schools and university as a person always ready to defy the arrogance, pomposity and smug self-confidence of authority.
He marries an insatiable curiosity with a writing style which distances his present self from his memories — “being in the moment and outside it” — making them all the more vivid. His anarchic humour, which is the hallmark of his children’s poetry, threads throughout.
In his Oxford final English literature examination he painted on the back of the obligatory academic gown “Hell’s Angels. Jeff Chaucer.”
There is a wealth of historical observation in Rosen’s childhood and adolescent memories — summer camp in East Germany, the 1968 student turmoil, CND demos — and the man who grows through these formative times emerges as a benevolent and warm-hearted human being.