The Holy City is narrated as the rememberings of near pensioner Marion Katie Macleod, who, at the age of eleven, lost all of her family – mother, father, brothers, sister, grandparents – in the Clydebank Blitz, hence found herself alone while resolving to look after Davy Ryan, the seven year-old neighbour in the bed beside her in the hospital where they were both recovering from wounds sustained in the bombings. This is a subject not unfamilar to me since a close friend of my parents had an elder brother killed in Clydebank during the bombing and was separated from his family – with nothing but the night clothes he was wearing at the time – and not restored to them for three years.
The book deals not only with the misfortunes Marion suffered as a result of the bombs but also the effects that war had both on her and other Clydebank residents. Interspersed in the text is the history of the town from the 1930s, encompassing the heyday and post-war demise of the shipyards and the workers’ treatment therein, the rise and fall of the Singer sewing machine factory – a significant landmark and employer in the town till its clock was demolished and the Japanese began to produce cheaper sewing machines in the millions. The Holy City was the name that had been given to the part of Clydebank which suffered most damage during the Luftwaffe raids as it apparently bore a resemblance to Jerusalem.
Henderson’s depiction of the community of working people rings true enough, their humour, camaraderie, the deep sense of ‘Us and Them’, their resentments – among which was the fact that the casualty figures were massaged (the text says for the sake of morale elsewhere) – their betrayal by economic circumstance. Marion is a resourceful and combative protagonist but the historical passages read more like pieces of journalism than a memoir. The picture of Jimmy Ryan – whom she marries when he returns from the war as the only means she has to keep her promise to herself to protect his brother Davy – as too damaged by his experiences as a Commando to function properly in civilian life again, withdrawn, unable to sustain a relationship, is well done. Henderson also highlights the scandal of the asbestos which has to be brushed off Jimmy every night on his return from work in the yards (which also permeated the air and covered the ground so that children could throw sodden clumps of it at each other) and leads to his premature death.
The text refers to the myth (sic) of ‘We can take it’ especially as regards the inhabitants of the equally devastated Liverpool in terms of “The reality was there was no choice. The people took it because they were forced to take it” by not being allowed to flee to the surrounding countryside (or being sent back if they did.) There may be some truth to the supposed official thought that bombing attacks led to the chance to shoot down German aeroplanes but there is a circularity to the proposition that lack of (civilian) targets would then give the German pilots pause. Would it? Yes losses did lead the Luftwaffe to give up daylight bombing in favour of night-time raids (the same was true for the RAF over Germany) yet there would still have been no shortage of targets. The raids on Clydebank may have been purely terror inspired – Hitler’s military attentions had by that time turned to the Soviet Union – but they had a strategic sheen. Despite the Luftwaffe’s lack of success in undermining British morale the thought persisted – on both sides – that bombing could win or at least shorten the war, witness the Allies continued air attacks on Germany till the war’s end; to achieve which end actually required ground troops to take and occupy Germany. But for the people being bombed there really was no choice. You either carry on with life as best you can in the circumstances or give up. Most British victims of bombing had nowhere else to go. So too for the Germans.
While Marion is an engaging, resourceful character and the conversations she engages in are lively – and occasionally barbed – there is something a little stilted about the whole. The historical interludes, though interesting, aren’t well enough integrated, the incident with which the novel starts and whose ongoing ramifications intersperse the narrative is not come back to sufficiently often, the loose ends are tied up a bit too neatly, showing too much of the authorial hand. The Holy City is good, well worth reading certainly. But a contender for entry in a list of 100 best Scottish books, though? Not for me.
Pedant’s corner:- Marion describes Helensburgh as by the seaside (I wouldn’t.) She also says it is six miles from Clydebank (make that 17.) The details of the sinking of the Bismarck are also wrong. There is a reference in dialogue to ‘wanno they science fiction stories, ye know the wans, where an impostor takes ower somebody’s life.’ Were these a common enough currency in the late 1940s to invite such a comparison?