The Shipbuilders by George Blake

B&W Publishing, 1993, 267 p. First Published 1935. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The sentence, “Not a single order was on the books,” tolls through the first chapter of this novel, reflecting the thoughts of Leslie Pagan, son of the owner of Pagan’s shipyard. It is the day the last ship on the blocks, the Estramadura, is launched. His father is reluctant to acknowledge it but Leslie sees the necessity of laying off all but the fitting-out crew and foresees the end of the yard as a whole. Events are also seen through the eyes of Danny Shields, a riveter in the yard and Pagan’s batman from the Great War. These perspectives allow Blake to explore two Glasgows, the milieus of both the more than comfortably well-off and the working class. In that latter aspect, The Shipbuilders has echoes of No Mean City, set around the same time, but it is much better written.

Both men have domestic problems, Leslie’s English wife Blanche hates Glasgow and wants to move back south, not least as their son, John, is in delicate health. As the novel progresses Danny becomes increasingly estranged from his wife Agnes who gravitates to the world of her sister Lizzie and her upwardly mobile husband Jim. Danny’s life is lightened by his relationship with his other son Billy and very young daughter, who is always referred to, strangely, as Wee Mirren but his oldest son Peter, jobless, falls into bad company.

The importance of football as a means of temporary escape is given due emphasis – especially in the descriptions of a Rangers-Celtic game and of the deliberations gone into over the filling of the weekly pools coupon – as is that of alcohol, whose allure and drawbacks are given equal weight. At a regimental reunion Pagan wonders, “did the drink produce false illusions of grandeur, or did it merely stir the things, fine and foolish, that lay dormant in every man?”

In the end though, this is an elegy to a lost way of life (a theme I was to mine myself in my short story SHIFT, published in Spectrum SF 3, 2000.) On the Estramadura’s trip downriver to its sea trials Pagan witnessed, “the high tragic pageant of the Clyde.” Through his eyes, Blake details the litany of empty shipyards lining the banks of the river, “all the acquired and inherited loveliness of artistry rotting along the banks of the stream .…. The fall of Rome was a trifle in comparison …. How in God’s name could such a great thing, such a splendid thing, be destroyed?” Describing the town at the base of Dumbarton Rock where lay Denny’s yard, bringer of the turbine to Clyde shipbuilding, as “mean” is perhaps a little harsh, though – but only a little.

Leslie’s intense appreciation of his Scottish roots is exemplified when on travelling back to Glasgow on the train from a trip south he notes that it is, “Queer … how definitely the fact of nationality asserts itself even in the matters of landscape and domestic architecture.” It still cannot alter the ineluctable arc of history. “Now one man and a boy, working a machine, could do in the way of making hatches, what it used to take fourteen craftsmen to do.”

The use of the word dago, and descriptions of other characters as Jews show the unexamined attitudes and thoughtlessness of the time when The Shipbuilders was written.

This is a fine book, thoughtful and sympathetic to its characters.

Pedant’s corner:- sauvity (suavity), the Dumbarton Road (multiple instances of Glasgow streets’ names prefixed by “the” are in the text. I have never experienced this usage, it’s always just been “Dumbarton Road” or “Great Western Road”, no “the”,) steadfastness (stedfastness?) coupoon (coupon,) “it has done with” (context suggests “it was done with”,) “a CPR Iiner” (liner,) filagree (filigree,) strategem (stratagem,) the ref and linesmen have khaki jackets (the officials possibly wore blazers rather than uniforms back in those days,) “knawed at his subconscience” (gnawed, and subconscious, I would think,) workshies (earlier written as workshys,) once-more (once more,) portentiously (portentously?) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “There was need to begin again” (there was a need.) “The fact at the drinks were served to him” (the fact that the drinks,) “children guzzled and champed” (chomped?)

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