The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis

Black and White, 1999, 276 p.

In an Oxfam bookshop I picked up the second book of the trilogy of which this is the first to check the flyleaf blurb. It mentioned the Empire Exhibition 1938, which its characters visit, so of course I had to buy it – and the third instalment which accompanied it. That left this one, which fortunately (or not) was available through Fife Libraries.

The Clydesiders starts in 1914. Victoria Watson is a young woman raised in a room and kitchen in the Gorbals, now in service as a kitchen maid in Hilltop House, the home of the Cartwright family. The son of the house, Nicholas, takes a fancy to her one day when she is out picking mushrooms for the table. The inevitable progression happens. With him being an Army officer the outbreak of war means their enforced separation but not before she has informed him, and he his mother, of her pregnancy. Against his professed wishes that Victoria be kept on, Mrs Cartwright summarily dismisses Victoria the day of his departure for Belgium and she is forced back to the dismal, insanitary conditions of her parent’s home. Not that its interior is unclean, that was a source of pride to working-class women. It is the overcrowding, the overflowing communal lavatory which the landlord will not fix, the vermin, and the back middens which make the building a slum.

Mrs Cartwright changes her tune when her son is reported dead, takes Victoria on temporarily as a maid/companion in her Helensburgh house and offers to bring her granddaughter up in comfort provided Victoria will have no more to do with the child. Despite her misgivings Victoria accedes to the request (which is really more of an order,) hands over her baby son and returns to her parents’ home.

In the meanwhile the political circumstances of the time background the story. The slum conditions, the raising of rents and most especially the perceived injustice of the war, fought by working men against working men for the benefit of their rulers, fired up a teacher, John Maclean, to protest. Victoria’s family are keen socialists but, even so, one of her brothers is working in a munitions plant and gets her a job there. Many of the “Red Clydesiders” protests and the authorities’ heavy-handed measures to restrain them are covered in the book. Due to her involvement in the movement Victoria meets another dedicated socialist, James Mathieson.

Tragedy then hits the Watsons as brother Ian is killed in an explosion in the factory. Mathieson then discovers the factory owner is none other than the Mr Cartwright who is Victoria’s son’s grandfather. Though she does not love him things progress between Victorian and Mathieson, but nevertheless she marries him. All this might have been fine but proceedings descend into melodrama when a few months later Richard Cartwright is found to be alive in a hospital in England and Victoria’s feelings are torn.

The writing here never rises above the workmanlike. There is a high degree of information dumping with too many circumstances of early twentieth century life deemed to require explanation, like the prevalence and cause of the disease rickets, the Scottish word ‘douts’ for dog-ends, and so on. The nature of Mr Cartwright’s business is unnecessarily kept from the reader so as to heighten the later conflict. The overall story relies too much on unlikely incident and coincidence. Victoria’s father, brothers and husband are throughout little more than mouthpieces. Nearly all the characters are types rather than individuals.

This is not high literature then. I suppose it was never intended to be. But it does highlight the conditions and grievances which led to the notion of socialism as a potential remedy for them

I still have two more books in the sequence to read……

Pedant’s corner:- lambant (lambent,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) Mrs Smithers’ (this, on the same page as Nicholas’s, ought to be Smithers’s,) ditto Tompkins’ (Tompkins’s,) bisom (usually spelled besom,) “‘who madam wants to speak to in the living room?’” (wasn’t a question so needs no question mark.) A man sings ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ in the street (in mid-1914?) There are mentions of munition workers turning yellow (again, in 1914?) “stunted childrens growth” (children’s,) “leaning back in this chair” (his chair.) “The Gairloch” (It’s ‘Gare Loch’, Gairloch is a village in northwest Scotland,) John Maclean is arrested as a “prisoner of war” (he could not have been a prisoner of war. He wasn’t an enemy combatant,) James’ (many times, but also – more than once – the correct James’s.) “She’d certainly could not have imagined” (She certainly could not,) St Andrew’s Hall (x 2, it was always ‘St Andrew’s Halls’,) “the crowd who welcomed” (the crowd which welcomed.) “‘Who’s side are you on?’” (Whose side,) a telegram is sent to Mrs Watson to tell her her son is missing in action, believed killed. (He was married, it would have been sent to his wife,) “for goodness’ sake” (varies between this and ‘for goodness sake’,) during one encounter Nicholas refers to our heroine as Virginia Mathieson (he would more likely have used her maiden surname here.)

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