George Blake - The Shipbuilders (1935)
- Tim Abrahams
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Much as shipbuilding was the industry upon which Glasgow was built, so The Shipbuilders is one of the twin pillars upon which its literary heritage is constructed. Published in 1935 - the same year as McArthur and Long's No Mean City it gives a humane yet precise image of industrial Glasgow's singular place in 20th century history. Blake - a former journalist - may not have the flash of a Gorbals razor gangster, but he evokes the atmosphere of the terraces as well as he does the big houses of Milngavie.
Leslie Pagan is the wealthy owner of a shipbuilding firm in the final stage of demise and Danny Shields is his former batman during the Great War and one of the hundreds of men he must lay off. Later in his life, Blake said that he pleaded 'guilty to an insufficient knowledge of working-class life and to the adoption of a middle-class attitude to the theme of industrial conflict and despair'. Indeed in scenes when the working man is viewed through the eyes of his excessively loyal patrician boss, he becomes a sentimental cypher of working-class loyalty to his city, country and dead profession which is in direct contrast to the capitalist's own 'desertion, betrayal, surrender'.
Although the book slips occasionally into an industrialised version of the sentimentality he later accused writers of the Kailyard school of, Blake, in effect, dramatises his own bias, making his later confession seem harsh; certainly, Shields and Pagan are the most diligent of their respective kinds. His love of the city's scale and its unique history are as much a precedent for Alasdair Gray as his description of the working man's life and his criticism of Scotland's cringing elite are for William McIlvanney and James Kelman.
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