The Comet was a ship with an engine, not the first but certainly, until she was wrecked, the most successful of the early experiments to propel ships by steam rather than by sails filled with the unpredictable wind. Since then, the shipyards of the Clyde have built around 35,000 ships.
At the beginning of this century they launched a quarter of the world's tonnage. In 1908, a peak year, 569 hulls slipped from the stocks and into the river, to be towed by tugs to fitting-out basins and there equipped with engines, masts, funnels and first-class crockery (569! an incredible thought - subtract the year's Sundays and holidays and that's an average of two every day, though the launchings were probably bunched to take advantage of suitable tides; how wonderful it would have been to sail down river, through Auden's "glade of cranes", on such a day).
For more than a century, the Clyde was the most eminent shipbuilding river on earth. Yesterday, when the Crystal Ocean went down the slipway at Kvaerner's yard in Govan, a large piece of world history may have reached its full stop. Kvaerner, a Norwegian multi-national, is pulling out of heavy engineering in Britain. Ships can be built much more cheaply in the (sometimes heavily-subsidised) yards of the Far East. Last Tuesday the Govan yard was put up for sale.
It isn't quite the last on the Clyde - another across the river builds the occasional warship and another downstream, in Port Glasgow still turns out a few small ferries and tugs - but there will be no doubting the significance of its closure. If Hong Kong marked the final end of empire (despite some pink dots on the map which remain), then Govan will mark the finish, equally delayed, of Clyde shipbuilding.
We have been here before, of course, and often; on the Tyne, on the Tees, on the Wear and the Mersey. Last week in Glasgow a Government "taskforce" was set up to find a buyer; the 1,200 workers at the yard have promised a fighting campaign; the Ministry of Defence might come to the rescue with an order; and the coming Scottish elections will handicap the avowed "hands-off business" policy of Blairism. Away from the brave public statements, however, optimism is hard to find. The surprising thing is that Clyde shipbuilding has persisted so long. Left solely to the balance sheet, Govan would have closed in the Sixties when many other yards did.
One of my first jobs as a reporter was to see off a workers' deputation to Westminster on the night train from Glasgow Central in the autumn of 1965. They were from Fairfield's, the yard now owned by Kvaerner. Fairfield's was bankrupt. It had a full order-book, but it had priced too low and the yard, like all yards then, was dogged by infamous demarcation disputes. The men - I remember one or two wore flat-caps - posed in front of their carriage. Flashbulbs popped from the Daily Record, the Scottish Daily Express, the Glasgow Herald, the Evening Times and the Evening Citizen. Thus Glasgow lobbied London and got a good deal.
Fairfield's was saved by government loans and the capital of a few well- meaning Scottish entrepreneurs. Work at the yard was reorganised and remanaged, the so-called "Fairfield Experiment" in which management stressed to workers that they were all (as it were) "in the same boat", via speeches at many mass meetings at the old Govan Lyceum. It worked for a while, and then came a procession of recurring difficulties and temporary solutions with names which now seem as distant as Henry Bell's: the Geddes report on the future of British shipbuilding; the amalgamation of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders; John Brown's yard; the UCS "work-in".
The night carriages to London filled with more deputations. Sometimes special trains had to be hired to cope with the numbers. On one of these, taking workers to a march on Westminster, I was trying to shed the image of a representative of the capitalist press by explaining to a John Brown's apprentice that the Sunday Times, the paper I then worked for, could be seen as "left-wing".
The apprentice called incredulously to another man walking down the corridor. "Here Jimmy, here's a man who thinks the Sunday Times is left- wing."
The other man was Jimmy Reid, the work-in's most celebrated leader and a communist. He smiled kindly but sardonically. How was he or I to know that one day, shipbuilding and communism abandoned, he would write a regular column for The Sun? But then again who, in 1971, could have foreseen the future of Glasgow as a heritage centre, unless that heritage was shipbuilding, prolonged (as it was for a time) by a state which saw no alternative?
AND SO you might argue, as many do, that bailing out Govan with open or hidden subsidies is simply an expensive means of prolonging an irrelevant past. What, after all, did Mr Reid and his colleagues achieve? The work- in fought to secure 13,000 jobs; 28 years later, there are 1,200 left. A free global economy means you buy from the cheapest supplier. The Clyde is a narrow and inconvenient river. Best to call it a day.
This argument is difficult to counter. Some facts can be summoned against it. European yards with costs at least as high manage to survive in Finland, Germany and Italy. And the architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh can't employ every adult in Glasgow, shrunken city though it is. Ultimately, though, sentiment lurks behind the words of all those, other than political opportunists and the people directly affected, who want to save Govan from closure.
I freely admit to sentiment. At other times and places it's called the national will. In this guise, the political expression of sentiment has kept thousands of small farmers throughout Europe in money and work. The milk lake, the butter hill, the meat mountain, the Greek olive caverns - all the useless by-products of sentiment. They may not last, but the going has been good for some time now.
Oddly, Britain is no longer sentimental (or not purposefully sentimental) about one of its own great sources of identity : ships and the sea. Not long ago we were rather good at them - how suddenly and swiftly they seem to have vanished from our everyday culture like the sailor from the Player's cigarette packet. As a child I was hardly a member of a seafaring family, but ships in one way or another always cropped up in our lives.
People - friends, relatives, neighbours, even my dad for a year or two - "went to sea", or worked like my uncle in a marine-engine shop. At school, I consulted careers pamphlets for apprenticeships with Ellerman Line, Clan Line, Ben Line, Furness Withy. It was a routine prospect and, though I never fulfilled it, I grew up loving ships, which seemed and still seem to me some of the most beautiful objects ever made.
Memory is a curse. History has hung too heavy on us for too long. Still, when you next see those empty Govan slipways on the television news, think of the fine and useful artefacts that have been sent down them since a Glaswegian called John Elder laid out his shipyard there in 1865, over the land of a riverside villa, Fairfield, once owned by the Glasgow gentry. Four fast steamers for the American Confederacy, built to run the blockade imposed by the Civil War, were the first into the river.
Thereafter, a century-long stream of Cunard and Canadian Pacific liners, freighters, cruisers, battleships, steam yachts, destroyers, all with smooth lovely shapes made to cut through water.
The oddest thing that Fairfield ever made is especially worth remembering: the royal yacht Livadia for Tsar Alexander II. "The apotheosis of oddity," was how George Blake, the Clyde's greatest historian, described the Livadia, and one can certainly see what he meant. The Tsar (a) hated seasickness, and (b) loved billiards. The Russian navy's chief architect, Admiral Popoff, came up with the solution of a ship-within-a-ship, so that the royal yacht itself was ringed by a steel raft over which rough seas would break "rendering the inner structure stable in any weather". The craftsmen at Fairfield, then thought to be the best in the world, got the commission and in 1880 the three-funnelled Livadia was launched in a fever of local interest - the river's banks were reported to have been packed with spectators.
Of course, it didn't work, which was no surprise in Govan. The Livadia rocked and staggered its way to the Black Sea, proving, in the words of George Blake, that "neither accurate billiards at sea nor the abolition of sea-sickness was yet in clear prospect." As for the Tsar himself, he was killed by a Nihilist bomb the next year and seems never to have stepped on board. On the Clyde the ship became remembered for something the Grand Duke Alexis had said in his speech at the launch. "Glasgow", said the Grand Duke, in words of sincerest praise, "... Glasgow is the centre of the intelligence of England."
So it once was. The empty slips at Govan may be inevitable, and their conversion to parkland predictable, but surely this can make nobody happy. I hope Govan survives to make ships.Reuse content