Monthly Archives: February 2010


SRB Diary: Melting in Melbourne

Not enough has been written about sunburn. That’s understandable in light-starved Britain, but after three cancer-ously hot weeks in Melbourne in November, I became a connoisseur of sun-abraded skin. One grows to appreciate the subtleties of sunburn, how skin cooks, the gradations of pink from radioactive oyster to the shade of mouthwash dentists use to burgundy birthmark. And then there is the pain. Catch your hand on a hot hob and it hurts, but perhaps only for a day. The pain of sunburn goes on and on. It is the pain of hell. You don’t get anything to show for it, barring a sly melanoma. No, at the end of the process, the colour does not settle down into a desirable weak-tea shade. Instead, you peel leprously, a grubby parody of the tourist’s desire to shed old skin in new surroundings. My nose, a particularly stricken promontory, went from resembling a beef tomato to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Spend time in Australia and global warming doesn’t feel like a kooky scam dreamt up by climatologists to keep themselves in business. South-eastern Australia sizzled throughout November with Melbourne experiencing five consecutive days when the temperature snuck over 32C; the last time the city experienced a comparable heatwave was in 1896. Ten months earlier, a more intense sunburst killed 374 people. Australia is the hottest continent and, excepting Antarctica, the driest.

Opinion polls suggest Australians believe global warming is a clear and present danger. Australian politicians are a different matter, particularly the Liberal Party, the official opposition. The Liberals more or less translate into our Conservative Party, though this is the pre-Cameron Tory Party of the Nineties, boggle-eyed true-believers prone to civil wars, in this instance over climate change.

During my stay, a Liberal leadership contest took place which ended with leader Malcolm Turnbull’s defenestration. Turnbull had made an agreement with Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd not to vote down the government’s Emissions Trading Scheme in the Senate, Australia’s upper house, where Labor does not enjoy a majority. It was a calculated move on Turnbull’s part, a gesture to show the Liberals had changed since the Kyoto-jilting days of former Lib leader and PM John Howard’s government, on par with David Cameron cuddling hoodies.

As the ETS vote neared, the Liberals mutinied, with Turnbull dislodged by the vole-faced Tony Abbot, Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. He has a Bushian take on climate change, describing it as “absolute crap”. Despite winning the leadership contest by one vote only, Abbot announced immediately that the Liberals would not now back the ETS. The Senate duly voted the ETS down, kicking the Australian government’s green policy into the long, brittle and super-combustible grass.

With a year until the next Australian general election this is kamikaze politics, the disputatious Liberals no more mindful of the future of their party than they are of our planet. The irony is that for all the rancorousness it sparked, the ETS scheme is, as attempts to save the environment go, weak. Effectively ETS outsources a rich country’s pollution to the third world, whose cash-hungry governments are paid to cut their emissions quota in order that richer countries don’t have to. ETS means Australians make no serious change to their lifestyles other than suffer a minor bump upwards on their taxes to fund the bribe. Since my return, Melbourne in January recorded its hottest night since 1902. Over 34 degrees with no sun in sight. Enough to make you lose sleep, if you hadn’t already.

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Apart from degrading your epidermis, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Melbourne, not culturally anyway. The local art galleries do not impress. For example, the National Gallery of Victoria’s walls host any number of rum portraits depicting scenes of Victorian sentimentality, periwigged nobs, and Bible kitsch. Major artists are represented by minor work. Here, and in other galleries, they are oddly proud of Australian 60s pop art, which surely must take its place alongside Eskimo reggae and Korean morris dancing. Did I detect a whisper of curatorial humour before one exhibit, The Victory Of Faith by St George Hare? The painting depicts two nude Christian slave girls embracing while awaiting their martyrdom, a pious slab of Victorian lesbian porn. The catalogue notes demurely, “The depiction of naked women in chains seemed to hold a special interest for Hare, and he returned to the subject frequently”.

There is little relief outside the galleries. At first glance, Melbourne’s cityscape is finger-in-your-eye ugly. The jagged skyline bristles with buildings built imperfectly under the influence of the school of Foster. The Eureka building, Melbourne’s tallest, resembles a giant Bic lighter built out of Lego. Melbourne’s city planners are keen on sharded facades, leaning angles, eye-smiting colour, with many buildings badged with their owner’s logo. The idea, doubtless, was for the corporations to flaunt some millennial flash; one is reminded of the dull kid who spruces up his image with novelty spectacles.

There are however many beautiful parks close to the centre of town which are perfect for reading in the shade of a palm tree. Perhaps for that reason Melbourne was declared by UNESCO the world’s second City of Literature after Edinburgh. While I was there, the town flew flags publicising the Melbourne Prize For Literature, a competition held every three years to award $60,000 – about £35,000 – to a local writer whose career is judged by the public to be the most venerable. I recognised but one of the nominees (Shane Maloney), though I admit that is more likely a symptom of my poor knowledge of international writing than a comment on the shortlist. At least I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. When I visited the Melbourne Visitors Centre, a lopsided glass cube, the Ger-man-accented gentleman who served me was unaware Melbourne was a City of Literature, didn’t know about the Prize For Literature, and looked at me when I suggested some tie-in events might be a good idea as if I had suggested I might move in with him.

The Melbourne Prize for Literature’s winner was Gerald Murnane, a novelist and essayist. I went looking for Murnane titles in the bookshops, only to find them, and all other books in Australia, prohibitively expensive. For example, to thank my Stephanie Meyer-loving hostess for letting me stay with her gratis, I thought I’d buy her a decent junior-vampire novel, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In. The paperback cost $27.99, which, once the vagaries of the current exchange rate are factored in, comes to £16.05, ten pounds more than what it would have cost in the UK.

During my stay, the Labor government rejected a Productivity Commission recommendation that Australia lift its restrictions on the parallel importation of books, which mean that books sold in Australia have to be produced in Australia. Retailers are not allowed to import and sell copies of a book as long as the local copyright holder has published the book on Australian soil within 30 days of its overseas release. Critics call this protectionism and argue this refusal to open the book market to cheaper foreign imports inflates book prices. Defenders of the status quo, whose numbers include Peter Carey and Tim Winton, say it gives publishers rather than bookshops the power, meaning profits can be directed into supporting new local writers and academic volumes rather than offsetting the chain stores’ mass discounting as happens in Britain and America. It also means small independent bookshops can compete with the chains as books cost the same more or less wherever you shop in Australia. Consequently, Amazon does not trade within the antipodes.

If the arguments look familiar then you might recognise them from the period when Britain’s Net Book Agreement was jettisoned. In 1997, when the UK’s Restrictive Practices Court ruled the Net Book Agreement was against the public interest, authors, publishers, and independent booksellers made the arguments their Australian counterparts make today. In the past twelve years, 500 small bookshops have gone out of business in the UK. Part of me welcomes the Australian decision to shelter their publishing industry and book culture, but another part, the one that holds my wallet, thinks it absurd to charge so much; if the idea is to get people reading, punitively-priced books is counter-intuitive. But perhaps this is another sector’s opportunity. An expat I encountered told me she uses the library weekly.

*   *   *

When I left Edinburgh, the centre of town was still gutted, gashed through in readiness for the sometime appearance of the new tram system. Melbourne has the world’s largest tram network, run by French-owned Connex who also administer the city’s commuter train service. Trams and trains are bountiful, clean, and not expensive, although I did not travel during rush hour and the trams’ drivers tended to possess the social skills of a polar bear.

Melbournians however are not in love with Connex, and after much complaint, the French company lost its contract on 30 November.

A week earlier, I was almost arrested by Connex’s ticket-inspectors. To explain, I had not ‘validated’ my rail ticket. Buying a train ticket was not enough in itself; passengers were then expected to run their ticket through another machine after purchase. Connex did not install at the regional stations travel-barriers of the sort users of the London Underground would recognise, the sort you can’t get past without a ticket to feed into it. The unscrupulous can easily travel without a ticket, as easily, say, as you might forget to validate a ticket you actually bought.

Travelling into the centre of Melbourne from my base in the suburbs, I was asked to show my ticket by an inspector, a Stanley Tucci-lookalike. I complied only to be told I was in trouble. I hadn’t validated. I now owed Connex $160.

By this point, the inspector had been joined by two heavies who towered over me in the semi-full carriage as if I was a notorious child-killer. The red breaking through on my face was, for once in Australia, nothing to do with the heat. Eventually, the inspector let me off, swearing “ninety-nine percent of other inspectors would have fined you”. I suspect he let me go because, with my clumpy bags, and my shorts, and my nose totally Rudolphed, I looked exactly like what I was: a clueless British tourist.

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Women and Children Last

IN GLASGOW relationships between men and women have traditionally been based on conflict and contempt, not love and affection. The internationally acclaimed relationship researcher Dr John Gottman, has studied couples’ interactions for years and his research shows that the biggest slayer of marriages is contempt. In The Patter, a compendium of Glasgow words and phrases Michael Munro lists ‘her/him’ as two commonly used words. He explains their meaning thus:

The Anonymous Spouse. Many married people tend to speak of their beloved without referring to her or him by name. It is almost as if the marriage partner has attained such a talismanic status that would be bad luck to utter the name aloud. ‘I’ll need to be away hame to give Him his tea.’ ‘I’m taking Her an the weans to the pictures the night.’

My reading of this is different from Munro’s – calling people ‘him’ and ‘her’ in this way is mildly contemptuous. It depersonalises the partner so that he or she loses any individuality and only occupies a role. The intense conflict between husbands and wives often surfaces – other chapters in my book point ot the effects of drink and domestic violence – but this is only the pointed, hostile tip of a massive iceberg.

As William Bolitho’s report on slum conditions in 1924 testifies, even when housing was at its worst, tenants – usually women – tried to make something of it. Bolitho tells us that in the poorest and smelliest slums there was the bare minimum of “bed, hearth and chair” yet somewhere on display there was usually ornament of some kind – often wally dogs or pictures but more commonly brass objects, usually miniature women’s boots or ships. While the slum dwellers may have felt humiliated at being kept in conditions “no domestic animal in England knows” nonetheless “they keep their bits of brass polished”. Indeed many commentators on Glasgow’s slums expressed surprise that many of the people still looked personally clean, despite the hovels in which they lived. Others said that some of the most appalling buildings still had residents who tried to keep a decent house.

My mother recounts how in the 1920s and ’30s it was common for poor folks’ houses to be almost bare but everything about the place had a clean, scrubbed look. The desire for cleanliness was facilitated by the provision of clean water, piped into the city from Loch Katrine in 1859. This was the first in a long line of municipal services. Ralph Glasser, who grew up in the Gorbals, gives an interesting account of women’s hard labour at the Gorbals Baths:

One of its departments was a wash-house, aptly known as the Steamie, a long barn-like room kept in perpetual twilight by clouds of steam rising from washing boiled in rows of coppers, a miasma in whose crepuscular depths one dimly saw figures in kerchiefs, long fustian skirts and dark cotton blouses, sleeves rolled up above the elbows, hauling and lifting, scrubbing and banging and carrying, moving with the heavy measure of fatigue, enchained in punishing ritual. In a clangour of boiler doors, iron buckets and chains, rumble of slack gears in the mangles, scrape and clatter of metal-lined scrubbing boards, and counterpoint of shrill voices calling, they heaved bundles of clothing and bed linen and blankets about, banged press irons, turned the drive wheel of a mangle with rhythmic pulse of straight arm and shoulder on the handle projecting from the rim, and then a pull back with the whole upper body, while the other hand fed layers of wet washing, like lumpy slabs of glistening clay, between the thick wooden rollers.

In a city where many people lived in such close proximity to others, often without sinks, indoor toilets and bathrooms, these communal facilities were a godsend, at least for those who could afford to use them.

While there could be something of a pecking order among the women, there was a huge amount of support as well: camaraderie bred by the experience of terrible conditions and constant insecurity. Even the families of skilled workers, living in the better tenements, knew that an economic downturn, accident or illness, could destabilise them and they would slide back into the terrible slums. In this supportive community, neighbours were continually borrowing from one another. It was also common for women to organise a ‘men-odge’ (derived from the French word ‘menage’). This was a way of everyone in turn getting a lump sum, for a big purchase, by paying in a small amount each week. Saying someone “couldnae organise a men-odge” is still a term of derision in Glasgow.

This support ethos was also evident in various formal and informal women’s organisations ranging from the successful rent strike during World War I to women’s extensive participation in the Co-operative Women’s Guild.  However, even with this support network the lives of poor Glasgow women were hard and exhausting: a fact admirably summed up in the title of a book about women in tenements – She was Aye Working . Glasgow was a low wage, but high price economy. Household income was low, and often made lower still by men’s drinking habits. It was women who had to try and square this circle. Inevitably many women found it difficult to feed their families properly and it was not uncommon for folk to live on porridge, bread and margarine. Doctors and teachers often tell how, even in the early twentieth century, children were often suffering from malnutrition if not outright starvation. Infant mortality was high.

At the turn of the twentieth century Scot-land’s rate of infant mortality was the same as the rates for England and Wales. By 1937, however, the Scottish rate was a third higher. The two factors most influential on whether a baby survived past six months was poverty and overcrowding: these made Glaswegian infants particularly susceptible and the city’s figures particularly troublesome. Figures for the mid twenties and early thirties reveal that Glasgow was the only city which failed to improve its rate of infant mortality.

The health of mothers was also poor. Many were exhausted by multiple pregnancies and commonly did not eat much themselves so that they could give more to their children. This inevitably took a toll. The health of women who had part-time jobs, as well as domestic and mothering responsibilities, was particularly poor.  No wonder many historians and contemporary commentators point out that family life was sustained by women’s self-sacrifice. The same could not be said of their men. T.C. Smout argues that as working hours were restricted, “the benefit of increased leisure fell very unequally between the sexes.” Men often used their Saturday afternoons to go to football matches. Coupons, betting and gambling also became popular. These male pursuits, along with drinking, all cost money which could have been spent on the family. Smout points out that married women with families

. . . gained nothing at all: the children had still to be minded,the shopping done,and the house cleaned,for nothing entered the market to save labour for the working-class housewife until the 1950s and 1960s. The air of pinched desperation and the symptoms of chronic illness that doctors and other social workers so often noticed among mothers in poor families surely had much to do with the fact that for them the house was a perpetual prison.

The novelist William McIlvanney, originally from Kilmarnock, fell in love with much of Glasgow’s traditional culture: his novels featuring the Glasgow detective, Jack Laidlaw, and many of his newspaper columns and articles, read like extended love letters. In a passage in Laidlaw. McIlvanney praises what he sees as the tenacity and resilience of the Glaswegian male:

Laidlaw had a happy image of the first man out after the nuclear holocaust being a Glaswegian.He would straighten up and look around. He would dust himself down with that flickering gesture of the hands and once he had got the strontium off the good suit, he would look up. The palms would be open.

‘Hey,’ he would say.‘Gonny gi’es a wee brek here? What was that about? Ye fell out wi us or what? That was a liberty. Just you behave.’

Then he would walk off with that Glaswegian walk, in which the shoulders don’t move separately but the whole torso is carried as one, as stiff as a shield. And he would be muttering to himself,‘Must be a coupla bottles of something intact.’

As usual McIlvanney writes well about the Glasgow character. You can see what he is getting at. However, if this is a “happy image” of a Glaswegian male no wonder many of them are dying young. Why would your archetypal Glaswegian male not emerge after the nuclear holocaust and ask “where’s my wife and weans?” McIlvanney’s astute observations help us to grasp a fundamental truth about Glasgow’s macho culture: it is not only the negative effects of alcohol and tendency to aggression which have damaged, and continue to damage, health in the city, but the fact that for many Glasgow men drink, or doing their own thing, became more important to them than their families.

Of course, not all Glasgow men were drunks who spent every night propping up bars, or ignoring their families. But I am suggesting that traditionally there was a strong current in Glasgow which easily swept men up and deposited them in the pub or encouraged them just to suit themselves. Indeed just about every person I’ve met who grew up in a working class Glasgow household has a story to tell about a father or grandfather who suited himself and acted like they were the Lone Ranger. This may mean out boozing or gambling, with or without Tonto. But it could also just mean sitting in a chair watching the telly and not interacting with the family or opting out of holidays or other family occasions. Indeed most of the Glasgow-born men I know from working class backgrounds, who grew up in the 1950s or earlier, say that their fathers were almost shadowy figures in their childhood. Many men also had huge conflicts with their sons and this further alienated their wives.

Dr Annmarie Hughes, a historian who has made a study of gender relations and domestic violence on Clydeside, particularly between the wars, has an interesting perspective on the dynamic between men and women. She argues that throughout the UK in the interwar years there was a new view of the family. As a result of the propaganda round “homes fit for heroes”, the domestic ideal of the new garden city, growing consumerism and the freedom many women enjoyed as a result of war work, family life was reconceptualised. This was the era which seriously began to promote the ideas of ‘companionate marriages’ and men pursuing leisure pursuits in the home.

However, according to Hughes, this idea had less appeal and relevance for the men of Clydeside. This may have been for reasons related to exaggerated notions of masculinity and gender differences. But there were other reasons. For example, the new consumer industries were mainly located down south while heavy industries continued to predominate in the Glasgow area. This meant that it was very easy for men to continue with traditional ways based on strict gender roles. A second reason was that housing, though beginning to improve, was still poor and overcrowded by English standards. House ownership was also low in comparison to England and many families could hardly afford the rents for a new council house let alone buy a home. Unemployment was also high in Glasgow, leading to widespread poverty. None of this was good for providing a strong focus on the home. According to Hughes, these and other factors led to profound conflict between husband and wives.

Women in Glasgow had been employed during World War I and enjoyed more social and economic freedom. But between the wars, men’s economic insecurity, and traditional working patterns and values, meant that they did not want women working and competing in the labour force. Many men had to accept that their wives worked as it was difficult to bring up a family on one wage but generally they resented this development. Their version of masculinity was as providers and authority figures within the family. Instead of the companionate marriage ideal of shared leisure time, west of Scotland men continued with their tradition of separate pursuits.

The Steamie: A long barn-like room kept in perpetual twilight

The Steamie: A long barn-like room kept in perpetual twilight

Glaswegian men may have been particularly keen to drink because of problems with dislocation and to escape from overcrowded slums. But Hughes argues that men invested heavily in traditional male pursuits such as drinking, gambling and football in order to shore up their insecure male identity which was threatened by unemployment and job insecurity. This way of expressing their masculinity created huge conflict in the home.

Drinking, we know, was a problem, but so too was gambling. In the 1930s the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children argued that throughout Scotland it was having a negative effect on women and children:

Every weekend from Friday to Sunday night great ‘gambling schools’ gather at different places and play at ‘pitch and toss’ and it is not an infrequent occurrence for men to stand at the ‘school’ and gamble away all the money they have received from the Labour Exchange or in a few cases their wages. The mother in such cases is usually the complainer, but it is remarkable how often one finds she is unwilling to take the extreme step of having her husband reported to the Procurator Fiscal.

Of course, women would not make formal complaints about such incidents but it is not difficult to see how drink and betting created a running sore in many homes. One strand of conflict in the gender war was simply about money. Male pastimes consumed much needed household income – effectively taking the food out of the mouths of women and children. Oral history testimonies confirm that many arguments between husbands and wives were about money. Household management, including managing the money, was women’s domain. Women wanted their standard of living to rise but this wasn’t possible if men continually blew it on their own pleasures.

However, what was perhaps worse than men spending precious money on themselves, was that they did not spend much time at home, thus neglecting their relationships with their wives.  “Drink plus bad housing equalled male self-indulgence and female isolation,” wrote Smout. Richard Finlay, author of Modern Scotland: 1914-2000 agrees that up to World War I at least, “men tended to spend most of their time in the work and at the pub in the company of other men” adding that the home was “reserved for sleep and dinner”. Many women became bitter and resentful. Who could blame them for picking at this scab and resorting to the only weapon available to a powerless woman – nagging. This then worsened the relationship between the couple, no doubt making it even more likely that the man would resort to violence or escape to the cheery ambience of the pub, or the gambling den, and the numbing embrace of a few halfs.

The two-step resulting from this scenario – man goes to pub, woman feels alienated and resentful – is admirably demonstrated in George Blake’s The Shipbuilders, published in 1935 and hailed as the only real Glasgow industrial novel. It starts with a launch day and Danny goes to the pub after work with some mates. He then makes his way home and decides, spontaneously, to “nip” into another pub to have a drink, put on the coupon and talk about football, before going back to his wife and family. When he finally gets home his wife is alone with their baby, cooking kippers. Here’s how we are introduced to the relationship between man and wife:

‘On the booze again, I suppose,’ she said. ‘Shut your face! ‘ he retorted, but without passion. ‘Is ma tea ready?’

‘Aye, when I’m ready. I take my own time for them that take theirs.’

Danny was not put out. He had never expected exchanges of any other kind as between spouses of eighteen years’ standing.

This contemptuous exchange between Agnes and Danny is nothing compared to the violence, exacerbated by drink, that occurred between man and wife. Sometimes this violence was verbal rather than physical aggression. A Gorbals doctor recounts how drink was a “shameful” feature of Gorbals life and how when visiting local tenements he could not help but hear “the never-ending squabbling between husbands and wives”. He even linked the number of late night medical calls to the drink culture and arguments between men and women:

The proportion of late night calls was always high, not because the baby or child had turned ill late at night, but because it was then that the parent became worried or developed a bad conscience over previous neglect during the day. In many cases a husband would arrive home about 11 p.m. after an evening’s hard drinking. His wife would immediately set about upbraiding him for wasting his time and neglecting the children. In order to hammer home her feelings she would point to the baby, who, due to the surrounding row, would almost certainly be awake and crying through fright and the pain of teething troubles. This provided a cue for the husband that he would ‘bloody soon get her a doctor’ and off he would stumble to the nearest telephone.

With men frequenting the pub regularly, home became women’s domain. So too did childcare. Even when I was a teenager I remember people saying that they were going home to their ‘mother’s’ at the weekend even though both parents were still alive. It is common for people to suggest that Glasgow was a matriarchal society as women made the decisions. But this is misleading. Of course, some women undoubtedly held the reins at home – not just henpecking her man but generally ruling the roost – but they were the minority. Generally speaking, women made the decisions in the home not because they had real power but because men weren’t interested and had abdicated responsibility. What’s more, until women started to work in reasonable numbers, most of them were still financially dependent on men. In short, it was men who held the whip hand and whose ‘word was law’. This is the picture which emerges from oral history interviews and it is a far cry from a matriarchal society.

Inside the home, as outside, there was a rigid division of labour between men and women in Scotland. Household chores and the care of children were not men’s work. Until a few decades ago, no self-respecting man would be seen dead pushing a pram, going for the messages or hanging out washing. So while men’s lives improved their wives were still oppressed by too much housework and too little money and time for themselves. It must be said, however, that traditionally many women defended this division of labour, thinking it unmanly for men to carry out household chores. Many mothers ensured that their daughters helped out at home but not their sons thus reinforcing the idea that cooking and cleaning was women’s work and that men should be looked after by women.

The typical Glasgow working man’s penchant for drink, and/or unwillingness to get involved at home had huge implications for their children and was another source of friction with their wives. The tragedy for many young people brought up in Glasgow is that they often lived in a household with nagging, fights and a contemptuous relationships between their parents. Certainly some women bore their treatment by a selfish man stoically, thinking that it was a man’s right to suit himself since he worked hard. While this may have led to more peace at home it merely perpetuated the problem as these mothers’ sons and daughters were then brought up to think that it is right for men to suit themselves and for women to serve them. A recurrent theme in Glasgow literature is young people lying in bed at night desperately hoping that their drunken, violent father will disappear, thus giving the family peace. Another is women encouraging their daughters not to get married or take up with men. But it would be wrong to insinuate that women were always angels. Glasgow mothers were often good organisers and house keepers but they could be brusque with their weans and neither physically nor verbally affectionate. No doubt there were also cases of good men lumbered with terrible wives who drank and were self-centred.

Annemarie Hughes’s interviews with Clydeside women reveal that what many wanted was a “caring sharing man”. In fact, what these women wanted from their men was rather limited: a man who didn’t beat them up, who shared his income fairly with his wife and family, and who took them on outings and on holiday. In other words, a man who valued his home life and cared for his wife and family. In essence, many women wanted a companionate marriage. Many also wanted something better for themselves and their families. Remember, women did not mainly work full time or have the pub as a refuge, so they were more confined to a home which was often dark, cramped and difficult to keep clean. We must also remember that Glasgow has a cold, wet climate which means that Glaswegians are destined to spend much more time indoors than poor people in warmer and drier climates. Even when these women weren’t having to put up with stinking wynds and pends, the buildings they inhabited were often grey and dreary.

However, it appears that women’s desires to improve their living conditions and future prospects became another divisive issue between husbands and wives. If women were annoyed at men for their drinking, misuse of money and selfishness, men became increasingly fed-up with women’s desires and aspirations. Indeed the idea of men oppressed by their women’s wants is one of the main themes in The Shipbuilders. In fact this is the story which unites the two male characters – shipyard owner, Leslie Pagan and riveter, Danny Shields – across the great class divide. Danny’s wife Agnes makes “frequent jibes at his working-man’s ways” and is under the “flashy” influence of her sister who has married a man with money and lives in a posh area. Agnes spends much of her time going to the cinema with them, alienating her husband. She is unfaithful and ultimately they part. Leslie Pagan has married an English woman who doesn’t like dirty, smoky Glasgow or the industry that’s in his blood. All she wants to do is write “fat cheques” in chic London shops and spend her time jet-setting in shops like Claridges. Ultimately she has her way and the novel ends with Leslie catching the Night Scot to start his new life in the south.

Agnes is simply a lonely woman who longs for some love and tenderness in her life. Throughout the course of the novel she is critical, and for good reason, of Danny’s relationship with their older son. Her crime is mainly that she has a mind of her own and wants more of a life for herself. She is too strong-willed to become the martyr with the pinched face who never goes out of the house. In short, she has too strong a personality to become the long-suffering “wee Glasgow wummin” with no needs or desires of her own.

This theme of the materialistic wife, intent on improving her, or the family’s life, is a recurrent theme in Glasgow fiction. Indeed Neil McMillan, writing about women in James Kelman’s fiction, asserts that the author is within a tradition of male Glasgow fiction which “persistently identifies womanliness with negative bourgeois aspirations”. There’s little doubt that women are routinely portrayed in an unflattering light in McIlvanney’s work. McIlvanney was born in the 1930s; Kelman in the 1940s. Their female characters often have aspirations for a better house or more money, and they are generally depicted as the carriers of alien middle-class, and essentially English values. In one of his novels McIlvanney mounts a vicious attack on “genus surbanus”. “After mating,” he writes, “two offspring are produced at intervals mathematically calculated by the female, whereupon the female swallows the male whole and re-emits him in the form of a bank-balance.” In her study of McIlvanney’s fiction, Beth Dickson writes that, with the exception of Jenny Docherty (the saintly mother figure in Docherty):

Wives are poisonous, brittle, materialistic, empty creatures who want to consume their husbands and whose main aim is upward social mobility. They are almost without redeeming features: it’s a great mystery why McIlvanney’s heroes married the women they did. . . Except in lust and acrimony, it seems almost impossible for men and women to communicate as partners in McIlvanney’s work.

The constant tension between men and women over his drinking and desire to spend time with his mates and her material wants and other ideas on life inevitably led to many rows within Glasgow families. I am no fan of the fashion-driven consumer culture in which we now live. I deplore the cult of celebrity, the labels culture and the wanton waste of our throwaway society. But I find myself an ally with these women who wanted something better for themselves and their families. Many Glaswegian families lived in poor, cramped conditions until well into the 1960s. Many of these women had hard, cheerless lives. Who can blame them for wanting improved living conditions, with bigger, brighter houses that were easier to clean, better furnishings, ornaments and pictures as well the type of labour-saving devices that we now take for granted such as washing machines, hoovers and fridges? What’s more, the evidence supports their case. Even in 1931 an expatriate Scot, living in the USA, wrote: “From the standard of living point of view Scotland is a backward country, and the Scot abroad is increasingly aware of it and ashamed that others must also see it.” Given the housing conditions in the city, and the amount of money spent on drink, this low standard of living was a particular problem in Glasgow. No wonder the Glasgow woman nagged on about improving her lot.


The Tears That made the Clyde – Well-being in Glasgow

Carol Craig

Argyll Publishing £8. 99

ISBN 9781 906134 47 1

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Volume 6 – Issue 1 – Editorial

WHETHER or not Montaigne was the father of the essay it was surely he who christened it, describing the pieces he wrote in the latter part of the sixteenth century essais. In French the verb simply means to try. As Sarah Bakewell writes in How To Live: or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, which we cannot recommend too highly, “to essay something is to test or taste it, or give it a whirl.” This was precisely Montaigne’s approach. His essays were like shots from a blunderbuss. They ranged far and wide, digressing frequently from their ostensible subject. Often, in the space of a few pages, Montaigne contradicted or repeated himself. It is as if he was thinking out loud, as if he could not discipline his thoughts, or didn’t even attempt to do so.

His constant focus, however, was himself, his essays an attempt to answer the question: How to live? In total he wrote one hundred and seven essays with titles as beguiling as they appear simple: ‘Of Friendship’, ‘Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes’, ‘Of Thumbs’, ‘How we cry and laugh for the same things’. In so doing he offered a template for future essayists, allowing them the liberty to write about whatever took their fancy. Thus generations of children were weaned on the essays of Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey and others who waxed prolixly on old china, the pleasure of hating and the joys of being ill and confined to bed.

Of late, however, the essay has dropped off the fashionable Richter scale, too closely associated perhaps with school days and demands to tell  the story of a penny or what you did on your holidays. What Montaigne would have made of this is anyone’s guess but the chances are he would have disapproved. For him the essay was an affirmation of life. At ease with the idea of death after he survived a close encounter with it, he devoted his remaining years to being. Though he lived through difficult and dangerous times he manages still to communicate with readers on a heightened level of intimacy. As Bernard Levin said: “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity” ‘How did he know all that about me?’”

That, then, is the bar which contemporary essayists must essay to cross. In this issue of the SRB we lay down a challenge, to find a contemporary essayist to compare with Montaigne. In association with the University of Aberdeen, we are looking for writers who will embrace the essay form and adapt, expand and energise it for the twenty-first century. With this in mind we have chosen as a topic ‘On Being Modern-Minded’ which aficionados of the essay may recognise as the title of one of Bertrand Russell’s best essays. “Our age,” began Russell, not beating about the bush, “is the most parochial since Homer.” Russell was writing in 1950. “We imagine ourselves at the apex of intelligence, and cannot believe that the quaint clothes and cumbrous phrases of former times can invest people and thoughts that are still worthy of our attention.”

Russell wrote from the position of one of his age’s foremost philosophers. That is one approach. Others, however, are myriad. The essay, as its adherents never fail to argue, comes in all shapes, sizes and guises. It can be witty or sombre, critical or adulatory, informative or anecdotal, immediate or historical, emotional or empirical.

Our subject was chosen because of its elasticity and its general pertinence. You could, if you decide, consider religion or politics, food or football, street furniture or the way we save, or not. You could write in the first person or the third or the second. You could  be deeply personal or reticently private, or both. You could, if you want, argue that being modern-minded is that last thing anyone would want to be. You could, for example, say that the only way to be modern-minded is to be resolutely old-fashioned.

Nothing, therefore, should be ruled out. Except to say that dullness is unacceptable. You may write about the dullest subject under the sun but you must not write dully about it. We judges have high expectations, open minds and a sense of anticipation. Now it’s over to you. You will find  details about how to enter on the page opposite.

Read the Editor’s Blog HERE


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Volume 6 – Issue 1 – Contents

CAROL CRAIG – Women and Children Last: The Way Glasgow Men See Their Women

COLIN WATERS – Diary: Melting in Melbourne

CHRISTOPHER HARVIE – In Broonland: Where Did All Go Wrong, Gordon?


CAIRNS CRAIG – Donne Deal: How a Scot Inspired The Waste Land

ALLAN MASSIE – A Half-Wit Hero: William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms

Queequeg Crossword

BRIAN MORTON – Hearing Voices: Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light

DAN RHODES – The SRB Interview


ANDREW GREIG – Look and Learn: Writing in the Wild

DILYS ROSE – Overlookeringstraat: A Short Story

Reviews by Owen Dudley Edwards, Jennie Erdal, Ronald Frame, Craig French, Kapka Kassabova, Catriona MM MacDonald, Allan Massie, David Torrance.

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