I’m old enough to remember shipyards on the Clyde. Art teachers at St Andrew’s school—Greer, Judge and O’Leary—which I attended had a cushy number. When they weren’t pushing recalcitrant pupils into cupboards and beating them up with beardy blocks of dandruff and foul breathe as weapons, they just told you to play with clay and shut up, or draw something. When they ran out of ideas they’d point to a shipyard crane towering above the rooftops across the road from the school. This was our object d’art.
I was never much use at French or art, but I have retained the ability to recognise a crane when I see one. The Titan is a tourist attraction that doesn’t attract any tourists, but this is Clydebank after all, the sewerage work lies downstream and we’re chock full of shit ideas. Titan is 150 feet high and cantilevered, designed to lift heavy equipment such as trains and boilers in and out of the ships on the Clyde. It was built in 1905-6 and cost John Brown’s Engineering who made ships £20 000. If you look at pictures of those that constructed it one of the things you’ll notice is everyone in the picture are middle-aged and wear a flat cap, and that includes the boy of twelve. We aged quicker in those days. Other pictures show workers 150 feet up, bolting this marvel of engineering together, with not a care in the world. If they fell they fell. At least they knew their coat and working boots wouldn’t be wasted and go to a good home, maybe even to their wife.
Titan was given a makeover in the 1950s and its load-bearing capacity was increased. While other shipbuilding nations like German, Japan and South Korea were investing in new plant and machinery, shipbuilders in the United Kingdom were tinkering with machinery that was over fifty-years old. Titan was still there when John Browns became Marathon, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and then a valuable brownfield site as part of some rich man’s property portfolio.
I returned to my heritage, to watch my brother’s son Kevin O’Donnell, and his girlfriend Jess, fling themselves off Titan. John Browns Engineering, a workplace that excluded Catholics from skilled jobs. It was no accident that an orange hall was built facing the work-yard gates.
Jess went first and willingly enough. She’s lightweight and bounced a few times on the bungee rope. She seemed more concerned with patting her hair and making sure it wasn’t too ruffled. Kevin was coached to the side of the crane. Then he was encourage to fling himself off. He knew the history of John Browns and fought his way back. If you look at the pictures of his fall you’ll see he’s trying to climb back up. Nobody told him you’re meant to bounce. He tried to cut the bungee and fall cleanly into the harbour water, as my old man Dessy once had. But they were too quick for Kevin, lassoed him, tied him up and brought him down from the top deck of Titan in a straightjacket. Unless he paid £100 to them they threatened to release the photos onto the internet. John Browns may have changed hands in the last 120 years, but they’re still taking us for mugs and trying to extort money from us. Everything changes but remains the same as my old history teacher Fachey used to say before belting us for talking in class and giving him lip.