Where the Bridge Lies was Scottish novel of the week recently, which is quite an achievement for debut author Frank Woods. He can be proud of that. This novel should tick all the boxes for me. It’s set in Clydebank. And Clydebank is where I set most of my stories. It features a family that died in the Clydebank Blitz. I’d guess it’s loosely based on the Rocks’ family, who apart from the father, who agreed to work his son’s shift, died not far from a street in which I lived for years. It also has a second-strand story-line set in a castle used as a school. Yeh, that one that’s on the way to Drymen. I know somebody that worked in it and I wrote an unpublished novel, loosely based in another castle, Lennox Castle. I know exactly how Ervin Goffman’s total institutions are organised and most schools, especially residential schools, tick the boxes. And some of us remember Billy Connelly’s story of working in the shipyards and setting a rag alight in the troughs they used to shite in and sailing it like a model ship down wind and burning the worker’s arses. Hilarious. Not really. In other words I’m like one of those street bores that ask you how you are and you can’t get a word in edgeways as they yitter on about themselves. I should be talking about Frank Wood’s novel and not my own well-documented addiction to scribbling words nobody bothers reading. And I don’t blame them. So what I’m trying to say is I never finished this novel. I got to page 58.
The protagonist Keir Connor, a photojournalist who suffers from post-traumatic-stress disorder after working in Vietnam, is taking a sabbatical in Clydebank and trying to trace his long-lost family is in alternate chapters with the night of the Clydebank Blitz and the aftermath. I even get a mention, Father O’Donnell.
You’ve got to love your characters. I didn’t. You might. Read on.
The focus of this episode is the Clydebank Blitz which took place on 13th March 1941. Only twelve houses in Clydebank were left undamaged. Over three-quarters of the sixty-thousand Bannkie trekked away from the bomb sites into the surrounding areas. John Brown’s shipyard with upwards of 5000 workers and Singers’ Factory with 40 000 workers producing munitions were, ironically, largely unaffected. After a few days production returned to pre-Blitz levels and then exceeded them. But Clydebank was never the same again.
This episode concentrates on the biggest loss of life a single family, The Rocks’ family, 60 Jellicoe Street. Fifteen family members lost their life that night. The father of all those sons and daughters had swapped with his son and worked a nightshift for him, so he could tend the weans. When he came back there was no weans to tend to, no wife, no family. Tommy Rocks who was thirteen at the time of his death is brought alive by his pal Brendan Kelly, an eight-year-old who lived beside him but got to grow old. Here he is outside the new and modern houses in Jellicoe Streets telling the viewer how it was. And how much he still misses his mate. A whiff of there but the grace of God.
A second strand of the narrative of that night is class warfare. No mention is made of that other snapping jackal of Scottish politics, religion. The Rocks were a Catholic family. Here we have the case of John Moore, a Bannkie, part of the Red Clydeside movement that so worried the government they sent in spies. Moore was an apprentice that brought 600 of his colleagues out on strike for better terms and condition. Long apprenticeships meant that men got paid boy’s rates. Not enough to live on, or bring up a family. Apprentices could be as old as 21. This at a time when they left school at 14 or 15. They were paid thirteen shilling and six pence. Moore demanded more for the apprentices that help produce the ships that powered the war. He argued that the high-heid yins could afford it. It was a boom time for profiteers. The case was postponed and bombs fell on Clydebank. When the apprentices went back they won their review. Men used all kinds of transport to return to work after the Blitz. Even government spies showered them with praise. But, of course, there’s no money in praise. Shipyards are a thing of the past. A living wage. That’s a laugh. Housing was a problem then. Housing is a problem now. The Clydebank Blitz. Aye, sad, part of our heritage. Things change, but as John Moore would appreciate they stay the same.