I loved Meg Henderson’s memoir, Finding Peggy, which gave her a reading audience hoping for more, hoping for better. Ask me about the story and I wouldn’t be able to tell you very much. The leading character in The Holy City, Marion McLeod, around which much of the story of Clydebank winds is Finding Peggy feisty I’d tackled The Holy City before, but lost the plot with it and put it down. I picked it up again and put it down. I’m not sure why I took a grudge against the book.
After all, Meg Henderson is one of us, the working class. She writes sympathetically about the hard choices working men and women, in particular, had to make. The rise of Clydebank connected with shipbuilding and John Brown’s (the bowler-headed bastards as gaffers). Singers and its ongoing decline, the beauty parlour, for example, where Marion’s sister worked shows the effects after these industries that employed tens of thousands declined and shut down. We all know about Turner’s and the white mice that worked with asbestos. Jimmy Ryan who died at forty in 1963, but had a son with Marion. He was not an exception to the rule. Asbestosis was no respecter of the sexes. That’s what we’ve got Marion’s pal Sal Devlin, with her current buns for sex, but also fun with extra dollopings of kids. A drunkard that beat her but saw the light when a priest put one on his chin. These are stories I’m overly familiar with.
Ernst Hemmingway’s much quoted remark from The Sun Also Rises about two ways to go bankrupt applies here: ‘gradually and then suddenly’. Marion McLeod also grows from the ashes gradually and then suddenly. Before the German bombers came over on a moonlight night on the 13th Mary 1941, was the phony war. Afterwards, thirteen-year-old Marion was no longer a child. Her dead mother spoke to her. Told her to keep going. A doughty adult emerges from the rubble (like Finding Peggy) and she leaves school at fourteen and goes to work (like many others). She gets married, not because she’s in love, but because she needs to take care of Davy Ryan. He too was under the rubble. He too understands. To take care of him, she needs to marry his older brother, Jimmy. He was damaged goods, what we now call post-traumatic-stress disorder from the war. He was in love with Marion’s older sister, Francis, but most men his age were too. She was a cracker. When the bombs fell, she was at the Dalmuir Masonic Temple, the 543 Club, which is now The Golden Friendship Club (courtesy of a couple of miracles worked by Jim McLaren). Her sister was never found. Marion remembered Marek, her sister’s Polish boyfriend, weeping by her bed.
Marion falls in love with Rab the Rhymer. The Boyles come from the Holy City too and speak the same language, lived much the same life. The same language as me and mine that swallows our g, but without the apologetic apostrophe. But she can’t marry him. Can’t be with him. She’s already married and a decent woman that’s made her bed and will lie in it.
‘Can Ah ask a favour?’ he said, his voice as agitated as his expression and the scars on his face bright red. ‘Is it a’ right if I stay here the night? Ah canny go hame,’ he hurried on, ‘Ah’m aff the morra. Ah’m no’ goin’ back tae the yard, an’ me and the big bastard will kill each ower if we stay under the same roof!’
Scars are skin deep, but love triumphs in the end. I hate happy endings, but it’s not too sweet to make you boke. I don’t know what my problem was originally with the Holy City and Meg Henderson’s classic. Maybe too near the bone. Maybe I needed to grow up a bit.