'AH'LL GET yi a joab in the yards, / yi'll be fixed up fur life, so yi wull." So Brian Whittingham was promised back in the 1960s when, like legions of others, he became an apprentice in John Brown's shipyard. He was 14.
Forty years on, he incorporates the assurance into one of the stanzas in his newly published poetry collection, Bunnets n Bowlers, which evokes vividly the five years he spent working largely on the famous yard's final flourish, the QE2. It was a period, he says, which shaped him for life, but when he looks back on it now it isn't through any rose-tinted filter of nostalgia.
At a time when recently awarded contracts are promoting a certain resurgence in the Clydeside shipbuilding industry – once a byword for nautical excellence across the globe – Whittingham's wry word pictures evoke a clamorous world of hammering and flying sparks, banter, bevvying and skiving alongside craftsmanship, camaraderie and sometimes sheer eccentricity. It was a world where men might play lunch-break football under the towering bow of an ocean queen, but it was also one of uncomfortable, not to say dangerous working conditions.
Most of his time in the yard was spent on "Hull No 736" – the QE2. The "bunnets n bowlers" of the book's title refer to the respective headgear of the artisans who built the vessels and the foremen who tried to ensure that deadlines were met. These days Whittingham, now 58, spends his time between teaching creative writing and his own poetry and prose, but the sounds and images from those days have never left him. Nostalgia, however, doesn't get a look-in. "If someone was to say me, 'What do you think about the shipyards closing down?', to be 100 per cent honest I'd tell them it was a good thing, because they were terrible places to work, although obviously I don't think it's a good thing people losing their jobs and communities disappearing."
We're talking in the neat front room of his flat behind the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. His walls bear framed prints of paintings by Van Gogh and Monet (his last poetry collection, Drink the Green Fairy, dealt with the Impressionists); he's a man who loves images, creating his own in words rather than on canvas, although he regards his shipyard poems very much as social documentary.
He wasn't yet 15 when he first walked through the big yard gates – and didn't know what had hit him. "One week my mother was making me playpieces to take to school," he recalls. "A month later I'm in this big, freezing shed, with a guy who's half-cut asking me what kind of shag I had at the weekend. I'd never swore, I was a virgin, I'd never swung a hammer in my life."
Initially he enjoyed a short period as a 3-a-week office boy, roaming the yard, delivering plans and memos. "I remember walking under the hull of a ship and being fascinated. But then I started my apprenticeship and I thought I'd gone to Hell. If you were an apprentice who didn't know what to do, you were a waste of time for a journeyman. I remember this man saying to me: 'Here's welding tongs; away and learn to weld.' And I'm like, 'What's welding?'," he says, feigning amazement. "I didn't realise the welding rod actually heated up when you used it, so it got stuck to the metal. I took my gloves off and tried to pull it off and burned my hands. It was a very harsh environment, but you couldn't go home and say, 'Sorry, I don't like it there.'"
When he finished his apprenticeship, as a journeyman plater, he was earning 20 a week – "that was amazing then". But it was hard earned, and in an environment "where the words 'health' and 'safety' hadn't been introduced to each other".
There were no earmuffs and industrial deafness was endemic – he suffers from it still. He nods towards a framed poster for an exhibition of Stanley Spencer's epic wartime paintings of shipbuilding in Clydebank, showing riveters crouching within the cramped confines of a steel pipe. "The reverberation you'd get inside the metal, within five or ten minutes your hearing starts to get damaged, and you're working eight hours a day."
One of his poems recalls the big steel press he worked on, which had a faulty gauge, with its operator "listening for the pitch of sound/ that tells him / what the pressure gauge should". The operator in question had half a finger missing: such injuries were regarded as virtually par for the course. "The guy that worked with me had two fingers missing, after catching them in a press years before, and he was always kidding you on, 'Eh, you'll never be a plater until you've got a couple of fingers missing.' That was his wee joke. You were terrified. But they never reinvested in the machinery."
Sometimes, too, the apprentice would find himself doing a time-served tradesman's job: "They'd give you the job to do, and they and their mate would 'climb the wall', go over to the pub."
He recalls visiting a friend who worked in an office: "I couldn't believe the environment he worked in: it was warm, it was quiet, there were females… it was like an alien planet. For me work was noise, cold, hitting your fingers with hammers and all sort of crazy things.They used to have a foundry at John Brown's and it had an earth floor. It was like something Dickensian."
What he did enjoy, however, and what finds its way into these poems, was the banter and some of the more eccentric characters who brightened up the working day – "Gunner", the old sweeper-upper, "Irish Pat", whom you didn't ask to do your jobs after lunch because he had a drink problem, "Wild Bill Hickock", the yard cowboy, with his gunfighter moustache and bootlace tie, the would-be escapologist who wore fairy lights round his welder's helmet, or the "ballroom dancer", who "waved his oxyacetylene heating torch / like a magic wand", and demonstrated the paso doble on the shop floor. Whittingham also enjoyed learning to read technical drawings – eventually he became a draughtsman, working with various companies until, at 36, he started writing, spurred on by joining Paisley Writers' Group while living in Renfrew.
He still has his enclosure ticket for the launch of the QE2 in September 1967 and, 40 years on, enjoyed a faintly bizarre episode when the QE2 docked at Greenock on a farewell visit in September 2007, prior to her final berthing as a floating hotel in Dubai. He was invited on board, taking his now 26-year-old son, Craig. He had never been on the vessel, except as a worker: now, he recalls, he found himself being poured Cabernet Sauvignon by a white-gloved waiter and dining off feuilletes of lobster Neuberg, medallions of spring lamb with Armagnac macerated apricots and lavender jus with rosti potato. "All I ever remembered eating at the yard was pieces and cheese and cans of tea."
Ask him about the current resurgence of shipbuilding on the Clyde, thanks to major orders secured by BVT Surface Fleet's yards at Scotstoun for naval patrol vessels and sections of two "supercarriers", and he expresses mixed feelings arising from the old ethical debate between building weapons and creating jobs in communities which badly need them. "I'm not a great advocate of spending money on things that kill people. But it's an ethical question, and it's easy enough for me to argue."
At Clydebank, however, all that remains of John Brown's yard today are two parallel lines of commemorative paving between the new Clydebank College and the water's edge, marking the route of the vanished slipway down which slid legendary Cunarders: the Queens Mary and Elizabeth, the Lusitania and, of course, the QE2.
Then there's the 150ft-high Titan crane, now a visitor centre, rearing from the long cleared site. "I find that very ironic," grins Whittingham, "paying money to go up in a crane to look at a shipyard that's no longer there."
And at Hall Street, the yard gates still stand where, as caught in an old photograph on his book's jacket, the bunneted hordes charged out when the yard's hooter blew stopping time. "The front of it is exactly as it was, but behind it … nothing, just flat and rubble. "I find myself thinking of all the things I worried about back then. Why? It's all no more. The street I lived in in Drumchapel's been flattened, the schools I went to are flattened, the shipyard… It's like a whole part of my life never existed."
• Bunnets n Bowlers – A Clydeside Odyssey is published by Luath Press.
In the freezing cold shed
Wearing brand new overalls
miles too big.
Humphing angle bars
that dug into your shoulders.
Marking off plates
with a hammer and dab.
Hitting your fingers
getting blood-black nails.
Drinking red-hot tea.
Eating three cheese chits
in ten minutes.
Learning to weld.
Getting a flash in your eye.
Getting dirty nippy tears.
Being gallus at the buff
not wearing any goggles
and screwing up your eyes
giving the sparks a smaller target
while you ground down your fingers a bit.
Playing dinner time football
showing your skills
running over railway lines swerving the ball
with your steel-toe capped boots,
kicking it in the dock,
going in the rowing boat to get it
hoping you'd be back in time
for the twelve-thirty-seven whistle.
Working the big press
Hoping you didn't end up with nine fingers
Like your mate who would kid on
He was picking his nose
With his missing digit.
Listening to journeymen
always talking about their nookie,
Especially Sam Abbott
The knicker knocker from Duntocher.
Sweeping rusty plates.
Working the pyramid rolls
hoping the menacing rolled metal
wouldn't fall on your napper.
Putting the plate-lifters in
and watching the shoogly mass
swinging way above your head.
Shouting and bawling
and making signs to the crane man.
Listening to caulkers
giving you a bit of the old industrial deafness.
Going home clatty and knackered
and being told
'So long as you've got a trade behind you son.'
The welder smoked his roll-up,
dragged his early morning cable
to his dockside welding pot,
then climbed into double-bottom darkness.
For hours he watched
the wandering arc's green glow,
accompanied by igniting sparks
spitting like long play fireworks
Occasionally he snapped open
the metal lid of his Golden Virginia
and expertly rolled
an ever so slim cigarette
realising, once again,
a nightshift cat had done a piss.
And at dinner time
when he surfaced he rested his head
against a rusty pillow,
closed his eyelids and saw
the red glow of a summer sun
as weeds twined the stockyard pipes
and a Red Admiral fluttered past
accompanied by the drone of a honey bee.
A burner screwed up unprotected eyes
burning a white hot line
sometimes near dab marks
as spitting metal played roulette with his sight.
The plater placed his teeth
on a cracked porcelain basin
washing his grime-etched face
with cold water and Swarfega.
The press with the faulty pressure gauge
groaned and hissed its resistance
as the eight-fingered operator
ignited apprentice fear with his cackle.
The fledgling apprentice
filled his tea-can with boiling water,
learning to spin his arms like windmill blades
as he walked to his blustery toolbox seat.