Telling Glasgow’s stories: NTS’ The Tin Forest

Graham McLaren, director of The Tin Forest, at South Rotunda, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
Graham McLaren, director of The Tin Forest, at South Rotunda, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
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National Theatre of Scotland raises the curtain on the unlikely heroes of the city’s post-industrial epic

GLASGOW, 1973. A shipyard on the Clyde. It is the first day for a hundred or so apprentices, in clean boilersuits and stiff new boots, unfamiliar work clothes that make them feel like wee boys dressing-up. They are gathered in the training shed; eyeing each other, expectant, taking short draws on nervous fags.

Fairfields in Govan. Picture: Allan Milligan

Fairfields in Govan. Picture: Allan Milligan

Suddenly, a man stands before them – a brawny, thrawn-faced shop steward of about 60 in a white hard hat. In silence, with great solemnity, he uses his oxyacetylene torch to heat a steel poker until it glows fierce orange, then applies the tip to his tongue. A hiss like a cornered snake prompts answering gasps from the apprentices. He glowers at them, glowers into the cowed hush, and begins his usual commencement speech.

“Youse,” he says, “are lucky bastards. The luckiest bastards in the whole of Glesga. The world’s made up of water. And what does water need? Ships! So what will the world always need? Shipbuilders!” The frown fades and he grins at them, spreading his hands before him. “Youse’ll never be unemployed.”

They believed it even then. The union men. The apprentices. The workers in the yards. A whole generation that regarded the shipyards as eternal. A job for life. For many lives. That word, Clydebuilt, was a sort of promise; a guarantee of longevity on every level. Now, four decades later, there are two shipyards left on the upper Clyde, where once there were almost 40 strung along the river, and by the end of the year we will know whether BAE plan to close the Govan yard – still known locally as Fairfield’s – and bring to an end a trade that has brought work, identity and purpose to the area since the Victorian age. Already, in what many regard as a symbolic act, the five dockside cranes which for years were an iconic part of the riverside skyline have been dismantled and removed.

“It makes me sad when things disappear,” says one Govanite interviewed for this article. “I love it here. Sometimes, when I walk around, I feel like I wasn’t born, but grew up out of the ground.”

Glasgow became industrialised with astonishing speed and on an astonishing scale. By 1914, the city was building one-third of Britain’s locomotives and one-fifth of the world’s ships. At the start of the 19th century the population was 77,000; by the 1920s it was over one million, with almost three-quarters of those employed in manufacturing. It’s hard to imagine the city as it was then, when even the nicknames of the factories and furnaces, spoil heaps and lakes of waste-water had a kind of awesome poetic resonance – Tennant’s Stalk, Dixon’s Blazes, Jack’s Mountain, the Stinky Ocean; the sorts of names one might expect to find on a medieval mappa mundi, hard by Here Be Dragons.

Yet even now, with 30 per cent of Glaswegian households workless, and the hopes of the future seemingly hung on those shoogly pegs otherwise known as the retail and service sectors, the idea of the city as a place that makes things remains the most vivid aspect of its self-image. In its own imagination, if not in the ledger book, Glasgow remains industrial, a city of steel and fire, albeit tarnished and beginning to burn low. It is this Glasgow of the mind, of the heart, that the National Theatre of Scotland is seeking to address in its ambitious new work, The Tin Forest, part of the cultural programme planned to coincide with the Commonwealth Games.

The writer Helen Ward’s The Tin Forest, on which the production is based, is a short picture book, suitable for children of primary school age, but with a larger mythic quality. It tells the story of an old man living alone in “a wide windswept place, near nowhere and close to forgotten, that was filled with all the things that no one wanted”. His small house looks out on a landscape of gap sites and scrap metal; dreich, dreich, dreich. The old man dreams of a better place and so sets about building a forest from the junk he finds lying about; two toucans, settling there, drop seeds, and a real jungle grows – full of colour and life. The Tin Forest is a parable of regeneration and a statement of belief in the power of locals to bring about positive change in the places where they live.

“It’s a perfect allegory for Glasgow’s journey from being the industrial might of the world, to nobody wanting that, to reinventing itself as a creative city. But at the heart of that process is its people,” says Simon Sharkey, 
co-director of the production. “So the very simple thing we’re aiming to do is tell Glasgow’s story through that narrative.”

Simple? Hardly. Scotland’s biggest city is a fankle of class, race and religion; poverty and wealth; beauty and horror; sorrow, joy, humility and pride. It seeps across the map like a Rorschach inkblot in which one might see no end of wonderful, terrible things. Glasgow is around 13 miles from east to west, ten from north to south, and contains within it a seemingly inexhaustible seam of stories, laid down in strata from generation to generation, Glaswegian lore lying thick as ore. Glasgow, of course, has plenty of gifted novelists and poets, but the city’s storytelling culture is essentially oral: close-singers, windae-hingers, pub philosophers and right gabs in black cabs.

The National Theatre of Scotland has, since the start of the year, been embedded in four different “post-industrial” districts – Govan, Springburn, the east end, and the Hillington/Penilee areas of Glasgow’s south-west, gathering stories and working with the communities to present them as theatre. Govan built ships, Springburn locomotives. The east end forged steel, while the so-called “shadow factory” in Hillington constructed engines for Spitfires. In June, there will be live events within each of the four areas, in which locals – from kids to the elderly – will take part. “It’s about making ordinary lives epic,” is Sharkey’s summing up.

In late July and early August, the focus moves to the South Rotunda, a magnificent late Victorian building near the Squinty Bridge; it has lain empty since 1988, but at one time functioned as an entrance to a tunnel beneath the river. The tunnel’s still there, the stuff of urban legend, but is no longer open to the public. The Rotunda itself, meanwhile, is an archetypally ugly/beautiful Glaswegian structure in the neo-gallus style, a sort of Clydebuilt Parthenon of brash red brick. It is a shivery privilege to stand within and look up through the windows of the dome at gulls ghosting in the grey sky. For The Tin Forest, this space will become “a puppet labyrinth”.

“This is the last great undiscovered, underused building in Glasgow,” says the National Theatre of Scotland’s Graham McLaren. “I’ve been driving past for 20-odd years, dreaming of making a show in it. I know I’m a romantic, but in this place you can hear the voices of John Maclean, of Mary Barbour, of Jimmy Reid. These are the people on whose shoulders we stand as modern Scots and Glaswegians.”

Why, though, focus on industrial and post-industrial Glasgow, and on the particular communities in which NTS is working? What’s the point? “We have to tell our stories for ourselves,” says McLaren. “If we don’t, someone else will take the responsibility of telling them for us. And I think there’s a great nobility in those stories. There was a time, not that long ago, when Scotland and this stretch of water led the planet. And the story of the last century has been that those things were systematically closed down. There wasn’t a revolution because of that. No one took to the streets. There was a dignity and stoicism.

“But no one’s told that story of all of those generations of people who were told, ‘You’re surplus to requirements,’ and then 20 years later were told they were scroungers and that their children were a lost generation. So it’s our responsibility as artists, as a national theatre, and as citizens to tell that story with compassion and understanding and empathy. Okay, it’s not a play written by Shakespeare or Ibsen or Chekhov, but it’s fascinating and needs to be told.”

The idea of work-shops and housing schemes inspiring drama seems reasonable, even commendable, but it is possible to argue – if one were feeling especially chippy, which is to say Glaswegian – that Glasgow is already deeply theatrical, needs no endorsement from the arts establishment, and that to frame it is to tame it. As William McIlvanney writes in his novel Laidlaw: “It’s not a city, it’s a twenty-four hour cabaret.”

Take, for example, the Fairfield Working Men’s Club. Approached from Crossloan Road in Govan, on a wet Tuesday afternoon, it is unprepossessing – a squat brick building with its name painted in red across a dripping verandah. Walk inside, though, past the sign forbidding patrons from wearing of shellsuits or trackie bottoms on Friday and Saturday nights, and you enter another world. Two dozen couples are on the dancefloor, circling and embracing, as a man on stage performs For The Good Times (the Perry Como version, naturally) in a baritone redolent of lost love and lipstick traces. Glittery curtains sparkle in the disco lights and the gentle movements of the elderly dancers throw shadows on a large black and white photograph, framed on one wall, of HMS Hood being launched, just up the road in Clydebank, almost a century before.

Fairfield WMC was founded in 1895 and functions, these days, as an important focus for the local community and as a great treasure house of anecdote. Go to the bar for your diluting orange at twenty-five pence a half-pint and you are as likely to come away with a life story. “I met my wife in 1968 at the Majestic dance hall,” says a bequiffed septuagenarian with beer on his breath. “She gave me four good sons and two daughters, and deceived me after 30 years.”

Most of the dancers here, Mr Majestic aside, are alumni of the Plaza ballroom, since demolished, and although these are men and women of pensionable age, some of them married and widowed more than once, they are still in touch with their inner teens, and have not forgotten who dumped or clicked with whom, or what it felt like to dance with a sweetheart and feel so much future ahead of you, unknown.

A tug at the sleeve. Here comes another tale. “See that man there?” you’re told, nodded in the direction of a tall, rather infirm looking man on the dancefloor, stooped over his wife, as they make a shuffling circuit to Blueberry Hill. “Polish. A survivor of Monte Cassino. He was pinned down under fire for two weeks. Then he was in a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia. They had to eat rats and caterpillars. But Stalin swapped him for a British prisoner and he ended up getting sent here. He was a brickie. A right hard case in his day. Oh, aye, I’ve seen him split bricks on his knee. Now look at him. This is all he’s got left. This and his wee wife. He’s been so used to living with death, I don’t blame him for loving the dancing.”

Everyone is dressed to the nines. Sparkly frocks. Jackets and ties. Check out Davie Barr with his Versace belt, Bling Crosby, 83 years old if you can believe that, snow-white hair and lithe as a boy. Aye, he says, he’ll talk to me, but he must get his quota of dancing in first. He has no shortage of willing – nay, demanding – partners among the elegant ladies present, and draws a finger across his neck to indicate the fate that would befall him should he fail to be available for the expected number of rhumbas.

Between a tango and a slosh, Barr has a moment for a blether. He was born, he says, in “Old Govan” and left school at 14 in order to work at the Queen’s Dock, where he and Billy Connolly’s Uncle Huey – also at the dancing today – were office boys together.

There is a theory that the famous Glasgow humour – black and often absurd, as popularised by Connolly – emerged in large part from the docks, shipyards and steelworks, shaped by the rough, hard, dangerous work that went on in such places. Barr is happy to confirm this – “All the patter of the day amongst the dockers, son” – and to illustrate his point by means of a small vignette.

“Right,” he says. “I’ve been to a budgie’s funeral. How did this happen? I had a mate called Dougie Pincock. Came from Partick. So I walks into the office this morning and Dougie’s sitting there. ‘Morning Dougie!’ Someone nudges me, says to shush. ‘Dougie’s had a bereavement. Wee Joey died at half-past two this morning.’ This was his budgie. ‘Aw, Dougie,’ I says. ‘Ah’m awfy sorry to hear that.’ He tells me thanks, the funeral’s at 11 o’clock, tea break. ‘We’re burying him at sea.’ So I looks over, and he’s got a shoebox and on top of it’s a Union Jack. I kid you not. Inside: the budgie.”

Could you see the budgie?

“No, son. It wisnae an open casket.”

That makes sense. Maybe a cat had got it.

“So, it comes to 11 o’clock, and we aw line up at the edge of the quay, and Dougie goes to shove the shoebox into the Clyde. Now, I’m a Rangers supporter, and the dockers were all different gangs, depending. Of course it’s a funeral, so everyone takes their caps off. Then, all of a sudden, this man McNulty – a Celtic fanatic – shouts, ‘By the way, what colour was the budgie?’ Somebody tells him blue, of course. ‘That’ll be f***in’ right!” he says, sticks his bunnet back on again, and walks away. But we didn’t mind. Dougie came back in the afternoon with a bottle of whisky and half a dozen screw-tops and we had a wake.”

It’s all there, isn’t it? The famous Glasgow ingredients. Dark humour. Drink. Bigotry. Sentimentality. If The Tin Forest can capture the character of the city, that strange kind of rough compassion, then the National Theatre of Scotland will have done well. In Govan’s Pearce Institute, they have been running free acting classes for children and adults since January. There have been similar engagements in the other featured districts, and each will culminate in performances – by the community for the community – throughout June.

In Govan, the plan is to rebuild, on a temporary basis, the Victorian bandstand which once stood in Elder Park, and for this to be where the Queen – a local schoolgirl – is crowned on June 6, the day of the Govan Fair. On the following evening, the bandstand will host musicians, and children will give speeches from specially constructed soapboxes, a homage to the great oratory of Jimmy Reid during the legendary UCS work-in.

“The bandstand would be a visual representation that Elder Park – and Govan – haven’t been forgotten,” says Maria Leahy, chair of the Friends of Elder Park, who hopes to see the bandstand return permanently. Leahy is 34, a musician, originally from Leeds. She has lived in Govan for the past few years, part of an influx of creatives, and has come to love the park, where she walks her dog, a “neurotic” Border collie called Boots. “When I tell people outside of Govan where I live, they pull a face. That stigma has not left. But Govan isn’t the heap that people say it is. It’s a beautiful place, an incredible place, built on strong, tough hard-working people. It’s nice to be part of the change.”

To be a true Govanite, they say, you have to have been ducked in the Elder Park pond as a child. It is an area with a strong sense of itself as an autonomous town. It’s the same all over Glasgow. The downside is that the city can foster narrow horizons and lives. You hear about kids in the east end who, when taken on a day trip to Aberfoyle, thought they had to change their watches to match the different time zone. The positive side of that is local identities can be strong, loyal, even loving. One Tin Forest participant, 81-year-old Sheena Munn, lives in the same house in the same scheme in which she grew up, and spent her working life in the same factory where her father spent his before her. She is immersed in memory. Penilee is in her ears and in her eyes.

It must be remembered, though, that this is a city with serious problems with violence, drugs, alcohol, unemployment and family breakdown. The council, naturally, likes to promote a positive message – Glasgow as stylish, artistic, cultured. All of which is true, as far as it goes, but one’s experience of life in the city is, to an extent, shaped by where one lives. As Debbie McGowan, who helps run the Helenslea Community Hall in the Parkhead points out, “If you come off at Bridgeton you live to 61, but if you stay on till Jordanhill you can live to 74. That’s the reality.”

In a café on Duke Street, a busy artery of the east end, John Mallon is pulling no punches. “Regeneration? That’s camouflage. They give everybody brand new houses. But some of these people have no furniture to put in them. There’s no money. No work. That is only for people to walk past on the way to the arena and see that this place has changed. If you look inside those houses, it’s the same social issues that have always been there.”

He speaks from hard experience. It’s written in his face. A small man of 50 in a body warmer and woolly hat, he grew up in the Gallowgate and Easterhouse, a member of the famous Mallon boxing family. His father ran the local boxing club. His uncle Bobby won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1962. For John Mallon, though, there would be no such glory. His young adulthood coincided with deindustrialisation of the 1980s. He worked in a few factories and in construction round about the east end, but loads of plants closed as the years passed. Like so many of his peers, he sought pleasure and solace in drugs and recreational violence, coming close to death through both. He has been clean for two years, and is in a good place now. He is attending Mass again, helping to prepare his grandson for his first Holy Communion, and has taken to writing and performing poetry about life in the east end. The area, he says, has addiction and alcohol problems on a large scale, and addicts are used as mercenaries in feuds, sent to slash people on the promise of two tenner bags of smack. The root of all of this, he feels, is a lack of jobs: “Gie’s work, for Christ’s sake.”

Charles Dickens wrote A Tale Of Two Cities about London and Paris. Were he living now, he could write a book of that title and set it entirely in Glasgow. It is a city full of tension between rich and poor, construction and demolition, old and new, even – one could argue – good and evil. You can call it a tin forest, or a concrete jungle, or a dear green place, and you can pray that its future is as glorious as its past, but the one certainty is that Glasgow is brimming with stories, at both ends of the M8 and on both sides of the Clyde. Shop stewards licking red hot pokers. War heroes dancing to Fats Domino. Budgies buried at sea. Glasgow has them all.

“It’s a great city,” says the National Theatre of Scotland’s Graham McLaren. “To be here, to have the Commonwealth Games here, to be living in Scotland this year, when the world is looking at us, I can’t think of another place I’d rather be.”

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss

• Community performances will take place on 6 and 7 June (Elder Park, Govan), 11-14 June (Springburn Park Rockery), 17-19 June (Reidvale Community Centre, Whitevale Street) and 24-26 June (Penilee St Andrew parish church, Bowfield Crescent). The Tin Forest opening event will take place on 22 July at 7.30pm at the South Rotunda Courtyard, Finnieston Street, by the Clyde Arc, and will be followed by a number of performances in the Rotunda and Clydeside area until 3 August. See for further details of all events