Brian Whittingham started as an apprentice at John Brown's shipyard on Clydeside when he was just 14, and his five years at the yard, shaped him for life. Now, 40 years on, he has written a book of poetry

'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.

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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."

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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."

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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.

The Apprentice

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.

Spinning Tea-Cans

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.