George Blake’s The Shipbuilders

I picked this book up pretty much at random a couple of months ago, because its title and subject looked interesting – it’s a 1935 novel set on 1930s Clydeside, based around the relationship between Danny Shields, a riveter, and Leslie Pagan, the son of the shipyard owner. To be honest, I was struck by it because I wanted a well-written source on shipbuilding, but it turns out that it touches on older interests of mine as well. Shields was Pagan’s batman when they were both infantrymen during the First World War, and their emotional link as a result is a central facet of the book. It seems to draw on some of Blake’s own experiences: according to the DNB, he was wounded on Gallipoli (before becoming a journalist, and then a director of Faber and Faber after the war). Regimental reunions – formal and informal – crop up repeatedly. Blake apparently believed that he’d ‘failed with his proletarians’ (DNB again), and there is something a bit patronising in the depiction of Danny, but the meditations on the connections between old soldiers are heartfelt – and complex. Here’s Blake on a formal reunion dinner, ‘fantastically mixed as to type, disposition and social standing’:

The King, the Country, the Regiment… None of these symbols furnished an explanation. Few men ever fought for an idea. Old Colonel Gall over there, rolling in the fat, false profits of stockbroking, would be absurdly generous to any individual case that might appeal to him and could yet classify the unemployed as ‘shirkers’ and work and vote against them. Tall Fred Tierney, to whom he was speaking, professed Revolutionary Socialism and would, according to his utterances, hang all stockbrokers from the lamp posts. Yet here they were, and scores of pairs like them, melted into a harmony by a sentiment. But of what? Of hard experience shared, of common congratulation on escape, of esteem for fundamental worth? There was no answer. Significant, perhaps, that they all talked, and loudly, of ‘the Old Mob’. There was the symbol, possibly. Strange, however, that the spirit did not prevail in the conduct of their lives and affairs in industrial civilisation! Could it be that the warmth of the reunion was an illusion? Perhaps it was the expression of a fundamental reality,. Perhaps it was nothing at all.

(G. Blake, The Shipbuilders (Edinburgh, 1993 (first published 1935), 259.

Leslie is put off by the toasts and speeches at dinner, but there is a moment when everyone can revel in their (drunken) camaraderie, before they become quarrelsome and the party eventually breaks up. It’s a fascinating portrait – well worth a look for anyone with an interest in the remembrance of the First World War.

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