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Saturday, 18 May 2013 00:00

The Way I See It

by Bob Starrett Fair Pley (£9.95)
by John Green

The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read

Bob Starrett was one of the irrepressible activists of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders heroic work-in from 1971-72.

That experience marked him for life, as it did hundreds of others in Glasgow and beyond, and he is best known for his acerbic and politically deadly cartoons which have appeared in numerous left-wing publications then and since.

As with so many capable and creative working class people - at least those who don't desert their class - Starrett, for all his talent, has remained a modest and self-deprecating man.

Like many others who worked in the shipyards of the Clyde, he has a cornucopia of rib-cracking and heart-rending stories and anecdotes to tell. Cajoled by friends over the years to "write it down," he has now put some of them together in this book along with the razor-sharp and superbly crafted cartoons which provide a parallel visual reportage to the stories.

They are a collection of anecdotes about Starrett's work in the shipyards or ones he's heard from his mates and between the lines of these pithy, often seemingly innocuous but invariably funny tales, a subtle and differentiated picture of working-class life in Glasgow emerges.

Starrett portrays an era of collective endeavour when manufacturing still existed in this country. While things like asbestosis, work accidents and the sheer back-breaking daily grind are often related in humorous fashion, the underlying hardship, along with tragedy and exploitation, always lurks just beneath the surface.

One of the jobs he did in his early painter and decorator days was a mural for Alex Ferguson, then running a pub in Glasgow. Ferguson was clearly delighted with his mural of an ideal football team and may even have followed his advice on how to select a good one.

Fittingly, Ferguson writes the foreword to this volume.

My only gripe is that Starrett's tales could have been embedded more in a wider historical and social context - perhaps around the story of his own life - to flesh out these precious gems of working-class camaraderie, banter and solidarity.

But he has given us a quirky and illuminating perspective on Glasgow's shipyards and its working people in a way that no outside historian could.


The frozen moment

It was a raw, keen winter's morning in the shipyard and sounds carried further than usual, with the sharpness and clarity that is a characteristic of such days.

As it was a Monday morning, the painter worked in that trance-like silence that is common to that first part of the first day of any week.

Like the other men working alongside him, the painter was deep in his thoughts, to block out the harshness of his surroundings. He relived the events of the weekend and replayed them over and over again, like a continuous video tape, editing out the less exciting parts until he had distilled for himself a repertoire of experiences that gave him a glow from which he drew a strength of sorts.

Every so often he was jolted back to reality by the sudden whine of a drill or by the clang of metal plates crashing against each other nearby. They were made noticeable only on account of their nearness to him, as all over the yard in fits and spurts a multiplicity of sounds assailed the eardrums. The cacophony was made bearable because it represented work and therefore a regular wage packet.

Building a ship required all types of steel plate. It was the painter's task to coat them with yellow chromate to prevent corrosion. Well, if not in truth to prevent it, at least to slow up the rusting process until the ship was launched and delivered.

The metal was extremely cold to the touch and he continually changed hands as after only a few minutes holding the brush it became unbearable. At any given point, he kept a hand in his overall pocket and counted the time until he would have to change hands. He was frozen numb to this routine. Hunched against the draughts in the passage way at the tail end of the ship he sank deeper into despair as the morning wore on.

In these conditions an eight-hour working day seemed an eternity.

In such a situation, even the weekend fought a losing battle to keep at the centre of his thoughts. As time passed, the weekend could no longer stay in contention and gave up, leaving the painter with the blankness that only a wage slave fully appreciates.

"A whole week of this," he said aloud, "to support a table and four chairs."

He was so filled with despair that he just had to stop painting for a second to recuperate. He straightened up, put the brush across the top of the paint pot and shuffled to the ship's side. Leaning against the rail, he looked around him. It was an unusually quiet period in the shipyard, as occasionally happened when hole borers went to the shore side to change their drills and the caulkers to draw out new chisels.

The caulkers used this opportunity to fix their air hoses to the main air supply - called "the pig" because of the row of teats along its length, resembling a sow lying on her side. This contraption only emitted the slightest hiss, which emphasised the quietness of the frozen yard.

Suddenly, a lone voice rang out. Clear as a hammer striking unyielding metal and, as it was winter, the voice carried to the entire yard.

"Hi, ho o o o o o o o o o o o o o o …"

The voice held the note long, pure as crystal. There was silence and then the voice again.

"Hi, ho o o o o o o o o o o o o o o …"

All the workers who heard it were instantly caught in its spell. They were transported back in time to the golden days of the Saturday matinee.

There are sounds which can trigger off memories and this unknown singer produced such a sound. It is a gift which can unlock the floodgates - and he did. He struck gold with that opening burst of song. It contained it all - the cheap, sticky sweets, the stench of piss that nipped the eyes, the cinnamon fag burning, rather than being actually smoked, and the absolutely indescribable feeling of "being in the gang." Belonging.

So potent is that experience that, contrary to the Bible, when we are men we don't put away all our childish things, indeed, some feelings we guard and nurture forever. This emotion is of that kind.

The painter smiled and a good feeling flooded through him. Looking around, he observed that his workmates were also smiling. They smiled at each other without embarrassment, each understanding the other's thoughts. The voice had galvanised them all. They were all back with the seven dwarves in Snow White.

The voice rang out again but this time the singer wasn't alone. The entire labour force was singing now:

"Hi, ho, hi, ho,

It's off to work we go.

We work all day, we get no pay,

Hi, ho, hi, ho, hi ho, hi ho."

Then the explosion of laughter roared out that welded each man to his neighbour.

"Aye, this is what it's all about," thought the painter as he picked up his brush and resumed painting. The day didn't seem so cold now, nor as long.

The unknown soloist had created a magic every bit as intense as Disney's and had, for a brief period, made the brutal act of building a ship in winter tolerable.

  • Copies of The Way I See It, £9.95 + p&p, are available from www.fairpley.com

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