15th January 2013
Hello. For those of you who weren’t around in May last year, I’ll give you a brief history of the project. As part of the National Galleries Nation Live project I was asked to come on board as lead artist for the strand based on Work, which took place in Clydebank. Initially we worked with current BAE apprentices, some students form St Peter the Apostle High School and veterans from the work-in in the early 70s. The idea was to collect material for some sort of performance that could capture attitudes towards work – what it had been and what it could be. Little did I know that it would lead to us standing about in a disused former shipyard on a cold and very wet May evening. On that night we staged a performance piece subtitled “A Reconstruction of Clydebank voices”. And today I’ll be introducing the idea of reconstruction and asking questions relating to the legacy of the project, which we’ll take forward into an open discussion.
So first of all Reconstruction. Why stage a reconstruction? What is it that reconstructions can do? If we take Crimewatch as an example – what do their reconstructions do? Well they’re very simple: they jog the memory; they bring something that happened in recent history to the forefront; and gather evidence for the public to consider. They ask you to recall where you were at a particular point in time. Ask if you were part of it – could you have witnessed something. And they always say -No matter how small, it all adds to the bigger picture and it could make all the difference.
And that’s exactly what we have done here. We have reinvestigated the facts from the time of the work-in and we’ve tried to explore how relevant or not so relevant that is today. Can we learn anything from the past or is it best to keep looking forward?
So we gathered our evidence in a number of ways.
First of all we gathered opinions of Jimmy Reid from the public – we set up our table in the shopping centre (which is now the biggest employer in Clydebank) and asked the question Jimmy Who? People responded in various ways – telling us facts of who Jimmy was, the work-in, giving us personal anecdotes, bending our ears for what seemed like an forever telling us every last detail of their working day in the yards or singers – what they had in their pieces and what time they had a toilet break, from people who wouldn’t give us the time of day because they felt so strongly opposed to Jimmy Reid and his politics. What we ended up with was quite a complex snapshot and a small example of a social history. Exactly what we wanted.
It was about this time I realised that this piece should be a reconstruction and made up of verbatim or anecdotal material. I went to Glasgow Uni archive department and started to collate written material from actual events.
The final text was made entirely of words spoken by Reid, Airlie, Barr etc as well as BBC reporters and journalists and various members who attended trade union meetings. I still find it more interesting and richer in meaning than anything I could have written – I wasn’t really interested in writing a dramatic script based on imagined conversations. Much more interesting were the real ones I had in front of me. I knew all I had to do was put these words back on stage and the audience would be reminded of how powerful the voices were at that time.
The text from the performance has been recorded for this exhibition and you can listen to it over there. Listening to the text again, I find it amazing how relevant it still is today: There are some questions in the text: the questions I chose to ask are questions that can still be asked today – and indeed will be asked this afternoon – eg “Do you think young people have the right to work?”
Sometimes it made sense and sounds completely normal for Liz or Frances to say “No, the young ones’ll no know him, we’ll tell you who he was” – it sounds like something they’d say when educating the younger participants, but these weren’t their voices. But then the young people would say a line, like Jessica for example, Jessica who’s a pretty typical Scottish teenager with a typical teenage way of saying things has the line “I think it’s a lovely place” or “ I think work should be brought to people” – it gives a whole new meaning to the words when heard through her voice. Something I particularly enjoy about listening to it now is the amount of female voices involved. Especially in the Trade Union meeting re-enactment, or when talking about heavy industry. I’m not saying that women weren’t involved with the work-in, because of course they were there, but their voices haven’t been recorded in the same way that the male voices have.
Talking of lines still being relevant, I did have a wee proud moment when the performers were re-singing the protest songs from the time, and after the line “If you hate the Tory Government, clap your hands” there was quite a significant clap. I thought well, some things don’t change.
It’s interesting to note that a lot of the text contains references to the future – eg “What do you think will happen to the yards”. And because we are looking back at statements made regarding the future – we end up in a unique position. A position that asks us to contemplate the last 40 years or so and work out if it was what we expected then or if we would have been disappointed at our future selves. I think it gives greater weight to the worker who predicted “I think it will close. I think they’re determined to close it. There are men going out of this yard that will never work again.”
I want to talk a wee bit about place – if we wanted to do a proper reconstruction, we had to be on the site of John Browns. To me it looked like a theatre anyway – a big proscenium arch and under it the performers sat, with a great backdrop including the original walls, the crane and this horrible grey Clydebank sky. It looked brutal, harsh and unforgiving. It was perfect. But it didn’t just look good – it also felt like the right thing = the area still feels active, a reminder of living systems. Stuff happened there. And for one night we were doing stuff there as well.
So what now? We talk a lot about legacy. Which is a pure grand word. It sounds like it should be about money or something. But I would like to ask What is left behind when a project like this is finished? Or actually what is the legacy of Jimmy Reid? Of the yards or Singers? How do we consider all these things that have happened? Are we embarrassed by it? And does that stop us asking certain questions? Do we think that generally we’re not worth it and don’t deserve anything else? Should we just accept our lot and get on with it and not make a fuss or stick our heads above the parapet?
I’ve been reading some Carol Craig recently who is an author on Scottish Confidence and health and well-being. She outlines all the contradictions that exist in Scottish Folk: the impulse to be friendly and suspicious at the same time; the fact we’re equally outward and inward looking; and the fact we can punch well above our weight but don’t want to come across as a big shot. And I find it interesting that Clydebank has such a rich industrial heritage yet we don’t seem to be – or the powers that be – don’t seem to that proud of it. They also don’t see the potential in regeneration or tourism from this kind of work. I’m not saying Clydebank should become a museum piece but we know from talking to participants that these issues are global from all the commonwealth countries involved in the ships that were built to the amount of singer sewing machines used across the world. Which means that actually this history is not just local, twee or couthie. It can be far reaching and international. Here’s another contradiction for you: We have huge potential for entertaining and emotional social histories to be recorded and documented and displayed, yet we hate the sounds of voices. But only until we can feel confident in ourselves and our histories can we convince others that it’s worth hearing.
During this project I worked from the assumption that the past is not just the past, it is someone’s past. And I think if anything, the people who have come forward to be involved are the ones who want to tell the stories and keep reminding folk about the recent past. And those were the right ones to be involved. I want to say a big thank you to everyone who participated from giving us a note on the back of a postcard to the ones who sat on wet seats all night. We really do appreciate it.
And at the end of any reconstruction I must remind you: Please don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.