Thursday, 18 May 2017

TS Queen Mary on the River Clyde

Ships on the Clyde

TS Queen Mary in Prince's Dock, Glasgow. May 2017
For all the years that Glasgow was famed around the world for its shipbuilding industry, very little evidence of it remains on the River Clyde now. The ships built here included the world's fastest clippers, such as the Cutty Sark, paddle steamers like PS Comet and PS Waverley, the most luxurious liners the QE2 and RMS Queen Mary and battleships such as HMS Hood and HMS Repulse.

My great-grandad among the Harland and Wolff moulders at their Govan shipyard
Over the 19th and 20th century around 30,000 ships were built on the Clyde, employing tens of thousands of skilled workers. However, a river which was once crowded with ships going up and down - pleasure cruises, cargo ships, ferries, tugs, ships being built or repaired - it lies pretty empty now. The much loved Waverley paddle steamer is the only ship still running pleasure cruises down to the Firth of Clyde. Ships are still built in Glasgow, such as the type 45 destroyers being constructed between the BAE Systems yards at Govan and Scotstoun and the aircraft carrier recently built in sections in Glasgow and being assembled at Rosyth, but these yards seem to be limping on, a shadow of their former selves.

Type 45 destroyer under construction at the BAE Scotstoun yard (former Yarrows shipyard)
Ships under construction at BAE Systems, Govan. 2017

  • The Glenlee

A small section of the Riverside Museum in Glasgow tells the story of the shipbuilding on the Clyde, but only the steel hulled, three-masted Glenlee berthed alongside the museum gives visitors a small glimpse of what used to be. Built in 1896 in Port Glasgow as a cargo ship, she looks a bit lonely now on the banks of the Clyde.
The Glenlee at the Riverside Museum

  • PS Waverley

The handsome PS Waverley is the last sea-going passenger paddle-steamer in the world. During the summer months she runs up and down the Clyde, giving visitors the chance to see her beautiful engine powering away as she makes the trip she has been making (on and off) since 1947. Built in Glasgow in 1946, the Waverley replaced an earlier paddle-steamer of the same name which worked the Clyde from 1899. This ship served as a minesweeper in the Second World War but was sunk in 1940, evacuating troops from Dunkirk.

PS Waverley leaving the pier at Helensburgh, 2016
PS Waverley passing under the Erskine Bridge on the River Clyde
Engine room of the PS Waverley

  • Renfrew Ferry

From the 1700s there were regular ferries taking passengers across the River Clyde. These were needed more and more as workers traveled back and forth to the shipyards from their homes, with ferries at Whiteinch, Finnieston, Govan and Renfrew/Yoker among others. A Govan ferry service has been set up in recent summers to take visitors to the Riverside Museum but the Renfrew ferry is the only ferry still running regularly. Its days seem numbered however, with plans afoot for a bridge across the river here.

With increasing numbers of passengers, from 1865 the Renfrew Ferry was open at both ends, with a steam powered engine used to haul the boat across the river via a chain lying at the bottom of the river. From 1952, when my great-auntie Cathy was a clippie on the ferry, it was replaced by a diesel-electric powered chain ferry, which could take cars across the river. As a child I can remember making a few trips on this. One trip I remember was just a jaunt back and forwards with my great-uncle Andy, who used to work in John Brown's shipyard, with him pointing out things you could watch in the engine room.

Renfrew/Yoker car ferry in service 1972
Old Renfrew Ferry, moored at the Broomielaw as a music venue since 1984
With the closure of the shipyards, alongside the opening of the Erskine Bridge and Clyde Tunnel, running a car ferry was becoming uneconomical and from 1984 a passenger-only service has been running again (bicycles can be taken on board). The old car ferry has been berthed on the Clyde at the Broomielaw as a music venue. The wee ferry that currently runs the Yoker/Renfrew route has been in service since 2010.

The current Renfrew Ferry, £1.70 for a trip

TS Queen Mary

One more ship is berthed on the Clyde at present, and as far as I am concerned, the more the merrier. The turbine steamer Queen Mary. The name is familiar isn't it?

The trans-Atlantic liner Queen Mary is possibly the most famous ship in the world, but several ships have held the name of King George V's wife. The RMS Queen Mary ocean liner, was launched at John Brown's shipyard in Clydebank in 1934. My great-uncle Andy worked on that ship and many others over more than 50 years he served in the yard. She was not, however, the first ship to carry that name.

Launch invites for RMS Queen Mary, beside model of the ship in the Riverside Museum
The first Queen Mary, HMS Queen Mary, was a Royal Navy battle cruiser launched in 1912, but sunk at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Denny's shipyard in Dumbarton then gave the name to their new turbine steamer launched in 1933, and TS Queen Mary is the ship that lies again on the banks of the River Clyde today. The Cunard-White Star Line were keen on the name for their new, luxurious liner and an agreement was reached for the Clyde steamer to give up the name. She was thenceforth known as the Queen Mary II until 1976, and had a portrait of HRH Queen Mary on display in her forward lounge, a gift from the Cunard Line as thanks. Nine years after the Queen Mary liner was retired from service in 1967, after 1001 crossings of the Atlantic, the name became available again and TS Queen Mary regained her original name. The Queen Mary liner is now in Long Beach, California, where she is a hotel and tourist attraction.

Just to add to the confusion Cunard Line now run a new trans-Atlantic liner with the name Queen Mary 2. Launched in 2003 she replaced the aging QE2, and was built in Saint-Nazaire in France.

Old postcard of the TS Queen Mary
The turbine steamer TS Queen Mary was built in 1933 at the Denny yard in Dumbarton. This yard was where the Cutty Sark was completed. Also built here were the SS Sir Walter Scott, excursion steamer on Loch Katrine, and the TS King Edward, the first commercial vessel powered by steam turbines. Once in service the TS Queen Mary ran a daily service from Glasgow to Rothesay and Dunoon, with cruises also to the Kyles of Bute. From 1939 her two funnels had the yellow colours of the Caledonian Steam Packet Company. With her engine converted in 1957, her two funnels were changed to a single one. After several changes of ownership she was run by Caledonian-MacBrayne from 1973, sporting their familiar red funnels with the lion in a yellow disc. At this time she was running a wider range of excursions, mainly from Gourock.

As the Queen Mary II with the colours of Caledonian-MacBrayne
In 1976, her original name, Queen Mary, was restored to her and she was running routes from Glasgow again. However, this was becoming financially nonviable and in 1977 she was withdrawn from service. When plans for a maritime museum fell through, she was sold in 1981 to a London company and taken to the Thames to serve as a floating restaurant. Major refurbishment, including the replacement of a second funnel and removal of all the engines, meant that she remained on the Thames for another 30 years. Latterly she had fallen into disuse and new owners were sought.

TS Queen Mary, berthed in London as a floating restaurant
In October 2015 the charitable organisation Friends of the TS Queen Mary purchased the ship, with the aim of returning her to the Clyde for restoration. Under tow of a tug she was brought into dock in Greenock for some essential maintenance.

TS Queen Mary funnels visible on the left, in dock at Greenock, taken from the Waverley, 2016
Since November 2016 she has been laid up at the basin at Prince's Dock behind the Glasgow Science Centre whilst her redundant fittings are stripped out. The Queen Mary is the last surviving example of a steam turbine powered passenger ship in the world, built in the same yard where this class of ship was first built. A welcome addition to the Clyde and a reminder of the hundreds of thousands of people who traveled on ships like this "doon the watter" on their holidays from Glasgow.

TS Queen Mary berthed at Prince's Dock, with Glasgow University tower behind it
TS Queen Mary, Glasgow May 2017
TS Queen Mary, Glasgow

Restoration in progress

In May 2017 the Friends of the TS Queen Mary offered tours of the old ship, raising some publicity, and some funds, for their project. I went along with my daughter to have a look around. Below I have attached some photographs taken on our tour, to give an impression of how the ship looks. There are currently no plans to re-instate an engine, so the ship will be berthed on the Clyde eventually as a venue of some description. The initial work has been to uncover the original teak deck, which has been hidden under bitumen and concrete coverings. The lounges below deck are surprisingly spacious and currently being stripped of all their old furnishings to allow access to the structure of the ship, which needs maintenance work before further works can proceed. Work is moving forwards by making links with local colleges, such as involving nautical cadets from the City of Glasgow College, and design students from Dundee's Jordanstone College of Art and Design.

Further tours of the ship are available, see the Friends of Queen Mary website or Facebook page for details and regular updates. I certainly would encourage you to go and have a look around. With projects like this maybe one day we will have a proper collection of ships on the Clyde for visitors and locals to see, to let us appreciate the work of the many shipyard workers and engineers that contributed so much to this city.

On board TS Queen Mary, Glasgow
Bridge of TS Queen Mary, with the Glasgow Science Centre Tower overhead
View from the bridge down the River Clyde towards The Riverside Museum
Prow of TS Queen Mary, Glasgow
Main deck of TS Queen Mary, Glasgow
One of the lounges on TS Queen Mary, Glasgow, under renovation

TS Queen Mary, Glasgow. I'm not sure about that apostrophe. Purser to how many ships??
Stairwell on TS Queen Mary, Glasgow
One of the turbines of TS Queen Mary, Glasgow
Decoration from one of the lounges on TS Queen Mary, Glasgow
TS Queen Mary, in Prince's Dock, Glasgow

PS Waverley and TS Queen Mary alongside the Glasgow Science Centre on the River Clyde. May 2017

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound. Tron Theatre. Review

Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound. Tron Theatre, Glasgow. May 2017

The theme of the Tron Theatre's May Festo season this year is "work inspired by experiments in music and sound". Surely nobody exemplifies that more than Daphne Oram, pioneer of electronic music.

Daphne Oram's Wonderful World Of Sound by Blood Of The Young
She is known as the founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and was its first studio manager, but left after a year, frustrated by the lack of creative freedom she had in her role, and the stifled by BBC attitudes. She set up her own studio and continued electronic composition, commercial work, concrete experiments and created sounds using her Oramics "drawn sound" machine. This machine, a proto-synthesiser, and her ideas that it would let people with no musical training create sounds and music is nowadays an everyday part of music making. Whereas now a simple synthesiser, loop pedal or app can allow anyone to make electronic music, in order to make these sounds in her day she first had to construct the machinery, which is now housed in the Science Museum, London. The video below gives you a glimpse of her machine in action.

The play Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound is on at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow this week before touring. It is produced by Glasgow based company Blood of the Young and was written by their artistic director, Paul Brotherston alongside Isobel McArthur, who also plays Daphne Oram in the play. Appropriately it mixes acting with music, live scored by musician and sound artist Anneke Kampman. She was previously part of Scottish band Conquering Animal Sounds, and also performed at the Tectonics music festival in Glasgow in 2016. The music and sound effects here create a perfect atmosphere for the actors to inhabit.

Agnes Oram at work
Daphne Oram's character steps out from the play to narrate her life story to us, in plummy Jeeves and Wooster tones, which if you listen to any recordings of her talking about her music is a pretty good impersonation of her actual voice. The contemporary photographs of her working resemble a mad scientist dwarfed by banks of machines, and it is her curiosity and desire to experiment and create something with her music that shines through in the play. Surrounded by patronising, tweed-clad BBC types and institutional sexism she strives to innovate and be creative. The ensemble cast and clever set designs take us from her family home, through the BBC years to her rural retirement. She was a unique force, whether creating sci-fi sound effects, Anchor butter adverts or developing her own Oramics theories on sound and it is great to see her life recorded here so splendidly. The ensemble cast mix physical theatre with humour. Isobel McArthur's Daphne Oram is driven and enthusiastic, with clouds always on the horizon as she strives to plough her own furrow.

Daphne Oram died in 2003, at the age of 77, but her legacy seems to be growing with time, with women often to the fore in experimental music and sound art a new award was this week announced. The Daphne Oram Award will celebrate women innovators in sound and music.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Tectonics Glasgow 2017

Tectonics Glasgow, May 2017. Review

For the fifth Glasgow outing of the Tectonics music festival all its familiar elements of experimentation, improvisation and collaboration were on display. Female composers and performers were to the fore this year, with the ever reliable BBC Scotland Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov the glue holding the whole weekend together.

The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow
Whilst most of Glasgow lay about in glorious sunshine, decent crowds were drawn into the cool darkness of the Old Fruitmarket to see jazz musician and composer Roscoe Mitchell, who would bookend the festival, kick things off. Resplendent in some fantastic green knitwear and sunglasses despite the gloom of the Fruitmarket he wheezed and parped his saxophone like some exuberant snake charmer to get us started. They were followed by artist Luke Fowler and musician and composer John Chantler squatting in the centre of the room over a jumble of cables and string instruments creating fantastic electronic drones and distorted sounds. 

Luke Fowler and John Chandler
Next up we were through to the City Halls where New York musicians Yarn/Wire, a quartet of two percussionists and two pianists who started on conventional instruments to perform a piece by Andrew MacIntosh, before gravitating to bowed wine glasses and cymbals. Twitchy samples, shaken foliage, kitchen utensils and coloured beads agitated on drums were required for Thomas Meadowcroft's "Walkman Antiquarian". Their playing throughout, and across the weekend was crisp, clear and precise. If you want four musicians to fit a kitchen for you I would go for them - neat, particular and perfectly measured.

Back into the main concert hall and members of the BBC SSO combined with Yarn/Wire to play François-Bernard Mâche's "Kassandra", a tight performance conducted by Volkov combining the musicians with recorded voices and natural sounds. A strident babble of diverse voices. The first piece of the weekend from composer Linda Caitlin Smith, "Wilderness", was sweetly mellifluous before cellist Lori Goldston's composition for amplified cello and orchestra. A darker, more forceful piece and a good contrast to what had gone before.

My personal highlight of the weekend was the collaboration between Australian trio The Necks and the complete BBC SSO being guided in an extended piece of improvised playing by the energy of conductor Ilan Volkov. With The Necks front of stage, performing away, Volkov looked to be composing live with the orchestra, as he waved his hands and sculpted sounds, much as Tony Stark does with his VR computer system in the Iron Man movies. It was phenomenally beautiful, and a reflection of the close working over many years between Volkov and the orchestra.

Triangulum brought the evening to a close in the Old Fruitmarket featuring Julia Holter, Catherine Lamb and Laura Steenberge. A gentle, and slightly anti-climactic end to the day.

Sunday started with many of the musicians from the festival performing on the floor of the Old Fruitmarket Eddie Prévost's 'Spirals'. With members of Yarn/Wire, The Necks, Triangulum and others playing whilst dressed in gold lamé tabbards, the tone for the second day was established.

Two more pieces by Linda Caitlin Smith were performed in the main concert hall. First the baroque and melancholic 'Ricercar' performed by solo cellist Alison Mcgillivaray, followed by Yarn/Wire on two marimba and two grand pianos playing the more halting, laconic, and haunting 'Morandi'.

Pierre Berthet and Rie Nakajima
Across the weekend Pierre Berthet and Rie Nakajima had an installation on display in the building's recital room, where they gave occasional performances, animating their assorted creations. Gently diverting but never amounting to more than the sum of its little parts.

James Saunders and Tim Parkinson gave us two entertaining pieces ('in which one thing depends on another' and 'songs') which played with word association, a variety of dropping, plopping and banging of everyday objects and tabletops, accompanied by vocal ejaculations.

After these carefully written and choreographed pieces Ash Reid's piece of agitprop theatre in the Old Fruitmarket felt a bit self-indulgent and shambolic. A tighter piece, 'Felt Events' by Ilana Halperin and Raymond MacDonald featuring further contributions from the musicians of The Necks, brought a jazz cafe feel to a piece reflecting on volcanoes and earthquakes. Tectonics, you might say. Tut Vu Vu were a noisy wake up call to the audience after all that, with distorted, fluorescent guitars and electronic beeps and sqwaks.

The closing concert squeezed in six more performances starting with Shiori Usui's 'from scratch', a piece of music based on her experiences of eczema (which was making me feel itchy). Lawrence Dunn's 'Ambling, waking' followed in the City Halls, with more from Linda Caitlin Smith, James Saunders and Roscoe Mitchell bringing the weekend to a close.

Always an enjoyable way to spend a weekend, the whole thing this year felt less fresh than in previous years. Much of the music was similarly toned 1960s and 1970s pieces, and with many of the same musicians playing across the weekend it ended up with a familiar tone over the two days. There just seemed to be less chaos - more chin stroking this year and less drama.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon and Lloyd Cole's Classic Songbook

Review - A Nostalgic Week of Pop Music in Oran Mor Glasgow

Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon - Oran Mor, 14th April 2017

Lloyd Cole's Classic Songbook (1983 - 1996) - Oran Mor, 11th April 2017

A co-incidental collision of nostalgic pop acts were on show in Oran Mor, Glasgow this week giving completely contrasting performances. As part of a tour promoting a new box set collection (Lloyd Cole in New York, Collected Recordings 1988 - 1996) Lloyd Cole pitched up for three nights in Glasgow. Coming back to the town he first arrived in as a student, and where he formed Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, his only nostalgia for the place was gratitude that the University Cafe still exists. A seated audience and an acoustic set, first hour alone, second hour accompanied by his son on a second acoustic guitar, it was never going to be a riotous affair. At the end of a six month tour, where the box set only materialised in the final weeks, there was a certain weariness about his usual hangdog demeanour. With almost 30 songs in the show, there were always going to be moments when only the superfans were singing along, but his songs were always lyrically interesting and his singing as clear as I remember from my days listening to Rattlesnakes. Only once did he forewarn us that his voice wasn't going to reach its former heights.

With the hits spread out through the evening we got Rattlesnakes and Jennifer She Said in early and later got onto Cut Me Down, Perfect Skin, Brand New Friend and Lost Weekend. The studenty literary references in the songs and tales of one night stands in the songs maybe don't fit so comfortably a man in his 50s singing with backing from his son, but the big songs have stood the test of time. They are his songs, and I would have enjoyed seeing if re-visiting them now brought him back to the younger man that wrote them, what was he thinking/ doing/ dreaming? But there was none of that, the songs were slipped on like a comfortable coat, then discarded onto the floor when finished with a brief "thank you" to the polite applause. His musical inspirations leaked into the guitar outros of some songs with brief chords from Bruce Springsteen, Prince and The Beatles thrown in there somewhere. With aspirations to be a mid-Atlantic Leonard Cohen I like the Americana in many of Lloyd Cole's songs, even if it feels artificial. None of the songs touched me in any emotionally way, but there were plenty to hum along to and tap my feet (clapping along was banned). A droll evening rather than one filled with clownish whimsy.

Clownish whimsy was the tone Charlotte Church and her Late Night Pop Dungeon were aiming at from the off. The venue was packed with a very mixed crowd as she came on stage, like her band, all spangley hot pants, wigs, glitter and foil. Keyboards, drums, guitar, bass and five backing singers made for a cramped stage as she battered through a 90 minute medley of songs. If there was any musical theme it was "anything goes". A song you sort of recognised would suddenly morph into something totally different. A song would start as a disco hit and end as Radiohead's Paranoid Android. Nelly's song Hot In Here, ended as Talking Head's Burning Down The House. We went everywhere, from soul and funk to rock music and Fleetwood Mac. Edwin Starr's "War" had a lively crowd pogoing away. Only nearer the end when she went for more mainstream songs could the crowd manage to start singing along, desperate to join in by that point, then she changed direction again with a melodious rendition of John Williams's theme from ET. Charlotte Church certainly has catholic tastes when it comes to pop music.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Protect and Survive

War. What is it good for?

This is the front page of the UK newspaper The Daily Mirror today. "We're On The Brink Of Nuclear War" cry the headlines, yet only two weeks ago the UN held a week of nuclear ban treaty negotiations. The UK government boycotted the negotiations.

In the 1980s nuclear war felt like a real possibility. People were aware that with a huge arsenal of weapons was held on British soil, much of it 30 miles up the road from my home in Glasgow. No walk in the Scottish Highlands was complete without a couple of low flying RAF jets buzzing past you and when I used to camp in Glen Douglas, near Inverbeg, with my school friends we were aware that there were underground silos at the western end of the glen, never moreso than when a couple of soldiers woke us one night to ask why we were camping here. Scotland was going to be on the front line of any nuclear conflict. Realistically this would mean millions of civilian deaths across the globe and the destruction of our environment.

So people organised against it, let our leaders know that we knew this to be wrong. I spent many a weekend in my teenage years up at Faslane near Helesburgh or over at Holy Loch near Dunoon joining CND protests. Aged 14 I was an organiser in Glasgow West Youth CND, and went as a delegate from CND to the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow in 1985. There I attended speeches by the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who in the coming years stepped back from the arms race that had been running up until that time and signed several disarmament deals with his US counterpart, Ronald Reagan.

The world breathed a sigh of relief, but the threat never went away. As the nuclear powers around the world, including the UK, refused to completely disarm other countries were keen to develop nuclear weapons themselves. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have joined the UK, Russia, USA, China and France in building up nuclear arsenals. The result is now that more leaders around the world than ever before hold a priaptic finger over the nuclear button. And when those leaders include the delicate egos that are Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un I think nobody is surprised that the Doomsday Clock is now closer to midnight than it has been at any time since the early 1980s. If you have read Eric Schlosser's book Command and Control you will know that good fortune rather than cool heads is the only thing which has avoided nuclear catastrophe over the past 50 years, and the more weapons there are on standby, the risk of an accident increases day by day.

So to reduce the feeling of impending nuclear annihilation I have been getting prepared and flicking through the re-assuring pages of my copy of "Protect and Survive", the British government's pamphlet from 1980 full of handy tips on what to do in event of a nuclear strike. I now feel quite justified in refusing to ever throw anything out. In case you don't still own a copy and the government don't get the chance to quickly re-print it when the big one goes off, I have dashed off copies of the one I have, for your education. I hope that this makes everyone feel much safer.

Alternatively you may want to support those campaigning for nuclear disarmament by either joining, or donating money to Scottish CND or CND UK by following the links. In Scotland the Scottish Green Party and The Scottish National Party support unilateral disarmament for Scotland. I know I would feel much more safe if we did not have a target painted over Glasgow, and imagine what a lead we could take in the world at this time by getting rid of these weapons of mass destruction from our country.

Protect and Survive

Click on images below to expand. Disclaimer - I have no evidence that painting your windows white and hiding under a table will protect your family from a nuclear payload detonated over your city, but good luck with that. For more information you may wish to watch the Raymond Briggs animation "When The Wind Blows".