Monday, 20 March 2017

American post-Trump Comedy? Glasgow International Comedy Festival

Glasgow International Comedy Festival Review

Greg Proops, Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow. March 15 2017
Rich Hall, Garage, Glasgow. March 18 2017.



Glasgow International Comedy Festival rumbles along again. There is never any feeling of a "festival" going on with venues and acts scattered across the city, there is no hub or buzz about it. The Aye Write book festival is on at the same time, but centred at the Mitchell Library, when you are there you feel there is something happening. Despite that the comedy festival brings an impressive line up of acts each year, if you can stumble upon them. With the incomprehensible mess that is American President Trump, I decided to seek out a couple of American comedians to see if they could find humour in their situation. 

Greg Proops came to the attention of British audiences as a regular guest on the improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway? My kids know him as their least liked character in the whole Star Wars saga, Fode, a two-headed Troig ("I don't care what universe you're from, that's gotta hurt.") He now regularly records a popular podcast, which he recorded on the second of his two nights at Cottiers Theatre. His show was a game of two halves. The first half he appeared rather deflated, rattled off a few jokes about his previous times in Scotland. From brutal haircuts, mocking our tablet and Irn Bru, and the idea of having a whisky and cola, to the pointlessness of a Ferris wheel in George Square. But his concentration wandered; some stories were forgotten and punchlines were told back to front. The second half he came out with more energy, either because he started by ranting about the America's moronic president, or because he had a vodka and ice at hand. His exuberant faith in the abilities of Hillary Clinton, may have raised a few sceptical eyebrows, but it was women in general who he felt should be running the world. I'm not sure that out-of-towners get that saying Nicola Sturgeon seems to be doing a good job will cause most audiences to immediately split down the middle.

Rich Hall made a similar comment vaguely supportive of Nicola Sturgeon's competency, and similarly got as many boos as cheers. I think it is a topic that requires a more nuanced approach to carry the whole audience with you. He gave us an hour of gags and stories, before coming back on stage with his band to give us a musical second half. His tales of his previous dealings in Scotland seemed a bit warmer and a bit more up to date, his anger at Donald Trump and his electorate a bit more visceral and a bit less despondent. As he said, the problem doing comedy about Trump is that three days later, his actions in the real world will be madder than any comedic invention. For his musical entertainment he battered out a series of songs about audience members he had been dealing with in the first half, quickly rattling off rhymes with their jobs and even a cheery ditty about Larkhall. He clearly has spent far too much time in small towns around Scotland as he managed to work Glenrothes, Hawick and Eccclefechan into his songs. His world-weary face brightened up when people requested a rendition of his Border Collie Song that he had created whilst filming a BBC4 documentary on country music, that had been on TV the night before (still available on BBC iPlayer until end of April).


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Bombs Over Glasgow On The Night Of The Clydebank Blitz

I recently read a book about Scottish war artists. Although there wasn't a picture of it, the book mentioned a painting called "Bomb Crater, Knightswood" by Ian Fleming, painted after the Clydebank blitz. I spent my teenage years in Knightswood in Glasgow and although I knew that huge parts of Clydebank had been flattened during the war, I really had no idea which areas of Glasgow had been bombed. So I decided to have a look about for any remaining signs of war damage.


Clydebank Blitz


Over two nights on the 13th and 14th of March 1941, Clydebank suffered intense attack from the Luftwaffe as they tried to destroy shipbuilding and industrial targets in the town. Afterwards only seven of the 12,000 houses in the town were left undamaged, with 4,000 completely destroyed and a similar number severely damaged. Remarkably the industrial sites survived relatively unscathed and were soon able to return to full production. However the number of people made homeless who had to move away and the civilian casualties caused long-lasting hardship to the residents of the town. On those two nights numerous targets in nearby Glasgow were also bombed, with a greater loss of life but spread across a wider area. According to official figures (which some feel may be an underestimate) the two nights of bombing led to the deaths of 528 people in Clydebank and a further 650 in Glasgow.

The main targets in Clydebank were the Singer Sewing Machine factory, which had switched to munitions production during the war, John Brown's Shipyard and Beardmore's engine works. My great-uncle Andy worked in John Brown's Shipyard in Clydebank. Travelling daily from his home in the Gorbals, he was 14 years old when he started working in the yards as a "bilge boy" on the construction of HMS Hood. This work involved holding a candle, and going down with a bucket to the lowest parts of the ship to collect dropped rivets and tools. Work in the shipyards paid much better than many other industries and he was paid 30 shillings for this. At the time of the Russian revolution he remembered tossing his bunnet into the air when he and other workers celebrated the news from Moscow (he remembered it because he lost his bunnet that day). On the day of the armistice in 1918 everyone was sent home from the shipyard at 11am, except the gatekeepers. Oblivious to all of this, as he was working deep in the lowest parts of the ships, he emerged later to find the shipyard like a ghost town, and had to walk home to the Gorbals, as there were no buses then running. He later became an engineer and for two years during the depression of the 1930s was entirely unable to find any work. As war approached, shipbuilding picked up again and he was back to work in John Brown's. He was still working when I joined a march through Glasgow, in my pram, to support him and his co-workers in the UCS work-in in the early 1970s, and he retired when the work-in ended in victory.

He was working nightshift in John Brown's Shipyard on the night of the blitz, spending most of the time in underground shelters. He found it difficult to comprehend the total devastation he witnessed walking home towards Glasgow through the rubble that first morning after the bombing. I was only a child when he told me these stories, but the memories of the Clydebank blitz never left him.

Records of bombs landing on Jellicoe Street north of the Forth and Clyde Canal at Dalmuir  opposite the engine works
The highest density of bombing on those nights was over Clydebank. The map above shows the bombs that landed around Jellicoe Street in Clydebank. One family in this street suffered particularly when 14 members of the Rocks family, at number 78, died in the bombing.

Just before 9pm on the 13th of March the first German aircraft were spotted coming up the Clyde. The first wave usually dropped incendiary bombs to start fires and guide subsequent planes carrying bombs with move explosive power. Early in the first night of bombing in Clydebank the incendiary bombs ignited the timber store at Singers factory and Yoker distillery began burning furiously. By the next morning it was as if the whole town was on fire. My wife's grandad was a coalminer in Fife and he remembers looking west from Lochgelly that evening and knowing something awful was happening, as he could see the horizon glowing.

Photograph taken from Great Western Road/ The Boulevard on the night of 13th March 1941 with Clydebank ablaze. The Singer tower can be seen in the centre of the picture

Glasgow during the Clydebank Blitz - 13th March 1941


An Anderson shelter on display at the People's Palace, Glasgow. In wartime it would have been covered in earth.
Glasgow had always been identified as vulnerable to German attack, and with its high concentration of heavy industry was expected to be a target. Anderson shelters could be built in gardens in leafy Knightswood and Mosspark (and many were still standing as garden sheds when I was a kid), but the densely populated, tightly packed tenements in the city meant that bombs landing here could cause many casualties. Communal shelters were built in some streets and back courts. Other tenements had to make do with "strutted close-mouths", wooden beams put up to try to make a safe area from potential collapse of the building above. This was in the days before closes had doors, leaving residents huddling together through the night, exposed to the elements in event of an air raid (a concern that was raised in Parliament at the time).

Ian Fleming. Shelters in a tenement lane, Glasgow
As well as the shipyards of Clydebank, other targets that the Germans had identified were the oil depot at Old Kilpatrick, the many shipyards in Glasgow, industries in Parkhead and Springburn, Port Dundas power station and, as you can see in the German reconnaissance photograph below, Dawsholm gas works, and rubber and chemical factories along the banks of the Forth and Clyde Canal. It was realised that a bomb damaging the canal could cause extensive flooding and several emergency "Stop Locks" were built. These could be closed to reduce this risk in the event of damage to the canal. The remnants of one of these can still be seen at the Stockingfield Junction, above Lochburn Road.

Emergency Stop Lock on the Forth and Clyde Canal
German Luftwaffe reconnaissance photograph over Wyndford and Maryhill, with potential bombing targets highlighted
Reports of incendiary devices landing on Clydebank started to arrive around 9pm on the 13th of March 1941. Bombs were soon reported falling on Drumchapel and High Knightswood just north of Great Western Road. This has often led to the suggestion that many German pilots were mistaking the long, wide Great Western Road, glinting in the moonlight, for the River Clyde or the Forth and Clyde Canal, and were dropping their bombs on these residential areas in error, missing the industrial targets to the south.

Shortly after the first bombs fell on Clydebank a "parachute landmine" exploded in the playground at Bankhead School in Knightswood. The school was used as an ARP station, home to the Auxilliary Fire Service and a first aid post. Parachute mines were designed to explode upon landing, spreading the force of their blast wider than bombs that buried themselves in the ground and they caused much of the damage across Glasgow that night. Thirty nine people were killed by this explosion at Bankhead School, including two "boy messengers". Bankhead Primary School was re-opened after the war. When her family were moved to Drumchapel from the Gorbals in the late 1950s, my mum spent her primary 6 and primary 7 years at Bankhead Primary.

Bankhead School before the war
Wartime painting by Ian Fleming. "Bomb Crater, Knightswood" with the typical housing of this area visible in the background
Memorial in Bankhead Primary School to those who died there that night
The German airmen recorded anti-aircraft fire started at 9.35pm. Anti-aircraft guns were located up and down the Clyde coast, in Glasgow at Kings Park and Carmunnock on the southside, at Station Road in Bearsden and out near Khyber Pass in what is now Mugdock Park. You can still see the structures where these guns stood in Mugdock Park, and look down towards the Clyde. My granny spent her army years during the war working in an anti-aircraft gun unit at Portishead near Bristol and told me what her days there were like. As well as concentrating on targeting the enemy aircraft, the gunners were themselves a target. When she wasn't on duty, my granny can recall sleeping in the nearby Nissen hut with dirt and shrapnel, thrown up by German bombs, peppering the roof through the night.

Anti-aircraft gun emplacement above Glasgow in Mugdock Park
Anti-aircraft gun operation room in Mugdock Par,k which received information and passed targeting details to the gunners. Officers and women from the ATS (like my granny) worked in these bunkers, as women were not allowed to actually fire the guns
One of four gun emplacement, surrounded by ammunition stores, above the River Clyde in Mugdock Park
By 11pm extra fire engines were being called in to Clydebank to deal with the fires now blazing there from Kirkintilloch, Motherwell, Helensburgh and Coatbridge. Before midnight in Glasgow, bombs had also landed in Govan and at the junction of Radnor Street and Argyle Street. The St Enoch Free Church building that stood at the gushet where Old Dumbarton Road and Argyle Street meet later had to be pulled down due to the bomb damage. For many years this became the site of a BP garage stood there, before recently giving way to a block of student flats.

Former site of the St Enoch's United Free Church, at the corner of Old Dumbarton Road and Argyle Street in Glasgow
Two mines had landed in Kelvingrove Park. One of them landed on Kelvin Way near the bridge over the River Kelvin, damaging the statues there (a plaque records the subsequent repairs) and also blew out windows at Glasgow University and Kelvingrove Art Gallery. The statues at the northern end of the bridge were damaged, allegorical sculptures which represent Peace and War, Philosophy and Inspiration. The exploding landmine blew these sculptures into the River Kelvin where they lay until 1949. It wasn't until a hot spell in 1995 made the river levels in the Kelvin fall very low that a passerby spotted a missing arm from one of the sculptures, that had lay in the water for over 50 years. This newspaper report confirms that satisfied with the earlier 1951 repair, the city council did not plan to re-attach the original arm.
Statues on Kelvin Way which were damaged by a German bomb. These figures represent "Peace" and "War"
Statues on Kelvin Way which were damaged by a German bomb. These figures represent "Philosophy" and "Inspiration". Many windows in Glasgow University, visible in the distance here, were smashed by the explosion
Plaque marking the repair to these statues in 1951
At 11.30pm a landmine and five bombs landed in Partick on Sandy Road, Hayburn Street, Dumbarton Road and on Peel Street, where the most extensive damage occurred. On Peel Street the tenements on the western side of the street opposite the West of Scotland Cricket Club were destroyed. When the buildings collapsed here 50 people lost their lives and survivors were being pulled from the rubble for days. In several other spots nearby modern flats standing amongst the old tenements show where bomb damaged buildings had to be pulled down.

Few old tenements still stand down the west side of Peel Street, most were destroyed by bombs in 1941
Just before midnight a parachute mine lands on offices at Yarrow's shipyard in Yoker, collapsing an underground shelter below. 200 men are trapped inside and 67 of them die. Many tenements in the neighbouring streets of Scotstoun and Yoker were also being hit around this time. A mine landed on shelters between Earl Street and Dumbarton Roan, killing 66 people. In Hyndland a bomb landed at Queensborough Gardens and mines fell on Dudley Drive, Airlie Street and Turnberry Road. On Dudley Drive numbers 8, 10 and 12 collapsed and across the road numbers 7 and 9 later had to be demolished. 36 people died here and 21 were injured. You can see the difference where the gaps on Dudley Drive were filled after the war with red sandstone tenements. 

8-12 Dudley Drive, 36 people died when a landmine landed on the tenement here, rebuilt in the 1950s
7 and 9 Dudley Drive, demolished due to bomb damage and later re-built
On the southside of Glasgow bombs and mines landed in Chapel Lane in the Gorbals, the Co-op warehouse on Morrison Street and nearby on McLure and McIntosh's knitwear factory on Florence Street (known after its owners, as the "Twomax").

On Govan Road, where a petrol station now sits in a gap site near to the Clyde Tunnel roundabout, three tenements were destroyed by a parachute bomb aimed at Stephens Linthouse shipyard across the road. 69 people died in this attack.

Petrol station on Govan Road at site of bombing which destroyed three tenements
Bomb disposal officers successfully defuse an unexploded land mine which fell on Glasgow
The destructive power that these parachute mines had was made clear when one landed between a tram and the tenements on Nelson Street, at the junction with Centre Street in Tradeston. 110 people died from this blast (pictured below) including three French sailors on the other side of the Clyde, on the Broomielaw. Eleven of those that died were on the tram from which twenty people were rescued, remarkable given the damage that occurred here which you can see in the picture below. Many more people were injured in the collapsed buildings surrounding this, or trapped in underground shelters. This was the worst loss of life in any single incident during a bombing raid on Scotland during the war.

A parachute mine lands between a tram and the adjacent tenements on Nelson Street, Glasgow
Junction of Centre Street and Nelson Street today. The destruction started by the Luftwaffe in 1941 was completed by Glasgow City town planners in the 1960s with this formerly bustling area being a jumble of run down warehouses to this day 
A parachute mine lands on Queen Margaret Road at the junction with Queen Margaret Drive and Wilton Street. The BBC building across the River Kelvin was thought to be the intended target. If you look at the red sandstone tenements here, just west of Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's "Sixty Steps", you can see that the mine caused the complete destruction of the last block in the road, which was rebuilt in the 1950s. Damage from the mine can be seen still on the nearby bridge over the Kelvin. A second mine which fell on 84 Kelvin Drive, at Clouston Street (at that time The Aberholme Hotel), crashed through the roof with its parachute still attached, but did not explode.

Tenements on Queen Margaret Road, the original tenement in the foreground and the later replacement in the distance of the tenement destroyed by German bombing
Queen Margaret Bridge shows signs of damage from the landmine which destroyed the tenement building across the road
Shortly after the bombing stopped in Clydebank, the last bomb of the night fell on Glenburn Street in Maryhill at 5.35am. Those buildings in Clydebank which had not collapsed with the intense bombing there during the night, all seemed to be on fire as day dawned. 

The Polish destroyer ORP Piorun (meaning Thunderbolt) was in John Brown's Shipyard for repairs on the night of the German bombing of the town. During the raid the commander of the ship, Eugeniusz Plawski, got his men to direct fire from the ships guns towards the German aircraft overhead. It is believed that this may have steered some planes away from dropping their bombs over the yards. For their bravery there is a memorial to the Polish crew of the ship in Clydebank's Solidarity Plaza. Eight weeks after that night during the Clydebank Blitz the ORP Piorun was among the ships hunting the Bismarck, and the first to spot her. Until support arrived, the captain had his ship charge at the Bismarck alone sending radio messages to make sure that she knew it was a Polish ship was attacking them.
Solidarity Plaza in Clydebank, dedicated to the sailors of O.R.P. Piorun, "defenders of Clydebank".


The Second Night - 14th March 1941


With rescues still ongoing among the rubble in Clydebank and Glasgow, when darkness fell the following night the air raid sirens sounded again. The first bomb of the night fell just before 9pm, again north of Great Western Road in Drumchapel destroying the post office. Soon afterwards bombs were falling again on Clydebank and in Drumchapel, near the train station. 

Ian Fleming . Blitz Maryhill, Kilmun Street
Just before midnight two mines fell on Maryhill. The first exploded in a field by Duncruin Street and the second on the tenements of Kilmun Street. Kilmun Street runs off Maryhill Road, just behind St Mary's Primary School. The collapse of the buildings here led to the deaths of 83 people. Rescuers coming to the area reported that Maryhill Road was increasingly covered in broken glass the nearer they got to the site. The local school was the designated first aid post in the area, but was also damaged by the blast, with many windows broken. Whilst rescues carried on through the night in the rubble, as seen in Ian Fleming's painting below, many survivors were gathered together down at the tram depot on Celtic Street.

Ian Fleming. Rescue Party, Kilmun Street 1942
Kilmun Street in Maryhill lies empty today
Street sign at Cumlodden Drive/ Kilmun Street junction
Elsewhere on the Clydeside that night ships were damaged by bombs falling on Dalmuir Basin, Princes Dock in Glasgow and at Denny's Shipyard in Dumbarton. A mine also exploded in the Clyde at the mouth of the River Cart, beaching a tug. The Old Kilpatrick oil tanks, which were still ablaze from the previous night's attack, were bombed again. Two mines landed on the Clydebridge Iron Works in Cambuslang, but didn't explode. Other bombs caused minor damage at Sheildhall Power Station and at Sheildhall Wharf and Stephen's Shipyard.

Firdon Crescent next to Drumchapel train station was hit, bombs landed in Knghtswood at the junction between Waldemar Road and Chaplet Avenue, on Alderman Road and on Lincoln Avenue at the junction with Archerhill Road (I lived in the high flats here for 10 years, oblivious to this fact). Six people were killed in Knightswood that night and six houses destroyed. Great Western Road was closed at Drumry when a bomb left a huge crater in the road here.

In Bridgeton a parachute mine destroyed a tenement on Allan Street. This started a fire at the nearby methylated spirit works and 600 people here lost their homes. Other planes appeared to be dumping their bombs before returning to Germany or had been completely disorientated in their targetting, as this night bombs also fell in Drymen, Blanefield, Fintry, Neilston and Barrhead. 27 bombs fell on Erskine Hospital, home to disabled veterans of the first World War, presumably intended for the nearby munitions works in Bishopton. Four bombs fell on the Isle of Bute in the hills behind Rothesay, and one "fell three miles west of Sannox Bay on the Isle of Arran".

At 6.15am the all clear was sounded in Clydebank, a town which over two days had been flattened.

Edward Ardizzone. Bombed Out (Glasgow) 1941
The civilian population of Glasgow and Clydebank were the ones that suffered during the German bombing attacks on the Clydeside. The shipyards and many other industries in the city suffered relatively little damage from bombing. Terror and demoralisation of civilian populations by bombing has been argued as part of the justification of such attacks as much as any military advantage gained, or shock and awe, to use the modern vernacular.

Walls marked by shrapnel at the former bath house in Clydebank

Other bombing raids


The first attack on Glasgow was in July 1940, and the last air-raid was in March 1943. The worst bombing was the nights which I have described above, but further major bombing raids occurred in Glasgow and Clydebank in April and May 1941. The raids in May again led to extensive bombing in Glasgow, but the main target was Greenock. Despite the shipyards and Beardmore diesel works there being the target, again it was the civilian population that bore the brunt of the attack. On the night of May 6th 1941 in Greenock 10,000 homes were damaged, 280 people killed and 1200 injured.

Rescuers among the rubble of a Glasgow tenement destroyed by German bombing
Another incidents of note in Glasgow during the war was the sinking of HMS Sussex, bombed whilst in Yorkhill Quay for repairs. In September 1940, a bomb struck her fuel tanks and the ship caught fire and was sunk, later to be salvaged and repaired. Also in 1940 Merkland Street subway station (now called Partick Station) was hit by a bomb and closed for several months. Apparently if you know where to look in the tunnel between Partick and Govan stations you can see the repairs that had to be carried out.

Deanston Drive in Shawlands was struck by bombs in an attack later in the war, putting pay to the mischievous rumour in Glasgow at the time that Hitler's mother must have come from Shawlands, as it always seemed to be missed during bombing raids. There is apparently shrapnel damage visible in some of the tenement walls near here.

Queens Park UP Church, Glasgow
Queens Park UP Church on Langside Avenue, one of the most impressive buildings designed by Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, was destroyed by an incendiary bomb in March 1943, and the ruins flattened.

In the Barrowlands area, a bomb destroyed the tenement at the junction of Kent Street and London Road where Rossi's Cafe once stood.

In the city centre bombs landed in September 1940, destroying buildings just north of the City Chambers on Martha Street and North Frederick Street. Also the two modern buildings at the end of Ingram Street at the junction with Queen Street were replacements for bomb damaged buildings, the one at the corner south of Ingram Street destroyed by a bomb, and the building across the road damaged by the same explosion.

Queen Street at Ingram Street
There are maps in the Mitchell Library which record many of the bombs which landed on Glasgow, but nobody has pulled this information all together for the city in an online map, the way people have done for Clydebank or London. The maps record bombs which landed between 1940 and 1943 in Dalmarnock, Shettleston, Bridgeton, Calton, Garngad, Hutcesontown, Tradeston and Plantation. Destroyed houses are noted on Boyd Street, Govanhill, Crow Road, Anniesland and either side of Victoria Park in Scotstoun on Eastcote Avenue and Lime Street.

Old houses on the left, new on the right, replacing bomb damaged houses on Crow Road
Further west on the map the areas coloured in as war damage become more extensive. From isolated detonations in Maryhill and Kelvindale, to more widespread damage in Knightswood, Drumchapel, Drumry, Garscadden and Yoker. In areas with sparser housing the casualties were fewer, but wherever a parachute mine landed on an area of more densely populated tenements, a single blast caused significant deaths. 

Map of Glasgow war damage, Mitchell Library

As contemporary newspaper reports were so heavily censored they do not contain a useful record of the hardships faced by cities targeted by bombers. Looking back at newspapers of the time they talk vaguely about "a Clydeside town" being bombed, or talking about heroic rescues from the rubble, avoiding any details which may have proved useful to the enemy. From the start it was clear that the attacks on 13th and 14th of March were being called a "blitz", as can be seen in this article below from the Daily Record, on March 27th 1941. The article here about the "Clyde Air Raid Distress Fund" mentions that a German bomb fragment was reported to have had the word "Dollan" on it (aimed at the prominent Lord Provost of the city, Patrick Dollan.) In response an RAF Sergeant advised the Record that he had carved "Let Glasgow Flourish" on a bomb he had since dropped on a German town. Tit-for-tat that continued through the war, and does rather omit the "by the preaching of the word" second half of St Mungo's quote that makes up the city motto.

Daily Record 27 March 1941 alludes to the bombing of Glasgow and Clydebank
As the number of people still living who were alive in Glasgow during World War Two becomes smaller each year, these events fade from living memory. It is therefore important to hear their stories in order to learn from the events of the past. 


Much of the info from this blog came from the following sources...



Friday, 27 January 2017

Franz Kafka's The Trial. An Opera by Phillip Glass

The Trial by Philip Glass. Review. Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow, January 2017.


For many years I have been a fan of Franz Kafka's books and of the music of Philip Glass. Therefore I was obviously going to be drawn to see Scottish Opera bring Glass's opera version of  The Trial to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow this month. The result was, I am pleased to say, a great success.


Happy Birthday Philip Glass


American composer Philip Glass has a diverse body of work behind him. He has written several symphonies, numerous film scores and ballets and twenty six operas, most famously Einstein on the Beach. Among this work is a previous opera of a Kafka story, In The Penal Colony. His second "chamber opera" of a Kafka tale, The Trial, was first performed by the Music Theatre Wales at the Royal Opera House in London in 2014. 

Philip Glass
To celebrate his 80th birthday on 31st January 2017 the Barbican in London have a festival of his music, whilst in Glasgow Scottish Opera are performing Philip Glass's opera The Trial in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Philip Glass has performed in Scotland himself several times in recent years, from his 75th birthday concerts in Glasgow in 2012, to appearances at Glasgow's Minimalism festival in 2015 to playing on stage with Patti Smith at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013.

His music can't be pigeon-holed as he has such a breadth of work from symphonies to film scores, opera and theatre music, to minimalism in the 1970s and string quartets. Repetition and strident pacing often mark his work, which proved to be a good fit for Kafka's The Trial.


The Trial - Franz Kafka


Written in about 1914, though  never finished, The Trial was only published after Kafka's death. He had already written the final chapter and the circular plot means the book holds together despite being incomplete, with the Josef K., the accused main character, jumping off from one point in the story towards his inevitable conclusion. Kafka's express instructions were that the book, and his other unpublished writings, be destroyed after his death. His wishes were ignored by his lifelong friend, Max Brod, and his most famous work was published a year after his death, in 1925. The Trial is Kafka's most Kafkaesque book, a word that has entered our vocabulary to mean a nightmarish complex, bizarre, bureaucratic situation. If you are trying to get through to a telephone help-desk or complete a claim on our welfare system, you will soon understand this word. (Googling "Kafkaesque" and "welfare system" gives over 22,000 hits rather depressingly.)

Josef K. is not a particularly likable character. He wakes on the morning of his 30th birthday to find three inspectors waiting for him. He never knows what crime he has been accused of, but tries to fight his case against mysterious officialdom, secret police and unaccountable courts. He gets drawn into the relationships, corruption, pettiness and bureaucracy of the system.  This faceless, bureaucratic system seems almost stronger today than the version which Kafka imagined.

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka was born in 1883 and died in 1924, aged 40, from TB. He was German-speaking and Jewish and lived most of his life in Prague at the time when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He trained as a lawyer, finishing his studies with a year's unpaid work as a court clerk. He eventually took up a clerical post in an insurance business, as he described it, in order to pay the bills, allowing him to keep writing. The overlaps between Kafka's life and K., who works as chief clerk in a bank whilst continuing his frustrating fights through an absurd legal system, are not hard to see. Felice Bauer, to whom Kafka was twice engaged, is often seen as the template for Fraulein Burstner in the book.

There are two cities that I have ran around trying to imagine settings for my favourite books. In St Petersburg I sought out Dostoyevsky's apartment and the flats and streets inhabited by Raskolnikov in his novel Crime and Punishment. On visiting Prague in the 1980s I made sure that I visited Kafka's old house at 22 Golden Lane, and stood like some pretentious arse by his graveside in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague, wearing a yarmulke and reading from one of his books. The apartment block in a Prague suburb that we were staying in on that trip, with its rickety stairs, was just like the apartments Kafka sets his court offices of The Trial in their attics. It is maybe inevitable then that I link these two books in my mind, Crime and Punishment and The Trial.

My fanboy trip to Prague to visit Kafka's house and grave
Dostoyevsky's work was a big influence on Kafka's ideas and there are many echos of Crime and Punishment in the Trial. Has K. committed a crime? Does he consider his actions criminal? If not why does he subject himself to the rule of the authorities? The same questions about guilt and responsibility drive Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Josef K. in The Trial. Themes of guilt, alienation, angst, surrealism, claustrophobic life, shifting balance of power in relationships run through the books. The thoughts of both authors turn to religion in the final chapters when thinking about guilt and responsibility. Kafka was drawn to some ideas from Freud and also from Karl Marx's theory of alienation, that becoming a mechanistic part of a social class, through endless work, alienates people from their humanity, as it does in the dehumanising world of The Trial.

Many of my favourite contemporary authors are clearly inspired by Kafka's work and there are clear shadows of his writing in the books of James Kelman and Alasdair Gray.

Kafka created a darkly comic, precise world in the book. The confusing geometry of apartment blocks, stairwells and offices, the claustrophobic, stuffy descriptions that give a sense how Josef K. is feeling. There is an Escher-like clarity to this unreal, but very recognisable, world that Kafka creates. Written over 100 years ago, reading The Trial again it feels very prescient. The populace are now increasingly judged guilty until proven innocent, watched and spied upon more than ever and evaluated by unknown observers as we travel through our modern world. Truth and facts are just a matter of opinion and perspective. Secret courts can now pass secret judgements leaving defendants as confused as Josef K. as to why they won or lost their case.

To get very meta about The Trial, here is Scottish post-punk band Josef K.'s video for their song "It's Kinda Funny", made up of clips from Orson Wells's classic 1962 film version of The Trial starring Anthony Perkins (who makes a great Josef K.).



The Trial. Scottish Opera

A Czech beer and all set for The Trial

A co-production between Scottish Opera, Music Theatre Wales (as was The Devil Inside) and Theater Magdeburg The Trial gets its Scottish premier in Glasgow before moving to Edinburgh. It has a libretto from Christopher Hampton (writer of the play and film Les Liasons Dangereuses) that is very faithful to the book and manages to boil down the whole story into ten scenes, just as the book has ten chapters. The scenes all flow one into another thanks to the music and clever stagecraft and set design. The set looks like a prison cell, with secret doors and openings dextrously used throughout, always allowing K. to be observed from different corners. Baritone Nicholas Lester as Josef K. is present on stage almost throughout, but despite physically towering over most of the other seven members of the ensemble cast, he seems to shrink and crumble through the course of the evening.

The twelve musicians create a much bigger sound than their numbers suggest, at times unsettling, at times frisky, particularly when Fraulein Burstner is on stage. There is much variety in the music between scenes but an insistent, marching tempo throughout, swirling towards a dramatic conclusion. The music in the last two scenes was particularly striking, literally in the case of the percussive beats on the anvil. There is black humour in the book, but that is brought to the fore in the staging of the opera, with some acting reminiscent of silent movie performances of Scottish actors Alfred Eric Campbell and James Finlayson. The guards are done up like Thompson and Thomson from the Tintin books (who were NOT twins, that was a pop band) and their excuse of "only obeying orders" rings a few bells.

Alfred Eric Campbell, James Finlayson and Thompson and Thomson
The words being sung are clear and simple, like the book itself, and many of the lines seem lifted straight from Kafka, particularly the priest's parable of law. Others are cleverly arranged in the opera for greater emphasis, such as the last words of the first act matching up to the words that end the book, "Like a dog!". 

The contemporary themes of the book shine through, moreso now in the early days of a Donald Trump presidency. From the first line of the book lies are accepted as fact, making this the most modern of 100 year old stories.
"Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning."

Karine Polwart. Wind Resistance. Celtic Connection 2017

Karine Polwart. Wind Resistance. Tron Theatre, January 2017. Review


Karine Polwart's Wind Resistance was first performed at the Edinburgh International Festival last year, and now finds its way to Glasgow as part of this year's Celtic Connections festival.
I had tried and failed to get tickets for it last year so was pleased to see it being revived.

Written and performed by Karine Polwart, with input from David Greig and directed by Wils Wilson, Wind Resistance is a mixture of story-telling, folklore, traditional, and original songs all woven together around the musicality of Karine Polwart's voice. Twenty four hours on I am still digesting all that it contained.

The starting point is Fala Moor in Midlothian, close to where Karine Polwart lives. From describing the vista that opens up in front of you there, to crouching down and inspecting the smallest moss over the course of 90 minutes she explores the inter-connectedness of land, people and society. The mixture of personal memories and the story of a couple who lived 100 years earlier on a farm close to where Karine Polwart now lives give a humane heart to the piece. The songs give the whole story a feeling that we are sitting around a campfire on the hillside hearing secrets and tales in the oral tradition, passed on to us.

The skein of pink footed geese that arrive on the moor in autumn from Greenland are the visible proof of the benefits we can all gain by sharing the load. I laughed as that led us into an excuse to recall the Aberdeen's 1983 European Cup Winners' Cup winning team, as then manager Alex Ferguson is a big fan of that metaphor. Karine's enthusiasm for that team was shared by non-Old Firm supporting classmates of mine in 1983 who started following Aberdeen and Dundee United around that time (I stuck with Partick Thistle - whose laughing now?).

It is also a story about womanhood and childbirth that manages to avoid any tired "mother Earth" tropes. The warnings about the current atomisation of the health service are clear. It is a humane piece and focused on the benefits we all get from society pulling together, looking after our wild sites and each other. Like the geese I was lucky enough to be in Greenland recently, where the effects of global warming are visible in front of your eyes, and not acting is clearly no longer an option.

A timely warning against isolation and individualism. If you get the opportunity to see it, I would encourage you to grab it (and take a hankie).








Monday, 16 January 2017

The Sinking of TSS Athenia, September 1939


The Anchor Line and the sinking of TSS Athenia


As a city Glasgow grew up along the River Clyde, the city and shipping were inseparably connected. The city merchants became wealthy on trade with all corners of the British Empire, initially to slave economies, later investing their money in booming industries that made the banks of the Clyde a hive of activity in the 19th century. People, like my great-grandparents from the Highlands and from Ireland, came to the city to find work, a city becoming famed for its engineering and ship-building. On the back of this other areas grew, like Parkhead, Possil and Lambhill producing coal and steel.

From the 1860s Glasgow became the pre-eminent shipbuilding centre in the world, specialising in steamships made of iron, and later steel. As demand for passenger and freight services grew many shipping companies emerged to chase new markets to India and the Americas. 

The Anchor Line, Anchor-Donaldson Line


Although never on the scale of P&O and Cunard, Glasgow's most famous passenger company was the Anchor Line. The name first appeared when Glasgow's Handyside shipping agents were joined by sea captain Thomas Henderson. In the 1850s they began using the "Anchor Line of Steam-Packet Ships" in their advertising. Initially operating ships to India they bought their own ships and started routes to New York. Other Henderson brothers came on board and they acquired the shipyard at Meadowside, which operated as D&W Hendersons. Over several decades 32 Anchor Line ships were built in their yards. They played up the Scottish angle, using the line "Scottish ships and Scottish crews for Scottish passengers" in some of their early marketing for the Glasgow to New York route, and marketing and advertising was something they seemed to be good at right from the start. In a brochure for the American market from 1925 their attempts to emphasise their Scottish origins are clear, with the images they used and slogans such as "Wise Americans Go Home via Anchor Line."


In the 1890s, with the deaths of four of the Henderson brothers, the company was re-organised as "Anchor Line (Henderson Bros) Ltd". As the company grew they moved from their offices in Union Street that they had operated from in the 1870s into swanky, white marble offices on St Vincent Street in 1907. Three years later they moved their ships' berths from Stobcross Quay to better accommodation at the newly completed Yorkhill Quay. Their success led to Cunard buying into the company in 1911, but running it as a separate concern from the Glasgow headquarters. 

Anchor Line building at the corner of St Vincent St and Anchor Lane, the building is now open as a bar and restaurant using the 'Anchor Line' and 'Atlantic' names
The company aimed to provide comfort, but at affordable prices, usually under-cutting their American rivals. They always had a stylish image, employing the best of artists to design their posters and adverts and the ships stood out with their distinctive black funnels. They had routes via Gibraltar to India and Egypt, cruises to the Mediterranean, routes aimed at the migrant market from Italy to New York, and links to take advantage of increased emigration from Scandinavia with subsidiary companies bringing ships to Leith and linking via trains to Glasgow to join their trans-Atlantic routes onwards from here. Taking advantage of a growing market for those emigrating to Canada the Anchor-Donaldson subsidiary was developed in 1916. This merged Anchor Line resources with those of the Donaldson Line which had started as a freight company operating to Canada and South America. The Anchor-Donaldson Line began regular sailings between Glasgow and Canada, often linked to stops in Liverpool and Belfast.


In the 1930s the company began to struggle. The imposition of immigration quotas affected their trade to New York, the new Fascist government in Italy effectively shut down their routes from there by introducing laws requiring emigrees use Italian carriers and the depression affected their freight carriage. Cunard withdrew from the company and it limped on through liquidation.   

TSS Athenia


The Anchor-Donaldson Line to Canada was developed in 1916 whilst war was still gripping the world. Four passenger liners were transferred from the Donaldson Line to the new concern but these ships were soon requisitioned for war service. Of these, two were sunk in World War 1 by U-boats, the Athenia and the Letitia.



After the war these ships were replaced by two larger ships, which were given the same names, the Letitia and Athenia. They were designed for the emigrant trade. The TSS Athenia was built in the Fairfields Yard in Govan, Glasgow and came into service in 1924. She could accommodate 1,500 passengers. The Athenia and Letitia were kept busy during the 1920s as various government schemes tried to encourage emigration to Canada, offering tickets for only £2 with a guaranteed job on arrival. By the 1930s this emigration business was tailing off and the ships were re-fitted with more comfortable accommodation in an effort to appeal to tourists. The company struggled with the fall in trade and went into liquidation in 1935. The Donaldson Line re-acquired the full ownership of the company and continued trading as the Donaldson Atlantic Line. This company took ownership of the two ships and continued to operate under this name until 1954, now completely separate from the Anchor Line company.

Display at Glasgow Riverside Museum on the sinking of the Athenia

Souvenirs from TSS Athenia, on display in Glasgow's Riverside Museum
Passengers on board the Letitia or Athenia could buy souvenirs such as these Athenia branded goods above, which are on display in the Glasgow Riverside Museum, or the postcard above that which I have, showing the ship. Many of those leaving from Glasgow would send a last postcard home when they stopped in Ireland or Liverpool to pick up the last of the passengers for the trip.

TSS Athenia being guided down the Clyde by a tug on an outward journey in 1938 with Meadowside Granary visible at the top of the picture and a vehicular ferryboat at the bottom left.
By 1939 the shadow of war was again hanging over Europe. Eastern European refugees, German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Canadians and Americans living or holidaying in Britain were trying to get across the Atlantic to safety. On the 4th of August 1939 TSS Athenia left Glasgow, stopping in Liverpool then Belfast on the 5th and 6th of August, she arrived in Quebec on August 12th and Montreal a day later. Back in Glasgow on the 27th of August she was made ready to make her regular trip again. Leaving Glasgow on September 1st 1939 she would be the last passenger ship leaving Britain to cross the Atlantic before the war, which now seemed inevitable, was declared.

Ian Donnelly, assistant steward on SS Athenia


One of my two grannies grew up in Walsall. Aged 16 she lost her only brother in the sinking of HMS Glorious during World War 2 (I have written about it here). My other granny grew up in the Gorbals and was 23 years old when her big brother, Ian McPhee Donnelly, died aboard the SS Athenia. 

The Donnelly family 1914 and 1916
My great-grandparents Bella McPhee and Peter Donnelly had four children. In the first photograph above their two boys Peter and Ian can be seen. In the second photo Peter is in full Highland dress (presumably property of the photo studio), Ian is sitting happily in a sailor's outfit ready for his working life at sea, and my newly born granny is swaddled in her mother's arms. Six months older than the boxer Benny Lynch, Ian and he were classmates at school in the Gorbals and remained lifelong friends. After leaving school Ian started working on steam-ships as a steward. The one wage slip of his which I have (maybe his first?) is from September 1928, when aged 15 years old, he had just been paid £2.13/2d for 21 days work on the passenger ship Melita, which went from Glasgow to Montreal and Quebec. 

Account of wages, from ship Melita, 1928
My granny always said that he loved his job, enjoyed being at sea and travelling the world. He was still doing it 11 years later when he was on the crew of the Athenia in 1939 (being paid nearer £8 a trip by then). Like many other families, my great-grandparents gave serious thought to emigrating in the late 1920s and this photograph below was taken as a family passport photograph at that time. My granny stands at the back aged about 15 with her big brothers on either side of her, Ian to the right.



For whatever reason the family decided against emigrating and were still living on Gorbals Main Street in 1936 when newly married Ian moved out from his parents' home to live a few doors down the road with his wife Mary (or Molly as we knew her). She was a worker at a biscuit factory at the time of their marriage (almost certainly the McCall & Stephen biscuit factory on Adelphi Street).

Ian Donnelly in his early 20s, and aged 23 marrying Molly in June 1936
With only 4 or 5 days between trips, Ian Donnelly had a few days at home in late August 1939 before heading off to sea again on the 1st of September 1939. During those few days he caught up with family and my granny said that he was out meeting some old friends for a few drinks, including Benny Lynch, the night before he went back to the ship. Also aged 26, Lynch had just had his boxing license withheld a few days earlier for failing to meet the Boxing Board's fitness standards due to his failing health.

Only officers were permanent employees of the shipping companies, the rest of the crew signed on voyage by voyage. The ship's crew were divided into three groups. The deck crew operated the ship and loaded/ unloaded cargo (67 men on the Athenia). Engineering crew worked the engines and maintained the machinery on board (29 men on the Athenia). Under the chief steward, the cabin crew made up the largest part of the crew. Responsible for general housekeeping, cooking, entertainment, with roles from manicurists to confectioners this could be 150-300 cabin crew depending upon passenger numbers on a Donaldson Atlantic Line ship to Canada.

SS Athenia passing Yorkhill Quay 1935, the pump house at the top is about all that is still recognisable today. The Anchor Line's New York steamships Cameronia and Transylvania are visible behind the Athenia.
In 1939 as tension grew in Europe the ships to Canada were becoming busier and busier. The company log books for the Athenia show the trip from Glasgow to Canada in August 1939 required a crew of 262. A month later they had 316 crew looking after an unusually crowded ship. 

The ship left Glasgow around noon on September 1st 1939 and arrived in Belfast that evening near 8pm to collect another 136 passengers.  Two hours later they prepared to head across the Irish Sea for their last stop, in Liverpool, arriving early the next morning. Those boarding in Liverpool would have read newspaper headlines announcing the German invasion of Poland which had begun the previous day. In Liverpool the captain received new advice from the admiralty about anti-submarine procedures to be followed with war expected. He was commanded to follow a zig-zag course north of the usual trade routes, and to sail with the ship blacked out at night.

After a further 546 passengers had boarded at Liverpool the ship set sail at 4.30pm on Sunday the 2nd September, left Liverpool and headed down the River Mersey and northwards. On board were 1,418 people including 316 crew. Of the passengers 469 were Canadian citizens, 311 were Americans, 172 were British or Irish and 150 were European refugees, including many children. Accommodation on the ship was crowded, some rooms designed for two people had four people sleeping in them, some temporary facilities in the lounges were filled and the crew had to arrange three sittings for meals in the dining rooms.

By dawn on the 3rd September they had cleared the Donegal coast and were headed out towards the north Atlantic. Just after 11am the radio operator received a message. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had announced that Britain was at war with Germany and the news was passed to the passengers. The crew conducted a lifeboat drill at 1pm and provisions and flares were placed in all 26 lifeboats in case of an emergency.

Pages from the company log books for TSS Athenia, showing the crew, their wages and dates of arrival and departure in ports en route

The bottom line of this log book should have recounted the dates of arrival in ports along the way, but after Liverpool instead in red ink all it states is... 
"Vessel torpedoed 3rd September '39.
19 crew and 94 passengers lost"


"British Liner Athenia Torpedoed"



U-boats were already in the north Atlantic at the end of August 1939, preparing for war. In the event of war the six U-boats that made up the Salzwedel flotilla here were to attack British naval ships, troop carriers and military craft under escort.

Operating on the surface on the morning of 3rd September U-30 spotted the Norwegian freighter SS Knute Nelson. A short while later the U-boat crew were informed that Germany was at war. At about 2pm the U-boats received orders to "open hostilities against England(sic) immediately. Do not wait to be attacked first". Further messages and instructions outlined the rules of engagement. Later that afternoon the U-boat commander, Oberleutenant Lemp, caught sight of another ship and had his U-boat set a course to intercept it. When dusk approached he had it in his sights. As it was blacked-out and following a zig-zag course he decided that it was an armed British merchant cruiser on patrol and he prepared to attack. As a passenger liner Athenia should have been stopped and searched, or those on board given warning to abandon ship before it was attacked if it was felt to be a legitimate target. None of these things happened. At 7.40pm, from a distance of about 1500 metres, Lemp fired two torpedoes at the ship. One of the torpedoes struck the Athenia and exploded.

A few days later, on 8th September 1939, the American ambassador to London, Joseph P Kennedy dispatched a report to the American Secretary of State. A report was prepared after arranging naval attachés Commander Hitchcock and Captain Kirk to take statements from eye witnesses disembarked from rescue ships in Galway. Their report (a copy of which is held in the Mitchell Library) states that
"the torpedo struck the port side of Athenia, slightly abaft midships.....The explosion caused a great deal of water on the outside of the ship to be blown into the air: destroyed the bulkhead between fireroom and engineroom, shattering the oil tank and destroying access of stairs from the third class and tourist dining saloons to the upper decks"
Several people died at the stairwell or in the dining area and also some people were injured or killed who were on the deck near the point of impact. The second torpedo missed the ship and Lemp took his U-boat down to avoid been struck by it as it followed an erratic course. About half an hour later he surfaced again and as the ship did not appear to be sinking he fired two more torpedoes at her. Many eye witnesses on board also reported seeing or hearing a shot from the submarine's deck canon fired towards the ship, though that is disputed. Of this second volley one torpedo missed and the other became stuck in the tube. To try to release it the U-boat sank again to increase the pressure in the tube. 

The U-boat radio operator could now hear the distress signals of the sinking ship and checking the Lloyds Register of Ships on board the U-boat they were able to confirm that they had attacked a civilian passenger liner, against all commands that they had been given. At that point they left the scene, making no attempt to help the lifeboats as they were meant to under the rules of submarine warfare, and made no radio contact with their command, who learnt about the sinking of the Athenia from BBC broadcasts. It was over three weeks later before U-30 arrived back home, having sunk another three ships on their voyage. Lemp was taken to Berlin to explain the events around the Athenia. Afterwards the U-boat's log books were altered and the Germans continued to deny any involvement in the sinking throughout the war. It wasn't until the Nuremberg trials that the truth emerged.

Rescue


TSS Athenia sinking after being torpedoed by U-30
The Athenia stayed afloat for many hours which gave time for evacuation and all 26 lifeboats were launched into the sea successfully. The sea was at this time relatively flat and within several hours the Norwegian freighter SS Knute Nelson, which Lemp had earlier spotted, arrived to help pick up survivors. Unfortunately a tragic episode here at 2.50am in the morning led to possibly the biggest loss of life in the sinking. With increasingly choppy seas one of the lifeboats got drawn into the propeller of the Knute Nelson, killing many of those on board as the boat got sliced to pieces. 

Next to arrive and offer assistance was The Southern Cross, the "yacht" of the millionaire Swedish owner of the Electrolux vacuum cleaner company, Axel Wenner-Gren. Royal Navy ships HMS Electra and HMS Escort then arrived to assist the rescue attempts, whilst sea conditions deteriorated. About 10am on the morning of 4th September the passengers and crew, either on these ships or still in the sea, watched the Athenia finally sink below the waves.

An Athenia lifeboat transfers passengers to the City of Flint
640 survivors were on board HMS Escort and HMS Electra which took them to Greenock in Scotland. There they were provided with emergency clothing and 27 of them taken directly to hospital to have burns and broken limbs dealt with. 236 survivors were aboard The Southern Cross and were soon transferred to American freighter City of Flint which headed directly across the Atlantic to Halifax. The Knute Nelson had 430 on board and made for Galway in Ireland, the owners insisting that the ship should be docked at a neutral port. 

The newsreel below shows those arriving at the Sugar Quay, Albert Harbour in Greenock being taken by buses from there to the Beresford Hotel on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. 


You can see agitated relatives looking out for family members coming off of the buses in Glasgow and I wonder if my great-granny or Ian's wife Molly were there. My granny remembered them going regularly to the Beresford Hotel over the coming days to try to see if there was any news of Ian. With ships landing survivors in different ports, on either side of the Atlantic, it took some time before a list of those still missing was released. My granny held on to letters the family received from friends written in the days after the news of the ship's sinking, messages saying "my family and myself are hoping that everything will be all right." Other cards that they held onto, which arrived at the same time, seem to be from another world, like these two postcards sent by a friend who was in Paris. Apparently oblivious to all that was going on elsewhere these cards were posted in the last week of August, days before war was declared. Their messages report "lovely weather, plenty good wine, cheap. I simply feel in the pink."


My granny told me that initially they were optimistic that Ian had survived. They knew he was a good swimmer, sometimes after a night out he would swim home across the River Clyde, fully clothed, for fun and arrive at the door dripping wet and smiling. They got lots of false reports of sightings of Ian on newsreels from friends and neighbours. Colleagues from the Athenia assured them that they had seen Ian in a lifeboat, but they also heard in detail about the lifeboat that had been smashed by a propeller in the rescue, a lifeboat that was reported to have many crew on board. Almost three weeks after the Athenia was sunk they got confirmation that Ian was listed among the missing, presumed dead. This report in the Daily Record from 23rd September 1939 has a photo of Ian at the top, second from the left. It reports that 19 crew members lost their lives, 14 from Glasgow, the other five from Giffnock, Cambuslang, Dunoon, Balornock and one from Quebec.


One letter that arrived from a cousin Sadie in Philadelphia to Ian's mother, Bella, says
"It was with deep regret that I learned of Ian being lost by the sinking of the SS Athenia. I received papers from home and noticed his name among the missing so I am taking it for granted it was he as I know he had quite a passion for steam-ships but I trust in God that he has been found."

Consequences 


1,306 people were rescued from the SS Athenia but 112 people died. Of these 112 people 19 were crew and 93 passengers, including 30 Americans. A 10 year old Canadian girl, Margaret Heyworth, later died from her injuries whilst aboard the City of Flint, and her coffin being taken off the ship in Halifax shocked Canadians. Politicians and newspapers there rallied behind the British war effort, "EMPIRE AT WAR" as the headline in the Halifax Herald put it in bold red letters in early September above the news story of the Athenia

Comparisons were quickly made with the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic in 1915. On that occasion over 1,000 passengers and crew were lost. With 128 American citizens among the dead, that shifted American public opinion behind the country joining the First World War. The Germans feared that sinking the Athenia now risked doing the same again with this war and they were quick to deny any responsibility for the ship going down. A document in the Mitchell Library, produced by the British government, lists the German versions of events broadcast by their media in the days after the sinking, claiming that the Athenia was sunk...
  1. by a British warship in error
  2. by a floating mine of English origin
  3. by an English submarine
  4. boiler explosion
  5. a bomb
  6. by gunfire from three British destroyers
The Germans also claimed that the Athenia was not just a passenger liner but was carrying munitions and that the situation was being "maneuvered by British Naval Authorities to bring America into the war." Even after Berlin received Oberleutenant Lemp's report of his actions, as the man who fired the torpedo, on October 22nd 1939 Joseph Goebbels gave a speech broadcast on German radio denouncing Churchill for ordering the sinking. 

The statements of numerous people who saw the submarine fire at them was not enough to convince some Americans. Former American President Herbert Hoover, who opposed American entry into the war, wrote in a letter...
"The whole thing looks suspicious to me." To sink the passenger liner "is such poor tactics that I cannot believe even the clumsy Germans would do such a thing" 
Although it was over two years before America did join the war, the sinking of the Athenia is believed to have softened opinion there to allow amendments to American neutrality legislation, allowing arms sales to the French and British.

Athenia Relief Fund


In Glasgow and Galway hundreds of survivors of the sinking had to be looked after, and although nervous many still were keen to find new passage to America and Canada as soon as possible. The Lord Provost of Glasgow Corporation (the Scottish equivalent of a mayor), Patrick Dollan, previously Scottish chairman of the Independent Labour Party throughout the 1920s, was quick to mobilise the city's resources to aid the survivors. Most of them were brought to the Beresford Hotel on Sauchiehall Street initially. Appeals went out for clothing and the Athenia Relief Fund was set up immediately to help those in extremis. Within days the fund had raised thousands of pounds, from large donations from the Donaldson Line company, to small amounts handed in by individuals. A (rather droll) letter from a man in Barnsley passing on 2/8d to the fund says...
"six or seven children, amongst them two of my own, none of them above nine years of age decided to give a concert in my garden. From what I hear it was not a great show but by charging 3d each to their mummy's and begging from friends who passed by they raised 2/8d and asked me to send it to survivors of the Athenia"
A letter from Paisleys Outfitters on Jamaica Street tells of the "40-50 mens and ladies coats" they will be sending to help the survivors. Other letters offer up rooms in people's homes in the city to put up the survivors. There are letters from the Donaldson Atlantic Line passing on small amounts handed in from the public to their offices for the relief fund. One letter from the company, four weeks after the sinking, passing on 2/6d from an anonymous donor is on their official paper, still carrying the header in red print...
"Travel in comfort by "Athenia" and "Letitia" 

Passenger accommodation. 

Rebuilt, modernised, air conditioned."
Lord Provost Dollan invited the American ambassador to Glasgow to see what was being done for the Americans in the city. Unable to come, he sent his young son, 22 year old John F. Kennedy. He visited Americans in the various city hotels they had been posted to, and those in the hospitals. By all newspaper accounts at the time he was charming and re-assuring to all those he met on his first official diplomatic role.

Provost Dollan and John F. Kennedy meet some of the American survivors of the Athenia sinking
After returning to London to pass on the concerns of the American survivors to his father, John F. Kennedy wrote these two letters to Provost Dollan thanking the city for her efforts. 




This Pathé newsreel below, "Athenia Survivors Go Home", shows the Americans leaving Glasgow on the 19th of September aboard the American ship Orizaba, after being entertained in the city by Harry Lauder a few days earlier. The film also shows those arriving on the City of Flint in Halifax.



Letters among those sent to the Athenia Relief Fund administrators contain many requests for emergency funds from people who have lost everything they had on the sinking. There are several letters from crew members, who are directed to the Donaldson Atlantic line with their claims. The emergency fund only supplied items such as spectacles and dentures lost in the sinking to crew members. The company gave crew an emergency issue of £5 and then later 2 months wages and compensation for loss of personal effects, which usually seemed to amount to about £15. Some letters complain that the emergency £5 was taken from the wages they later got. 

Some requests for support from the fund give us a window onto the impossible situation some people were in. There are letters from German Jews, Poles and Czechs requesting assistance. An application for support from a family of Czech refugees comes from Anna and Karl, asking for help with their 9 and 4 year old children and 14 year old nephew...
" ...who joined my family in May after having traveled with the children's transport from Czechoslovakia."
The family were fleeing Europe to Canada, but had now lost all their money, clothing and belongings on the Athenia. They requested help to "fit out my family from head to foot before our new passage to Canada." They were re-directed to apply to the Scottish Refugee Council and given an emergency £5. By contrast there was a letter via the New Zealand High Commissioner on behalf of a lady wanting compensation from the fund for lost luggage. She gave a "conservative estimate" of £200 for her luggage, in which she listed among other items...
"Three fur coats, including one grey squirrel £30, six evening frocks with accessories to tone..."
A terse reply from the Public Assistance Department of Glasgow Corporation dismissed her request.
"It is apparent that Mrs... had means of her own, and as the fund was primarily raised to relieve immediate destitution, I do not think a grant should be made to this woman in respect of the loss of her effects."
As well as helping survivors, two cheques for £50 from the fund were dispatched on 21st December 1939 to the crew and officers of HMS Escort and HMS Electra which had helped in the rescue.
"Glasgow would like to join in their Christmas celebrations and will be happy if you will allow us this privilege."
A letter of thanks to the city arrived from American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which is held amongst these papers. His description "efficient, generous and humane" seems to sum up the response of the city to those who were in need.
"I have just received your telegram of September 5 assuring me that the city of Glasgow will look after the American and other survivors of the Athenia disaster who have arrived in your city. Ambassador Kennedy has also telegraphed telling me of your city's kindness. 
I wish you to know how deeply I and the American people appreciate the efficient, generous , and humane manner in which Glasgow and its citizens came to the help of our fellow countrymen and women in their need. I express to you my heartfelt thanks and assure you that Glasgow's gesture will not be forgotten. 
  Very sincerely yours,  President Franklin D Roosevelt"

Memorial


Tower Hill Memorial, London
Last year when I was in London I visited the Tower Hill Memorial close to the Tower of London, which commemorates the men and women of the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets who died in both world wars and are not commemorated in other places. In total almost 36,000 names are recorded here of those who have "no grave but the sea".

The names of British crew members who died on TSS Athenia
My granny often talked about her brother Ian. He loved steam-ships, was handsome, funny and her best friend. The last time that I saw Molly, Ian's wife, was at my granny's funeral many years ago. She and my granny were lifelong friends. A war memorial only consists of a list of names. I have tried here to remember the person that my granny told me about when I was younger, and below I have endeavoured to flesh out some of the other names on this memorial, who had their own lives cut short whilst working on TSS Athenia, by a German U-boat less than eight hours into World War Two.


What of the captain of U-30, Fritz-Julius Lemp? Awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by the German Navy he was a war hero. However, whilst commander of another submarine, U-110, he was cornered by British warships in May 1941. With his boat disabled he ordered his crew to abandon ship and tried to scuttle U-110. It is reported that he tried to swim back to the boat when he saw that it was not going down, but died or was killed in the attempt. The British got on board the submarine and were able to seize a naval Enigma machine and secret cipher documents, the first time this had been done, before sinking the boat to disguise this fact.


Crew of TSS Athenia who died when it sank. 3rd/4th September 1939

JAMES CARLIN, Assistant Steward, Age 56.
IAN DONNELLY, Assistant Steward, Age 26. Son of Bella and Peter Donnelly, my granny's big brother and my great-uncle.
JOHN DONNELLY, Assistant Steward, Age 23.
JAMES ELDER, Donkeyman, Age 45. Husband of Mary Elder, of Cambuslang, Lanarkshire.
CHARLES FORDYCE, Watchman, Age 65. Son of George and Jessie Fordyce; husband of Mary Penelope Fordyce.
HUGH GALLAGHER, Greaser, Age 23. Son of Thomas Gallagher, and of Isabel Gallagher, of Glasgow.
ALISON HARROWER, Stewardess, Age 41. Daughter of William and Hannah Foster Denny Harrower.
JOHN HOGG, Assistant Steward, Age 51. Husband of Sarah A. Hogg, of Brantford, Ontario, Canada.
MARGARET JOHNSTON, Stewardess, Age 41. Daughter of James and Christina Johnston, of Glasgow.
JOHN KENT, Assistant Steward, Age 50. Husband of Jessie Darroch Kent, of Bridgeton,
JESSIE LAWLER, Stewardess, Age 60. Wife of Patrick Lawler, of Sholing, Southampton.
JAMES MARSHALL, Bellboy, Age 15.
DAVID MORRISON, Steward, Age 32.
MICHAEL J. McDERMOTT, Assistant Steward, Age 33.
JOHN McJARROW, Printer, Age 39.
JOHN McKEOWN, Steward, Age 47. Husband of M. E. McKeown, of Dunoon, Argyllshire.
DAVID PROVAN, Barber, Age 65. Son of Alec and Margaret Provan; husband of Martha Provan, of Glasgow.
SAMUEL THOMSON, Assistant Steward, Age 45. Husband of Julia McCafferty Thomson. of Glasgow.
HANNAH BAIRD, Stewardess,  (commemorated at Canadian Merchant Navy HALIFAX MEMORIAL Nova Scotia, Canada)

Addendum:

  • TSS Athenia has been in the news again this week. One the fish cooks badly burned at the time the torpedo hit (he can be seen getting helped off the ship in one of the films above) had handed his watch to a passenger for safe-keeping, fearing that he was going to die. With the watch being handed to the Glasgow Riverside museum to look after the full story of this man's experiences (he survived his injuries) has now been discovered, and his relatives traced. See BBC News or Daily Telegraph for more detail
  • Ian Donnelly was an ordinary resident of the Gorbals, an area of Glasgow that was the life and soul of the city in the 1920s and 1930s. His friend Benny Lynch (who I have previously written about here) came from the same background and managed to do extraordinary things. It is wrong that the Glasgow has no proper memorial to one of its most noteworthy sons and I would encourage you to contribute to this campaign fund to build a statue of Benny Lynch in the city if you can. (Remember Benny Lynch Campaign)


Sources:
  • Thanks to the staff of the Mitchell Library, Glasgow for their help in retrieving all the archives that I requested, and to the staff at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow who have put together an excellent display on the sinking of TSS Athenia. 
  • Thanks to the the University of Glasgow archives department who hold the Anchor Line company records and where I was able to pore over a 1939 edition of Lloyds Register of Shipping, just as Lemp had done on U-30.
  • I also got a lot of information from an interview in the Sunday Mail from 1989 with survivor Thomas Ritchie of Possilpark, who had been a 19 year old assistant steward on the Athenia when it was sunk.
  • Two books packed with information about the Athenia, presented in completely contrasting styles, are Athenia Torpedoed, by Francis Carroll and, with the racier book cover, A Night of Terror by Max Caulfield. Written in 1958 it contains many colourful anecdotes of life on the ship and of the rescue, in a style crying out to be made into a film.