Saturday, 21 August 2010

Govan's salute to Clyde-built Reid

Some came by subway - old men in donkey jackets and brogues, ladies decked in black pearls. Others arrived by plane, taxi and by ministerial limousine, Alex Ferguson and Billy Connolly, Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown, the celebrities taking their places among the 800 everyday Glaswegians who had come to mark the passing of Jimmy Reid, their "Clyde-built" trade union hero. 

Govan Old Parish Church is no shrinking violet of a structure, a massive Victorian edifice, with a handsome gallery and a wood panelled roof. It speaks of a Glasgow of a different age, when prosperity sailed in up the River Clyde, and the shipyards lined the water, providing jobs for thousands of men. 

Reid's celebration here signified the passing of that era. As Ferguson said, in 1945, there were 35 yards but now there are only three. Where once there were 145,000 people in this parish, today there are just 30,000. 

Even Reid himself had retired to the Isle of Bute and the day started near his home, with an early morning service in Rothesay. Then the coffin was ferried across to the mainland, for the slow 30-mile drive along the too-peaceful waters of the Clyde, to Govan where Reid was born, raised and enjoyed his 15 minutes - and more - of fame.

Those moments came during and after the sit-in at Upper-Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971. Faced by a Conservative plan, devised by Nicolas Ridley, to "butcher" the yard, rather than publlicly fund its efforts to maintain an order book, Reid and Jimmy Airlie, his fellow shop steward,  led a sit-in, which effectively wrested control of the yard. 

It was the model of trade union action, said Jimmy Cloughley, who worked at the shipyard. Reid's inspired speech at the start of the campaign - "there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying, because the world is watching us "- won him global fame. Seven months later, the union's victory saved 6,000 jobs. 

Reid's contribution earned him the rectorship of Glasgow University - voted in by a huge majority of students. The  acceptance speech that followed was so brilliant it was reprinted in full by the New York Times, recalled Ferguson. Some of its most famous lines adorned the order of service: "A rat race is for rats. We're not rats, we're human beings." 

Mr Salmond, making the final speech in Reid's honour announced that the rectorial address would be added on the modern studies curriculum in Scotland's secondary schools, a gesture which brought warm applause from the congregation. 

If the early 1970s  marked  Reid's finest hour, what followed often seemed less inspiring. He enjoyed being in the public eye, and made a career as a journalist, raconteur and after-dinner speaker. He was columnist and a radio presenter; a guest on chat-shows. 

Celebrity anecdotes from his celebrity friends only emphasised the change in his world. Fergusson recounted the tale of Kenneth Williams and Reid waiting in the green room at the Parkinson show. The painfully snobbish Williams recited a poem and turned confrontationally to Reid, who said: "Was that Yeats?" Williams conceded it was, before Reid recited a few lines for himself and asked: 'Who wrote that?" When Williams failed to find the answer, Reid told him: "Me." 

Connolly - who laughed uproariously at his own reminiscences - quoted John Sessions reaction to Reid's death, proving that shipyard worker's persona had penetrated deep into the world of the performing arts. 

"Jimmy had a lovely way of dealing with idiots ," said Connolly. Presumably, the great man would have offered him an indulgent smile. 

But in nearly two hours of celebration, a rounded picture of Reid came through. Here was a boy who left school at 14, but made himself at home in Govan library, teaching himself history and philosophy while Ferguson and his friends played football. 

The congregation discovered Reid the jazz lover, who inveigled Connolly into an Ella Fitzgerald convert, and Reid the Communist-turned- Nationalist who quoted Shelley and Tennyson and liked nothing better 
on a Saturday afternoon than watching a game of cricket. 

The union leader's wife, Joan and their three daughters wiped their eyes. His friend David Scott, invited all and sundry to the Hagg's Castle Golf Club for the funeral tea - a large gesture, for a larger than life man. 

No comments: