Interview: Brian Whittingham
Brian Whittingham is the recently-appointed Renfrewshire Makar. Peter Ross accompanied him on a poetic perambulation.
Bunnet pulled low against the wind off the water, his one good ear alert for the passing muse, Brian Whittingham, shipbuilder turned poet, leads the way along the riverbank to a boundary of his realm. We pass oystercatchers, joggers and dumped shopping trolleys clarted thick with mud. “This,” he says, “is a corner of Renfrewshire you wouldn’t normally visit.”
Whittingham, who is 68, is the Renfrewshire Makar, a sort of poet laureate for this part of Scotland. He was appointed in December 2018 and will hold the post for three years. He sees himself as a “missionary” – taking poetry into schools, to the pipe band championships, lo even unto St Mirren Park, where he hopes to persuade the chief executive that a poet-in-residence would be a good thing for the football club. “Poetry is perceived to be elitist, not accessible to the ordinary working person,” he says. He hopes to prove otherwise.
He is also expected to write around half a dozen poems each year, marking moments of significance in the area, and has made a start with a very moving piece, Cheering And Stomping, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Paisley’s Glen Cinema disaster in which 71 children died.
Poetry is perceived to be elitist, not accessible to the ordinary working person
We are following the White Cart to its confluence with the Clyde. It is fun to notice a poet notice. As we walk, the lyrical cogs are birling in his brain. Across the river, mounted on the opposite bank, there is a metal sculpture of a hawk, russet with rust. Congregated at the foot of the plinth are several cormorants, inky wings held out to dry. “You wonder,” says Whittingham, “if all these birds have come to worship their god.”
He is the author of ten poetry collections including the excellent Bunnets and Bowlers, inspired by his years at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank. He left school at 14, joined as an office boy, served an apprenticeship, and later worked as a plater. He was part of the crew who built the QE2.
His instinct is to resist any attempts to romanticise shipbuilding. Questions about his “deep love” for the yards are batted back. It was a hard life, he insists, which cost him a good deal of his hearing. Yes, there were amazing characters – among them one noted lothario known as “the knicker knocker from Duntocher” – but some awful swine, too. “I was quite terrified of some of the men I worked with, particularly when they were drunk.” There was one journeyman in particular: “He used to throw hammers at Catholics. This is the person who was supposedly teaching you your trade.”
Born and raised in Glasgow, it was while living in Renfrew that Whittingham began to write. He joined the Paisley Writers Group, which met at the Central Library, and was introduced to established talents including James Kelman and Agnes Owens. “It totally changed my life” Is there an issue, does he think, with a Weegie rather than a Buddy being the Renfrewshire Makar? A shake of the head: “We’re all citizens of the world, aren’t we?”
Before long, we arrive at our destination: the meeting of the Cart and the Clyde. Across the water lies West Dunbartonshire, which must get by without an official poet of its own. Whittingham points out the old slipway where – on September 20th, 1967 – the QE2 launched. He watched it from inside John Brown’s, itself long gone. Sometimes he climbs to the top of the Titan Crane and, looking down, can still see the phantom shipyard, a Clydeside ghost.
We turn and walk back. Up ahead, on the riverbank, an old couple are hunkered about some business. They stand as we pass. Whittingham says hello: “Have youse lost somethin’?”
“No, no,” says the man, who is holding a rake. “Recovering something.”
The woman smiles from within her headscarf. “We hope that we’re rescuin’ a rare plant.”
“Oh, right,” says Whittingham. “What plant’s that then?”
“Grass,” says the woman.
Just grass. They are picking up empty bottles and raking away driftwood in the hope of exposing the riverbank to the light, encouraging growth. At the side of the brown water, they would like to see green. Here, amid the mud and tidal trash, a small moment, the poetry of the everyday.
“Do youse walk up and down here a lot?” Whittingham asks.
“Oh aye,” says the woman. “Long may it last.”