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The Clyde Is Red – The Greatest Story Ever Told

The people of Glasgow first began to walk on water in 1979. It was the year Margaret Thatcher swept to power in a landslide General Election victory for the Conservative Party. Scotland and the north of England hadn’t wanted to know, and, over the next decade, Thatcher made them suffer for it. The same year there was also the small matter of the botched referendum on devolution. So for anyone to walk on water so soon was a surprise to say the least.

It began calmly enough one Friday night when a man was spotted walking on water somewhere between Jamaica Bridge and Victoria Bridge, by Carlton Place. The first reports in what was then the Glasgow Herald were ambiguous, dismissing the sighting as some drunken prank. The Daily Record somewhat belatedly latched onto the story the following week, and an official probe was launched. Fuzzy photographs of something resembling some two-legged inner-city Loch Ness Monster invited little curiosity. Only when a courting couple had their amours on the banks of the River Cart interrupted by a man taking a short cut home across the water’s surface did things really start to move.

The London media flew to Glasgow en masse, there were statements in Westminster and a selection of scientists attempted to test the water, only to sink where, on the surface of the Kelvin, the Cart and the Molendinar, children played as if on an ice-rink. Football games were played on the surface of the river, and, even as the scientists sank, they noticed that, the more the swell of bodies gliding across it, the more the water took on a purple hue.

Eventually, a media blackout was declared, the army moved in, and the Clyde was suddenly closed to all civilians. Statements on the subject from all political parties didn’t ring true, and protest groups formed at grassroots level in the guise of the Citizens Rights Association. Mass meetings in George Square were watched over by riot police tucked discreetly in the streets off. From the City Chambers, the Lord Provost, hands tied, announced his resignation, and the forces of law and order waded in with C.S. gas and riot sticks. With a state of emergency declared, the army moved in their tanks as roads were blocked and airports closed.

As a result of this, protests grew fiercer, and, watched over by helicopters, a million people marched to George Square once more. As the party leaders looked on from a safe distance, the crowd sang The Red Flag. Then, falling silent, they were led Pied Piper-like by children towards the Clyde, singing Avanti Popolo as they went. By the time the million strong march was stood on the Clyde itself, they were singing The Internationale, and the water beneath them had turned from purple to the people’s red.

In spirit, this triumph of unity recalled that of the original Red Clydesider, John Maclean, the Pollokshaws-born revolutionary who established a Bolshevik consul in Glasgow. It recalls too the 1919 Battle of George Square, when tanks were deployed to quell protests against working hours and conditions.

In actual fact, the future fantasy outlined above forms a rough outline of The Clyde Is Red, a dramatic poem by the late George Byatt, who remains one of Scotland’s most unsung literary and theatrical giants. Originally performed in the Hunter Building of Edinburgh College of Art in August 1979, The Clyde Is Red isn’t nearly as well known as some other masterpieces of Scottish drama. Neither are Theatre PkF (Peacekeeping Force), the company led by Byatt who would later produce The Clyde Is Red, lionised in the same way as other politically motivated theatre companies that grew out of the 1960s counter-culture and into 1970s real-politik, like 7:84 and Wildcat. Nor is Byatt garlanded as the country’s finest dramatic poet, whose influence on a generation of what he might call theatre workers is currently being felt via a new wave of lo-fi theatre, radical – if that’s not an over-used word – in form as much as content.

There are reasons why Byatt, Theatre PkF and The Clyde is Red aren’t better known. Many of these are to do with Byatt’s own contrary methodology, which aspired to democracy and inclusiveness, but remained suspicious, both of the naturalistic dramatic form that dominated playwriting, and of the hierarchical structures that existed within both mainstream and politically motivated theatre companies. PkF preferred to work co-operatively and without a director, with all involved on an equal footing in the decision-making process. This involved laborious discussion, with all members of the company acting as ‘outside eye’ on the artistic process.

Byatt’s writing was poetic, and addressed the audience directly in productions that were heightened and representational, but which relied on performances rather than expensive design concepts. Crucial to the PkF experience was an after-show discussion that took place after every performance, and which Byatt referred to as the second act of the play.

As with rehearsals, these discussions were conducted, not with a chair-person and a panel lined up behind a table, but run in a circular fashion. This enabled both company and audience alike to speak in turn, saying as much or as little as they wished without interruption. Rather than a Chair, a Facilitator would oversee things.

It was a methodology drawn from Native American culture by way of a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and was in keeping with how Edinburgh Playwrights Workshop, which Byatt had co-founded, read and discussed plays in similar fashion. With both EPW and PkF’s emphasis on collective responsibility, this was anarchism by any other name. Theatre PkF was named ironically after the NATO forces decamped to war-zones to keep the peace with guns and armoured vehicles. Byatt’s PkF, on the other hand, came armed only with songs and stories.

Byatt’s aesthetic was fuelled by a holy trinity of chapel-taught Catholicism, unreconstructed Marxism and Zen Buddhism. While the first of these faiths was ingrained in Byatt’s upbringing, the others were voguish but logical points of departure for anyone seeking enlightenment and open to possibilities both on and beyond their own front door.

Born in 1923, Byatt’s background was in television, as a writer on The Troubleshooters, a long-running 1960s drama serial based around a fictional oil company. Byatt also penned episodes of Sutherland’s Law, the Oban-set legal drama starring Iain Cuthbertson. In 1972, Byatt worked as press officer on The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, the thinly disguised celebration of the occupation of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders yard the year before. This melding of popular theatre forms not only featured design by John Byrne and music by Tom McGrath, but would make former shipyard worker Billy Connolly a star. Forged in a heady political climate, and with the company working as a co-operative, it was here Byatt introduced the circle method of discussion. The Great Northern Welly Boot Show would also prove to be a major influence on John McGrath, who the following year, and with a principal cast culled from The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, would create the seminal The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

Byatt’s first stage play, Kong Lives, was picked up by Verity Bargate, the iconic theatre producer who put it on at Soho Poly in 1974. It would be another half decade, however, before Byatt made Glasgow’s populace walk on water.

In 1981, PkF took The Clyde Is Red to London, but it wasn’t seen in Glasgow until 1988, when it was produced again by a reconvened Theatre PkF at Jordanhill Theatre. This was as part of that year’s Mayfest, the Glasgow arts festival originally convened by grassroots trade unions. That year, however, Mayfest’s ambitions were more internationalist. Here was a city two years away from its tenure as European City of Culture, and in full throes of an urban regeneration programme that on the surface at least looked like a designer lager ad, all chrome bars flanking the Clyde by moonlight set to a Fairlight-led New Pop soundtrack.

In Mayfest ’88, as well as The Clyde Is Red, playwright Howard Barker’s company, The Wrestling School, co-founded by future artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre (and current star of TV package tour comic drama Benidorm) Kenny Ireland, appeared with The Last Supper. That year too, Glasgow’s Old Transport Museum was used as a theatre for the first time when Peter Brook utilised it for the only UK dates of his nine hour epic, The Mahabharata. Both in different ways were examples of what Brook, in his 1968 volume The Empty Space, had dubbed Holy Theatre. The Clyde Is Red may be polemical, but it too is as holy as the waters it walked on.

Beyond Glasgow’s new glossy image, running parallel with this was a politically motivated artist-led underground which would come together in 1990, not as part of the City of Culture programme, but in the Self-Determination and Power event. Organised by a criss-crossing alliance of the Free University of Glasgow, Edinburgh Review, then edited by Peter Kravitz, and Scottish Child magazine, Self-Determination and Power brought Noam Chomsky to the Pearce Institute in Govan for a landmark critique of cultural hegemony. Novelist and future Booker Prize winner James Kelman was, if not the event’s driving course, then a quiet figurehead for collective action that was both anarchic and artistic. Hamish Henderson sang Freedom Come All Ye, Scotland’s real (inter)national anthem, which referenced the same Glasgow domine who inspired The Clyde Is Red, John Maclean.

One of the major events of 1990’s official programme was The Ship, Bill Bryden’s epic paean to Glasgow’s ship-building culture. Performed in the old engine shed of the Harland and Wolff yard in Govan, it was an emotive experience made legend by recreating the launch of a ship at the play’s close. In the year the Poll Tax was defeated and Margaret Thatcher finally left office, Red Clydeside, it seemed, would not lie down.

The year before the Jordanhill production, The Clyde Is Red was produced by Hamish Wilson for BBC Radio Scotland. With just disembodied voices to focus on, the play’s choral qualities were revealed in full as a liturgy of the common man and woman. The production won a Prix Italia award, gaining it global acclaim.

Yet The Clyde Is Red has never been published. Nor have any other of Byatt’s plays; Kong Lives, the tellingly titled Kamikaze (Some Kind of Intellectual Kamikaze Pilot), Why Does The Pope Not Come To Glasgow?, Workers of the World Confess, The Brus, Soldier Green, The Silver Land; nor his final work, House of Lies, performed by Theatre PkF at Edinburgh University Chaplaincy Centre as part of 1994’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Produced two years before his death, House of Lies was a haunting meditation on mortality inspired by Verity Bargate, who’d first recognised Byatt’s talent as a writer through Kong Lives. Having also been diagnosed with cancer, House of Lies was Byatt’s own epitaph to himself.

Byatt’s only tangible legacy is in the BBC’s recording of The Clyde Is Red. The only publicly accessible archive is to be found on the MySpace site of Fire Engines, the iconic post-punk Edinburgh group who performed with Theatre Pkf on two plays. A cassette recording of one, Why Does The Pope Not Come To Glasgow?, is captured live during the play’s 1980 Edinburgh Festival Fringe run at Napier College, now Napier University. It is performed, in typical Theatre PkF tradition, using direct address to the audience, and is done in a lo-fi style which, in the current recessionary climate, artists are rediscovering out of necessity as much as aesthetic. Out of this too has come a reawakening of grassroots engagement with the world that might just make for something special. The Clyde is Red, it seems, is both history lesson and prophecy. With its poetry as our guide, we might learn to walk on water yet.

Commisioned by Talitha Koetz for a publication to accompany Salt Water, a group exhibition at The Tall Ship, Glasgow, that ran from April 16th to June 20th 2010 as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. The only brief for the writers was to base a text on a piece of marine iconography. This was one of three texts submitted, and was the one published. I think they made the right choice.



Anonymous said…
George Byatt was my Grandad, thank you for this beautifully written piece. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. - Chloe Byatt
Neil Cooper said…
My pleasure, Chloe. Thank you for reading.
Anonymous said…
Just stumbled across this ..he was my uncle and i often thought House of Lies was about the journey he and my father had through Cancer. george was too ill to come to my fathers funeral, and his son, my cousin Andrew, a fine actor and human being in his own right, read a poem from the play dedicated to "my beloved brother John". called "All Life an Autumn is"..genius. Perhaps some of the fmily should galvanise and get his work published...other people should read and hear gifted works.
Tony Byatt
Neil Cooper said…
Thanks, Tony, particularly in providing some background to House of Lies.

I couldn't agree more about getting George's plays published.

They are a major body of work that will remain hidden until they're out there, and it is unlikely anyone running most theatrical institutions in Scotland will have even heard of George or his plays.

I spoke to Andrew about this a couple of years ago, but haven't seen him for a while.

A collection of George's plays would be wonderful, but whether publishers would take it on or not, I don't know.

If anything does happen, please keep me posted here if you can.


Anonymous said…
neil the following poem was written for my dad at his funreal. George himself was too ill to attend and it was read by andrew. i 'm sure it comes from house of lies Tony

Autumn by George Byatt
(dedicated to his beloved brother John)
All life

an Autumn is
Littered with yellow leaved
stirred by the wind
that sweeps the pale sky clean
- till the winter death
stills and stiffens
then softly shrouds

beneath the snow's soft fall
beyond the reach of the eyes,
except those of the soul
lies the promise of Spring

that timeless
that tongues the taste
of endless God burnt days.

Goodbye John

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