Christopher Harvie

‘Cuckoo clocks,’ said the President. Orson Welles on the Prater Wheel slipped in and out of my mind. ‘Cuckoo clocks: the one area where the Swiss haven’t run us out of business.’ Last year I was made cochair of a government-university colloquium on the future of industry and society in Baden-Württemberg, Europe’s most prosperous region, but one perilously dependent on the building of cars. In July we were in the early planning stages and the university president, Adolf Theis, was playing devil’s advocate with some other ci-devant industries: ‘The watchmaking companies in the Black Forest went over to quartz, lots of capital investment, but they lost out at the lower end to the Pacific Rim, and at the quality end to Swatch. And they’ve nearly all gone, or been taken over. But the cuckoo clock people didn’t change at all. They’ve survived, and they’re still family firms.’ ‘People associate cuckoo clocks with the Black Forest,’ the chancellor said. ‘They don’t want digital technology. They’re paying for tradition.’

‘Harris tweed.’ It seemed useful to throw that in, as various people in the room were armour-clad in the steel-blue weave that, so they tell me in Stornoway, is made specifically for the German professor market. ‘Whisky.’ Post-industrial man was making his point. Post-industrial man seems now to have cornered a nice little earner in applied pessimism.

Blame it on my childhood. Where the Eaglescliffe Hall now is, God alone knows. I couldn’t trace it in Lloyd’s Register, but it may have been renamed. At best, ships live half as long as humans, and it would now be 38 years old. I was at its launch in October 1956: the photo shows me in school cap and muffler, with Great-Uncle Alex and Great-Aunt Jean, Cousin Jean, two small Canadian girls, their father and their mother, in a Grace Kelly hat, who broke the champagne bottle and sent the ship – splash! – into the River Carron. Then Uncle Alex took us round the miniaturised industrial world of the shipyard: the pattern-lofts, where the templates of ribs and plates were cut in plywood; the foundry with its moulds of wet black sand; echoing corrugated-iron sheds where shears clipped steel sheet like cardboard, and whorls of silver metal spun off lathes. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters’ shops: wee men in big glasses chop-chop-chopping with a chisel until a perfect mortice joint emerged. ‘Fine day, Mr Aikman. Everybody satisfied wi’ the boat? No a great looker, but she doesnae have to be. This your grandson? Great-nephew. You want tae be a shipbuilder too, son.’ The sense of a command in that, most of a lifetime ago.

The Grangemouth Dockyard was into one-offs, small specialised ships of up to 3000 tons: a wine-carrier for Bordeaux, a missionary ship for the Solomon Islands, a river-steamer for the Limpopo. The Eaglescliffe Hall, an ugly slab of a boat, was a coaster for the Great Lakes. Uncle Alex was the classic paternalist, prided himself that Grangemouth had only once come out on strike, and then only because of a national dispute. Bow-tied and double-breasted, he pared a plug of ‘thick blue’ – the tobacco he had smoked as a Clyde-side apprentice before 1914 – and jammed it in his short Stonehaven pipe. He had hopes that my modelmaking might lead to naval architecture. Jane’s Fighting Ships and copies of the Motor Ship would come through the post. I had the interest, and all the shop-talk, but my maths was rotten. Just as well.

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