Through the window I can see a narrow and almost always grey stretch of sea which is the eastern arm of the Kyles of Bute. A hill rises on the opposite shore of a few hundred yards away. A white farmhouse stands some way upslope, in the middle of a pattern of trees that is said to resemble troop formations at the battle of Waterloo; the trees were planted soon after Wellington`s victory. There is also a boathouse just down from the farm and the ruin of an old sawmill.
I know these things are there, but so far this morning they are, apart from the sea itself, invisible. This is the west coast of Scotland in July. Weather reports on the BBC say that the south is enduring a heatwave – thirty degrees in London, and more to come. In Bute (and in Arran and Argull) that climate seems to belong not just to a different country but to a different continent. Here the sky sometimes rolls down and touches the sea; rain, cloud, mist are difficult to tell apart and rarely clear away. The sun is rumour. It did appear for an hour on Sunday, but its last dawn-to-dusk showing is dated by permanent residents to two days in June. We wear anoraks. In the morning, we set the central heating going. In the evening, we light fires. Up above, God gives his wet dishcloth another squeeze.
We`ve come here as usual on holiday. I should know better. I`ve been coming to the Firth of Clyde on holiday since the 1950s, the last decade in which the population of industrial Scotland poured itself whole-heartedly downriver by train and steamer to the coasts of Cowal and Ayrshire and the island resorts of Bute, Cumbrae and Arran. Ten years or so later they were off to Spain and a fortnight of guaranteed heat and sun. This may be a story common to the Whole British seaside north of Devon, but nowhere, perhaps not even Whitley Bay, has the summer desertion been more complete than in the town of five miles from where I write. Rothesay, the capital of Bute, is a fine-looking place on a beautiful day – `Sweet Rothesay Bay`, a song composed by the author of John Halifax, Gentleman, Mrs Craik. For a hundred years it was so Glasgow what Margate was to London or Scarborough to Leeds. Now you will be lucky to find six people walking the prom at the same time, and, if you do, all of them will have the brave look (which is perhaps also our look) that suggests they are making the best of it.
`Should we have another go at the putting?`
`Too wet. Let`s have an ice cream in Zavaroni`s.`
Why do I persist in coming? Hope is one reason. We might get a blue-sky day, and if that happens we and the other folk on the proom will brighten up and tell each other, as look across to the hills above Lord Striven `If we get the weather, ye cannie beat it` (so sucks to Greece and Majorca). But the deeper reason, the original reason, is the seductive power of literature. In other words, I blame a book.
I came across it in a library when I was thirteen: The Firth of Clyde by George Blake, bound in library brown cloth with gold titling on the spine. By this time, I had sailed on Clyde pleasure steamers and knew their names and types, which was paddle, which was turbine, which sailed where and when. I was interested in ships. An early Boyhood of Raleigh moment had come on a beach near Dunoon when my uncle identified a two-funnelled ship rounding Toward Point to the south as the `wee Queen Mary`- not the Curarder but a smaller Clyde-built turbine of the same name, which is now, ridiculously, a floating pub on the Thames. And where had it come from? `Oh, the Kyles of Bute.` I had never been there, or to any of the unknown world past Toward Point. My uncle might have been pointing to Eldorado.
And as I took out Blake`s book from the library because it contained pictures of steamers. There was plenty about steamers in it – good – but the author`s main thrust was that their heyday was well in the past. Like the holiday settlements of the Clyde estuary, with their wooden piers and long lines of stone villas, they had boomed with the profits and wages of Victorian and Edwardian industry. The First World War, when, as somebody else once wrote, God died in Scotland, had marked the beginning of a long decline. The book was published in 1952, he author was mourning a vanished way of life. Its nostalgia infected me; it made me see how the Clyde had been, how interesting its history was, and what parts of it remained. Alasdair Gray once wrote words to the effect that a place couldn`t properly exist in the mind until it had been imagined in fiction: Dickens for London, maybe Gray himself (though he is a modest man) for Glasgow. This is what Blake did for the Firth of Clyde, for me, and partly because its introduction is fictional.
In it, Blake imagined a well-to-do Glasgow family travelling in 1908 to their summer home in Tighnabruaich on the Kyles of Bute. It is a lyrical and, I suppose, sentimental description. Two of the family`s children are twins. At last the paddle steamer Mercury brings them to the narrow passage through the Kyles, where the ship takes a sharp turn to reach the western Kyle, where the ship takes brings them to the narrow passage through the Kyles. Blake writes: `They were too young to have formulated the conception of beauty, though they knew in the dim way of boyhood that a unique loveliness of gnarled hill, thickets of small oak and hazel and moving tides in small arms of the sea lay around them… A he was dying of a bubbling wound in the lungs after Beaumont Hamel in 1917, the younger twin, perhaps groping in his sense of doom to envisage the nature of Heaven, had in his mind`s eye that old photograph of the Kyles and, in the very core of his understanding as an individual, the sense of magic in the light of the evening that had laid the cloth of gold on distant hillsides and still but moving water.`
Blake knew what he was writing about. His book is dedicated to his fifth-form classmates at Greenock Academy in 1910, most of whom died in the war that began four years later. Blake survived it to become a journalist on the Manchester Guardian, and then to edit John O`London’s Weekly and the Strand Magazine. Eventually he became a full-time novelist- and at least one of his novels, The Shipbuilders, deserves still to be read. As a guide to the Glasgow of the slump, if nothing else, it is streets beyond No Mean City.
Now as I write the sky has lifted by a couple of hundred feet and I can see the farm and the trees across the water. A gannet has passed by, and also the last Clyde paddle steamer, the Waverley, with its raked twin funnels and rain-soaked decks. Just about now it will be turning to port in the narrows and passing an obscure memorial on the shore to two brothers who died at Gallipoli. The memorial has a water tap and a drinking cup and basin made of single seashell, and sits just above the tideline. The names of the brothers face away from the shore and across the island-dotted strait to the hills beyond, one of the most beautiful landscapes in Britain.
I don`t know if Blake knew if this memorial; it is hidden from the road and too small to be noticed from the sea. Whenever I go there O think of him and his book, and the debt I owe them, even in the incessant rain.
Written by Ian Jack