The story of the River Clyde

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

It sounds like something out of Dickens or a novel by Thackeray, a classic case of high-minded Victorian philanthropy, but the Glasgow Humane Society was actually set up much earlier, in 1790 (just after the revolutionary fervour in France demanded liberty, fraternity, equality), to protect human life in the city and especially on the river Clyde. It still exists and Glasgow claims to be the only city in the world to have a full-time officer dedicated to rescuing people from drowning.

Back when it began the river and its banks were hectic with shipbuilding, trade and manufacturing. Now the city is almost ashamed of its river; no big ships, hardly any industry, little trade, and no longer a source of wealth and jobs. It has ‘turned its back on the Clyde’. There’s little traffic on the river, and few bars, cafés and restaurants along the riverside. But George Parsonage still spends his days and nights waiting for a call, ready to rush out in his rowing boat, taking up oars to save a life, just as his father did before him.

In Shaped by the River Clyde on Radio 4 (produced by Mark Rickards), we heard how George rescued Gordon, a keen rower, whose boat had overturned on the river one January morning. I’d been in the water for about ten minutes, Gordon told us, and was beginning to panic. It was so cold. But George calmed him down, pushed him under the water to make him buoyant and then hauled him into his boat and rowed him back to the riverbank.

It was not how Parsonage planned his life. A talented artist, he trained at art school and worked as a teacher. But on the day his father died there was a call later in the afternoon; there’d been an incident on the river. George went straight out in his father’s boat, ‘and that was that’. He’s never left the riverside. He still paints watercolours and makes artworks from the detritus he picks up from the river — old bicycles, supermarket trolleys, a pitchfork. It helps him to cope with the difficult days when he comes across so much grief and sorrow. But it’s the natural rhythms of the river, as the tide ebbs and flows, which rule his life, as we could hear in this atmospheric feature.

Sarah Churchwell’s series of essays on late-night Radio 3, Five Screen Gods (produced by Duncan Minshull), takes us back to the heyday of Hollywood, when celebrities were more mysterious and less plastic. Clark, ‘the King’, Gable, for instance, ‘supercharged with sex appeal’, towering over his petite co-stars, ‘impatient and superior’, but at the same time very aware of his own weaknesses. ‘I’m just a lucky slob from Ohio who happened to be in the right place at the right time,’ he once said. Even when he’s being insufferably arrogant, he shows his uncertainty, says Churchwell, reminding us that in It Happened One Night, Gable strips off to tease Claudette Colbert in an intriguing role reversal.

Most great stars embody a paradox, says Churchwell, listing Monroe’s ‘force field of vulnerability’ and Gable’s ‘cheeky earthiness’. Most paradoxical of all, perhaps, was Cary Grant, so elegant in slapstick, so comforting and sinister. In His Girl Friday, for instance, he rarely treats Rosalind Russell well, but, says, Churchwell, he’s the only man who values her properly, while she’s the only person to see through him.

It all sounded so innocent. Back on 4, Katie Hims’s play, Opening Pandora’s Box (directed by Toby Swift), gave us another intriguing insight into the paradoxical nature of stardom before the Fall (or the invention of social media). Scenes were cleverly cross-cut between a writer who is struggling to write a radio play based on the silent-screen classic Pandora’s Box, and scenes from the film as reimagined for radio.

We follow the writer as she works out how to do this, voicing the major scenes for us. This, though, becomes by far the easiest problem to solve. Far more troubling is the plot. We now have such a strong image of the heroine Lulu as played by Louise Brooks, with her sleek black cropped hair, so charismatic and so different from what women were supposed to look like at that time (1929). Why then does she appear in the film to lack all agency, willingly going along with the men who cluster around her like flies, complicit in their abuse of her? Is she aware of what she’s doing?

Hims’s script brings the film to life so that we can really conjure it up in our mind’s eye. At the same time she makes us question each step of Lulu’s downfall. ‘She’s so lethal to men,’ almost like a siren. She appears so powerful, playing them off against each other, taking up with a lesbian friend. And yet in the end she is destroyed by them.

What can I do to save Lulu? asks the writer, despairing of her fatal flirtiness, her inability to escape the charge of being nothing more than a male fantasy. ‘How am I supposed to embrace it as a woman?’

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