Literature – George Blake

George Blake – Author, Journalist and Broadcaster. Famed for his gritty novels set in and around the shipyards of the Clyde.

“Mr. Blake regards a fine ship as other critics would a Van Gough… If the citizens of a great seafaring nation are ever to learn a bit about ships-they could not do better than trust to the author of this book.”so wrote H. M. Tomlinson, British author and journalist, of the George Blake.

George Blake was born on 28 October 1893 at 60 Forsyth Street, Greenock, Renfrewshire, the fourth child of Matthew Blake, manufacturer of sugar machinery, and his wife, Ursula Scott McCulloch.

As befits someone born in Greenock, on the banks of the Clyde, George developed an early fascination with ships and the sea. As a young boy, one of his earliest memories was seeing the QSS Lusitania as she came down the River Clyde to her speed trials. It was a memory that would shape his future. He would later write in his semi autobiographical novel “Down to the Sea”.

“She came at length, however, looming gigantic, as she stood out in the ship-channel opposite the Custom House Quay. Was it the size of her, that great cliff of upper-works bearing down upon him? Was it her majesty, the manifest fitness of her to rule the waves? I think that what brought the lump to the boy’s throat was just her beauty, by which I mean her fitness in every way; for this was a vessel at once large and gracious, elegant and manifestly efficient. That men could fashion such a thing by their hands out of metal and wood was a happy realization. Ships he had seen by the hundred thousand, but this was a ship in a million.”

George was educated at Greenock Academy and was studying law at Glasgow University, serving his apprenticeship with the legal practise Neill Clerk & Murray, when his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War.

In 1913 he joined the 5th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and was to see active duty a year later. He was posted to Gallipoli, where he was wounded and eventually discharged in 1917.

After the war he intended to continue with his legal studies but was enticed into the world of journalism. In 1918, he joined the staff of the Glasgow Evening News, then edited by the novelist Neil Munro, eventually progressing to Literary Editor. A skilled author, Blake started to write novels, with his first book “The Vagabond Papers” being published in 1922.

He married Eliza (Ellie) Malcolm Lawson (daughter of the proprietor of Greenock Apothecaries & Lawson, and famous locally for its Lemonade, complete with ‘Clyde Steamer’ label) in 1923, and they had two sons and a daughter.

In 1924 Blake moved to London, where he was appointed acting Editor of the magazine ‘John o’ London’s Weekly’, moving four years later to the ‘Strand’ magazine where he was unable to restore its former fortunes. In 1930 became a director of the publisher Faber and Faber. He was involved in running the Porpoise Press, Edinburgh (which published Neil M. Gunn’s Morning Tide in 1931) as a subsidiary of Faber. The Porpoise Press was established to stimulate and publish Scottish writing, interest in which was high at the time.

He returned to Scotland in 1932, as a special features writer for the Glasgow Evening Times, and moved into The Glenan, 41 John Street, Helensburgh in 1935. This was also the year that George semi retired from journalism to fully concentrate on writing books, but returned to the press in 1939, when he emerged as editor of the “Glasgow Evening Citizen” (the first of Glasgow’s three evening newspapers.) From 1939 until 1945, during World War II, Blake also worked for the British Government’s Ministry of information.

Blake wrote more than twenty novels and many non-fiction works. His melodramatic first novel, Mince Collop Close (1923), preceded more mature work in Young Malcolm (1926) and The Path of Glory (1929), which drew on his First World War experiences.

The aforementioned semi autobiographical Down to the Sea (1937) demonstrated his lifelong interest in the Clyde and its shipping. It is widely thought that Helensburgh provided the back drop and inspiration for the book. In the book Blake reveals that his hero was Robert Napier. And whilst a whole chapter is devoted to another man with Helensburgh connections, Henry Bell
Henry Bell, he makes it clear that he thought that Bell gained a fame disproportionate to his worth.

The Shipbuilders (1935), which portrays sympathetically the problems faced by a community when a shipyard closes; it contrasts the fortunes of Leslie Pagan, the owner’s son, and Danny Shields, a riveter. The book attracted much attention and was filmed in 1943 by Director John Baxter (and was coincidently the debut screen appearance of actress Moira Lister). The book was criticised in some quarters for its ‘rose tinted’ views of the working class. Blake later wrote that he had pled “guilty to an insufficient knowledge of working class life and to the adoption of a middle-class attitude to the theme of industrial conflict and despair”.

The book however, is now considered a classic of its type and features in the List’s 100 Best Scottish Books of all Time.

Blake continued to write about his chosen field – the industrial and middle class of Scotland – with much of his material based on Greenock, its shipyards and social conditions, set in a series of popular novels centred around the fictional Clyde town of ‘Garvel’ – The Valiant Heart (1940), The Constant Star (1945), The Westering Sun (1946), The Paying Guest (1949) and The Voyage Home (1952).

His novel Flood Tide which tells the story of a man becoming a ship designer instead of following the family tradition and entering farming was also filmed by Frederick Wilson in 1949, and starred Gordon Jackson, John Laurie and Jimmy Logan.

In later years, Blake undertook general histories and literary critiques such as ‘The Ben Line’ (1956), ‘Lloyds Register of Shipping 1760-1960’ (1960) and ‘The Gourock’, – a history of the rope work company. He assessed the Scottish Kailyard School generously but honestly in ‘Barrie and the Kailyard School’ (1951). (The Kailyard School of Scottish fiction was developed about the 1890s as a reaction against what was seen as increasingly coarse writing representing Scottish life complete with all its blemishes. It was considered as being an overly sentimental representation of rural life, cleansed of real problems and issues that affected the people.)

Blake, described as ‘a thickset, battering-ram of a man, with a frowning brow and unruly hair’, was a frequent radio broadcaster, introducing the radio feature ‘The Week in Scotland’. He broadcast highlights included commentating on the coronation of King George VI and the launching of the RMS Queen Mary. He also continued to write for the press and regularly contributed articles for both the Scottish Daily Express and the Glasgow Herald until his death.

His died from a cerebral haemorrhage in the Southern General Hospital, Glasgow, on 29 August 1961. His wife survived him. His wealth at death was £8870 13s. 3d.