The Fish That Never SwamWritten by John Macpherson
My mother was one of 15 children, born into a Lanarkshire mining family near Glasgow. Her dad was a miner, and several of her brothers and nephews went into the pit to toil beside him, a few other relatives into the steel works and shipyards. My mum worked briefly in Colville’s Steel Works driving a crane then moved to the Highlands in her late teens around 1950 and met my dad, married him and raised three children.
When we all made the long journey from the Highlands to visit my granny in Uddingston, which was a regular occurance through the 1960’s as she grew older and more frail, my brother and sister and I would often be bathed in front of the coal fire in the old tin bath that had also cleansed the skin of mum’s siblings and were told stories of the pit and mining. Sometimes just for atmosphere and to entertain we children, granny would light a miner’s lamp and we’d watch the shadows dancing.
My dad would take bags of fish he’d caught, salmon, trout or mackerel, down for our granny, aunts and uncles to enjoy, and they would often share some of their ‘miner’s coal allowance’ with us, and bags of this ‘black gold’ would travel back north to be used in our own flat. It would share boot space in the car with sacks of rice and flour which we’d collect from the Asian food warehouse near the city centre for our Pakistani immigrant neighbours in the Highlands who’d moved to Fort William via Glasgow and shared our block of flats, becoming our good friends.
When I left school in Fort William at 16 in the early 1970’s I went to work in the Clyde shipyards, in Yarrow’s Yard. Accommodation was in a hostel beside Victoria Park with numerous other young lads all employed as apprentices in various yards, and drawn from all over Scotland. From the Highlands there were two brothers I knew who’d been in school with me in Fort William, a lad from Kyle of Lochalsh and a couple of other fellows from further north. What was noticeable in our day-to-day interactions with various Glaswegian youths of a similar age was how much smaller than us they were. “Dont stay doon here son…” said an old welder to me one day after asking where I was from “..ye’ll end up wi nae eyesight or nae lungs wi aw this work. Look at me.” I heeded his advice, eventually.
Several of my mum’s male siblings suffered the usual pit ailments, with arthritic joints and ruined lungs, my grandad eventually succumbing to ‘Black Lung’ (pneumoconiosis, CWP). But there was also general ill-health coupled with alcoholism and depressive illness, and latterly in the late 80’s and 90’s drug misuse affected a few of my relatives, living in places like Maryhill and Drumchapel. Casting an ever-present shadow over all of this was religion, and all the tensions such strongly held beliefs manifested whether through sport or in education, something I suspect my mother went north to escape from although she would never admit it.
As an adult I would sometimes make the journey south from the Highlands to Glasgow to attend funerals of family who died ‘before their time’ after long bouts of chronic illness, events that occasionally ended in some small smoke-filled pub festooned with memorabilia reflecting deep affiliation to the Loyal Orange Order. I was always warmly welcomed into these places, whispers passed from ear-to-ear explaining who I was, with glasses of whisky appearing from some old pit buddy of whichever departed relative’s funeral we’d just attended. But always I remember far too many slightly built men, many prematurely aged, and lots of them coughing.
I revisited Clydebank a few months ago to visit a relative in the Jubilee Hospital. With time to spare I decided to wander through my teenage haunts and see what changes had occurred in the 50 years since I’d worked there. Despite numerous visits to the City over the intervening decades I’d never actually walked my old route to work from Victoria Park to Yarrow’s Yard, which is now BAE Systems. So I did. It was profoundly different. Many of the old tenements have been renovated, I found a Polish deli filled with a wonderful array of foods where there once had been something I’ve now forgotten. I marvelled at BAE’s buildings, large and shinily impressive, and all around the yard many new structures have gone up, and old ones either removed or restored.
I noticed a fish and chip shop that seemed very familiar and I’m pretty certain it was present in that location in my youth; if it was, it was outside it that one night three lads from a local gang jumped a mate and I, taking exception to our intrusion in their ‘patch’ and slashing at my mate’s face with a comb, a plastic one fortunately rather than the sharpened aluminum ones some preferred, but still hard enough to leave an angry red weal down his face and eventually a thin slow trickle of blood.
I stood staring, and smiling, at the old hostel I’d lived in, now beautifully renovated, its granite walls gleaming in the autumn sun. I wandered into the grounds and spoke briefly with a big lad who was standing in the carpark, explaining that I’d lodged there decades before and was curious about what it was being used for now, as it looked very smart. He was wearing work clothes and hi-viz and I assumed he was a caretaker or gardener, and he informed me that the old hostel was now converted to luxury flats and very desirable with expensively furnished interiors.
But as he turned to look at an arriving car and wave cheerfully at its driver I noticed a huge ragged scar from his ear to the corner of his mouth…and he said: “Good tae talk to ye pal but ah need tae go now, that’s ma drugs counsellor for ma rehab session in that building therr, its no all flats an that here. Cheers, an enjoy yer wee walk.” And off he went. It was a stark reminder that whilst the facade of the city might have changed for the better in numerous ways, many of its underlying problems persist; but so also does its friendliness.
Photographer Kirsty Mackay knows all this. She’s lived it. She was born into it, grew up surrounded by it and now photographs it. Her recent book ‘The Fish That Never Swam’ (History, Politics and Vulnerability. Explaining excess mortality in Scotland and Glasgow) explores the social and economic problems and the underlying politics that have shaped modern Glasgow, and continue to exert their influence. And her work is remarkable.
The foreword to the project on her website states the premise of her book in no uncertain terms; there’s no wooly artist’s statement laden with ambiguity. It’s direct and it hits hard, as it should given the subject matter:
“In Glasgow, people’s lives are cut short.
Male life expectancy in Possil is 66, in Penilee three young people took their own lives within the space of one week in June 2020, suicide in Glasgow is 30% higher than English cities, male life expectancy is 7 years short of the UK average and women’s is 4 years less. This is not isolated to areas of deprivation – Glaswegians across all social classes experience a 15% reduction in life expectancy.
The causes of Glasgow’s excess mortality lie in government policy – not with the individual and their lifestyle choices. Local, regional and central government policies created an environment where: segregation, alienation, mass unemployment, the generational trauma that followed, poverty and deprivation constitute a public health issue. During the 1970s and 80’s Glasgow was in a ‘managed decline’.
Unbeknown at the time, the city was starved of funding from Westminster.”
When I opened the package the book arrived in and slid it out, it tried to escape my grip, in part a consequence of the quality of its production and the stout but flexible cover, but mainly because of what lies inside and the way it is concealed, and thus causes the book to diminsh in thickness towards the edge, giving way between one’s fingers.
A quick flick through the pages revealed the cause: a book-within-a-book. The shiny ‘shell’ of the volume are pages full of copious research into excess mortality in the city undertaken by the Glasgow Cente for Population Health (Authors: David Walsh, Gerry McCartney, Chick Collins, Martin Taulbut and David Batty). It is their stark statistical work that notes objectively what living in this city is, what it looks like in data terms, what its measurements and estimates reveal as effects on the populace, and suggests why and how some of these health outcomes may have come about.
But nestling within that outer shell is a pearl, a series of images and conversations exploring the lived experience of modern Glaswegians and, crucially, explaining what that cold statistical life in their city, as reflected on those enclosing pages, actually feels like, how it shapes their individual lives and their aspirations for their futures.
The images are powerful and direct. The text captions spare and to the point. Glimpses of lives that have been jostled by circumstance or simply kicked, hard. Its an emotionally affecting read, the images underlining the personal stories these myriad voices have to tell. Whether male, female, young, old, immigrants…all of them constitute a real living breathing community often ‘represented’ only as data points on a graph in some report on ‘inner city deprivation‘ or ‘adverse health outcomes‘.
From a design perspective the book is very cleverly made – the research pages are 25mm larger on the page edge and bottom than the image pages, quoting the language of the academic and occasionally underlined in pen or pencil for emphasis, but always between each page-pair of left and right there is a smaller page on higher quality stock, with an image and a caption.
That juxtaposition of stark statistical data and Kirsty’s sensitive portraits I have to confess I found profoundly moving, and the inclusion of these powerful images at a smaller page size reflects the diminished life-expectancy and opportunity many in the city experience. But thumbing through these image-rich pages you are left in no doubt that these lives matter. Kirsty’s photographs are at once both condemnatory of the political and economic system that has inexorably shaped these people’s circumstances, yet brim full of celebration of their lives being lived as fully and richly as possible despite these deprivations.
This is an important and powerful book, one that needs to be seen, and read, and understood by those whose business it is to know such things: whether academics or politicians of whatever political persuasion. Given the current shocks to the economy caused by Brexit and Covid, the impending storm of price hikes in energy and food costs, and the looming economic and health effects of climate change, these communities photographed by Mackay are right in the front line and will undoubtedly feel the impact more deeply than many others.
And for photographers, whose work seeks to record other’s lives and to ‘give voice’, this book should provide a timely reminder that the most important ‘voices’ come from within a community, and that rather than try to speak for them, to instead allow those with roots there and who know it, respect it with all its imperfections and challenges, and who are deeply invested in its future, to be heard.
Make no mistake, this is not a book about the past, certainly it glances backwards and with a deeply critical eye, but it also looks forwards too, and towards meaningful change. It eloquently underlines that what lies behind the dry objective language of research and statistics are people, individuals who need to be afforded dignity and opportunity. ‘The Fish That Never Swam’ proclaims with a great deal of pride “In spite of the issues that affect this city we citizens thrive, as best we can. And we matter.”.
If you can afford to buy this book, do so, you will not regret it. Then read it, and share it.
You can order the book from Kirsty’s website here, where you can see more of her powerful and moving work. There’s also an excellent interview with Kirsty in Huck magazine here where she talks about her motivation for undertaking this project.
PS. We do not expect nor solicit review copies of books at duckrabbit, we buy them ourselves in order to support fellow photographers and authors.
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