Profit and Loss: a drawing by Owen McGuigan
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 02:15

Profit and Loss: a drawing by Owen McGuigan

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge introduces a drawing from Owen McGuigan which 'takes a line for a walk'; and a song on the same theme of shipbuilding on Clydeside.

Watching Owen McGuigan taking photographs is an eyeopener, especially when he is at work among a crowd at a public event. It is like watching a snooker player lining up a shot, or a footballer, seen in slow motion in a video, moving with expertise to be in the right place for a good kick or header, at the decisive moment. Strangely, Owen manages to do this almost unobtrusively, despite the fact that his shock of white hair acts as a flag. It is a flag of peace, perhaps, signalling a quiet professionalism.

Behind Owen’s skill in taking photographs lies something equally important for understanding his genius, and the genesis of his huge archive of images (including videos) that document the life and soul of his native Clydebank. See That “something” is a habit of looking at the world and the people in it sympathetically. He looks with a feeling eye, and a democratic one.

Besides photography, Owen works in other media too - fretwork, for example. A piece of his combining several iconic images from the Clydebank Blitz has pride of place in an exhibition in the Town Hall, commemorating that dreadful episode in the town’s history.

Drawing is another outlet for his vision. Sitting with a sheet of paper in front of him early in the New Year (2017), and with a pen in his hand, Owen began to “doodle”, as he puts it. One part of the drawing led to the next, until, by an uncanny process, the drawing reproduced above was completed. Owen calls it “Profit and Loss”. It represents, in a complex and beautifully ordered way, the industry that put Clydebank on the map, shipbuilding.

Paul Klee famously described drawing as taking a line for a walk. Owen’s “Profit and Loss” does something similar. He takes a scene for a walk, or maybe a selection of themes from a scene, namely a composite shipyard, and takes them for a walk; or, viewing the drawing from a different angle, you might say that the drawing takes the observer on a conducted tour of the scene, starting where Owen started, namely at a magnificent great girder at the centre of the page. From there our eye progresses, from detail to detail, following a roundabout route to the drawing’s edges and corners.

You might object that we should start by looking at “Profit and Loss” in the round (or rectangle), as a whole, enjoying the strength and coherence of the overall design first, and only then zooming in on the details - and what details there are, of various sizes, shapes and textures! There is a pint of Guinness on the pub bar, ready poured, waiting for the drinker’s arrival soon from the yard; there are palm trees in a holiday resort that the builders of cruise liners that take folk there will never themselves visit; there is the lovely contour of a ship’s keel driving into waves; there is a man falling; there is blood.

In fact, there is no single way of looking at this, or any drawing. There are several ways, and they are complementary, and different people will see different significances in the selection and combination of pictorial elements. If you know about shipbuilding, you will see more in “Profit and Loss” than most. You will see, for example, references to the deadly phenomenon of asbestos, which has hit Clydebank as badly over the generations as anywhere.

Regarding this killer, Owen has written:

There are several asbestos references in the drawing. Although the shipyards have long gone, we are still living with the legacy of asbestos. Many workers have died as a result of asbestos-related cancers and diseases. Below is a copy of “Profit and Loss” with some reference notes to asbestos.

Profit and loss notes

Here is a bit of info about Marinite board used on the ships: Marinite Insulating Panels are 4-foot by 8-foot sized boards that are currently sold as an asbestos-free product, but that was not always the case. For many years, these panels were made with the naturally occurring mineral, because it can control heat and even help stop the spread of fire. This made it ideal for use in industrial settings, and also for homes, schools, churches and most any other standing structure. Aside from its heat-resistant capabilities, asbestos was also extremely durable, so products made from it can last for decades. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a negative trait. The International Asbestos Memorial is down at the bottom left of the drawing.

“Profit and Loss” benefits from repeated looking, I believe; and it makes a good companion to certain poems and songs on the same subject of shipbuilding, considered in the same complex way. One such song is a brilliant and moving piece called “Song o the Yard”, written by the late Leo Coyle, who said of his work:

Much has been written and sung in praise of the Clyde and the great ships built there, but little written or sung are about the hellish conditions endured by the workers who built them. Since I served my time in the shipyards, I lived with the unique humour and tenacity of the Clyde shipyard worker to overcome and survive in spite of so many betrayals. The song is self explanatory and is supported by guitar accompaniment that echoes the tragedy of the loss of a proud industry. 

Here is “Song o the Yard”, performed by Leo’s daughter and son, Leanne and Eddie, followed by the lyrics:

 From Clydeborn, a CD collection of Leo Coyle’s songs, sung by Eddie and Leanne Coyle, available from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Tune: “The Laird o Cockpen” (traditional)

Through the eyes o a young man born on the Clyde,
When the pulse o humanity turned on the tide,
An a nation that depended on ships for its trade,
Turned a blind eye on the price that was paid.

Raw cauld is the mist on the river at dawn,
Wi coat collars up, the men hurry on;
The keel maun be laid ere a new ship is born,
An yae might lose a shift if yer late for the horn.

The frames o the hull in the cauld mists are lost,
A skeleton dressed in a mantle o frost,
A spectre sae drear t’would daunt even the brave,
For there’s nae caulder place tween the womb an the grave.

Wi the reek o steel burnin an the clangin o plates,
The choking on fumes an shoutin o mates,
Wi the din o the caulkers vibratin the shell,
A ship on the stocks is just organised hell.

But there’s aye caustic humour an witty retort.
An endless comment aboot wimen an sport,
For it’s wimen an horses an who scored the goal
That sustain men in life such conditions tae thole.

On Kilbowie Hill the beeches stand tall,
Oer men frae the yards who hae given their all,
One moment alive and the next just a wreck,
Covered oer wi coats on a cauld rusty deck.

They were aye in the news when the critics cried oot,
Just countin up hours that’s lost in dispute;
An I wonder, did they earn their livin as hard
As the men that were buildin the ships in the yard?

Noo, there must be oer many who think they were daft,
Takin pride in oor labour, oor skill an oor craft,
Buildin luxury liners, empresses an queens,
That ever tae sail on was far yond oor dreams

Through the eyes o an auld man, I gaze on the river,
An the young jobless men, wonderin if it’s for ever;
Wi Scotland united, we’ll still turn the tide,
An return tae its glory, the Valley o Clyde.

One last reference cries out to be given, namely a collection of poems springing from a similar experience and culture and ethos as Owen’s and Leo’s, namely Bill Sutherland’s A Clydeside Lad. Three of these poems are included in A Rose Loupt Oot, an anthology published by Smokestack Books of various materials inspired by the great UCS Work-In of 1971-72.

In one of them, the poet characterises a ship under construction as being both a “beast o steel” and a “beauty”, and wonders, in the voice of childhood, “whit god’s, whit divvil’s beast is this?” What contradictions there are here, as in Owen’s “Profit and Loss” and Leo’s “Song o the Yard”!