George Blake (Greenock, 28 October 1893–Glasgow, 29 August 1961) was a prolific author, journalist and broadcaster, famed for his gritty novels set in and around the shipyards of the Clyde, and his broadcasts on the Scottish Regional Programme in the 1930s; most notable of which were his presentation of the news review programme, The Week in Scotland, and his eye-witness commentaries of major events.
George Blake was born on 28 October 1893 at 60 Forsyth Street, Greenock, Renfrewshire, the fourth child of engineer 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.
Blake 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.
Journalism and literary career
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, eventually progressing to Literary Editor. This was a stimulating opportunity for a young man, since his editor was Neil Munro, the foremost novelist of his time in Scotland and a literary journalist of the greatest charm and skill. A skilled author himself, Blake started to write novels, with his first book The Vagabond Papers being published in 1922.
Blake was one of three journalists on the council of the new Scottish National Theatre Society in 1922. He wrote three plays for the Scottish National Players in its early days: The Mother, which received its first performance in 1921, followed by Fledglings and Clyde-Built, both performed for the first time in 1922. David Glen MacKemmie, one of the founders of the movement, described Blake enthusiastically to Andrew P. Wilson:
I have enlisted the sympathy and support of a young journalistic genius who is on the staff of the Glasgow News and writes under the pen name 'Vagabond'. He is said to be a coming man in the literary world. He is greatly interested in our Scheme and promises a play dealing with the modern social and industrial problems of the Western Isles which he has studied on the spot. Blake is his name and I think he will put some ginger into our somewhat staid committee.
Clyde-Built was his most successful of his plays. The Players' gave it a total of 28 known performances, including those of its 1932 Autumn Tour. The play was notable for dramatising contemporary and industrial Glasgow, in contrast to the majority of plays produced by the Players' which had been romantic and nostalgic and set in rural or Highland locations.
The play was set in Greenock, where the Crockett family firm of lifeboat makers is in serious financial trouble. The firm can only be saved by selling to Merson's, a large shipping company, and the Merson son is willing to close the deal if Jean, the Crockett daughter, will marry him. Although Jean is in love with a sailor, he is missing, presumed dead, at sea, so she agrees under pressure from her family to marry Merson. At the last minute before the deal is signed, the sailor appears with the tale of how their ship, which had been "jerry-built" by Merson's, foundered in bad weather and the crew were only saved by the "Clyde-built" lifeboats from Crockett's yard. The head of the Crockett family is enraged and tears up the contract, leaving Jean free to marry her sailor and the Crockett firm facing bankruptcy.
The play is melodramatic, particularly at the end when the sailor returns at the eleventh hour with news that wrecks the prospects of a business deal, but it was a serious attempt at portraying a modern Scottish business family and some of the problems in the shipbuilding industry.
Most reviews mildly criticised the melodramatic tendency of the piece, but were otherwise favourable. The Citizen (24 November) described it as being the Players' "best appearance so far, delighting a large audience".
Move to London
He married Eliza (Ellie) Malcolm Lawson (daughter of the proprietor of Greenock Apothecaries & Lawson, 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, then the most popular of bookish periodicals. Four years later he moved to the Strand magazine as editor, but he failed to revive this once immensely successful publication, which was declining when he went to it.
When the London publishers Faber and Faber acquired the Porpoise Press in Edinburgh in 1930 they chose two Scots to assist in the project: Blake and George Malcolm Thomson. Porpoise had been established to stimulate and publish Scottish writing, publishing a series of pamphlets, books and poems, but it had hitherto been run by a single individual in a rather haphazard manner, and had only just managed to pay its way. On 20 June 1930 Blake was offered a principal directorship at Faber and Faber, taking up the position from 1 August. During his time there the Porpoise subsidiary published a number of Scottish novels including Neil M. Gunn’s Morning Tide in 1931. Blake took leave of Faber and Faber in 1932.
Return to Scotland
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, which provided a backdrop to some of the novels he wrote in that decade.
In 1935 he semi-retired from journalism to concentrate on writing books, becoming a freelance contributor to the Scottish Daily Express.
In 1939 he had a brief period working for the Ministry of Information in London. The family left their Helensburgh home that same year.
Editor, Glasgow Evening Citizen
He returned fully to the press, however, in 1940, when he emerged as editor of the Glasgow Evening Citizen (the first of Glasgow’s three evening newspapers), occupying the role until 1943. At this point the family took rented accomodation in Dollar where Christopher and his brother had been boarders at the Academy. They bought a house in 1940, and lived in Dollar, and later in Glasgow.
From 1939 until 1945, during World War II, Blake also worked for the British Government’s Ministry of information.
Blake, described as "a thickset, battering-ram of a man, with a frowning brow and unruly hair", was a frequent BBC radio broadcaster, introducing the radio feature The Week in Scotland in 1933, in which his wide experience of men and affairs made him one of the most authoritative speakers in the series.
He also became a gifted commentator with a remarkable power of graphic description. His biggest assignment was his running commentary on the launching of the new Cunarder, the RMS Queen Mary, live from John Brown and Co's shipyard at Clydebank. It was broadcast to a massive audience on the Regional and National programmes on 26 September 1934. He was also part of the commentary team describing the Coronation of King George VI in 1953.
In May 1937 his River Clyde was first heard and listeners liked it so much that it was revived on 8 January 1938, when thoughts of the Empire Exhibition at Glasgow gave it special significance. He also devised one of the most notable programmes of 1938, Salute from Scotland, arranged to mark St. Andrew's Day, and on Hogmanay he provided Scottish listeners with a graphic review of 1937.
From May 1940, Blake, who at this point was editor of a leading evening newspaper, returned to the airwaves with a new monthly wartime programme on the BBC Home Service, North of the Tweed. Each month, with his trademark dry wit, he described to listeners across Britain the most important and interesting things that had been happening in Scotland. The December edition was always titled The Year in Scotland and took a look at the previous twelve months. From March 1944 the programme moved to a 13:15 on a Tuesday afternoon, and was reduced in duration to 15 minutes. It continued in this slot until June 1945, the last month before the unified Home Service was replaced by the new Scottish Home Service.
As well as being heard across the British Isles, Blake also broadcast several talks for overseas listeners.
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 in 1961.
Blake wrote more than 20 novels and many non-fiction works. His melodramatic first novel, Mince Collop Close (1923) was a story of the Glasgow slums, preceding more mature work in Young Malcolm (1926), the story of a Greenock boyhood which was surely his own, and The Path of Glory (1929), which drew on his First World War experiences and was described by the Spectator as "beyond question one of the best War novels that have been written".
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, he makes it clear that he thought that Bell gained a fame disproportionate to his worth.
The Shipbuilders (1935) portrays sympathetically the problems faced by a community when a shipyard closes; contrasting 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, one of the best of his later novels, 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.)
George Blake died from a cerebral haemorrhage in the Southern General Hospital, Glasgow, on 29 August 1961. His wife, two sons and daughter survived him. His wealth at death was £8,870 13s. 3d.
By the 1930s, Blake had become a member of the National Party of Scotland. A 1931 pamphlet on Scottish home rule by George Malcolm Thomson, The Kingdom of Scotland Restored, was given public support in its introduction by Blake, along with William Power, Moray McLaren, and the right-wing nationalist and law professor, Andrew Dewar Gibb.
However, while he might have been expected to be a committed nationalist, in The Heart of Scotland in 1935 Blake revealed himself a disillusioned nationalist, a state of mind he blamed, almost entirely, on the Scottish people who, he claimed, had been slow to embrace it.
Scottish nationalism, in the political sense, is but the last-ditch expression of the will that the country should not lose its cultural identity. It is a worthy sentiment, but it has to be feared sometimes that the will is not shared by the Scottish people as a whole.
Muir, reviewing Blake’s book, shared his pessimism and despair, finding common ground with his judgement that while Scottish nationalists were correct in their diagnosis about the decline of Scotland, it was unlikely that nationalism could provide a solution:
The problem is too vast. If an independent authority were to take over Scotland today it would take over a bankrupt concern. It may be that the problem is too vast for nationalism to solve.
A portrait of George Blake was etched by William Douglas Macleod in 1926. It was handed over to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1983 by the subject's son, Christopher Blake.
Another, in which Blake is pictured alongside the novelist Neil Gunn and the poet Douglas Young, was drawn by Emilio Coia in 1957.
Credit to the Heroes Centre for the majority of information provided on this page.
- Letter from MacKemmie to Wilson, 23 October 1920, Scottish Theatre Archive.
- Marshalsay, 90.
- John Haffenden, T. S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 5: 1930-1931 (Faber & Faber, 2014).
- Scottish Daily Express, 26 September 1935.
- 'The Path of Glory by George Blake', Spectator, 12 July 1929, 24.
- George Blake, Heart of Scotland, 112.
- Edwin Muir, 'Review, The Heart of Scotland', The Spectator, No. 5549, 2 November 1934, 676, in Noble, Edwin Muir Uncollected Scottish Criticism, Chapter 3, 'The Problem of Scotland', 111-114.
- Record of George Blake portrait at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery