Port Glasgow Shipbuilders sculpture Square

Working class heroes are a riveting sight

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PORT GLASGOW had a sculpture placed in the last month within shouting distance of the SNP Government-owned Ferguson’s yard.  The same yard where two Caledonian MacBrayne ferries are enjoying the fruits of the SNP’s ‘one step forward, thousand steps back’ approach to shipbuilding.   If the ferries are for the future (long, long, into the future at this rate), then ‘The Shipbuilder of Port Glasgow’ by artist John McKenna celebrates the area’s shipbuilding past.

If the job of art is to make one step back and ponder, or to feel something, then it’s a job well done.   Two gigantic rivetters in 14 tonnes of stainless-steel stand at 33 foot, capture the movement and the sheer physical efforts of these workers and although the overall effect is a bit tin-foil-like animation from the 70s, it resolutely cannot be ignored and the effect is kind of cool.   The take-home for me looking at these hard-working heroes is ‘those men worked hard’.

It’s refreshing to see a celebration of workers who wouldn’t know or care about mission statements or brands or company values.  They just knew how to rivet and would do it for pay.   In our times of identity division, a reminder that most of us have a worker identity is not bad thing.   Our work today may not look much like those rivetters, but we are still workers and are trying to make our way in the world of the here and now and earn a living to boot.

But further inspection of these strapping great men brings about another thought. Those men mostly went home to women.

Those clothes they are wearing?  Probably washed by women.  The living rooms they went home to?  Nearly all cleaned by women.  The meals they ate?  Women.   The sculpture is a celebration of shipbuilding work.  Shipbuilding work represented by men in this sculpture was also carried out by women.  But the work of shipbuilding is commemorated and valued.   But there are few sculptures celebrating the more tedious work that was largely women’s work – the ironing, hoovering, dusting, mopping.  Where is the gigantic Busy Mizzy?

My grandfather worked in those yards.  But my grandmother cleaned up after him.   He gets a sculpture.  She doesn’t.

If recent studies are accurate (and they are in my house) this work is still carried out largely by women.   An international study from the Centre of Demographic Studies in Spain, involving 200,000 people from Europe, Asia and North America concluded that women still do 70 mins (that’s 426 hours per year) more housework than men per day.  Women, it seems, are still doing the work that men don’t want to do.

Housework is boring, under-valued and never-ending.  Who’s up for that?  No one.  So women do it, most of the time.   Women often do the housework as though they see it as part of their care and affection.    Women who clean for money are most often paid little and valued less.

Watching politicians, from Putin to Boris Johnston, from No. 10 to the White House, I think of the very probably female cleaners who clean up after these men.  The wiping of that gigantic desk?  Some Russian woman I’ll bet.  I wonder what she is thinking as she is cleaning up, probably on whatever is the equivalent of Russian minimum wage?    The work that isn’t valued, the work that is invisible, that isn’t celebrated?  That’ll be mainly women doing it.

So now colossal, arty, men of steel, you really have me thinking.  Maybe everyone who is fit and healthy enough to do so, should clean up their own mess.     We should all do our own share of boring housework.  Hand Putin a mop.  Boris and wife?  Tidy your own second home. CEOs at the end of their meetings, get your hoovers out.

Value all labour. Budge up, giant workers and let the giant cleaning lady lean in.

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Photo of ‘The Shipbuilder of Port Glasgow’ by artist John McKenna taken by Tam Nugent – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115916842

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