The Trial by Philip Glass. Review. Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow, January 2017.
For many years I have been a fan of Franz Kafka's books and of the music of Philip Glass. Therefore I was obviously going to be drawn to see Scottish Opera bring Glass's opera version of The Trial to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow this month. The result was, I am pleased to say, a great success.
Happy Birthday Philip Glass
American composer Philip Glass has a diverse body of work behind him. He has written several symphonies, numerous film scores and ballets and twenty six operas, most famously Einstein on the Beach. Among this work is a previous opera of a Kafka story, In The Penal Colony. His second "chamber opera" of a Kafka tale, The Trial, was first performed by the Music Theatre Wales at the Royal Opera House in London in 2014.
His music can't be pigeon-holed as he has such a breadth of work from symphonies to film scores, opera and theatre music, to minimalism in the 1970s and string quartets. Repetition and strident pacing often mark his work, which proved to be a good fit for Kafka's The Trial.
The Trial - Franz Kafka
Written in about 1914, though never finished, The Trial was only published after Kafka's death. He had already written the final chapter and the circular plot means the book holds together despite being incomplete, with the Josef K., the accused main character, jumping off from one point in the story towards his inevitable conclusion. Kafka's express instructions were that the book, and his other unpublished writings, be destroyed after his death. His wishes were ignored by his lifelong friend, Max Brod, and his most famous work was published a year after his death, in 1925. The Trial is Kafka's most Kafkaesque book, a word that has entered our vocabulary to mean a nightmarish complex, bizarre, bureaucratic situation. If you are trying to get through to a telephone help-desk or complete a claim on our welfare system, you will soon understand this word. (Googling "Kafkaesque" and "welfare system" gives over 22,000 hits rather depressingly.)
Josef K. is not a particularly likable character. He wakes on the morning of his 30th birthday to find three inspectors waiting for him. He never knows what crime he has been accused of, but tries to fight his case against mysterious officialdom, secret police and unaccountable courts. He gets drawn into the relationships, corruption, pettiness and bureaucracy of the system. This faceless, bureaucratic system seems almost stronger today than the version which Kafka imagined.
Franz Kafka was born in 1883 and died in 1924, aged 40, from TB. He was German-speaking and Jewish and lived most of his life in Prague at the time when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He trained as a lawyer, finishing his studies with a year's unpaid work as a court clerk. He eventually took up a clerical post in an insurance business, as he described it, in order to pay the bills, allowing him to keep writing. The overlaps between Kafka's life and K., who works as chief clerk in a bank whilst continuing his frustrating fights through an absurd legal system, are not hard to see. Felice Bauer, to whom Kafka was twice engaged, is often seen as the template for Fraulein Burstner in the book.
There are two cities that I have ran around trying to imagine settings for my favourite books. In St Petersburg I sought out Dostoyevsky's apartment and the flats and streets inhabited by Raskolnikov in his novel Crime and Punishment. On visiting Prague in the 1980s I made sure that I visited Kafka's old house at 22 Golden Lane, and stood like some pretentious arse by his graveside in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague, wearing a yarmulke and reading from one of his books. The apartment block in a Prague suburb that we were staying in on that trip, with its rickety stairs, was just like the apartments Kafka sets his court offices of The Trial in their attics. It is maybe inevitable then that I link these two books in my mind, Crime and Punishment and The Trial.
My fanboy trip to Prague to visit Kafka's house and grave
Dostoyevsky's work was a big influence on Kafka's ideas and there are many echos of Crime and Punishment in the Trial. Has K. committed a crime? Does he consider his actions criminal? If not why does he subject himself to the rule of the authorities? The same questions about guilt and responsibility drive Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Josef K. in The Trial. Themes of guilt, alienation, angst, surrealism, claustrophobic life, shifting balance of power in relationships run through the books. The thoughts of both authors turn to religion in the final chapters when thinking about guilt and responsibility. Kafka was drawn to some ideas from Freud and also from Karl Marx's theory of alienation, that becoming a mechanistic part of a social class, through endless work, alienates people from their humanity, as it does in the dehumanising world of The Trial.
Many of my favourite contemporary authors are clearly inspired by Kafka's work and there are clear shadows of his writing in the books of James Kelman and Alasdair Gray.
Kafka created a darkly comic, precise world in the book. The confusing geometry of apartment blocks, stairwells and offices, the claustrophobic, stuffy descriptions that give a sense how Josef K. is feeling. There is an Escher-like clarity to this unreal, but very recognisable, world that Kafka creates. Written over 100 years ago, reading The Trial again it feels very prescient. The populace are now increasingly judged guilty until proven innocent, watched and spied upon more than ever and evaluated by unknown observers as we travel through our modern world. Truth and facts are just a matter of opinion and perspective. Secret courts can now pass secret judgements leaving defendants as confused as Josef K. as to why they won or lost their case.
To get very meta about The Trial, here is Scottish post-punk band Josef K.'s video for their song "It's Kinda Funny", made up of clips from Orson Wells's classic 1962 film version of The Trial starring Anthony Perkins (who makes a great Josef K.).
The Trial. Scottish Opera
A Czech beer and all set for The Trial
A co-production between Scottish Opera, Music Theatre Wales (as was The Devil Inside) and Theater Magdeburg The Trial gets its Scottish premier in Glasgow before moving to Edinburgh. It has a libretto from Christopher Hampton (writer of the play and film Les Liasons Dangereuses) that is very faithful to the book and manages to boil down the whole story into ten scenes, just as the book has ten chapters. The scenes all flow one into another thanks to the music and clever stagecraft and set design. The set looks like a prison cell, with secret doors and openings dextrously used throughout, always allowing K. to be observed from different corners. Baritone Nicholas Lester as Josef K. is present on stage almost throughout, but despite physically towering over most of the other seven members of the ensemble cast, he seems to shrink and crumble through the course of the evening.
The twelve musicians create a much bigger sound than their numbers suggest, at times unsettling, at times frisky, particularly when Fraulein Burstner is on stage. There is much variety in the music between scenes but an insistent, marching tempo throughout, swirling towards a dramatic conclusion. The music in the last two scenes was particularly striking, literally in the case of the percussive beats on the anvil. There is black humour in the book, but that is brought to the fore in the staging of the opera, with some acting reminiscent of silent movie performances of Scottish actors Alfred Eric Campbell and James Finlayson. The guards are done up like Thompson and Thomson from the Tintin books (who were NOT twins, that was a pop band) and their excuse of "only obeying orders" rings a few bells.
Alfred Eric Campbell, James Finlayson and Thompson and Thomson
The words being sung are clear and simple, like the book itself, and many of the lines seem lifted straight from Kafka, particularly the priest's parable of law. Others are cleverly arranged in the opera for greater emphasis, such as the last words of the first act matching up to the words that end the book, "Like a dog!".
The contemporary themes of the book shine through, moreso now in the early days of a Donald Trump presidency. From the first line of the book lies are accepted as fact, making this the most modern of 100 year old stories.
"Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning."
Written and performed by Karine Polwart, with input from David Greig and directed by Wils Wilson, Wind Resistance is a mixture of story-telling, folklore, traditional, and original songs all woven together around the musicality of Karine Polwart's voice. Twenty four hours on I am still digesting all that it contained.
The starting point is Fala Moor in Midlothian, close to where Karine Polwart lives. From describing the vista that opens up in front of you there, to crouching down and inspecting the smallest moss over the course of 90 minutes she explores the inter-connectedness of land, people and society. The mixture of personal memories and the story of a couple who lived 100 years earlier on a farm close to where Karine Polwart now lives give a humane heart to the piece. The songs give the whole story a feeling that we are sitting around a campfire on the hillside hearing secrets and tales in the oral tradition, passed on to us.
The skein of pink footed geese that arrive on the moor in autumn from Greenland are the visible proof of the benefits we can all gain by sharing the load. I laughed as that led us into an excuse to recall the Aberdeen's 1983 European Cup Winners' Cup winning team, as then manager Alex Ferguson is a big fan of that metaphor. Karine's enthusiasm for that team was shared by non-Old Firm supporting classmates of mine in 1983 who started following Aberdeen and Dundee United around that time (I stuck with Partick Thistle - whose laughing now?).
It is also a story about womanhood and childbirth that manages to avoid any tired "mother Earth" tropes. The warnings about the current atomisation of the health service are clear. It is a humane piece and focused on the benefits we all get from society pulling together, looking after our wild sites and each other. Like the geese I was lucky enough to be in Greenland recently, where the effects of global warming are visible in front of your eyes, and not acting is clearly no longer an option.
A timely warning against isolation and individualism. If you get the opportunity to see it, I would encourage you to grab it (and take a hankie).
As a city Glasgow grew up along the River Clyde, the city and shipping were inseparably connected. The city merchants became wealthy on trade with all corners of the British Empire, initially to slave economies, later investing their money in booming industries that made the banks of the Clyde a hive of activity in the 19th century. People, like my great-grandparents from the Highlands and from Ireland, came to the city to find work, a city becoming famed for its engineering and ship-building. On the back of this other areas grew, like Parkhead, Possil and Lambhill producing coal and steel.
From the 1860s Glasgow became the pre-eminent shipbuilding centre in the world, specialising in steamships made of iron, and later steel. As demand for passenger and freight services grew many shipping companies emerged to chase new markets to India and the Americas.
The Anchor Line, Anchor-Donaldson Line
Although never on the scale of P&O and Cunard, Glasgow's most famous passenger company was the Anchor Line. The name first appeared when Glasgow's Handyside shipping agents were joined by sea captain Thomas Henderson. In the 1850s they began using the "Anchor Line of Steam-Packet Ships" in their advertising. Initially operating ships to India they bought their own ships and started routes to New York. Other Henderson brothers came on board and they acquired the shipyard at Meadowside, which operated as D&W Hendersons. Over several decades 32 Anchor Line ships were built in their yards. They played up the Scottish angle, using the line "Scottish ships and Scottish crews for Scottish passengers" in some of their early marketing for the Glasgow to New York route, and marketing and advertising was something they seemed to be good at right from the start. In a brochure for the American market from 1925 their attempts to emphasise their Scottish origins are clear, with the images they used and slogans such as "Wise Americans Go Home via Anchor Line."
In the 1890s, with the deaths of four of the Henderson brothers, the company was re-organised as "Anchor Line (Henderson Bros) Ltd". As the company grew they moved from their offices in Union Street that they had operated from in the 1870s into swanky, white marble offices on St Vincent Street in 1907. Three years later they moved their ships' berths from Stobcross Quay to better accommodation at the newly completed Yorkhill Quay. Their success led to Cunard buying into the company in 1911, but running it as a separate concern from the Glasgow headquarters.
Anchor Line building at the corner of St Vincent St and Anchor Lane, the building is now open as a bar and restaurant using the 'Anchor Line' and 'Atlantic' names
The company aimed to provide comfort, but at affordable prices, usually under-cutting their American rivals. They always had a stylish image, employing the best of artists to design their posters and adverts and the ships stood out with their distinctive black funnels. They had routes via Gibraltar to India and Egypt, cruises to the Mediterranean, routes aimed at the migrant market from Italy to New York, and links to take advantage of increased emigration from Scandinavia with subsidiary companies bringing ships to Leith and linking via trains to Glasgow to join their trans-Atlantic routes onwards from here. Taking advantage of a growing market for those emigrating to Canada the Anchor-Donaldson subsidiary was developed in 1916. This merged Anchor Line resources with those of the Donaldson Line which had started as a freight company operating to Canada and South America. The Anchor-Donaldson Line began regular sailings between Glasgow and Canada, often linked to stops in Liverpool and Belfast.
In the 1930s the company began to struggle. The imposition of immigration quotas affected their trade to New York, the new Fascist government in Italy effectively shut down their routes from there by introducing laws requiring emigrees use Italian carriers and the depression affected their freight carriage. Cunard withdrew from the company and it limped on through liquidation.
The Anchor-Donaldson Line to Canada was developed in 1916 whilst war was still gripping the world. Four passenger liners were transferred from the Donaldson Line to the new concern but these ships were soon requisitioned for war service. Of these, two were sunk in World War 1 by U-boats, the Athenia and the Letitia.
After the war these ships were replaced by two larger ships, which were given the same names, the Letitia and Athenia. They were designed for the emigrant trade. The TSS Athenia was built in the Fairfields Yard in Govan, Glasgow and came into service in 1924. She could accommodate 1,500 passengers. The Athenia and Letitia were kept busy during the 1920s as various government schemes tried to encourage emigration to Canada, offering tickets for only £2 with a guaranteed job on arrival. By the 1930s this emigration business was tailing off and the ships were re-fitted with more comfortable accommodation in an effort to appeal to tourists. The company struggled with the fall in trade and went into liquidation in 1935. The Donaldson Line re-acquired the full ownership of the company and continued trading as the Donaldson Atlantic Line. This company took ownership of the two ships and continued to operate under this name until 1954, now completely separate from the Anchor Line company.
Display at Glasgow Riverside Museum on the sinking of the Athenia
Souvenirs from TSS Athenia, on display in Glasgow's Riverside Museum
Passengers on board the Letitia or Athenia could buy souvenirs such as these Athenia branded goods above, which are on display in the Glasgow Riverside Museum, or the postcard above that which I have, showing the ship. Many of those leaving from Glasgow would send a last postcard home when they stopped in Ireland or Liverpool to pick up the last of the passengers for the trip.
TSS Athenia being guided down the Clyde by a tug on an outward journey in 1938 with Meadowside Granary visible at the top of the picture and a vehicular ferryboat at the bottom left.
By 1939 the shadow of war was again hanging over Europe. Eastern European refugees, German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Canadians and Americans living or holidaying in Britain were trying to get across the Atlantic to safety. On the 4th of August 1939 TSS Athenia left Glasgow, stopping in Liverpool then Belfast on the 5th and 6th of August, she arrived in Quebec on August 12th and Montreal a day later. Back in Glasgow on the 27th of August she was made ready to make her regular trip again. Leaving Glasgow on September 1st 1939 she would be the last passenger ship leaving Britain to cross the Atlantic before the war, which now seemed inevitable, was declared.
My great-grandparents Bella McPhee and Peter Donnelly had four children. In the first photograph above their two boys Peter and Ian can be seen. In the second photo Peter is in full Highland dress (presumably property of the photo studio), Ian is sitting happily in a sailor's outfit ready for his working life at sea, and my newly born granny is swaddled in her mother's arms. Six months older than the boxer Benny Lynch, Ian and he were classmates at school in the Gorbals and remained lifelong friends. After leaving school Ian started working on steam-ships as a steward. The one wage slip of his which I have (maybe his first?) is from September 1928, when aged 15 years old, he had just been paid £2.13/2d for 21 days work on the passenger ship Melita, which went from Glasgow to Montreal and Quebec.
Account of wages, from ship Melita, 1928
My granny always said that he loved his job, enjoyed being at sea and travelling the world. He was still doing it 11 years later when he was on the crew of the Athenia in 1939 (being paid nearer £8 a trip by then). Like many other families, my great-grandparents gave serious thought to emigrating in the late 1920s and this photograph below was taken as a family passport photograph at that time. My granny stands at the back aged about 15 with her big brothers on either side of her, Ian to the right.
For whatever reason the family decided against emigrating and were still living on Gorbals Main Street in 1936 when newly married Ian moved out from his parents' home to live a few doors down the road with his wife Mary (or Molly as we knew her). She was a worker at a biscuit factory at the time of their marriage (almost certainly the McCall & Stephen biscuit factory on Adelphi Street).
Ian Donnelly in his early 20s, and aged 23 marrying Molly in June 1936
With only 4 or 5 days between trips, Ian Donnelly had a few days at home in late August 1939 before heading off to sea again on the 1st of September 1939. During those few days he caught up with family and my granny said that he was out meeting some old friends for a few drinks, including Benny Lynch, the night before he went back to the ship. Also aged 26, Lynch had just had his boxing license withheld a few days earlier for failing to meet the Boxing Board's fitness standards due to his failing health.
Only officers were permanent employees of the shipping companies, the rest of the crew signed on voyage by voyage. The ship's crew were divided into three groups. The deck crew operated the ship and loaded/ unloaded cargo (67 men on the Athenia). Engineering crew worked the engines and maintained the machinery on board (29 men on the Athenia). Under the chief steward, the cabin crew made up the largest part of the crew. Responsible for general housekeeping, cooking, entertainment, with roles from manicurists to confectioners this could be 150-300 cabin crew depending upon passenger numbers on a Donaldson Atlantic Line ship to Canada.
SS Athenia passing Yorkhill Quay 1935, the pump house at the top is about all that is still recognisable today. The Anchor Line's New York steamships Cameronia and Transylvania are visible behind the Athenia.
In 1939 as tension grew in Europe the ships to Canada were becoming busier and busier. The company log books for the Athenia show the trip from Glasgow to Canada in August 1939 required a crew of 262. A month later they had 316 crew looking after an unusually crowded ship.
The ship left Glasgow around noon on September 1st 1939 and arrived in Belfast that evening near 8pm to collect another 136 passengers. Two hours later they prepared to head across the Irish Sea for their last stop, in Liverpool, arriving early the next morning. Those boarding in Liverpool would have read newspaper headlines announcing the German invasion of Poland which had begun the previous day. In Liverpool the captain received new advice from the admiralty about anti-submarine procedures to be followed with war expected. He was commanded to follow a zig-zag course north of the usual trade routes, and to sail with the ship blacked out at night.
After a further 546 passengers had boarded at Liverpool the ship set sail at 4.30pm on Sunday the 2nd September, left Liverpool and headed down the River Mersey and northwards. On board were 1,418 people including 316 crew. Of the passengers 469 were Canadian citizens, 311 were Americans, 172 were British or Irish and 150 were European refugees, including many children. Accommodation on the ship was crowded, some rooms designed for two people had four people sleeping in them, some temporary facilities in the lounges were filled and the crew had to arrange three sittings for meals in the dining rooms.
By dawn on the 3rd September they had cleared the Donegal coast and were headed out towards the north Atlantic. Just after 11am the radio operator received a message. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had announced that Britain was at war with Germany and the news was passed to the passengers. The crew conducted a lifeboat drill at 1pm and provisions and flares were placed in all 26 lifeboats in case of an emergency.
Pages from the company log books for TSS Athenia, showing the crew, their wages and dates of arrival and departure in ports en route
The bottom line of this log book should have recounted the dates of arrival in ports along the way, but after Liverpool instead in red ink all it states is...
"Vessel torpedoed 3rd September '39.
19 crew and 94 passengers lost"
"British Liner Athenia Torpedoed"
U-boats were already in the north Atlantic at the end of August 1939, preparing for war. In the event of war the six U-boats that made up the Salzwedel flotilla here were to attack British naval ships, troop carriers and military craft under escort.
Operating on the surface on the morning of 3rd September U-30 spotted the Norwegian freighter SS Knute Nelson. A short while later the U-boat crew were informed that Germany was at war. At about 2pm the U-boats received orders to "open hostilities against England(sic) immediately. Do not wait to be attacked first". Further messages and instructions outlined the rules of engagement. Later that afternoon the U-boat commander, Oberleutenant Lemp, caught sight of another ship and had his U-boat set a course to intercept it. When dusk approached he had it in his sights. As it was blacked-out and following a zig-zag course he decided that it was an armed British merchant cruiser on patrol and he prepared to attack. As a passenger liner Athenia should have been stopped and searched, or those on board given warning to abandon ship before it was attacked if it was felt to be a legitimate target. None of these things happened. At 7.40pm, from a distance of about 1500 metres, Lemp fired two torpedoes at the ship. One of the torpedoes struck the Athenia and exploded.
A few days later, on 8th September 1939, the American ambassador to London, Joseph P Kennedy dispatched a report to the American Secretary of State. A report was prepared after arranging naval attachés Commander Hitchcock and Captain Kirk to take statements from eye witnesses disembarked from rescue ships in Galway. Their report (a copy of which is held in the Mitchell Library) states that
"the torpedo struck the port side of Athenia, slightly abaft midships.....The explosion caused a great deal of water on the outside of the ship to be blown into the air: destroyed the bulkhead between fireroom and engineroom, shattering the oil tank and destroying access of stairs from the third class and tourist dining saloons to the upper decks"
Several people died at the stairwell or in the dining area and also some people were injured or killed who were on the deck near the point of impact. The second torpedo missed the ship and Lemp took his U-boat down to avoid been struck by it as it followed an erratic course. About half an hour later he surfaced again and as the ship did not appear to be sinking he fired two more torpedoes at her. Many eye witnesses on board also reported seeing or hearing a shot from the submarine's deck canon fired towards the ship, though that is disputed. Of this second volley one torpedo missed and the other became stuck in the tube. To try to release it the U-boat sank again to increase the pressure in the tube.
The U-boat radio operator could now hear the distress signals of the sinking ship and checking the Lloyds Register of Ships on board the U-boat they were able to confirm that they had attacked a civilian passenger liner, against all commands that they had been given. At that point they left the scene, making no attempt to help the lifeboats as they were meant to under the rules of submarine warfare, and made no radio contact with their command, who learnt about the sinking of the Athenia from BBC broadcasts. It was over three weeks later before U-30 arrived back home, having sunk another three ships on their voyage. Lemp was taken to Berlin to explain the events around the Athenia. Afterwards the U-boat's log books were altered and the Germans continued to deny any involvement in the sinking throughout the war. It wasn't until the Nuremberg trials that the truth emerged.
TSS Athenia sinking after being torpedoed by U-30
The Athenia stayed afloat for many hours which gave time for evacuation and all 26 lifeboats were launched into the sea successfully. The sea was at this time relatively flat and within several hours the Norwegian freighter SS Knute Nelson, which Lemp had earlier spotted, arrived to help pick up survivors. Unfortunately a tragic episode here at 2.50am in the morning led to possibly the biggest loss of life in the sinking. With increasingly choppy seas one of the lifeboats got drawn into the propeller of the Knute Nelson, killing many of those on board as the boat got sliced to pieces.
Next to arrive and offer assistance was The Southern Cross, the "yacht" of the millionaire Swedish owner of the Electrolux vacuum cleaner company, Axel Wenner-Gren. Royal Navy ships HMS Electra and HMS Escortthen arrived to assist the rescue attempts, whilst sea conditions deteriorated. About 10am on the morning of 4th September the passengers and crew, either on these ships or still in the sea, watched the Athenia finally sink below the waves.
An Athenia lifeboat transfers passengers to the City of Flint
640 survivors were on board HMS Escort and HMS Electra which took them to Greenock in Scotland. There they were provided with emergency clothing and 27 of them taken directly to hospital to have burns and broken limbs dealt with. 236 survivors were aboard The Southern Cross and were soon transferred to American freighter City of Flint which headed directly across the Atlantic to Halifax. The Knute Nelson had 430 on board and made for Galway in Ireland, the owners insisting that the ship should be docked at a neutral port.
The newsreel below shows those arriving at the Sugar Quay, Albert Harbour in Greenock being taken by buses from there to the Beresford Hotel on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow.
You can see agitated relatives looking out for family members coming off of the buses in Glasgow and I wonder if my great-granny or Ian's wife Molly were there. My granny remembered them going regularly to the Beresford Hotel over the coming days to try to see if there was any news of Ian. With ships landing survivors in different ports, on either side of the Atlantic, it took some time before a list of those still missing was released. My granny held on to letters the family received from friends written in the days after the news of the ship's sinking, messages saying "my family and myself are hoping that everything will be all right." Other cards that they held onto, which arrived at the same time, seem to be from another world, like these two postcards sent by a friend who was in Paris. Apparently oblivious to all that was going on elsewhere these cards were posted in the last week of August, days before war was declared. Their messages report "lovely weather, plenty good wine, cheap. I simply feel in the pink."
My granny told me that initially they were optimistic that Ian had survived. They knew he was a good swimmer, sometimes after a night out he would swim home across the River Clyde, fully clothed, for fun and arrive at the door dripping wet and smiling. They got lots of false reports of sightings of Ian on newsreels from friends and neighbours. Colleagues from the Athenia assured them that they had seen Ian in a lifeboat, but they also heard in detail about the lifeboat that had been smashed by a propeller in the rescue, a lifeboat that was reported to have many crew on board. Almost three weeks after the Athenia was sunk they got confirmation that Ian was listed among the missing, presumed dead. This report in the Daily Record from 23rd September 1939 has a photo of Ian at the top, second from the left. It reports that 19 crew members lost their lives, 14 from Glasgow, the other five from Giffnock, Cambuslang, Dunoon, Balornock and one from Quebec.
One letter that arrived from a cousin Sadie in Philadelphia to Ian's mother, Bella, says
"It was with deep regret that I learned of Ian being lost by the sinking of the SS Athenia. I received papers from home and noticed his name among the missing so I am taking it for granted it was he as I know he had quite a passion for steam-ships but I trust in God that he has been found."
1,306 people were rescued from the SS Athenia but 112 people died. Of these 112 people 19 were crew and 93 passengers, including 30 Americans. A 10 year old Canadian girl, Margaret Heyworth, later died from her injuries whilst aboard the City of Flint, and her coffin being taken off the ship in Halifax shocked Canadians. Politicians and newspapers there rallied behind the British war effort, "EMPIRE AT WAR" as the headline in the Halifax Herald put it in bold red letters in early September above the news story of the Athenia.
Comparisons were quickly made with the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic in 1915. On that occasion over 1,000 passengers and crew were lost. With 128 American citizens among the dead, that shifted American public opinion behind the country joining the First World War. The Germans feared that sinking the Athenia now risked doing the same again with this war and they were quick to deny any responsibility for the ship going down. A document in the Mitchell Library, produced by the British government, lists the German versions of events broadcast by their media in the days after the sinking, claiming that the Athenia was sunk...
by a British warship in error
by a floating mine of English origin
by an English submarine
by gunfire from three British destroyers
The Germans also claimed that the Athenia was not just a passenger liner but was carrying munitions and that the situation was being "maneuvered by British Naval Authorities to bring America into the war." Even after Berlin received Oberleutenant Lemp's report of his actions, as the man who fired the torpedo, on October 22nd 1939 Joseph Goebbels gave a speech broadcast on German radio denouncing Churchill for ordering the sinking.
The statements of numerous people who saw the submarine fire at them was not enough to convince some Americans. Former American President Herbert Hoover, who opposed American entry into the war, wrote in a letter...
"The whole thing looks suspicious to me." To sink the passenger liner "is such poor tactics that I cannot believe even the clumsy Germans would do such a thing"
Although it was over two years before America did join the war, the sinking of the Athenia is believed to have softened opinion there to allow amendments to American neutrality legislation, allowing arms sales to the French and British.
Athenia Relief Fund
In Glasgow and Galway hundreds of survivors of the sinking had to be looked after, and although nervous many still were keen to find new passage to America and Canada as soon as possible. The Lord Provost of Glasgow Corporation (the Scottish equivalent of a mayor), Patrick Dollan, previously Scottish chairman of the Independent Labour Party throughout the 1920s, was quick to mobilise the city's resources to aid the survivors. Most of them were brought to the Beresford Hotel on Sauchiehall Street initially. Appeals went out for clothing and the Athenia Relief Fund was set up immediately to help those in extremis. Within days the fund had raised thousands of pounds, from large donations from the Donaldson Line company, to small amounts handed in by individuals. A (rather droll) letter from a man in Barnsley passing on 2/8d to the fund says...
"six or seven children, amongst them two of my own, none of them above nine years of age decided to give a concert in my garden. From what I hear it was not a great show but by charging 3d each to their mummy's and begging from friends who passed by they raised 2/8d and asked me to send it to survivors of the Athenia"
A letter from Paisleys Outfitters on Jamaica Street tells of the "40-50 mens and ladies coats" they will be sending to help the survivors. Other letters offer up rooms in people's homes in the city to put up the survivors. There are letters from the Donaldson Atlantic Line passing on small amounts handed in from the public to their offices for the relief fund. One letter from the company, four weeks after the sinking, passing on 2/6d from an anonymous donor is on their official paper, still carrying the header in red print...
"Travel in comfort by "Athenia" and "Letitia"
Rebuilt, modernised, air conditioned."
Lord Provost Dollan invited the American ambassador to Glasgow to see what was being done for the Americans in the city. Unable to come, he sent his young son, 22 year old John F. Kennedy. He visited Americans in the various city hotels they had been posted to, and those in the hospitals. By all newspaper accounts at the time he was charming and re-assuring to all those he met on his first official diplomatic role.
Provost Dollan and John F. Kennedy meet some of the American survivors of the Athenia sinking
After returning to London to pass on the concerns of the American survivors to his father, John F. Kennedy wrote these two letters to Provost Dollan thanking the city for her efforts.
This Pathé newsreel below, "Athenia Survivors Go Home", shows the Americans leaving Glasgow on the 19th of September aboard the American ship Orizaba, after being entertained in the city by Harry Lauder a few days earlier. The film also shows those arriving on the City of Flint in Halifax.
Letters among those sent to the Athenia Relief Fund administrators contain many requests for emergency funds from people who have lost everything they had on the sinking. There are several letters from crew members, who are directed to the Donaldson Atlantic line with their claims. The emergency fund only supplied items such as spectacles and dentures lost in the sinking to crew members. The company gave crew an emergency issue of £5 and then later 2 months wages and compensation for loss of personal effects, which usually seemed to amount to about £15. Some letters complain that the emergency £5 was taken from the wages they later got.
Some requests for support from the fund give us a window onto the impossible situation some people were in. There are letters from German Jews, Poles and Czechs requesting assistance. An application for support from a family of Czech refugees comes from Anna and Karl, asking for help with their 9 and 4 year old children and 14 year old nephew...
" ...who joined my family in May after having traveled with the children's transport from Czechoslovakia."
The family were fleeing Europe to Canada, but had now lost all their money, clothing and belongings on the Athenia. They requested help to "fit out my family from head to foot before our new passage to Canada." They were re-directed to apply to the Scottish Refugee Council and given an emergency £5. By contrast there was a letter via the New Zealand High Commissioner on behalf of a lady wanting compensation from the fund for lost luggage. She gave a "conservative estimate" of £200 for her luggage, in which she listed among other items...
"Three fur coats, including one grey squirrel £30, six evening frocks with accessories to tone..."
A terse reply from the Public Assistance Department of Glasgow Corporation dismissed her request.
"It is apparent that Mrs... had means of her own, and as the fund was primarily raised to relieve immediate destitution, I do not think a grant should be made to this woman in respect of the loss of her effects."
As well as helping survivors, two cheques for £50 from the fund were dispatched on 21st December 1939 to the crew and officers of HMS Escort and HMS Electra which had helped in the rescue.
"Glasgow would like to join in their Christmas celebrations and will be happy if you will allow us this privilege."
A letter of thanks to the city arrived from American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which is held amongst these papers. His description "efficient, generous and humane" seems to sum up the response of the city to those who were in need.
"I have just received your telegram of September 5 assuring me that the city of Glasgow will look after the American and other survivors of the Athenia disaster who have arrived in your city. Ambassador Kennedy has also telegraphed telling me of your city's kindness.
I wish you to know how deeply I and the American people appreciate the efficient, generous , and humane manner in which Glasgow and its citizens came to the help of our fellow countrymen and women in their need. I express to you my heartfelt thanks and assure you that Glasgow's gesture will not be forgotten.
Very sincerely yours, President Franklin D Roosevelt"
Tower Hill Memorial, London
Last year when I was in London I visited the Tower Hill Memorial close to the Tower of London, which commemorates the men and women of the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets who died in both world wars and are not commemorated in other places. In total almost 36,000 names are recorded here of those who have "no grave but the sea".
The names of British crew members who died on TSS Athenia
My granny often talked about her brother Ian. He loved steam-ships, was handsome, funny and her best friend. The last time that I saw Molly, Ian's wife, was at my granny's funeral many years ago. She and my granny were lifelong friends. A war memorial only consists of a list of names. I have tried here to remember the person that my granny told me about when I was younger, and below I have endeavoured to flesh out some of the other names on this memorial, who had their own lives cut short whilst working on TSS Athenia, by a German U-boat less than eight hours into World War Two.
What of the captain of U-30, Fritz-Julius Lemp? Awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross by the German Navy he was a war hero. However, whilst commander of another submarine, U-110, he was cornered by British warships in May 1941. With his boat disabled he ordered his crew to abandon ship and tried to scuttle U-110. It is reported that he tried to swim back to the boat when he saw that it was not going down, but died or was killed in the attempt. The British got on board the submarine and were able to seize a naval Enigma machine and secret cipher documents, the first time this had been done, before sinking the boat to disguise this fact.
Crew of TSS Athenia who died when it sank. 3rd/4th September 1939
JAMES CARLIN, Assistant Steward, Age 56. IAN DONNELLY, Assistant Steward, Age 26. Son of Bella and Peter Donnelly, my granny's big brother and my great-uncle. JOHN DONNELLY, Assistant Steward, Age 23. JAMES ELDER, Donkeyman, Age 45. Husband of Mary Elder, of Cambuslang, Lanarkshire. CHARLES FORDYCE, Watchman, Age 65. Son of George and Jessie Fordyce; husband of Mary Penelope Fordyce. HUGH GALLAGHER, Greaser, Age 23. Son of Thomas Gallagher, and of Isabel Gallagher, of Glasgow. ALISON HARROWER, Stewardess, Age 41. Daughter of William and Hannah Foster Denny Harrower. JOHN HOGG, Assistant Steward, Age 51. Husband of Sarah A. Hogg, of Brantford, Ontario, Canada. MARGARET JOHNSTON, Stewardess, Age 41. Daughter of James and Christina Johnston, of Glasgow. JOHN KENT, Assistant Steward, Age 50. Husband of Jessie Darroch Kent, of Bridgeton, JESSIE LAWLER, Stewardess, Age 60. Wife of Patrick Lawler, of Sholing, Southampton. JAMES MARSHALL, Bellboy, Age 15. DAVID MORRISON, Steward, Age 32. MICHAEL J. McDERMOTT, Assistant Steward, Age 33. JOHN McJARROW, Printer, Age 39. JOHN McKEOWN, Steward, Age 47. Husband of M. E. McKeown, of Dunoon, Argyllshire. DAVID PROVAN, Barber, Age 65. Son of Alec and Margaret Provan; husband of Martha Provan, of Glasgow. SAMUEL THOMSON, Assistant Steward, Age 45. Husband of Julia McCafferty Thomson. of Glasgow. HANNAH BAIRD, Stewardess, (commemorated at Canadian Merchant Navy HALIFAX MEMORIAL Nova Scotia, Canada)
TSS Athenia has been in the news again this week. One the fish cooks badly burned at the time the torpedo hit (he can be seen getting helped off the ship in one of the films above) had handed his watch to a passenger for safe-keeping, fearing that he was going to die. With the watch being handed to the Glasgow Riverside museum to look after the full story of this man's experiences (he survived his injuries) has now been discovered, and his relatives traced. See BBC News or Daily Telegraph for more detail
Ian Donnelly was an ordinary resident of the Gorbals, an area of Glasgow that was the life and soul of the city in the 1920s and 1930s. His friend Benny Lynch (who I have previously written about here) came from the same background and managed to do extraordinary things. It is wrong that the Glasgow has no proper memorial to one of its most noteworthy sons and I would encourage you to contribute to this campaign fund to build a statue of Benny Lynch in the city if you can. (Remember Benny Lynch Campaign)
Thanks to the the University of Glasgow archives department who hold the Anchor Line company records and where I was able to pore over a 1939 edition of Lloyds Register of Shipping, just as Lemp had done on U-30.
I also got a lot of information from an interview in the Sunday Mail from 1989 with survivor Thomas Ritchie of Possilpark, who had been a 19 year old assistant steward on the Athenia when it was sunk.
Two books packed with information about the Athenia, presented in completely contrasting styles, are Athenia Torpedoed, by Francis Carroll and, with the racier book cover, A Night of Terror by Max Caulfield. Written in 1958 it contains many colourful anecdotes of life on the ship and of the rescue, in a style crying out to be made into a film.