“That’s where I’ll end my days“, George said, slowing down slightly to let me see the building in Greenock we were driving past on our way to Largs for ice cream cones and a stroll along the front. With that most serious and sublime of jesters one was never sure when he was joking. This time George wasn’t kidding. His beloved Daphne was in hospital after a stroke and would never return to Gourock and their house and haven high above the Clyde. It was indeed his plan to join the other elderly seafarers in that eventide home for shore bound mariners. A decade or so later he did find his last berth there.
But he had seen a port or two. He got close enough to Nagasaki within weeks of the city’s obliteration to take photographs that salvaged poetry from depravity, bleakly balancing horror and hope. A blasted and blackened cherry tree would take leaf in later work . Trees were to be totemic objects for George, often providing perches for Robins, red breastedly full of all-too-evident heart and determined to sing come what may. Like a latter day Erik The Red, the war time naval officer and self styled Viking would go on to sail into New York Harbour. Modeled on Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat, Wyllie’s Paper Boat was a letter made ship shape, an anti Capitalist, epistolary reproach to Wall Street, beside whose skyscrapers it playfully bobbed, a literally ‘childish’ protest by a man who reached the fullest maturity by refusing to grow up and who understood that institutionalised greed stunts your moral growth. Japan again; and Clydeside always, origami meets marine engineering. Several people who turned out to welcome Captain George to the mooring on the Hudson believed that he had sailed his paper vessel all the way across the Atlantic! That may tell us something about America as well as giving some idea of George’s pizazz, chutzpah, intellectual sleight of hand, always in the cause of truth, and powers as a shaman and magician and conjuror of concepts. Daphne when asked how the ocean crossing had been would smile and say, ‘well, you can imagine…’! Help mate and first mate, she really was George’s, ‘other half’. He met her on shore leave. For half a century, she remained his girl in every port.
George Wyllie’s most important voyage of discovery, however, was the one he made every day to the source of his inspiration. These circumnavigations of his own cerebellum filled hold after hold with troves of artistic treasure. Evaluate with the Paper Boat, its predecessor gesture on a grand scale, the Straw Locomotive, and his theatrical masterpiece, A Day Down A Goldmine and the assessment should be that each part of that informal triptych was of international significance, the sum of those extraordinary parts amounting to a genuinely world class achievement. And George knew it. His aesthetic and ethical outlook left no room for anything false, false modesty included. The Wyllie ego was enablingly ample. When you collaborated with a force of nature like George you lashed yourself to the main mast and hoped not to be washed overboard. The self assurance and self assertion were made tolerable, indeed agreeable, by dint of George’s good manners, good faith and good intentions. If he asked a lot, he offered still more. He was, I am certain, a great as well as a good man.
That greatness – and I do not use the word lightly – consisted in certainty amidst and indeed about, doubt. I used to tease him that although he loved quays and harbours and shipyards, the best place for his boat’s buoy was in the para-docks! His friend the film maker Murray Grigor dubbed him the ‘Why’s Man’, an epithet whose wit is based on profound perception, for George Wyllie was wise and his greatest wisdom was in asking questions. ‘Be Suspicious!’, was his motto. He called himself a ‘Scul?tor’. Questions, questions! When the Straw Locomotive came down from the Finnieston Crane and went back to Springburn for its Viking funeral pyre, as the straw burned away all that was left was the steel question mark. Why must people lose their jobs, sense of self worth, social purpose and community??? The mast of the Paper Boat was shaped like a question mark too. He took nothing on trust and nothing for granted. He took nothing seriously either. Except everything that had to be. About unfairness and injustice he was in deadly earnest. His undertakings, however, were seldom solemn. Laughter was life and vice versa. He also had a marvelous understanding of scale. At school he excelled in technical drawing. The point of both the Paper Boat and the Straw locomotive was their relative size, the one scaled up from pond size and child’s play, the other life size, yet diminished to a series of last straws, the kind that can break the camel’s back of a community and its economy. The Gold Mine, worked so mordantly by Bill Paterson, was, of course, a microcosm, a fable about the scale of human greed, a punning parable about the implications of making a ‘mine’ of what should be ours, the common weal reduced to common crime. ‘Scale’, punningly, and George loved puns, was both a mechanism for weighing lucre and a means of re establishing perspective and proportion. There was almost comical scale in George’s music making too. His instruments were the double bass… And the ukulele!
As a teenager, in Shettleston, George had won, as a double act with his brother, a major talent contest and he really could have turned professional as a singer and instrumentalist. What do I mean, ‘could have’? Music was a significant aspect of the Wyllie project. The songs were eloquently droll, the playing adroitly dead pan and the singing compelling. George had a light but carrying, distinctively raspy tenor voice and he had learned a lot from the likes of Al Bowly and that other George, Formby.
Great, also, was his clarity of purpose as an artist, his particularity of vision, his determination to make his mark and to make the (question) mark that only he could make. Wyllie by name and wily by nature, he was astutely intent upon being unignorable. ‘Art should be unavoidable’, he was wont to opine, unavoidable in the sense of being impossible to miss and necessary to pursue as an unevadable destiny, a daily discipline and (work) ethical necessity. He knew that he had to get the attention of people for whom art was not a diurnal presence and need. And he knew how to get it because he knew the difference between the hollowly populist and the powerfully popular.
I started to get to know George in the mid eighties, just before he began work on the Straw Locomotive. A few films and articles followed. I was born in Port Glasgow. My father had been an engineer. Maybe I was like a son to him, a Boswell to his Dr Johnson, a sorcerer’s apprentice, a straightman, a sidekick, a speaker of truth to artistic power, a court jester to the Court Jester, a Catholic Celt to his Gentle Prod and Viking? It would need a ‘whyser’ man than me to know. Anyway, the dynamics of the relationship were made manifest and explicit in a show he asked me to work on with him, a commission for the West End Festival, back in 1995, The Kerrera Saga, one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, and a piece, all things considered, to be proud of. Basically, I was to play a young Celtic monk, Viking George had captured and enslaved. We toured Dark Age Europe in our longboat wreaking havoc, causing chaos and raising hell and questions. It was better than I am making it sound. We both composed songs. I played my guitar. There was a circus of dancing snails, standing stones that kept moving around, a fiery burial at sea. And I taught him Latin. It really was better than I am making it sound! Best of all though was the research recce we made to Argyll and Kererra. We saw the snails and stones at Kilmartin. The cuckoo calls on the soundtrack we recorded where King Alexander was killed by the Norsemen in Kererra Bay.
George Wyllie was fifty before he gathered sufficient certainty to become the artist he was put on earth to be. He became (magnificently) unavoidable. He learned from Hans Arp how to combine poetry and engineering in art. From George Rickey he garnered the importance of scale and sweep and balance. Josef Beuys taught him the indispensability of keeping things simple and making things obvious by the most subtle of means. Instead of a fedora, a hunting vest and fat and felt George had a cloth cap, a boiler suit, a tweed jacket and straw and steel and stone. Like Scottie on the Starship Enterprise, he was the archetypal Scottish engineer. Like the Douannier Rousseau, Robert Burns and Neil Gunn he had been a customs officer. From Patrick Geddes he had taken the notion of the symbolic spire and the inspiration and aspiration derived from it, the balancing tripod for sane and happy living, work, place and home. Sometimes George would ring me up to ask about Marx and Engels or to chat about Gramsci or Friere whom he knew I set great store by. His leanings were left but rarely theoretical and never sectarian. We agreed that for collective thriving and individual flourishing Scotland should be an independent republic. He never failed to balance Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand from The Wealth Of Nations’ with his ‘Moral Sentiments’.
George was born on Hogmanay. It was the aptest birthday possible. The old and the new; a bit of a song and dance, emotion, indeed sentimentality, melancholy joy, sharing what you have, festive brightness in the dark, a very Scottish beginning. On my wall there is a drawing he did in memory of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Sammy Cahn. I seldom hear – or sing – a show tune without thinking of George and his old wind up gramophone. In the bathroom there is one of his metal trees, a spire, a toilet roll holder, art has rarely been more ludically practical and, well, fundamental… And on the pine kist that I maintain as a reliquary and altar, in the living room where he so often played and sang for his fellow guests at my Burns Suppers, there is the shortbread tin he filled with a miniature of whisky, some trademark straw (for firelighting), a bit of Beusian felt, a knife and a slice of shortbread. George attached a strap and wrote on the metal beneath a picture of the bard, ‘Robert Burns Survival Kit’. George did help save Scotland, as a viable imaginative entity and cultural going concern. In 1990, Gus MacDonald acquired one of George’s ‘clapping machines’ for STV. I hope the applause is still ringing out for a man who gave socialism a big hand and who deserves a big hand.