Conrad and the Clyde

The Clyde is not the first river one thinks of in connection with Joseph Conrad – the Congo perhaps, or one of the fever-ridden mangrove-swamp streams of the East Indies – but not the Clyde.  Not even the most prejudiced Edinburgh imagination surely can see Glasgow’s river as the “Heart of Darkness”.

But Glasgow and the Clyde had their part in Conrad’s life and work and this connection with the Clyde, its ships and its people, is less well known than it might be.

As a writer of the sea Conrad could hardly fail to depict the Scots who built and manned so many of the world’s ships.  As a mariner trained in sail Conrad had no particular love for the steam engine; as his friend the Glasgow-born artist Muirhead Bone wrote in an obituary appreciation:


He had none of a Kiplingesque enthusiasm for material powers – with him it was Man and the Elements, with the apparatus always a bit inadequate.


So perhaps, despite the splendidly named Captain MacWhirr in Typhoon (1903), we need not look to closely to Conrad for the archetypal Clyde-trained Scots engineer – otherwise a staple of imaginative writing from Kipling’s McAndrew to StarTrek’s Scotty.

However as a seaman, and from 1886 a master mariner in the British mercantile marine, Conrad had a particularly close acquaintance with Clyde-built ships.  William Stuart, the Scottish master of the  “Loch Etive”, built by A & J Inglis at Pointhouse,  on which he served as third mate from 1880, taught Conrad much and in his autobiographical volume The Mirror of the Sea  (1906) Conrad wrote:


To this day I preserve his memory, for indeed it was he, in a sense, who completed my training.


Four, at least, of his other ships were built on the Clyde including the “Narcissus” of The Nigger of the “Narcissus”.  This ship came from Robert Duncan’s yard at Port Glasgow in 1876 and Conrad served on her as second mate in 1884. Conrad also shipped as second mate on two Dumbarton-built ships – the “Tilkhurst” built by Archibald MacMillan in 1877 and the  “Falconhurst”  built by MacMillan in 1883.  Conrad was on the “Tilkhurst” from April 1885 to June 1886 and the “Falconhurst” – for a short  coastal voyage in British waters in December1886 to January 1887.  

His first command was the  barque “Otago” built by Alexander Stephen of Linthouse in 1869.  He joined “Otago” in January 1888 at Bangkok and captained her until March 1889.  His response to this vessel  is recalled years later in fictional form in The Shadow-Line (1917)


At the first glance I saw she was a high-class vessel, a harmonious creature in the lines of her fine body, in the proportioned tallness of her spars.  Whatever her age and her history, she had preserved the stamp of her origin.  She was one of those craft that, in virtue of their design and complete finish, will never look old….

That illusion of life and character which charms one in men’s finest handiwork radiated from her.


The narrator, based on Conrad himself, expresses the emotion of taking command:


A ship! My ship! She was mine, more absolutely mine for possession and care than anything else in the world; an object of responsibility and devotion.


Conrad left the sea and took up a career as a writer, publishing his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, in 1895 and with increasing success and critical acclaim, An Outcast of the Islands (1896) and The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897). 

However the sea continued to draw him and in August 1898 he wrote to the Scottish traveller, writer and politician, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham asking for his help in getting command of a Scottish ship:


To get to sea would be salvation.  I am really in a deplorable state, mentally

Conrad had first met Cunninghame Graham in 1897 and soon established a cordial friendship, dedicating Typhoon to Graham and in return receiving the dedication of Progress (1905).

In late September 1898 Conrad came to Glasgow and did the rounds of the Glasgow shipowners in search of a command.  Unfortunately for Conrad, but fortunately for literature, he was unsuccessful.  As Captain David Bone, a Glasgow friend and fellow mariner turned author, wrote in an introduction to an edition of The Nigger of the “Narcissus” Conrad


… had been away from the sea for a long time and much had changed; not many sailing ships remained under British registry at that date and those that lingered were ill-found …


Bone is not entirely correct, as late as 1901 four Glasgow companies still owned 62 sailing ships between them, but certainly the great age of sail was passing fast.


Glasgow Harbour in late 19th century with a mix of sail and steam vessels


 Glasgow Harbour in the late 19th century with a mix of steam ships and sailing ships.


Conrad is well-served by the edition of his letters being edited by Frederick R Karl and a number of letters shed light on this unsuccessful, but significant, visit to Glasgow.  One of the people Conrad met on this trip was Neil Munro, who had  published his first collection of short stories, The Lost Pibroch, two years before and wrote an influential weekly literary column for the Glasgow Evening News. Munro was an early enthusiast for Conrad’s work; in his Views and Reviews  column of 1st September 1898 he wrote:


A generation hence, or perhaps sooner, we shall waken up to find that Joseph Conrad has been the most wonderful writer of the sea English literature has produced … for the first time a seaman with the brain of genius lets us share the beauty and the dread, picks out from his own experiences of the sea not a mere vocabulary of sailmakers’ terms and boatswains’ terms, but poignant emotions that he lives over again with us.


On the second day of Conrad’s Glasgow visit he dined with Munro at the Bath Street home of Dr John McIntyre, a pioneer of radiology and friend of Cunninghame Graham’s.   In a letter to his friend, the publisher and critic Edward Garnett,  Conrad describes some of his Glasgow experiences:


All day with the shipowners and in the evening dinner, phonograph, X rays…


Conrad goes on the describe their  conversation:


These things I said to the Dr. while Neil Munro stood in front of a Röntgen machine and on the screen behind we contemplated his backbone and his ribs.  The rest of that promising youth was too diaphanous to contemplate…


The evening wore on:


What we wanted (apparently) was more whisky.  We got it. Mrs McIntyre went to bed. At one o’clock Munro and I went out into the street. We talked.  I had read up The Lost Pibroch which I do think wonderful in a way.  We foregathered very much indeed and I believe Munro didn’t get home till five in the morning.


“Foregathered” is surely a very fine addition to our list of useful euphemisms! 

Conrad wrote to Cunninghame Graham (whom he later used as the model for Charles Gould in Nostromo) that:


I had a most enjoyable trip to Glasgow.  I saw Neil Munro and heaps of shipowners and that’s all I can say.  The fact is from novel writing to skippering il y a trop de tirage [is too long a haul].  This confounded literature has ruined me entirely.


Conrad and Munro’s relationship and appreciation of each others writing flourished, perhaps fostered by each writing in a language that was not his mother tongue – Conrad, a Pole who learned French as his second language and English only as a third language; Munro, brought up in a Gaelic-speaking environment, although educated exclusively in English.  In November 1898 Conrad wrote, regarding their “foregathering” in Glasgow:


My dear Munro

I feel like a wretch for not having written to tell you how touched I was by Your friendliness. Yet the feeling is abiding and loses no strenght (sic) by the lapse of time.

My congratulations upon the advertisement of the fourth edition of John Splendid. And splendid indeed it is …


In December 1898 Conrad wrote to William Blackwood, the publisher of Blackwood’s Magazine the Edinburgh-based journal which serialised both his and Munro’s fiction, about the reprint of John Splendid:


…I am most sincerely glad to see Munro’s book in its 4th edition.  Munro is an artist – besides being an excellent fellow with a pretty weakness for my work.


Indeed Munro’s “pretty weakness” for Conrad’s work was quite evident.  On 19th January 1899 Munro wrote in his News column of Conrad’s Tales of Unrest which had just won an Academy magazine award:


Mr Conrad is the man for my money.  His Tales of Unrest are decidedly not so good as a whole as The Nigger of the “Narcissus” but the book has stuff in it quite beyond the power – the technical capacity even – of any other English writer …They open up the magic East to the reader; he feels the odours of warm countries…

Munro also noted that The Nigger of the “Narcissus” which Academy had passed over the previous year was:


…unquestionably one of the best half-dozen novels written in England in the present generation.


Munro’s appreciation of Conrad was deep, but as the above extract indicates, by no means uncritical.  He was also not above some affectionate mockery.  On 24th November 1898 Munro’s Views and Reviews column was given over to a series of short but extremely skilful pastiches of work in the style of the leading writers of the day – Meredith, Newbolt, Kipling, Barrie, Cunninghame Graham, Munro himself, and:


“The Canal Boatman” by J—-h C-n-r-d

A curious craft, surely, combining in her lines and utilities little of the speed of the felucca, galley, galleot, pram or dhow, yet in her vast, heavy illusion of beam recalling some of the chasses-marees, or corvets I have seen lurking off the little lost cays and lagoons between the Ladrones and the Salomon Islands.  It had begun to blow immediately after leaving Lock 16. We hove to at Camelon, pumped, spliced the main-brace, pumped and spliced the main-brace again.  It was terrible, and yet, somehow, I was proud of the ship and felt something – you know the feeling – one of exaltation, of zest, of triumph.  We set out again, and near Kirkintilloch the hurricane struck us, a cruel, unrelenting sou’wester, setting the waves mountain high, blinding our poor brutes of horses as they laboured incessantly on the towing path.  That night had a quality of dark I have seen in no other time or place. Faint phosphorent gleams in the far distance but accentuated it, and through the night there came the most wonderful and elusive odours.  Something indescribable, a devil’s impulse, a supernatural allurement in the night seemed to call on us to quit the ship so fearfully weltering in the storm and risk all in the long boat.  We felt we could make land somehow, for we were young, and all the poignances, the essence, the infatuation, of youth were ours.  I think of it often under the most ludicrous circumstances – of the Mary Jane churning in a velvet-black night, the galley fire showing up MacTaggart’s legs as he stood at the wheel, the horses breathing hard, bent over the cable tow, the impenetrable and vast and terrible darkness.  Not a sound came from the land.  We were the serfs of the sea, to be knocked about and get up, again, and fall again, and again stand up square to that old bully of the night.


For some inscrutable reason the skipper was anxious to get ahead and make an early landfall at Kirkintilloch.  He was a man with a red nose and it was his first voyage on that route.


“We’ll do it, we’ll do it; it’s only ten minutes past ten,” he cried, as we tied up at the pawls at Kirkintilloch.  There was a strange exultation in his utterance.  He hurried up to a house of refreshment and I shall never forget his look of surprise and pain to find it shut.


“Blind me!” said he, “have they ten o’clock closing here too?”  And he put his face in his hands and wept like a child.


Ah! old times, old times, will they ever come back again with the zest, the hope, the joy, the illusion?


There is no record of any reaction from Conrad to this parody transposing the familiar Conradian themes of darkness and the terror of the sea to the somewhat unlikely environment of the Forth and Clyde Canal.  

The friendship between Munro and Conrad continued and in 1899 Conrad became engaged in an acrimonious dispute over what he felt was plagiarism in John Buchan’s story The Far Islands.  Writing to Edward Garnett on 9th November he observed:


B’wood is fussing now over a fraud called John Buchan. Asked me to give him my opinion on that unspeakable imposter’s story in the last Maga.   And I did give it to him too.  I said it was too contemptible to be thought about and moreover it was stolen from Kipling as to matter and imitated from Munro as to style.


When, in 1901, Munro published Doom Castle Conrad commented to Blackwood:


…My best wishes go with Doom Castle  for the sake of the author and the publisher. The value of the work is undeniable without any wishing.


In 1905 Munro wrote to Conrad seeking permission to reprint the Preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”.   Conrad replied, on 13th March,  giving permission and ended his letter:


I read you and take delight in you. … Yours always.    J Conrad.


Conrad’s American publishers persuaded him to visit the United States in 1923.  Munro quotes Conrad as saying:


I don’t want to go …I wouldn’t go if it weren’t in a Glasgow ship, with a Glasgow master, David Bone, and if it didn’t give me the chance of seeing one or two old Clyde friends again.


Captain David Bone, Joseph Conrad & Muirhead Bone on the Tuscania


Muirhead Bone travelled with Conrad to the USA, sailing from Glasgow on 21st April 1923 on the Clyde-built Anchor Line “Tuscania” commanded by his brother David Bone and recounts Conrad’s reaction to the machinery of the modern ocean liner:


I remember his turning back from the big engine room -very little of it had sufficed him, – and only becoming happy again talking to David, in the Captain’s room, of all the sailing-ships and small tramp steamers of their mutual acquaintance and what had become of them.


On Saturday 20th April, on the eve of his departure for the States, Munro and some other Glasgow admirers dined with Conrad in the North British Hotel on George Square.  It was presumably on this convivial evening that Munro, so an account given by his friend George Blake tells, took Conrad out into George Square and persuaded him that he could become an honorary Glaswegian by throwing a stone into the outstretched top hat of the George Square statue of James Oswald MP. 

Oswald’s hat figures in one of Munro’s Erchie, my droll friend stories published in the News just a month earlier when Erchie wonders why no one has ever:


…put a lid on the hat to keep the boys frae pappin’ stones at it.


which is one explanation of why such an idea came into Munro’s ever-fertile imagination. Additional reinforcement may have been provided by the News of the 21st April, which in its Saturday Supplement, carried an article about George Square entitled Glasgow’s Stodgy Statues.   Munro was editing the News at this period and would have seen this article, which as a Supplement feature would have been prepared well in advance.  Quite possibly he may himself have written it – for it says of Oswald’s top hat that it:


…is of the earth, earthy, beyond art’s finest refining efforts; and we want to pop stones into it.


Oswald Statue, George Square, Glasgow

There is a certain charm in the idea of two distinguished authors, the fifty-nine year old Munro and the sixty-five year old Conrad, risking the wrath of the Glasgow constabulary by “pappin’ stones” at Mr Oswald’s hat.  Clearly some more “foregathering” had been going on!


As a seaman, Conrad could hardly have avoided some contact with Clyde built ships – the river produced much of the world’s shipping and Conrad’s sea-going time more or less coincided with the great era of Clyde shipbuilding.  Even in the age of steel and the triple expansion engine Clyde yards were still producing sailing ships and Glasgow shipowners still maintained sailing ship fleets; no matter how reluctant they might have been in 1898 to entrust one of their vessels to a sick Polish author, four years on the beach. However Conrad’s Clydeside links go deeper than this and his association with Cunninghame Graham, the Bone brothers and Neil Munro provide an interesting sidelight on contemporary literary life – they also remind us that Glasgow was by no means a provincial backwater and that a writer and literary editor like Munro, based there, could play a significant part on the wider British stage.



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