It's ten years since Glasgow began its journey from "mean city" to "city of culture." But literary and media accounts of the city remain fixed on its rumbustious proletarian past, and its drugs-ridden present. Jeremy Clarke reports on what has become of the world's greatest Victorian cityby Jeremy Clarke / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
It is peculiar how businessmen can contrive to appear businesslike even when naked. I was shown into a room full of nude executives when I went along to the Arlington Baths Club (est. 1871) one afternoon. They were lying around the arabesque warm room like a seal colony. As I entered, some of them looked up from their broadsheets to see if I was anyone of note, disguised the unfavourable verdict behind a mask of indifference, and returned to their newspapers.
The pool at the Arlington is referred to as the “pond.” It is said to be the oldest in Britain. For the energetic, it has a curious arrangement of trapezes and rings suspended above it. After I had swum in the pond I went and sat in the steam room, where the discussion in progress was about Edinburgh. In my maiden speech to the ghostly shapes scattered around the benches, I said I had never been there. This seemed to go down rather well.
“The people there have a different mentality altogether,” said one. “They prefer different colours for a start. I’ve got outdoor clothing shops in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. In Edinburgh they go for forest green, autumn gold and burgundy and poncy colours like that. In Glasgow we sell out of the fluorescent stuff first, then the orange, then the yellow. We reckon there’s the same amount of money in both places, but in Glasgow they don’t mind spending it.” Said another: “If you visit anybody in Edinburgh, they say, ‘You’ll have had your tea then?'”
The educated Glasgow accent one hears at places like the Arlington Baths in the west end is vastly different to what one hears elsewhere in this city. Before I came here I’d read James Kelman’s Booker prize winner How Late It Was, How Late, written in the Glaswegian vernacular. As I had read it with relative ease, I assumed I was ready for the real thing. But I wasn’t. Kelman must have toned it down. Although Glaswegians signal the subject of a sentence with the word “see” (“see you, ye bampot”) their quick-fire delivery, glottal stops, unfamiliar cadences, and their use of Gaelic, rhyming slang, even the odd French word, can make them very hard to understand.
The Glasgow (pronounced Glesca, from the Gaelic, meaning “Dear Green Place”) patter is more than a strong accent; it is a distinct, regional dialect with all the vitality that English has when it skips free from the dead hand of Oxford and becomes a celebration of the life and times of confident people. But buying a phrase book of “the patter” hasn’t made life any easier for this Essex man. I can be upstairs on a bus listening to the conversation going on behind, and I make no sense of it at all.
My problems were nothing compared with those of Oucame, my gentle flatmate from Botswana, now in his final year of an environmental health degree. Oucame speaks very passable English, but when he first came to Glasgow he had such difficulty communicating with people outside the campus that he became convinced that the Glaswegian lower classes spoke a different language altogether-possibly some strange tongue unrelated to English. It worked the other way, too.When asked his destination by bus or taxi drivers, he held up hand-written cards for them to read. Oucame doesn’t go out so much these days because he gets a lot of racist abuse, even in the gentrified town centre. The first and last time he went out to a housing scheme, bottles were thrown at him.
Hogmanay in the Scotia bar, central Glasgow. The bar is so full that drinkers are standing against the door. I can see their silhouettes through the opaque glass. I push it open a little way, tentatively, and squeeze in. A rhythm and blues band is in full cry up at the back of the low ceilinged snug. It’s smoky and the floor is wet. I push my way through to within three feet of the bar where I am spotted by an alert, lip-reading barmaid; in no time at all I have a drink in my hand and I’m wondering where to stand. The band is good and loud and the whole place is getting into it: heads are bobbing and the end of each number brings a good-hearted roar of approval. Suddenly, miraculously, I can see somewhere to sit; somewhere to take off the Barbour, the fleece jacket and the thick Norwegian jumper (the temperature has fallen to minus 20 for three nights running). But I’ve no sooner dived in, and mouthed hello to the woman beside me, than the large man whose seat I’ve taken comes back from the bar with a handful of short drinks. He looks like a Highlander or a biker: all hair and beard and muscular forearms with veins on them as thick as pencils. Fortunately he is full of the spirit of goodwill and there is just room for us both if his girlfriend moves along a bit.
He looks at my Barbour, cups his mouth with his hand, puts both against my ear and shouts “English?” I nod as neutrally as possible. He returns his mouth to my ear and shouts, “Have you seen the film Braveheart?” I think I can see where all this is leading; I shake my head as if I wouldn’t see it even if they paid me. He looks at me a bit menacingly, puts his face against my head again and shouts plaintively: “You see, I hate the English. We are colonised by you bastards. You are just leeches, sucking our life blood away.” He leans back and looks me full in the face to see my reaction. “I know,” I shout cheerfully, above a frantic guitar solo. “Some you win, some you lose, mate. What are you having?” He grasps my head with both hands and gives me a hairy kiss on the lips.”Bacardi and Irn-Bru, ye English bastard ye.”
The band is really rocking. They are called Attempted Moustache. My new friend, who is called Donny, is a big fan. He and Margaret have come all the way from East Kilbride to hear them; they are personal friends of all the band members. “See him? See ma man? See the lead guitarist? He’s 51,” he shouts proudly. “See him on drums? He used to play with The Marmalade.” Then we break off shouting in each other’s ears for a moment to join the band and the rest of the pub in roaring out a chorus of “I’ve got my Mo-Jo working, my Mo-Jo working” and punching the air in unison. I’m beginning to enjoy myself-and it’s not even six o’clock yet.
In the middle of the next song, an elderly man goes to a microphone and does one of the best harmonica solos I’ve ever heard. His balding head goes back and forth along his mouth organ like the teleprinter on Sports Report. It brings the house down. “See him?” Donny screams in my ear. “See him? He’s 76. Seventy-fucking-six.” Looking embarrassed by the wild ovation, the old chap totters back to his seat, clapped on the back all the way.
When the gig is over, and the 51-year-old guitarist has finally said “Thank you and goodnight” as if he is definitely not going to be cajoled into doing any more encores, Donny turns to me triumphantly and shouts above the applause: “Wasn’t that the best pub band ye’ve ever seen in your whole life?” “No,” I say decisively, “Dr Feelgood were the best that I ever saw.” He looks crestfallen for a moment, then recovers himself and says petulantly: “Well they are the best me and Margaret have ever seen, anyway.”
I can see what Donny means, though, when he says that Scotland is colonised. Like, say, Kenya in the old days, Scotland has vast estates owned by the English aristocracy or corporate business, which have been cleared of all inhabitants except for a few useful squatters. Wealthy foreigners jet in to commune with nature, go fishing, or shoot the game, and jet out again. As in Kenya, once the more pugnacious of the indigenous tribes were pacified, they were co-opted into the police force (Glasgow’s police force has traditionally recruited Highlanders) and the armed forces (200,000 Glasgow men fought in the first world war-“poison dwarves,” the Germans called them). In Glasgow, as in Nairobi, those natives crowding into the city centre were seen by the municipal authorities as a health risk. They were forced out into reservations-called townships in Africa, “schemes” in Scotland-and their communities bulldozed. And in James Kelman Glasgow has its own Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a major novelist who refuses to write in the language of the neo-colonial oppressors. I went round, uninvited, to Kelman’s house in Maryhill and put my half-facetious theory to him. He didn’t bat an eyelid.
“Aye. It goes without saying. There’s nothing to talk about. It’s obvious. Aye,” he said matter-of-factly, rolling himself another fag.
“If it is so obvious, and oppressive, why don’t you kick us out, or at least get together and smash a few windows now and again?”
“Well, it’s not that easy. Britain is kinda long in the tooth and the problem is complicated. People move around. If you say ‘let’s get rid of the English’ who are you talking about? The Yorkshireman? The factory worker? It’s not simple any more. National issues are one thing, but there are other issues involved-class for instance.”
Does he consent to being characterised as an anti-imperialist writer? I mention Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (a.k.a James Ngugi). “Yes, I suppose you could say that I am an anti-imperialist writer.” Then, to the relief of us both, I think, we get on to the subject of his burst pipes.
Whenever Glasgow was mentioned at home when I a child, my father could always be relied on to say with patriotic pride: “Glasgow? Worst slums in Europe.” I used to love that word “slums.” Over the years, as I picked up scraps of information about Glasgow, I populated those “slums” with razor gangs, revolutionary communists, protestant assassins, Old Firm football crowds, singing drunks and stand-up comedians. The famous Glaswegian individuals I came to recognise from the television-Billy Connolly, Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Logan-roughly conformed to my stereotype, so it came as a bit of a shock when I had to revise it to accommodate the news that Glasgow had been designated European City of Culture. It seemed highly improbable-as if, say, Afghanistan had been awarded the next Olympic Games. So when I came to Glasgow for the first time last October, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Two things were uppermost in my mind at the time. One was that, according to the newspapers, there was a “drugs war” going on; the other was that a friend had said I really ought to visit the Burrell collection.
We are all having our own respective national identity crises these days. The English can’t decide whether to become European or not, the Scots are divided over whether they want to remain British, and the Welsh are no longer the force in world rugby that they once were. Glasgow, in many respects a city-state within Scotland, is no different. Once the second city of the empire, manufacturing three quarters of the world’s locomotives and one third of its merchant shipping, it is having to face up to its less macho, post-industrial economic role as a provider of hotel beds for tourists, service sector business men and conference delegates.
Historically, Glaswegians are used to change on an epic scale. Having once been the apotheosis of the Victorian boom town-with wild swings of fortune between prosperity and slump, and a hard-living, hard-drinking proletariat-Glasgow still retains a kind of tough, easy-come-easy-go attitude. It likes to see itself as Scotland’s Chicago to Edinburgh’s Boston. But even by Glasgow’s standards, the recent transformation of the city has been dramatic. Influenced by American rather than English precedents, the Glasgow Corporation planners responded to the post-war housing crisis by turning the city inside out. Inner city areas such as the Gorbals (“Hell’s Hundred Acres”) and the Calton were largely demolished, the inhabitants decanted into huge housing schemes on the outskirts, or out to the new towns of Irvine or East Kilbride. Tenements became synonymous with squalor, and were flattened by the thousand. Out in the schemes, and later in all the available “gap sites,” high rise council flats went up. Sir Basil Spence said of some 20-storey slabs for which he was responsible: “On Mondays, when all the washing’s out, they’ll be like great ships in full sail.” The 34-storey blocks put up at Red Road in Springburn were reputed to be the tallest residential towers in western Europe.
In solving the city’s desperate post-war housing problems, the planners’ drastic measures reduced the population of Greater Glasgow by over 40 per cent in the space of a generation. Glaswegians are still smarting from the inevitable social dislocation caused by such an upheaval. Some believe the emergency surgery has been too severe and that it has left this once great-hearted, rumbustious workers’ city a shadow of its former self.
In spite of the comprehensive urban redevelopment programme, Glasgow is still essentially a Victorian city-John Betjeman once called it “the greatest Victorian city in the world.” The city centre remains dominated by its gaunt municipal monuments to capitalism, law, religion, cultural edification and death; no longer blackened, yet maintaining the forbidding air of edifices built by a vanished race of stern, high-minded giants. But pushing up between and round them, like grass growing through a decaying corpse, is the friendly chrome and plate glass of modernity: shopping malls, pedestrian precincts, Tesco Metro, Gap, Waterstone’s, Dillons, Shoe Express, Versace-they are all here. Even the once roistering Sauchiehall Street has been prettified; young trees grow safely in the middle of its pedestrian precinct.
Nowhere in the city centre does one feel the consciousness entirely dominated by an urban environment. Even the bleak schemes on the outskirts are lent an epic kind of hideousness by the windswept hills that surround Glasgow. Seagulls wheel in the fresh west wind which blows up the Firth of Clyde-it once blew me off my bike. The skies are dramatic, the clouds fast-moving, except when a crepuscular light settles on the city and it rains for days on end. And occasionally there are the miraculous days of clear northern sunlight when Glasgow can actually look quite beautiful.
New Glasgow-at any rate the Gore-Tex clad bit to the west of Glasgow Cross-decided in the 1980s to look for a new image to counter the media’s coverage of its continuing social problems. But instead of waiting for Frank Sinatra to record a song about it, the PR men working from the spectacularly ornate (some say vulgar) City Chambers in George Square took the initiative. Inspired by the “I Love New York” slogan, they inaugurated Glasgow’s cultural renaissance with a ?500,000 campaign to promote the slogan “Glasgow’s Miles Better” led by the “Mr Men” cartoon character, “Mr Happy.” Glaswegians combined their sense of civic pride with their famous sense of humour by buying up the promotional T-shirts and car stickers by the thousand. This was followed by a Garden Festival in 1987, the City of Culture festival in 1990, and various arts and film festivals since, including “Glasgay!” in 1995. Glasgow is now promoting itself as the City of Architecture and Design for 1999.
One can’t help admiring the local politicians for the single-mindedness of their reforming zeal. Despite being derided for spending money on middle class jamborees which betray the city’s working class heritage and the socialist ideals epitomised by the “‘Red Clyde,” they are splendidly unrepentant. Perhaps the bravado is the result of a real economic and cultural revival. In terms of Mill’s hedonistic calculus, perhaps more people are happier than before and Glasgow is “Miles Better.”
When the literary or media depictions of the “Dear Green Place” that come to the attention of the PR men have, in their opinion, too much of a “Gorbals fixation,” they make their hurt feelings known. There was a notable civic silence when James Kelman won the Booker prize for his gritty depiction of working class Glasgow. Lately, a new novel by local journalist Ron McKay, about the violent sub-culture of drug addicts and dealers, has provoked the PR men to outright condemnation. Council leader Pat “King” Lally dismissed the thriller as the “warped figment of someone’s imagination.” (Well, it was a novel.) And another civic father was quoted as saying it was “bullshit.”
I can sympathise. When it comes to writing about Glasgow, everybody wants to write about hard men, sectarianism, “hoosies” (Hoosie Fraser = House of Fraser = razor) and drug addicts; while ignoring the middle class places such as Bearsden, Kelvingrove, and the pleasant streets clustered about the imposing university buildings which were designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.
As far back as the mid 19th century, a writer calling himself “The Shadow” was giving the British reading public a taste for Glasgow’s low life with a prurient book called Midnight Scenes and Social Photographs. As the city’s reputation for violence and crime gathered momentum, thriller writers began to use it as a backdrop, most notably in the 1935 bestseller No Mean City. It was this book which first impressed the Gorbals myth on the public imagination and saddled Glasgow with its media tag. Since then, just about every fictional account of Glasgow has concentrated on its seamier side; there can hardly be a city in the world subjected to such continuously negative coverage.
Naturally, the newspapers and television producers are as keen on the “Mean City” image as the novelists. For them it is business as usual in the city of the stare. The most recent documentary was Channel Four’s Football, Faith and Flutes-a film which claimed that the sectarian rivalry in Glasgow is as bitter as it ever was. The English quality papers tend to favour the social deprivation angle. Typically, the journalist will get off the train at Glasgow Central, head straight for a housing scheme or two (Blackhill is favourite now that the Gorbals no longer exists) then go on about the social deprivation in a trousers-on-fire style as if he or she is reporting from the front line or a war zone.
Just before Christmas I went to the City Chambers to talk to Alan Redfern, a Yorkshireman who has been responsible for projecting a saleable image of Glasgow for the last 17 years. He received me courteously in his spacious office; the expression on his face showed wisdom, discretion, sympathy, experience and contentment. We sat together on high backed chairs at one end of a long conference table. Outside in George Square, the Christmas lights and the floodlit, life-size nativity scene were brightening up the mid-afternoon twilight and heralding the council-sponsored “Shine On Glasgow,” Christmas shopping campaign extravaganza.
Had he read Ron McKay’s or James Kelman’s novels, I asked? “No. To my mind, if a novel wins the Booker prize, that’s a good enough reason for me not to want to read it. And I certainly wouldn’t waste my time reading tripe like the other book you mentioned. However, I do believe that people in this department overreact to these things-we are not in the business of censoring people-and as far as I am concerned, if hack writers want to go and dramatise their jaundiced view of Glasgow in a tacky little novel, they are entitled to do so.”
I made agreeing noises. “Obviously, I’m going to say it’s not particularly helpful. But if you take it to its logical conclusion, Inspector Morse hasn’t done a lot of good for Oxford and its immediate environment either, because it appears to be the case that Oxford is the murder capital of the UK. I’d be the last person to claim that we are living in a paradise up here, because we’re not.” I shake my head in disappointment. “It’s just that I do find it irritating when people dwell on the bad things when there is so much that is good going on here.
“We are at a disadvantage here, unfortunately, because Glasgow is a media centre and it is a damn sight easier to cover a murder or a mugging in Glasgow than it is in Glenshee. STV is up the road, the BBC is just around the corner, the Daily Record is nearby and the Glasgow Herald is right next door. That is one of the main reasons for all the notoriety. But the reality is that-apart from theft from motor cars-the crime rate is lower in Glasgow than it is in London, especially for offences against the person. And we should be using the media facilities to our advantage and telling the world?”
There is a cursory knock at the door and a secretary comes in, slightly agitated. She says to Redfern: “Where’s Pat Lally?” “I don’t know, love. Why?” “Somebody’s nicked Baby Jesus.” “What?”
“Someone has got into the nativity scene in George Square and stolen the Baby Jesus from his crib. It looks like they used boltcroppers.” We gawp at each other in disbelief, then, amid sudden hilarity, Alan Redfern lets his PR mask slip for a moment. “It could only happen in this bloody town,” he says happily.
None of the bickering about media or corporate images would necessarily be apparent to a temporary visitor like myself, living in the city centre; but the new Glasgow is such a constant source of amazement to its inhabitants that one soon finds oneself drawn into the continuing debate about its validity, merits and absurdities. You soon enter into the spirit of the thing; you catch yourself grumbling that it’s all very well having an Italian centre and an art gallery on every corner, but where on earth can you get a pint of milk? But after a while, when you start getting out and about a bit, you realise that the City of Culture part of Glasgow is contained within a relatively small, embourgeoised laager, while the rest of the city, the proletarian part, sprawls away to the east and west as far as the eye can see-quite a long way on a clear day.
Outside the laager, you can examine some of the barometers of poverty and crime that are the dead giveaways. Who are Glasgow’s beggars? Young whites with dreadlocks playing didgeridoos? Not in Glasgow, where you are more likely to see a solitary pensioner simply standing, head bowed, a hand held out in supplication. How much protection is afforded to the bus drivers? Here they are sealed off with their two-way radios behind a thick sheet of perspex. They don’t give change. If you are able to, you drop the exact fare into a slot. Which outfit is favoured by the police this season? Is it the waterproof cape, or the stab-proof bodywarmer and telescopic baton? Since a PC Lewis Fulton was killed last year, it’s more often the latter. And it is noticeable that more people are going about with facial scars than can be entirely attributable to car crashes or accidents in the home.
Leslie Sharp, the chief constable of Strathclyde police, retired at the end of 1995. He was knighted in the New Year’s honours list and applauded by the Scottish tabloids as “the honest cockney copper who earned Scotland’s respect.” He told them he planned to spend his retirement cuddling his grandchildren and learning how to use a computer. During his tenure he backed a number of operations against crime, including Operation Blade, a police initiative against the knife-carrying culture that was seen to be particularly prevalent among Neds and Sengas (slang for male and female gang members) in the west of Scotland. Of the 92 people murdered in Strathclyde the year before Blade was launched (1993), 47 were stabbed to death and knives were also used in 201 out of 382 attempted murders. As part of the campaign, legislation controlling the possession of weapons in public places was tightened up and there was a general “knife amnesty.” Glasgow’s Neds and Sengas were invited to go along to their nearest police station and drop their knives into the bins provided-with no questions asked.
The knives given up in this way provide the perfect illustration of the authorities’ determination to transform the image of Glasgow from “Mean City” to “City of Culture.” The account of Operation Blade, published later by the police, reads: “On March 2nd 1993, in the presence of the national media, the knives of destruction and despair were cast into a furnace and melted down to produce two replicas of a classic 15th century relief, entitled Allegory of Agriculture by Agostino Di Duccio. The original relief, which hangs on a wall at the Glasgow School of Art, depicts safety, peace and tranquillity. The symbolic burning heralded the start of the second phase, a three month long enforcement campaign using “stop and search” powers to rid the streets of knives. During this Blade phase, 29,828 people were stopped and searched and 548 weapons were found. These ranged from swords to Stanley knives and flick knives to machetes. Public support for the campaign was at an all-time high, reflected in the fact that only one complaint was made during this three-month period.” (There’s always one, isn’t there?)
At the moment we are in the grip of Operation Eagle, an anti-drugs campaign. In an apocalyptic speech to launch the Scotland Against Drugs initiative, Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, said: “The drugs epidemic is as terrible as any mediaeval plague. This country strove in unity, as one nation during the second world war, to defeat tyranny. We must find that unity again to crush the drugs menace? that is threatening our civilisation.”
There were 102 deaths from hard drugs in Glasgow last year. There’s certainly a lot of the soft stuff about, especially upstairs on the buses. There’s no bother up there from the yobs; they are too busy skinning up and chilling out. I used to go swimming regularly out at Easterhouse pool. Some people like to give the impression that Easterhouse people eat their own young. I liked it there, and the pool is a good one. But I was genuinely surprised at the number of people rolling joints on the upper deck on the bus journey there and back. And at how young they were. And how openly they did it. I can’t smoke the “cannibals’ residence” any more because it makes me go paranoid and I just sit there like a gonk. It was pleasant, though, to ride home tired from swimming, while the bus filled up with passengers and cannabis smoke as it lurched back to town. As an ex master-joint builder, I could readily appreciate the skill involved in putting one together on a swaying bus with a driver who is heavy on the brakes.
Once a boy of about 14 turned to me and said, “Mister, can you spare us a fag for the spliff?” “I’m awfully sorry,” I said, “but I don’t smoke.” They looked at me suspiciously for the rest of the way: either because they thought I was the police, or because I am English-or perhaps I had breathed in too much cannabis smoke, and just imagined it.