‘You know what the difference is? At the weekends, people in Finland go out to their homes in the countryside, they exercise, they enjoy the air. In Glasgow, they just go to the shops.’
– Tommi and Michelle, Glasgow.
Warning: Glasgow is a small universe. Capturing it in an economical amount of words has proven more difficult than any place I’ve visited. As my write-up’s turned out so long (and yet I’ve omitted so much), it’s been sub-headed into days which can be read separately. But I dare not separate them into chapters. Just like the city itself, one element necessarily informs another and interweaves with it. If reading this on a web browser, I advise for the sake of time not attempting to read in one sitting. Same goes to the around 600 email subscribers to this blog.
Cherish those mornings where there’s no need to rush. When the alarm clock states the time factually rather than coercively. Get up now, or in half an hour? It doesn’t particularly matter. The pillow has taken on the texture and proportions of a heavenly cloud. Let the morning become afternoon without us dashing around, shoving on our shoes whilst hurrying out the door in a commuter’s cossack dance. The world will continue in its same majestic and ludicrous whirl without us bearing witness to it. Placing a quilt over one’s head is a perfectly respectable way of dispelling life’s demands for another day.
It’s a pleasure waking up slowly in Glasgow at Tommi and Michelle’s. Tommi I met previously in a pub in Dornoch: he invited me to stay with him when I arrived in Glasgow, and kindly lived up to his word. I met Michelle and Nico, his wife and son, the previous afternoon. Michelle’s a native of Dumbarton, but a career in business management brought her to Finland, Norway and back to Glasgow. She’s suffered from MS in more recent years, but has used her experience and skills to assist the MS Society with its campaigns and organisation. Nico is a nineteen year old tennis maestro. As can be the case with young men, he bounds away with more energy and life than life itself can keep up with, which can lead to a kind of post-teen/early twenties dislocation where what one should do isn’t clear, and indecision paralyses. Over cereal and tea – after camping, such luxury – we talk for some time about Glasgow and Scotland. There’s no need to rush, and each topic is treated carefully, without shortcutting to received wisdom or printed opinion as so often blights much discussion of current affairs.
Like most I’ve met in Scotland, the matter of the forthcoming referendum for Scottish independence has stirred up dormant questions about identity and the future of the country. Decades ago, the left wing abandoned its belief and its vernacular arguments for what could be collectively realised in the future. But with the Scottish vote, people see themselves as, at last, having an opportunity to steer the direction of their government. It feels like a great, vertiginous precipice. Could Scotland manage it? Tommi wasn’t sure at first. How much had independence been thought through? What plans were in place for a new currency, or health service? Who would the borders open to, and omit? Would the bloody oil last…? (This last point, we agree, isn’t what’s at stake here).
Tommi’s started to change his mind. Whilst Michelle still leans on no, sceptical of the actual benefits of independence, he’s starting to weigh for. Whatever will appeal to this significant minority of uncertains will shape the future of Scotland.
One of the many benefits of talking to people who live in a culture but were not brought up in it are the unique views on difference. Growing up in Finland, Tommi can draw on experience to laugh and curse when I tell him about what our secondary school meals consisted of: pizza, pie, breaded chicken, and chips. The meat was as processed and reconstituted as you can imagine. I wouldn’t eat half the stuff we were served drunk now. But in Finland children weren’t allowed to bring money to school. There was only one meal, and it was sure to be a nutritious one – and free to all.
With their experiences working in business, house-building, and local sports, and their familiarity with receiving NHS services – Michelle now uses a wheelchair as a result of her MS – they are disappointed and critical of the privatisation. How can you privatise school meals? Tommi asks innocently, knowing full well the ugly reason. There’s a surfeit of sorry stories and regrettable deaths and injuries across the NHS since its services began to be privatised. The effects of privately tendering food contracts have led to an appalling and overpriced canteen service, whilst the depressing rise in lethal cases of MRSA and other preventable, hygiene-related viruses and diseases speaks for itself.
But competition will raise standards, and lower prices!
Hospitals pay more per hour for agency workers, who are paid in turn less than if they were employed by the hospital. Workers are demotivated and poorly managed whilst hospitals are blighted with higher staff costs. Private health companies somehow make a lot of profit from cleaning and cooking for the sick, which is then in part used to promote their services and free market thinking to sympathetic politicians, via bungs to party campaign coffers and dinners with the prime minister. These politicians in turn receive enough backhanders and freebies that they can afford not to receive NHS treatment with the hoi polloi. The market’s working, they think, as an abundance of ex-NHS-trained nurses hover round and adjust the widescreen TV of a Laura Ashley-decorated ward so that a handful of ex-bankers with aching limbs can watch The Sopranos. Meanwhile everything gets slowly worse…
But Michelle raises a point I’ve not heard before. From working in a management role at house-building firm Wimpey, she recounts first-hand how trusted suppliers and contractors would massively bumf up costs to the public sector at the tendering stage of contracts. It’s a ‘big issue’, Tommi agrees. There’s ‘just air’ in the figures. She thinks that costs in the NHS could be easily brought down through proper scrutiny of how suppliers construct the figures in their tenders. All this leads back to the fiascos in the privatisation of the railway service. But this could be difficult. All three national political parties seek to extend the privatisation of the NHS through this kind of tendering for services. And the popular press’s contempt for bureaucrats and quangos has, to a degree, won in popularity. The government has used its austerity cuts to remove the layers of auditing and management that might’ve scrutinised services before they were privatised to the extent they have been in the last few years.
I pose a depressing future scenario: the NHS will be allowed to sink into collapse, suffocated by debts from the Blair-Brown PFI years and cuts to core spending and personnel. After a string of high-profile neglect scandals, it’ll be allowed to quietly die. National insurance might be reinvented without any kind of socialist connotation. No welfare, no cradle to grave, just a miserable pact with Serco, G4S, Virgin, Tesco, or whoever…
Tommi and Michelle see that excessive legal costs have become an issue. Too much health and safety regulations have inadvertently led to workers doing their best to avoid them in order to get the job done. Michelle shares a story of two men building a trench on a site to check for a pipe. Such work requires a ‘trench box’ to prevent the mud collapsing in on the workers. To save time, this was skipped. The trench collapsed, and its mud was clay: one man was pulled free but the other was not. Health and safety has become something to scoff at. Excessive lawsuits brought by skint opportunists against local councils and businesses have created a plethora of tickboxes. Another problem’s brewing…
Frequent experiences and conversations with people from other cultures and backgrounds leads to a tranquil ambivalence. I feel reluctant to judge anything or anyone; I am still computing its strangeness. But sometimes ambivalence is built into a language. English is a very good tongue for saying what you do not mean, be it in the form of sarcasm, irony, understatement, or subtle hypocrisy. Perhaps there is some cultural element that explains why the UK has no formally written constitution or civil law: our words are too ambivalent, subtle or easily reversed to be worth scrutinising.
This might then indicate why so many English people refuse to adequately grasp other languages, a remarkable feat for an islands nation, aided by a school system determined to extinguish anything interesting about those languages. There is no need for the nuances or precise words or conjunctions of words that German, French or Russian might offer. English allows one to hint, mumble and nudge; to be cheeky, to evade, to make a joke that laughs at the powerful and allows the powerful to be laughed at without anyone’s head going under the guillotine.
In Finnish, phrasing is more precise and black and white. There are seventeen different forms of putting a single noun. ‘It’s hopeless trying to learn Finnish’, laughs Tommi. ‘But don’t worry, we know that too. All the meetings with English-speakers are in English’. The country still remains bilingual, Swedish being spoken as a more formal ‘government language’ by a tiny minority of its people. Again, it’s intriguing hearing about the country in terms of what it says about Scotland, or England. After a major economic crash in the 1990s following the collapse of the USSR, its main trading partner, the country rebuilt itself by investing in new industries. It is now very wealthy yet doesn’t suffer the gross inequality and significant core of absolute poverty that defines the US, UK or China. Its people are physically active, something that’s just built into their leisure and culture. I cannot think of the last place in Scotland I’ve seen a leisure centre or football ground, or of the last shop that sold affordable bicycles or sports equipment.
But what will stand out about Glasgow to a stranger, and what stands out just like a swastika tattoo when I later glimpse it, is the continued reality of its sectarian divisions. ‘Ban religion in schools’, Tommi says. Conflict between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists in Northern Ireland has crossed the Irish Sea like a medieval plague and infected the communities of Glasgow. Orange orders still march across Glasgow on certain historic dates like the 12th July. I’m told the following day by one Glaswegian of how the Orange Order veers the course of its march from Dennistoun to the city-centre via Royston, a largely Catholic area in the north. The Orange Orders seek to antagonise and intimidate, and there is no valid claim to tradition on their part, unless one also feels it legitimate to celebrate the traditions of casual racism against people of colour that have been fortunately extinguished in recent decades. It is malicious and divisive.
Its expression is also in football. Celtic vs. Rangers, the two local Glasgow clubs, have come to represent focal points of each self-identifying side of the divide. Some pubs in the city carry either an Irish tricolour or Union Jack representing who is welcome and who is not.
But how real is the problem now? Rangers were relegated into the lower leagues after being bankrupted over dubious tax dodges, and matches between the ‘Old Firm’ have been few and far between. Incidences of physical assault and domestic violence used to soar after games in the past. Though the city’s not been blighted by this local, west-east rivalry for a little while, Rangers’ recent promotion back into the top division will likely re-incite old hatreds. Religion may be the stated pretext, but I’m unsure if banning religious schools will help. Some men enjoy fighting each other and feel alive only in the expression of aggression and hatred. But there are must be other places than football fields for that.
We talk into the mid-afternoon about these things. We talk about how charities and voluntary organisations have taken on contracts for social services that they’ve been unable to adequately manage, and how this too was an effect of privatisation. We talk about our families, about the different paths taken, and about health. It’s been a joy spending the afternoon talking to such interesting people, different in many ways to myself, but very similar too. Equitable and insightful conversation turns out to be a possibility in any interaction.
It’s time to go explore Glasgow. My clothes are dry, my body’s fed and rested, and the sun is out. Glasgow is unseasonably sunny and hot. I head out, veering down Hyndland Road and taking a right, eventually reaching Partick. I’m back in Argos again with another hopeless camera. This one’s just bad, the photo quality too poor for what I need. My desperate appeal succeeds, and I leave with the fourth digital camera on this trip. May it last more than a week.
This Argos is situated next to a collection of ugly chain stores in new-brick barns. No doubt their useful to the local people, but compared to the craft and care of department stores and shops of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these modern retail parks are like some unsightly but essential skin graft.
Whenever I want some brilliantly articulate, callously caustic criticism of the worst excesses of recent public architecture, I turn to Owen Hatherley. His visit to Glasgow in A New Kind of Bleak is hilarious and depressing in equal measure, though it focuses on the uglier and newer satellite towns of Cumbernault, East Kilbride and their ilk. As he points this new kind of bleak structure,
‘Retail sheds on the motorway; a Tesco Extra, with another even bigger car park in front; a PFI college, with a Blair flat on top; a covered shopping mall. The golden arches look out over all of it, and for the first time so far, you spy a CCTV camera.’
But as I pass the golden arches of Partick’s McDonalds’ drive-thru, I can’t help wondering how far this applies to Glasgow, and more England as a whole. Gladly, gratefully, I’ve seen so few of these covered malls and godawful PFI colleges. Around Partick instead is a cohesive red-brick neighbourhood of Victorian tenement blocks. They appear strong, well-built and respectable, conducive to privacy yet not isolation; conducive to communal interactions yet not concentrating or ghettoising people. Small details of craftsmanship built into the structures evidence a care not just for ergonomics but the feelings and pride of those that would inhabit these living spaces. Why can’t our architects achieve the same effects so easily?
I head up Byres road, another shabby but bustling street with trendy cafes next to busy food shops. I’m close to the university, which must mean I’m close to Otago Street, the house where I grew up. I cycle over the Kelvin river, and come into an older neighbourhood of narrowly-packed, tall yellow tenements. A nearby designer’s studio and farmer’s market office suggest that I’m in a professional, slightly bohemian yet aggressively aspirational area of middle class Glasgow. I find number 80 and, strolling up gingerly, press gently on the bell.
Why did my mum and dad choose to leave London back in 1988 and head to Glasgow? If there’s one part of the UK with a worse reputation for violent crime and urban decay than Brixton during the mid-80s, their home, then it was this place. In fact the city’s reputation for gang violence stretches back to the razor gangs of the 1920s and 30s, particularly in places like Gorbals in the South Side, in slum areas that have now been demolished and replaced with nothingness. There’s been a vicious gang culture since, flaring up with another moral panic in the 1960s. Heard of the Glasgow Smile, or the Ice Cream Van Wars? Even in the 1980s families were being burnt alive for selling drugs on the wrong estates. And the economic suffocation wrought by Thatcher during the 80s had turned much of Glasgow into an ex-industrial wasteland.
Yet it’s easy to forget just how difficult and depressing life was for people without much money in London (or, well, any other city at that time). Regular IRA bomb threats were a background mood music in a city where the same Thatcher regime had deposed the city’s left-wing government and overseen the rapid decline and dilapidation of the built environment. Riots had been ignored, estates had fallen into ruin and the transport system was tragically at breaking point, as events like the King’s Cross fire demonstrated. Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) captures the decay of the city. London was
‘a city under siege from a suburban government which uses homelessness, pollution, crime and the most expensive and run down public transport system of any metropolitan city in Europe as weapons against Londoners’ lingering desire for the freedoms of city life.’
They left south London for a better life. A few years later they returned, not so much out of fault with Glasgow, but because of the isolation of the place. Family and friends were in the north of England, in the south of London. There’s more to a place than just its comforts or the availability of work, especially if you’re bringing up small children.
My mind comes back to earth when a sleepy young man named Martin opens the door. I had been about to set off, and we’re both as surprised as each other. With daytime television supplying the artificial muzak of familiar sociability, Martin lets me wander around the downstairs rooms which I once called home. When my parents lived here, this was a rented downstairs flat, but the property has now been bought in its entirety by a family, whose two sons now live here with this fellow. The chic fashion for ‘original features’ means that the place looks largely the same as it would’ve done twenty five years ago, with its high ceilings and spacious rooms, and small artisan details in the ceilings and walls.
But I have no madeleine moment. The garden and kitchen I remember through photos. As a two year old I sat in one of those cupboards and posed for a photo. By those stone stairs me and my brother would race our toy cars and then stop nanoseconds before the very edge below. But photos can help us confabulate, fabricate stories of our lives which by probability we tell ourselves and then believe to be true. I leave the place feeling as strange as I had expected to feel.
I cycle out through Kelvingrove Park, past a war monument and pretty fountain where the city’s pigeons have summoned an assembly. The sun is out in the early evening. Roller-bladers weave around mothers who share licks of their ice-creams with the babes in their pushchairs. I re-enter the city centre’s elaborate lattice-work, losing myself in the one-way system, weaving through the most glorious of Victorian civic architecture.
Dave is waiting for me outside the Central Station, and my digression have made me a little late. He laughs when I attempt to reconstruct my journey, and shares a verbal rule for navigating the city centre: up a hill is north, down a hill is south. The university tower is west, and the large cinema is east. This will serve any traveller well, believe it!
I met this friendly and laid-back musician back in London around six months ago through Couchsurfing. It’s an online community where people offer to let other travellers stay in their place a night or two. It’s a free service and no money passes hand. It’s based on trust and goodwill. People create a profile, list the kinds of interests, hobbies and attitudes that suggest their personality, then seek out others who might host them. A system of positive and negative feedback and references afterwards helps hosters and surfers work out who will be reliable and agreeable. If you’ve not heard about it, I suggest taking a look. Me and my partner have made countless friends through the people we’ve hosted on our couch and airbed in our small London flat. Dave is one of them.
We walk over to his place in Govanhill in the south side of Glasgow. Dave’s originally from Glasgow but spent his school years growing up in Exeter. There doesn’t seem to have been much to do there other than get stoned with your friends, and the boredom has kindled a man with a gently defiant and independent outlook, mordant sense of humour and skill with the guitar. At eighteen he took the chance to move back to Glasgow. For a while he saw hope in academic study as a career, but graduating in 2009 when the job market collapsed snuffed out some of his aspirations. He’s since worked in an insurance call-centre, though when we get together he shares the welcome news that he’s just got a new job.
Students in Glasgow tend to live in the wealthier West End, close to the university and packed with studenty bars and cafes. The transition after being a student, plus hefty council taxes, encouraged Dave and others to move away. He lived first in Dennistoun in the East End but there was ‘nothing to do’. He’s now in the south side, a place he quite likes. After crossing the Clyde river, the south side doesn’t particularly begin anywhere. At Eglinton Toll there’s a long wide road and an empty expanse of disused-looking warehouses and wasteland, interrupted by a gig venue and, later, a small string of shops and Turkish cafes next to grubby boozers like the Star Bar. We come into Govanhill, a multicultural area with a strong Roma community. This evening everyone’s out in Govanhill park, families sitting and talking whilst kids wail about and chase footballs. As we walk, conversation turns again to independence (this is not my doing! This conversation always takes place at some stage). I play devil’s advocate and argue the reasons for being uncertain, but I get back one of the soundest views I’ve heard so far.
‘Yes it would be difficult at first, but it would be anyway. At least we’d be able to make those difficult decisions.’
Dave’s place overlooks Govanhill park, a one-bedroom flat in a Victorian red-stone terraced tenement. Many of the blocks here lack the more obvious artisan details around the façade that one sees more often in the West End, but they still boast bay windows and spacious rooms. Where two apartments filled the floor, now enterprising landlords have squashed in three, but the apartment still feels spacious and comfortable. But many tenements were cramped with families, their ceiling spaces accommodating rising bunks. The cleanliness of the air, the relative improvement in diets and health, and the disappearance of mass overcrowding are all victories for the people of Glasgow, and a civic government determined to act for the common good.
Only the lightest of traces of these struggles remain in the buildings and in people’s memories, but something remains built into tenement structures like these. To a degree they’re retained in the high-rise social housing of the early 1960s: both forms of civil architecture placed a constructed idea of the ‘people’ at their centre. They shared a vision of progress, that improved housing in terms of function and design would assist the general progress of the working class into a more informed, healthy and harmonious society. In the blocks around Cowcaddens, there’s an attempt to produce housing that reflects without hypocrisy the industrial employment of their working tenants, that exposes its function clearly. ‘A machine to live in’ was always too functional for the homemakers, disabled, young and retired people who sought a little more basic comfort than this, like a lift that actually worked, but for all their faults, there was a kind of socialist vision here, one that became awkward by the 1980s, and unthinkable by the 00s.
What of our architecture now? Owen Hatherley calls it ‘pseudomodernist’, making a pretence at aspirations at futuristic forms and designs but resulting in a largely compromised and utterly banal style of building with no regional distinctions. Already the Blair builds of fifteen years ago, with their mixed materials, undersized windows and pointless balcony railings, are ageing badly.
After relaxing a while, we head back out into town by bus, an exciting new experience after months cycling. We meet Dave’s friends Martin and Neil at the Inn Deep pub in the West End, a cool craft beer pub perched above the Kelvin River. It’s a William’s brewery boozer and the range of brews is superb. Over Blackball, Joker IPA and March of the Penguins we relax together and shoot the breeze about Glasgow, couchsurfing and the town’s music scene. It’s a relaxed and open-minded place, the environs good and the company impeccable. In the late evening sun the beer quenches more than our thirst, sustaining conversations until those with work the next morning make the wise decision to call it a night. We head back to Govanhill and after some quick munch, make for our beds…
Well, that would’ve made sense. Alcohol gives us all our own unique superpower, and mine is writing. I stay up late writing thoughts onto a plastic screen before they disappear into the infinity of layers of silken veils that comprise organic memory. These new sights and sensations quickly overwrite the old, particularly on days of lesser intensity. Things get lost and days merge. The ride across Ardnamurchan and Mull felt like a joyous eternity, whilst desperate bicycling across the lunar abysses of Lewis and Harris felt like a dark night of the soul that could amply sustain the bleakest moods of Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky.
We wake up and drink coffee together. Dave tells me more about his new job, one that by nature impinges on the conversations with Tommi and Michelle. He’ll be working for a company that helps private businesses procure public service contracts through the provision of information. ‘At first it felt unethical’, he tells me, but he hopes it’ll be a ‘gateway into the public sector’, gaining experience that can later be used in a job with a more discernible social good. But who has the luxury of choice? I share my opinion that this is ‘the way the wind’s changing’, that the private tendering of public services will eventually place them in private hands, without sufficient public scrutiny or without a primary motivation to act for the public good.
But it’s better than life in a call-centre. A computer intensively monitors one’s performance, the time one takes on breaks. It’s a form of automation where the only human element is the voice, its feigned notes of familiarity, yes Mr. Taylor, thank you Mr. Taylor. Insert name and affection as appropriate.
‘You get used to it’, he says, indicating the boredom and despair on the other side. But his is a unionised call centre, a good thing surely? ‘Not always’, he laughs. ‘It’s so hard to sack some of the staff, some of them are just useless.’ The call-centre hoovered up a glut of overqualified young graduates several years ago, but now the job market’s tentatively returning to some level of possibility. Many are thinking about moving.
Dave heads to work and I head out into Glasgow. I pass through the Gorbals, an expanse of flats, old industry but mainly a kind of empty wasteland space, following the morning traffic towards Glasgow’s old centre around the high street. I’m off to visit the People’s Palace by way of Glasgow Green, the extensive park that borders Saltmarket to the west, the Clyde to the south, and the Barras markets to the north, but all entrances have been blocked off by a series of fences and marquees belonging to the Commonwealth Games.
It’s hard to understand why, theoretically, this event still takes place. It began in 1930 as ‘The British Empire Games’, and despite a polite change of name in 1970, that’s still the nature of it. Most of the countries participating certainly gained no benefit from being coerced into servitude by a distant north European country. The great arts, literature and organised societies that existed across India or western Africa have been replaced with unstable political groupings prone to civil war and still existing in a state of mass poverty, still tributing and servicing their old colonial masters with an influx of qualified workers and cut-price goods. Still, it’s an event for the athletes, and for Glasgow, and Scotland, an opportunity to put together an event with an international profile that represents the power and culture of an (independent…?) Scotland. What all that’s got to do with the cuddly green alien characters is still a mystery.
I can’t get into Glasgow Green, so I mill about the closed market, peering into its junk stores and cheap Irish pubs. I find a way round into the People’s Palace via the most extraordinary red-brick escapade, something which resembles a cross between a factory and an Ottoman palace. ‘What the fuck is that?’, I ask, bewildered, to a Glaswegian fellow passing by. ‘That’, he says confidently, with a warm pride in his knowledge of his city, ‘is the Templeton’s carpet factory. It’s based on the Doge’s palace, you know, in Venice.’ Nearby, and just as spectacular, is the Doulton fountain just outside the People’s Palace, its four corners representing the four parts of the Empire. And overlooking all that, most majestic and wonderful of all, the People’s Palace, a gift to the people of Glasgow. As the motif on the fountain declares, ‘Let Glasgow Flourish.’
At the back of this small but impressive museum is a lovely botanical garden, where I start first, losing myself in the scents of the tropical plants and the dizzying heat. It’s proving to be a very hot and balmy morning. After a coffee I wander inside to find out what a people’s palace actually is. I speak to one woman who tells me the place was always free. Upon opening it, the Earl of Rosebery declared the place ‘open to the people for ever and ever’. It was built as a gift to the workers of the poor East End in 1898, alongside new tenements and public baths. Reading, learning and leisure were considered as important for the welfare of the people as access to clean water or adequate accommodation, an understanding of human nature far more sophisticated than that of the town planners and business opportunists of the 20th and 21st centuries.
‘A palace of pleasure and imagination around which the people may place their affections and which may give them a home on which their memory may rest’.
Such romantic aspirations for public architecture. But why shouldn’t pleasure or imagination be built into a library or museum today? The builders of Glasgow’s new Victorian city rightly elevated the cultural and the collective over the economic and the individual. The first people’s palace was built in the East End in 1887, with a technical school, swimming baths, lecture rooms and a gym, all offered for the welfare and improvement of the people. Sadly that was flogged off to Queen Mary college in the fifties, but Glasgow still has its palace, and it’s a wondrous place. I keep exploring.
There’s the remains of an exhibition on the large Red Road estate, Glasgow’s answer to Corbusier with a dose of Ronan Point chucked in. Eight high-rise towers were built from 1962 to tackle the problem of slum overcrowding in the city. Immediately they offered a far greater quality of life than what many slum tenants were used to, and this aspect of cheap and awful council block building mustn’t be forgotten. New games and new ways of life emerged. Kids used to play one crazy and hilarious game, as Alison Irving remembers:
‘Another boy swipes at the ball to take it up in the lift to the seventeenth floor for the next giant heider. It’s a slow game and while they wait they watch the squash. They turn back to the building when they hear a shout – are you ready? – and see the boy’s head and arms and the football hanging out of the window. He drops the ball and the boy on the ground heads it. The crowd cheers. The boy cups his neck. A girl grabs the ball and takes the lift to floor twenty-two.’
The organisers of the Commonwealth Games had planned to demolish the remaining towers of the Red Road estate as part of the opening of the games. I’m told it was a relatively short-notice decision by the council. Though online opposition has been credited with stopping this, another problem was the number of asylum seekers still living in one of the decaying blocks. Where would they have been moved, I ask Stephen, a friendly chap working at the museum. He’s unsure, as were the city council. Though it was the ‘wrong sign’ to give about social housing, the estate has now become ‘too expensive to maintain’. There was the problem of damp. ‘The benefits of concrete were unproven’, he notes, and clearly this material and the harsh lines of the block were unsuitable for the cold, damp and rainy climate of Glasgow.
As well as social isolation on the higher levels, plumbing pipes were also cast in concrete and near-impossible to maintain. Lifts would break down, and there were no shops nearby. Places felt desolate, surrounded by empty wastelands of unkempt grass because of a national stipulation to provide a certain amount of green space around housing. It defeated the point of the high-rise. Did the design experiment fail? ‘Yes,’ thinks Stephen, but the argument for public housing has not.
He tells me about his own home town, near New Lanark. Today, groups of more than four young people are immediately dispersed by police, even when they’re not doing any harm. The policing of ordinary life has intensified. At the same time, I point out, there’s been a decline in casual violence and, if crime surveys are to be believed, a decline in violent crime in all. Have there been benefits to this kind of policing, or to the wide proliferation of CCTV camera warning signs? Stephen thinks it relates more to the decline of heavy industry and the heavy drinking communities that surrounded it. Glasgow’s decline was reversed by the mid-90s, he remembers. Aided by cheap transport links,
‘Glasgow’s become the place to shop. It’s smaller than London, more easy to get round than Edinburgh, and it’s got everything you need.’
Shopping and services are propping up those Victorian city-centre stores to new uses. How useful is another question.
‘I think there’s been a rise in the individual, a rise in people looking out for themselves. Before, you had patriotism, the nation, community. People see themselves as separate now.’
It all seems linked up in my mind, but for the short-term at least, and for the people that surround us, the employment and entertainment of shopping and consumerism at least offer some kind of veil of satisfaction. I write these words with a heavy heart.
It’s easy to spend all day talking to people in Glasgow: I have met people generous in their time and rich in insights. I talk with Stephen for around an hour. By the end, he begins to tell me about himself. He struggled through college and university, and looks back with a bit of regret. ‘Education’s not suited for everyone, but I’m glad I did it. I was the first one. My younger siblings have seen me, and they’ve gone for it too.’ I tell him about people close to me in London caught either between jobs or in work that suffocates them. ’That’s it!’, he says.
‘Nothing’s been done… the recession fucked up people’s lives. There was the bail out, but no vote for it. No-one’s gone to prison for it either. For the young, the people not working, or studying, there’s nothing for them.’
The People’s Palace is a rich archive of Glasgow’s social and cultural history. Alongside leisure, pleasure, and crime and punishment, there are some superb exhibits about Glasgow’s radical history. Public, municipal socialism is a major part of its history. Glasgow had the world’s first municipal tram system and art collection, the first telephone exchange in the UK, and the tallest block of flats in Europe. Civic progress is, if Private Eye will forgive me, a part of its DNA.
‘Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work. Remember that your sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon be beauty.’
What about your daughters and granddaughters? Well, those stirring words are from Glasgow Our City, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, produced by the city’s education department in the 1950s. How I wish the 2008 London Plan had made even the mildest flirtation with such ideals. Some of the first organised trade unions were established in the city, and the British Chartist Movement was formed here in 1837. The Scottish Labour Party was established here too in 1888 and would after a time become the national Independent Labour Party, out of which the modern Labour Party would eventually form.
It’s had its moment of fiery uprisings, from the 1820 Glasgow Insurrection for parliamentary reform, to rent strikes led by women, and workers’ strikes in 1915, with further strikes and revolutionary movements building around the dock area, ‘Red Clydeside’, up to 1919. Figures like John MacLean addressed thousands of ordinary people on Marxist economics, and had he not died prematurely from ill-health caused by imprisonment for his political actions, his Scottish Workers’ Republican Party might’ve brought reality to Scottish independence ninety years before today. Discontent got so bad that the government of the time seriously debated whether to improve the quality of the local beer. It erupts again, workers striking throughout its history, demanding fair pay, affordable rents, dignified work, things we today might ourselves think about demanding…
My mum remembers the massive Poll Tax protests back here in 1989. Thatcher tried to force through the unpopular tax a year before the rest of England, and protests began in Glasgow before they hit London the following year.
There’s a slogan I see around, on the buildings, on the public bicycle hire scheme, and elsewhere: ‘People make Glasgow’. Because ‘the people’ have had a formative role in the development and life of Glasgow, Thatcher’s talk of there being ‘no such thing as society, only individuals and their families’ was rightly despised here. Such a statement was an attack on Glasgow, as it was on Liverpool, and London, as it then stood. The guff spoken by Westminister politicians about ‘hard-working families’ has little truck in a city that has been largely suffocated of jobs and civil investment since the 1960s. How can there be pride in work when work itself isn’t possible? The people still make Glasgow. What this ‘people’ is ain’t clear, but that’s part of the power of the concept – it incorporates all living within Glasgow without any kind of national, racial or sectarian discrimination.
There’s a far greater sense that this is a city of and for the people than any of the English towns I’ve passed. As Tommi pointed out to me when I arrived, ‘you won’t see any signs of obvious wealth here’. Of course there are flash cars and million-pound houses, but these aren’t in the centre of the city, nor would they be particularly celebrated. It’s so unlike what London’s become, with its replaceable, nomadic populations, or Birmingham, with its built incoherence, unsure what kind of technocratic, Victorian or money-making city it might be, or whether it is a city at all. There’s this cohesiveness about Glasgow, for all the squalor and suffering of life in the tenement block slums, and later the cities in the skies slums.
‘Down with class rule.
Down with the rule of brute force!
Down with war!
Up with the peaceful rule of the people!’
Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson making An appeal to the working class back in 1914. The peaceful rule of the people… who speaks of the people now? It might elicit embarrassment, but it’s a foundational assumption of our shared civil culture on these islands that we are all equal, that it is unjust to discriminate against others based on difference, that everyone should be treated fairly. Is that because we are all individuals, or are we not still a people, who live and work in this city, that region, or these islands? We remain a people, we are the people. Who’s brave enough to do something with this?
ith Glasgow though, the Victorian buildings and spacious planned streets of its centre immediately confer its civic gravitas. Some degree of Victorian sanitisation of the more demotic and dirty sides of everyday life have been scrubbed away, true: there are very few street markets here, or winding alleys, or places suggestive of mystery or illicit thrills.
But take away these delightful buildings and the remainder of the city would look ugly and uninspired. Consider the ultra-bland Radisson hotel and bloody ‘orrible 1960s Seifert-school offices of Argyle Street, or the large malls and cinemas around Buchanan Street: they could easily be in Dundee or Croydon. The white and grey high-rise blocks of the 1960s scattered around the city once provided affordable and good quality accommodation, but could be easily replaced with lower-level social housing that doesn’t suffer the massive expanses of wasteland around them. But this history of the people would remain in the air, I think. Not in the quoting of dates and names of victories and defeats, in the sense of Irish republicanism where history feels like a burden. It’s in the social manner of the Glaswegians: open, agreeable, willingly friendly, unpretentious, unlikely to suffer fools gladly, and carrying a sharp sense of humour. These are the conditions of its citizenship.
I head out into the afternoon sun, grab a cheap baguette at Samantha’s sandwich bar, then pop into the West brewery bar at the foot of the magnificent Templeton building. It’s a local brewery that specialises in German-tasting beers, and I sup on St. Mungo and Munich Red whilst taking in the afternoon. A group of geezers sit on the picnic table beside me in front of the pub and we get talking. They’re labourers helping build the sites for the Games. They were put on a twelve hour shift but got their tasks finished in a couple of hours, and have since been in the pub. One feller looks at it’s watch. ‘See that, it’s 3 o’ clock. That means we’re professional drinkers!’
Refreshed, I pedal up to the High Street, the old centre of the city, and into the Necropolis, Glasgow’s city of the dead. It’s a large cemetery at the back of grubby St. Mungo’s cathedral, but sits on a kind of island of its own, linked to the land of the living by the small Bridge of Sighs. It’s a wonderful place to explore in the afternoon. Some fifty thousand people have been crammed into this small hill, packed with solemn stones and mighty vaults. A statue of John Knox overlooks a wide expanse of high-rises, shopping malls, sports arenas and majestic, utterly Glaswegian tenements. A small family of deer used to live here, until a TV documentary revealed this fact and locals hunted them to extinction with dogs. The views from the foot of the Knox monument are wonderful, and Glaswegians sit and lie about in the sun, in this unlikely and peaceful place.
The Cathedral itself is closed today for an event. Tourists plead for a special case entrance in to take a photo. ‘It wouldn’t be fair to the 2000 people we’ve already had to turn away today already’. Nearby, a bagpipe player plays in a nearby square, overseen by European flags. Paramedics and off-duty police and festival staff dance the jig.
I hurry over to the Tenement, a preserved slice of Glasgow’s early 20th century social history. A flat in this terrace of Victorian tenements once belonged to Ms Toward, a shorthand typist who moved here with her mother in 1911 and left in 1965. During that time neither made any real improvements or changes to the property, and after her death in 1975, the property was left in much the same way as it had been bought. Its four rooms were shared between the two woman and a lodger, and so were far less overcrowded than many on Buccleuch street, ordinarily stuffed with families.
The place boasted running hot water and a good stove, luxuries for the time. Photographs are not allowed inside, but I’m shown around by Liz, who answers my questions about lower middle class in Glasgow with knowledge and detail. Apartments in Glasgow were hard to heat in winter, and many families would spend most of their time in the kitchen where the oven’ heat kept them warm. Children would sleep in what are now often used as walk-in wardrobes, and an unused cupboard drawer could, in somewhat negligent-seeming cases, accommodate a baby! Gas lights flicker and hiss. Tenements in Glasgow were routinely overcrowded, and their conditions far worse than those today. Visitors have told her of the cramped conditions and lack of indoor toilet or bathrooms they grew up with until the 1970s.
We talk about Scottish independence for a while, and I’m pointed to the large Mitchell Library to find out more about the city’s social history. It’s a pleasure engaging with people here, who again seem to have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of their city’s history than anywhere I’ve encountered. The library faces a large motorway full of beeping cars caught in the rat-race home. Inside is a wonderful place of refuge. In the library I have flashbacks of being here as a child, remembering the Barbican-lite interior of high-ceilings, minimalist space, beige carpets and concrete cast walls. The Herald reports on a genocide in the Gaza Strip that the world will not stop, and of motorists keeping their driving licences despite running over and killing cyclists.
It’s a depressing soup, so I cycle out to the Clyde river, cycling through the remains of the old shipbuilding sites of Clydeside to the Riverside Museum. In the distance, jolly new buildings jut against the river, their designs seemingly inspired by future visions of kettles and toasters. BBC Scotland faces a Hilton hotel and various restaurants. Only Finnieston Crane remains, the last sign of Glasgow’s engineering genius and its maritime histories. The rest is a cruddy mix of new-fangled builds that could’ve been picked out of a catalogue. The Riverside Museum itself is nice but not particularly distinctive. It’s closed now, but outside kids leap about on BMXs, and the dour and dull social housing of Govan sits on the other side of the banks. For all the desperate attempts to prove that a regenerated dockside = regenerated city, I spot just as many disused spaces and wasteland, just as much abandonment. Will someone tell the social planners that there’s more to life in a city than overpriced restaurants and luxury hotels?
I head back into the city, getting a pint at the Castle Vaults by St. George’s Cross, a cheap and cheerful community local with its own two quid house lager, which tastes as you would rightly dread. Drunk locals sing along to the jukebox, love doesn’t live here anymore, along with a hearty attempt at following the melodies of the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’. The place deals in cheap and pisspoor spirits like Glen’s vodka and Jacobin scotch. It’s a weird place, and another opportunity to experience the conflicting layers of Glasgow’s civil pretensions and self-deprecating and lively communities.
It’s the early evening, and the geezers in the Castle aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of an afternoon booze. Near one estate by Cowcaddens I cycle through a ridiculous brawl between two men, one accused of nicking a woman’s bag. He clearly doesn’t have it, but that doesn’t prevent an absurd brawl as two pissed fellers struggle to paw and grab each other whilst a pack of lairy women shout encouragement to either side. I cycle back through the city, by George Square in the centre, and over Duke Street into the east. I pass the famous Tennent Caledonian brewery, home of Britain’s best lager – such a virtue? – and head further east into Glasgow’s East End.
Historically this has been the impoverished part of the city, rendered so by the cheap rents that come with living in the part where the stinking pollution and bad air drifts towards. Poverty is today encoded in depressingly functional social housing of the 1960s and 70s which wails out its poverty like a leper carrying a hand-bell. I’m in Dennistoun, not a particularly bad part of the world. The bleaker estates of Easterhouse, Cumbernauld, Coatbridge and beyond are well ahead of me, and would require a day to explore, a day I’ve been advised by everyone I’ve met, even the social historians, not to bother with. ‘There’s only shite housing, and supermarkets’, as one nicely put it.
I’m inclined to take their word, so I mill around the housing estates around Dennistoun. Union jack flags hang from the telegraph poles, and I spot the red hand of the UVF fluttering from another. It’s a fucking abysmal sign. If ‘people make Glasgow’, how on earth can such a sign of sectarian violence be tolerated? What would happen if I let the icon of the Nazi party flutter from my window on my Oval council estate? I see no reason why it’s tolerated here. On Duke Street I pass several pubs plastered in Union jacks indicating their Rangers affiliation, boozers like the Loudun and the Bristol Bar. Even the interior lighting is blue, like some shit paranoid mid-1990s takeaway toilet. As a citizen of the United Kingdom they strike me as probably the most unfriendly, hostile and entirely anti-British looking places I’ve ever laid eyes on. These islands’ histories of toleration, fair play, equality, liberal open-mindedness, humour and humility are entirely ignored by such crass bollocks.
I later report all this back to Dave, completely baffled by what I’ve seen. He used to live nearby, and tells me of meeting two old men coming out the Loudun one night after an evening of strong and frequent refreshment. They eyeballed him waiting at the nearby train station. By way of initiating conversation, they asked him what his surname was, as you do. With the strong English undertones of his accent, he tells them that his surname is Sweeney. Without intending to, he causes a small haemorrhage. Irish name, English voice – Rangers, Celtic, or wait… neither? ‘They looked very confused’, he tells me. I dream of the day when the misuse of religion towards the ends of aggression and hatred is snuffed out altogether. Looking back on the progress of the 20th century, of peace established through the protection of equality in education and law, it’s coming closer.
I meet up with Dave again by Glasgow Central. He’s pretty tired out after a long day at work, and the previous night’s boozing, and we amble back gently over to the south side. For my final night in Glasgow, Dave brings me out to his local, the Allison Arms, and somewhat kindly for a weary man, treats me to an evening in one of his favourite boozers. They’ve a fridge jammed with titillating brews where one picks a bottle and takes it to the counter, Tesco style, then goes back to one’s table to compare taste notes with one’s real ale appreciation posse. Some of the stouts will strip wallpaper.
We’re drinking with Dave’s mate Martin again, and conversation shifts to the different kinds of work available to graduates. These days a university degree is quite a risk, involving the accruement of hefty debts in the vague and unproven hope of learning something interesting and then getting an aspirational job. With good quality degrees, Dave’s worked in a call-centre, and Martin in a local café-bar. Life experiences and a lot of luck helped me get my first ‘proper’ job coordinating day services for a brain injury centre in east London. Living in London probably helped too, but the training and aspirations of young graduates jar across the world with the lived realities they’ve been maltrained for across the globe. The ‘regeneration’ of the UK economy through shopping and services has created more desires than it can possibly fulfil.
Dave’s job has him largely dealing with private landlords, hardly your classic Mother Theresa types. Most of them have no idea about their tenants, and don’t particularly care for them. Each day, he asks them if they will spend an extra twenty quid to insure their tenants against any unexpected emergencies – floods, fires, and the like. The money would provide those tenants with payments for an alternative residence if anything happened to where they live. Most landlords refuse to protect them. Speaking to them each day, Dave’s acquired a detailed set of experiences that might confirm our worst suspicions: lazy, stupid, ignorant and callous to the welfare of their tenants. Just the kind of people to trust the habitats of the vulnerable and skint to.
With the heavy skidding steps of the drunk and the fatigued, we wander back to Govanhill and rest. In just a couple of days, I feel I’ve made friends here and begun to feel Glasgow and understand it. I can read the landscape and the people with a greater intuitive ease than other places, which is how I’ve found myself so intrigued by it. It is by some distance the most interesting city I’ve visited, though I need to spend more time to work out if it’s the most enjoyable or successful city in terms of the quality of life it brings to its people. I suspect it is, but need more time here.
Everywhere needs more time, and these journeys can at best provide a long exposure photograph of each place I pass through.
The next day I awake early with Dave. He has an early start, and I drift out with him. I cycle up to Possil, where his friend Neil has kindly offered to look after my bicycle whilst I travel back to London on the coach. I need a week back home. Travel can also burn people out. The impatience, frustrations and melancholia one senses in many travelogues can be explained by a lack of contact with loved ones and lovers. I am in no rush. I want to see my partner and celebrate, with our close friends and family, our wedding together. It’s love and the imagination that bring colour and depth to the senses.
I spend time with Neil, a teacher in Glasgow’s school system and a sparky, gentle fellow, then head back to Glasgow’s Botanical Gardens. The scents and sights of Kibble Palace are intoxicating, distracting one from the pollution and pressure and into a jungle universe of tropical palms and exotic fly traps. I’ve come full-circle, back to one of the last places I remember us visiting in Glasgow before we left for London. Tourists and locals alike drift around the greenhouses over-spilling with unusual flowers and ferns, their entry free, their minds alight.
My cycling shoes are knackered beyond repair, so I throw them away and take the Clockwork Orange from Hyndland Road to Buchanan Street, where my nine quid, ten hour coach awaits. A lady gives me a free ‘I love Scotland’ bag with the local paper, compounding my melancholia about leaving Glasgow, but it is time to go.
Glasgow’s power is in explaining how communities can be built together, how affordable housing and municipal socialism are possible in the midst of disease and overcrowding. If Glasgow could achieve this with a small budget, and cling to it through to late 20th century – for all the problems its experienced – then this template ought to be able to be reproduced. Here is a defiant, bright and deeply intelligent urban civic culture. People travel to Barcelona for this kind of thing, but here’s something more interesting, and nearer.
My coach takes the full nine hours and brings me back to London Victoria. It’s not a bad journey by any means, and the seat is comfortable enough. We enter London around Brent Cross, and it feels like it takes hours before it reaches the centre. I know the passing landscapes very well via one job working across north-west London, but the feeling of the place is new, unfamiliar, a little sour. Victoria station is full of rough sleepers. Drunk men predatorially skulk about. I want to get home, but I have no oyster card. The buses no longer take cash, and a tube back to Oval (around 10 minutes) will cost £4.70. It sums up my suspicions.
With my heavy baggage, I choose instead to walk back, crossing through Pimlico and over the architectural and social catastrophe that is Vauxhall before weaving through the estates back to Vassall road. There’s some consolation: the local offies sell my favouritest brew of all, Dragon Stout, so I pick up a few bottles of this consolatory fare. Seeing my partner again is so wonderful, so good. I have around seven days to recharge before the next stage of this search begins…