A Glasgow Blog, with a Difference
The rain is coming down. I’m watching from the safe side of the glass and having one of those snuggly, self-satisfied sensations of comfort and belonging. My city, my streets, my Glasgow.
I want to share how I really feel about my home. It’s actually an extremely difficult thing to put into words. You can throw all the adjectives in the world at something but if you don’t understand it, deep down, what’s the point? And it’s not like my recent adventures up north either, where raw nature and deep immersion are there to help the creative juices flow. Where you are so surrounded with inspiration that putting your mindset into words is so easy it’s almost cheating. It’s different in a city. There’s distractions and a taken-for-granted familiarity that makes it difficult to step out of yourself and get the bigger perspective.
You have probably already gathered that this is going to be a certain type of Glasgow blog post. I’m going to try and delve deeper into what I love about home. There will be no stereotypes surrounding deep fried Mars bars or twee gibberish about Glasgow taxi drivers and their chattiness. No lists of to-dos, no ‘ultimate’ this or ‘bucket list’ that. For travellers heading to the city, much of this may not be what you think you’re looking for. But I’m creating it for those that come with a desire to delve below the surface and to seek out perspectives that only Glaswegians can give. I want to explain Glasgow’s journey, intersperse a bit of my own and ultimately leave you with a sense that you are closer to the Dear Green Place as a result. Let me know how I get on.
This is my city, through my eyes.
Glasgow of the Empire
I often wonder if Glasgow’s slow journey in tourism circles owes to the fact that its history, its origins and its romance were largely wiped out by its ‘success’. The city, at its economic peak, was second only to London in the far-reaching might of the British Empire. A vital cog in the unprecedented times of worldwide trade in the 18th Century, in came tobacco, sugar and cotton to be processed in Glasgow’s mills to then be exported at profit. Tough lives, for those at the bottom. Head-spinningly rewarding, for those at the top.
It went on to be a centre of manufacturing and heavy industry in the following century, home to some of the wealthiest families, and dynasties, in the world.
As a result, there is no medieval Glasgow. Our magnificent Cathedral aside, there is no castle, abbey or atmospheric ruin to ponder over. The city was too busy grafting, sweating and hoarding during the economic boom to pay any consideration to simpler times, and any relics were swept away. But with these changed times came an enlightenment, and the curious embrace of a new kind of culture. The still-Best Museum in the World, Kelvingrove, epitomised an outlook which remains – a Glasgow turning to art as a fundamental element within its self-identity. Along with the Burrell Collection (re-opening soon) it put the city in a classy league, one that it has remained a part of. My Glasgow blog on the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre covers the astonishing extent of these collections.
The war years of the early to mid-20th Century were a mixed bag. The city was still a cornerstone of industry – producing munitions, ships and more for the war efforts – but Glasgow had to withstand German bombing. Times were hard. Read the chillingly grim No Mean City, opening a dark and foreboding window into Glasgow slum life in the 1930s to see what I mean.
Glasgow of the 70s and 80s
Let your mind run a bit, with you as director. The image is one of smashed windows, high rise flats, long queues at the bus stop and hard faces, set solid in resignation. Wealth had gone, hope with it. What the circus had left in its wake was a myriad of peoples, of all ages, still coming to terms with a city that had been forgotten. The giant cranes by the River Clyde, the totem poles of industry, stood abandoned and now merely graves to prosperity.
An after dark walk in the bad part of town – take your pick there were many – would have been asking for trouble. Boarded up buildings, graffiti, the stench of squalor and desperation, fear even. No eye contact with any you may encounter. Avoiding Glasgow would have made for sage tourism advice. Glasgow, by Raymond Depardon, superbly visually captures this sad chapter.
A cruel twist of fate, to give Glaswegians so much cause for optimism, so much security in a permanently bright future….just to pull the rug. That’ll harden you. And it’s that hard image that still persists of Glasgow in some circles, a place to fear. Many unfamiliar with the city – yet who should know better – still regard Glasgow as a violent cesspit. A stab fest where alcoholism, drug abuse and an arse kicking are available for your viewing pleasure on every street corner. Where a happy-go-lucky adventurer can go innocently in search of a famous “Glasgow Kiss” and find themselves on the wrong end of an unexpected square go.
Bad reputations linger, however outdated.
Glasgow of Today
But I now complete the rise, fall and re-rise of Glasgow’s journey. I don’t recognise the poverty of the 70s. I don’t recognise the trepidation and the hopelessness for the future (Brexit aside). And I can’t fathom why anyone looking to visit Scotland, and to really understand Scotland on anything more than an inaccurate, stereotyped level, would ever omit Glasgow from their travel plans. That Glaswegian personality IS Scotland in many ways. Rough around the edges, creative, big-hearted and forever Sherpa’ing a mountainfull of baggage.
I’m proud of my origins, of my early years embracing tenement life. Of the fact that we were pretty poor as a young family, par for the course. Easy to say decades later, when it’s all a very vague, idealised memory, but still. People were friendly, neighbours looked out for each other. Tenements, by their very nature, ensured this.
They hold so much personality do tenements. Likely over a century’s worth of families have come and gone from these buildings, each leaving their own mark. Their own page, or a full chapter for some. There’s community, familiarity and more than a touch of nosiness to be found within a tenement block, to be sure. I’ve tried living in other styles of apartment, without success. There simply isn’t enough history, enough of a presence. This happy wee guy in the shared tenement garden, or up his ladder, is still a place of serenity for me.
And yet, Glasgow remains a work in progress. Any notion of a happily ever after has to be tempered, there is much poverty here still. A cruel government in Westminster, not enough action at local level and generations of the same old problems mean that an after-dark stroll in Maryhill, Govan and Bridgeton remain unadvisable. You’ll not read about them in the guidebooks, they’ve been unsurprisingly omitted. Religious intolerance has not fully moved back to the dark ages where it belongs, either. Homelessness is rife, food banks are the norm and the road ahead to fairness remains long.
But these are problems found in most cities, even in 2019. Tourism has shot forward in recent years as travellers are drawn to our curious mix of architecture, top-class dining and nightlife scene and our magnificent museums. The once downtrodden wasteland of Clydeside is a photo of the future with event venues, media centres, museums and even the city’s own impressive distillery all dotted along the river line. We have a fantastic pin-up in the form of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the stylish Art Nouveau rogue who brought a splash of vibrancy to our sandstone jungles. The Commonwealth Games of 2014 epitomised a new Glasgow – one with a warm welcome and a story that needs telling. And Glaswegians love a good story.
The Many Faces
There’s the Merchant City with its artsy feel and place-of-business aura. Trade is still in the air. Bland walls have been shocked into colourful life with our superb street art revolution. And a healthy collection of bars and restaurants compete for your entertainment pennies.
There’s the city centre with its tightly-packed grid system and riot of commercial shopping opportunities which, admittedly, I loathe. This is not a man built for shopping and it would not take a particularly resourceful torturer to figure out how to get some answers out of me. Threaten to stick me in a shopping mall for an hour and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.
The West End with its much sought-after atmosphere and multi-cultural energy. Where trendy hipster bars and coffee huts collide with old man pubs and where second-hand stores and artisan businesses have the high street giants outnumbered. The Gothic spire of Glasgow University watches on protectively, connecting old and new.
The built-up and ever-expanding South Side, miles of residential Glasgow, that holds some of the city’s lesser-known architectural masterpieces.
In all though, you’re never far away from green. Our parks make Glasgow what it is, a city that can breathe.
That Wonderful Sense of Belonging
Glasgow is my safe place. It’s where I love to come home to after long road trips, arduous hikes and intense campaigns. I get really unsettled if I’m away for too long. Familiar accents, no-nonsense approaches and a generally calm pace align it perfectly with my own nature. I don’t like it when it’s sunny here by the way, Glasgow suits the rain. Which is just as well.
I remember long night shifts in my youth, working in the city’s bars and clubs as a student. I saw some stuff over those years let me tell you. Some of the greatest characters I’ll meet, some of the best memories. There would be the occasional nightclub scrap of course, but they were very few, and very far between. If Glasgow was truly a violent place, I’d have seen it. It isn’t.
Over the course of any given night out, me behind the bar, I’d observe Glasgow’s folk at their most unguarded, their most inebriated.
‘Vodka Lemonade aye?’ It always starts relatively sophisticated, it’s still only 11pm.
The night ticks on. Uh-oh, here he’s coming back. Several sophicated drinks in. Little shaky on his feet but he’s manfully trying to appear sober as a judge. Play along.
‘Two Double Jacks and Coke? You sure now?’ Up goes the eyebrow, this is the last coherent conversation I’ll be having with him. At half past midnight.
And as we approach last call….
‘Shots? And what would they be shots of now? Anything?’ So be it…..
By 2.30am you could be serving pure gasoline and he’d have knocked it back, grinned wolfishly, gesticulated for a bit and told me charitably to have one myself. Demanded even. Unwritten Glaswegian code means ensuring your barman is bevvying right along with you, at your expense. Keep your barman on-side. It’s in the first chapter.
The collective sombre mood that hit Glasgow after the School of Art fires was almost visible in the air. A sense of loss, of rage (this is ours and you have no right to take it) and of the need to re-build and start again. It brought out much of Glasgow’s complicated personality. Stoic resolve and a firm sense of moral necessity are what has got us this far. We must go on.
I’ll find myself in Kelvingrove Museum at least once a month. No reason, just kind of drifting about. I’ve often found myself becoming saturated alarmingly quickly in museums – am I maybe a bit thick? – and my mind tends to wander instead. I’m away in a dwam, having taken on a childlike simplicity and attention span….when I just sink into a place and turn it into a virtual comfort blanket. Several places in Glasgow have that effect on me, nowhere else does.
In recent articles I’ve compared the Outer Hebrides to a crofter and the remote West Highlands to an old spinster. Done entirely as an amused observation into their distinctive personalities. Glasgow can boast one of the biggest personalities in the world. It is crass, blunt and gruff. It excels in self-deprecation but loves to poke fun at others, expecting lots of give and take. There’s a lot of laughter. It’s cheeky, crossing unapologetically into insolent when it feels like it. There’s a giant heart there, full of compassion, loyalty and protectiveness. A working city, with working values. It retains all the hardiness and power of Victorian Britain but embraces and supports progressive Scottish politics and an inclusive society. Success and penury linger on its streets, with the scars of both proudly shown. Complex, and lovely.
I belong to Glasgow. Glasgow is my city, and always will be.
There are a couple of links to books within this post for further relevant reading on the themes I touch on. They’ll take you to my page on Amazon where, as an Amazon Influencer, I earn from qualifying purchases. Should you purchase anything in my lists I get a small commission, at no cost to you. I don’t do the whole affiliate marketing thing on this site – hopefully you’re enjoying this ad-free experience – but will add high quality reading to my ‘shop’ on Amazon for those on the lookout for a good read.
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