Part 1                                                                                                                                                                                 Posted 16th June 2013

PEOPLE TRYING TO BE HONEST WILL HAVE A CLEAR SENSE of cities in inverse ratio to the time they have spent there. The longer you are acquainted with a place the more you know you don't know it. About New Orleans I'll give you some instant impressions, gleaned in about a week. If you're in a hurry — and if I'm talking about New Orleans, you probably should be — you might be fooled. But five minutes' casual probing would find me out. My clarity about New Orleans is born of ignorance.

Paris I'm more vague about. I wasn't always like that. From a fortnight's trip made as a teenager, I carried a neat sense of it around with me like a postcard. Then I lived there for several months. Don't ask me about Paris. Vancouver's worse.I lived there nearly a year. Glasgow? What I don't know about Glasgow would fill several books. Some people might say it has. What I think and feel about Glasgow, after more than 30 years' close acquaintance, is very involved: the onion, memory. I peel it.

The cafeteria of the Students' Union in Glasgow University: evocative place, my Grand Central Station of the mind. From here you can catch ideas that will take you just about anywhere. The condition of the serfs in 19th-century Russia. The pibroch as the essential Scottish art form. Is abortion murder? Arnold Toynbee's History of the World.What do you think will win the 2.30? Was Marlowe Shakespeare? Outline briefly the attributes of your ideal woman. Who was Jack the Ripper?

Here, more than at lectures or tutorials, my mind will be stripped of the fustian of prejudice, the shoddy of preconception, and sent out to abide the pelting of a pitiless storm of wild ideas. It is my subversive university within the University. Maybe I'm particularly lucky in my timing. I arrive here in the mid-1950s, by which time the fabled fortresses of deep thought have been breached by fairly large numbers of working-class students. The Visigoths are here. They bring a refreshing common sense and scepticism to some of the more arcane studies. Anglo Saxon sound-changes will take a terrible pounding.

After lectures we convene in the cafe of the Students' Union, often for hours. We have epic conversations. No sacrosanct precept is safe from our desire to scramble all over it and hopefully reduce it to rubble. The size of the group is constantly changing. We can be anything from four round a table to maybe a dozen, with chairs being pulled up and later left empty. New voices arrive from the Reading Room. Someone who has raised an interesting question may have to catch a train before the poll of answers is finally taken. The ashtrays look like pit-bings.

I am among such a group now. I am taking part in an impromptu group lecture on Yeats, whom we read last week. I, who arrived like an urban Johnny Appleseed in the groves of academe, am already, towards the end of my first year, a sophisticated smoker of Player's (bought in packets of five from the kiosk in the Union), a placer of daily bets with Strachan the bookie (maximum stake: one shilling) and a fearless purveyor of opinion on all matters (knowledge of subject under discussion not an essential).

Around me are my friends. One of them has been reading Freud and is going through a phase of seeing sexuality in all things. A cigarette is a mammary substitute. If you stir your tea, he's liable to accuse you of intercourse in public. Another is developing a betting system that will make his fortune when he becomes a professional gambler. Another is seriously questioning his Catholicism. Another is a Rangers supporter who likes to say that he hates bigotry and Catholics.

But, at the moment, everything is concentrated on Yeats. He is our man. We marvel at his wisdom, savour individual lines as if they were nectar. We are endlessly trying to analyse the magic of his words.

At the edge of our group is a rare attender. He comes to university on a motorbike. He is wearing a crash helmet now, perhaps as a protection against the sleet of insubstantial opinion that is all around him. He observes us from his casing like an extra-terrestrial trying to work out what these earthlings are up to. During a rare pause in the conversation, he speaks.

`It's all right for youse bastards,' he says. 'Youse like poetry.'

The inference is that we are cheating. For he, too, is a member of the first year English class and he seems to have a sense of being disadvantaged because some people taking the course are actually enjoying it. This may explain the abstracted way in which he has occasionally sat in on our debates, like a Rabbi attending a course on bacon-curing. It may also explain the infrequency of his visits to lectures. He has opened a second­hand shop, it seems, and he is more interested in driving his motorbike to salerooms all over Glasgow, buying used furniture.

At the end of the academic year, he is refused a class ticket, not surprisingly, since the English Department have no very clear idea of who he is. We hold a hurried council of war in the Union and he decides he will go to the English Department and speak to Professor Alexander, a man of great benignity and kindness. When Professor Alexander confronts the non­poetry-loving entrepreneur, accoutred as is customary in his crash-helmet, he apparently says something like this: 'With your attendance and performance, sonny, when you come here to ask for a class ticket, you shouldn't be wearing a crash-helmet. You should be wearing a suit of armour.'

Professor Alexander, ever humane, gives him a class ticket. But he either doesn't pass the exam or doesn't turn up to sit it — I forget which.

Glasgow University was for me not a bad vantage point from which seriously to begin my studies of the city. Unlike some seats of learning, it was no hermetically, sealed chamber of self-defining scholarship. It abutted on the very real world. You could step out with a headful of Chaucer and see the Wife of Bath Street on a tram.

I learned more than degree courses during that time. I laid the foundations for a kind of inter-disciplinary study of the place. Glasgow has always been in my experience a city where boundaries are not very rigorously observed, full of socially mixed blood. The forensically precise mind of the lawyer may also accommodate a fanatically irrational belief in the divine right of Celtic to win the Scottish League. A philosophical debate may be resolved with a fist fight.

The crash-helmeted tearaway who was reading selected parts of Spenser's Faerie Queene was found to have many counterparts, like the working man playing pool in a Rutherglen pub and simultaneously extolling the quality of Anna Karenina. I once had some difficulty escaping from a cab in which the driver hadn't finished outlining his plans for writing a modernised version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. At least he turned the meter off. I have heard two drunk men discussing their lives in The Royal Scot bar in Central Station, with one of them insistently quoting Socrates.

Those seminars that began in the Union have continued casually for over 30 years. A group of us have been meeting intermittently in Glasgow pubs, conversationally unravelling our entrails, while jobs were changed and children grew up and marriages broke. We have discussed everything we could think of and a few we probably seriously couldn't. But the sub-text to those discussions has always been Glasgow, and therefore Scotland — for Glasgow, lochs and bens and talk of Gaelic bards notwithstanding, has forged much of the essence of modern Scotland. It reveals most dramatically the basic features not of who we were but of who we are.

Our meetings were often gently haunted by a need to work out Glasgow: to come to terms with the ferocity of its sectarianism, that weird, warped creature that haunts the Scottish psyche, sustaining itself on the iron rations of Rangers-Celtic games and offering meaningless aggression like a Japanese soldier lost for years on some Pacific island and still fighting a war that is long since over; to understand the strong, instinctive socialism of the city, a socialism that seems not to have achieved much that is more concrete than calling a part of itself Nelson Mandela Place and putting up a statue of La Pasionaria on Custom House Quay.

But even as we tried to catch the place, it was changing in our grasp, like Proteus.

(To read the next post in this series click here.)


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