Part 2                                                                                                                                                                                  Posted 20th June 2013

I'm on a late-night train leaving Central Station. I have the compartment to myself until the train begins to pull out. I can hear the scuffling sounds in the corridor outside that announce the man with drink taken who has just made it. Experience tells me he will soon be my travelling companion. He soon is.

He has slid the door open with a force that leaves it jammed. He nods ambiguously, a kind of friendly belligerence. His face is florid, perhaps with running. His eyes are aggressively blank and have a tendency to fix themselves fiercely on a perfectly ordinary object, like an upholstered arm­rest, as if it is the only one of its kind in the world and he will have to report back to a committee on his findings. For a short time our reflections manage to avoid each other in the window as first the edges of the city and then the darkened countryside slide past. But I know, short of taking a header through the window, I won't avoid a conversation.
`Just made it there,' he says.

I acknowledge the information it seems to have taken him some time to glean and a conversation has begun. It proves to be an interesting conversation. He lives and works in Coventry but comes originally from Glasgow. He has been paying a visit to the old town. His stay there seems to have followed a not uncommon pattern for such visits: quiet at first (seeing his mother, failing to make contact with friends) but building towards a series of jolly thrashes that have climaxed in this evening's impromptu party. Thinking of the party and the time he's just had, he brims with nostalgia.

And then, finding his moment as we rattle through the night in the tatty compartment, he delivers an ambiguous but moving elegy on the Gallowgate. The ambiguity is unintentional. He speaks of the old Gallowgate with a genuine love that few outsiders who have seen it might expect. He sees no irony. He lays the memory of it before me as reverently as a pressed rose. It's just that he doesn't seem to notice that it still has the thorns attached.

The old Gallowgate, he says, was a marvellous place. Everybody helped everybody else. The sense of neighbourliness was total. He is searching for the clincher, the moment held in a shaft of remembered light that will convince even me, find another convert. He decides he has it. It is a story.

This is the story: when he was a boy, he loved snooker. But snooker, say ninepence for half-an-hour, or it may have been one-and-three (he remembered but I don't), was expensive. He and a couple of his mates did devious things and saved up until they had enough money to pay for a half-hour on the table. They were maybe 12 at the time. They duly were given a table. They set up the balls. They chalked the cues. They were ready to break when three local 18-year-old heavies cut in. They shoved them away from the table and told them to get lost. They would be playing. He and his mates had no way to deal with the situation. They went outside. A small man that they knew, a local, a 'nice wee man', was standing at the door, smoking, He knew they were supposed to be playing a game. They weren't. He asked them why. They told him. The small man went in. Shortly afterwards, they played their full half-hour.

The man on the train speaks of three people 'carried out'. I doubt that. But I believe the gist of his story.

'That was the Gallowgate,' he says in the voice of one who once knew Eden. 'Kind people in the Gallowgate.'

Kind people who batter unkindness — the rose with the thorns. The man from the Gallowgate introduced into our compartment, like a tangible presence, one of the great Glasgow legends — the hardman — and reminded me how in recent times the sharp edges of the legend have become blurred. The fact that something has become legendary, of course, doesn't mean that it isn't rooted in reality.

Glasgow is a hard town. I know Glaswegians who get instantly annoyed if you say that, their faces acquiring a 'here we go again' expression, just as I know New Yorkers who are tired of hearing how dangerous their city is. 'Look, I've lived here all my life,' a free translation of their general reactions might run. 'And I'm lucky if I've seen two fights in that time. Sure there's violence here. But there's violence everywhere.'

They have a point. Violence is more dramatic than passivity and, therefore, constitutes a kind of news. Few interesting anecdotes begin, 'I was at a Rangers-Celtic game on Saturday and nothing happened. Let me tell you about it.' Nevertheless, only people who have observed Glasgow exclusively through the windscreen of a car or who arrange their social diary as a means of censoring their own awareness or who take the pronouncements of the Scottish Tourist Board as hard reportage could pretend that part of the reality of Glasgow has not been a potential for casual violence. The legend may have been fed on the steroids of publicity but it originally earned its muscles on the streets.

There are reasons for it. Glasgow, more dramatically than any other part of Scotland, experienced the brutalising effects of the Industrial Revolution, Edinburgh might partially side-step it by becoming a place where money, more than machinery, was deployed and a centre for tourism. Glasgow stood four-square to the whirlwind. The ensuing varieties of deprivation had their results.

One was the development of a fierce physical pride, fed partly on circumstances that often left room for little else and partly on the democratic traditions deeply embedded in Scottish life. The combination meant that in Glasgow people who frequently didn't have much more collateral than their sense of themselves weren't prepared to have that sense casually burgled by passing strangers. Standing up for yourself, sometimes against improbable odds, became a Glaswegian convention.

The late John Rafferty, sports reporter with the Scotsman, used to tell a story of the time when Jacky Paterson, flyweight champion of the world and regarded by many as pound-for-pound the hardest puncher in boxing at the time, was training for a fight. I repeat the story from memory and, if I get it wrong, I apologise to a very fine reporter. The way I recall it, Paterson was training in Glasgow and having trouble making the weight. He was heavily clothed in the gym, trying to sweat off the excess poundage. This meant there was a risk of dehydration and they were having fruit delivered from the Fruit Market. The small man who delivered it looked as if he could make the eight stone flyweight limit with his clothes on. He was pleased to be in the presence of the world champion and became unnecessarily fussy about where he should put the fruit, prolonging his stay and checking with Paterson where exactly he would like the fruit to be. Shipping sweat and understandably irritated, Paterson told him roughly to put the stuff down and get out. The attitude of the fruit-deliverer changed immediately. He was for the jacket off and inviting Paterson to step outside. Nobody spoke to him like that. Only the intervention of John Rafferty and a conciliatory handshake from the world champion mollified the small man.

It hasn't been an entirely malignant convention, though often so. For a long time at least, one aspect of it was a discouragement of casual bullies. When you don't know where the aggression may come from, the quiet man at the bar or the innocent-looking punter in the bus queue, you should walk warily, especially since a lot of Glaswegians are not averse to taking up arms in causes other than their own if they see what they think is an injustice. Even allowing for the fact that memory is a seductive talker who sometimes makes us forget to check his sources, I find the reminscences of the man from the Gallowgate largely confirmed by personal experience and things I've heard.

While I was teaching, a mature student who had joined the English Department of the school told me about a night in an East End pub. It illustrates what I mean.

There were four students, not from Glasgow. The main protagonist of the story came from Troon, one of those douce — at least on the surface — coastal towns about which I sometimes wonder if they toilet-train the seagulls. Every Thursday the students, in search of the real Glasgow, would have a night in an East End bar. They must have fitted in perfectly, carrying their briefcases.
This night they were drinking at the counter and listening to Engelbert Humperdinck on the television singing The Last Waltz. The man from Troon started to sing along and, noticing a woman sitting in a corner singing too, he began to harmonise with her. The woman was amused. Her large male companion was not. He came across and demanded that the student come outside with him, presumably regarding singing with his woman as some kind of sexual approach. The student at first, not unwisely, refused. But he found himself outside anyway with the large man saying very severe things about what was going to happen to him.

But another man had followed them out from the bar. He forbade the large man to touch the student and produced from his coat pocket, as a reinforcement of his point of view, a hammer. The large man withdrew. The man with the hammer was reported to me as saying then, 'Now, son. You go back in there an' have a right good night.' The student apparently remembered he had a train to catch.

Robin Hoods with hammers in their hands are probably less likely in Glasgow these days. It's always hard to gauge the changing temper of the times in these matters but the very fallible readings that emerge from newspapers and talk and personal experience would appear to suggest that there has been an erosion of the admittedly confused ethic of the non-criminal hardman. Drugs may well have played a part in that.

But perhaps just as significant a reason for the apparent decay of honour among hardmen is the sub-theme in the talk of the man from the Gallow­gate: the dispersal of the sense of community. The post-war annihilation of the tenement in Glasgow wiped out not only buildings but a way of life. As Bertie Auld, then manager of Partick Thistle, once said, 'If they'd given Hitler the contract, he couldn't have done a better job.' Often what was put in their place suggested a novel interpretation of 'progress'.

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


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