Part 3                                                                                                                                                                                  Posted 26th June 2013

Outside Queen Elizabeth Court on the South Side: there's a photographer and a young journalist and myself. We're looking for high views of the city to go with a piece in the Glasgow Herald. The concrete block of flats looks good as a place from which to take photographs. But that's all it looks good for. I can't believe that this building has been conceived as an improvement. An improvement on what? Alcatraz? The journalist is telling me that this sort of work has won an architectural award for Sir Basil Spence. He does not specify which award. It was presumably the Bomber Harris award for architecture, since it looks like vertical rubble.

We go inside. Outside the lift, two older women, a younger woman and two boys are waiting. The boys are playing keepie-uppie headers with a tennis ball. They don't look ready for the first team. The ball has a dangerous tendency to wander close to other people. One of the older women promises mayhem if the ball so much as touches her.
'No problem, minus,' one of the boys says unconvincingly.

On the way up in the lift, they all leave except the young woman and the three of us. We talk to her, explaining what we're here for. We want to get out on to the roof. She's visiting her mother on the top floor and knows that there's a door out to the roof but she doesn't think it will be open. It's kept locked for obvious reasons. On the top floor she directs us to where the door is and goes into her mother's.

We find the door and the young woman is right: it's locked. As we're wandering back along the corridor, thinking janitors and jemmies, the young woman is standing outside an open door. She is signalling the three of us in. She has mentioned us to her mother and they both wonder if we couldn't use their balcony to get our photographs. We could.

Ensues a happy time. We take our photographs. We come back in to cups of tea and biscuits. We talk for almost an hour of governments and high-rise flats and how the family's doing. We look at the album of the daughter's trip to Canada to see her sister and her family. We're all pleased that they're doing so well out there.

These are impressive people. They're trusting. They make us feel instantly that we have a right to be here. As we leave, the mother says to be sure and look in again if we're passing. The whole occasion is an unexpected gift from strangers. Never mind the photos, I'm just glad I came.

The woman and her daughter were practising an old Glaswegian art form: the transformation of your circumstances with humour and pride. Never mind the buildings, see the people. It's a skill in which the people of Glasgow have had to become expert. It's also a skill which has been under increasing pressure over the past 40 years.

A lot of the old tenements were hardly fit to live in but they did have a strong sense of community. Changes had to be made but they were frequently made by people who seemed to have all the imagination of a soldier ant. Mainly, what had been fairly coherent communities were either shipped out to housing schemes like penal colonies on the edges of the city or incarcerated in high-rise flats. Presumably, they had committed being working class. The buildings themselves usually looked like the result of some Dada school of architecture, cunningly created with built-in obsolescence, so that they would turn scabrous in ten years or so.

The philosophy, shared supposedly by a lot of Labour councillors who should have known better, appeared to be that working-class aspirations stopped at the inside toilet. The malignant implication behind it was that there was no such thing as a working-class culture and, therefore, nothing would be lost by thoughtlessly unstitching the fabric of a way of life put together over generations.

However unintentionally, that attitude suggests contempt and contempt makes distance between people. The distances that housing policy helped to create were not just geographical.

La Lanterna, Italian restaurant in Hope Street: three of us at table. The waiter brings the menu. One of us is distinctly fidgety. He studies the red-checked tablecloth, the cutlery, the surroundings. He shifts his position in his seat. He lifts the menu and glances at it, puts it back down. He shakes his head. His unease is uncontainable.

`Ah'll have tae go, Wullie,' he says.

`What's the problem?'

`Nah, this is no' for me. No way. Ah canny sit here.'

We rise and make our apologies and go out. We look for a less intimidating place to eat. The fidgety man is Hughie, a friend of mine from Possilpark, and I have just demonstrated how socially insensitive I can be.

I have recently been spending some time in Possil, trying to understand what's happening there, however inadequately. What's happening there wouldn't be out of place in Last Exit to Brooklyn. I've found how freely heroin is available in pubs, how protection is rife, how just about any article within reason can be ordered at lunchtime and delivered at teatime, having been stolen in the afternoon. I've met a girl who was raped at fourteen and soon after turned on to heroin by her addict brothers and put on the streets to feed all their habits. I've met a former social worker so shell-shocked by what he has to deal with that he outlines a scheme whereby local tearaways would be given handouts to buy good suits so that when they go to Bearsden to break into houses they won't be conspicuous. I study his face for irony but am not convinced I see it. I've also met a lot of good local people whose decency seems incredible, given the circumstances they live among. I've stayed overnight at Hughie and Annie's house with another friend, enjoying a few drinks, home-made soup and a sing-song.

The Italian restaurant was my way of offering a gesture of thanks but Annie couldn't make it. I was at first surprised by Hughie's reaction in the restaurant. And then I was surprised at my surprise. I should have known. Eating out is not what Hughie does.

My surprise gave way to annoyance at myself for forgetting for the moment where I come from. If anyone should have foreseen Hughle's attitude, it should have been myself. All I had to do was remember my own former awkwardness in such places, an awkwardness that can ambush me occasionally still and makes me regress to those times when I sat at weddings determined not to be the first at the table to start on the next course.

But it was a salutary experience, a neat hook on which to hang my awareness of that other Glasgow that lies behind the increasingly yuppie image of the city. I had noticed the outriders of that image some time before, A group of us go one night for a drink in The Gay Gordon, a downstairs pub in Royal Exchange Square. We feel slightly out of touch with that part of the city and will renew our acquaintance with old haunts. The bar is closed and the exterior is concealed behind the wrappings that denote renovation. We go off, muttering vaguely among ourselves, and have a drink elsewhere.

Another night we come back and behold the transformation. What was The Gay Gordon, a pleasantly scruffy talking-shop, is now a French restaurant called, if I recall, L'Auberge. (It has changed since.) Upstairs is something called Charlie Parker's. We stare at the new black chic door and look at one another, feeling our arteries harden. We push open the door and are confronted by two very tall young men who have the threatening suavity that seems to earn you your bouncer's card these days, as if they have been to karate finishing school. Whatever obscure test it is these gentlemen are taught to apply, clean collar, deodorised oxters or a full set of teeth, we seem to pass it. We are allowed to enter the sanctum.

Gloom, not only ours, abounds. Nearly everything, furniture, bar, ceiling, walls, seems to be black. There is even a black bandstand, peopled by black metallic figures. There is one emaciated figure with a saxophone attached. This is presumably 'Bird' himself, living up to his nickname — in this case maybe a heron or flamingo. My first impression, admittedly perhaps rancorous with the apprehended encroachment of old age, is that this is somebody's confused impression of a speakeasy remembered from the back row of the pictures during a heavy necking session.
But it is not the place so much that makes us grope abstractedly for our Rip Van Winkle beards and wonder where we have been during the last several years. It is the people. Where do they come from, these people? This is Glasgow?

They are mainly young and dressed in an interesting variety of styles but, no matter how eclectic the gear they wear, what they are all mainly dressed in is a kind of hand-me-down self-assurance. They know they're with it because their clothes are with it. They're sure of their identity because they're wearing it. By pushing open a door, a group of post-war conversational artisans have found that the time of the poser has arrived.

For these people are here to be seen, not to debate the failure of socialism for three hours over a beer-stained table and then apply old songs like bandages to the mental wounds. They stand with their interesting clothes and their different drinks and laugh tunefully and count the house. The phrase that keeps forcing itself into my mind, as I survey the scene like one of Yeats's wrinkled men in Lapis Lazuli, is communal pretentiousness. Showing off on such a scale and in such borrowed styles (gallousness is one thing) is not something I have expected to see in Glasgow, which has always seemed to me to be to pretentiousness what Wimpey was to empty houses. We stand around for a while, like people waiting for a bus that doesn't pass this way any longer, and pay what we feel are inflated prices and talk in an awkward, conspiratorial fashion, as if ideas might be contraband. Then we repair to an older bar where people talk to strangers they don't want to pick up.

Being an insistently analytical group, we all have theories. The disco, that peculiarly modern art form where living statuary meets and attracts mainly by gesture and stance, has invaded the pub. Just as the old humanising and individualising patter of the dancing seems to be going largely by the board, so maybe the pub as talking shop is under threat. Innocence has gone. You can't call a pub 'Gay' any more. The American influence has always been strong in Glasgow. We have seen the future and it's largely kitsch.

We were over-reacting, of course. Isn't that what pubs give you a licence to do? The truth was that not only had Glasgow been changing, so had we with it. And I have since developed a certain affection for Charlie Parker's for I once had a life-affecting lunch in there. Any place can be transformed by circumstances.

But that night remains important in my understanding of Glasgow and the door into Charlie Parker's led to a couple of reminders about the place. Firstly, the city always has been changing significantly since I've known it, whether in the big ways like the miles of internal motorway and the Gorbals becoming a different place or in the small ways like Alice's Restaurant disappearing or the amazing acrobatic fiddler in St Enoch's Square giving way to the one-man Wham Barn Boogie Band. You glance away for a month or two from a place you've known and you look back at a stranger. Writing about the city and wanting to use real places in a novel, I have had to keep checking, between conception and execution, that the places were still there.

Secondly, I was reminded of what is the essential direction of that change. It has been a movement, superficially at least, towards a softer image. That's all right, as far as it goes. The question is: how far does it go?

It's good that people should realise how architecturally beautiful Glasgow is. The handsomeness of the city has too often been underplayed. It's good that the fever for demolition seems to have passed its crisis and some of the fine tenements are being refurbished instead of destroyed. It's good that the Merchant City and some points further east begin to flourish again. But there's a danger in handing Glasgow over lock, stock and Burrell to the brochure writers.
Many of those who bemoan the old exaggerated image of Glasgow as kind of Somme in civvies are busy giving it a press that is Just as phoney. That is bad news in two ways.

First, to gloss over the existence of a problem is to feed the problem. Cosmetic surgery never cured a cancer. 'Glasgow's Miles Better'? It depends which direction you go in. If you head towards Possil or Blackhill or Easterhouse or Garthamlock or Dnunchapel, you couldn't take that ad­man's slogan as more than an ad-man's slogan. And if you're not prepared to go in these directions, you're missing Glasgow.

Second, the selling of Glasgow as some sort of yuppie freehold is a diminution of Glasgow. It's a lot more than that. It's fine that business and tourism should come to the city — as long as the terms are right — but let's not confuse the press release with the reality. The reality is much more complex. Glasgow is a great city. Glasgow is in trouble. Glasgow is handsome. Glasgow is ugly. Glasgow is kind. Glasgow is cruel. Some people in Glasgow live full and enlightened lives. Some people in Glasgow live lives bleaker than anyone should live — and die deaths bleaker than anyone should die.

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


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