Part 4                                                                                                                                                                                     Posted 8th July 2013

I am sitting in my reasonably grotty Glasgow bedsit being a writer. I have done my statutory spell of staring at the wall. I am now making notes towards making notes that may lead to an idea that may lead, eventually, to the clarification of what it is I want to say. Then perhaps work can begin.

Outside it is a dull day. But, given the state of my windows, any day looked at from here is going to be a dull day. To be absolutely accurate about the quality of the weather, I'd have to go out and check.

There is a knock at the door. This is unusual. Apart from the fact that my self-imposed isolation has been making me feel recently like a one-man leper colony, my bedsit is in one of those divided Victorian houses. What was presumably one big happy family has become a series of separate units where some students and other migrants and myself hang out. I know them mainly as people nodding on the stairs and records playing and flushing cisterns and ghostly ripples of half-heard laughter. But the point is that our divided household means a list of names outside and a series of bell-pushes and one of those crackly devices through which you identify yourself as not being a mugger.

So who can it be? It must be somebody from inside the building. I suppose the best way to find out is to open the door.
It is a woman I have never seen before. She has a small girl hovering at her side.

'Could ye dae me a favour, son?' she says.

Any half-baked quips about women always appearing at my door with such requests are forestalled by the sense that something is wrong. Later, I'll be glad they were. The small girl is the sign. She is ill at ease without seeming to know why, in that instinctive geiger-counter way that children have.

'Certainly, love. What is it?'

The woman is already moving away, talking as she does so, with the small girl holding her hand. When I'm asked to surface quickly out of work, it can take me a while to focus. I'm not entirely sure where I am, I tend only to hear part of what's being said. I won't say I'm coming back from a deep place but certainly a far one. I'm like that now. The woman is leading me through the open door of a flat and talking. It will only be in retrospect that I'll be able to decide clearly what she has been telling me.
It's about wee Tommy being the tenant of the flat and she cleans it for him and he's out at work just now but last night he had somebody staying with him who was drunk and he was still there this morning and Tommy phoned her and told her to make sure the man was out by the time she left but the man still seems to be drunk and could I help her to get him out?

It sounds like a commission not without its risks.

'He's in there,' she says, pointing to a bedroom door that is ajar.

There's the woman and the small girl and myself. It's John Wayne time. I go into the bedroom. At first I don't see him. The bed is mussed but empty. Then I see him. He's in underpants and tee-shirt. He's lying on the floor, quite still. He is a short and powerful man, say late 20s, with dark curly hair. There's a record player on the floor beside him and his right hand is poised over it in a strange way. His head is slightly under a sideboard. It looks as if he's passed out while putting on a record. I cross towards him and bend and touch his shoulder. It feels like cement.

'Excuse me,' I'm saying ridiculously.

I can hear the girl beginning to cry out in the hallway. The woman is standing at the door. I try to look into his face and I touch his head gently. The hair is very cold.

'He's dead, love,' I hear myself saying and the woman begins to cry as well.

I say we have to get the police and does she want me to phone. The woman says no, if somebody has to stay here it won't be her and the girl. She'll phone the police. While she does so, I realise that what I had thought was an identity-bracelet was a piece of wire round his wrist with a ring of blackened skin beneath it. I realise that he wasn't changing a record. He was plugging himself into the socket.

Later, during questioning, a policeman, who knows my occupation, says, 'You're our first suspect. We think you did it to write about it.' Later still, at the inquest in the Sheriff Court, I'm shown photographs of the dead man with his tee-shirt off and can see how he has wrapped himself round and round with wires. I'm asked what kind of shoes I was wearing at the time. They were rubber-soled. It's a good thing for me, it seems. The dead man was, ironically, live and I had two chances at being electrocuted.
In the time between the finding of the body and the inquest, I will think about the dead man quite a lot. But on the evening of the day of touching the utterly innocent coldness of his head, I Just go out alone into 0111180w. I get drunk.

The calculated savagery of the young man's act against himself was appalling. So, imaginably, was the loneliness that led him to do it: the sewers of self-contempt he must have crawled through to bring himself to the place where he wrapped himself so meticulously in his own death that there would be no possibility of escape; the utter absence he must have felt of anyone with whom he could share the bleakness he had come to.

His action expressed a condition so extreme as to appear eccentric, a grotesquerie of experience faced with which all you could do was turn away. But only the extremity was eccentric. Milder forms of the loneliness that became in him terminal were observable all around. Thinking of him, I thought also of the lesser species of loneliness in the city: not just the more obvious ones like the bearded winos who seem to have taken a short-cut to old age and make you wonder where they come from (being, as my mother would say, 'somebody's rearin") or those descendants of the ancient mariner who wander companionless streets imparting urgent gibberish to the world, but also the more discreet and self-contained loneliness of people in damp basement flats and hardboard-partitioned bedsits who tend fragile hopes like potted plants.

That, too, is Glasgow. In my quite wilful map of the city, I tend to place them roughly around the Byres Road area, in Hyndland and behind the Botanic Gardens and off Great Western Road. They are dreamers of small, lonely dreams. I remember a conversation in a café in Byres Road with a young man who had read something I had written and who recognised me. He came across and we talked for maybe half-an-hour. He was living in a bedsit with his girlfriend and doing, I think, translations from Spanish and wanting to be a writer. Our talk was for me a peephole into a fierce and private obsession sustained on meals that came pre-cooked in tinfoil and long talks into the night. I remember a late night with a taxi-driver friend and his mates in a room with bean-bag seats and posters on the wall, and a joint circulating, and the names of foreign cities evoking a future that would be different from this. I remember a flat in Hyndland where I turned up with an ex-fisherman I know and all the Highland voices were melodiously evoking images in haunting contrast to the city outside.

The dead man in the bedroom reminded me of such places and such times and later I tried to put the feelings in a poem I called Bless this house: a sampler for Glasgow bedsits.

            Bless this house, wherever it is,
            This house and this and this and this,

            Pitched shaky as small nomad tents
            Within Victorian permanence,

            Where no names stay long, no families meet
            In Observatory Road and Clouston Street,

            Where Harry and Sally who want to be 'free'
            And Morag who works in the BBC

            And Andy the Artist and Mhairi and Fran
            (Whose father will never understand)

            And John from Kilmarnock and Jean from the Isles
            And Michael who jogs every day for miles

            And Elspeth are passing through this year:
            Bless them the short time they are here.

            Bless the cup left for a month or more
            On the dust of the window-ledge, the door

            That won't quite shut, the broken fan,
            The snowscape of fat in the frying pan.

            Bless each burnt chop, each unseen smile
            That they may nourish their hopes a while.

            Bless the persistence of their faith,
            The gentle incense of their breath.

            Bless the wild dreams that are seeded here,
            The lover to come, the amazing career.

            Bless such small truths as they may find
            By the lonely night-light of the mind.

            Bless these who camp out in the loss of the past
            And scavenge their own from what others have lost,

            Who have courage to reach for what they cannot see
            And have gambled what was for what may never be.

            So turn up the Hi Fi, Michael and John.
            What is to come may be already gone.

            And pull up the covers, Jean and Mhairi.
            The island is far and you've missed the ferry.

The thoughts provoked by finding the man dead crystallised another small awareness. The man was Iranian. Rumours circulated about why he had taken his life. One theory was that his parents were still in Iran and he was in despair about what would happen to them under the Ayatollah. Whatever lay behind his death, it reminded me of the small ethnic groups that enrich the city and tend too often to be overlooked when those who love the place are taking a conversational census of its characteristics.

I thought of the musically named Ladipo Banjo, whom I had known at university. Thinking of him, I found myself guilty of that same oversight. I knew Ladipo was African. I thought he was Nigerian but I wasn't sure. All I could be definite about in my memory was that he was marvellously sweet-natured.

I thought of drinking coffee and discussing being a Pakistani in Scotland with Ahmed Choudry in his leather shop near Partick Cross. I remembered the late Jonathan Meadows, an intense and intelligent man whom I had met in a bar when he couldn't resist joining in a discussion a group of us were having about Norman Mailer. We became friends and he gave me some insights into the experience of the Jewish community in Glasgow. I thought of the Poles and the Italians and the Chinese. I thought of the Irish, whose positive contribution to the nature of Glasgow and of Scottishness is so deeply ingrained that its importance is often overlooked.

It's no wonder Glasgow is such a vivid city, ready to surprise you at any time.

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


  e-mail:                                                                    © William McIlvanney