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Glesca Belongs to Me!’

The Busconductor Hines

by James Kelman
Polygon, 237 pp., £8.95

Greyhound for Breakfast

by James Kelman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 230 pp., $15.95

A Disaffection

by James Kelman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 337 pp., $18.95

Lean Tales

by James Kelman, by Agnes Owens, by Alasdair Gray
Abacus, 287 pp., £3.99 (paper)

The Burn

by James Kelman
Secker and Warburg, 244 pp., £12.99

Lanark: A Life in Four Books

by Alasdair Gray
Braziller, 560 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Unlikely Stories, Mostly

by Alasdair Gray
Penguin, 280 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties

by Alasdair Gray
Braziller, 144 pp., $14.95

1982 Janine

by Alasdair Gray
Penguin, 345 pp., $6.95 (paper)

McGrotty and Ludmilla or The Harbinger Report

by Alasdair Gray
Dog and Bone, 132 pp., £5.00

Something Leather

by Alasdair Gray
Jonathan Cape, 251 pp., £12.95


In the first years of the present century, the Glasgow comedian Will Fyffe wrote a song that conquered the music halls immediately and has been a staple at Scottish convivial gatherings ever since. The refrain went:

I belong to Glesca, Dear auld Glesca toun.
And there’s nothing the matter wi’ Glesca,
But it’s turning roun and roun.
I’m only a common wee working chap,
As ony one here can see,
But when I have a couple o’ drinks on a Saturday,
Glesca belongs to me!

As is generally true with Scottish humor, this was heavily laced with irony. It was only in the euphoria induced by strong drink that a member of the Glasgow working class could convince himself that he was in any sense the proprietor of his native city. Ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution, Glasgow had belonged to its great merchants and industrial magnates, who achieved wealth and power by their own shrewdness and Calvinist energy and their skill in exploiting the plentiful supply of cheap labor that resulted from the Highland clearances in the early nineteenth century and the avalanche of Irish immigrants after the potato famine of the 1840s. These were the men who dominated Victorian Glasgow, and another song—

They played in the beautiful garden,
The children of high degree—

recognized that domination, not without bitterness.

Even so, Glaswegians, regardless of class, have always had deep pride in the city that had, in the words of Maurice Lindsay, molded itself “from a convenient ford over the Clyde into a medieval center of piety and learning: then to develop successively into an expanding center of international trade, a place of rapidly growing manufacturing importance, a powerhouse for international heavy engineering projects and a cradle for the construction of a major proportion of the ships that sailed the seven seas throughout most of the nineteenth century and into the earlier years of the twentieth.” 1 By 1914, the city’s population had reached one million, and for over two decades it had been the second city, not only of Britain, but of the Empire. All of this gave its inhabitants an exuberance that sometimes bordered on the arrogance expressed in the toast, “Here’s tae us! Wha’s like us? Damn few, and they’re a’deid!”

Pride goes before a fall, and the twentieth century saw a swift decline of Glasgow’s fortunes. In the period between the two world wars, all of the industries centered in or in the vicinity of Glasgow went into decline. Textiles, which had been the mainstay of Glasgow’s first industrial revolution but had never recovered from the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War, gave up the ghost completely in the mid-Twenties as a result of foreign and Lancashire competition. Between 1914 and 1932, the work force in the Lanarkshire coal fields shrank by 50 percent, and in the same years there was a drastic falling off in the demand for Scottish pig iron, which necessitated the closing of the Glengarnoch works. Shipbuilding, which had seemed a Glaswegian specialty, was hurt worst of all, as a result of the drying up of trade and the loss of cargoes during the Great Depression and the fact that former foreign customers began to build their own yards.

In the late Thirties military building gave the Upper Clyde some semblance of its old activity, and during the war itself Glasgow became the chief port in the United Kingdom, and the Clyde yards built three hundred merchant ships, as well as numerous military craft, including the aircraft carriers Indefatigable and Implacable and the battleship Vanguard, and did 25,000 repair jobs.2 But after 1945, the remorseless decline set in again and was not stayed by intermittent “Right to Work” demonstrations and sit-ins by militant workers.

As the great industries failed, other enterprises put themselves up for sale to English firms, which then reduced or terminated their operations, while Scottish investors tended increasingly to put their money into businesses in former colonial nations where they didn’t have to worry about trade unions. As a result of all of this, Glasgow in the years following the Second World War was in a deep decline, with the highest population density in Europe and some of the worst slums. Neighborhoods close to the city center were filled with tenements 120 years old that were breeding places for drunkenness, disease, and crime.

The city fathers recognized that, if there was to be any recovery, Glasgow had to be made attractive enough to interest new investors, and that for that purpose the first prerequisite was the removal of the slums. In the Fifties and Sixties, in accordance with guidelines set out in the Clyde Valley Regional Plan, vast areas of tenements in the vicinity of the city center were bulldozed to the ground, including the greater part of the historic communities of Gallowgate, Gorbals, and Bridgeton, and their inhabitants shifted to modern tenement-style high-rises on the periphery of the city, an experiment that was not universally to the liking of those affected.

In the course of the work of demolition, long-neglected beauties in the city center were discovered, treasures of Victorian architecture that had been hidden by grime for more than a hundred years. In the Seventies a vigorous conservation effort got under way, and by the Eighties it had been so successful that the Glasgow District Council became decidedly bullish and began to entertain any number of grandiose schemes, including luring private investors by putting attractive public properties on the market and competing with Edinburgh for the lion’s share of the northern tourist trade. From there it was an easy step to the decision to have Glasgow compete for the title of European Culture Capital of 1990, since—as Alasdair Gray has written—“commercially speaking, cultcha and tourism are the same thing.”

In Gray’s book Something Leather, an English woman explains how Glasgow won this distinction, which had been invented by Melina Mercouri, the Greek minister of arts, and awarded successively to Athens, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris. She says engagingly,

Being Cultcha Capital is expensive. You must advatise yawself. Put on extra shows and consats. Invite foreign guests. Stage boring receptions. Margaret Thatcha isn’t keen on all that crap; anyway London has enough of it. Like a successful monetarist she put the job up of grabs and offad it to the lowest bidda. Bath and Edinburgh put in fa it, Cardiff, Birmingham and Glasgow: but only Glasgow gave a quiet little promise that if it got the job it would not ask the central govament of cash. So Glasgow, which the Lay-ba Party has ruled of ova half a century, was given the job by the Tory arts minista who announced that Glasgow had set an example of independent action which should be followed by every local authority in the United Kingdom. Wia funding the entaprise out of the rates and public propaty sales and sponsaship from banks, oil companies, building societies and whateva we can screw out of Europe.

It can be fairly said that Glasgow’s year as Cultural Capital of Europe was neither a financial nor a cultural success, and sterner critics have been heard to use the word fiasco. There were positive achievements: the building of a new Royal Concert Hall, which during the Culture Year presented splendid concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic and l’Orchestre National de Lille, and a stunning show at the Kelvingrove Museum called “Glasgow Girls.” But there was also a Pavarotti concert that offended people by the extravagance that attended it and a Sinatra show that was a disaster. Notable throughout the year, as a writer for the journal ArtWork has written, was the absence of “any effort to seek out excellence in any field of Scottish artistic activity and build around it…. What we got instead were the usual run of traveling exhibitions that would probably have arrived in any year.”3 The city’s boutiques were, to be sure, filled with imitations of furniture designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which may be considered a kind of tribute to a local artist, but in the unimaginative and pedestrian “British Art Show 1990,” which began the year in the McClellan Galleries, the work of Ken Currie and other young Glasgow painters was not included because the organizers thought that it was not “good enough.”

Throughout the year the question implicit in Will Fyffe’s song—to whom does Glasgow belong—was posed in somewhat altered form, namely, Whose culture was being represented? Glasgow possesses one of the finest social history museums in the United Kingdom, the People’s Palace on Glasgow Green, to which Philip A. Crowl in his informative and discerning The Intelligent Traveller’s Guide to Historic Scotland has awarded three stars, his designation for “outstanding and not to be missed, if possible.”4 Founded in 1898, but long neglected, this fine repository of artifacts produced by centuries of urban life has during the past sixteen years won an international reputation, thanks to the acquisitions policy of its director Elspeth King and her associate Michael Donnelly and their exhibitions on such subjects as tobacco, woman’s suffrage, temperance, 5 trades union history, and Glasgow stained glass. The permanent collection, which includes Ken Currie’s historical paintings celebrating the radical tradition of the Glasgow working-class movement that were commissioned by Elspeth King in 1986,6 as well as fascinating materials illustrating tenement life among the poor in the nineteenth century and how the people coped with the bombing during World War II, is badly cramped, and many of the museum’s holdings, some 250,000 artifacts, are stored in an unused carpet factory. The sensible policy might have been to build the long-promised extension wings to the People’s Palace and to make this superb collection, decently housed, a central part of the Year of Culture.

This was not done because the Glasgow District Council had other designs on Glasgow Green, for hundreds of years the people’s commons and still haunted by ghosts of its past, like the Calton weavers and the martyrs of 1820. Throughout 1989 and 1990 there were persistent rumors of plans to sell off parts of the Green to private speculators, and Culture Year planners, after visits to Copenhagen’s Tivoli and other pleasure parks, actually tabled a proposal for “a waterpark, incorporating state of the art technology, which will create a dynamic water experience.”7 Meanwhile, the People’s Palace was effectively frozen out of the Culture Year, the centerpiece of which became an extravaganza in the arches beneath Glasgow’s Central Station.

Originally called “The Words and the Stones,” and then, when someone pointed out that the acronym would be unfortunate, hastily retitled “Glasgow’s Glasgow,” this was advertised as “presenting the lives and concerns of Glasgow through multi-screens, sound cones, computers, works of art, live theatre, seminars and workshops,” for which the customers were asked to fork out an admissions fee of £3.60. Since most of the works of art were borrowed from other Glasgow museums, they were in fact being asked to pay to see things given in trust to the people of Glasgow. Nor, aside from the noise and the glitter, did they get much for their money.

  1. 1

    Maurice Lindsay, Glasgow (3rd edition, London: Robert Hale Ltd. 1989), p. 16.

  2. 2

    Lindsay, Glasgow, p. 248.

  3. 3

    David Kemp, Glasgow 1990: The True Story behind the Hype (Glasgow: Gartocharn, 1990), p. 22.

  4. 4

    Philip A. Crowl, The Intelligent Traveller’s Guide to Historic Scotland (Congdon and Weed, 1986), pp. 401 f.

  5. 5

    See Elspeth King, Scotland, Sober and Free: The Temperance Movement 1829–1879 (Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, 1979), catalog of the exhibition.

  6. 6

    The People’s Palace History Paintings: A Short Guide (Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, 1990).

  7. 7

    Kemp, Glasgow 1990, pp. 16–17.

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