A hundred years ago, on the eve of the Great War, Glasgow prided itself on being the second city of the Empire, yielding primacy only to London. A lot of things have changed since then: the Empire has become the Commonwealth, and the Empire Games are now the Commonwealth Games. As for Glasgow, it is no longer the second city even in Britain. Why, then, is the prospect of it hosting those Games so peculiarly stirring?
Glasgow first found fame as one of the great industrial cities. Between 1909 and 1913, an average of 565,000 tons of shipping was launched on the Clyde; indeed, “Clyde-built” was a mark of quality, rather than scorn. Now the shipbuilding has all but gone, yet the image of Glasgow as a grim industrial city lingers on. Worse than that, there are ignorant people who associate it only with gangsterism and drunkenness – with the sectarian violence that often accompanies matches between Protestant Rangers and Catholic Celtic, with the slums of the Gorbals, with the “Glasgow kiss”. There are some in other parts of Scotland who are wont to remark, looking at the areas of multiple deprivation that still disfigure the city, that if Glasgow was to be towed into the Atlantic, taking all its problems with it, Scotland would be a very much richer country, at least as these things are measured by economists.
This is almost all nonsense. Yet I can excuse it to some extent, even though it derives from ignorance or prejudice, because I was once ignorant myself.
When I was growing up in Aberdeenshire, I was told that Glasgow was grim and ugly. My excuse for believing this is only that many of us, more than half a century ago, still tended to think Victorian cities ugly.
In reality, Glasgow is rich in fine architecture. Although parts of the East End and the Southside remain rather grim, much of the city is very beautiful indeed. The West End, around the magnificent Victorian university, is leafy and elegant; it is rich in parks, and, partly because Glaswegians delight in conversation, it is a wonderful city for the idler or flaneur. In the Necropolis, on a hill behind the medieval cathedral, it has one of the finest cemeteries in Europe, comparable to Genoa’s Staglieno. The family tombs of merchants and industrialists proclaim the wealth, and imitate the swagger, of the city.
It was actually when I came to live in Edinburgh in the Seventies that I learnt to appreciate Glasgow. The city might have touched its nadir around that time, with the heavy industry mostly gone and its cultural revival in an embryonic stage. Yet whenever I got off the train at Queen Street station, and emerged into George Square, with its superbly confident Italianate City Chambers – often on my way to review plays at the Citizens Theatre – I was aware of a metropolitan buzz that, in those days, was lacking in Edinburgh.
You felt you were in a place where anything might happen, where excitement and surprise were to be found. That was certainly the case at the Citizens, where the triumvirate of Giles Havergal, Robert David Macdonald and Philip Prowse staged a series of extraordinary and imaginative productions. Moreover, Glasgow had better restaurants than Edinburgh then, and you can make a good case that it still does so. Certainly, my favourite, Rogano’s – a great fish restaurant in Exchange Place – survives unchanged, its Art Deco design continuing to offer as much delight as the food.
Given the imminent referendum on Scottish independence, it is worth pointing out, too, that Glasgow, as a city, was made by the Union with England. As Sir Walter Scott has his Glasgow merchant, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, say in Rob Roy: “Now, since Saint Mungo [Glasgow’s patron saint] catched fishes in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like the sugar and tobacco trade? Will anybody tell me that, and grumble at the treaty that opened us a way west awa’ yonder?”
This was true. The Union enriched the city – so much so that, in the mid-18th century, something like three quarters of American tobacco was landed in Glasgow and re‑exported, and the Tobacco Lords strutted proudly round the Merchant City, on streets east of George Square that have now been handsomely restored.
At the time of the Union, Glasgow had been a small city, nestling round the cathedral. Daniel Defoe found it to be “one of the cleanest, most beautiful and best-built cities in Great Britain”. Its subsequent growth was rapid, the consequence of prosperity and the cause of the social problems characteristic of cities everywhere in the industrial age. People flocked there in search of work, from the Lowlands, from the Highlands and from Ireland. This rich mixture formed the character of the Glaswegians: tough and sentimental, self-reliant but also cooperative, given to boasting and self-deprecation. Glasgow humour is always rich in irony, with Billy Connolly its most famous contemporary voice.
Glasgow is also a city between the hills and the sea. Glaswegians lift up their eyes to the former, and go “doon the water” to the latter. The Highland or Celtic influence is strong, even today. Its proverbial hospitality may be attributed to the Gaelic element. And while it may be fanciful to suggest that the vertical social attachments which create the feeling that all its citizens belong to Glasgow – and Glasgow to them – may have its origin in the Gaelic concept of the community, expressed in the idea of the clan, it does make sense to me.
As one from the chillier north-east, I recognise in Glasgow the Celtic spirit in its grandiosity and ardour, its improvidence and melancholy, its friendliness (which can, admittedly, turn quickly to violence), its pride and its sentimentality, its warmth of family affections and its propensity to blood feuds – for what else can account for the intensity of the Rangers‑Celtic enmity?
It’s truly a wonderful city, one that has survived prosperity and decline, and learnt how to reinvent itself. The 20th century was difficult for it, economically and socially. And while the famous Gorbals slums have in fact been cleared out, it still has severe problems. The performance of its state schools, for example, is the worst in Scotland – yet it also has fine universities. There are still extremes of wealth and poverty, whiffs of corruption and a pervasive, if low-level, criminality.
But the slogan adopted when it was named European City of Culture 25 years ago expressed the city’s buoyancy and capacity for optimism: “Glasgow’s miles better”. There was a characteristic cockiness about the claim, but I thought even then that the apostrophe was misplaced. The real message should have been: “Glasgow smiles better”. So indeed it does; and visitors to the Commonwealth Games who open their eyes to the reality of Glasgow will undoubtedly be made as welcome as they could wish.
Many years ago, I knew a student in Italy who had recently returned from a visit to Britain. London, he said, had been impressive, but he hadn’t felt at ease there. So which city had he liked best?
“Glasgow,” he replied at once. “It was just like Naples. There were children playing in the streets and I felt at home there.” As a lover of Naples, I was surprised then. But that was because I hadn’t yet learnt to know Glasgow, and to appreciate its remarkable and entrancing character.