Thursday, 28 May 2009

Go Go Glasgow

For a start, Glasgow doesn't rhyme with cow. It goes with go, as in go go. This year, the Cinderella of Scottish cities beat out its tony sibling to the East, a.k.a. Edinborough, to emerge from its chrysallis for the year 1990 as the Council of Europe's City of the Year. And don't think Glaswegians aren't exulting in their temporary T.K.O. of the Svelte E. They're also trying very hard to kill the city's old image as a dreary blue collar pit.

It hasn't been that for two decades (during my first visit in 1965, it was already popping culturally), but scuzzy images don't die or fade away; they persist to the frustration and consternation of the city fathers stuck with a bad rep. Indeed, the passport control officer at Dover Dock asked me why I was visiting Britain.

And when I replied,"To write articles about Glasgow's day in the sun," he growled (in accents I have recognized as Belfastian ever since meeting and revering Seamus Heaney), "You've got your work cut out for you, mister." Au contraire, that lout from Northern Ireland was decades behind in his homework, talking rot about one of the loveliest cities in Europe.

Even though my overnight train from London/Euston was three hours late (winter storms had wiped out the track from Carlisle to Glasgow), I resumed my love affair with this once gritty city that's always had its eye on the real nitty as soon as I entered the refurbed Central Station. Some cretins under the rubric urban planners had suggested that the marvelous wooden shop fronts inside the station be swept away (presumably to "improve" it into something like the man's urinal modern London's Euston now is).

Their ignorant counsel, happily, did not prevail, and after being saluted by bright banners hanging from the delicious nineteenth glass and iron train shed, I entered the main waiting hall where modern amenities had to subordinate themselves to the High Victorian wooden interiors. Yummy. I decided to wipe the cobwebs out of my overnighted eyes by washing up and having what the Brits (whoops, Scots) call a full breakfast. As in full of that dry toast in little filing stands that butters up so wonderfully. And full of bangers. And the thick bacon that approaches ham in size but remains bacon crispy.

The U.K. chefs still don't know how to do eggs over lightly, but I excused them this venial sin (passing up the fried tomato as well) as I read the morning papers, The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald and Evening News. Not only were they full of news about the Year of Gracea, but they also had dreamt up marvelous schemes to involve the locals in the hoopla laid on for the outsiders.

I headed for the tourist bureau where I was received by no less an informant than the music critic of the Evening News. (Kenneth Walton used to be the head of the Scottish Music Association's publicity apparatus, his profession as an organist not being lucrative enough to sustain him and his wife, who is a cellist).

He prepared a cultural CARE packet for me, stood by while I bought two marvelous black Charles Rennie Macintosh T-shirts, then insisted I look with him at G's latest architectural marvel, Prince's Square (he flinched when I inadvertently called it Prince's Street the main drag of a conurbation forty miles away which begins with the letter "E" but shall remain nameless.) Prince's Square, a brilliant Neo-Macintosh shopping and lolling precinct that used to be an eyesore is a metaphor for the transfiguration of the city from workshop to Yuppieland.

Then on to the Scottish Civic Trust (something like our National Trust for Historic Preservation) where the managing directress, one Sadie Douglas put her considerable matronly enthusiasm behind explaining how the city got to be so sweet from having been so sour for so long.

Glasgow has a history of getting itself up from the mat of economic knockout to start swinging successfully in a new direction. It used to be the tobacco capital of Europe--until our Revolution wiped out the Virginia sources of its wealth. (The old tobacco wharfs in High Street are at this very moment in the latest stages of condofication.) Then Cotton was King in Glasgow until our Civil War wiped out that wealth machine. It was then that it turned to shipbuilding with a flourish. Most of the great ocean liners we nostalgically revere are products of its marine engineers--the Queen Mary and the QEII, for a start.

When Taiwan and Korea and Singapore blitzed that business, Glaswegians didn't whimper. They moved on to what they're up to now, a high tech service and financial center with plenty of culture and entertainment to attract the money bearing tourist. One thing that impressed me most about Ms. Douglas's presentation was her insistence that the rehabbing go far beyond the downtown--to the most distant, dismal neighborhood.

And that is why the Scottish Civic Trust amenities award this year has a neighborhood section. "It's no good to have the downtown showy if most of the people live in surroundings that are depressing and dehumanizing." She also touted the recently retired head of the Park District. He refused to capitulate to the grafitti goons. "If they spray five times, we'll paint them over a sixth. Six, a seventh."

The amazing result was that after each graffiti obliteration campaign, the next wave was smaller and weaker, until now there is none. This no nonsense scot also had a thing about forkliftable plats of flowers changing with the season for the central square.

His peers in city government laughed at his quixotic foolishness. "Those slobs will either pick the flowers or throw trash on them," they sneered. He repeated his formula,"If they mess them up five times, I'll replace them a sixth time." Well, the Parks Commissioner was right. Nobody messes with his posies because everyone has learned to love to smell the roses--when they're waiting for a bus, or simply hanging out.

So go go to Glasgow this year especially, but any old time from now on will do. There's art, music, theatre, pop entertainment all year long. There are accommodations from youth hostels on up to five star hotels. And it's easier and easier to get there. It has its own airport now. Go. Go.

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