Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Go-go To Glasgow, Unlikely City of the Year

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—Edinburgh—to emerge from its chrysalis as the Council of Europe’s City of the Year.
And don’t think Glaswegians aren’t exulting in their temporary TKO 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 skuzzy 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 shopfronts inside the station be swept away (presumably to “improve” it into something like the men’s-urinal modern of London’s Euston). Their ignorant counsel, happily, did not prevail.

After being saluted by bright banners hanging from the delicious 19th-Century 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 headed for the tourist bureau, where I was received by no less an informant than the music critic of the Evening News, Kenneth Walton. 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 Glasgow’s latest architectural marvel, Prince’s Square (he flinched when I inadvertently called it Prince’s Street, the main drag of a conurbantion 40 miles away which begins with “E” but shall remain nameless).

Prince’s Square, a brilliant Neo-Mackintosh 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.

Glasgow has a history 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 in the latest stages of condofication.) Then cotton was King in Glasgow—until our Civil War wiped out that wealth machine.

Then Glasgow turned to shipbuilding with a flourish. Most of the great ocean liners we nostalgically revere—the Queen Mary and the QEII, for a start—are products of its marine engineers. 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 about 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, who refused to capitulate to the graffiti 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. He later applied the same formula to public plantings of flowers, with equal success.

So go go to Glasgow—this year especially, but any old time from now on will do. There’s art, music, theater, 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.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 8, 1990

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