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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Glasgow, the Most Under-estimated City in Europe
When I told my friends in England that I was going to Glasgow during the summer holidays they looked at me in a quizzical way, as if I was some kind of imbecile. “Glasgow?” my sister said to me. “I saw a really depressing movie about the city, unemployment, crime, murder. I guess that goes for any city. I have been to a few, but Glasgow sticks in my mind from this play/ movie about the violence, 3rd, 4th, 5th welfare citizens. Worse than LA I thought.”
John Harrison

Painting by Glasgow artist
Donald Sutherland

suppose every country needs a kind of civic scapegoat, a place that is considered to be so bad that the other Metropolises look good. Well, let me tell you, Glasgow shocked me, because it is so good. And not because I am making a comparison with Moscow, although bits of Moscow are positively ritzy. Basically, Glasgow has changed. It’s no longer a gloomy, fog-filled city, like it was fifty years ago, where you couldn’t even cycle for fear of bumping into something, because visibility was so bad, and families lived in one room flats in tenement blocks, just as the Victorian poor did. The city centre has been regenerated, and the place has turned into a pretty thriving kind of place, with great pubs, eateries and galleries—not to mention the shopping. On our holidays, we also went to Edinburgh which I found un-Scottish, a kind of cultural no-man’s land. Then on to Cornwall—over-rated, crowded and expensive. Then London, which has changed a LOT over the last few decades and not in the right direction. Strangely, there were no riots in Glasgow, or indeed anywhere north of the border this summer (in contrast to London, Manchester and other cities) despite it’s “the Gorbals” knife-fighting reputation of old. The Gorbals is now a redevelopment area with trendy new yuppy accommodation springing up where, rumour had it, people were once afraid to walk their dogs.

From the 1950s to the late 1980s, Glasgow was indeed a tough and often rough city. Britain’s de-industrialisation hurt the most in centres of industrial eminence, and Glasgow during the 19th century was known as the second city of the empire.

Heavy engineering was the name of the day, with Glasgow’s shipyards, 70 of them once, down to two now. They built mighty vessels which sailed the seven seas under the British flag. Glasgow produced many of the railway carriages and steam engines which brought the empire together. Glasgow was an industrial mecca, much more so than Guangzhou is today and indeed was a trading centre to and from America and the Caribbean (Jamaica and Virginia Streets reminds us of this). But Glasgow was never an overly affluent place, as much of its wealth went elsewhere, a fact which still causes more than a little angst in Glasgow town, but it’s glorious Victorian architecture show a proud city, not a city of misers or scroungers, or “knuckle dusters,” although a little of that still goes on, for sure. Sir John Betjeman called Glasgow “the most perfect Victorian city in the UK”, and parts of the centre are strongly Victorian. But you aren’t in a museum or protected district. There is the magnificent City Chambers, there is Glasgow’s civic headquarters in George Square, there are the large stations, all Victorian, and most still in use.

Glasgow has also been called an architectural jungle. Demolished older buildings have been replaced by a variety of modernist and post-modernist styles, juxtaposed one with the other. There is nothing to match the London’s “Gherkin,” but Glasgow does have its very own “Armadillo” as Lord Foster’s Clyde Auditorium is known. There are Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s superb Art Noveaux buildings like the Glasgow School of Art, which enjoys the status of being one of the UK’s best art schools, not just because of the brilliance of its lecturers, but because the building itself fosters individuality amongst those lucky enough to study there.

Glasgow may have lost its former industrial glory, but it certainly hasn’t lost its pride. Local artist Donald Sutherland’s paintings calmly adopt aspects of different religions and cultures without even trying to do that. His paintings are executed superbly and yet are natural and unpresumptuous, as if a verse from the Bagavad Gita painted over the top of a rolling Scottish landscape is the most natural thing in the world. Glasgow wasn’t just the home of factories, it was also the home town of countless engineers, physicians—empire- builders who sailed out to settle and conquer. Some returned and brought with them little bits of culture from foreign lands, hence street names like West Nile Street. Glasgow is also the home of a large Irish population who came to Scotland to escape the famines and economic woes back home in the 19th century.

Glasgow’s new buildings are the result of the vast investment that has gone into Glasgow’s turn-around from one of the UK’s worst cities in the 1980s to one of its best today. The city became the European City of Culture in 1990. BBC Scotland is now based in Glasgow, as are the Scottish headquarters of ITN. 1999 Glasgow was designated UK City of Architecture and design, having won this accolade over Edinburgh and Liverpool, and BBC Drama has just announced it is relocating in Glasgow. The city continues to transform itself into a major European city, even as grockles think Scotland means Edinburgh, kilts and Loch Ness.

Glasgow’s greatest asset is its people, and there are a lot of them. Over 2 million souls live in the greater Glasgow urban area, almost half of the population of Scotland. People here are friendly. All have a wry sense of humour, but that’s something that you don’t need to worry too much about as only Glaswegians can understand Glaswegians once they get going. People come across as sincere, in a sort of countryside way, quite unlike the “east coasters”, they say. There is an element of rebelliousness in the city. I remember going to see Spielberg’s film, Jaws, in a retro film show in the Glasgow Film theatre, one of the city’s art house cinemas. Shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) was cheered raucously every time he came on, as he represented the local street hero in apposition to Richard Dreyfuss who played the educated, pretentious know-it-all, who represented the English, people from Edinburgh, you name it. But it is that quality that gives the city a fresh, raw, creative edge which personally I found refreshing.

What’s bad about the place? Well, the weather’s pretty horrible. The pavements are pretty wet, and the sky turns grey and leaks cold water for about 6 months of the year. In the summer though, a good summer that is, with a few beers and the odd wee dram, it is possible to understand how people can live here.

The tourist industry in Glasgow appears to be booming, the number of hotel rooms has rocketed from under 1,000 in 1983, to 12,000 today (it is, alongside Edinburgh, the best performing hotel market in the UK this year). Tourism in the greater Glasgow region now employs some 55,000 people, a figure that can be contrasted with the figure of 38,000 employed as shipbuilders during the halycon Clydeside shipbuilding days. The city is also Europe’s fastest-growing conference destination.

Despite everything you may have heard about the place, Glasgow is worth a visit. It is a great walking city, has some of the best shops and architecture in the UK and you will be sure to find a friendly face even if you need to listen carefully to what they are saying! Do though make sure you keep a brolly and sweater in your bag.

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