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Glasgow in Black and White - No Mean City

Dave has lived and worked in more than 30 countries. Possibly as a result, some of his articles are hard to categorise, like this one...

Glasgow and me - some background

I was born in Ayr, a seaside town on the Firth of Clyde, 30 miles 'doon the watter' from Glasgow. We'd a clutch of Aunts in the big city, mostly around Partick, so family trips to see them were fairly frequent events. As a wee boy, my favourite treat was to be turned loose in Lewis's, in Argyle Street, with maybe sixpence to spend (a week's pocket money back in the fifties!) The basement was interesting, meaning there was a sweetie counter the size of Ayr town centre*. The other seven floors should have been boring to a wean, except - they were all connected by escalator. Armed with a poke of tablet and another of broken macaroon, I'd spend the rest of my half hour of freedom going up and down the moving stairs, against the flow, if I thought no-one was watching... But I digress.

* Ayr Town Centre went on to become a Formula One racing driver.

glasgow - no mean city

glasgow - no mean city

In the fifties and sixties, Glasgow was uniformly black. The tenements were built of permeable sandstone which had adsorbed a hundred years of smoke, smog and soot. It rained a lot, often horizontally. There were clattering trams that couldn't stop, silent trolley-buses that sneaked up on you and an underground railway with wee red trains and a strong smell of archangel tar.

There was also a reputation, earned mainly in the thirties, of a violent, dangerous city full of hardmen, razor gangs, chain gangs. The gritty subculture of 'No Mean City'. So it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I set off in 1970, aged seventeen, for four years of student life at Glasgow University. I needn't have worried. I soon learned to love the place. So much so that, having graduated and moved to London, within a year I was back. I worked in Glasgow from '75 to '79, when I finally left Scotland for good. All the photos in this collection were taken in the winter of 1979. Things have changed in the last thirty years, but my Glasgow will never change. Let me show you around: 

West End, mainly

Here, we're on a tenement roof in Hillhead, looking out towards the University on Gilmorehill. If anyone ever tells you that Rome is the city on seven hills referred to in Revelation, please point out that Glasgow is also built on seven hills, technically drumlins, as any city walker or cyclist can confirm.

The University is suitably impressive, built in a grand Gothic Revival style. Purists object that the tower is disproportionately tall. But hey - it's a tower. It was, after all, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, not by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Readers should understand that in Glasgow, in certain circles, it is important to deprecate the work of every architect without the initials CRM. This is because CRM designed Glasgow College of Art, a purpose built edifice with interiors to die for, thanks to his brilliant harnessing of natural light. But outside it's just chronic.

Recognising that the tower is quite tall, the University authorities used to lock the doors during finals week, and again, on results day.

The Kelvin Hall is the building you can see through the University cloisters archway. It pops up on the skyline regularly and is a familiar landmark with its twin tower frontage. The backage is nothing to write home about though. It's just a big exhibition hall, variously used for trade shows, conventions and concerts. The first time I remember going to the Kelvin Hall was to see a circus, but whether Billy Smart's or Bertrand Mills' I couldn't say. Later, as a serious would-be hippie, I went to see Gilbert o'Sullivan, just because I liked him, and was mortified to find the place crammed to the rafters with 12 to 14 year-old schoolgirls.

The Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery is just across from the Kelvin Hall and is well worth a visit, especially by anyone who still believes the Earth is 6,000 years old. 'I'll show you something to make you change your mind'.

The organ in the great hall is not played often but it is functional and used occasionally for evening recitals after the museum is closed. It's quite an experience then, to hear the mighty chords reverberating through all the adjoining halls and galleries.

Kelvin, as you must have noticed, is a name that features a lot in Glasgow. It is Glasgow's second river (first is the Clyde), and gives its name to halls, museums, parks, streets and the whole district of Kelvinside, famous for its gentrification and rather precious accent, often described as pan-loafy. The origins of this are interesting. The fashionable ladies of Kelvinside (for the most part, wives of well to do merchants and industrialists) turned up their noses at the traditional hard-crusted, batch-baked plain loaf, preferring instead the softer, individually baked pan loaf which was more suited for refined cucumber sandwiches. This affectation, together with their clipped pronunciation (almost pen liff) birthed the term which has stuck to this day.

Lord Kelvin was born William Thompson (in Largs, in the county of Ayr) and devoted his life to Physics and Engineering. He had a brilliant academic and commercial career, contributing to the development of Thermodynamics, work for which he was first knighted, then raised to the Peerage. His title, First Baron Kelvin of Largs, celebrates the river. He was, for fifty years, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University. His name is perpetuated in the brand Kelvinator and rather more auspiciously in the unit of Absolute Temperature, the kelvin.

The River Kelvin looks fairly placid in this picture, but I have seen it burst its banks and flood great areas of the city. Mean stuff, that water.

Traditional Glasgow housing is based on terraced buildings of quarried sandstone. Mostly, these are terraced tenements, with typically four flats (apartments) per landing, served by a shared stone staircase, open to the street via a narrow passage called a close. In gentrified areas, these become terraced town houses with a street door and an internal stair, where one merchant family would own the whole height of the building, with living-in servants. Most of these terraced town houses are now subdivided into flats, often extremely comfortable inside. Viewed from the back, it is almost impossible to tell if you are standing behind a row of tenements or a row of townhouses. It was all about show, after all.

More up-market still are the terraced villas, Great Western Terrace and Belhaven Terrace (pictured) being fine examples. These often had a coach house to the back, with servants quarters above the stables.

Where you have terraces, you have to have back lanes, and Glasgow is no exception. You can walk miles in the city, crossing, but never walking along, a main road, though in some areas this is not a clever idea!

This Bond Bug used to park there regularly. Probably its owner was embarrassed to park it in front of his Belhaven Terrace abode.

The Grosvenor Cafe is typical of the 70s fashion for opening small cafes and restaurants in renovated coach houses and mews cottages. Most famous among these was the Ubiquitous Chip which is probably still going strong. Before this, the back lane buildings were either used as garages and workshops, or just left to crumble.

But we've spent long enough in the polite West End. There was much more to 70s Glasgow.

There now follows an intermission. (If John Steinbeck can pull this trick, so can I!)

How to cross the street in Glasgow

There are two ways to do this. The approved method is to find the nearest pedestrian crossing and use it as it was intended. The preferred Glasgow method is to wait until you have enough reinforcements then just spill out onto the street and across to the other side, forcing the cars to stop. Six foot Germans have been known to faint clean away at this lack of discipline. In the seventies, when the Council made Sauchiehall Street a pedestrian precinct, it was less of an innovation than a recognition of what had always been. OK, back to the ramble:

Clearance & Reconstruction

In the sixties, Glasgow made the same mistake as almost every major British city: wholesale 'slum' clearance coupled with the building of high-rise characterless filing cabinets for displaced people. 'Modern' architects and planners ran amok, applying their pet development theories with no care or understanding for community.

Not surprisingly, a by-product of of this policy was the re-emergence of the street gangs on a scale not seen since the Depression. Names like Fleet, Tongs, Toi, Cumbie were scrawled on walls and fences and parts of the city became quite dangerous. The newspapers had a field day with the violence of course, giving the impression that civilisation was at an end. It was never quite that bad.

Forced to admit that the high-rise solution was a failure, the planners went back to the drawing board and came up with a wholly new approach. Renovation. Of course, some of the older, lower quality tenements were dilapidated beyond repair and had to be pulled down, but many others were structurally sound and could be completely refitted. The old shared toilets (the cludgie) on the communal landings were removed and space found for internal bathrooms and toilets, often by reducing the number of flats per landing.

This renovation was in full swing during my Glasgow years. I used to like walking round the big development projects to see what had changed from one week to the next. It's quite exciting to feel the optimism of a city being reborn with a sense of purpose. Also, as Glasgow was now a smokeless zone and the smogs were a thing of the past, the blackened stone could be sandblasted clean, revealing the true colours of the masonry, rich red or a bright creamy white, where all was black before.

The small picture is typical. A section of a terrace is refurbished completely, taking several months. Then, the whole frontage is covered in scaffolding and plastic sheeting (to contain the spray from the sandblasting), Finally the covering is removed to reveal the finished section. The process is then rolled out along the rest of the terrace.

The Hielanman's Umbrella (Highland man) is where the railway lines from Central Station cross over the road. The name has two explanations. Glasgow folk had a joke that highlanders were too mean to buy umbrellas and would shelter from the rain under the bridge instead. But more convincing is that this was for a time an unofficial gathering place and temporary camp used by highlanders (did someone say teuchters?), newly arrived and looking for a 'start' on one of the city's building projects.

Gartnavel Station, long disused, was the starting point of one of my daftest exploits in Glasgow or anywhere else. I used to like walking sections of the abandoned branch line. But at Gartnavel you had to leave the track and take to the roads, rejoining it at the old Botanic Gardens station. Or did you? One day I took a torch and boldly went, into the Gartnavel entry tunnel and onwards, in the damp dark silence, with only my footsteps and occasional scurrying rats for company. Amazingly, the tunnel was passable and I made it unscathed to the welcome sunlight and fresh air of Botanic Gardens. Never again,

For weeks following that adventure, I had a recurring dream in which I'd carried on in the tunnel all the way to St Enoch's Station (the terminus) in the city centre. But on getting there, I found my exit blocked with a locked gate. I shouted, but no-one could hear me. The torch light was failing...

Time for another brief intermission, before we visit the Clyde.

Reading about Glasgow

Several novelists of note have been inspired by Glasgow. James Kelman won the Booker prize in 1994 with 'How Late It Was How Late', a great book but not one to give your maiden aunt. William McIlvanney's 'Laidlaw' detective novels are convincing, but in 'The Big Man' he betrays a tendency to glorify violence. 'The Big Man' was made into one of the worst films I've ever seen. Alasdair Gray is a brilliant and eccentric author whose books are really all about Alasdair Gray. Don't expect realism here. He invokes his Glasgow in fantasy underworlds ('Lanark') and extreme surrealism ('Poor Things'). But for me the unsung hero is George Friel. His Glasgow trilogy, 'The Boy Who Wanted Peace', 'Grace and Miss Partridge', and 'Mr. Alfred M.A.' are written with a Hardyesque sympathy for his flawed characters and a deep knowledge of the manners, customs and superstitions of his native city.

All of these books are available or can be ordered from small booksellers and larger stores, or, if you really must, you can get them from the Union-breakers, Amazon. OK, back to the tour:

The River Clyde

The Clyde is Glasgow. For a time, Glasgow, not London, was the industrial and commercial hub of the British Empire. Huge profits were made from sugar, tobacco and of course shipbuilding. The docks never slept, servicing endless convoys of ships, wagons, barges and trains, loading and unloading goods and raw materials.

Queen's Dock was never meant to be empty like this. The huge Finnieston crane on the skyline is no longer in service and now stands as a monument to Glasgow's greatest days. If you only click on one photo in this collection, make it this one, and try to imagine what used to be.

Finnieston Crane symbolises Glasgow for many people. It was designed to lift steam locomotives (manufactured in Springburn, Glasgow) onto ships for export. Some statistics, from Clyde Waterfront Heritage:

"The crane’s capacity was 175 tons. It is 175 ft high with a 152 ft jib which could make a full revolution, of 1,000 ft at the tip of the jib, in 3½ minutes. It was built by the Carlisle firm Cowans, Sheldon & Co. At the time it was the largest hammerhead crane in Europe".

The Clyde was not always the mighty river we know today. The deep shipping lanes had to be dredged out and the banks pushed back and reinforced in a huge engineering project. Looking at the modest stream that flows by Glasgow Green, it is hard to associate it with the major artery it becomes a mile or so downstream. Several road and railway bridges cross the river in the city, some built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, added to much later by the Clyde Tunnel and a motorway bridge.

PS Waverley is no ordinary ship. She is the last sea-going paddle-steamer in the World, still operating in British coastal waters. She was built, on the Clyde of course, in 1946 and, in spite of a few setbacks involving rocks and piers, has carried generations of holiday makers around the traditional seaside resorts, especially in the Firth of Clyde and the Islands.

It's maybe not clear from this picture, but she has port and starboard paddle wheels, not a Mississippi-style stern wheel.

These pictures were brought to you by the 27 year-old lad in the mirror, but the hub was assembled by a much older edition with less hair and an aversion to woollen polo-neck jumpers.

Technical note: All pictures were shot in 1979 on Ilford HP5 B&W film at 400 ASA, using a Zenit E manual SLR. The negatives were scanned and digitised (in 2011), using a Plustek OpticFilm 7400 scanner and LazerSoft's SilverFast imaging software.

I'll leave you with a few more photos which I shortlisted but then couldn't weave into the narrative!

Thanks for reading!

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