Posted in Railways on Monday 29th October 2012 at 10:10pm
It's about this time each year that I find myself heading for Glasgow. These trips have grown partly out of necessity - I've almost inevitably worked through the summer whilst colleagues with kids have chosen to take their expensive jaunts to Florida or Eurodisney. But I also like to disappear in October - to avoid the inevitable birthday related activity, and to enjoy some of that golden window of end-of-summer beginning-of-autumn weather that just seems to suit me. It's no secret that this also suits Glasgow. It's at this time of year that the city is prone to sudden bursts of sunshine through the remaining leaves, or unexpected sheets of grey tumbling across the landscape at a moments notice. The population of the city reacts accordingly - jumpers off and out into George Square, or papers over the head dash under cover. These visits also coincide with a rush of musical endeavour too - with the universities back at work in earnest there is a flood of gigs to see, often many competing during a single night. In short, it's at this time of year that Glasgow has proved most engaging and importantly diverting to me. But how would the city fare this time, when I am perhaps completely and ultimately diverted elsewhere?
I arrived in Glasgow on a Thursday morning following my current custom of splitting the journey somewhere in Northern England. This was originally to save money, but it's become a habit which makes for a leisurely arrival too. The previous night in Crewe wasn't much fun to be frank, I was anxious to be in Scotland and still recovering from a transatlantic trip which had messed with my body clock and occupied my mind almost completely - and with head and heart still a long way off, Crewe was a baleful proposition at best. Once, it was a town full of curious possibilities - but as the railway has declined, and my interest with it, it's become harder to find much to like about the place. In this context of change it was comforting to note that arrival at Central Station still gave me that little thrill of being home-away-from-home, the urge to yell "I'm back!" to a city which is as indifferent to me as any other I'm sure - but upon which I've always staked a sort of jealous claim. No-one who has visited Glasgow with me has ever quite understood this - and really, all my theories about place are pretty tenuous at best when exposed to the critical eyes and ears of others. These imaginary links and personifications never bear much examination, but there is a little bit of me here in Glasgow - as much as there is in London or now in Seattle. I did what I always do - and delighted in it. I sat around and read newspapers, got coffee, wrote emails - but I did it through new eyes and ears. I felt like I was exploring Glasgow for the first time because I was sharing these thoughts and impressions with someone far away who I wanted to be here too. This novelty originated in the commonplace - the fact that the Blue Lagoon, home of my favourite 'pizza supper' culture-clash incident - had burned down. But it also extended into the significant - not least the orange glow in the sky at sundown as I walked to the station for my annual fix of Paisley Arts Festival. Hours later I'd be shivering at Gilmour Street having just spent my first evening in a Spiegeltent, trying hard to convey the idea of Paisley in the evening to someone who couldn't see it just now. Describing Paisley is never easy - but it was as much part of the Glasgow experience as any of the mellifluous sky-describing I'd been doing of course!
My first day of wandering in earnest began with an uncharacteristically lazy start - an external influence which is, in fact, a welcome one. I'm on holiday - and it seems an awful long time since I've been in my office too - a lifetime and a continent away in some senses. I wandered out into the city with an explorers sense of the unexpected, and Glasgow inevitably delivered. My rule of thumb in any British city is to walk the streets with head tilted back enough to see the floors above the gaudy but utterly familiar chainstore frontages. Here the history of the city is more apparent - buildings decorated in ways we'd never see nowadays, pride in construction, conscious design to create an impression of authority or opulence, depending on the purpose of the building. Indeed it's strange to think of buildings made for a specific purpose, rather than speculative empty office shells, full of nothing but customisable space. Above Poundland and Greggs and JB Sports is a wonderland of Glasgow architecture. Red sandstone competes with cast iron, sitting awkwardly beside the more familiar smoked glass and steel of the last century. Buildings billow out from the pavement in curves and crests, their former uses sometimes lost completely. I've been here several times each year for a long time now, but it feels like the first time I've spotted some of this stuff. Some of it is breathtaking and impressive, some fussy and laughable - but all of it calls back to a time that this was the Second City of the Empire. This second day also involved an excursion to the Southside. A bus ride through a dark evening, along the wastelands of Eglinton Street and into Pollokshaws Road. The switch from industrial distress to coffee-shop comfort was imperceptible as the bus progressed along the long straight road towards its divison at Shawlands Cross, and soon I'm hopping off at the southern edge of Queens Park, looking for the Glad Cafe - a new venture here. I remember buying a CD to support the fundraising a while back, and being tapped for contributions at a show at The 13th Note perhaps a little afterwards, so it's good to see this place open. Or at least it would be if I could locate it... I finally find it, a neon-lit entrance wedged inconspicuously between a chip shop and a newsagent. The long corridor from the street opens into a cosy, simply but effectively decorated room with excellent coffee and surprisingly polite company. Beyond that there is a large performance space. Perhaps not strictly large enough for the crowd which showed up tonight, but that's a minor issue. It's good to catch up with old friends, and to see familiar bands play new songs. This feels like a comfortable spot - and again I'm moved to look at it rather differently. I can no longer afford the detached air of the casual visitor or the self-styled ethnographer. I'm now auditioning the city for a future role. Again it's cold waiting for the bus back into the city. The pavements take on a bit of a sparkle and there is a nip of winter on the air, which is far from unpleasant and seems almost fitting. The bus reeks of fast food and perfume from shuttling the previous group of revellers into the City for a Friday night which is only beginning. There are only a few of us left on board by the time it scutters across Argyle Street and deposits me near Central Station.
For my third excursion, after another leisurely start I decided to head west. I used to turn this way a lot when I first frequented Glasgow. There were tales of G12 nights, exotic bands in strange little bars, Northern Soul socials with awkwardly hipster dancing and mysterious people having low conversations about the next big thing. These mirages all of course evaporated when I got close to them, and I found a slightly haughty student culture in which I really didn't fit at all - I was either too old, too young, too English or just somehow not right. But I came back sporadically over the years, just to be reminded. My circuit today repeated one I've done a good few times - off the bus at Great Western Road and into the cool, green spaces of the Botanic Gardens. Here I read and thought, and really took no notice of the fact there was a squirrel on my foot until he was about to run up my leg. When I spied him, he froze in terror - I reached casually for my phone to get a picture. I'd wanted to see Glasgow differently - through new eyes - and here it was! The people-savvy rodent would have none of it though, and at the flash of sunlight on glass dashed off to the next bench. I tried advancing in big, quiet steps, quite unaware of how ridiculous I must have looked to the growing crowds in the park, but every time I crouched to get the shot he'd fly a bench further forwards along the pathway. "One final try" I thought, and as I got within inches of the shot I'd hoped to get, the brave little beast dashed up the skirt of the woman a little way in front. I beat an instant retreat as she giggled and whooped, her husband beating ineffectually at her tweed. It was time to leave the park lest my part in this incursion was uncovered! However, I found it strangely difficult to depart - the place was cool, calm and strangely tranquil today despite the crowds milling around quietly, and the press of only mildly apprehensive looking tourists around the Haggis Burger concession.
But Byres Road beckoned. I strolled along it looking with a more critical eye than for a long time before - however nothing could stop the views up towards the university from arresting the eye and drawing it high above the streetline. Beyond that rise, the land fell away steeply into Kelvingrove and the quietly hip neighbourhood around Otago Lane, but that was for another trip. Today my target was one of the strange early discoveries from years back - Relics. Tucked into the strange cobbled passageway of Ruthven Lane, this is perhaps the ultimate junk shop. Stacked high with tat, including manual typewriters, obsolete games consoles, reel to reel tape machines and virtually any other bit of electromechanical equipment which ever dared to expire or outlive its usefulness. Guitars and other musical instruments abound in particular, amongst the piles of expiring magazines, dusty VHS tapes and oddly gaudy tables full of glassware. I take photographs furtively, knowing the owner disapproves. I could be Trading Standards or the Police or something, building up my case. Instead I approach him and ask about a unique TV which used to sit outside the shop - a huge globe of white plastic, huge, impractical, oddly impressive. He remembers it, thinks he still has it - either stored or hidden behind stuff. I'm welcome to look if I want. I quickly survey the place and decide not to - not this time. But maybe soon - and perhaps not alone. It would be folly to tackle this mountain alone I think. I quickly drop into a shop selling old vinyl and take in the smell of ageing shellac and the odd library-like quiet of serious men flipping through sleeves, before heading for the bus back into town and my next musical appointment.
This takes me to the very top of Renfield Street, where the sharply modern glass and steel of the Herald Offices abut blocks of disconnected, stark-edged tenements. One door isn't open until 11pm, the other is guarded by smoking trench-coated goons. I descend. A sign directs me to the best reggae in Glasgow. I pause. Surely not? But press on into the bar - and then into the venue. It's a club, a badly appointed, swiftly decomposing and horribly depressing place. The sunken oval dancefloor provides the vantage point, while the bands use one of the seating booths which surround it as a stage. I'm not sorry to escape back up the tangle of stairs to make an important 'phone call in the steady Glasgow rain. The place is diabolical - but as is often the case here, the music is sublime despite it's setting. But it's hard to love the Flying Duck - and we briefly discuss this as the promoters drunkenly recount money - but suddenly, unexpectedly the strains of "Marquee Moon" shiver from the speakers. It's a spine-tingling, life-affirming moment that suddenly synchronises a whole lot of disparate thoughts and locates them here in Glasgow right now. I stride from the venue into the rain - the streets are full of people in Halloween costumes, and I'm fighting the tide back down the hill to Central Station with that insistent, nagging guitar sting repeating in my head. An endless sea of rain-damp vampires, slutty cops and naughty nuns whoop and scream. I'm still on my Television inspired high, side-stepping Frankenstein's monster, dodging the flailing hair of a particularly inebriated witch into Argyle Street and under the Hielanman's Umbrella.
The final day is always a difficult proposition here - and never less so than this visit. It marks a return to real life after a strangely transformative week which has seen me travel over 10,000 miles. It's fitting that I should end up here after that, somewhere I come to process and understand things, somewhere I feel safely away from reality. Because this week I've needed to be away from it. Plunging back into the routine after last weekend's overseas trip would have been absolute folly. So Glasgow has been the ultimate buffer once again. I decide to celebrate by returning to the very beginnings of Glasgow on the banks of the deleted Molendinar Burn. I partake in my usual, now a little more leisurely coffee ritual, then head east along George Street - passing the civic centre of the city, through the channel of dour grey buildings, the university outposts and the still-empty bombsites. The little, ornate sandstone block - once occupied by a vegetable wholesaler - still stands alone at the corner of the wasteland near Nicholas Street, whilst the College Lands are being aggressively and comprehensively redeveloped filling the slope down to the Drygate. I turn for the Cathedral, blackened and ominous in it's precinct. Foreign tourists mill around, jostling each other noisily as then enter the Cathedral Close, but falling suddenly and automatically silent as they pass over the Bridge of Sighs and into the Necropolis. It's been a long while since I walked here, and I ascend carefully, the rugged path slippery with fallen and blown leaves. Finally, after doubling back and ascending I find myself at the top with John Knox, both of us glaring down on the city and over the wonderful views to the South and East. The rain slithers down from the slate sky. It's time to head back...
It's pretty clear that I've changed a lot since I was last in Glasgow, and that my way of viewing the place has altered considerably too. But there is reassuring constancy here - there is a sense of somewhere which contains a little of my past, and a hope it contains something of a future. There are hints of links to a place many thousands of miles away which just now is more significant by far. There is also a recognition of the difficulties and rough edges this city has - something I all too often gloss over, keen to promote the cultural or celebrate the unique. Glasgow is - as it ever was - a sprawling, irregular uncut diamond of a city. I realise as the train begins to shudder out of Central Station and I hang up a 'phonecall much earlier than I'd like, that I'll not be hitting the rails quite so often these coming months. But Glasgow - I'll be back...
As an experiment, you can also follow the route on the map below - the blue lines are the routes I took...
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.