Glaswegian Nightlife

Crazy_womanGlasgow is a city with more than enough nightlife to keep a visitor engaged once the sun goes down. There are vast numbers of pubs, bars and restaurants, as well as a vital arts scene that assures a good selection of music and live theater almost every night of the week. While I was there, the city center was vibrant and active well into the early hours of the morning, even on Sundays when the weather was horrible and I imagined that locals should be deep in slumber before the start of the work week. Who needs sleep anyway!

The center of neighborhood nightlife, for better or worse, is the pub. I write “for better or for worse” because I found, over the course of the month and a half I was in Glasgow, that the steady stream of alcohol fueling Scottish nightlife quickly wore me down. I’m not normally a drinker, but since the pub is the neighborhood meeting place, drinking is a central, and daily, activity that is hard to avoid. Scarlet Johansson, while she was in Glasgow filming Under the Skin, noted that the city has a real “drinking culture,” and this is true. Scotland has the 8th highest level of alcohol consumption in the world, which contributes to something known as the “Glasgow Effect;” a name given to the fact that those living in and around the city have significantly higher rates of physical and psychological morbidity than people living in other parts of the UK.

Nonetheless, there is something appealing about walking down the street for a pint and being able to socialize with neighbors and their dogs. Yes: the family pet is welcome to hang out along with everyone else at the local pub, since in addition to a drinking culture, Glasgow has a real dog culture as well. If you don’t like dogs, then this is not a place for you to be.

Church_barI discovered more evidence of how important drinking is to Glaswegians when I went out with my nephew one night to the West End for dinner. After having a meal at an Italian restaurant, our first stop was a place called The Lane Bar, which occupies part of a converted movie theater. After that we stopped at The Book Club and then ended up at Oran Mor, which is a bar in a converted Church. All of these places were busy and crowded with hipsters having a raucous and loud Saturday night. This is not unusual in any big city of course. However, what fascinated me was, first of all, that a bar had been incorporated into a movie theatre and, even more, that a Church had been converted into a bar and nightclub. I have seen two other churches in Glasgow that have been converted into apartments and condominiums; which indicates just how far the death of God has progressed in this Scottish city. When churches are converted into bars and living spaces, it seems obvious that religion has lost at least some of its hold on the population. Couple this with the conversion of movie theaters into drinking establishments, and you get a sense of how people’s priorities here have changed.

DownloadedFileMy own favorite Scottish beverage is not whiskey, but Irn Bru, that bright orange-colored, sugary and vaguely citrus-flavored soda possessing pretensions toward somehow being good for you. This is a drink that I never get tired of, and I think that there should be bars established that serve it exclusively. This is, in fact, what I ended up drinking toward the end of most of my nights out. It helped me to flush my system and to wash down the various sorts of deep-fried street foods that are inevitably consumed at the evening’s conclusion; things such as deep-fried potatoes, deep-fried fish, deep-fried haggis and deep-fried sausage. In Glasgow it seems that everyone has their favorite “chippy,” or fish and chip shop, where you can get battered and deep-fried anything, including such bizarre items as deep-fried slices of pizza, meat pies, and of course the infamous “Mars fritter,” a battered and deep-fried candy bar. At the end of a night out on the town, these are the sorts of foods that bring festivities to a close.

I think I experienced something of the “Glasgow Effect” during my stay, as I became very sick for about a week and so missed seeing a couple of bands that I had been looking forward to: Control and The English Beat. Nevertheless, I did get the opportunity to see a couple of other acts, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit. The first was Nathaniel Rateliff, an alternative folk singer from Colorado. This show was at a venue called Broadcast, which is nestled in amongst a number of other small clubs along Sauchiehall Street. The performance space is in a basement underneath the main bar, reminding me of many punk rock clubs from days gone by. The club was packed and the band’s reception was enthusiastic and rowdy. I was surprised that a small, alternative folk band from Colorado would have such a large following here in Glasgow, but it was clear the audience, who stood crushed together while singing along with the lyrics, loved the music. Initially I wasn’t all that excited about it, but as the show progressed, I eventually got into the mood and rhythm the band created. They projected a self-consciously down-home image, with the lead singer sipping whiskey as he drawled on about growing up in the rural countryside, about his great grandfather’s adventures making moonshine, and about his own troubles in love. It was a good act that was entertaining, if not completely convincing.

HomosexualsLater in the month, in connection with the Glasgow Film Festival,  The Homosexuals played at the Center for Contemporary Arts. This was a tremendous show. Originally formed in the mid-1970’s, the first incarnation of The Homosexuals was called The Rejects. They were part of the early wave of British punk rock, playing at the Roxie in London with other legendary acts such as Wire, Sham 69 and Chelsea. I had never heard of them before, and it was only because I had tickets to see a documentary about the life of the lead singer, Bruno Wizard, that I became acquainted with their music while in Scotland. Their sound reminds me of the Buzzcocks, with Bruno Wizard delivering snotty, sing-songy lyrics against a stripped down and raw backdrop of guitar, bass and drums. This is simple, energetic, emotional music from the days when punk was unmarred by commercial aspirations or the desire to please anyone. Watching this band, I was swept away by the driving power of the songs and the passion of the message. Bruno Wizard is a man who has stayed true to his ideals over the course of his life, and his music testifies to this fact. I have not enjoyed a punk show this much for quite some time.

The music scene in Glasgow is quite healthy, even if many Glaswegians are not. I couldn’t help but think how lucky they are to have such a steady stream of great bands playing in their city. After I departed for the US, The Stranglers, Motorhead and Stiff Little Fingers all were scheduled to play. That must be what Sparky Deathcap means when they sing Glasgow is a Punk Rock Town.

Citizens_TheaterIn addition to the city’s food, drink and music, I also sampled the local live theater, attending a performance of Glasgow Girls at the Citizens Theatre. Glasgow Girls tells the true story of a group of seven high school students who, in 2005, mounted a campaign in order to keep some of their immigrant classmates from being deported from Scotland. My cousin Amanda, who works doing educational outreach for Glasgow University, supervised Amal, one of the real-life students who appears in the play, so there was a personal connection to this story that made it especially interesting.

In addition to being emotionally moved by the performances, I was fascinated by the cultural references that occurred throughout this play. Glasgow Girls unapologetically caters to the native audience. It is filled with in-jokes and references directed specifically toward Scots. One character is flattered to think that Peter Mullan might portray him in a movie; Glasgow is sung about as being “basically OK”; Robert Burns’ poetry is turned into protest music; public artworks on the road between Glasgow and Edinburgh put in appearances. I found particularly interesting a line spoken by Noreen (played by Myra Mcfadyen), an older woman who is a resident at the public housing complex where Jennifer (played by Karen Fishwick), one of the Glasgow Girls, lives. In response to the young girl’s lament that all her hard work and effort to keep one of her friends from being deported has resulted in failure, Noreen responds, “Well, welcome to Scotland!” The audience responded to this line with uproarious laughter and a round of applause. It is a sentiment that in many ways seems to summarize the Scottish self-image. Whether it is in the realm of politics or sports, cultural recognition or economic development, the Scots see themselves as underdogs who fight against the odds and often fail to triumph in the end.

This last point – about the Scots as underdogs – is one that I encountered continuously during my visit to Scotland. When I was out on the town, in the pubs and at the night spots, I always tried to remember to ask those around me what being Scottish meant to them. Without fail I was told that being Scottish is special. It is an identity unique, precious and difficult all at once. Scots are proud to be Scottish, but they also have a sense of being like the small kid on the block who needs to fight for respect. From the Scottish perspective, life is not a fun game, but an ongoing struggle against forces that continuously threaten to undermine one’s dignity. A history of English domination, bad weather and poor health are just some of the factors that have shaped the Scottish worldview. Through all of this, however, there remains a stubborn resistance against pessimism and despair. To be Scottish involves exercising a sense of ironic and dark humor toward life and everything it throws at you. There is tragedy here, but it is a good-natured tragedy that, even while it recognizes the inevitability of failure, still affirms life as something worth while.

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Walking Through Glasgow

DSC03883The name of the city of Glasgow comes from the Gaelic words “Glas Cu,” which mean “dear green place,” and it certainly is that. In California, there is currently a drought, and when I mentioned this to my Scottish hosts, they laughed, suggesting that we arrange some sort of weather exchange between our two countries. There is more than enough moisture falling from the sky in Glasgow, and the green surroundings bear testament to this fact, just as California’s golden hills and empty resivoirs bear testament to its current dry spell.

DSC03749I stayed with my cousin Amanda and her husband Andy, who were kind enough to put me up in their flat during the time I was in Glasgow. Their place is in a neighborhood on the south side of the River Clyde called Strathbungo. Strathbungo was incorporated into Glasgow in 1892, before which it was an independent village. It still feels like a village in some ways. There is a town council that enforces rules governing local architecture, ensuring that the neighborhood buildings retain their stylistic integrity.  On the streets people know one another and exchange greetings.  Amanda and Andy tell me that Peter Mullan, the actor and director of such Scottish film masterpieces as Orphans and NEDs,  is a regular around here, often seen on the streets or in the pubs.

One of the neighborhoods adjoining Strathbungo is the infamous Gorbals, which features prominently in the 1935 novel No Mean City, a story chronicling the rise and fall of Johnnie Stark, a gangster who slashes his enemies with straight razors, thus earning him the honor of being called the “razor king.” I was eager to see the Gorbals, since it plays such a key role in Glasgow’s popular image as a rough place; and yet I was also eager to avoid having my ears sliced off and handed to me as a gift. My cousin assured me that it is no longer the dangerous place that it once was and that I should not hesitate to wander around and see what there is to see. So I set out on foot toward my destination, eyes open, alert to my surroundings and prepared to flee if I met any razor kings. As I approached Gorbals Street, I did hear someone coming up behind me, so I turned to see who it was. My heart skipped a couple of beats. There was a Glaswegian skinhead in all of his gear: cherry red Docs, a black flight jacket, suspenders hanging down from his pants. A sense of relief overcame me when I realized that he was completely uninterested in me and solely concerned with taking his grocery shopping home. Just a Gorbals skinhead running his daily errands!

DSC03909To me, the Gorbals looks like many other neglected and destitute locations. There are a lot of crumbling buildings, housing projects, litter in the streets and signs for charity services. But there are also signs of renewal. There are new buildings being constructed, operating businesses and a highly visible and established Citizen’s Theatre that stages regular productions and that engages in education and community work. The place didn’t feel particularly unsafe or unfriendly, and there were plenty of school kids and prosperous looking adults wandering about. A banner adorning one of the new, very nice and upscale apartment buildings made reference to the “New Gorbals,” demonstrating that this is still, however, a place aware of its lingering reputation.

DSC03786I left the Gorbals, crossing the Glasgow Bridge and making my way downtown to George Square. This is the location where the beginning scenes of World War Z were filmed. In that film, Glasgow acts as a stand-in for Philadelphia, but Glasgow has also stood in for San Francisco (in Cloud Atlas) and for New York City (in The House of Mirth), suggesting something interesting about the nature of Glasgow. While it is a metropolis with its own unique culture and style, its urban atmosphere is also similar to, and in some ways perhaps even indistinguishable from, other world cities.  The streets form mazes of shops, restaurants and clubs that play host to hundreds of shoppers and tourists. Many of the usual corporate DSC03780store names are there: Starbucks, McDonalds, Apple, Dr. Martens. But there are also variations: instead of TJ Max, there is a TK Max, and the most popular pharmacy is called Boots, which somehow seems like an appropriate name for a Scottish store. The downtown shopping district is buzzing with consumers buying things and overindulging, just like in any other prosperous city. It is the perfect place for a zombie invasion!

DSC03885I wandered down Sauchiehall Street through the West End and toward Kelvingrove Museum, which was to be my destination for the day. The West End neighborhood is quite nice; there are pubs and cafes and even a restaurant named after the Big Lebowski. The whole neighborhood has a really good feel to it; there is a sense of vibrancy and signs that various sorts of cultures are now making contributions to Glaswegian life. The streets are lined with more than just a bunch of drinking establishments; there are Hindu and Buddhist temples and Italian, Japanese and French restaurants.

DSC03803All of the museums in Glasgow are free of any entrance charge –  something that should be the case everywhere in my opinion – but Kelvingrove Museum would still be a bargain even if you had to pay San Francisco-sized admission prices.  Upon entering this museum, my ears were filled with the deep, ominous sounds of a pipe organ. The instrument occupies an entire wall of the central hall, and it dwarfs and engulfs the organist, who sits perched up on high as DSC03862he plays. It is an awe-inspiring sight, and coupled with the organ’s sonic effects, I felt like I was entering a solemn place – until I saw the Spitfire airplane hanging from the ceiling! This vehicle swoops down from above, creating a quirky and rather humorous atmosphere, giving the sense that this place is both serious and weird; and that’s a good thing in my mind! A grotesque Elvis statue helps to reinforce the feeling.

There were a few exhibits at Kelvingrove that I especially enjoyed during my visit. First of all was the exhibit on Scottish myths; a topic directly related to my sabbatical research. It is quite apt that alongside the current push for independence there is a renewed sense of the distinctiveness of RobbieBScottish culture and a heightened urgency on the part of the country’s cultural institutions to debunk many common stereotypes about Scotland. In the “Scottish Identity in Art” exhibit at Kelvingrove, ideas about the origins of tartantry, the use of weapons, and the real lives of Mary, Queen of Scots and Robbie Burns are called into question. My favorite image from the exhibit is one of Robbie Burns reimagined in the style of the revolutionary Che Guevara! (I’ll have more to say about Burns in another posting.) Overall, this exhibit conveyed the sense that Scotland is an underdog of a country that still has to fight in order to gain respect on the world stage.

DSC03824In the gallery right next to the exhibit on Scotland’s depiction in art is a truly stunning painting: Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross. The piece occupies a room all to itself, which serves to highlight the dramatic nature of the image. Apparently, after the museum acquired this painting in 1952, a visitor to the exhibit tore the canvas in two and tried to destroy it. You might think that this was the result of religious outrage or something of that nature, but in fact the vandalism was motivated by the fact that the patron considered it was a very bad likeness of Christ. He should know, since  he claimed to be Jesus, and the painting looked nothing like him!

DSC03830I mentioned in an earlier posting that there are aspects of Glasgow that remind me of Buffalo. Well, I found yet another reminder of Western New York in the Kelvingrove Museum: a statue depicting two women in bed with one another. This is a casting of a piece of marble funerary art that adorns the plot owned by a lesbian couple in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. It was installed before gay marriage was legalized there. The artist, Patricia Cronin, writes that “In death, I make official my ‘marriage,’ which was not legal for most of our relationship.” It’s a great quote, and it made me think back to when I lived in Buffalo and would spend hours wandering around Forest Lawn, reflecting on death and how stupid life can be sometimes.

I’m sure that I’ll be doing more of that kind of reflecting in the days to come when I make my way over to the spectacular Glasgow Necropolis. But on this day I still had to walk back across the city to get ready for a Burns Night Supper. I’ll be posting the sordid details of that event soon.