The 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.
I 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!
To 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.
I 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 store 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!
I 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.
All 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 he 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 Scottish 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.
In 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!
I 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.