Glasgow: You could have it so much better

Glasgow is a city with which I have a slightly ambivalent relationship. It’s an elegant city which has a more cohesive look than most in Britain; I’ve always found it welcoming, upbeat, on-trend, buzzing with ideas. It is the home of Rangers F.C. and for a Shankill man, taking in a game at Ibrox is an elemental spectacle akin to a Muslim visiting Mecca. Recently it has become the citadel of the Scottish independence movement. Northern Ireland often seems a 50/50 split between creationist lunatics and people who think civilians fair game for murder, and as a mainland-living Protestant I cling to my British identity like a drowning man thrown a rubber ring. The impending dissolution of Britain makes me feel very sad and troubled. Ulster Prods being far closer to the Scots than the English, Scottish independence will make our place in the world even more precarious than it was already.

The Independence movement made me feel sympathetic towards England; it seems that when the SNP indulge in separatism, nationalism, flag-waving and the politics of division their agenda is assumed to be “free kittens for all” and when the English show any consciousness of nationhood, their agenda is assumed to be “put the poor in gas chambers”. Equally grating is the presumption that a 50.0001% Yes vote will introduce permanent and irreversible separation, whereas any number of No victories will result in an infinite succession of referenda until Scotland delivers the vote that Salmond wants, which amounts to a bully-boy kicking sand in the face of democracy.

It would be easy to hate the SNP but I think of them as similar to Russell Brand; by no means the fix to any of our problems, but well worth paying attention to as a symptom of deep-rooted malaise. The problem is probably that the nation itself is redundant in these globalised times, where corporations have vastly more resources, skill and power than governments and can move themselves to whichever nation is offering the easiest ride. They run rings around government where taxation is concerned, and TTIP appears to sign our governments up to enslavement at the hands of big business.

I’m going off-piste. It is no doubt a cliché to remark that Glasgow has much in common with Liverpool and Belfast, the choicest buildings coming from the boom years of Industrial Revolution and Empire, but Glasgow outdoes Belfast for both grandeur and an identifiable look. It is evident that they never had it so good as at this time. Perhaps the only era when the Scots were really enthusiastic about union with the English was the age of Empire, when the spectacular sums of money it brought their way pacified any sense of unease.

The Edinburgh train is 50 minutes and, once off-peak ends at 9:15, £12.60 return (try getting that fare anywhere near London). We exit Queen Street Station onto the pomp of George Square, which filled in for Tahrir Square in the run-up to the referendum. There’s an ice rink and fairground rides; their gaiety strikes an unintentionally sad chord, sited a few feet away from floral tributes for six people recently killed by a runaway bin lorry.

At one end of the square, arch stacked upon arch, sits the formidable bulk of City Chambers. In shape, the facade is slightly reminiscent of a domeless St Paul’s. I spent quite some time taking in all the decoration. Victoria and her subjects are in there, under what looks a mini Statue of Liberty. The tower has four identical sides with cherubs on each corner.

Further down, the lower balconies are punctuated by muses, and above the entrance are Dutch-style carvings of merchants, scientists, etc. The effect is that of a secular people’s palace, the city advertising its successes with swagger.

From George Square I head west. The buildings are a mixture of decorative Victorian, concrete modernism and bits of art deco. Every so often you’ll come across a Ruskinian parody of the Doge’s Palace, although this one has nothing on the monstrosity over by Glasgow Green.

As you walk around the centre, every other roof is held up by a row of giant caryatids and you quickly become desensitised to the style. I find myself enjoying some of the quieter, shabbier things hiding down side streets.

The lengthy Sauciehall St is Glasgow’s pedestrianised high street. Where Edinburgh’s Princes St is pure Rue de Rivoli, this is a down-to-earth Northern high street serving poor folk; lots of Greggs, pound shops and the like. It’s heavily used and no doubt useful if you live here. So many of our shopping districts are composed of luxury boutiques for the 1% whose disposable income dwarfs the rest of us put together; long may Sauciehall remain like this.

There’s a dash of flair in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow Tearooms. Tea rooms flourished during the temperance movement, and though this has been restored after decades of closure, it’s apparently very authentic. There’s a gift shop on the ground floor and a raised balcony running around the edges of the rear half, held together by wooden lattices painted white. Unpretentious bacon-and-eggs fare is on the menu and Spandau Ballet’s greatest hits on rotation. I was worried that it would be like Budapest’s Café New York, where everything is so perfect that you feel you’re in a museum and can’t relax, but the waitresses in their black pinafores behave like they are running any old greasy spoon.

It’s delightful but I somehow expected slightly more; on my way up to the toilets I discover the ‘Salon de Luxe’, for those who have made reservations, and stick my head in for a furtive snap.

A steep side-street up from Sauciehall, next to the Mackintosh Hotel, we find his masterpiece, The School of Art, much of which was destroyed by fire last year. One end is an elongated, art deco rendering of the Scottish Baronial look, the other end (where the worst damage occurred) was with built with gentle sandstone. It’s now obscured by scaffolding with just the odd gorgeous lamppost peeping over the chipboard.

Debate is raging about how to restore the parts of the building which have been lost. Should Mackintosh’s masterpiece be replicated to the letter, or would we end up with a tragic parody of the original library? I incline towards the former sentiment, but architects are sniffing around and seeing a chance to make names for themselves as bold enfants terribles. We wait and wonder.

Continuing west there is a handsome synagogue on the same street, which ends in some marvellous views onto the heights of the Kelvingrove area. At the foot of the hill is the startling sight of a bulbous golden dome atop a pink palace. This glimpse of Samarkand via Glasgow turns out to be a Sikh (I think) temple.

As a prelude to the luscious hills of the park, Woodside Place is a very elegant oval of terraces looking onto gardens on a gentle downhill slope. I’m drawn to the cluster of campaniles in the direction of Park Circus, none of which turn out to signify much at all. The twin gothic towers belong to a firm of accountants, which probably speaks volumes about Glasgow.

The park unfolds over its various levels as you descend, with ponds, playgrounds and brick bridges across the river. Always catching the eye on its other side are the two giants, The Hunterian and The Kelvingrove.

The resplendent red sandstone of the Kelvingrove is such a tub-thumping building that it could pass for the biggest cathedral in Moscow or the Kaiser’s biggest residence in Vienna, but it was built for one of those Great Exhibitions at the turn of the C20th. The chap above the entrance is presumably St Mungo, but at first glance could pass for one of the more venal Popes. We’re lucky to live in a time and a country where so many of these treasures are can be visited free-of-charge.

This is an out-and-about day so I refrain from investigating the collections, but can’t resist a quick look at the great halls. The pipe organ is bashing out a deafening Auld Lang Syne, a tune I normally find mawkish but which is very stirring when delivered in such vast proportions and given a setting that could out-Baroque the Vatican.

I take a less direct route back into Glasgow, following Argyle St, a long and stately road which is flourishing with emerging cuisines and craft ales. The unicycles cannot be far behind. I pass that Indian temple, which is under scaffolding; whilst they wait, the worshippers are using a mock-baronial building a few doors down.

As I near the centre, I come up against the rear of another vast neo-classical building populated by stern Biblical-looking sculptures, and assume I’m looking at an old bank or insurance headquarters that has most likely been made into a swanky hotel and/or steaks-and-cocktails joint.

To my amazement, this marble palace turns out to be a public library, and one which (for now) still functions as such. Britain’s boom years really were deeply different times, when things we now race to rip apart and discard were ennobled and enshrined. What a world we lost with The Great War. Glasgow displays the comic timing of Chaplin by having the library face onto a multi-lane motorway cutting a deep swathe through the city centre. There is an Ian Nairn essay on Glasgow which I didn’t consult much as I felt like riding without stabilisers, but both it and the Owen Hatherley follow-up detail Glasgow’s post-war trashing of the Victorian legacy and how they took decades to realise what they were losing.

Heading east along the streets south of Sauciehall with no fixed route in mind, there is certainly no shortage of diverting sights.

Not every handsome old structure in Glasgow has been taken good care of. There are a few in parlous condition, such as a former Odeon cinema and the towering art nouveau Lions Chambers, whose owners have been itching to demolish it for decades and whose carved figures are now constrained by wire mesh. This is usually the point at which Wetherspoons come to the rescue, but it will be one hell of a job for anyone.

The Eastern end of central Glasgow is its medieval core, not that much remains besides the cathedral (hence the oddly peripheral position of High St). To reach the cathedral I cut through the concrete blocks and lively mosaics of Strathclyde University, when a sudden proliferation of porridge-coloured cottages signals that I’m getting warm. An equestrian King Billy puts in an appearance, having raided the dressing-up box to pose as Julius Caesar in front of a Palladian palace.

A diagonal pathway leads you into one corner of the cathedral square. The buildings seem to part before you to reveal the cathedral, which made me feel oddly like a pilgrim (perhaps not so odd, considering the distance I’d walked by this point). It’s a glorious eureka moment when you suddenly catch that first glimpse of a great cathedral, after rooting around a tangle of enclosed alleyways struggling to make sense of your map. In Padua and Orvieto it felt like being struck by lightning. I’m not a man of faith but the cultural memory must be in there somewhere.

They started building this in the 1100s; Protestant now, it precedes the Reformation by centuries and is one of Scotland’s few major churches to survive it. Tattered British standards dating to the Napoleonic wars are on display and I recognise the militarism from the Protestant cathedrals of Belfast and Londonderry. The style is Early Gothic, however, and the dank, dimly-lit atmosphere remains suggestive of the oldest churches in France and Italy.

Three rows of arches and one of beams support a narrow timber roof; they hadn’t worked out how to do the really fancy vaulting yet. St. Mungo’s bones are kept at the centre of the crypt. It’s a highlight of Glasgow. I come away thinking Nairn might have built my expectations too high by naming it far away the best thing in Glasgow and superior to Lincoln Cathedral, but when I see the rear I rethink this; built on an uneven hill, the lower part of the church has expanded downwards to fit the slope and keep everything level. The technical accomplishment puts me in mind of Assisi.

On the ascending slope of another hill behind the cathedral sits the fascinating Necropolis, an early Victorian cemetery built around a John Knox column. At the foot or the summit, the eye can take in the whole sweep of memorials whose irregular layout is playfully scattergun and which have a very neo-classical bent.

We associate Victorian gravestones with endless crosses and sobbing angels, but here the styles are Greco-Roman. Obelisks outnumber the crucifix and the recognisably Christian styles are very early Christian with round and polygonal shapes. For a cemetery it really does have a sense of mischief. The dead look down upon the living in their factories and call centres, and they seem to be having so much more fun than we are.

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