What turns a journalist from Edinburgh into a self professed Glasgowphile and compile stories and anecdotes about our great city into a book? Intrigued, Loraine Patrick ventured into the Merchant City to find out more.
I love Glasgow. It’s been my home for the last 20 years. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s a city that has lived through many reputations – the gang ridden, hard drinking ‘No Mean City’, the cultural renaissance when it became ‘Miles Better’ and nowadays ‘People Make Glasgow’. But do these slogans tell the whole story? Writer and commentator Alan Taylor doesn’t think so and in a new book on the dear green place he tells the city’s story through the eyes of those who have lived it.
There were two reasons why the book came into being Alan explains, ‘I always felt that Glasgow was underrated and undersold, often by its own people but also it’s a city that is under appreciated by the rest of the country. Secondly I felt it was misrepresented – too many people think it is a dirty grimy working class city.’
Originally from Edinburgh, Alan spent much of his career as a journalist, columnist and editor working at newspaper offices in the Merchant City. ‘I used to walk from Queen Street station to Albion Street and I felt like I was in Chicago. The Merchant City was an amazing place – it hadn’t been prettified as it is now. It had a real edge to it and had that tart Glasgow humour which I loved. You just couldn’t put a book like this together on any other city. Underpinning everything about Glasgow is a sense of humour. Edinburgh is boring by comparison,’ he says wryly.
One of the more humorous anecdotes in the book comes from 1950s matinee idol Dirk Bogarde who was sent up to Glasgow to live with an aunt and go to school here. ‘This was in the thirties,’ Alan continues, ‘and he had a horrendous time here. Here was an English schoolboy with a very posh accent who was also (unbeknown to him at the time) gay. He regularly skipped school because he was given such a hard time and would go to the cinema. The episode in the book describes him being picked up by an older man – a medical student – and what happens when he is invited back to his flat. ’
Such stories from people you don’t expect to have an association with the city give the book a different perspective. ‘It’s a real patchwork story told by a diverse range of people. Every class, every race, from artist to criminal – the whole gamut has been included,’ Alan says. ‘There is nothing wrong with working class Glasgow or militant Glasgow or industrial Glasgow – that’s all part of the story, but it is not the whole story.’
One difficulty in compiling the book was finding enough female voices. Catherine Cranston may be a well-known name in Glasgow lore, supporting Charles Rennie Mackintosh and establishing café culture, but it is only in recent times female voices have been heard. Alan picks up, ‘Many women had to cope with truly horrendous living conditions. Doctors wouldn’t even come to visit some of these overcrowded places families had to live in. The city has had periods where phenomenal wealth poured in – but not to the poorer communities.’
One place was key to compiling the book: the Glasgow Room in the Mitchell Library. It is said to house every book ever written on the city. Condensing that knowledge into one book sounds like an overwhelming task but is one Alan relished. ‘It was an absolute joy to get immersed in it all – I am a reference librarian by trade so I know how to find things. Long before Google there was the Mitchell Library,’ he chuckles.
So a lot went in to making the booking happen. ‘I think it took around a year and a half and there must be elements of two to three hundred books in it, as well as the other sources that information came from.’
The book’s closing chapter brings together accounts of the Red Road flats in the north east of the city. In 2015 the multi-storey tower blocks were finally demolished. This came a year after it had been suggested they be taken down during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games.
‘I think their eventual demolition is emblematic of Glasgow’s current revival,’ Alan says. ‘But it was also incredible to find out about what it had been like living there. When residents moved in in the 1960s it was a fantastic place to stay, kids played football using the lifts as goals and practised heading the ball when it was thrown from different floors. On the 18th floor if it was a windy day – your bath water would lap right over the edge.’
But the piece that really sums up Glasgow and its people for Alan was when the airport became the focus of a terrorist attack in 2007 and baggage handler John Smeaton instinctively reacted by attacking back. He became an overnight sensation on news programmes around the world with his, this is Glasgow do not mess with us attitude.
‘I really hope this book makes readers proud to be Glaswegian and it paints a picture of the city that people recognise,’ he concludes. ‘It’s also a pointer to the future. If this is what Glasgow is like now where is it going to go next?’
Glasgow The Autobiography, edited by Alan Taylor is out now published by Birlinn.