I fell in love with Glasgow.
And, forty years on, I still am.
When I started work at the Citizens’, the theatre was a building site.
And, forty years on, it still is.
When I moved to Glasgow, the journey was epic.
I left Bristol for good. Packed – into my old Morris Minor – my entire possessions. Cream LP’s, Complete Works of Shakespeare, denim shirts, the lot. Headed north. No turning back.
Friday 4 May 1979. The day Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
I felt I was fleeing a foreign country, a Tory country. To a non-Tory one. A sense of escaping the new political creed for somewhere different.
When I got to Glasgow, not knowing which route to take, I followed the City Centre signs. I fetched up in a busy area, a large ornate building at one end. George Square. Surrounded by moving vehicles, the poor Morris gave up the ghost. The back axle snapped. Perhaps the strain of being laden with all I owned in the world, perhaps rust.
Labour isn’t working, claimed the campaign posters. Neither was my car. The AA towed it away – for good. Somehow, I managed to cram everything into an obliging taxi and reached Queen’s Drive, where I’d arranged to rent a flat.
The owner of the flat turned up, twin-set and pearls, beaming: Isn’t it wonderful? I assume you’re a Conservative, by the way? Great! I thought I’d landed in a non-Tory country. But, the first person I met was a you-know-what.
I kept quiet. I wanted this flat.
The following Monday, I caught the bus to my first day at the Citizens’. It took me past the shops on Victoria Road. There was a huge red-and-white ice cream, upright on the pavement, outside a brightly coloured café; piles of vegetables stacked in front of a greengrocer’s and a Day-Glo poster filling the window of a travel agent’s: Fly direct to the sun from Glasgow – £25!
Over the months to come, I grew fond of the cheery shops on the south-side. The Jewish deli and bakeries in Allison Street, cosy cafes and shops selling fish – fresh and fried. I asked for strawberries in Henry Healy and was offered a tin.
Other parts of the city weren’t so cheery. The walk from the theatre to the bank was brutal-ist. Through Hutchesontown to Queen Elizabeth Square. Past the Basil Spence-designed 20-storey blocks of flats. They’d be demolished within 30 years of going up.
The poverty – people and materials – and the damp were made worse by the drab greys and browns of Alcatraz.
My girlfriend arrived from Bristol. The Tory landlady was sufficiently liberal to let us choose a flatmate for the spare room. This time, she didn’t check her tenant’s politics. Just as well. He was a college lecturer and, it turned out, a Trotskyist.
The 3 of us discovered south-side and Glasgow life. The following spring, we managed to get tickets for the Celtic-Rangers cup final at Hampden, which ended with mounted police trying to quell a riot. I learned a lot about Glasgow that day.
I was so lucky to arrive then. The city was changing, opening up. Soon, fresh strawberries? No problem.
Thanks to my job, I saw the city opening up in other ways.
Part of my role at the Citz was to negotiate with the funders. This meant regular meetings with the City of Glasgow District Council.
Local authority people – councillors and officials – tend to get a bad press. But I found them diligent and open, keen to grasp how Scotland’s biggest city could embrace the future, not cling to the past.
Shipyards and railway works were long gone. Those left were struggling. Soon Linwood, Gartcosh, Ravenscraig. No more.
Glasgow’s leaders began to seek new ways to let Glasgow flourish. The early attempts may have seemed a bit forced (Glasgow Smiles Better), but proved surprisingly effective. Remembered to this day.
It didn’t happen all at once, but through the 80’s councillors wanted to work with the arts, venues, companies and individuals. They listened to our ideas. The rest is history. The Garden Festival and the greatest prize: European City of Culture 1990. Confidence grew. Results spoke for themselves.
Then the Tories kiboshed it all – again. Michael Forsyth, Scottish Secretary, was hellbent on doing away with Strathclyde Regional Council. For the Citizens’, their extra support meant we could open all-year-round. Our local authority funding was slashed in half, overnight.
It was harder, in the 1990’s, to keep Glasgow’s new-found cultural prowess going.
And yet, somehow, the city has continued to pull itself up by its bootlaces, with scant help from the UK government.
Now, 2019, Glasgow – still hoaching with ingenuity – has been named cultural and creative centre of the UK by the European Commission, ahead of London, Bristol, Brighton and Manchester.
Forced to reinvent ourselves, as Glasgow and other Scottish cities have – almost entirely through our own efforts – is it any wonder where that leads us? Maybe we’d be better off doing everything ourselves.
As this vital election looms, maybe we are where we are because of the struggles to make the best of our city and our nation – through ideas, identity and artistic energy.
Culture has proven to be the mirror, even the midwife, of history.
When I came to Glasgow, Scotland was starting to be a different country.
And, forty years on, it nearly is.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, November 2019.
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