‘Oh my god, I forgot to tell you – Neil was in a crash on his bike last week!’
‘What? Are you joking? How’d he manage that?’
‘Yeah, um, he was out cycling, I don’t know, and he was coming down hill and ended up crashing into this car–’
‘Wait, how did he not see it coming?’
‘Aha, I mean, it was typical Neil, he said he’d been looking at this old couple on a bench who were sharing an ice cream, and the lights must’ve changed or something? But yeah, the car had stopped, he went straight into the back of it.’
‘Yeah, no but like, typical Glaswegian, the guy got out the car and started swearing and shouting at him–’
‘Eh, hang on, bit of a generalisation there, no?’
‘Oh, come on, Neil was literally bleeding and this guy was–’
‘No, you can’t just say ‘typical Glaswegian,’ like, what are you even–’
‘Um, I’ve never met a Glaswegian who was actually polite–’
‘Yeah, um, you know I’m from Glasgow though.’
It is sprawling, unwieldy; there are no natural boundaries afforded by the likes of the Firth of Forth or the Pentlands, no ring road to bound and fence. The Clyde bleeds through, a bridge and a divide, feeding the city, drawing it inexorably further west. By the time you reach the banks of Loch Lomond, Glasgow has only just relinquished its claim on the land. The Gaelic, Glaschu, literally translates as green hollow and for all its industrialisation, its council schemes, its concrete, Glasgow is the dear green place, and it is my home.
On the corkboard in our kitchen, there is a postcard. It curls at the corners, smudged from years in the busiest room in the house, and it reads: you can take the girl out of Glasgow, but you can’t take Glasgow out the girl. My parents tease one another about it, flinging ‘weegie’ around whenever someone gets a bit too mouthy. It wasn’t until I moved to the East coast that I realised how much weegie is threaded through the way I carry myself, my voice, my inclination to stare you down and then laugh about it once you’ve folded. Until I moved, I had never needed to defend my city and its people, because everyone in my world already understood. I romanticise the parks, Kelvingrove that comes alive in the summer; the red sandstone that glows warm and pink in the sunshine; the people, did you know we were voted the friendliest city in the world? I decline to mention that we have also been the murder capital of Europe, that one in three children are living in poverty, that there is a phenomenon known as the ‘Glasgow effect’ which is short-hand for poor health and the lowest life-expectancy in the country.
Glasgow is plagued by its reputation, one largely codified and circulated by those who do not live there. The moniker that has haunted the place for nearly a century now, ‘no mean city,’ was coined by a London journalist, Herbert Kingsley-Long. The novel that made this journalist’s name, and sealed Glasgow’s reputation as a city of poverty and violence, was based on the manuscripts of an unemployed baker from the Gorbals, Alexander McArthur. Kingsley-Long was brought in at the behest of the publishers to rework McArthur’s text; to this day, it is his name rather than McArthur’s which is most readily attached to the book. Why is Glasgow so shaped by the opinions of those who have never lived there? And why, when there is a clash between these perceptions and my own experiences of the city, does it sting so sharply?
Perhaps it’s because I am aware, in a dark, quiet place of my being, that parts of Glasgow have embraced that reputation. That you can take the train into Central, but you’d better make sure you head the right way down Argyle Street. That for every, ‘sorry hen,’ at a knocked elbow, there will be a ‘git out ma fuckin way.’ There are contradictions, inherent complexities; how do you even begin to explain that if somebody shouts cunt, it can mean you’re someone’s new best friend or that you’re about to find out how we kiss in Glasgow? (When the soft cartilage of your nose is driven backwards into your skull by the force of someone else’s orbital bone.)
In order to defend my city, I find myself tamping down on the reams of memories that threaten to scare me away from returning, let alone convince a stranger to let go of their bias. I love my city, but it has not always loved me.
She is wearing her summer dress, the strapless one that she keeps having to hitch up, it’s leaving her with raspberry-kissed skin along her shoulder-blades. We took the clockwork orange out to Hillhead, to the oasis at the top of Byres Road. The glasshouses are open from June to September, and we have to stop and haul breath into our lungs when we get inside. The sprinklers are left on all day, we’re taking in more water than air, each glossy leaf and waxy petal beaded with moisture. I think of the way droplets run down her back after a shower, and how cool they taste compared to her skin. Outside, it is city-warm, pavements reflecting the heat onto our bare, pale shins, everyone is a little sun-drunk and ready to laugh or fight. Inside the glasshouse though, it is steaming. It smells green, and we duck under the umbrella leaves of the banana tree, the puddles on the tiled floor splashing into our sandals. She catches my wrist, spins me back towards her, and I close my eyes, drink in the vanilla of her perfume blending woozily with the gardenias behind us.
This is the converted crypt of a church, and its ancient stones are pounding with the drum and bass. I imagine the spire above us dancing, joyful in its rebirth as the house of big song. We sway, sticky with spilled cider – flirt with the man by himself at the bar, don’t bother with fake ID – and the lights change to suit the new tempo. Along with the pulsing turquoise, she sings into the shell of my ear, gasping at the same time as the singer. I turn to her, heedless of the stare from the man who had bought us drinks: I will lean in, I’ll do it even in this crowd, cosseted in the hollow of this sacred place. I love her and we’re fucking untouchable.
We are one among so many, a stumbling, heaving mass that streams towards the station. The shutters have been pulled down over all the glass-fronted shops, doorways swell with crumpled bodies, entwined couples, a man doubled-over and retching. The last train is in ten minutes, we try to walk like we’re old enough to be wearing heels, still clutching a Young Scot return ticket in our pockets. She trips on the kerb, nearly takes me down with her, and we laugh. I dip her backwards as though we had planned it, and this kiss is chaste, sweet, the aftermath of a day in the sun. Then the night is rent apart.
The streetlight above us makes it too hard to make out any faces, we’re fifteen and we don’t know what we’re doing –
The laughing has stopped. Bouncing off a too-tight striped top is the glint of a cross on a chain. The shirt is stained, and we can smell the beer now, so we run, high heels or not. When we get home, our parents don’t ask because they don’t want to know.
From Cowcaddens down to the Broomielaw, the city centre is banded by wide, straight avenues. At eye-level, the stone is polished; it’s only if you look up, you can see the black stains from when Glasgow ran on coal, forged steel, choked its way into the twentieth century. For film crews, there is no need to pan above the whitewashed sightline, and Glasgow has masqueraded as New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, a few yellow cabs and green street signs transforming Douglas Street into the dizzily aspirational heights of northern California, Kelvingrove Art Gallery into Grand Central Station.
It is those broad streets, I think, that make parades through the city centre so consuming, so unavoidable. The space, the scale, it invites crowds and makes it nearly impossible to bypass the crush. There are enough people in the city to fill every standing spot, no matter what the celebration.
When I was sixteen, at the start of the summer holidays, my mum took me into town, just the two of us. We ran into one of my gran’s friends at the station, and she said I was the spit of my mum, just the absolute spit. We came out of Central on the Union Street side, and as we got closer to the Four Corners, it became more and more difficult to edge past the crowds. We hadn’t even made it to the crossing when a cheer went up, and over the heads in front of us, we saw the float coming up Jamaica Street, from the direction of the Green. It was blasting Diana Ross, the rainbow flags were whipping back and forth in the wind, and on the platform, dancing, were two men. My mum hissed to me that this was the Pride parade, had I known it was today? I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter. Now that we knew, I could see her eyes darting around, at the girls who were holding hands in front of us, at the drag queen in eight-inch platform heels to our left. Everyone was smiling, laughing. Someone opened a window above and screamed out ‘PERVERTS!’ The whole crowd hollered back, and the girls in front of us kissed. She saw them, couldn’t miss them really, and I stared at the ground. We didn’t speak much for the rest of the day.
A week or so later, I was in on my own, my cello on my back, late for a rehearsal. It was pouring, absolutely bucketing down, first week in July weather. I was walking up Hope Street with my head down, and when I got to the lights at West Nile Street, somebody grabbed my arm before I stepped onto the road. I looked up, expecting to see traffic. It was an older man, I could see spittle coating the strands of his beard around his mouth, and he had a union jack badge pinned to his scarf.
‘Wit the fuck dae ye think yer daein, ye cannae cross the Walk!’
The sound of flutes and drums, the blood and thunder bands, had filtered through now. Then they were in front of me, and the man next to me raised his voice:
‘And on the Twelfth I love to wear the Sash my father wore – FUCK THE POPE!’
A woman who was marching alongside saw me and my cello, and told me to ‘get the big guitar out, hen, join in, eh?’
There was a gap between the band just passing, and the next one along. I walked through it. I could hear the shouts but what were they going to do? I had somewhere to be. I hadn’t acted when my mum had looked at those girls as though they were contagious, I had caved in on myself, but this time? Just try and stop me.
Last week, the shops were open, really open, after nearly a year. The queues were half a mile long, and despite the sunshine and showers, all of the pop-up beer gardens were full to bursting. Just outside Royal Exchange Square, a band was busking. I am used to passing them by, but I had a few minutes before my train, and they were playing something fast and jazzy, I could see a wee girl pirouetting in the space in front of them. An electric double bass, a snare drum, and the singer on guitar. Maybe it was the weather, or the buzz, realising how easy it is to see folks’ eyes smiling above their masks; maybe it was that I had been away for five years. But this was my city, through my own eyes, and I had missed it.
I see it through double vision now. The city I’ve met since leaving, the one I’ve heard about from people who have never been here: one of small-minded people, clinging to the sectarian chasm that cleaves this city in two, where it rains more than half the time, and where no one puts their head above the parapet for fear of being shot down.
And the Glasgow I know. Where I fell in love for the first time: with these streets, with a language, with possibility. This place that has spat at me, wept with me, cursed me.
This city raised me, and with a kiss or a fist, it calls me back home.
Alice Gibson is a writer and English MA graduate from the University of St Andrews. She is from Glasgow, and her writing is inspired by the city and its people. Her work has been published in St Andrews’ Inklight journal, Poeyum, and The Auld Grey Toun: The Town, The Gowns and The Scholars (forthcoming).