Today’s post is going to have a bit of “what I did on my holidays” flavour about it. My wife and I have just come back from an anniversary trip to Glasgow. I’d been there once before, on business, but didn’t have the time to appreciate the city. And appreciation is, I think, the right word, because it is a magnificent place. It doesn’t have the royal palaces of Edinburgh, but the impressive public and private buildings bear testimony to its being ‘the second city of the Empire’ in Victorian and Edwardian days. George Square is overwhelmingly grand, and the Museum of Modern Art a Greek temple to culture. Another example: a pub called the Counting House in the most magnificent former banking hall. And just as impressive is the social and economic robustness of the city, which must have suffered some of the hardest economic damage of any UK city. The coal mines and textiles have gone, and all but two of the shipyards too. There was a time when Glasgow built more than 90% of the ships of the world, but only 5 of those ships are still afloat. Many of the superb commercial buildings in the Merchant City were funded by tobacco money. Yet, with all this activity long gone, the city is lively and even, in some places, elegant. Some reflections:
- I take no sides on the Scottish independence debate – loathe nationalism, but can’t see why any country would wish to hang on to regions/nations that want to make their own way in the world. But Glasgow does feel a bit foreign. When the architecture is not nodding towards Rennie Macintosh, or Greek temples, it has an almost East European feel, like Prague or Budapest. And the accent is genuinely difficult: an example – it was the first time I can remember being unable to make out the safety instructions on the airplane tannoy. As the old joke has it “The Italian mafia make you an offer you can’t refuse; the Glasgow mafia make you an offer you can’t understand”. This was also true of black Glaswegians and Chinese Glaswegians. All the people we met were, however, unanimously friendly and welcoming, taxi drivers especially so.
- Take back everything you’ve heard about Scottish food. We had a wonderful lunch at the Number 16 restaurant in the West End – a £16 three course lunch as good as anything I can remember. Our anniversary dinner was at the Ubiquitous Chip, which cost quite a bit more but was real top-drawer stuff. Breakfasts were excellent. I will never speak of deep-fried Mars Bars again.
- The hills ! No-one told me that Glasgow gave San Francisco a run for its money with all the ups and downs. If anyone wants to reshoot the car-chase from Bullitt, they need not cross the Atlantic. We went to see the Glasgow School of Art, Rennie Macintosh’s masterpiece, not realizing that the final ascent needed oxygen and Sherpas. Visiting the Tenement Building was similarly demanding. Coming down from the Cathedral to the City Centre on a snowy day would challenge Jean-Claude Killy.
- The traffic was arranged like New York – much of the city is on a grid, and whole roads are denoted as one way streets. This no doubt speeds the traffic – though for some reason not the buses – but it does take away any intimacy from the cityscape. If an area is not pedestrianised, it is car dominated. I think that two-way traffic slows things down to a more human level.
- Big criticism – litter. It is the most littered city I have visited in the UK. Can’t see why that should be, though it may be a consequence of a system where people leave their garbage in plastic bags at the kerb-side, which is an invitation to feral cats and foxes. People don’t seem bothered – wander through the mess along Sauchiehall Street – nor do they pick up litter (I did), and you can play that sad game of spotting the piece of litter closest to a litter bin. Interestingly, a Scottish tourist bigwig makes the exact same point in this week’s Sunday Times.
- Splendid museums and galleries. The Transport Museum won the European Museum of the Year for 2013, and I can see why. It was heartening to see the delight of working class Glaswegians as they saw a familiar old tram or double-decker, and I was pleased to come across the first Hillman Imp (Scottish built, of course) amid the Bentleys and locomotives. There was even a Mini that had been through the European crash test, and a cut-and-shut Ford Escort GTi. The Burrell Collection is rightly world famous – not over-large, and charming in its mix of exhibits. In the British Museum, you can spend the whole day in the Egyptian sections, whereas the Burrell takes you under French medieval gateways on a trip from British domestic ware to a Stuart dining room to weapons to Chinese porcelain to a Rembrandt self-portrait in a few steps. The Kelvingrove is wonderful, as is the Hunterian. We didn’t have time for it all, breaking my rule (see earlier post) that after three days you’ve done most of any city.
- Will we ever get into whisky ? We visited the Pot Still and dabbled in 10 year Talisker, but maybe (even with internet guidance and – would you believe – internet tasting) life is too short to develop all our weaknesses.
- Rennie Mackintosh was a genius. Many cities and towns oversell their sons and daughters. Not in this case. But he died broke, like Mozart.
- Many of the great institutions were the result of donations from the rich – not just the Burrell, for example, but also the park within which it is located. Great university and museum buildings show the confidence and magnanimity of the era. Are we doing this now ? I know that there are some philanthropists, Gates, Ondaatje and Sainsbury, but when was the last city park or museum established or library saved by a hedge fund trader or bonus laden banker ?