On the 900 bus a trio of females – mother, two daughters – occupy three rows, two seats apiece. Each of them has a mobile, each with its own ringtone – George Michael’s Careless Whispers the winner in the irony stakes. The younger of the two sisters gets a call – her ringtone some generic electro racket. Hullo? She listens. Who’s this? she asks. She listens some more. Unsure but assertive, she speaks up. Who is this? Alerted, Big Sister jumps from her seat to mob-hand Wee Sister, as if her presence alone will threaten the mystery caller. It’s a scam, she says, cut them off.
Now Mother gets involved. Who is it? Don’t know, says Wee Sister, some English lassie. She tellt me her boyfriend’s gettin’ too many calls from my number. Big Sister butts in. It’s a scam so it is. I’ve had they calls. They ask you your personal details. But I never told them anything, protests Wee Sister.
I get off the bus, relieved the sunshine hasn’t disappeared. I buy a coffee at AMPM and the same thin blonde serves me. Maybe one day I’ll win her over. I sit on the metal tube bench. Nothing doing, apart from a liveried tour bus parked at the rear of the Royal Concert Hall, announcing Jackie Stewart’s latest book, Winning’s Not Enough. Tell that to the people of Glasgow as they wait to learn the outcome of the city’s bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. No drama today outside the bus station, so I head to the top of Buchanan Street to see what the scoop is.
Music – staccato guitar, Hank Marvin style reverberates down the canyon. Sat by the ungainly statue of Donald Dewar, now stood on a higher plinth to deter the neds, I find a pair of likely customers. Jim’s on a Fender Strat, or at least a copy of a Fender Strat, plucking his way through 60s hits. His sidekick Ricky, is got up in a fluorescent green jerkin. He’s visible enough without it. A bear, all beard, rings and gold chains, an urban pirate. He wields a video camera. I learn that Jim composed the music for a film, Betty’s Brood, made by the community in the Gorbals in the early 90s. After favourable reviews, it had a short shelf life, playing at the London Film Festival and on Channel 4. I wonder if anybody saw any money. Dumb question. I leave, dropping a couple of quid in Jim’s hat. You can find me outside Marks and Spencer’s in Argyle Street, that’s my usual pitch, Jim tells me. I say I’ll look him up.
I take the underground – inner circle – to Shields Road. On the platform I hear an English accent, a middle-aged man telling his companion, a black woman, this is what Glaswegians call the Clockwork Orange. No they don’t, I think to myself. It was a term invented by the Evening Times to induce affection for this cheap plastic refit. When the underground system was overhauled in the 70s and 80s, the people of Glasgow mourned the loss of the second oldest underground system in the UK; its wood and bevelled glass and leather seating. For five years I took the subway five days a week during my school years at Hillhead High in the West End. Govan Cross to Kelvinbridge.
These days the trains aren’t orange, they’re painted in a maroon and cream two-tone, with the odd carriage sporting puffs for the Commonwealth Games bid, like it’s in the bag. I wonder whether the citizens equate all this PR with the inevitable rise in council tax, a rate currently higher than in the capital.
At Shields Road the sun is already slipping. Looking eastwards up Scotland Street is Tradeston and the city centre. Looking west is Kinning Park, where I spent the first seven years of my life in an archetypal slum – a third storey room and kitchen at 13 Sleads Street: cold water, no toilet, let alone a bath, coal bunker on the landing, gas lighting, men with rickets on the street. More 30s than 60s.
Across the street is the red brick façade of Howden’s Engineering Works. For a time in the late 60s, my mother worked here beside her mother, employed as a cook in the work’s canteen. Even in those days the work was contracted out to a firm, Vendepac. I have a memory of visiting the works when it was still a viable engineering company. Now it lies vacant, ripe for redevelopment. I take a few pictures but I’m not inspired. Peel-off signage – Tiger Developments – is tacked to the blocked-off windows. I wonder what’s in store for such an odd collection of buildings, stuck as they are in a no man’s land of light industrial units, in what once was a bustling residential district: rows of tenements, shops, bars and – bizarrely – a sailmaker’s premises, a place that intrigued me as I waited for the trolleybus that every Sunday would transport me and my mother to Mearnskirk Hospital to visit my tubercular sister.
I’m interrupted. How’s it goin’, May? Long time, no? I peel my eye off the viewfinder to find a short, balding wee guy, brother of an old acquaintance. I’m offshore these days, he tells me without prompting, dumping two airport tagged bags as evidence. Waiting on her picking me up. He points to a new car park opposite. This is southside Glasgow where, if you hang around long enough you’ll be on first name terms with most of the population.
We chat. He tells me about his work, his family, his home – a desirable suburb just outside of Glasgow’s council tax zone. I dish him the abridged version of my life, my work and over ten years of marriage. As we part I take his picture – he grins like a kid on holiday – which he is, really, in spite of being a forty something man with twenty something kids – and we go our own ways.
The interruption throws me. Now I’m standing outside the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Scotland Street School. This stunning red sandstone building has a fairy castle aspect but stands in a wilderness. This is where my mother attended school in the early 1940s.
Somewhere in a family album is a class photograph. I remember picking out my mother from the rows of small, wan faces and boil-washed woollens. She’s tiny, her face impish, her smile reminding me of my own in my better moments. These days the school is a museum of education, owned by the city council, where parties of schoolchildren are bussed in to experience education from another era, slates and chalk and leather belts. It’s unlikely it will ever be a school again since so few children live locally. The new apartment blocks round these parts are aimed squarely at the young professional market.
I carry on to the corner of Shields Road and Scotland Street. But I hesitate. The M8 motorway cut a swathe through the western end of Scotland Street during the 70s. Sleads Street is long gone, along with Keyden Street, once home to Glasgow rockers, the Harveys, Alex and Leslie. Leslie was electrocuted by a live microphone during a Stone the Crows gig at Swansea’s Top Rank in 1972. Had he been a Beatle, no doubt the city would have erected a memorial.
Stanley Street survives, as does Middlesex Street and Portman Street, home to News International’s Scottish HQ and conspicuously heavy on security. Apart from Murdoch’s Scottish outpost, it’s mainly small businesses, light industrial warehouses and wholesalers flogging cheap imports. On the corner of Milnpark and Stanley Streets, the Stanley Bar is still trading. Above the door, a sign says ‘Happy Christmas’. It’s October.
Further down Milnpark Street, I’m drawn to Admiral Street. Here my father worked at Turner and Newall from the mid-50s to the 70s, one of the major companies involved in the asbestos business. It became Cape Insulation after being sold in the 80s, but with the bad rep attached to asbestos, it wasn’t long before the doors closed for good. These days the building has been split into a number of small business units. It’s almost but not wholly unimaginable that a company dealing in toxic substances could operate in a residential district today. Then again, the ICL/Stockline plastics factory explosion in Maryhill, killing 9 and injuring 37 people, is a recent reminder.
I head south down Stanley Street, abruptly cut off by the M8. On the left is the old Gray Dunn biscuit factory, now used as office and warehouse space. In 2002, we rented one of the floors as the production office for my film, Solid Air. At the time I told anyone who would listen that this was where, as a kid, I would stand outside the staff entrance looking hungry. On a good day I would score a square tin box filled with broken wafer biscuits. Gray, Dunn was eventually taken over by Rowntree, then Nestlé until, inevitably, the factory closed.
Opposite is the site of the Oxo factory, now operating as a private vet’s practice, presumably catering for guard dogs. A little further down are the remains of Our Lady and St. Margaret’s Primary School, built in 1910 by the architects Bruce and Hay, who built the Cooperative Buildings in Morrison Street, Tradeston. The striking feature of the building was the playground, built on the roof, four storeys up. Beside it, now almost completely demolished, is the church, now relocated to Portman Street and looking less of a place of worship than a warehouse. Glasgow is a city of gap site car parks, where every scrap of spare ground is given over to parking for profit. Even so, St Margaret’s has erected a sign pleading for drivers to make way for funerals. Looking at this shed, I wonder how much funeral business it attracts, given the apparent lack of custom from any live congregation.
How easily the past can be erased. Growing up in Kinning Park in the mid-1960s it was normal for entire streets to disappear in the space of days, so I have no illusions about the permanence of things. During my formative years, it was usual to see torn gables, split into variations of wallpapers, often with their fireplaces intact, clinging on, gravity-defying. Exposed, internal shelves housed everyday utensils: crockery and saucepans; a perpetual lung-clogging dust hung in the air, the reason I didn’t breathe normally until I was 7.
My first primary school, Lambhill Street, which I attended from 1964 to 66, no longer exists, apart from clues easily overlooked by anyone who never clung to its railings, crying to be released. Oddly, the site of the school stands on one of Harry Bell’s alignments – Crookston Castle to the Necropolis. All that remains today is the janitor’s house, more bijou and grander than I remembered, now converted into an office space for a PR firm. Behind it are assorted small ventures, notably a private nursery, handy for working parents. On my way down Scotland Street I pass three girls pushing prams, pram being derived from perambulator, a passing thought as I perambulate west.
On my way to Paisley Road West, a young guy stops to ask directions to a privately run media training school. Nick looks like he’s in his teens. I notice a disturbing hole in his forearm. He tells me his ambition is to become a sound engineer so I offer him some sound advice. On the Paisley Road I take more photographs – new, bland private tenements under construction, most of them pre-sold at a fixed price of £140,000, abandoned pubs, the elaborate insignia above what was once the Trustee Savings Bank, now operating as a bookies.
I arrive at the Angel Building at the Toll, where the Govan Road meets Paisley Road West. The angel’s official title is ‘Commerce and Industry’ and it’s a landmark I remember well from my childhood. This was the edge of my universe, where every Saturday I would go to the shops – Woolworths, Grants Furniture store, where my mother bought furniture on hire purchase. The Grand Ole Opry, once a disco in the 60s, the Birds and Bees, still survives.
Outside a bar I’m accosted by Mark, a dryliner from Newcastle. He’s up on a job at Silverburn, the new shopping centre in Pollok. Specialist stuff, he tells me. It’s around half past three and Mark’s been on the ale. He invites me in for a drink. I refuse. Then he asks for my phone number. I refuse.
I’m on my way to visit my only living uncle, who lives in an area once known as Plantation but now, for reasons unfathomable, is named Pacific Quay. My uncle lives opposite the new SMG and BBC Scotland buildings, buildings so curiously undesigned that Hunterston B and Cockenzie power stations could give them a run for their money on aesthetic merit.
The entire area has transformed in recent years, its derelict docks and warehousing parcelled off to private developers post the 1988 Garden Festival. As Billy Connolly once said of housing schemes, it’s ‘a desert with windaes’. A bridge, The Arc aka Squinty, was recently built to accommodate the employees of the two television companies and the nearby Science Museum and Imax cinema, an off-the-peg silver mound, the type of showpiece building every city seems to acquire these days, usually in the form of an art gallery, museum or some other so-called public space.
In this respect Pacific Quay is deeply old-fashioned; on the one hand its antecedents are Victorian, that by improvement, underwritten by public subsidy and private largesse, somehow the ills of Glasgow’s south-side citizens will be erased. On the other, Pacific Quay marks a return to the city’s mercantile past, since it represents commerce over industry, floated on debt and speculation. Its commodity these days is ‘experience’. In either case it’s the citizens who’ve been erased; here it’s possible to walk for miles and not pass another living soul. Aspirational yet undistinguished, it is the architectural equivalent of monologue, since it has no dialogue with the extant surroundings or its people. It loves the sound of its own voice. It is Sim City.
My uncle’s crumbling council house in McLean Square was burgled in March. He shows me where the robber entered via a glass door in the kitchen and tells me it took the local authority, Glasgow Housing Association, eight weeks to replace it. The robbers didn’t touch the DVD player or the television, he tells me, they know cheap stuff from Asda when they see it.
I fear for my uncle. In November 2006, his wife, my aunt, died of MRSA, contracted during a stay at the Southern General Hospital for a minor operation. He tells me his drinking has increased lately. Twice he has beaten cancer but he is not a well man. Desperately lonely, he lives on sixty-two pounds a week benefit, half of what he and my aunt lived on previously. He’s not entitled to rent or council tax rebate. Perhaps saddest of all is that he had to ask the staff at SMG not to park outside his house to make way for the hearse carrying his dead wife since the broadcaster underestimated the demand for parking and so clog the local streets with their vehicles. Meanwhile, a hundred yards away, the car park attached to the Science Museum lies empty due to the minimum two pound charge.
I had a letter, my uncle tells me, from a woman claiming my unhappiness started on the date of my wife’s death. The exact date. Of course, she was looking for money. Scam and profit motive seem to be the themes of the day. Like the mobile phone business I’d witnessed earlier, the act of actively scouring death notices, harvesting names and dates to extort money from the freshly bereaved is unconscionable in anybody’s book.
I walk with my uncle to The Grapes Bar on Paisley Road West where he works the occasional shift. The Grapes is one of several Rangers pubs in the area, close to Ibrox Stadium. He invites me in for a Coke. Inside a handful of customers prop up the bar; small grey men downing pints and bottles of Miller. The red, white and blue painted bar is filled with Rangers ephemera: framed autographed shirts and photographs. A large screen is permanently tuned to Sky Sports. The previous night the team had held Barcelona to a nil-nil draw at home. On TV, the announcer talks about the forthcoming Celtic-Benfica game. ‘Fenian cunts’ shouts a squat little man who turns from the screen to resume his anecdote about Jason throwing up on a banquette at some upmarket hotel. I drink my Coke and leave.