It’s always odd looking at cities you know well through the eyes of others. But it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise how the world is choosing to view Glasgow: industrial city rediscovers itself.
It’s something we’re going to have to get used to over the next eight months, as Glasgow nears the start of the Commonwealth Games in July. This thought occurred to me when reading this week’s write up of the city in the New York Times. It feels like the sort of story we’ll be hearing more of, headlined Nostalgia Rears Its Scruffy Head.
If you’ve read any travel pieces about former industrial hubs in the last decade, you should be used to this by now. The theory goes: a city is depressed by the loss of blue-collar jobs, and after several decades of neglect, is suddenly is woken up by a big party that reminds itself how young and exciting is.
It’s a glib narrative that might explain the odd reference to Alasdair Gray in the middle of the piece. Gray wrote Lanark, a four-part take on Glasgow and its dystopian counterpart, Unthank. It’s tense, monstrous and utterly makes sense of the city. It quickly became a cult classic and helped make Canongate into Scotland’s best-known publishers in the process on its release. Now, it’s one of the most useful ways to get a feel for the city.
You won’t know this from reading the Times’ feature, where Gray is briefly dismissed as a ‘local artist’ who painted murals at the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant. His role in defining the place, and probably the most interesting person mentioned in the whole piece? Someone who could have said something startling about the city? Well, that doesn’t quite seem to fit with the official narrative.
I was last in Glasgow in June. The stadium wasn’t quite finished, but even now it is done, it will became part of one of those strange by-the-numbers regenerated areas that we Brits are very good at. There’s the essential anchor point of a body of water (the River Clyde), a nod to the industrial past (Finniestone Crane, once used to lift newly-built trains onto ships for export), the popular draw, built in swooping architecture (über-conference centre the SECC, now joined by the Hydro stadium), and across the river, a media hub (the BBC’s overbudget new Scotland HQ, Pacific Quay).
This could be Cardiff Bay we’re talking about, or around the Baltic in Newcastle/Gateshead, or any other number of cities who have undergone regeneration in the last couple of decades.
So far, the story of Glasgow doesn’t seem to be told in a different way. The festival is being treated as a tale of the city rediscovering itself – these stories are always couched that way, reducing them to little more than weekend breaks you can easily grasp with a quick visit to the People’s Palace and a night out at King Tut’s.
If that turns out to be the case, it’s hard to differentiate what is on the cards for this July from the last time an almost identical event took place: the garden festival of 1988. This time instead of giant flower clocks we have Tom Daley in some skimpy pants. In which case, I guess we’ll be back here in 2038 as Glasgow officially acknowledges but throws off its industrial past to rediscover a younger, more self-confident version of itself. See you there!