The Real Glasgow Effect on all of us

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, February 10th 2016

Glasgow is many things. It is a place, an idea and a story.

Willie McIlvanney once captured this writing: ‘Glasgow is a great city. Glasgow is in trouble. Glasgow is handsome. Glasgow is ugly. Glasgow is kind. Glasgow is cruel.’

There is a Glasgow industry of books about the city – the biggest and most burgeoning concerning any UK city – London apart, which is over ten times its size. There are dry academic accounts and studious examinations. There are cultural tours. Then there is football – ‘the Old Firm’ and occasionally Hampden, Queen’s Park and the Scotch Professors. There are gang memories of violence and crime of a grim, Razor City. For light relief there are celeb biographies of the city’s celebrated sons and daughters from Dorothy Paul to Elaine C. Smith. Finally, there are coffee table books of photographs – sometimes historic, sometimes of the present.

This adds up to seven types of Glasgow Book which according to Christopher Booker in his ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ is the number of elemental stories in the world. Let’s leave aside that he attempts to have his cake and eat it, by both having lots of micro-stories below the seven, and one unifying story which unites the seven. His point is that there are a limited number of stories.

Glasgow has attracted and drawn storytellers from the time of its birth, and in particular, since its 19th century explosion as a centre of wealth and industry, alongside grotesque hardship and poverty. This made Glasgow a magnet for people and population migration, and with it came overcrowded slums and appalling living conditions for many of its citizens.

There are many uplifting accounts of the city – of industry, invention and imagination. Equally strong are problem explanations, for example Edwin Muir, an Orcadian, in his legendary ‘Scottish Journey’ of 1935 could not contain his revulsion as he tried to make sense of the city and balance it with his humanity. He saw Glasgow as ‘the rotten heart’ of Scotland according to T.C. Smout’s description of his account, writing that it was a ‘No Man’s Land of civilisation’ with a life ‘barbarous and degrading’ which affects everyone, rich and poor, and forces them to live with ‘blind-spots as big as a door’. Half a century later, SNP bigwig Mike Russell retook Muir’s journey and experienced his ‘horror and revulsion’ at the state of the housing estates, but expressed his ‘affection for the city’, which he found too complex to summarise.

It is seldom commented that Glasgow is completely absent in Neal Ascherson’s ‘Stone Voices’, one of the most influential accounts of modern Scotland. Indeed, the entire West of Scotland urban experience doesn’t make any substantial appearance. The reason for this as Ascherson has himself admitted is that he just doesn’t really get Glasgow, and was wary of trying to.

There are in nationalist accounts of the city an element of incomprehension. The SNP grew up as a rural, non-Central Belt party that has until recently seen Glasgow as an other, an impenetrable Labour heartland – one which should be kicking against the sticks of generations of one-party rule and cronyism, and which until the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections didn’t. For all the hype of the two Govan by-election victories, it took until 2011 for the SNP to ever win a parliamentary seat in the city from Labour in a national election.

The Nationalists fell for one account of the city – that of their political opponents. This was ‘Red Clydeside’, the left myth, not noting that this was as much a fable of the right and ‘bourgeois Glasgow’, to scare the middle class at night with the fervor of the revolutionary (or at least very angry) mob.

Glasgow is big and Glasgow is small. It is an idea bigger than Scotland, but smaller in reality – a city which has shrunk from 1.1 million to approximately 600,000 on its current council boundaries. But there is another sense of its smallness, in its insecurities and very evident chip on its shoulder.

Glasgow’s bigness’ can be felt in its swagger, attitude, buzz and spirit. This is a place with similarities to mid-Manhattan – in the imposing architecture, history, and the way in which people walk and talk quickly. Through geography and trade the city has a potent sense of international connection, of looking out to the world, as much as to the country it is part of. And because of this its horizons have consistently extended far beyond Scotland.

Its bigness carries with it elements of chauvinism and arrogance, but its smallness can be equally problematic. It can be found in the turf wars of centuries of tribalism, which still affect the city, its culture and in particular, its football. There has been a Glasgow spring for the last four years with the Celtic-Rangers derby in abeyance – with only one isolated cup meeting due to Rangers starting again in the lower leagues. For many of us, this has given the entire city a palpable release from the suffocating circus of the ‘Old Firm’ and its related offshoots: drinking, mayhem and related violence.

In the last month, another Glasgow stushie broke into public when artist Ellie Harrison announced she was undertaking a year-long project called ‘The Glasgow Effect’ and had been awarded £15k from Creative Scotland. This hit a number of nerves: the use of a photograph of chips on the Facebook page introducing it, the role of public monies, and the question of the purpose and content of modern art. Last week, Imagination: Scotland’s Festival of Ideas (which I co-run with Roanne Dods) held a sell-out event with Ellie and some of her critics, including the rapper Loki and Katie Gallogy-Swan.

‘The Glasgow Effect’ originated as a term to describe the life expectancy of people in the city, and was coined by Glasgow Centre for Population Health researchers. It involves pathbreaking research which shows that not all of Glasgow’s poor health is about poverty, measuring the city against the comparable examples of Liverpool and Manchester, and finding not all of it can deduced to material factors. This is ‘the Glasgow effect’.

However, it has become a victim of its own success. It is frequently cited by people who believe it shows poverty kills Glaswegians prematurely. That’s not what it is about. We do not need research to show that. But its ubiquitous character has meant that something that set out to explain and depathologise Glaswegians has begun to be used to pathologise and blame Glaswegians for their plight to the extent that some of its original authors have started to stop using the term.

One dimension running through the discussion was the question of power. Who and what has power in the city? What forces can people draw on or create as their own to change the city? What does one do, if anything, with Glasgow City Council? The answers aren’t exactly simple or clear-cut.

There is a potent connection between Glasgow citizens, civic pride and history and tradition. Glasgow Corporation, the name for the council until 1974, used to undertake civic classes for its citizens, in schools and nightclasses for adults, and produced such publications as ‘Glasgow: Our City’ published first in 1949. It discussed in simple terms, the past, present and future plans of the city, This was a common vision, patrician, driven by the elders and experts of Glasgow, and authority (and the council) being seen as omnipotent, but it was a popular and shared one.

Numerous other expressions of this vision gave it popular reach and impact. Between 1921 and 1974, Glasgow Corporation made the most public information films of any public body in the UK outside London. They covered a rich array of subjects – public health, housebuilding and slum clearance, motorways, and the power of industry and commerce. Striking in these short films – which ranged from five minutes to half an hour – is the hope, collective endeavor and sense of possibility. They are an expression of a municipal optimism bereft of the traps of today’s officialese: of advertising, marketing and packaging bunkum. This is firmly and unapologetically Glasgow pre-the Brand.

The other powerful defining strand running through the city is gender. Glasgow has been for much of its existence a very male dominated city, one of powerful, totemic male jobs of ‘men of iron’ and ‘men of steel’. But it has also been a place with another story, that of women running large parts of the informal city: from rent strikes and community groups to looking after and managing the ‘chaotic’ affairs of many of their menfolk. The problem with Glasgow men was one of the main strands in Carol Craig’s book, ‘The Tears that Made the Clyde’ which in its bleak prospectus seemed to offer little hope or escape.

In the indyref the allure of ‘Glasgow men’ as the potential deciding factor of the campaign arose on the Yes side. This missed that due to male life expectancy Glasgow is one of the most predominantly female cities in the UK. The most female constituencies in the UK are found in Glasgow: the most pronounced being Glasgow South East (53.9%) and Glasgow East (52.9%) where SNP Natalie McGarry defeated Labour’s Margaret Curran.

Glasgow of course sometimes gives the appearance of speaking to or assuming it speaks for Scotland. This happened in the later stages of the indyref, where the SNP and Yes mistook the buoyancy and energy of the city, for the whole country. The Nationalists had gone from being outsiders of the city and questioning Glasgow exceptionalism, to identifying and buying into it.

A Martian studying the TV signals from Scotland and tuning into BBC’s ‘Reporting Scotland’ or STV’s ‘News at Six’ would get an impression of a country made up of a few Glasgow streets, lots of disgruntled and angry men, very few women, and an obsession with football and crime. They might on this evidence think twice about sending a Martian mission over to us!

Glasgow isn’t and never has been representative of Scotland. Many times the power of its stories has crowded out other accounts – from the rest of the West of Scotland, to Edinburgh, the North East, and Highlands and Islands. There are limits to how Glasgow is portrayed, which can be clearly seen in much of BBC and STV coverage, or the missing voices in much of its fiction, novels and plays. There is an absence of paradox, contradiction and fluidity, from many of the powerful stories in a city continually shaped by such factors.

Willie McIlvanney wrote in the same essay cited previously: ‘Some people in Glasgow live full and enlightened lives. Some people in Glasgow live lives bleaker than anyone should live – and die deaths bleaker than anyone should die.’ But even this doesn’t do the city full justice, because it presents a ‘tale of two cities’ in one place, ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘the Glasgow effect’ and ‘the Glasgow miracle’.

Even ‘them’ and ‘us’ Glasgow with its binary nature is a problem, because often, the two cities don’t acknowledge or recognise the legitimacy of the other. If you think that’s an over-statement look at the Celtic v. Rangers rivalry, and the whole hullabaloo over whether Rangers who went into liquidation in 2012, are in their current existence, an ‘oldco’ or ‘newco’.

Edwin Muir, making sense of the chaos of 1930s Glasgow and its contrast with the Orkney Islands, wrote, ‘Glasgow contains such a number of things: thousands of families living in harmony or in dissension, comfortably or poorly, in anything from one small room to twenty large ones … and a thousand things more which paralyse the mind when it tries to number them.’

Muir was hinting at the perils of Glasgow and ‘the danger of the single story’ found in ‘them’ and ‘us’. In today’s world, we have the conceit of believing we have advanced from the supposed simplicities of 1930s Glasgow, but in many respects, we are still enthralled to the same monostories – whether it is nationalism (Scottish or British), left-wing politics or individualism and consumerism. Maybe Glasgow isn’t that special or unique, but just more acutely reflects the pressures and tensions of 21st century life, as it has done the ages before it. Perhaps, that is the real ‘Glasgow Effect’.