Norman Bissell

Glasgow’s Miles … Out

This One’s For Bradford

in Ashton Lane
outside the Chip

picture right
the rear end
of maroon limo
engine running
chauffeur waiting
in grey peaked cap

picture left
a mid fifties man
still smartly dressed
two small dogs
round his ankles
hand outstretched ...


Glasgow’s ...
... miles out.

Patrick McGuire, a freelance writer under contract to the Glasgow Festivals Unit and author of those big glossy 1990 throwaways, told an Open Circle debate in mid-November that he was “proud to have been part of the hype machine” which aimed to use the title of Cultural Capital of Europe “to attract inward investment into Glasgow”.

He said they were selling Glasgow's new image “not the divisiveness” of the past which he called “grotesque” and he also tried to ridicule the idea of Bradford ever being chosen as a City of Culture.

What was most revealing about the attitudes of some of the “cultural workforce” who came along that night was that, like their paymaster Pat “milk it for all it is worth” Lally, they wrote off Glasgow’s industries and working class struggles and proclaimed culture as yet another commodity to be marketed and sold so as to help usher in Glasgow’s ‘post-industrial’ age.

They seemed unaware that for over a century Glasgow has been a city not of one culture but of many cultures. Successive generations of Scots, Irish, Gaelic, Jewish, Indian, Pakistani, Polish, Caribbean, Chinese, African and other people have come to live and work in Glasgow (a fact which renders Patrick McGuire’s comments about Bradford even more objectionable).

These people brought with them their labour power and had taken from them the surplus value they created in the city’s factories, yards and workplaces. They came to this most proletarian of cities which had the worst housing, poverty, and ill-health in Europe and found, it being a capitalist society, that the prevailing culture was based on private ownership of the means of production, distribution and communication.

The ideas, values, attitudes and behaviour to which they were expected to assimilate have been those of bourgeois society and culture.

Those who came joined a huge class of people who had to struggle just to survive and who developed a rich tradition of struggle for economic, social, political and cultural change.

These included the struggles of the Calton spinners and weavers, the Chartists, Suffragettes, rent strikers, the shop stewards movement, apprentices and unemployed workers, John Maclean and other Clydeside revolutionaries and in the post-war period, those of engineering, shipyard, dock, postal, cleansing, fire brigades and council workers, together with seafarers, teachers, students, furniture-makers and of course our huge army of poll tax non-payers.

This history of struggle is what makes the description “Workers City” so appropriate. That name is also a statement of intent, since for it to be fully reaIised will require the workers themselves putting an end to capitalism and ensuring that Glasgow’s wealthy spongers do a week’s work the same as the rest of us.

Such a history is of course not “attractive to inward investment” and so the cultural miles better hype machine has to go into well-heeled action to suppress, distort and sentimentalise it.

The Culture City image they present us with is a false image because it highlights only one aspect of the totality and covers up the other harsher realities of life as it is lived in the city.

As such, it represents yet another form of idealism, in which culture, like some new-age religion, is to be worshipped by the tourist masses.

1990 is also a measure of how far Glasgow District Council’s Labour mafia, who have run the city for over fifty years, have absorbed the ‘enterprise culture’ values of the Thatcher era.

Having failed to defend jobs in Glasgow’s traditional industries, these misnamed labour leaders want to replace them for the most part with low-paid service jobs. Like the new model Kinnock Labour Party they have been adopting Tory policies and in some respects trying to outdo the Tories - putting out 60% of the work of the city’s parks department to private tender, introducing entry charges to the McLellan Galleries and ‘Glasgow's Glasgow’ flops and cutting 10 off all departments’ budgets to pay for the Year of Culture.

The single-minded determination of Messrs Lally, Crawford and their hangers-on to proceed with the sale to private developers of one third of Glasgow Green in spite of all the opposition can only be because this £30 million credit line would help bail them out of the financial crisis they have got themselves into.

Another measure of the spinelessness of Glasgow District Labour group was the way in which Pat Lally was let off the hook in mid-November and given another three months to work on selling off the Green using a bogus straw poll.

It is perhaps of some significance that the traditional left parties and groups have been virtually silent on most of the Year of Culture issues, being prepared, by and large, to give Lally & Co. a free run to spend, spend, spend.

I was amused in October to see a poster advertising a Socialist Workers Party public meeting in Derry which asked, “Is there a role for culture in the revolution?” The speaker was Mike Gonzales who lives and works in Glasgow but who, as far as I’m aware, has never raised a cheep all year about the Year of Culture and the role of Glasgow District Council.

All the more remarkable then that our Workers City Group which was not formed till March 1990, and was intended as a means of organising an alternative series of Workers City concerts and events, has inflicted such political damage on the Labour traitors’ traditional dominance in Glasgow. We have done so by uncovering the facts, speaking out and campaigning against the ‘Glasgow’s Glasgow’ fiasco, the unjust treatment of Elspeth King and Michael Donnelly and the postponed sale of Glasgow Green, and their interconnections. As a glance at any of the five issues of the Glasgow Keelie will show, this has been done fearlessly and with not a little poetics in our politics.

One consequence of our high level of active campaigning which has been essential because of the policies and push coming from Lally’s team is that much of the analysis and discussion of our alternative views of culture has yet to take place. The other reason for this has been the wholly bureaucratic and undemocratic way in which the Year of Culture apparatus was set up and administered in a way designed to avoid discussion of issues like “what kinds of culture?”

Who knows for example what was in Glasgow’s submission to the EEC or who supported the Festivals Unit and on what basis?

Did any of Glasgow’s people know that there was between £15 million and £50 million of District Council money to be spent and was anyone asked what their priorities might be for spending it?

Were any of the users of Strathclyde Region’s services asked whether they thought £20 million should be blown on getting in on the Culture City act, including massive press and TV advertising, at a time when £21 million cuts this year and £42 million next were about to be made?

There is nothing “clever and classless and free” about culture. On the contrary it reflects prevailing class forces and, whatever the intentions of the artists involved, much of it forms part of the ideological cement which helps to maintain power in the hands of the few.

The bulk of the 1990 programme consisted of traditional bourgeois culture of a fairly unadventurous kind, such as mainstream opera, theatre, ballet, art exhibitions etc., by which means Glasgow was initiated into the international circuit of expensive leading artistes and companies.

Socialists of course have never been opponents of the arts and have always been in favour of wider access to the best that bourgeois culture has to offer.

A good example of our position on this is contained in our Open Letter to Pavarotti. Following the intervention of that well known Scotia Bar worthy, Bobby Clark, in our discussion of the famous tenor’s visit, we issued 5,000 copies of our letter in Italian and English at the SECC welcoming Pavarotti, condemning the exorbitant ticket prices and inviting him back to do another concert for the people of Glasgow, this time for free.

Cultural activities of diverse kinds have been developing for many years in and around the city of Glasgow, mostly pioneered by unsung heroines and heroes who received little or no recognition, never mind money.

For example, the Glasgow Folk Festival of 1980 gave rise to Mayfest in 1984 and there has been a steady expansion of writers groups, small theatre companies, artists’ studios, magazines like West Coast, and multi- disciplinary networks like the Free University and Open World Poetics.

The 500 strong response to the Scotia Bar Writers’ Prize and the quality of the writings in A Spiel Amang Us indicate the creative upsurge in writing which is taking place.

Even here, the 1990 “Writing Together” events, centred at Glasgow University and the Arches, in spite of the many thousands of pounds spent bringing many excellent writers from all over the world to Glasgow, for the most part remained within the confines of the literary establishment with little living connection with the new vital forces among writers and their audience in and around the city.

Some of the other worthwhile events like the Glasgow Mela, Women in Profile and Sechaba have suffered from timing problems, events overkill and Festivals Unit bad planning. To the 1990 PR industry this didn’t seem to matter as long as it was there in the glossy brochures and could be shown to potential business ‘relocators’.

The cultural cowboys of the Festivals Unit have tried to incorporate as many of the ongoing artistic developments as they could under the 1990 umbrella by means of limited amounts of funding.

To their credit some groups and individuals have refused to ‘take the money’ and have survived and flourished anyway.

Still to be felt is the real damage done by the District Council's ‘money to burn’ philosophy, expressed in the big-spenders league:
Lally’s Palais: £6 million
Glasgow's Glasgow: £4.6 million and rising
Glasgow Cathedral Square: £3 million
The Bolshoi Ballet: £2.5 million
Sinatra: close to £1 million
Pavarotti: £800,000

Make no mistake, the people of Glasgow will be paying the price for years to come in cuts in council services and jobs and by the sale of the Green if they aren’t stopped first.

The question of what kind of alternative culture(s) we are in favour of has still to be clarified and this should be a major priority for us in 1991.

In my view, concepts like the peoples culture, working class culture or socialist culture are inadequate.

A people’s culture begs the question: which people? The culture of ordinary people, the folk scene or the pop world? Obviously, there are great popular traditions and institutions we wish to defend and advance such as the People’s Palace, May Day etc., but this hardly provides a sufficient basis for radical cultural development.

The concept of working class or proletarian culture also runs into similar difficulties in that working class ideas, attitudes and practice are heavily influenced by bourgeois control of the media, and by ruling class cultural oppression.

A socialist culture would only be fully possible under socialism which unfortunately does not exist anywhere in the world at present because of the economic impossibility of socialism in a single country. I’m sure we’d all agree that the bureaucratic norms of socialist realism are the last thing Glasgow needs, having suffered so much from the crimes of Stalinism as it has over the years.

In my view what is needed are the kinds of culture which tell the truth about the world both natural, social and psychological. These could not but reveal Glasgow as a city of enormous contradictions, divisions and struggle. They would involve much more than the culture as spectator sport so favoured by Lally’s pallies. They would be based in Scotland but draw on the most advanced ideas, experiences and artistic practice from all parts of the world.

All of the creative energies which this society has suppressed, stunted or misdirected would be released, and once released these could not but have the most powerful political consequences as the downfall in Eastern Europe of more powerful Stalinist regimes than Commissar Lally’s has shown.

A revolutionary culture would have to develop in close interconnection with the working class which remains a revolutionary class within capitalist society. It would be developed by those who are workers and those who are not. Those interested in reflecting the truth in their art cannot but aspire to a complete and radical transformation of our society.

In Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s outstanding essay on Glasgow written in the 1930s and reprinted in the first Workers City book in 1988, he went to Loch Lomond to get a more complete perspective on the city and what had been inflicted on its inhabitants.

I also believe it is essential to get out of the city whenever possible and to get closer to the earth, the sea, the hills and trees, rocks, plants and animals not just to put Glasgow in perspective but also for their own and our sake.

The Motherwell skyline on that happy day when Margaret Thatcher resigned is scarcely that, but it'll have to do for now.

The Craig

Four pillars
of thick white smoke
belching out
all day long
from mill
moulded steel blue
against a clear
blue sky.

Maggie’s just gone
up in smoke.

The mill keeps
on working
day darkening
to deepest red
as sun goes down.

Where there's smoke there's hope.