IN EARLY JANUARY, 1968, when the country was being run by a Gannex raincoat which any political pawnbroker would have rejected as being urgently in need of Socialist re-proofing, a hurricane, code-named ‘Low Q’, struck Central Scotland, causing a score of deaths, rendering hundreds homeless, and inflicting severe structural damage. How many trees were lost on that wild night was at the time of small public interest. But, such was not the case last October when a similar hurricane blasted some blue chip counties in Southern England. On that occasion arboreal destruction was of prime concern. The Observer magazine, for example, in a review of 1987 reported that the English storm “Felled 15 million tress and killed 19 people...”
That the focus of contemporary concern should be on material rather than on human loss is in keeping with the pernicious yahoo values that pollute these Ethicless Eighties. In the Filofaxical world of the City, trees represent long-term investment, whereas ordinary humans (at present being reprogrammed for drudgery in the Service Sector) belong, financially speaking, to quick put-through expedience-capitalism.
This was not yet the case back in the Glasgow of the Sixties. On that bleak January dawn which followed ‘the night of the flying lums’ Glasgow’s Lord Provost boldly declared that not a single workman would pass through his own gates to tend to his storm damage until every household in the city had been made watertight. This went down well with his wind-blitzed citizens, although a malicious rumour circulated that the City Father’s property had been repaired that same night when a squad of Corporation tradesmen was lowered onto his roof by helicopter.
During those debris-strewn days, Ross ‘n’ Mabon (not the comedy team once so popular in the Old Queens, but the Scottish Secretary and Under Sec. of State) were to be seen in Glasgow Streets talking to ordinary people and, when Press-snappers were around, even shaking pensioners’ hands and patting children’s damp heads. Also to be seen abroad were House Factors and sun-tanned Property Owners who scurried around asking directions to the whereabouts of their life-support systems. Once the damage to their property had been assessed these Owners withdrew to such grey places as Miami or the Solomon Islands from where it was possible to take a more objective view of the catastrophe.
Meanwhile, Joe Public, his morale stiffened, his roof tarpaulined, quietly went on emptying his morning rain-bucket, confident that the authorities were doing all they could to promote his welfare. He could scarcely have been chuffed though if he chanced upon the following letter which appeared in a Glasgow newspaper at that post-storm time:
Viewed from the flagpole at Queens Park, how picturesque - positively Parisian, in fact - the city looks with its gaily chequered rooftops. What a pity we shall, sooner or later, return to drab old slates...” It goes without saying that if the Glasgow Bucketeers had got their hands on this whimsical Francophile then the pole at Queens Park would have been burdened by something more apposite than a flag.
Although Joe Public was not to know it then, this letter with its sheen of smug self-interest, carried with it a presentiment of the rape of things to come when, only a couple of decades later, he would find himself betrayed by the Establishment of his grey and gallus city, find, too, that he was no longer welcome at the heart of it. In those days to come, when trees would outrank men, a tribe of mercenaries would occupy the centre of things, bumptious bipeds the Media would call Yuppies, a species of money-lice which would issue from the cracks in our fractured democracy.
But in his civic nest at George Square, Mother Kelly, that hatcher of media-speckled eggs, could be forgiven for underestimating the destabilizing consequences of the Administration’s cow-towing and pandering to the Yuppies’ avaricious needs. Beneath his wing at that time was an imposing clutch of projects that when hatched would earn him the reputation of having been the most entrepreneurial Provost ever to have graced his office. These projects included such sprightly chicks as the Burrell Collection, the GEAR Project, the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, Glasgow’s New Image campaign with its ludicrous logo about the city’s claim - despite rotten back teeth and false front ones - to be able to outsmirk everyone else. Yes, he was Mr. Happy all right. But he was also a little puzzled. There was an odd egg in the batch - nicotine brown in colour. What on earth would hatch from it? So entranced had he become by this alien egg and its problematic contents that Mother Kelly seemed not to notice that there were a lot of Mr. Unhappy’s parading before his Chambers’ doors. Ironically, it seemed, he had been beguiled by his own slogan. If Glasgow was really miles better at anything then it must be at self-deception. For a start, what was miles better about the housing conditions in the Inner City and on the Urban Rim? In some pockets of squalor up to 35 per cent of the housing stock failed to meet the legal minima. It was estimated last year that something like a billion pounds would be required to effect repairs on up to 80,000 sub-standard homes throughout the city. We were miles better at producing truly shocking unemployment statistics too. Last year in the Anderston ward, for instance, 45 per cent of those under 24 were without work. In July of that year in Woodlands the total stood at 57.79 per cent.
Civic crowing about a new Glasgow which was rising powerfully from the debris left by the collapse of the traditional chimney stack industries made a mockery of the privations being endured by those in the peripheral schemes like the Drum, Castlemilk and Easterhouse where those forerunners of social collapse - apathy and resignation - were to be seen with growing frequency. While the City Fathers were busy persuading themselves that ‘the Bird that never flew’ was in fact a phoenix that would rise to signal the birth of the Service Sector Renaissance, Mrs. Unhappy was on the lookout for something more mundane, perhaps a joiner, plasterers, or plumber who would do something to avert the collapse of her crumbling household. It would be of no comfort to her at all that once she was under the auspices of the new Housing Agency - Scottish Homes - she would be able to select her own landlord. This is tantamount to being told that although they are still going to hang you the choice of executioner is yours.
It was surely obvious from the start that the provision of executive flats in the Merchant City, the wholesale conversion of derelict warehouses, factories and lofts into yup-market homes would inaugurate obnoxious ‘zones of exclusion’ consequences, or, in street parlance, ‘no-dough-no-go’ areas, Yuppiedoms in fact, ghettos for the greedy, customised to cater for its inhabitants’ taste for the good life. There would be, of course, no official, declaration of such a divisive policy but astronomical housing costs, and the inflated consumer goods prices would in the long run prove more effective gates or watchdogs at keeping ‘the great unwashed’ at bay. The working class citizen would be made to feel intimidated in this world of wynds, mews and shopping malls. The Briggait Market, for instance, with its toffee-nosed ambience is but a fore-runner of the snob-shops to come. Up in Buchanan Street, which is to be the focal point of the Glasgow Renaissance, the Princes Square development is knee-deep in ambience. All very ornate, yes, a cathedral dedicated to consumerism, imbued with the holy hush of money where the goods on offer are so pricey even the cheapest of them should carry a government wealth warning.
By now, of course, the city council, the SDA and the GA (Glasgow Action, a group of prominent business men) had got into their entrepreneurial stride. With their hands on their wallets GA pledged itself to assist in the economical and environmental regeneration of the city. It is well to remember, that some business men tend to think that the real Glasgow extends no further than Mother Kelly’s well-scrubbed doorstep, i.e. Merchant City and Environs. The tacky bits, those beyond the pale like the inner city dole-traps and the ruination on the rim, well, these again in the street sense of the expression, have been well and truly scrubbed.
It is no surprise that a group like GA, whose chief aim is a ‘dynamic and cosmopolitan city centre’ should advocate a strategy of civic implosion, i.e. energy flowing from rim to core, a centripetal force, and the direct opposite, in fact, to that centrifugal explosion triggered back in the Sixties by those poliscidal maniacs who called themselves Planners. The trashing of half the city in the name of ‘slum clearance’ was like the Dresden bombing - an unforgiveable act of community overkill.
Is this to be remedied, then? Is St. Mungo, with open arms, now calling his scattered children home? Yes, he is, but there are a few provisos: don’t bother to come unless you are equipped with a blankety-blank chequebook and pen. Very expensive place to work, live and play in is Yuppieland. It’s this ambience stuff, of course - it has to be specially imported. Another thing, don’t bother to come if you are not young, adventurous, and willing to display shirt-sleeved heroism at the frontiers of Finance, or to demonstrate business courage above and beyond the call of lucre.
While, as befits an implosive strategy, the city’s commercial core will draw upon its indigenous skill-banks to power the needs of the Service Sector Renaissance, it is acknowledged that there will have to be imported expertise. Financial planners, corporate lawyers, accountants, computer software personnel, etc. Such people will be in high demand as the city changes its economic pattern from a branch-office enterprise to one that will be sufficiently robust and expansive enough to attract and support corporate headquarters. This huge operation would perhaps not create a jobs bonanza but it would most certainly cause an upsurge in vacancies for domestics, hotel staff, shop assistants, barmen, waitresses, security men, etc., though, as is the trend nowadays, much of this employment would be on a part-time basis.
Ten or so years ago it was difficult to persuade tourists that Glasgow was more than a grey launch-pad from which one took off to sample the delights of the real Scotland. This attitude has changed dramatically as the city has geared itself, both by an acceleration of hotel building and the creation of places of interest within Glasgow itself, to the promotion of a major tourist boom. The renovations and innovations taking place at present in the Merchant City itself is spearheading this tourist operation. Already in situ is the Tron Theatre, and a short distance from this is to be found the Briggait Market where lonely stallholders can be seen tossing herrings to catch a sprat. On now to St Enoch Square where there will be so much overhead glass they should have called it Pilkingtons Place. When this canopy is completed it is believed Glasgow will have the largest Starling Conference Centre in the world. It is the planners’ intention to create a mini-village in this location where its higgledy-piggledy squares, wynds, and crooked passageways will be lit by the soft lantern-like glow of quaint shoppes and arty boutiques. Muggers? No, muggers are not to be allowed. Definitely not! Still under glass we cross from St Enochs into Buchanan Street were the opulent lure of Princes Square proves difficult to resist. But, since we are rather low in gold ingots we will proceed past it to where Gordon Square will be in the future with its exciting mixture of pavement cafes, restaurants, casinos - it will be quite Parisian, in fact.
No longer is the Clyde going to be allowed to slouch through the city like an old grey tramp - soon it is going to have work for its passage. Close by Kingston Bridge plans are being studied for the provision of a weir. This will, of course, eliminate tidal problems and it is hoped that floating restaurants can be moored here; accommodation for river craft will be provided, too, which could mean a place for the Waverley - if they can find out what keeps making it stop. There are big plans afoot for the adjacent Broomielaw - shops, bars, luxury homes - these will transform it into a desirable city location.
This year, of course, marks the city’s Garden Festival. If the prices for admission to it prove to be accurate then no doubt it will come to be known as – ‘The Dear Green Place’. Also this year the city will be host to the Baptist Youth Conference - an event which will accommodate some 10,000 delegates and will pump an estimated £4 million into the local economy. Another unusual event will be the Orchid Conference which is pencilled in for 1993. Glasgow and orchids might seem a strange mix but it is just another indication of the city’s change of image. Maybe they will name one of the exotic blooms ‘The Wee Hard Man’ as a reminder of the infamous past.
1990, of course, is a year writ large in the Civic Diary - the year when Glasgow becomes a City of Culture. What an honour! Perhaps they will even throw an official Barmecide feast and invite all the no-jobbers and no-hopers to attend. Pardon? Call yourself cultured and you don’t know what a Barmecide feast is! Of course you know, brother - you’ve been at such a feast ever since this Glasgow’s Miles Better fantasy began. Yes, now you remember. That’s it - a Barmecide feast is one where all the dishes are empty, an imaginary banquet. It came, as you say, from an Arabian Nights tale, the one in which the Barmecide prince gives the starving Schacabac such a feast for a jest. The ravenous man pretends to eat and relish the empty dishes set before him. But after he has consumed copious draughts of illusionary wine he feigns drunkeness and assaults the prince. The latter, seeing the humourous side, forgives Schacabac and provides him with food to his heart’s content.
A cautionary tale perhaps for super-optimistic City Fathers and Yuppies imbued with an overweened sense of their own importance. The moral? Well, things might not work so amicably as in the story, for this time Schacabac will not be coming to the feast. Out there on the Urban Rim he will watch and bide his time. His brother will watch too from his Inner City wilderness. Both have had enough of feasting from empty plates and from equally empty promises. It would be wise to remember that a City which can work the miracle of changing violence into orchids also knows how to reverse the process.