Glasgow: My home town

As the river Clyde winds its way through Glasgow it narrows slightly as it heads towards Govan.

Years ago, this juncture in the river would be the point at which the shipyards would come into view.

Dry docks and cranes once dominated the skyline here and this riverbend was the start of a hive of industrial activity that would stretch for miles along both banks of the Clyde.

The Clyde – so synonymous with shipbuilding even to this day. From 1870 until the start of the First World War Glasgow produced almost one fifth of the worldÒ€ℒs ships – making it the “second city of the empire”.

But as shipbuilding transferred east, and as the industrial and manufacturing economy of the UK began to transform, the river Clyde and Glasgow saw a decline in their fortunes.

For years, this bend in the river, for so long the gateway to a strong and dynamic industrial centre, lay dormant and decaying.

As a child, I recall sitting on the top of a double decker bus and looking down at the dry docks as the weeds took hold and the stone disintegrated and crumbled.

It seemed, back then, as if the heart had been torn out of the place, as if something had disappeared that would never return. For a bleak moment in the 1970s, it felt as though the whole spirit of the city had been squashed.

Except Glasgow isn’t that sort of city. It isn’t that defeatist, that pessimistic.

Don’t get me wrong, there are problems aplenty in Glasgow (endemic poverty perhaps being the biggest of them), but despite this, despite the problems, one thing that Glasgow is, and always will be, is optimistic.

So to take a walk along that river bend now, is to step into a future world, an optimistic world. A world of pioneering architecture whose metallic sheen proclaims that the spirit that once seemed lost is alive and well.

And it’s a very tangible feeling this. It’s something that can be felt in the air – this promise of the future. If the past was glorious, it certainly seems as though the future is expected to be so too.

In fact, the buildings seem to suggest that this shiney, silver future is already here. Onwards and upwards they cry.

It’s strange. Because as I walked along the river, marvelling at that wonderful new skyline, and crossing thin and dramatic new bridges, I was reminded of Amsterdam. Of the difference in the way both cities are approaching the future.

Both are raising bold and glistening new structures. The skyline of Amsterdam is littered with cranes and each month the place seems to change as a new building comes to occupy a new space in the sky.

And yet for all that, Amsterdam retains this sense that it is an old place. For all the pale green glass and gleaming aluminium, for all the bold and brash modernity, it is the past that somehow seems to dominate here.

The old city layout, defined by canals and a spiderweb network of alleyways and streets, still somehow sets the character of Amsterdam. It’s as if the future, the newness only makes sense in relation to this past. There’s a feeling here that the eras compliment one another and provide each other with some sort of meaning.

To walk around Glasgow though, is to walk into a city that seems more preoccupied with the future. As if it’s only really the future that matters.

Which is not to say that the past has no place in Glasgow. Far from it. Take a walk through the city’s parks for example and you’ll soon discover some statue explaining that the grounds were bequeathed to the city by some industrialist or other.

Or visit one of the libraries, the Mitchell or the Elderpark say, both donated by the Carnegie family and both still very much hubs of the community.

High up in Park Circus, the pale yellow stone of the Georgian terraces and crescents, with their genteel gardens, are a clear testament to the wealth and industrial success that Glasgow once enjoyed.

And yet for all that, the sense of the past, the pride in that heritage, seems somehow subdued, less prominent than it is in Amsterdam.

It’s as though each era in Glasgow’s history is somehow distinct, is somehow less linked to the present or the future. It is something to be acknowledged in passing as the march forward continues.

Erect a statue, maintain a crane, commemorate the past, but be sure to leave it there.

In Amsterdam, plenty of those canal houses are still homes, the old spaces still fulfilling the role that they were designed for. The past is very much alive and is still visible, is still in use as it were, today.

Whereas those terraces on the hill in Park Circus in Glasgow are mainly offices and ceased being homes years ago. The spaces, the nature of the spaces, has changed. The past is not as prominent. Not in the way it is in Amsterdam.

It’s hard to know which I prefer to be honest.

There’s a charm about Amsterdam. Having the past mingle so easily with the present, seeing how it will form (a physical) part of the future, makes sense in so many ways. There’s an understanding of the past that ensures it is somehow incorporated into present day life.

Perhaps Glasgow’s past has simply been too traumatic these past decades for it to sit so easlity with the present and the future?

Perhaps the tumult of de-industrialisation, the need to re-invent itself, to rediscover it’s sense of identity and direction, has meant that the past, for the moment, is simply too terrifying.

The images of those decaying dry docks that I can so vividly recall from my own childhood, are still very raw and very real. The spectre of decay is still there.

The sad memories of that recent loss are simply too real, so it’s all eyes to the future.

And I can’t help but admire that. I can’t help but be swept away by that rush of optimism, by that joyous ressurgence and infectious energy.

So every new building that rises along the Clyde will be met with a joyous whoop on my part as, brick by brick, the memories of those disintegrating docks fade away to be consigned to the past forever.

One thought on “Glasgow: My home town

  1. Just to wish you a Happy New Year, Jen.

    Many thanks for being such an enthusiastic poster to my blog for the past few months.

    I very much like the positive tone of your writing on Glasgow. Cities always renew themselves.

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