A Labour Wave Succeeds a Crime Wave.
Glasgow as seen by a Friendly Outsider
It is not for nothing that Glasgow is the Second City. One is not an admirer of big business or big populations. Quality and size are often in inverse ratio. But the majority does admire big things, and if other cities are not big it must be because they can’t help it. They may have done their best, and it just hasn’t been good enough.
Glasgow is saturated with the spirit of business. It is probably the only city in Britain where there is a deliberate emulation of what we think of as the American spirit. Glasgow men are like Americans in respect of a fondness for novelties and long words. I knew one elderly man who liked to say he had ‘unified’ himself with a party when he joined it. Another man liked to call a soda-water bottle a gasogene. Yet another had got hold of a good work but he had evidently read it hurriedly; he referred to a meeting as having been ‘a b---y fissaco!’ A small political body just after the Russo-Japanese war, headed its advertisements ‘Banzai! Banzai!’ which I suppose most people have forgotten is Japanese for ‘Hurrah!’
One would be disposed to say that there are exceptionally few idealists in Glasgow. Glaswegians take up with ideals but their feeling for them would appear to be like Mrs Bardell’s admiration for Mr Pickwick – it is admiration at a distance. When a Glasgow lady returned from a visit to a married friend, the first question her people asked her was whether her friend’s husband ‘had a good business.’ A few people stood watching a poor man feeding the birds and squirrels in a public park. They r remarked as they turned away that the man seemed to enjoy the confidence the wild creatures had in him, and that he must be a kind man. But a Glasgow woman remarked, ‘He doesn’t seem to have made much by it!’ He looked, indeed, little better than a tramp; but his poverty was not deepened by the few handfuls of crumbs he dispensed, and it did not seem an aspect of the matter that would occur to one readily.
Some months ago a Glasgow lady reader of The Gateway sent me a longish clipping from a newspaper. The article discussed Glasgow ‘Men and Manners’ with some point and wit, and, turning to the other side of the two-column strip to see if there was any indication of the name of the newspaper, I found the stop-press column blank save for a longish pencilled sum in simple addition which had four ha’pennies in it, and totted up to 3/9!
We are amused by a thing so characteristic as that the Glasgow Labour M.P’s should already have raised the question of the inadequacy of their salaries. Dozens of lower-middle class Labour men –English, Irish, and Welsh, have managed to rub along on £400, even through the dear war years. £8 a week should enable a Glasgow man to live well in London, especially if he has recently been drawing ‘the dole’ in Glasgow, as one at least of the new M.P’s was doing up to the time of his election. Davie Kirkwood (as they have begun to call him) smokes a clay pipe, as Mr Robert Smillie does also. £8 would go some way to Swinyerds or Burns Cutties and the appropriate tobacco. However, Glasgow is a town of the cash nexus and it may well occur to even Labour men (if they come from Glasgow) that being an M.P.should have its commercial value also.
It is an article of faith with Glasgow men and women that Aberdonians are the last word in greed. The theory has extended to London, and has doubtless been disseminated by the numerous Aberdonians on the London press, who are themselves the authors of the jokes embodying the Glasgow (and English) view of their fellow-citizens. It is a fine thing to have a currency for these japes and catchwords; the people to whom they are applied have to live them down, and that is good for the world, since they have to be generous to the people who jibe at them.
It is probably from this cause that an Aberdeen woman of humble means gave the maid half-a-crown at the end of her short visit, without saying anything about it, while the well-off Glasgow woman discussed whether sixpence or a shilling was the proper tip to give. Which is probably the reason why the one is poor and the other ‘comfortable.’
The other day the Glasgow papers had the common-form remarks about Aberdeen’s modified generosity a propos of a students’ collection. Glasgow raised, with much whooping, £3000 and Aberdeen, I forget what – over £3000 anyhow. Had Glasgow given in the same ratio to population her contribution should have been nearer £20,000. Aberdeen had two separate universities, one of them with the full continental curriculum, four hundred years ago, when not another university in Britain had it. But the typical Glasgow man is a careful spender – careful of his property in every way. When the idealists of the rest of the country were smashing images and ‘dinging down kirks’ whose architecture savoured of Popery , the canny Glaswegians mustered to the defence of their cathedral, which still stands as Andrew Fairservice says –
A brave kirk – nane o’ yer whigmaleeries, and curliewurlies, and open-sneck here about it – a’ solid, weel-jointed, masonwark that will stand as lang as the warld, keep hands and gunpowder aff it.’
The author of ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ was a Kirkcaldy man, but he taught in Glasgow University, which may thus be said to be the cradle of modern political economy. Robert Owen was a Welshman; but he married Davie Dale’s Glasgow ‘dochter,’ and made his only successful experiment at New Lanark, near by.
Owen had the Glasgow man’s conviction that life is a matter of business; that any given social phenomenon can be separated from its antecedents and surroundings and dealt with by ad hoc methods. This is the Ford method, as it was, albeit more indirectly, the Carnegie method. It succeeds up to a point; but it did not carry very far with Robert Owen, nor is it carrying very far with the administrators of the Carnegie schemes. It is also the method of the Glasgow man who wanted to ‘smash that atmosphere’ – as if an atmosphere were a plate or a window pane. The atmosphere that was surrounding Black Rod, Goldstick, the Beefeaters, the King in his state coach, and the peers and peeresses in their robes. I daresay something needs to be done about it; though smashing is less a characteristic of good citizenship than building. ‘Nothing is destroyed until it is replaced,’ and the only way to expel the false is to instil the true. Men in the arms and dress of the Tudor period are out of date. Trunk hose and starched ruffs would not be comfortable. But the would-be smasher probably wasn’t thinking of that at all. I agree that the atmosphere is unreal. But there are bigger things to trouble about than a harmless piece of pageantry which at least serves to suggest how old and august the Mother of Parliaments is.
The writer in the Glasgow paper, dealing with ‘a wave of crime,’ repudiated on behalf of the average Glasgwegian, all sympathy with Bolshevism, and respectfully washed his hands of John M’Lean, Bob Smillie, and Citizen Shinwell. He claimed that Glasgow men – the veriest wearer of a hooker-doon – borrowed a reflected dignity from the knowledge that Glasgow had ‘made’ the Clyde, and had an Orpheus choir, a Scottish Orchestra, and a Rangers football team, innocent as he might be of any personal share in these achievements.
There ought to be something to account for the very good conceit Wullie Paterson has of himself. Aberdeen has twice shifted the bed of the Dee, and is the best-built city in Britain; but the Aberdonian is modestly personified.
There are three Glasgows – at least. There is first, the appallingly depressing city, with the barbaric flummery carving on its grimy buildings, the hurrying crowds of distraught citizens, its black, fat, truculent-looking policemen, and its barefooted squaws that sell newspapers on the sloppy bridges. I never saw barefooted women till I went, a young man, to Glasgow. There are Glasgow men who don’t mind giving women votes and don’t mind seeing them barefooted even in winter time. The first results of giving the women the Parliamentary vote have been the return, twice over, of reactionary governments, many women having voted Tory while their husbands voted Labour. I would have kept the power to do mischief from them, but seen that they had boots.
Then there is the kind, sprightly Glasgow, its banter a little prickly perhaps, its speech of corrugated cadences, up and down, up and down, like the furrows in a field, with sometimes a note of vehemence that to the couthy north-countryman or well-bred Englishman suggests anger. Dr Johnson objected to a certain Scotsman ‘Because he has no animation, no!’ He couldn’t have objected to the Glaswegion on that score.
A Glasgow audience is the quickest in Britain. They have the habit of going to meetings, are trained listeners, and no audience could be more pleasant to speak to. Without shyness, they get up and speak, sometimes awful blethers, often good enough book stuff, sometimes really tactful, pleasant speech, despite the corrugations of the accent; and on jolly feature of a big Glasgow meeting is that a man may talk nonsense at it, but he will not do it for long; the audience will laugh him off or ruff him down. Even those who themselves talk nonsense recognise it when it comes from another. For it often happens that a Glasgow man whose talk is absurd will have read a great deal of capital stuff.
There was Sandy Whiting, repeatedly a candidate, and at last an elected person of some sort. During an election campaign he would swear and threaten from the platform and once at least he did go down and chastise and interrupter. Sandy would say ‘He says says he,’ and he would invoke aphorisms of ‘the weyver o’ Kirkintilloch,’ and he would mis-attribute sayings, such as ‘As the Prophet Isaiah says, He that does not work, neither shall he eat.’ And when you protested sotto voce, that it was not Isaiah who said that, he would reply, aloud ‘Ach, what does it matter? It’s a’ in the ae book onywey.’
But going home with Sandy, you found he had a complete set of Ruskin’s books at a time when Ruskin was still copyright, and his books dear, and that he had read in them if he had not read them all. Sandy would mix metaphors – I have heard him describe a proposal as a ‘Rid herrin’ draws across the trail to blindfold people!’ But when you pointed out that red-herrings would not make good eye-bandages, none laughed more heartily than Sandy himself.
He was nearly always a little absurd in public speech, but never so in private; and his heartiness and jolly laughter made him welcome wherever he came. Be it said, he would never be anywhere for very long without your knowing he was there. He had the quick, black eyes and quick temper so common in the west. ‘I’ll gie ye a slap in the mooth, an’ there it is!’ is an established pleasantry about Glasgow. Sandy illustrated Glasgow in respect of the tartness of his tongue, the carefulness of his habits, and the carelessness of his dress. He worked in a rolling mill and earned big money, while his wife ran a shop and made money too. Yet he wore hobnailed boots which struck fire from the pavement; on his head a black silk cap; and round his neck never a collar, always a muffler.
Sandy abounded in the local free-flowing chaff. One Sunday night at a busy crossing he was addressing a crowd when some young dudes interrupted with banter.
‘There’s some fowk hae mair sterch in their collars than beef in their bellies!’ was his riposte.
The cross-fire continued, however, Sandy with the advantage of position making good against the power of numbers. As the young men at last cleared out, Sandy’s parting shot was; ‘Ye needna be in ony hurry; the doss doesna close till twelve o’clock!’
One day we entered a restaurant together, and were waited upon by a smart, even stern young man. ‘Bring us two welsh rabbits, ‘ordered Sandy, ‘an’ bring them good – they’re for eat’n.’
Sandy is now quiet enough – at last – and there can be no harm in telling of an incident that concerns him and the damsel who became his wife and was grannie by the time I knew him. They were at the back of a dyke one night in their courting days and Sandy had one hand aloft vowing eternal fealty. The hand must have remained in position some time; for presently a man grasped it and shook it cordially from the other side!
I detail such absurdities because instead of regarding Glasgow as a seat and centre of crime, one’s prevailing memory of it raises a smile rather than a shudder. Mr J.J.Bells Mrs McLeerie, the kindly old body who deranges her epithets, but, when corrected pleads that ‘It’s a’ yin,’ seems to an outsider the most typical of Glasgow characters.
There is a third Glasgow of which I have little knowledge and would fain have less. I refer to the Philistine business world, which I knew chiefly from the bagmen it sends out. These people go to church, are keen on climbing, and have hardly, in my experience, one idea to rub on another on any matter apart from business. Of course it is the travellers who call. One does not meet the principals. It often happens that the great man is much more pleasant to meet than the great man’s man. But one has so little respect for the qualities that win success in huckstering that one is very willing to let the limited circle of acquaintances in the west end stand as it is – very nearly at zero.
The writer on ‘Men and Manners’ already referred to is concerned about what an American author says of Glasgow’s underworld. The full sordor of Glasgow’s drunkenness and crime would not strike a native as it does a visitor. It never does.
Travelling down to Glasgow one Saturday night from Yorkshire, the last stages of the journey were made with a carriageful of seafaring men returning from a trip, their vessel having been put into the Mersey instead of the Clyde. They all seemed to be sober; but with the best desire of a returning exile to be favourably impressed with the men of my mother country, it was impossible to resist a feeling that in looks and talk they were a very low set – oh, a memorably low set! Let us not dwell upon it. The sea has its own codes of morals and manners.
The young trawling skipper was taking his boat up ‘the burn,’ and as he came within sound of his home he tooted his horn. An old skipper was on the boat. ‘That’s for the wife?’ he half-queried. ‘I used to dae that,’ he continued. ‘But I dinna dae’t now. I gang to the front door and gae twa lood knocks. Then I rin roond immediately tae the back. I meet him comin’ awa every time. In thirteen year I’ve never missed him yince.’
One Saturday night long ago I did a round of some of the Glasgow slums with Bruce Glasier, Keir Hardie and Cunninghame-Graham. We saw sights which I hope are not to be witnessed in any other town in Britain. It was after eleven, which was at that time the closing hour, and repeatedly we were asked, in the explosive gutterals of St Mungo’s ‘D’ye want a boattle o’ beer?’ the askers evidently having the liquor planted about them. Under the aegis of a stalwart bobby we were given one short horrific glance into an awful ken where, amid smoke and fetor, we could see on a seat an old grey-haired woman rocking in drink and perhaps in pain, the blood lying fresh upon her unreverend forehead from a recent wound, while wretched men and women swarmed around unheeding. In a side-street towards midnight a piper blew with the vigour of mid-day, while several prostitutes danced and whooped around him, their petticoats pulled up for the freedom of an abanadoned dance. A swarthy policeman stood gravely looking on.
I have never had my pocket picked (except in the regular way of trade) but once, and that was in Glasgow another Saturday night, when for a little I got lost from my friends. So that I am naturally impressed with the idea that Glasgow’s underworld is something rather special.
One Sunday night thirty years ago a Socialist speaker was addressing a thin crowd at the Jail Square entrance to Glasgow Green. When the crowd got even thinner than usual the speaker halted and looked around as if contemplating a full stop. A policeman standing by gave his advice. ‘Oh, man,’ said he, ‘what need ye waster yer wind on thae lads?’ Man, they a’ practise what you’re only preachin’!’
They would be mostly thieves. It was criticism as well as advice.
It is of vast significance that this most commercialised of all British cities should have gone over to the party which stands for the negation of Commercialism, in motive and practice alike; and I shall return to the subject in further papers. For the rest, one has many pleasant memories of the Second City.
PART TWO NEXT MONTH
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