Glasgow in the Limelight
Humour, Quickness, Turbulence
The Municipalism that blesses, the Industrialism that blights.
Glasgow has always occupied its fair share of the limelight. The ebullience of Mr David Kirkwood, with which one has much sympathy as a rule, is in character with the native temperament. The term ‘canny’ as applied to the Scot is a standing proof of the infelicity of national labels. It is always forgotten that the word ‘Scot’ means tempestuous, windy, stormy.
Glasgow had Bread Riots to correspond with the Meal Mobs of Aberdeen and the Porteous Riots of Edinburgh, with the Edinburgh ‘rabbling’ of a Lord Provost, who was found hiding in a cup-board and was roughly handled. As far back as 1725 the Glasgow mob made its power felt in a riot against the Malt Tax. Bands of men, armed with sticks, paraded the streets and threw stones at the town officers. They put the authorities into such a state of alarm that an urgent message was sent to Edinburgh for troops. The Provost connived at this summons; but its chief instigator was the local member of Parliament, Daniel Campbell of Shawfield whose handsome mansion-house was plundered and wrecked, the mob being headed by a man in woman’s attire, a common device with Scots crowds of rioters in those stormy days.
Two companies of soldiers presently entered the town, and martial law was proclaimed; but so little intimidated were the inhabitants by the mounting of guards and the display of force in general that they taunted and stoned the soldiers till they fired upon them volley after volley, killing or wounding many of those who came within range. The alarm bell in the Townhouse was rung, hundreds of citizens flocked from all parts, and, breaking into a magazine, equipped themselves with a medley of weapons and set off to avenge upon the hated English soldiers the deaths of their fellow citizens. Warned by the Provost, however, Captain Bushell and his men beat a hasty retreat for Dumbarton Castle, fifteen miles distant, which they reached through a demonstratively hostile countryside. The Provost was arrested, and more troops were sent; but for the time being the spasm had passed. In the result, the Captain who had lost his head by reason of the taunts and stone-throwing was tried and sentenced, but received the King’s pardon on account of the provocation received; the Provost was liberated; and the obnoxious M.P. who had called in the soldiers received £9000 in compensation for the wreck of his house; but the Malt Tax was allowed to stand unrepealed.
The people of Glasgow mostly had no votes then; but now that they have, they take the more excellent legislative way for the redress of grievances. For that matter, they are still prepared to assert ‘the sacred right of insurrection’ in addition. Scotland is nowhere more Scots, in the sense of being turbulent, than it is in the Second City: ‘scenes’ at Westminster are the natural, spontaneous expression of the national temper, and it never had more legitimate reason for flaming up than it has in these days of governmental ineptitude and frank reaction, with, oddly enough, a Glasgow representative at the head of it all.
But the Glasgow man is, nevertheless, over-engined. Even their fellow-labourists in Parliament urge that the Glasgow members are ‘excitable.’ The folk of St Mungo’s are subject to many more neurotic stimuli than other people. The market never ceases in the congested city. Because of the busy commercial life and the limited area upon which a dense population is piled in houses of flats, street-cleaning is largely done in the night-time, though boys with shovel and handbrush dangerously dodge the endless traffic by day as well. The whistles of night trains lumbering overhead upon the arches, and the sirens of shipping in the river must make a special strain upon the nerves even of the sleepers. To the dweller on Clydeside the peace and rest of silence is forever denied. Men may sleep through racket, but it cannot be deep, relaxed, full-stretched slumber. Tired Tommies slept during a bombardment; but it was noticeably a sleep with many starts and twitches, which must have entailed a certain nervous tension even if the starts and twitches were unconscious.
With the morning ‘horns’ an inferno of noises begins. At six o’clock in the old days, in a walk, say by Haggs Castle, from Plantation, from Scotland Street to Kinning Park, from Polmadie on the east to Govan on the west, one could trace the ululation in all notes of the scale. The hoarse roar, typical of the brutality of much of Glasgow’s industry, is not so racking as the crepitation of boring and crushing machinery; but it has nevertheless a more dismally depressing sound.
If this is a bad beginning, still worse remains behind. Glasgow has processes in her shipyards and foundries that render communication by ordinary speech impossible. It is said that 40 per cent of boilermakers are deaf, and is it any wonder if the Glasgow man’s ordinary conversation out of doors is often an angry shout where there is no cause for anger?
Much time and money are expended over the suppression or abatement of noise in London. Architects labour at floors, walls, ceilings, and windows in order to deaden sound, and outside devices to the same end are represented in the laying down of gravel and tanners bark, and the covering of opposite walls with ivy or other foliage. It is found that the minimising of noise has its direct result in the increased efficiency of the workers who have been relieved, to say nothing of their increased comfort. One would be glad to learn of a similar campaign against noise was afoot in Glasgow; but one’s experience of Glasgow’s indwellers is that they profess to rather like the noise. One has heard Englishmen, long resident in the Second City, not only defend the noise, but discover a healty asset in its smells and an aesthetic lure about Dickson’s Blazes.
The neurotic tensions caused by its noises, its rush of traffic, and the hot industrial and commercial pace, has other regrettable aids. Wullie Paterson lives mostly in two-roomed tenements, with many neighbours, and of course there are no gardens, while his bleachgreen is a pole projecting from the windo. He and his wife do not believe in open windows, nor has he a stomach for wholesome fare. ‘Nane o’ yer parrich and mulk for him,’ says one who knows him well; and he adds; ‘The baking of bannocks and the making of good Scots broth are alike outside the ordinary powers of his wife… she has a settled convitction that new bread is more digestible than stale, and treats ‘him’ and the bairns to boiled tea and ham at every other meal, with shop-made potted head and a slice of shop made plum pudding for the Sunday dinner’ - when there is one. Often I have found that there was no Sunday dinner; that early high tea took its place. The Glasgow writer, whom I am debarred from naming, adds: ‘Small wonder that Wullie Paterson is outwardly spare, grim, and fierce, and that his children grow up small of bone and badly nourished.’
Before the war there were districts of Glasgow – Cowcaddens is given for one – where the householders spent on the publicans from two to three times as much as they gave an the house proprietors in rent. The Scot all over is a heretic on the rent question. I have heard a comparatively well-to-do man in an Aberdeenshire town say: ‘Imagine paying aicht poun’ for a hoose to bide in!’
The correspondent whom I have cited above writes of the Glasgow man’s ‘savagery’ in drink, and especially after a spell of ill-luck with the ‘bookies’; but of this I have no direct knowledge, the workmen with whom I associated being free of the betting virus. A friend who was for a time in low water had to live in a working-class tenement, and his wife assured me that her husband was the only man in the building who did not give his wife an occasional thrashing.
One night I had a shock and very nearly got myself into a scrape. Passing the end of a mean street with some friends, we could hear the screams and moans of a woman who was being dragged along the street by her husband. Women at the end of the street cried out, ‘He’s twistin’ her airm!’ They were some way off, but I started to run after them with the natural impulse of trying to stop cruelty so repellent. But my friends held me, and the men who had come out to the doors on hearing the hullabaloo declared that it served her right; that the man had gone and taken her out of a public house; and that he had ‘stood owre muckles at her hands a’ready.’
I was on a missionary visit, and the shock of this sight, and the feeling conveyed by the bystanders that the incident was comparatively ordinary nerved one’s denunciation of the horrors of civilization as it still existed in ‘cruel Scotland.’
The temper of the Glaswegians is quick, but surely it has its offsets. Wullie Pai’erson is a live wire. I don’t suppose he lasts; but for work it is an undoubted asset while it does. Even the ‘funny stories’ about Glasgow often have a touch of temper about them.
An Englishman found himself in a Glasgow street crowd which had assembled, apparently, over some accident. ‘What has happened?’ he asked.
‘A man fa’n aff a larry,’ he was told. No wiser for the quick explanation he applied to another.
‘It’s a man fa’n aff a larry.’
Still no wiser, he made a third attempt, and got a sharp answer.
‘Man, ye maun be a stupiet fellah. I’ve h’ard ye an twice, an I’ve h’ard ye twice tell’t that it’s a man fa’n aff a larry!’
The explanation, need it be said, was that a man had fallen off a lorry.
A story is told, not very often, which illustrates Glasgow’s great achievement, the deepening of the Clyde. One day a skiff of the shallow draught of the eighteenth century was stuck on a mud-bank in the as yet undeepened river. A girl came down to fill her bucket near the stranded vessel. The angry skipper hailed her: ‘If ye tak’ ae drap o’ water oot o’ this, I’ll hit ye owre the heid wi’ the marlinspike.’ He was afraid his progress might be delayed, and was for taking no risks.
In the early days of steam navigation one of the craft propelled in the new way passed another vessel in the Clyde, perhaps with a pitying smile from the man on the bridge. ‘You an’ yer blasted deevil’s reek!”’ exclaimed the man who was being outpaced. ‘I’m content tae gang wi’ the breath o’ God Almichty.’
Wullie’s phrases are sometimes picturesque enough. It was a Glasgow man who described a tall, lean man as ‘a man like a lang drink o’ watter!’
A man who had a hump on one shoulder was said to have a knot in his gallowses (braces.) A well-known Glasgow magistrate who always refers to his mother as ‘the aul’ yin,’ once described how another relative ‘Gaed lookin’ for an escape o’ gas wi’ a licht, an’ he fund it, an’ he’s been in the infirmary for three weeks!’
The same dignitary used to sing occasionally, but in his musical essays was wont to harass the accompanist by straying into another key. When asked what key he was singing he once said, ‘Aye, gie me the key o’ the washin-hoose.’
Jocular heckling has long been a feature of the political life of Glasgow. Thus a candidate was asked: ‘Wad ye be in favour o’ a blin’ man bein’ chairged for stairheid gas?’
And talking of gas, there was an air of jocular originality about the escapade of an offender who was sent to prison the other day for keeping an illicit whisky still, which he had operated with several hundred thousand feet of gas stolen by an illicit connection established with the corporation mainpipe!
But sometimes the causticity has no redeeming feature of wit or humour. At a St Andrew’s Night concert in Hull once I sat just in front of a pursy man, clean-shaven except for a moustache, who was accompanied by two women – his wife and perhaps his sister, their conversation specifically connecting them with Glasgow. On such occasions Scots people are apt to be in a specially good humour; but my man certainly was not; and though his companions sometimes demurred to his censorious remarks, his mood was infectious at least to the extent of freezing geniality in others. Thus when a very acceptable singer had finished his first number, and was leaving the platform amid a storm of applause, the man in the rear remarked, when the din had subsided; ‘Ay, Bob Burnett. He’s a good singer and he knows it!’ In due course cam Scott Sinner, the Strathspey King, whose appearance evoked the bored comment; ‘Och, ay, always the same old thing wi’ him.’ While others smiled and beamed at the surge and vim and unerring accuracy of the veteran’s playing, with difficulty restraining their desire to find the floor as the fire of music got into their feet, the scornful remark came from behind; ‘Look how he saws!’ The fiddler played his own lovely ‘Lullaby,’ gave clever barnyard imitations, and ‘took off’ a parrot with laughable realism. But it was all of no use to the critic behind, who remarked with impatience, ‘What’s next?’ almost before the artist had finished.
The Glasgow correspondent whose name I am unable to give testifies to the fundamental kindness of Wullie Pai’erson as exemplified in the attitude of his children towards him. Coming stained and tired from his toil, his little boy hails him from his street play: ‘Gie’s a cairry, feyther!’ and the father, tired as he is, lifts the urchin on to his shoulder and then carries him up several flights of stairs to his won door.
Yes, human nature has a beautiful power of resiliency and of rebound from evil conditions. Even the industrialism of Clydeside cannot corrupt it beyond remedy. Thinking of the various amenities of the great western city – it’s parks, libraries, art galleries, baths, its municipal lectures and recitals in choirs, its car service, its ferries, its fine supplies of gas, electricity and water, its farms and works department (and of course one does not!) resist the feeling that most of its evils it owes to private enterprise, and most of its amenities it owes to the Socialism of the Municipality in other words, what it suffers it suffers at the hands of commercialism in haste to be rich and too heedless of what it does in the process, and what it enjoys it enjoys to the extent that it has taken its business or its comfort or its pleasure into its own hands. The same may, indeed, be said of other cities, but in the case of Glasgow the contrast is specially violent, between the harm that others have done to the citizen, and the good that the citizen has done for himself through his own publicly elected, controlled, removable, responsible, and capable public servants. It is the great lesson that Glasgow has yet to teach to the outer world, and the moral of it is not yet at all sufficiently appreciated. That is why these chapters have been written. They will conclude with a final chapter on ‘The Abolition of Glasgow’ – a thesis that will not surprise those of its new Parliamentary representatives who, like the wideawake and capable member for Shettleston, Mr John Wheatley, realise that the export industries upon which the city and its people have existed and grown and multiplied must give place to another way of living and making a living.
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