I am thinking back to my last visit to my birthplace and my alma mater, in a typical cool and showery spring, but for a with a single day for a waddin’ stolen from June as the weather gods shone upon the bride and groom and the short cavalcade arrived at the city chambers on George Square bathed in startling golden light.
It had been some time between actually taking a good wander round the place rather than stringing a couple of visits to attractions and family together. The time before this it had been for a funeral and a chance to update my passport. That part of town, Cowcaddens , from Buchannan galleries upto Dobies Loan had changed little, evolving over the years of my life from a set of gap sites and the location of Scotrail HQ and the ‘Tech on the old Buchannan St. railway station. The North Gate had been there for many years now, still looking modern and with the offices unchanged, only difference being they were now privatised and more double the price for the essential wee burgundy book in ten years.
While waiting for my passport , I had wandered into the Horshoe Bar, Drury Lane, for old times sake, a kind of touchstone for me going back to 1987 or perhaps earlier, when we would pop in on the way further or as a warmer before the O’Henry’s on the other side, or going further out on the big town centre nights, or just catching the train. It is kind of an oasis now,very much quieter than times gone by when there was a babble at lunch time of railwaymen and office clerks discussing the fitba, or politics. I used to go in once in a while just for a random conversation, usually with some forty something men, who were pleased to tell me their opinions but equally pleased to here my young impressionable ones back.
Taking though the bigger picture, Glasgow has gone through a bit of a revolution it seems the last five to ten years, but that is just my bad statistical sampling technique, the same maybe as finding the Horshoe half empty on a Tuesday lunchtime. You can hark back and be all nostalgic, but the auld sole of the city was pummeled out by the M8 and the slum clearances, and the danergous buildings, and the new 60s and 70s monstrosities of mediocrity which arose in the gap sites, or the austere, pebble dashed replacement to queen street station. Very much of the town centre remains intact however, and it is really quite a lot of tatt which has been swept away by the new broom of one the one hand hipsterisation, while on the other corporate service sector invasion.
I had always fancied loading my old Ricoh 35mm compact up with some ektachrome or maybe investing in a small mFT camera with a street lens on it, and going the lengths of Argyle and Sauchihaul streets from their Kelvingrove beginnings and out beyond them to the east end. Capturing the oddly american style shopfronts, which could have been used to represent brooklyn or the cheap end of high number streets on Manhattan in the 60s. In fact the stretch from Glasgow Central underpass to Anderston was used at least once for this very purpose in film or TV advertisement now that I remember. They both had scaggie ends.
Towards Kelvingrove there were always closed down shops, shabby appartments above them, and a run down feel to an area which had lost its wandering in local shoppers and lost most of its electrical or office equipment customers to out-of-town shopping parks long ago. Now though it was different. Where once the ubiquitous Indian restaurant or cheap, caged in off-licence would sprout and offer some sign of economic activity, the whole of western Sauchiehall and Argyle Streets were buzzing with hipster pubs and eateries or all shapes and forms for cuisine. We did Sauchie’ on the way into toon, and Arygle on the way out on a hire bus from the reception at the sports club up Gartnavel end.
This evolution doesn’t make me gasp, guffaw and gesticulate! Far from being a chastity to my memories I was delighted to see the development of the town now, and how many people were enjoying them selves. I had lived down on St Vincent Crescent a summer while working in labs at Yorkhill Hospital on a ‘vampire’ DNA project, worth a different blog on the science and the long, hot summer of 1989, and found that there was a kind of dead zone between the Lorne bar where the Teuchters gathered and Gaelic was almost first language in the 80s, to Murphy’s pakora bar, a wonderful emporium dedicated to Glasgows favourite starter, and with of course, the stout of the same name selling always very well. Murphy’s and the Ashoka could get pretty busy.
There were plenty ‘no go’ bars it seemed for students round there, the dodgey looking Calipso across from the art galleries amongst others, but we used to congregate at the Stirling Castle of a Thursday or friday. It was cosey, but there was a kind of wee snide inverted snobbery towards the hospital lab staff, and worse, students like us, who did seem to be becoming their best clientel at vespers and into eventide.
A fine summer then, a coming of age passage between an awkward and quite boring third year course, losing my fist love to I believe a posh vet student over in Edinbra’, and getting my teeth into what being a professional scientist might be like – helps if you are a darn sight more introverted and pedantic than I am even now in my reserved middle age. That summer I really did kind of find my way into adulthood more than any other and in fact, the year later, graduating and moving home to pay off debt with menial jobs darn well broke me as a person. But 1989 was a long hot summer, where most all my pals were in the town and I took to cycling about 8 hours a week or more, got a saturday job in Dales Cycles, and got on very well with the decent folk at work up at Yorkhill.
They were to put in mildly an eclectic bunch. There were some ageining lab rats who came from it seems public school backgrounds, and would have fitted in well in London’s west end theatre crowd. There were taciturn working class lab techs, and a wide boy with an XR3i. Then there were the professors, like mine, Charlie MGone from Tanzania, and the prof of the Medical Genetics unit whose name escapes me, ( mick’ something?) but he was very well known across academia, and landing a summer internship apparently was a bit of a catch, even though it confirmed my suspiscions that I was not, at that point, really cut out to be a poor PhD student for five years. I celebrated my 21st with them all, twice in fact, once at the flat and once at Oblamov’s on Byres road (although it may have evolved into Whistler’s Mother that very year). There was also a youngish lab rat turned research scientist from the east, called Derek, who was kind of a prototype for me to look at, being quite extroverty but also a good scientist if his chat was to be believed. Not that he put me off, it was just the project was slow and dull, as would my final year lab project be too.
Mixining in with the great age range at work was then one big brick in me coming to adulthood, perhaps starting at my first summer job at Faslane with Balfours where I was offered the chance to become a civil engineer, having unbeknowingly impressed them enough for them to want me in their tribe. However another very big passage of rights was underway. Sandra, love #1, left me without any good reason, just a moving of flats to mark the change in wind at her end, and I was left heart broken. Worse I was alone at my mum’s house for some reason on a sunday during the night when she phoned and wanted to ‘reassess’ the situation. Later in the summer two things would happen which were rather marevellous after the usual early adulthood feelings of emptiness and despair and thoughts of ending all the pain, Firstly I had a dream one of the long sunday mornings I used to lie late in bed, awoken only by the cooing of bowling balls gently buffeting each other across the road. I dreamt that I climbed a hill, at a waterfall dived int the deep, cooling waters. I was at once refreshed in my soul, and free of Sandra. Later I went to meet her because there was the usual hostage exchange of records and forgotten clothes, but we went for some drinks and had a good laugh, kissing goodbye with a glint in each other’s eyes like we could perhaps strike up again once what ever had perturbed her washed past.
So back to the early summer, May when Sandra dumped me, without a place to live as my Brother was taking in Mary and Joseph with nay room at the hotel and turfing me out such a more comfortable pregnancy could brew away to near fruition. I had a miserable few weeks or month even back home at my Ma’s but got the chance of the room on St Vincent Crescent and knew one of the (beautiful) flat mates to be who was also called Sandra oddly enough. I had fun flirting with her occaisionally but was both a bit burnt round the edges of my heart and not really in her league of babes. The flat though was a marvel of delapetaded grandeur and a haven from what was a very active lifestyle outside.
St. Vincent Crescent had been town houses for the well heeled long before sauchiehall street became a little more seedy, and so became a rather incongrous grandoise terrace with an elegant curve and marble fountain at its climaxing east end, amidst the dead standard, blackened sandstone tennements of the Finnieston area. It was a dead end, with an electric cable depot on the dead ground towards the main commuter railway lines still ploughed by the shoogely ‘blue trains’ when I was at uni.
Being a cul-de-sac meant that it had very little traffic, especially at night and attracted less break ins, in the days when security closes off the main thoroughfares were rare. Tea Leaves dinnae like being caught “going equiped” with no reason to be up a cul-de-sac other than bad intent, nor finding a blue flashing light upon exiting the scene, swag over shoulder.
These days I would have a whale of a time with all the wee eateries and micro brew pubs that line Arygle street, where once tatty convenience stores, cheap curry houses and billboards predominated. I doubt very much that St Vincent Crescent boasts a single student tennancy now. It was quite a working class renter type as far as I could gather in the ‘closes’ while the private door and gardens inbetween seemed to be occupied by gardening-shy hermits and old maids, or just lay empty. The shape of things to come was already there in 1989, with the newly opened international student accomodation round the back of the crescent on Kelvinhaugh Street. They were anonymous yellow and orange brick affairs, which looked uninviting. I seem to remember there was a cheeky short cut if the security door was on the latch at these, into our back ‘midden’ , and we were once confronted by an irate pair of greek post graduates about our thorough faring.
My summer took a bad turn, with a silver lining. I broke my arm at Partick Cross, when my back wheel wasn’t quite firmly locked into my fancy ‘chromed drop outs’ and I pulled it jammed into the frame and came over the bars, locked hard set on my Look pedals. THis was all much to the amusement of one of those Glesga walruses who had wanderd out one of the several boozers at the corner, who laughed and laughed at me. The other side of glasgow soon showed its face as a friendly couple in their forties, him an ex racing cyclsit of sorts too, saw me limping along with sore crotch and arm, and took me home with my bike and then back to A&E. “Well Mr Melvin, your cycling days are over for the time being” came an almost cliched response from the Orthopedist. I had a light bandage wmaybe even without plaster of paris over a fractured elbow and was back on the bike in three weeks time, but not after a chance to really go on the booze, at the likes of Lock 27, which was in my opinion and many others back then, Glasgow’s premiere outdoor drinking bar when it was fair roastin outside as it often was that long, long summer.
At the end of the summer I did a mini interrail with my pal Raul, covering the meat of the dinner of interrailing for many, Paris and Amsterdam. A blog in itself but I came back to glesga with a renewed vigour and lust for knowledge and even acheivement without that just meaning jumping through the hoops of course content and exams.
So that summer down what was not a very traditional under graduate area , became a real coming of age and I felt kind of back to the womb of Glasgow from where in fact I had emerged from the womb at the Queen Mother’s maternity suite at the self same Yorkhill hospital site. I remember standing at partick station looking up to that great phallic spike on Garnet hill, the university tower, and thinking of this as some kind of trinity of my life. Where I was born, where I was educated to be an adult and where I would always be in movement to and from.
My last visit was different this time, because I really felt the passing of time as if I was revisiting a place in my early adulthood which as a fleeting memory from being a toddler. I no longer felt like I was haunting the place as I have done before on many occaisions. This time I felt I was revisting, and exploring, rediscovering and just enjoying the west end by in large and some of the town centre.
The one really big change, as you kind of get from dipstick visits, was the demographics, certainly of the town centre and it being an easter holiday time now that I think back, Byres road and the west end had a decidely older feel. Down town though, it was shocking how large a proportion of the shopping and drinking population were in their 60s, and just how busy it was with them all! The baby boomers who had all those easy going, fairly well paid jobs back when we were young struggelign adults trying to get our careers underway, are all now nearing retirement. They were lucky for th most part, they got their trade or education, or just ‘start’ in the relatively booming 1970s and held onto their jobs or developed careers for almost forty years of course, blocking often the way for new blood as of course, Scotland created few if any (net) jobs in the years 1986 to 1997. If they worked hard, they could buy a hoose of their ain, and Thatcher sold them their cooncil hooses by the barrel load in the late eighties, for better and for worst in the grand scheme of things. We were the first generation to really struggle and the first to discover that a bachelors degree is very often not worth a penny unless you have connections who can get you a start. Okay I turned down my career and went into business via sales, but plenty of folk I know kind of meandered through jobs in the 1990s before retraining as teachers or college lecturers, or what ever semi skilled job sitting at a screen or caring for folk.
I get no gut feeling now, no nostalgia. It is like in fact that I have had a tumour removed from my emotional circuits in the brain because I can learn to love and share the city again with my family without that harking back to the old days, that feeling that things have slopped away. Many things you took for granted or said you would love to do again, actually become once-in-a-lifetime experiences and that is why you bloody well cherish their memories. You forget all the usual dates you went on, and remember your first or last. With Brexit happening, and until any real notion that 55% are going to vote Yes to independence, I felt more like a visitor in some ways, an exile being allowed back in. I can never really go back, I would be trying to rekindle something which is not of a time for me anymore, not with kids and so on and a new career, and not with of course the uncertainties of brexit and where the hell my pension will eventually come from.
No it is now possible to see that period of 1986 to 1994 when I lived in the Dear Green Place as a very, very well written book. A wonderful , technicolour mural on the wallking wall of life. It had a beginning, a middle and an end with a full stop. Glasgow though goes on, unabated, embracing the bloody tertiary service economy, but doing it oh so much better than many other cities I have had the opperchancity to visit.
Glasgow had a real buzz to it back then, 1990 being the city of culture, but 1987-89 being the best and most over budget MayFest years. The town and especially the west end, were like a well kept secret, often thought of as dirty, violent and uneducated from outside. They were fantastic years, and judging by the people out in town and the west end on an unseasonally warm day in spring, it is buzzing today again, and a little hidden away once more whilst Edina, capital in name only, has all the limelight.