Monthly Archives: May 2013


A new edition of Jack House’s ‘The Heart of Glasgow’


A friend once told me that he had a ‘world famous’ bakery round the corner from his flat in Glasgow. The fact that he couldn’t remember the name of it made me wonder how well known its rolls and pancakes were in, say, the Far East.

He had inadvertently referenced a common way of viewing Glasgow. The ‘in the world’ way was much favoured by Jack House as the latest reissue of his iconic book The Heart of Glasgow attests. Jack, or ‘Mr Glasgow’ as he came to be known, employs any number of adjectives to describe aspects of his city – best, finest, biggest, – and an ascending scale that starts with ‘in Scotland’ and moves to ‘in Britain’ or ‘in Europe’ before it gets to ‘in the world’. In the first chapter of ‘Heart’, he unleashes a volley of these Glasgow markers – second largest cinema in Europe, biggest building devoted to education in the world etc – on a classroom full of kids in Glasgow, West Virginia and is greeted with disbelieving stares followed by a question about kilts. Such are the hazards or taking ‘in the world’ Glasgow out to the world.

In The Heart of Glasgow, however, this irritating habit of ranking Glasgow things at or near the top of a universal scale is somehow endearing. Perhaps it is because House freely admits that the book is written through the eyes of love though he also says that he may appear to hate at times  ( we’ll come to that later, as House would say himself). It is also narrated in the style of a guided walk which only one person has signed up for. This personal ‘come-this-way’ relationship with the reader turns exaggeration into a virtue. In fact, House expresses a preference for apocryphal stories over real ones, as long as the apocryphal ones are better of course.

The perambulation covers the eight original streets of Glasgow which are not necessarily the ones you think they are. It sometimes doubles back on itself and the narrator can be repetitious, but he is full of gems.  Naturally, House begins with ‘the first man of Glasgow’ St Mungo who may or may not have existed. If he did, he was born to a single mother (his father having done a runner) and ‘chantit aye the boldest strains/when primed wi’ barely bree’, at least according to Glasgow poet Sandy Roger.  Most impressive of all, when Mungo received a swift kick from King Morken the foot that delivered it was immediately attacked by gout and the King died from that soon after. A more appropriate first man of Glasgow would have been difficult to invent.

House asks his reader to follow him as he traces the remnants of the Molendinar Burn or climbs the Tollbooth Steeple. His favourite thing, however, is to recount the weird and wonderful stories associated with theatre in Glasgow while tracing the sites of the numerous theatres that burned to the ground. Like the Molendinar Burn, stories divide or disappear only to emerge later and connect with something else. Who knew, for instance, that there was a place where The Lighthouse now stands called the New Town Market which had a pond stocked with fish? You could order one, watch it caught and then ‘carry it off still wriggling’. The market had to be sold in 1866 as Buchanan Street developed and rents rose. Two years later it was replaced by a new building and the Glasgow Herald moved in. House was a journalist himself and recalls starting ‘a row’ in 1928 when he designated one clog dancer – or ‘clog walloper’ as they were known – as the world champion without realizing that there were lots of claimants and lots of world championships. The advice he subsequently received from his editor resonates down the years: ‘Listen Jack, I’m going to give you a tip worth its weight in gold. Never discover anything!’

And so it goes, nary a dull page in 200. Reading it close to half a century after it was first published, I see thatThe Heart of Glasgow has acquired an extra dimension. It is not just a history of Glasgow but a historical document itself. Part of its fascination lies in comparing the way things were in 1965 when House was looking at them to the way they are now. Hard to imagine, for instance, many of today’s hard-pressed shoppers retiring to Sloans Bar and Restaurant in the Argyll Arcade for a broon troot or sheep heid but, according to House, they will still doing that in 1965.

On the other hand, there’s also an element of ‘plus ca change…’ in the book. When House says early on that ‘he may appear to hate at times’, he has something particular in mind. The Glasgow he is in love with is a Glasgow of the past, only part of which survived even into his day. The story of the ‘dingin doon’ of Glasgow is the part that he hates and he is very clear on who is to blame. The Victorians with their railways cut a swath through his city and, in more recent times, the motorway men put a ring around it. Through it all, Glasgow City Council had a responsibility to see its fine buildings protected and it’s a responsibility that, in House’s view, it has consistently failed to meet.  It is only when discussing the actions, or inaction, of GCC that House’s good nature deserts him. ‘While you are still able to, admire the buildings on the north side of George Square’ and similar votes of no-confidence permeate the text. Occasionally, the present-day reader will have to remind himself that House wasn’t writing a few weeks back: ‘Many Glasgow councillors would like to see the statues [in George Square] removed, and if it were not for the cost of removal this might have been done some time ago. My own theory for the Glasgow councillors’ dislike of the statues is that they are jealous of the intelligent look on the statues’ faces’.

Glasgwegians (or Glasgovians as House says it should properly be) of a certain age know the ‘dingin doon’ story only too well though rarely has it been told with such authority and passion as it is here. The hospital I was born in was dinged doon; ditto the house I was brought home to. Even the street no longer exists. Rumour has it that my grandparents tenement in North Glasgow is the last one of its kind still standing in the scheme though I am reluctant to go up there and look. This reluctance may owe something to the enduring power of the anti-House Glasgow narrative – the ‘worst in the world’.  This is the Glasgow of deprivation, violence, religious division, alcohol abuse etc. For the last hundred years or so it has been the dominant story. You can trace this view of Glasgow from William Bolitho (‘The Cancer of the Empire?’) to Lewis Grassic Gibbon (‘the vomit of cataleptic commercialism’) and from No Mean City to The Gorbals Story. In more recent times, a Canadian television programme about Glasgow gangs and some tourist-scaring advice from an international travel guide have elicited a plaintive ‘It’s no’ like that anymore’ from inside City Chambers. Still, the thing refuses to go away. Today’s Herald paper has a piece headlined ‘Good, bad and ugly side of Glasgow’ which reveals that Glasgow’s latest ‘brand consultation’ wants to know ‘what makes Glasgow great?’ The columnist thinks this is a difficult question to answer in light of the tenacious nature of the city’s social problems and the prospect of them getting even worse under a government austerity programme.

Jack House would have been the man to answer the ‘What makes Glasgow great?’ question though the powers that be might not appreciate his preference for the past over the present. Whether ‘Glasgow the Brand’ or ‘Glasgow the Shopping Mecca’ would do anything to change his perspective is open to doubt. Ironically, House does have something in common with Glasgow’s modern boosters in his reluctance to engage with the negative story. ‘The Heart of Glasgow’ has nothing to say on sectarianism, little on deprivation, and public drunkenness is given a music hall makeover. House is concerned about the decline of the Briggait but from the perspective of its lost grandeur rather than the people who had to live in it when it became a slum. Where he does hit a negative note, it’s an interesting one. 40 years before Professor Tom Devine and others highlighted Glasgow’s connection to the slave trade House wrote: ‘The Glasgow Tobacco Lords were among the biggest slave traders in Britain. This is a side of their business life which has been conveniently ignored by most Glasgow historians…’

The Heart of Glasgow comes with bonus features. It is a master class in the precise application of guid Scots words like fornenst and anent (just this day erased by the Church of Scotland from its legal documents). An introduction by Jack McLean was written for a previous edition but is still a timely reminder of another Mr Glasgow who knew how to fine-tune sentences and put them together in the service of a good story. Finally, there are some marvellous illustrations of old Glasgow which can be supplemented by those held in Glasgow University’s Special Collections which are viewable here. Enjoy the walk. 

[The Heart of Glasgow is published by Neil Wilson Publishing]

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Event Review: European Literature Night 15/05/2013


(photo credit: Chris Scott)

Kirsty Logan, Anikó Szilágyi, Martin Reiner, Peggy Hughes


European Literature Night, UNESCO City of Literature

Edinburgh’s second celebration of European literature was a night to look forward to, the City of Literature pages on Facebook and Twitter had promised. And so the promise was fulfilled. Four seats on the stage at the Bongo Club on Edinburgh’s Cowgate were taken by four people from different places in Europe: Northern Ireland, Prague, Hungary and Scotland. Peggy Hughes from the UNESCO city of Literature played host to a panel consisting of Czech writer Martin Reiner, Hungarian translator Anikó Szilágyi and Kirsty Logan from Scotland, a late replacement for Scotland-based Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova. At the back of the room, was the Itinerant Poetry Librarian ‘and her travelling library of European poetry delights’.

The panel discussion began both home and away. Recent winner of the Scott Prize for Fiction, Logan read her short story ‘A Floating House in a Fleeting World’. Set in Japan, it features a romance between an English foreign exchange student and a Finnish student and was an appropriately dreamy vignette to open proceedings. Logan said that the Floating World of sixteenth century Japanese culture was lived in brothels, tea houses and kabuki theatres and that in Japanese ‘Floating World’ sounds like ‘Sorrowful World’. She worked this into a story about a personal relationship or, as she later revealed, the way she imagined the relationship might have been if there was one. 

From fiction, the evening turned to translation. Originally from Hungary, Anikó Szilágyi is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Glasgow looking at Hungarian translations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This is a second Ph.D. project; Szilágy’s former Ph.D. project was to translate Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ into Hungarian. Holding up an ornate copy of Alice in Wonderland in Hungarian, she said it was a very expensive book, thousands of Hungarian forint. When asked how the price converted into pounds, Szilágyi answered ‘fourteen’. It was very interesting to hear the variations in translation between Szilágyi and some of the other Hungarian translators who had tackled ‘Alice’ over the years. In some versions the iconic jam tarts became ‘cottage cheese struedels with raisins’. Marmalade was translated as ‘plum jam’. Most interestingly, the Mad Hatter was a ‘drunken brushmaker’ and he drank wine instead of tea.  There was a slightly tense moment when Hughes mentioned a quote from Yevgeny Yevtushenko:  “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” In reply, Szilágyi said the quote was ‘very misogynist’ and ‘faithful’ was a problematic word in the art of translation.

By stint of somebody’s good judgement, Martin Reiner, a Czech poet, prose writer and publisher was next to present and it proved to be a neat segue. His book Angel of Destruction is translated from Czech to English and tells of an armed Russian soldier appearing at a Czech kindergarten in 1968 when the Soviet Union crushed the ‘Prague Spring’. ‘This book is why I’m in the Bongo tonight’, Reiner said. The translation was done by Reiner’s friend Andrew Oakland who had to wrestle with the twin issues of beauty and fidelity while trying to capture the complex spirit of a story told by a four year old child who is actually an adult recalling and imagining childhood experience. Reiner read in Czech followed by Logan with the English translation of his fascinating story of childhood innocence confronted by adult power. Reiner himself was an animated and agitated speaker and proved, without a doubt, that preserving the tone and atmosphere in translated texts is a serious business.

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Event Review: Caesura #13 10/05/2013


Caesura organiser Graeme Smith 

(photo credit: George Anderson)


Event Review:CAESURA #13

It’s difficult to review an event you’ve participated in, but the monthly spoken word night Caesura in Edinburgh deserves a mention. Goodnight Press creator and poet Graeme Smith has run Caesura for over a year and the night has bounced from venue to venue, landing mostly in the upstairs room of London Road’s Artisan Bar. The latest event, however, was held in the basement of the Polish-owned cafe Yellow Bench on Leith Walk. Normally a storage room, Smith glamorised the subterranean space with rugs, couches and pink and blue twinkle lights. This and the standing-room only audience was reminiscent of a 1960s gathering, complete with acoustic guitars in the corner.

Readers included myself, Canadian poet Helen Guri, Pete McConville from Edinburgh, Shetland poet Christie WIlliamson and flash fiction writer David Gaffney. Guri read from her Trillium Prize -nominated collection Match, an accomplished set of linked pieces about a man’s divorce and his subsequent obsession with a blow-up love doll. McConville, sporting a bunnet, shared a string of quirky poems about life in Edinburgh. Williamson is both a poet and translator of Lorca. He presented careful translations of the Spanish bard’s poems into Shetlandic as well as some more personal ones about his family.  Gaffney closed the evening with his witty flash fictions, the last about a man who collected ‘potato smiles’ as a way of mapping the trauma of a divorce. This eclectic selection of writers made for an intriguing and enjoyable evening.  

Caesura is back in the Artisan bar on June 14 at 7.30pm with J.A. Sutherland, Colin Donati, Marvo Men and Bram E. Gieben. One to keep in mind. 

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