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]