There has been a renewed interest in the history of Glasgow in recent years with the publication of Robert Crawford’s On Glasgow and Edinburgh, John Moore’s Glasgow: Mapping the City, Alan Taylor’s Glasgow: The Autobiography, Raymond Depardon’s photographic account, Glasgow, covering the year 1980, and, most recently, Thomas Annan: Photographer of Glasgow by Amanda Maddox and Sara Stevenson.
Meanwhile, a new undergraduate course on Glasgow’s History, Culture and Identity at Strathclyde University has been popular with local and international students. The pioneering work of Dr Stephen Mullen – It Wisnae Us: The Truth of Glasgow and Slavery and Sir Tom Devine on Glasgow and Scotland’s role in the slave trade and how they flourished on slave trade profits – Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past – have also become contemporary political issues for the city and the country.
It is in this company that Michael Fry’s lively Glasgow: A History of the City should be seen. Having previously written on the capital, he now turns to its western counterpart. Fry’s book is not a dry academic study. He writes from personal experience and knowledge, and he is thus both protagonist and commentator. Readers may be familiar with his career in journalism and politics. As a failed candidate for the Conservative and Unionist Party in 1999 Scottish parliamentary election for Glasgow Maryhill constituency, his transition to support for an independent Scotland from a centre-right perspective is intriguing in its own right.
Three things strike this reviewer as being important about this fascinating book and the approach taken by the author. First, it is written from the perspective of ‘quite a long experience of Glasgow, though from looking in rather than looking out’. He states that he is not taking the ‘couthy’ approach to be found in the 159 histories of Glasgow listed in the catalogue of the National Library of Scotland, ‘nearly all of them written by Glaswegians’. Second, Glasgow is essentially a product of time, place, and the experience of the author. Fry’s Glasgow could arguably be described as a post-independence referendum history of the city – a retrospective account and also a historical interpretation of why the people of this post-imperial, industrial, unionist and anti-Jacobite British city, often regarded as the unofficial capital of the country, voted for an independent Scotland in the referendum of 18 September 2014 and then proceeded to reject the Labour Party in droves in recent elections. The non-Glaswegian dimension is interesting too. Are only Glaswegians (and how does one define a Glasgwegian anyway?) allowed to write about the history of Glasgow?
Third, Fry states that ‘for Scotland the political and cultural history are at least as important as the economic and social history. This is not the approach of the dominant school of Scottish historians, but they seem to me to give in consequence a distorted view of the nation. Its economy and society have been most assimilated to the norms of the United Kingdom, while its politics and culture have remained most apart. Generally, then, Scottish history as it is still being written today remains unionist history. Here the reader will find an alternative’.
This is a theme that Fry refers to frequently and he can be scathing in his criticisms. He challenges views (and myths, in his opinion) on social mobility and Scottish egalitarianism: ‘doubtless to the chagrin of Scotland’s relentlessly determinist historians, there is no series of statistics to demonstrate the egalitarianism of the country: on the country, the statistics that are available – like those for mortality, educational attainment, quality of housing and so on – tend to demonstrate the opposite’. The ‘Glasgow Effect’, the nature and implications of which have been the subject of pioneering work by former Chief Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns, needs to be seen in this light.
Furthermore, Fry challenges the ‘national culture of class’ and gives it a Glasgow twist. Apparently, two-thirds of Scots identify themselves as being working-class, ‘when objectively the true proportion must be smaller’. According to education, income and housing, most Scots are middle- class. This applies to Greater Glasgow, argues Fry, although perhaps not within the formal city boundaries itself. This points to a wider issue, namely the flight of the middle-classes to Greater Glasgow and the west of Scotland suburbs, people who enjoy the outstanding facilities and opportunities offered by the city, but do not pay for them through their council tax. On the issue of class, Fry states that ‘there is no crude determinism at work here, none of that Marxist logic of cultural superstructure built on economic base favoured by the dominant school of Scottish historians’. Continuing to challenge perceived myths, he cites the ‘invention of Scotland’ by Victorian historians. He believes ‘the same holds true of the invention of Glasgow under way today, of a city of industrial degradation and social militancy where revolution is postponed only by repression and betrayal’.
A focal point of reference throughout the book is the independence referendum. Fry often refers to this. In the chapter on religion, for example, he discusses the aftermath of the referendum result: ‘Catholics had once been mainly hostile to Scottish nationalism but now, so far as we can tell, greater hostility was to be found on the opposite side of the city’s religious divide. In at least one respect, then, assimilation had been completed.’ Likewise, in his chapter on class, he describes the events in George Square on the referendum night, as ‘the celebration then of the cause of national independence as a species of proletarian culture’.
I think that Fry is on to something wider here, namely the importance of city squares throughout history. Catie Marron’s City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares around the World could be a useful comparator for the Glasgow experience. George Square, as a focal point of the city, is noted by Fry, who charts its historical development, including the infamous 1919 Battle of George Square and the ‘military occupation’ of the city for over a week. One wonders what plans the City Council has to mark the centenary of the ‘battle’ in 2019.
Organized into ten chapters on a thematic basis covering trade, industry, religion, class, poverty, womanhood, patricians, plebeians, image, imagination, Glasgow culminates in a section on wider society. This format allows for coverage over time and place as the city developed across the ages. Yet the earlier periods of the city’s history, as is apparent in other works of Glasgow – the exception being Neil Baxter’s edited book A Tale of Two Towns: A History of Medieval Glasgow – tends to be neglected as the book accelerates towards the eighteenth century and the emergence of Glasgow as a transatlantic city. What is needed in this respect is a book or series of properly researched books of the earlier periods, especially the neglected early modern period of the sixteenth and seventeenth century city. Fry’s book is well- written, but an analysis of the footnotes reveal a rather sparse consultation of sources in general and the historiographical coverage is not state-of-the art, but that is perhaps understandable given his focus on offering a personal interpretation. As might be expected from a journalist and political commentator, much of the book focuses on the labyrinthine nature of Glasgow politics in the modern era. The boundaries of what Glasgow is grow blurred when Fry makes regular reference to the Greater Glasgow/ west of Scotland area. Rather than being a geographical blunder, this is probably more a reflection of contemporary Scotland, the indistinct lines between Glasgow and the wider west of Scotland, and the obvious dominance of Glasgow in the Greater Glasgow area.To his credit, Fry includes a chapter on women that is no mere tokenism. The entrepreneurial skills and talents of Catherine Cranston are noted, the different of experiences of women in the workforce are considered in the context of the structural changes in the Glasgow and wider Scottish economy throughout the ages are discussed in some detail, and the relative lack of recognition for the ‘Glasgow Girls’ is noted. The contribution of women to the political sphere is likewise highlighted, such as the Glaswegian Flora Drummond who was involved in the Suffragette campaign in England, Mary Barbour, Helen Crawford, and Margaret Dollan, whose involvement in the Glasgow rent strikes propelled them into future political careers. The contemporary dimension comes into play again with the contributions of Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald and Nicola Sturgeon being recognized in the context of what he describes as ‘political feminism’. The first election for the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 returned 49 women, 37% of MSPs, which was the third highest figure for any national legislature in the world. The issues of domestic violence and prostitution are discussed, although the serious problem of international people trafficking by organised crime gangs is not directly addressed.
The strongest chapters are those which deal with the literary and cultural dimension, from the contribution of Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow University to the role of architecture in the city’s history and identity. His perspective on language and the Glasgow dialect is superb, as is his coverage of the literary scene, both in its Glasgow, Scottish, and UK context. In the book’s concluding chapter, which deals largely with the literary scene, Fry once more launches an attack on Scotland’s historians, whom he perceives as ignoring cultural history.
In many respects, Fry’s views represent a form of Scottish history that has gone out of fashion. Yet he does make perceptive comments on the rationale for writing his history: ‘this book is written not in the conviction that the culture of a nation, region, or city gives us the best form of history, just that it should be regarded as a necessary part of its history’. For Fry, ‘it is in cultural history (and to some extent political history) that Scotland has kept itself alive in the three centuries of a union with a more powerful neighbour’. In this context, a major lead has been taken by Glasgow, as Scotland’s biggest city, in the evolution of Scotland’s cultural autonomy and evolution. Thus, for Fry, the proletarian novel as written in Glasgow has been a key indicator of Scottish cultural autonomy and evolution.
Glasgow therefore makes a notable contribution to the healthy growth in ‘Glasgow studies’. With the twenty-first century being hailed as the century of the ‘city’, with spectacular growth anticipated in Africa and Asia, an understanding of cities will become increasingly important. To comprehend a city’s present condition and future development, knowledge of its past is crucial. Fry gets this and succinctly concludes that ‘history has here created… a unique species of urban civilization, perennially productive and fruitful, conditioned by its own experiences yet capable of reaching out to the world. In that sense, and despite all its problems, Glasgow will continue to flourish’. Whither Glasgow? A post-imperial, post- industrial city? An ‘independence city’ that is the beating heart of Scotland, without which Scotland cannot flourish? Only the future will tell, but what is sure is that we need more Glasgows and more histories of that great city.