Nightwalking’s early subversive reputation, a night stroll down Junkfood Junction and meeting the future King of Scotland.
Until the arrival of street lighting and the rise of nightlife, night in the city was anarchic, evil and preternatural. Nightwalking threatened the natural order and any individual who wandered the streets, especially without a light, belonged to ‘the Devil’s nocturnal anti-society’. Pre-enlightenment, the identities of vagabonds, robbers, ghosts and demons were fluid – night strangers and evil spirits exploiting the labyrinth cities. Richard of Devizes ranked nightwalkers amongst a list of evildoers that could not be trusted.
“Actors, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty-boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-walkers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons. If you do not want to live with evil do not live in London,” was his definitive conclusion.
There was also paranoia about subversion and conspiracies flourishing under the cloak of night, beyond the reach of the authorities. In 1285 Edward I introduced nightwalker statutes in response to rising crime in England’s expanding cities. It remained a crime for centuries, the statutes only being repealed in 1827.
Anti-nightwalking statutes were used by magistrates to stigmatise all kinds of suspicious behaviour and invariably this fell on the poor and lower classes. Those higher up the classes could pay off the watchman and were in any case, by virtue of their standing, above suspicion.
From the mid-1680s, with the introduction of street lighting, the streets slowly turned into fantasy and theatre, voyeurism and show, leisure and consumerism. Shops displayed their wares in attractive windows displays for the new age of the nocturnal promenade. Nightwalking led to new literary, counter-culture and psychogeographic interpretations of the city but that is another story.
There are urban dangers of course, but the modern city rarely knows or feels the primordial fear of true darkness or silence that was found in the medieval streets.
Nightwalking at Junkfood Junction
“The figures were revealed and obscured as they walked through the pools of lights; cloaked by the night with mystery; eluding the mundanity of the working day and the commute ahead.”
“We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening… we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers.” Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting
The pre-Christmas crowd ebbs and flows between the subway, the shopping centre, Central Station and Buchanan Street. The Christmas parties, light and seasonal cheer are a shallow veil for the bitterly cold and lurking darkness of the winter solstice.
I lurk at the Four Corners, aka Junkfood Junction, its fast outlets belching out greasy fumes. No question there’s an edge to the night air. Crowds skitterish and fretted by the last chance saloon for Christmas shopping. Commuters stumble drunk from the office parties to the station for a train home. Are they disturbed by the old pagan traces of an old year vanishing? Strange creatures, some of this world, slither and scamper over the greasy, uneven cobblestones of the back lanes – the city’s shadowy self where some of Glasgow’s finest drinking establishments thrive; where some of Glasgow dubious activities also thrive.
There’s Hielanman’s Umbrella (Highlandman’s Umbrella), the railway bridge with its famous distinctive Venetian-style windows and gold “Central Station” lettering. Migrant Gaelic-speaking Highlanders used to meet here to keep in touch and find out news from the old country.
Underneath the railway bridge, the trapped fumes of warm chip fat and buses congeal as trains rumble overhead. A man slowly scavenges the bins. Clusters of emos and goths conspire and pose. Travellers and shoppers sweep in and out of the station exits. Three homeless men in sleeping bags chat to passerbys; another is bundled up and trying to sleep.
There he is. The man of the crowd, parading up and down his stage. His imaginary audience bowing and scraping at every turn of his cloak as his entourage of flunkeys follow behind. He pauses and inhales it all. His eye roam wild. He gesticulates at nothing in particular. The future King of Scotland is a sight to behold yet his tale is a sad one* (see below).
Tonight he’s dressed in an outlandish assortment of clashing tartans and belted plaid. His thick woolly jumper clicks and clanks with the badges of the clans. His beard is a filthy draggle. A threadbare fraying saltire has been sown to the back of his plaid, one corner undone and trembling in the night breeze. He wears white battered trainers and a tam o’shanter.
With nimble footwork he is upon me. ‘You sir are a stranger in our midst. Our kingdom welcomes strangers with typical open Scottish hospitality.’
My protests that, while I am from London, I am resident of city, falls on deaf ears. With a regal wave, he offers me a tour of his realm. The offer is irresistible?
We tour his bounds. Back on the Four Corners a family stand around a shopping trolley full of bags, arguing about which way to go. A fight breaks out outside McDonalds and is stopped by security.
‘Isn’t that the McDonalds where a junkie died in the toilets and no-one discovered him for hours?’
The future King groans with despair. ‘My people failed that day.’ Clearly it was a stain on the honour of the kingdom.
Fire engines wail past us. Flashing blue lights and screaming sirens bounce off the cold stone walls and shop fronts. He snaps to a salute, acknowledging the brave souls defending the kingdom. We wander round the looming bulk of Central Station that dominates these streets. The station inside is air and light, brick and steel girders. The underworld of the station is one of catacombs, vaults, disused platforms, subterranean roads and alleyways.
‘An entire urban village was sacrificed for the station.’ The future King gesticulates every sentence with a flourish. ‘Grahamston was once an important and busy cross-roads…I remember it well. All these flourishing pubs, businesses and houses. Some of them were owned by my father. Well they’re all lost and forgotten now. Did you know Alston Street still exists beneath the foundations of the station? They say quantities of unclaimed silver were abandoned in the shop. Grahamston has slipped from the consciousness of the city; its story only fought for by the occasional historian.’
We walk through the square where prostitutes once whispered propositions from the shadows. They’ve not worked that square for a long time now. Where did they all go?
I buy my guide dinner in a pub. He wolfs it down with a pint. He tells me his stories and explains how he’s heir to the Scottish throne. My head spins with the interweaving of ancient family lines.
He asks how I live in Glasgow and roars with delight when I tell him I was seduced and kidnapped by a Glaswegian and now we have two daughters. Once you’ve experienced that there’s no going back.
‘Wonderful. Are our women not the finest?’ he asks with pride. ‘Dangerous and fierce mind you, but wonderful. Your daughters are blessed by living in this land.’
We part ways to continue our respective wandering the streets.
Underneath the station there are dead-end service roads and reeking alleyways. There is a labyrinth of doors opening and closing. Listen to that vibrating hum of the city, the rumbling trains overhead. Things are happening all around. Bouncers stand bored at the door to an emo club, music pouring out from behind them. Lights flicker and dance in the dark river. Up one of the back lanes is a festering lair of drinkers and junkies, sitting on wooden crates and squabbling. A couple assess the enticing charms of a dingy pub.
It’s the two men smoking cigarettes in intense silence that catch my attention. They look focused and hard. There has been a discussion. This is the decision. Then the reckoning. They finish their cigarettes. There’s a glance of understanding. They walk though a door, one man reaching into his pocket. The door closes, the labyrinth shifts.
I start walking home. A lonely figure shuffles down Jamaica Street, carrying a large bag. The future King is heading to West Street subway station to retire for the night. One freezing night you’ll see the blue lights spool outside the station and you’ll understand that the cruellest cold disperses in the deepest sleep.
He’s a king parading the streets, a frozen corpse, a guide, a hunched blind beggar blue with cold. A legend remembered and forgotten, searching for a lost village and watching trains endlessly leave and arrive from Central.
Sleep tight dear King I mutter, as he disappears round the corner.
* Who was the future King of Scotland?
The story goes that the future King is a city ghost, often spotted outside West Street subway station, begging and shivering blue with cold. He is believed to be the ghost of a beggar, Robert Cobble, who was well known in Glasgow for dressing in bizarre costumes and claiming to be heir to the throne of Scotland. Cobble came from a wealthy background but ended up on the streets due his alcoholism and mental health. He lost his sight when he is attacked and robbed by a gang. In the 1900s he sat begging at the subway station, always polite and telling his stories. One night he died of the cold.
In fact Cobble may never have existed; his tale an urban myth invented by a copywriter needing material for an online article about ghosts of the Glasgow subway. It doesn’t matter – the story spread far across ghosts, folklore and transport blogs and websites.
Robert Cobble, the future King of Scotland, exists now.
Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont provides a fascinating history of nightwalking, nightwalkers and London at night.