During a time of shrunken horizons, cycling is escape and freedom exploring a city of strange wonder.
Post-industrial Glasgow is still under-populated, still has large expanses of wild empty spaces. Forgotten urban villages marooned amongst industrial parks, old docklands and slipways. Abandoned sandstone buildings glow in the mellow evening sun. Dock pubs wait for the old life to return. Wild flowers bloom where the local authorities have been unable to cut the grass.
I look through the windows of an art gallery where the textile art pieces of an exhibition trapped in lockdown time, are collapsing and evolving into new meaning. A baking factory wafts out sweet, buttery aromas over a landscape of car breaker yards, storage units and engineer compounds. A floral tribute to a grandson fades under an old bandstand as drunks stagger past, swerving in respect.
One evening, I turned right instead of left and found myself in a large expanse of grassland, prairie-like grass swaying in the wind. Fragments of glass glitter on the paths. I hear the shrieks and shouts of an unseen teenage gathering. A boy races his dirt bike over a hillock with a roar of helmet-free youthful exhilaration. Best retreat and leave it to them, there are parts of Glasgow that are wild in many ways.
In early lockdown, the city centre was a ghost town, taken over by drunks, the marginalised and addicts. No-one else had any reason to be there so they owned the streets. I cycle one evening past a group. Two of them are shouting and squaring up to each other, safe in a truce and knowledge that in their state, neither would be stupid enough to actually attempt a punch in case they fall over. A police van passes by, pretending not to see them. Forget the social distancing rules for this lot, it’s the least of their problems.
Covid-19 has turned things inside out, then dumped it outside: queues, socialising, street corner meet-ups, drinking, pavements pop-ups, take-outs. The inside struggles to thrive outside as a typical sunny Scottish spring turns into typically rainy Scottish summer.
Cruise ships, a ferry and the end of the world
Cruisers sail through the tops of hedges and loom over dock buildings, refugees of a global industry shrunk by the pandemic. They are huge floating petri dishes of disease, Ballardian palaces of enforced leisure. How doesn’t it kick-off in orgies of violence and sex? Or maybe it does, but what happens at sea stays at sea.
Follow the river downstream, past the sprawling shopping centre of Braehead and dockland flats, and you’ll find the tiny Renfrew ferry. The ferry, more a mobile aluminium landing craft, zips back and forth over the river. It connects two neglected banks of the river. Some kind of Royal Navy warship sits in a nearby dock.
There’s a forgotten end of the city feel about this place. There’s a smart Indian restaurant that looks a little out of place in its surroundings while a dilapidated snooker hall and the shutdown Ferry Inn are more in tune. There’s a small yard by the slipway belonging the Clyde Port Authority. It forbids admittance according to a Mr J.P. Davidson in 1966. You feel that writ still exists because no-one has remembered to change it.
A small road takes you into an industrial estate. Have I remembered this correctly? I’m sure there used to be a large scrapyard with huge mounds of metal, filings, and crushed cars; it was an incongruous sight through the trees. Now it’s just another empty space without meaning, a place of intention. All that remains is a two-storey building more burnt out than intact. Its roof is a charcoaled skeleton of girders. Around the ground floor, the walls are stacked with rows of salvaged doors, mirrors and baths. Smoke rises from a nearby barrel fire.
A man with a weather beaten, smoked out face comes out. I asked him what happened to the scrapyard.
“Aye, there used to be to be a big scrapyard here. It’s all gone now. This isn’t my place. It belongs to my pal. I just come down here to burn stuff at the weekend. It helps pass the time. Aye, all this is going to be flats. They’re building a bridge over the river here. This will all be gone soon. Everything changes.”
One day, at the end of the world, the last two humans on earth will find each other. One will gesture at the surroundings wastelands and say, “aye, they’re going to turn all this into flats. Everything changes.” They won’t be wrong. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of new housing developments.
Cycling through George Square used to be a peaceful experience – just pigeons and statues. Then, for a couple of weekends that all changed.
In 2014, Glasgow City Council proposed a redevelopment George Square that would banish all the statues. I vaguely remember outraged letters in the papers, angry tweets from Glaswegian netizens, disgruntled conservation and heritage societies spluttering outrage at the blatant attempt to sweep history aside and squeeze money out of a public square. It wasn’t a popular move and eventually it was dropped.
What I can’t remember were any defend the statues protests by blue-shorted, flesh-wobbling, Rule Britannia-singing sectarian loyalists. Of course they would like you to regard them as patriots defending history. The fact that they only showed up when it concerned Black Lives Matter and a peaceful protest about asylum seekers is sheer coincidence.
The loyalists were favoured by hapless police tactics who decided it was easier to kettle peaceful protestors. The loyalists, intimidating and unpleasant as they tried to be, didn’t carry quite the same menace as their English counterparts. Even the occasional Nazi was unconvincing, more an attempt to troll than anything. Still, they threw them. Twitter footage showed loyalists breaking through a police line, jumping about and then, clearly confused as to what next, running back to abuse and push through the police line again.
It bore little comparison to London where the police, perhaps more used to dealing with English football hooligans, seemed better-organised. Here, the nastiness was more visceral. Lager-stewed, tabloid-enraged, venom-spitting; this is the far right end of the English football fan spectrum. Here we go. Quick bump of cocaine off the knuckles, pause for a minute to summon the rush, then go in landing blows on the batons, helmets and riot shields of police.
Back in George Square, it looked like there would be weekends of this, a sign of what happens when you take away football, pubs and the marching season from a certain section of the West Scotland population. It has since gone quiet, but you feel they’ve got a taste for it now.
Covid-19 street posters
Glasgow has more than its fair share of street art and murals, much of it is colourful but bland, often verging onto terrible. During coronavirus, posters have sprouted up everywhere extorting us to look out for each other, and that these days will pass. Someone has scribbled scamdemic and Nicola Sturgeon is the virus on some of them. One of the messages, Community is Strength, becomes vaguely Orwellian in its repetition.
They sit alongside posters for gigs and concerts, long cancelled and long-passed. It reminds you of how gigs to Glasgow are like theatre to London. An entire cultural world rots in the long-grass and not of all it will make it back.