“Who, nowadays, is glad just to exist?”: Glasgow’s cultural legacy

In July 2014, as the Commonwealth Games got underway in Glasgow, the BBC aired a documentary series entitled “I Belong to Glasgow”. This series presented its viewer with perspectives on the city by current high-profile Glaswegian actors such as Glasgow-born Karen Dunbar, star of Scottish comedy shows such as Chewin’ the Fat and Happy Holidays; Sanjeev Kohli, most well-known for his role as an Asian shop-keeper in Still Game; Alex Norton, famed for his leading role in Taggart; and Elaine C Smith, best known for her role as the long-suffering wife of Rab C Nesbitt. These narrators provided accounts of what it means to them to “belong to Glasgow”. From varying perspectives, these Glaswegians characterised the city as a place both lovable and harsh, much- adored but also fear-inspiring. At a time when Glasgow City Council proudly displayed the slogan “People Make Glasgow” in George Square to the several hundred thousand visitors to the Games, these storytellers confidently asserted “Glasgow made me”.

But what made them? To what extent has literature, film, and other cultural media made Glaswegians Glaswegian? One famous Glasgow novel has suggested that “if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or a golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. […] Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”[1] Alasdair Gray’s protagonist in Lanark (1981) is disparaging about Glasgow’s cultural heritage.  The literary critic Cairns Craig has analysed this famous section of the novel as an ‘all-encompassing cultural amnesia’. He clarifies this with a discussion of how, in the Second World War, ‘the construction of a British identity had sought to obliterate the cultural specificities of Britain’s constituent cultures except as those of a few music-hall songs.’[2] As Gray’s text suggests, there is evidence to suggest that Scottish culture has been represented as backward and unsophisticated, an unimaginative and unimagined subterrain on the fringes of the more dominant England.

But of course this is far from true. From the legacy of Charles Rennie Macintosh (a native of the Dennistoun area) to the “Glasgow Miracle”, Glasgow’s talent for as well as its love of theatre, dance, music, and history have made a huge impact in the cultural heritage of Scotland. “Glasgow”, Thaw laments, “never got into the history books, except as a statistic, and if it vanished tomorrow our output of ships and carpets and lavatory pans would be replaced in months by grateful men working overtime in England, Germany and Japan. Of course our industries still keep nearly half of Scotland living round here. They let us exist. But who, nowadays, is glad just to exist?”[3] Lanark is a very important book for Glasgow. In many ways, it signifies a response to this desire for something more than mere existence for Glasgow. Lanark is an attempt at a new and modern representation of the city. If Thaw is correct that Glasgow is perceived as a real, rather than imagined city, and if this is an unhealthy truth, the novel goes some way towards helping us think about the value of narrative and place in establishing spaces of wellbeing through arts practices and creativity.

It seems as though we may be making unnecessary binaries in thinking about Glasgow’s cultural status as either real or imagined, though. Perhaps it is the combination of true-to-life descriptions of how things are perceived and innovative imaginings in literature, film, and art that make Glasgow’s cultural heritage so complex and interesting. Building on the existing cultural capital of Glasgow, “Representing Dennistoun” seeks to uncover local imaginings of what it means to be an East Ender in this “magnificent city”. We will use the official representations as a foil against which we can learn about new ways of understanding place, and then help develop people’s existing knowledge and skills to reimagine and re-represent their lived experience of the East End. This way, people’s imaginations and the reality of Glasgow may be more closely connected and more accurately represented.

 

[1] Alaistair Gray, Lanark: A Life in Four Books (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007), p. 243.

[2] Cairns Craig, The Modern Scottish Novel: Narrative and the National Imagination (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. 33.

[3] Gray, Lanark, p.243.

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