Continuing my jaunt around our fair isle, last week I was in Glasgow. If you’ve not been, go immediately. Edinburgh gets all the good reviews as the Athens of the North (& it is a great city – how many high streets can you stand on with a view of a castle and a dormant volcano?) but it does steal Glasgow’s thunder a bit. Glasgow is absolutely gorgeous and contrary to popular myth, the people are really friendly. I had a lovely time, and if Scotland manages to negotiate to stay in the EU I’ve a pretty good idea where I’ll be moving to.
To summarise in a way that helps no-one: because Edinburgh is Alec Baldwin, everyone thinks Glasgow is Stephen Baldwin, but it’s not, it’s William Baldwin. Glad I’ve been able to clear that up 😉 I’m now on a one-woman mission to persuade everyone of Glasgow’s greatness, starting here by looking at two novels by Glaswegian writers.
Firstly, Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi (1954), which tells the story of Joe, a young drifter working on the canals near Glasgow, who finds the dead body of a young woman floating in the water.
“She was like some beautiful white water-fungus, a strange shining thing come up from the depths, and her limbs and her flesh had the ripeness and maturity of a large mushroom. But it was the hair more than anything; it stranded away from the head like long grasses. Only it was alive, and because the body was slow, heavy, torpid, it had become a forest of antennae, caressing, feeding on the water, intricately.”
This odd, detached tone gives an excellent introduction to Joe. He is an outsider and views people with no affection. He manipulates to his own ends and does not care who he hurts.
“I derived a powerful sense, a vindication of my own existence. To exercise power without exerting it, to be detached and powerful, to be there, silent and indestructible as gods, that is to be a god and why there are gods.”
What saves Joe from being wholly despicable to me, is that he doesn’t deliberately set out to hurt people. He isn’t vindictive or malicious, he just has a total disregard for other’s feelings. He also has a desire for something more from life, but has no idea what it is, and so there is a desperate quality to him, even as it emerges that he may know more about the dead woman than he’s letting on.
“These men, whoever they were, would sleep with their wives, take their children for a picnic on Sundays […] there was something nightmarish about it- my nightmare, for the machine might include me in its intricate pattern-making at any moment.”
Young Adam has been compared to L’Etranger, and while it is not quite to the heights of Camus’ masterpiece, it has at its centre a man in existential crisis, and a narrative broadened out by philosophical considerations:
“There is no contradiction in things, only in the words we invent to refer to things. It is the word ‘I’ which is arbitrary and contains within it its own inadequacy and its own contradiction.”
Young Adam was made into a film in 2003, with a stunning cast – Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan and Emily Mortimer:
Secondly The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman (1984), which much to my surprise I found warmly affectionate and a good balance after the bleakness of Young Adam. I’d read & enjoyed the Booker prizewinning How Late It Was, How Late many years ago and for some reason hadn’t picked up Kelman since. The Busconductor Hines was Kelman’s first published novel and features his brilliant ear for Glaswegian dialect and conversational rhythms that he would go on to develop more fully.
Kelman is a controversial figure, because his vision is uncompromising. He is interested in capturing authentic working-class Glaswegian lives (which involves much swearing), and he does not make allowances for the reader: you have to meet him on his own terms. For me, a born-and-bred Southerner, I find this invigorating rather than alienating. The Busconductor Hines follows the titular character through his daily life, capturing the extraordinary amongst the ordinary.
“He was standing at the sink, whistling quietly, gazing through the slats in the blind; in the backcourt opposite the rear of the tenement building which was not yet demolished, the sky with that reddish glow, light reflecting on the ripples of the enormous puddle that stretched from the middens to the mouth of the back close; a smell of smouldering rubbish from somewhere, but vague.”
Hines is frustrated, always on the verge of being fired. This is very funny, but also enables Kelman to make some pointed comments about the wielding of power and authority. Like Joe in Young Adam Hines wants more, but unlike Joe he recognises his common humanity, even in the frustration of having to deal with the bus travellers of Glasgow.
“Hines can marvel. He can look at faces and not look at faces….They are hypocrites. The men and the women, the children. It is not that he knows this in particular but that everyone knows this and is also known to know it, by everyone else. Such a thing cannot be concealed. …In the windows he could see their reflections, the strange frowns every now and again. That concentration.”
In some ways nothing happens, but everything happens. Hines recognises his life as a “perplexing kettle of coconuts”, ridiculous but real and wholly his. I’ve seen it described as an existential novel and I suppose it is, but it’s so fun, written with such verve and bite, that ultimately it is life-affirming even while pointing out the poverty, injustice and pointlessness that fills a lot of daily life for the characters.
And of course the city itself is the second hero of the story, a constant, pervasive presence:
“Glasgow thoroughfares can be mysteriously still, the slightest breath of wind seeming not to exist. The smell of fresh tobacco on the nostrils first thing is an astonishing item.”
To end, there are a plethora of Glaswegian musicians I could have chosen, but I’ve picked Camera Obscura’s French Navy, because I like the brilliantly twenty-first century love lyric “You with your dietary restrictions/Said you loved me with a lot of conviction…”