THE LOCAL TOURIST
Guy Grieve experiences the tougher side of Glasgow
Glasgow is vivid, and it’s the people that make it so unforgettable. Almost every encounter, good, bad or ugly, has left an indelible mark on me. There’s something mercurial about Glaswegians that has left me charmed and beguiled one minute and confused and annoyed the next.
One aspect that’s not in doubt is the humour. When I was a student I worked as a labourer for a longestablished Edinburgh-based family-owned building firm run by a man who became, and remains, a good friend. One morning we gathered outside the vans to hear that the company had won a contract to work at Barlinnie prison in a place just outside of Glasgow called Riddrie Stepps. There were areas we were allowed to walk around in and others that were out of bounds.
Of course, being a gormless student, I soon wandered into the ‘no-go’ zone and found myself in a warehouse filled with men tailoring donkey jackets and working denims. I realised that these were prisoners and I froze. At which point a wizened lag sitting near me looked up and winked, a wide smile playing across his face. ‘It’s all right gadgie,’ he said in a thick Glasgow accent. ‘We’re nae gonna slit ye!’
I smiled nervously and retreated, laughter echoing all around me. A few days later a prison guard appeared and, with a smile, handed me a donkey jacket – a gift from the prisoners.
Later during that job I earned my spurs with the company when we were tasked with edging our way along a narrow tunnel around a hot water pipe. The man sent in soon re-emerged in a flat panic, knocking some tropical-sized cockroaches off his shoulders and swearing that he’d not go down again.
I laughingly volunteered and like a US army tunnel rat I squeezed my way down into the humid space. I shone my torch and saw that the place was alive with roaches.
The top of my hat scraped the roof and a handful of dark, wriggling insects fell neatly between my sweating neck and the top of my overalls. I couldn’t get to them and so they slipped right down my body until I was able to stamp them out inside my boots.
The experience is seared into my memory, as is the laughter of the men when I was awarded a ‘cockroach bonus’ of £50 at the end of the week. Every time I drive into Glasgow along the M8 that memory returns to me and in some ways it sums the city up. A place of hardship made bearable by huge amounts of humour.
Five years ago I was at a fish merchants’ dinner in Glasgow and was hugely enjoying the company of the man sitting next to me. The laughter and banter was flowing freely as it only does in Glasgow. And then the subject of the 2014 referendum came up.
Unwisely I declared myself as a ‘no’ voter. ‘I believe in unity,’ I said naively.
He stared at me stonily, all laughter gone. ‘I suppose you could call me a Unionist,’ I continued, joining the fingers of my two hands to illustrate. It was the absolute wrong choice of words, I now know of course. His face darkened and transformed into something completely different. I reached over and touched his arm, concerned. ‘Are you okay? What’s wrong?’
Around us the whole table had fallen silent but I persisted still, unaware of the cultural minefield I’d stumbled into. ‘Do you want to go outside and discuss this?’ I asked, thinking he might need some fresh air. At that point the whole table shouted as one: ‘Guy, NO!’ And the penny dropped as I looked back at my now-seething dinner mate.
This is both the fascination and the fear that I have for Glasgow – it operates on its own rules which are far from obvious to the outsider. It is known for its friendliness but the unwary can easily get themselves into hot water. However, the ugly only makes the good even brighter.
Some time later Juliet and I were walking to an awards ceremony in the rain, dressed in our finery and without an umbrella. A taxi stopped and in a voice enriched by many cigarettes the driver called: ‘Jump in, I’m nae driving past while youse get soaked.’
And he refused to be paid. Glasgow: good, bad and ugly, but never forgettable.
“The laughter and banter was flowing freely as it only does in Glasgow