It’s 3.30 on a fairly typical Glasgow Spring afternoon, and I am standing in horizontal freezing rain in the midst of a fake Neolithic stone circle. Behind me, a 20-storey apartment block – which is actually older than the stone circle – is being nibbled into non-existence by a giant drill.
“Look,” says Dr Kenneth Brophy (above) of Glasgow University’s Archaeology department, gesturing with undampened enthusiasm at empty bottles, used condoms and the remnants of a small fire. “This is how it would have been. Rituals involving alcohol, sex and fire, just like the real thing.”
“But it’s not the real thing,” I mumble through teeth chattering too much to grit.
“Not real, but authentic,” chides Dr Brophy, who blogs as the Urban Prehistorian. Apparently the stone circle, built under a pre-Thatcherite job creation scheme and halted by the Iron Lady herself – who had been interred that very week – is under threat again.
Not satisfied with hosting the Commonwealth Games next year, Glasgow is bidding for the World Youth Games in 2018. This is where the accommodation will be and the stones, as well as the gnawed-at block of flats behind them, are in the way.
It’s a typical Glasgow wrestling match; the past, present and future in the kind of tag-team tussle that keeps the city alive and kicking. As it gears up for the Commonwealths, and all the great games beyond that, Glasgow embraces the future with a brand of gusto they call ‘gallus’ around here.
There’s no shortage of existing sporting venues. The city already boasts three world-class football stadia but there’s plenty of room to build new facilities in post-industrial Glasgow, as the Emirates Arena (and Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome) in the East End has shown.
The brand new Hydro music arena opened this week (Sep 30th) with a series of concerts by Rod Stewart, interrupted by his attendance at an even bigger event – his beloved Celtic FC playing Barcelona in the European Champions League.
However, the best bits of Glasgow are often a little less obvious. The handful of buildings designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh are scattered as if for an architectural treasure hunt. The world class art galleries and libraries, even the shops, are, well, open which is more than you can say for many British towns’ retailers. The music and theatre scene is unmatched outside of London and there is a buzz about the place.
But don’t expect this city to take itself too seriously. The statue of the Duke of Wellington outside the Gallery of Modern Art in the city centre has a traffic cone permanently on his head. Edinburgh, just 70 km away, is regarded with smirking disdain; the tram-strangled capital’s monolithic Festival runs for a few weeks in summer, but Glasgow is ‘on’ all year.
This is a young city. With three major universities, a world-famous art school, a music conservatory and several colleges, about a quarter of its population of around 600,000 are in tertiary education. That’s a lot of young, smart people so it’s no wonder that it has more live music venues – including the legendary King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut and The Arches – than Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen combined.
This is what will surprise visitors who come for the Commonwealth Games, or any other reason. The industries that made this once Britain’s second city may be dead and gone but 21st Century Glasgow is alive!
Dr Brophy reckons the night life attracts a lot of students, and he would know. But Scott Taylor, Chief Executive of Glasgow City Marketing, says the lure may be something even more fundamental.
“There’s a café, restaurant or bar for every 1000 people in Glasgow. That’s a lot of jobs for kids who are trying to get by on student grants or loans,” he explains. It also keeps the cost of eating out relatively low. “There’s a limit to what students will pay and that keeps the prices down for everyone.”
All of which leads to that blend of old and new Glasgow, that mock Jock, self-deprecating, Nouveau Weegie* attitude, embodied in places like the sandwich bar called Piece. The word ‘piece’ is traditional Scots for a sandwich but this place takes the concept of what you can put between two slices of bread to new heights.
In surroundings reminiscent of an old-fashioned grocer shop, the walls gleaming with white tiles, a ‘plain loaf’ has been replaced by bloomer, ciabatta and baguette and the coffee tastes so good it’s blasphemous. I recommend the ‘Dirty Fat Boy’ – thick cut ham, free range egg, garlic mayo, cheddar cheese and a gherkin – although the Urban Prehistorian bemoaned the lack of a ‘piece and jam’. There’s no pleasing some people.
Glasgow is changing. The famed Clydeside shipyards are mostly silent now and even the buildings that replaced the slums are being demolished. But the ‘wee hard man’ reputation of No Mean City refuses to die. The day after I visit, Glasgow is named the most violent city in Britain. This is progress – the last time I was here it was pronounced more violent than New York. Even so, you still have to be careful where you are when you ask for a Dirty Fat Boy.
That night I went to the Curler’s Rest (a bar, not a hairdressers) in Byres Rd, in the city’s shabby chic West End. Alert for wee hard men, I overheard two pavement smokers discussing how one of them had been knifed in the back. A little disappointingly, it turned out they were referring to unsatisfactory dealings with a television producer.
Inside, four smart young women sat in the corner guzzling beer, cider and wine … and knitting. Knitting? In a pub? In the city of the “can yer mother sew…” razor gangs?
There were boutique beers on tap and a virtual Eurozone by the bottle, but no raised voices, no blaring music, no distracting TVs or pokie machines. What have they done to the Glasgow pub?
Byres Rd is one of Glasgow’s great “eat streets” with the legendary Ubiquitous Chip sitting cheek by jowl with the Ashoka, a restaurant that helped give Glasgow its reputation for the finest curries north of … err … Bradford. Across the road the allegedly Vietnamese Hanoi Bike Shop sells faux pho that they tell you is pronounced ‘fuh’. It’s not, so I have to wonder what the H stands for.
The Merchant City’s honeyed sandstone buildings, just the other side of the city centre, has a more sophisticated appeal with up-market eateries like Café Gandolfi offering modern Scottish fare alongside a few trad faves like Cullen skink (a smoked fish soup).
Earlier that week I’d eaten at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant in George Square – it was quicker to fly to Glasgow than queue in Sydney. My family mocks me for craving macaroni cheese whenever I am ‘home’ and, lo and behold, there it was on the menu … only with crab and capers involved too.
The simple pleasures of the past met the sophisticated indulgences of today, right there on my plate. And in the same way, Glasgow with its snazzy sandwich shops, artisan bakeries, boutique breweries, trendy restaurants and pre-GFC prices is similarly going back to the future.
The outrageously stylish new Riverside Museum – a building that looks like a heartbeat with a twist – houses ancient trains and boats and planes in the most modern of spaces. This is what Glasgow is about for me.
Whatever sporting triumphs and tragedies next July brings, the main game in Glasgow is finding its hidden gems, like the not-very-Neolithic stone circle. Hidden gems and semi-precious stones? That pretty much sums the city up.
*Weegie = Glaswegian.
A FEW HIDDEN GEMS
To find out the places Glaswegians have discovered in Glasgow, there’s a Facebook page called greatlittleplaceglasgow which is well worth a visit.
To read more about the Sighthill stone circle, go to theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com
Meanwhile here are a few other jewels in Glasgow’s crown:
Demijohn, 382 Byres Road, is a ‘liquid deli’, selling mostly British liqueurs, whiskies, wines, spirits, olive oils and vinegars stored and displayed in massive glass demijohns. Tasting encouraged. Web: www.demijohn.co.uk
Piece, 1056 Argyle Street, described as serving ‘the sandwich as an art form’. Web: www.laucknerandmoore.com
The Curler’s Rest at 256-260 Byres Rd boasts five real ales, 19 specialty beers and three ciders on tap, a restaurant and even a wine club and tasting nights. Web: thecurlersrestglasgow.co.uk
The Riverside Museum, housing Glasgow’s transport history, was designed by architect Zaha Hadid Web: glasgowlife.org.uk/museums
Emirates and Qantas offer connecting flights direct to Glasgow out of Dubai but it is quicker (and often cheaper) to fly to London and then fly British Airways from Heathrow to Glasgow.
Glasgow has more than 100 hotels at all levels from the $267 a night Blythswood Square luxury hotel through the mid-range, ubertrendy citizenM (subs: correct) at about $115, to the cheap and cheerful Alexander Thomson hotel from $75. There are even cheaper options and obviously prices will rise and availability will fall during next year’s Commonwealth Games.
Blythswood Square Hotel, No.11 Blythswood Square, Glasgow, G2 4AD. Tel 0141 248 8888
citizen M Hotel, 60 Renfrew Street, Glasgow, G2 3BW Tel. +44 203 519 1111.
Alexander Thomson Hotel, 320 Argyle Street, Glasgow, G2 8LY Tel. +44 141 2211152