Magazine article The Spectator

Western Civilisation

Magazine article The Spectator

Western Civilisation

Article excerpt

With four fine galleries and a sardonic wit reminiscent of old Vienna, Glasgow deserves a second look, says Bruce Anderson

Scottish cultural life is not confined to Edinburgh. Any visitor to the Festival should also consider making the short journey to Glasgow. A generation ago, such advice would have been received with incredulity. As recently as the early Seventies, Glasgow had much the worst reputation of any major British city. It was notorious for gang warfare, football hooliganism and a pervasive, threatening industrial grime. Then, there were two changes. Glasgow improved, while conditions in almost every other city deteriorated. These days, when people think of gangs, they think of London.

Fixtures between Rangers and Celtic are still tense occasions, but so are football matches all over the country.

Moreover, while other cities declined, Glasgow tarted itself up.

There was a lot of promising raw material. Once the Clean Air Acts began to bite, Glasgow re-emerged as a great Victorian entrepot. In Glasgow, the word 'tenement' originally meant a flat, or a block of flats. During the 20th century, it came to mean blackened stonework without and blackened lives within. But once the smog was banished, a proud glint returned to the sandstone. A few years earlier, the respectable classes who lived in flats would have insisted on that word: heaven forfend that anyone might accuse them of living in a tenement. By the Eighties, the term suddenly became fashionable, which was hardly surprising given the prices which tenement flats could command once they were done up. The surviving tenements are now part of the heritage.

It is an extensive heritage. Anyone who wants to appreciate Victorian architecture or understand 19th-century mercantile culture must walk around Glasgow. Do not miss the Necropolis, one of the world's most imposing cemeteries. It is also a monument to Scottish Protestantism, even though some of the first graves on the site were Jewish. That would not have troubled the stalwarts of the Kirk. They too were much more comfortable with the Old Testament than the New.

Although you will hardly find a Glaswegian who admits it, Glasgow also benefited from the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s. Mrs Thatcher revived the animal spirits of the British middle classes and, underneath the rough exterior, Glasgow was a profoundly bourgeois city. In the 1980s, it recovered its elan, a process which culminated in an astonishing way. In 1990, Glasgow became the European City of Culture, an accolade which was greeted with equal measures of pride and self-mockery. …

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