Ignore This City

by Jonathan Robertson

27 September 2004

Among the most economically depressed cities in the EU, Glasgow is trying to get its citizens back on their feet, again, with a pep-talking campaign. But is this feel-good campaign just 'spit 'n shine' style over substance in a city that is firmly rooted in the manufacturing of substance?
Photo by
David Shrigley  

By the side of the River Clyde a stylish silver building, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is being constructed. On the other side of the river from the building is a small, homemade, white sign hammered into the ground. On the sign is a rough sketch of Foster’s building and the handwritten words: IGNORE THIS BUILDING.

In the early ‘80s, Glasgow had a reputation throughout the UK as a dark, dangerous, and dismal conglomeration of slum housing, religious bigotry, and urban decay. Before WW2, the city was dominated by Victorian housing from Glasgow’s era as “second city of the British Empire”. But, in order to disrupt production in its shipyards and engineering works, Glasgow became a prime target for the bombs of the Luftwaffe. The damage was extensive and the subsequent rebuilding of Glasgow was a slow process. The resultant poor living conditions encouraged social problems such as theft, and illnesses like tuberculosis. Today, the skyscape is dominated by the tombstone high-rises erected in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s as a then modern solution to the housing problems.

An even greater cause of Glasgow’s dismal reputation was the decline of the once great steel, locomotive, and ship building industries based around the River Clyde. Over the second half of the 20th century, the advent of the motor car, the diesel locomotive, and long-distance air liners rendered many of Glasgow’s traditional products redundant. By the late ‘60s there was little demand for passenger liners or ferries or steam locomotives. Moreover, competition from Japan and Germany, coupled with government mismanagement, deepened Glasgow’s problems.

By the early ‘80s, Glasgow’s heavy industries had all but dried up, and little had arrived to fill the gaping hole left in the city’s faltering economy. These industries relied on tough, hard working characters — plate-metal workers, welders, and riveters — people whose pride took a hammering when their jobs shut down. These declines didn’t just leave a gap in employment, but tore a hole in the very culture of the city. A big part of how the city saw itself — its productivity — had vanished. Glasgow’s landscape was littered with vacant factories and shipyards; years of atmospheric pollution had turned the stonework of the remaining Victorian buildings grey-black. Glasgow was, indeed, barren, violent, and dark.

In 1983 a huge advertising campaign was launched by the Council in an attempt to shed the city’s negative reputation. The campaign’s tagline: “Glasgow’s Miles Better”. Initially this campaign was met with incredulity by Glaswegians. However, the advertising was mainly directed not at them, but toward the ABC1 market; those people who make or influence important decisions of a commercial nature. These were the people with the least favourable perception of the Glasgow who really needed convincing. These were the people whose only experience of the city came courtesy of the BBC sit-com Rab C Nesbitt (Gregor Fisher). The central character of this comedy, a Glasgowian, was an overweight, balding, semi-comprehensible, sexist alcoholic who would never change out of his string vest. However, something else happened that year that was to change perceptions of Glasgow from the inside.

In 1983, a 40-year-old promise was finally fulfilled. Sir William Burrell was a ship trader who made his fortune on the Clyde, selling at peak times and buying during the troughs. But away from the shipyards, Burrell was fuelled by an obsession: he feverishly collected art works from around the world. In 1944, he gifted his collection to the city of Glasgow. Burrell insisted that his art be kept “in a rural setting, far removed from the atmospheric pollution of urban conurbations”. Eventually, a suitable venue was found, and in 1983 the Burrell Collection was opened to the public in Pollock Park on the outskirts of Glasgow. Burrell’s collection was a treasure-trove spanning 9,000 artefacts: European painings, including Degas and Cezanne; works from ancient Greece, China, Rome and Egypt; an important collection of Islamic art; medieval art, tapestries, alabasters, stained glass; and modern sculptures including Epstein and Rodin.

In 1983, Glasgow began to turned the corner, and the next 15 years saw the city really start to become “miles better”. Three million visitors came to the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988, where the original Gaelic meaning of the word “Glasgow” — “dear green place” — was rediscovered. In ‘90, Glasgow was given “European City of Culture” stature by the EU; a prestigious award that would have been unthinkable 20 years prio. The ‘90s saw the opening of the Glasgow Science Centre (GSC), the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC), and the Glasgow Auditorium: three huge redevelopments along the banks of the Clyde. New business arrived mainly in the information technology and service sectors. Meanwhile, the city saw the creation of Peter Brook’s Tramway theatre and art space (from a disused tramshed), and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), situated right in the centre of the city. Glasgow was becoming more productive, more creative. Through the development of new galleries, theatres, and music venues, art had come in to the “urban conurabations” of Glasgow that Burrell wanted to avoid, and made Glasgow better.

The rest of Scotland, too, was looking forward to its future. Since 1707, the country has been ruled from London, but under the 1997 Labour government, the political campaign for devolution from England gathered strength. Scottish politicians looked at the economic potentials of North Sea oil, new post-industrial employment developments, and the backing of a strong Scottish presence in Westminster. Scotland even became the only country in the world that made a soft drink that outsold Coca-Cola: Irn-Bru (“made from girders”), made in Glasgow.

In 1999, the people of Scotland voted for devolution and the country was granted its own parliament. On 1 July 1999, the day before the opening of the Scottish parliament, my friends and I went to a special gig featuring Garbage, Idlewild, and The Delgados. I went crowd-surfing to the final song on the Idlewild set, intoxicated on the punk-rock and Irn-Bru. Back on my feet, I found myself walking past Scotland’s First Minister, Donald Dewar, on his way to address the audience before the headliners, Garbage, went on stage. Dewar spoke confidently of a Scotland progressing into a new century and the opportunities open to the country. Many believed Dewar would go on to become the leader of an independent Scotland. But sadly, a year later, Dewar died of a brain haemorrhage.

Today, in 2004, construction of the new parliament building — 10 times over budget — has yet to be completed. And in Glasgow, 20 years after “Glasgow’s Miles Better”, another huge advertisement campaign has been launched, in another attempt to define new perceptions of this city. Today’s tagline reads: “Glasgow: Scotland With Style”. This campaign has ignited a furious debate in newspapers and pubs, making people examine the progress of Glasgow over the last 20 years and question where this campaign will lead us in the next 20 years. How much does “style” count in a city still fighting its financial and social problems?

The “Glasgow: Scotland With Style” tag-line is seen on a series of five different posters, visible at every turn — on billboards, the back of buses and on the walls of the underground — this time aiming to get the backing of the average Glaswegian. Each poster shows a suitably stylish portrait of a young(ish) adult looking relaxed yet chic. Beside the large portrait it is revealed that, for instance, this good-looking “Joseph” is, in fact, a shop assistant and “Glaswegian”.

“I live in the Merchant City / drive 4x4, eat M&S / It tastes of nothing. I taste of nothing / I am the New Scottish Gentry — anglified vowels, sub London thoughts. . . sub media thoughts” — Franz Ferdinand, “Shopping For Blood”

The Merchant City is an area of Glasgow just east of the City Centre. Over the past few years, Merchant City has become, like Glasgow’s West End and City Centre, a fashionable area filled with new wine bars, expensive clothes stores, delicatesans, stylish coffee houses, noodle shacks, and continental bistros. The old pubs in Glasgow all have small, obscured windows, so that, years ago, the wife or the neighbours outside couldn’t catch you having a drink inside. But, today, the new bars, boutiques and restaurants all have huge glass facades, so that those inside can be seen by those on the outside. In the Franz Ferdinand lyric, above, the first-person character from the Merchant City is shown to have a fahionable lifestyle, but underneath that there is no substance. This is the concern of the opponents of “Glasgow: Scotland With Style”: it’s just style over substance in a city with a culture that is firmly rooted in the manufacturing of substance.

Glaswegians are typically un-self-conscious people. “Glasgow: Scotland with Style” goes against that nature, by asking Glaswegians to view themselves and expecting them to say: “Huv a look ut that poster — they’re pure right, I um stylish, eh. We’re aw stylish. Ya dancer!”

Since Glasgow was the “European City of Culture” in 1990, it has also been labelled the European Capital of Heart-Attacks, Murder, Heroin Abuse and Teenage Pregnancy. Glasgow has the three poorest constituencies in the entire UK: Glasgow Shettleston, Glasgow Springburn, and Glasgow Maryhill. Of Glasgow’s 90,000 unemployed, 75 percent are on sickness benefit. It has 5,000 heroin addicts, and a higher percentage of murders per capita than any other EU city.

Some will say that Glasgow’s social problems have improved greatly over the last 20 years, and they would be mostly right. The fact, that we can quote readily available statistics on our problems show a self-awareness of the situation. “Glasgow: Scotland with Style” hopes to attract tourism to Glasgow, and this seems a positive ambition. By comparison, at the height of its strength in the 1920s, Glasgow’s shipping industry employed 38,000. Now, in 2000, tourism accounts for an estimated 58,000 jobs for Glaswegians. Meanwhile, the development of Glasgow Harbour is set to attract new investment to the southwest area of the city. To build itself up again, a city needs to have aspirations, surely?

Those that are sceptical of the “Scotland With Style” campaign highlight the fear that these aspirations are misguided: is style an acceptable replacement for steel and Glasgow’s other big industries? They believe that this new vision of Glasgow is merely building a house of cards on a shaky foundation. On the other hand though, as the days of big industry in Britain are ended, perhaps there is an unhealthy degree of nostalgia in that sentiment. Nonetheless, these are the people that cannot relate the depiction of the city they see in the posters with the city they actually live in.

Perhaps this is what the person who created the “IGNORE THIS BUILDING” sign was thinking: This is not Glasgow. Ignore it. It is merely of “the New Scottish Gentry”; silver and stylish on the outside, but devoid of substance. It is but an idea of culture, rather than real, livable culture itself.

Or maybe the sign-maker was just making a joke.

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