Glasgow, Scotland: Melancholic melodies

To find the real Scotland, you have to go to Glasgow, writes Glenn A.Baker.

There was oft expressed concern whenever I let the good folk of Glasgow know that, in a matter of days, I would be departing south to London. Their faces would crease and I would almost expect them to issue the spluttering caution: "Beware, thar be dragons!"

Most of them did solemnly shake their heads though and state with a tinge of palpable sadness, more as established fact than opinion, "You know, they're just not friendly down there". The pause that followed seemed to be to allow me to declare a change of plans. The body language was plain: "Now, it is not too late to reconsider, laddie."

When I boarded the train it was with some heaviness of heart, though my platform experience was not as dramatic nor revealing as that of transplanted rock singer Jimmy Barnes a few years back.

Having made his way by rail to his place of birth from that soulless city of the south he strode out of the station when, as he likes to recall: "A complete stranger, drunk as a skunk, tried to pick a fight with me. Hello. Then another complete stranger jumped in and fought my battle for me. And as I walked to the cab rank I thought, these are my people." To him, the nature of those people is to "be hard and to be melodic".

"Scots are the real soul singers. They spend Saturday night sitting around singing tunes. They don't like songs without meaning, they like songs that make people cry, songs that make people feel and songs that make people fight. My mum used to sing Scottish songs like that. It's an art, a craft. It's a history of blowing bagpipes and yelling across halls."

There's lots of halls to yell across in Glasgow - and clubs and bars and theatres and comedy clubs and arenas and stadiums. All frighteningly well frequented.

In King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, regularly decreed Britain's best live venue, I was directed to a poky backstage room where, it was declared with no small amount of pride, a visiting Oasis had signed their recording contract.

It was as much a contemporary Glasgow experience as admiring the sublime architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the Glasgow School of Art (recently damaged by fire), taking in the array of automotive motifs in the multiple award-winning Riverside Museum and gazing upon an original Salvador Dali in the vast and grand Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

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To visit Glasgow, which hosts the Commonwealth Games in July, is to marvel at how one of the pivots of the industrial revolution has remade itself into one of Europe's pre-eminent cultural centres - a vibrant, stylish and engaging city of galleries and performance venues. A city of droll wit and quiet disdain for the popular profile of Edinburgh. One is left in no doubt that the innovation, determination, drive and quality that drove Scotland forward as a manufacturing and trading nation in centuries past is at the heart of its quite spectacular renaissance.

From a long way away, it is possible to think of Scotland less as distinct and individual entity and more as just a part of Britain, with broader accents. But when you walk the streets of Glasgow in particular, all that is erased.

They are a people apart, a people unique. Comedian John Cleese recently mused upon British security concerns: "The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from 'Miffed' to 'Peeved'.

"Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to 'Irritated' or even 'A Bit Cross'.

"Terrorists have been recategorised from 'Tiresome' to 'A Bloody Nuisance'. The last time the British issued a 'Bloody Nuisance' warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada. The Scots have raised their threat level from 'Pissed Off' to 'Let's get the Bastards' .They don't have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years."

"People Make Glasgow" goes the tourism slogan and I'd not want to challenge that for a moment, though I would caution about the occasional difficulty in field research. One morning I climbed into a black cab for a 20-minute journey into the suburbs.

Hoping for a frank exchange of views I waited until I caught a phrase or two from the driver so I could weigh in. It was not to be.

His brogue was so intense that I did not recognise as English one single word over the entire journey.

I might as well have been somewhere in the Balkans. The smile on his face was broad though, and I still tipped him.

Edinburgh will always have its smugness, its military tattoos and, one must concede, Ian Rankin's Rebus but you just know, in your innards, that Angus, Malcolm and Bon of AC/DC could only have come out of the tougher precincts of Glasgow. Since Lulu, the city has kept pumping them out - Donovan, Marmalade, Easybeat George Young, Sweet's Brian Connolly, Frankie Miller, Maggie Bell, Alex Harvey, Swanee, Texas, Sheena Easton, Simple Minds, Del Amitri, Aztec Camera, Edwyn Collins, Primal Scream, Travis, Wet Wet Wet. I'm not sure if it's in the water, though the Clyde was certainly key to success in the shipbuilding years.

Like the Irish, the Scots have a handle on Celtic melancholy. Even the outrageous Billy Connolly is not immune. Tucked away on one of his old albums, amid swathes of storming savagery, is I Wish I Was in Glasgow, a beguiling lament. "Oh I was born in Glasgow, near the centre of the town, I would take you there and show you but they've pulled the building down," he crooned. "The great old place I miss so much has seen much better days but still we talk about it as we go our separate ways. Glasgow gave me more than it ever took away and prepared for life on the road."

Him and an awful lot of his compatriots.

The writer travelled courtesy of British Airways and Glasgow City Marketing Bureau. See peoplemakeglasgow.com.au.

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