Glasgow: A Victorious Loss
By Katie Anderson
In A Scots Hairst: Essays and Short Stories, Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon writes of Glasgow, “The monster of Loch Ness is probably the lost soul of Glasgow, in scales and horns, disporting itself in the Highlands after evacuating finally and completely its mother-corpse.” He continues in his essay entitled Glasgow, “It may be a corpse, but the maggot-swarm upon it is very fiercely alive…what excellent grounds the old-fashioned anthropologist appeared to have for believing that man was by nature a brutish savage, a herd-beast delighting in vocal discordance and orgiastic aural abandon.”
This was my home for four months; take what you will from that, but don’t let it be said that Glasgow is the next Detroit—I’ve lived there too, the lost soul of a 225 slant six, a dream left in an old garage long long ago. No, Glasgow may be a hollow shell of itself, a city undone several hundred times, but it has been knit back together with scraps of new and old culture to create a city un-matched in its multitude of layers. Glasgow is anything but flat. Topographically it resembles something of a bowl shape and bustles with energy like an anthill uncovered by some child wielding a magnifying glass. It is a city cratered in the Scottish countryside but re-built on top of itself over and over again. There is still physical evidence of this in the parks, where you can walk beneath canals that are covered by bridges that are covered by canals. Glasgow is not a natural phenomenon; it is purely the product of human minds, a city molded by human hands.
As is the country and spirit of Scotland, Glasgow is not made of streets and lanes, buildings and shops, of the smell of bakeries, vinegar and rancid inner-city clubs; Glasgow is made of its people. Timeless Glaswegians and mosh-posh internationals—shipbuilders and craftsmen and students and Catholics and artisans and drunks—people who can’t leave it and people who want to challenge it.
I spent most of the four months in Glasgow sulking in my room. When I left that room it was for good reasons though: to go to class, to get groceries, to hang out with my friend Chelsea at Lebowskis and Curlers and drink cheap pints with football hooligans, to go see the Royal Scottish National Orchestra downtown at the corner of Sauchiehall and Hell. Sometimes we went to the University student unions and partied with freshmen, sometimes I would get whisky drunk and cry all night and miss the United States. Home, I thought, was a place that never seemed to disgust and disappoint me, at least not in the same way. For me, Glasgow was unpredictable and misunderstood, a city that celebrated Halloween every weekend. It’s female inhabitants never put pants on, even in the winter, and you could tell who the real Scottish women were by the fact that they never shivered when they strut from club to club in their tight couture, much like the occasional man clad in his kilt.
The city is a wild jungle of liquor and hard junk and yet you would never suspect it, at least not the way that Irvine Welsh once described as it was in Edinburgh. Unlike that place, Glasgow never pretends to be something it’s not; the vibe of the city is just naturally dark and dirty, and takes the form of whatever monster happens to be skulking through Scotland at the time—the fact that this century the monster is Scotch whisky is no coincidence.
Glasgow obliterates every one of its inhabitants in its own unique way. I felt like I was assaulted by the city and no matter how hard I fought back my dignity was never returned. A night in the inner city, for example, might lead you to decide to hit the bar scene for a pint and a few shots and as a result you may instead decide to punch a Scot in the face for stealing your green beret. After that night I think I stopped taking liquor as an excuse from people, least of all myself. I mean, the hat didn’t have a few shots with these guys and decide to go party back at their place. And the men didn’t want to taunt the felt hat into seduction; they wanted women and sorely enough women seem to come at a low price in Glasgow. As a result of this discovery I became violently conscious of my surroundings, chewed up and spit into the pile of detritus that is Glasgow and forced to survive the constant attack of predators feasting off of all the little dead things. For that reason I never let my guard down for a second, I never let anyone see the emptiness I may have had or hint in any way that I was vulnerable in longing for the emotional comforts of home, and in that sense I was never lonely, never for a second was I out of reach of the bar and it’s gracious tender.
Maybe as a whole we Glaswegians were very much alive, but clubs only stayed open until three a.m., and the chip shops eventually dried up on vinegar, and nothing good lasts forever, and it all ends abruptly. And so I never let Chelsea out of my sight and she never let me out of hers.
I learned from my travels in Scotland that there are very few types of people who can express their carnal instincts the way that Scottish folk can. There is something socially welcomed in Scottish society that is ignored by their English neighbors, something that is pure and angry and abrasive, but not shamed. Where the English would scold said behavior the Scottish show support; they collect dignity like gold. And in that way, the Scottish reflect their country’s history just as every country does: Americans are those who resent each other, but would never change their fellow citizens because together, as a whole, Americans are a winning team. But the Scottish are different; they are quick to win the small battles that they can, the ones that are damn near impossible and insensible, but only with the ultimate knowledge that the war is lost. Scots, with so much ambition, are luckless sacks fronting a “fuck it” attitude with a wide smile. But Scots sport a strange happiness, it isn’t the kind of happiness that comes from satisfaction or Christmas morning, but the feeling you get from punching a man in the face. And for that I can call myself a Glaswegian—for the happiness I get from knowing that there is such a thing as justice, and it sometimes comes in the form of a fist to the mouth. I take that with me now, the pride I have from knowing that for a moment I am victorious and the world can be put to balance once again, if only for one endearing moment.
So less than four months later, as I sit still and let my world spin around me like a top, I can almost recall what the streets of Sauchiehall felt like on a Saturday night. The way we would meander down the sidewalk avoiding the ugly faces of drink and the greedy, spastic eyes of junk, hoping to God that we wouldn’t look for fear of nausea, for fear we would spin uncontrollably in the carnival of the dead monster’s flesh. I walked away from that experience with a lesson well learned; never trust a well-lit street and never walk with strangers in the night.
Katie Anderson has spent time living in Detroit, MI, Auburn, ME, Asheville, NC, and Glasgow, Scotland. She continues to take her experience from living in a variety of different environments and puts them into pieces of creative non-fiction. However, for the amount of time spent traveling abroad she wishes to let her readers know that no matter where life continues to take you, home is always where the heart is.