19 Nov Glasgow Monday
I’m wandering the shiny streets of central Glasgow on a day in mid-November when, according to the barista who just served me coffee, the city has bagged the lowest temperature in the whole of Britain. Colder even than the far north though the highland glens are set for 10 below tonight. The city is bright, sunny, bitter. I thank all the stars, lucky and unlucky, that there is not a whisper of wind. Even on a still day, the cold is cutting.
I have a few hours between trains and decide to walk the city centre and let it stun me. There are few places more glorious than Glasgow on a clear, sunny day. Its fabulous heritage of sandstone makes the air even brighter, like it’s playing ping-pong with the sun. When I lived in Glasgow I never really looked at it. So many years later I look at it and see that it’s beautiful.
Leaving Central Station, I soon cross Buchanan Street where a handful of Monday shoppers are out, eager to get the Christmas shopping done before the month is out, the crowds get bigger and the going gets ghastly. Once upon a time I would try and do that too but now the burden of presents to buy is lighter since we all became more sensible – or just wearied of it. I stroll through the high arch that tells me I’m entering the Merchant City and walk past the Gallery of Modern Art housed, with unmistakeable irony, in a building that looks like a mini version of the Parthenon – high-brow neoclassical, once the humble home of some grand eighteenth-century merchant.
On along Ingram Street past more fabulous old buildings housing shops where ludicrously expensive and gaspingly gorgeous Mulberry handbags dwell on glass shelves, their supple leather issuing a smouldering ‘come hither’ glance. I have no trouble resisting though it would be warm in there and a short interlude would be nice. But no, I continue on my way, occasionally casting my wide-eyed gaze onto sumptuous silk dresses and gossamer cashmere sweaters beckoning from behind tall old windows. Walking east I find the streets are gradually emptier. The Merchant City on a Monday, the regular grid of roads flanked by gracious buildings, is quiet, unhurried, stately, as if all the merchants are on a long weekend.
I love this city. Love its gritty grandeur. Love the fact that, for a chunk of my young life, it was home. I don’t know if I loved it then. I’m not sure I thought in those terms. Glasgow just was. And it was just where I lived. That feels very far in the past yet my feet still just about find their way around the streets even though modern structures punctuate the view; something deeply familiar clicks into my consciousness; a sense of direction. I look up more than I used to, not because I’m taller. I reached my full height well before leaving the city. If anything, it’s such a long time ago that I may be a few millimetres shorter as the spaces between my vertebrae gradually elide. Maybe I just ‘look’ more. My world is wider than it was back then when much of it was inside my head. And though it still is in a sense, now I know that inside my head is a better place when I look out. And in Glasgow, when you ‘look’ you must look up to the astonishing ornaments high up on the masonry, to the spires and towers and cupolas. Oh yes, the Glasgow masons knew a thing or two about stone.
The sun blazes down on the rooftops and spires, not quite reaching street level now that it’s winter-low in the sky. The chill is fierce. I walk back to the bustle of Buchanan Street. A young man is playing Jingle Bells on the bagpipes. It’s not a good blend, to be honest, but he’s trying to catch the shoppers’ mood. He’s wearing tracksuit trousers, trainers and a cotton hoody. Reaching over the pipe to mark out the tune, his long, slender fingers register somewhere between crimson and purple on the colour wheel. As he blows into the bag, his white cheeks inflate either side of a red nose. A block away, another man dressed more warmly plays a violin-like instrument with a trumpet-like attachment. It probably has a name but I have no idea what it is – a ‘trumpolin’ perhaps. The sound is eerie, like the pipes played by squat, weather-beaten herdsmen in the high Andes, or issuing through the walls of a dimly-lit spa where water ripples, fragrant oils infuse, and the yoga instructor is impossibly lithe. It should be haunting and beautiful but he’s constantly off-key, the harshly discordant notes amplified through his makeshift speaker. People scatter, desperate to be out of earshot. I slip away too. I have a train to catch.