It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
I was in Edinburgh on the day of the general election, and took a walk up the Royal Mile all the way from the Scottish Parliament to Edinburgh Castle. The usual street theatre was in evidence. I stopped – I am the eternal average man – and joined a crowd of tourists to watch a man juggle three flaming torches while simultaneously bouncing a ball on his head. This is Edinburgh on show, depicted on a shortbread tin, Edinburgh in inverted commas. It’s a permanent Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Next morning, according to the First Minister, “The political firmament, the tectonic plates in Scottish politics, have shifted. What we are seeing is a historic watershed.” I am inclined to forgive her for mixing her metaphors; she had after all been up all night. Post-seism, not only the watercourses, even the stars above have altered their trajectory. That is one Big Shoogle. The newspapers said, “The SNP tsunami has caused a seismic shift…” These tectonic plates again. Doesn’t the earthquake cause the tsunami? But I quibble.
That day, I happened to be in Glasgow. Glasgow is 44 miles from Edinburgh, but culturally it might as well be 44 light years. Perhaps if I took a stroll down Buchanan Street from the Royal Concert Hall to the Clyde I might figure out why. I stopped for a coffee in the concert hall. In the loo, a guy started talking at me in that abrupt way Glaswegians start up a conversation.
“Aye she wanted the Tories back all along!”
“I might not agree with you.”
“Believe me – it was all planned!”
I was non-committal. “We live in interesting times.” He gave me a withering look. Meanwhile I was trying to turn the tap off – difficult as the faucet handle had come off.
“It’s been like that for weeks now!”
The Concert Hall is the home of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Around the time when the Glasgow tram lines were being ripped up, the St Andrew’s Hall was burned down and the RSNO (then SNO) moved into temporary accommodation. The city fathers turned Glasgow into an asphalt jungle of super highways on concrete stilts but took thirty years to finance a decent concert hall. (I remember as a child attending an SNO concert for school children held in a disused cinema in the middle of a building site. The orchestra played Webern’s Six Pieces – an astonishing thing to do at a children’s concert. The fourth movement is a funeral march culminating in a huge percussive crescendo towards a silence Sir Simon Rattle has described as “deafening”. It was hard to distinguish the bass drum from the pile driver operating just outside and, in the event, the silence did indeed turn out to be deafening. Apologetically, the conductor folded before the competition and cut the concert short.)
Back outside, I negotiate the picnic lunches on the concert hall steps. There’s a move afoot to take the steps away but the lunchers are not happy. Squatters’ rights.
Looking south down the slope of Buchanan Street towards the Clyde, the perspective is foreshortened and it’s like staring at a Brueghel painting full of jugglers and tumblers. But it doesn’t look like a shortbread tin. Somehow it’s the real deal. Beside Donald Dewar’s statue a guy has put up a tightrope between two lampposts and is cavorting around on it with extraordinary facility, to the deafening clatter of a bunch of drummers and a bagpiper, all dressed in faded dun plaid. Terrifying. Was it Wellington who said of his troops on the eve of Waterloo, “I don’t know if they frighten the enemy, but they certainly scare the s*** out of me.” If there are any tourists, they are invisible.
Down by the river, things get quieter. I like to walk west along the river bank occasionally swapping sides over the bridges – the suspension bridge, Jamaica Bridge, Bells Bridge, the Millennium Bridge. This is a part of Glasgow that has become familiar to many because, on the south bank of the Clyde, political pundits emerge from BBC Scotland and talk to Huw Edwards in London against the back drop of a defunct crane, the Squinty Bridge, the SECC, and the Hydro. It’s all rather chic. When I was growing up in Glasgow nobody in their right mind would have ventured down here. Dereliction.
But on this occasion I turn east. Glasgow is a very territorial city. I know people from the west end of Glasgow who have never ventured even as far east as Glasgow Green. It’s as if there is a Berlin Wall at the Salt Market.
And here, just to the east of the city centre, lies the great mystery about Glasgow and Edinburgh. If you are male, resident in the leafy suburb of Barnton in West Edinburgh, you can expect to live until you are 85. If you are male, resident here where I walk now, you can expect to live until you are 55.
And nobody knows why.