The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has today published a report stating that global warming, undoubtedly due to human activity, is occurring even faster than anticipated, and its devastating consequences are even now with us. COP26, scheduled to take place in Glasgow this November, is the last chance for the world to avert a total catastrophe. Fancy that! Armageddon turns out to be, of all places, Glasgow. Glasgow is the last chance saloon for Planet Earth. Who’d have thought it? It might be hard, on the day, for the COP26 delegates to conjure the idea of an overheated planet. Glasgow in November, can be dreich (good Scots word) not to say gruamach (even better Gaelic word).
I was in Glasgow, my home town, for lunch, yesterday. It’s only a forty five minute drive from my Trossachs fastness on the edge of the Highland Boundary Fault Line. Where the M80 merges with the M8 I was aware of a huge expanse of cumulonimbus – we call such clouds a “MacGregor” – towering like a gigantic black anvil over the city. The heavens opened as I drove west along the Clydeside expressway past the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), formerly the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC), where COP26 will be held. Even with the wipers going at full pelt, visibility was so poor that I wanted to pull over, but there was no place to stop, so I just had to slow down and brave the storm. The Audis and BMWs (don’t get me started) hurtled on, lemming-like, into the opaque monsoon. I thought of the poor people in Greece; they would have loved it.
There are two sides to Glasgow. There is the down-at-heel, litter-strewn, alcoholic, drug-addicted Glasgow of poverty, hopelessness and despair, the Glasgow of Shuggie Bain, the east end enclaves where male average life expectancy is 54 years. I can’t help thinking this is the Glasgow depicted in the city’s coat of arms with its associated enigmatic quatrain which, come to think of it, could hardly be more inappropriate in the fight to save the planet. I quote it at the end of this piece.
The city’s motto is “Let Glasgow flourish” but the better known strap line is “Glasgow’s miles better”. It is evident this has the alternative meaning “Glasgow smiles better”, reflecting Glaswegians’ reputation for being warm-hearted and generous of spirit. But less evident to all save the locals is the true meaning of the tag: “Glasgow’s miles better than Edinburgh”, reflecting Edinburgh’s “You’ll have had your tea” attitude. Whether these stereotypical characterisations have any evidence base I couldn’t say.
My school motto (in Glasgow’s west end) was “Spero meliora”. I hope for better things. We were trained from the earliest age to look at the world from a position of disadvantage. If any ambition was to be nurtured, it was the ambition to get out.
The down-at-heel side of Glasgow is decrepit, untended, and overgrown with weeds. There is a close association in Glasgow between dilapidation, and fire-raising (no arsonists, note, north of the border, only fire-raisers – just as there are no Scottish burglars, only house-breakers). An unoccupied sport’s club pavilion of some antiquity in Glasgow’s Victoria Park recently went up in flames, and has now been demolished. It occupied a position quite close to another decrepit pavilion that has been shut for years, housing the Fossil Grove. These remarkable eleven Lepidodendron tree stump remnants have been there for 325 million years. Maybe I shouldn’t tempt fate, but it would not surprise me if the building in which they now shelter went up in a puff of smoke. Two of the most tragic fires in Glasgow’s history have resulted in the destruction of the St Andrew’s Hall (a discarded cigarette butt after a boxing match in 1962), and of The Mack, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s striking School of Art (cause unknown). It took thirty years for the city fathers to replace St Andrew’s Hall. At the time, they were too busy ripping up the rail tracks and the tram tracks and replacing them with huge motorways and fly-overs to accommodate the great god of the automobile. From our present vantage point that seems short-sighted. As for the Mack, nobody knows if the Mack will be restored or replaced. It was wrecked by fire, not once, but twice, in 2014 and 2018. Now once is unfortunate; twice is carelessness.
Yet, on the other hand, Glasgow is a city of tremendous character. Glasgow can look terrific. This is why Hollywood chooses to shoot blockbusters here, shutting of St Vincent Street and turning it into downtown Philadelphia. Glasgow’s west end is very stylish. Glasgow University campus is stunning. In so many ways, the Glasgow of today is a far better place than it was when I was a boy. Indeed the better side to Glasgow is evident in the environs of the SEC. When I was a youngster, an evening stroll down here by the Clyde would have been tantamount to an act of suicide. Now, a favourite walk of mine is down by the river, crossing to the north and south banks by the suspension bridge, the Squinty Bridge, the Millennium Bridge, Bell’s Bridge, passing the Hydro, the Armadillo, BBC Scotland, the Science Museum, the Transport Museum, and the Tall Ship. I would recommend such a stroll to the COP26 delegates, though I don’t expect to see President Biden walking over the Squinty Bridge any time soon. But you never know.
The SEC is a good conference centre. Recently the Royal College of General Practitioners has held its annual conference in a three year cycle in Liverpool, Harrogate, and Glasgow. Whenever the RCGP conference came to Glasgow I was aware that local issues were given some prominence. Why is Glasgow such an unhealthy place? Is there an unknown malign “Glasgow factor”? Yet despite this worthy attention, I was always aware that the RCGP conference was being masterminded by 30 Euston Square. The RCGP meeting in Glasgow is like the Lloyd George Cabinet of 1921 held in Inverness. Quirky. COP26 in Glasgow might be similarly quirky. It is to be noted that the masterminding of COP26 is primarily a reserved and not a devolved matter. When the First Minister suggested she have some involvement in Glasgow in November, did not the Prime Minister pass some remark concerning “that bloody wee Jimmy Krankie woman”, and that she would have a role in COP26 “over my f****** dead body”? One of the more admirable characteristics of our Prime Minister is that occasionally he tells you exactly what he thinks, and hang the consequences. This can be insightful.
Once you are cocooned in the bubble of a conference, I don’t suppose it much matters where in the world you are. I don’t imagine Team GB, inside the Olympic Stadium, were particularly aware they were in Tokyo, and the Japanese authorities went to great lengths to keep the population well away from the games. I expect COP26 will be similarly cocooned. (The Olympics, incidentally, have ended on a sombre anniversary which has passed unnoticed by the media. The atomic bomb was detonated over Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945.)
You can never predict what will happen at a conference. I had a ring side seat for the G7 held at Gleneagles in 2005, because I was doing some work for a pre-hospital care educational body headquartered nearby, tutoring ambulance personnel and paramedics. The great unexpected event coming out of left field on that occasion was not President Nixon falling off his bike, but, of course, the 7/7 attack in London. Mr Blair had to make a hasty exit and fly home. So we may plan for Armageddon and draw up the battle lines in Glasgow, only to find that the conflict is taking place elsewhere. The first rule of engagement is this: be present at the battle.
Which side of Glasgow will be reflected in any agreement arising from COP26? An ambitious worldwide accord, and hope, or a breakdown in talks, and despair? If the former, then “Let Glasgow flourish” can become the motto for the world; if the latter, then that enigmatic quatrain associated with the Glasgow coat of arms can become the world’s epitaph:
This is the tree that never grew
This is the bird that never flew
This is the fish that never swam
This is the bell that never rang.