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Book review: On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford

Picture: TSPL

Picture: TSPL

  • by David Stenhouse
 

Robert Crawford celebrates the Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry that defies the urban drift of the Central Belt, writes David Stenhouse

On Glasgow And Edinburgh by Robert Crawford

Harvard University Press £25.95

AULD Reekie or the Dear Green Place? The People’s Palace or the Palace of Holy­rood? Cowgate or Trongate? Connery or ­Connolly? East or West, which is best?

It’s a question which, according to the poet and critic Robert Crawford’s readable and erudite new book, has vexed citizens of both of Scotland’s two largest cities since 1656 when an argument over the quality of Glasgow bread spilled over into a rammy about the relative merits of the two cities. As everyone knows, they have been at it ever since.

There is nothing unusual in cities behaving like squabbling siblings; Madrid and Barcelona, Sydney and Melbourne and Helsinki and Tampere similarly jibe and spar with each other. But what Crawford describes as the “scratchy” relationship between Scotland’s two major cities is notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is universally held, inspiring everything from popular books such as Weegies v Edinbuggers to local government campaigns such as Glasgow’s Miles Better. Secondly, the two ­places feel very distinct. And Edinburgh and Glasgow are just 48 minutes apart by train.

The geography might be tiny, but that is where the closeness ends. Glasgow naturally looks west for confirmation of its world view, to the Scottish islands, Ireland and the United States. Edinburgh looks East to the Continent and South to London.

At least the two cities can agree on what they think of each other: to Glaswegians, Edinburgh is a stage set, an empty capital which for centuries has been without court, king or parliament, has never recovered from its various losses and has developed a brittle self-regard to compensate for them.

And Glasgow? The hospitable, voluble, gregarious Western metropolis swathed in sandstone, hugging the polluted Clyde and bristling with religious and sporting rivalry? No self-respecting Edinburgher would linger in the West for long.

Both cities are eminently walkable though, and Crawford has produced a pedestrian-paced narrative which takes us down the Royal Mile and in and out of its closes, around Old College, Surgeon’s Hall, along Princes Street and into the New Town. In Glasgow the journey begins in George Square and leads through Kelvingrove, Sauchiehall Street and the Botanics.

The result is a fascinating book filled with pithy observations and unexpected anecdotes. Crawford comes across like an erudite, beady-eyed flâneur, alive to the relationship between topography and history, combining spirited insight with irreverent characterisations. Here he is on Edinburgh’s fancy New Club: “A concealed and almost comically exclusive private member’s association whose slabbed 1960s interior resembles a James Bond villain’s lair.”

Crawford’s Glasgow is equally vivid, a place of energy, politics and churning demotic impulses, but a place of loss too – a city which first lost nature to industry, and saw its rivers polluted, its parks appropriated for work, and then saw that industry itself wither away leaving a post-industrial gap in the Dear Green Place.

But Crawford is full of praise for the “European Detroit” which has avoided the worst of Detroit’s post-motor-industry decline and has even become an acclaimed centre of post-industrial redevelopment. He points out that the Sustainable Glasgow initiative was even praised by a senior adviser at the US Environmental Protection agency as “a model for cities around the world”.

Crawford takes his role as a modern pedestrian seriously, and pays close – if perhaps self-conscious – attention to the role of women, and the perspective of children. Melding personal reminiscence with inspired historical research he has a keen eye for the ironies and contrasts of city life. As a result there is enough surprising information here to delight even those who know the territory well. I enjoyed the aside that Thomas J Clapperton, who sculpted Robert the Bruce for the portal of Edinburgh Castle also did work to order for Liberty’s Department Store in London’s Regent Street.

Should we view the rivalry between Scotland’s two most powerful cities as destructive, or are they our yin and yang, the positive and negative poles which create a field of force and define a nation? Crawford assembles a compelling case for the idea that the two cities get more from their colourful rivalry than they would from a bland collaboration and seems to embrace a Manichean view when he declares: “Like good and evil, Glasgow and Edinburgh are often mentioned in the same breath, but regarded as utterly distinct.”

In the 1960s it was possible to believe that urban spread westwards from Edinburgh and eastwards from Glasgow would see the two cities slowly merge, forming a barbell shaped conurbation around Scotland’s Central Belt (perhaps given the starchy sugary Scottish diet, a massive Yum­Yum is a better image.) Now it looks unlikely to happen.

For the remainder of the 21st century Glasgow and Edinburgh are likely to remain proudly different, geographically, architecturally and culturally distinct, and more like each other than either would admit. This richly illustrated, intelligent and compelling work of history and reflection offers heartfelt tribute to both, and would fit handsomely on the shelves of libraries in the east or west.

 

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