The sizzle of skillets and percussive thuck of halal meat being chopped – this is Govanhill in 2013 and the all-consuming story of a fascinating district
George Verrecchia, a dapper gent of 84, stands in the doorway of the Bungalow Cafe, which he has owned since 1949, watching folk pass to and fro along Victoria Road: a woman in a black burka with a small girl who is wearing a brown headscarf and carrying a pink schoolbag; a halal butcher in a bloodstained apron out on a quick fag break; a chubby boy of about ten singing at the top of his lungs a joyful song in Romani. The chalkboard in the window of the cafe advertises tattie scones, fried-egg pieces, and what is reputed to be, at 40p, the cheapest cup of tea in Glasgow. Just around the corner, should it take your fancy, you can feast instead on goat trotters, a favourite breakfast dish round here.
This is Govanhill in 2013 – surely the most racially mixed part of Scotland, a district on the south side of Glasgow, home to some 15,000 souls, with people from an estimated 42 different nationalities living within one square mile. Its boundaries are narrow yet its horizons are broad. Govanhill feels at once global and self-contained. The impression one gets from walking around, especially on Allison Street, the main drag, is that one has left Scotland behind for a while. You can daunder up and down and hear not a word of English, or even Glaswegian, spoken. It’s all Urdu, Romani, Slovak, Polish, Czech, Somali, Igbo and more. Much of the shop front signage is in Arabic. Most striking of all, though, in fact completely dominant, is the presence of food and drink. It dominates the senses. A smell of spice and other aromas so strong you can taste it: haleem; nihari; fried fish; dried fish; chana chat; chips; and, billowing out from pub doorways, the sour, warm, cosy reek of beer.
During these dark, dreich days of winter, the fruit shops of Victoria Road glow, a blaze of colour, lights strung from canopies shining down on pomegranates the size of infants’ heads, outdazzling even the sign of the evangelical church further up the road, which informs Govanhill – in pink neon block capitals – that Christ died for its sins.
In the windows of traditional Asian confectionary shops, such as the Glasgow Sweet Centre on Allison Street, treats are stacked in high blocks of hot pink and pistachio green, great psychedelic fortifications of lado, barfi and gulab jamun (balls of dough, deep-fried and dipped in syrup, a sort of Asian equivalent of the battered Mars Bar). Two A4 sheets of paper, taped to the glass door of the Tasty Afrika grocer, proclaim the availability of ewa agoyin – a Nigerian dish of beans and stew. Meanwhile, all around at all times is the sizzle of hot skillets and the hypnotic, percussive thuck of halal meat being chopped.
The story of Govanhill, its people and its long history of immigration is best told by talking to those who prepare and enjoy its food and drink. To know Govanhill is to eat it, and to eat it is to become consumed by the story of this fascinating district.
Take George Verrecchia. His Bungalow Cafe is a point of stasis in a street of flux – largely unchanged since the 1940s, a Cadbury’s advert in the window apologises for the rationing of milk, cocoa and sugar; on wooden shelves behind the glass counter old-fashioned sweeties are displayed in glass jars. Elderly ladies come in for a week’s supply of wine gums, just as they have done since they themselves were young, and of course they order half a pound not 200g. Sometimes old couples walk in the door who say they have long since emigrated, “but we did oor winchin’ in here”, and are astonished and delighted to find that the cafe, unlike themselves, has stayed the same – although hot peas and vinegar, once a popular staple, are no longer available.
Yet even Verrecchia was an incomer once. Born in Italy in 1928, in the village of Filignano, he and his family were part of that wave of Italian Scots which established so many beloved chippies and ice-cream parlours. Verrecchia loves his cafe, which he now runs with his daughters Nicola and Paula. He always says he would die if it wasn’t for this place. Victoria Road is very different from how it was in his youth. It is much quieter now, he says, and used to be a more affluent and self-contained community. You could do all your shopping here in the south side and have no need to go into the town centre. It was also almost entirely white.
The Asian immigrants started to arrive in the 1970s, Verrecchia recalls. “To me they’re all Indians,” he says, without malice, chuckling at his own lack of discernment. In fact, very few people from India have settled in Govanhill. Pakistan is the main country of origin. On Friday lunchtimes, Govanhill quietens, and some shutters come down, as many close their businesses for an hour or so and head to the mosque for prayer.
At the Sheerin Palace on the corner of Allison Street and Daisy Street, on Thursday, there is quite a crowd for lunch, or at least as much of a crowd as this tiny local favourite can ever hold. This is a cafe and takeaway of the sort found throughout Pakistan and is therefore a nostalgic, authentic experience for homesick ex-pats. The western equivalent would be an indigenous Scot in Lahore finding a place that sold stovies at a bargain price in rupees; for the Sheerin Palace is cheap, suiting the pockets of locals, with curries between £3 and £5.
On the wall behind the counter, taped above the hygiene certificates, are two prayers in Arabic, one asking for protection from evil. In a small, tiled back room, warmed by a portable gas heater, there are six tables – diner-style – laid with floral tablecloths. An Iraqi in his sixties pokes rather mournfully at his vegetable curry (“I’m an Arab so this is too hot for me”); at another table sits a young black man; at a third, cannily close to the heater, are Asif Ahmed, a 39-year-old Glaswegian and his work colleague Zohaib Muhammad (they deliver phone chargers) a 27-year-old from Pakistan, who eat here most days.
Zohaib Muhammad has been living in Scotland for seven years; he is settled and married with a child. Often, before he starts work, he comes to the Sheerin Palace for a heavy breakfast and that sets him up for the day. “It reminds me of back home,” he says. He discovered it quite by accident. He and Asif were driving past, heading for Nando’s, when they decided to pop in. It was a revelation, a Proustian rush of heat and oil and spice. “Here,” says Muhammad, “was the food I’d been eating all my life.”
There is no menu. No need for one, says the amiable, middle-aged owner, Anser Ali. Within the glass counter are six long rectangular metal dishes of the sort familiar from school dinners, and within these are chicken biryani, daal, mustard-leaf saag and the day’s curry options, made fresh each morning, about half of which include meat on the bone – the traditional way of doing it, with way more flavour. In the hot, dim kitchen, a Pakistani chef is making naan bread, first pressing the dough quickly with splayed fingers, as if playing tabla, then spinning and flipping so quickly his hands blur.
“For people from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, this is real, spicy, home-style cooking,” says Anser Ali. He himself is from Rawalpindi, where he worked as a chef, the latest in a long line of his family to master the art of the phenomenally sweet traditional confectionary known as mithai. He travelled to Scotland ten years ago. Govanhill, he says, is a good place. The community are supportive and they leave clean plates.
In fact, there are several communities here, and have been more over the years. “It’s what I would call a reception area,” says Bob Marshall, project leader of the Govanhill People’s History Project, an initiative researching the waves of migration. “It’s a place where people have always come, and that is still going on.” It is Glasgow’s Ellis Island; Gallus Island, if you will.
“Some people find Govanhill alienating,” says Clem Sandison, a young artist who has lived in the area for more than ten years. She and the artist Alex Wilde have collaborated on work which explores identity and cooking in Govanhill, including creating a food map of the area. “But I’ve got to know a lot of the owners of shops and their families. Food is one of the ways where we find commonality with people. It’s good at bridging the gap.”
Govanhill was at one time a mining village outside Glasgow. It started to expand significantly from 1837 with the foundation of the Govan Iron Works, known to this day, even though it is long gone, as Dixon’s Blazes. The Irish also began to arrive in Glasgow in large numbers at around this time, estimated at more than 1,000 people a week during 1848 – escaping the famine and seeking employment. In the 1960s, with the demolition of the Gorbals tenements, a second wave of Irish moved to Govanhill.
At the end of the 19th century, heavy industry began to draw Jews from Poland and Lithuania. Significant immigration from the Indian sub-continent, in particular from Pakistan, was a phenomenon first observed in the 1960s and 1970s. The sheer numbers of Irish and Asians living in Govanhill during this period led to the area being nicknamed Bengal/Donegal.
Why has Govanhill been such a magnet for different nationalities? The availability of cheap, private-let housing is one practical reason. Also, immigration is self-perpetuating – the presence of an established community makes it more likely others will come and settle. “I’ve been here for eight years and no one ever cared that I was Polish,” says 18-year-old Matt Wielunski, taking a break from selling jars of flaczki – tripe soup – in the Polish Deli on Calder Street. “At school I got lots of attention, but it was positive. Everyone wanted to be my friend.”
Since 2004, when Slovakia and the Czech Republic joined the EU, another ingredient has added flavour to the Govanhill melting pot – the Roma people. There are thought to be around 3,000 in the area, and in some parts of the district they appear to be the most populous group; one local primary school has a majority eastern European population and very few white, English-speaking pupils.
The first Roma in Glasgow were asylum seekers from Slovakia, escaping racial hatred. Most, now, are economic migrants, coming from villages in the region of Michalovce. In Glasgow, they have found casual work in potato and chicken processing factories, though, increasingly, jobs are hard to come by. Romanian nationals have very restricted access to the benefits system, and there is anecdotal evidence that some Roma from that country, now living in Govanhill, cannot afford to feed themselves and thus go through the bins of private residences and shops, looking for food.
Marcela Adamova is a 32-year-old Roma woman who came to Glasgow five years ago from Pavlovce nad Uhom, a town in eastern Slovakia. She works as a Roma support worker with Oxfam and runs Romano Lav, a community group. Talking over mugs of tea in the Meet ’n’ Eat diner on Allison Street, Adamova explains that even though her people have come to Scotland seeking a new and better life, they prefer to eat the traditional foods of their own culture rather than the local cuisine; Scottish sausages are regarded with particular horror – decried for containing too much flour and not enough meat. A favourite dish is goja, a Romani word, the bowel of a pig stuffed with potatoes and garlic, then boiled or fried.
The Roma are the most visible ethnic group, due to their habit of standing around outside chatting on street corners in largeish numbers, some even after darkness has fallen. There is nothing sinister in this; it is a cultural practice from back in the villages, but many locals feel suspicious and sometimes intimidated. “I hear some racist remarks, you know, ‘All these gypsies living in Govanhill are not bringing anything to society’,” says Adamova. “But the racism is not so strong as in Slovakia.”
Govanhill would not be to everyone’s taste. It is a district of old four-storey tenements, from which satellite dishes sprout like fungus. Fly-tipping is endemic, and it is quite common to see people sifting this mess, looking for anything they can use. There is poverty and overcrowding; you hear about 14 people in two-bedroom flats. The area, too, has a reputation for violence and theft. Serious violent crime incidents are reported to be 59 per cent above the Scottish average, though police insist the crime rate is, in fact, falling and that, given the high population density, there is actually less villainy than they would expect.
Still, though, there is fear. “Oh, Govanhill is a mess,” says Evelyn Sexton of Kelly’s Bar on Pollokshaws Road. “I’m actually scared to walk through it, especially at night. It’s a slum.”
Kelly’s is one of a number of pubs in the area which cater to those remnants of the Irish population once so dominant here. It’s a cracking pub, with framed photos of ancient Celtic teams on one wall and, on the bar, a collection box for The Little Sisters Of The Poor. Beside the gantry is the Kelly coat of arms with the motto in Latin, ‘God is my tower of strength’. Kelly was the maiden name of Sexton, landlady here these 26 years, herself second-generation Irish and very proud of her roots.
Tony Mai Gallagher, 71, from Kincasslagh, Donegal, has been drinking in the pub throughout Sexton’s tenure. “Come into the confessional,” he says, leading the way from the bar to a booth. He lifts a beer to his mouth. “Bless me father, I have sinned.”
He moved to Glasgow in 1954, he says, at the age of 12. Since the mid 1970s he has run a coach company, Doherty’s, with a bus leaving Govanhill for Donegal up to four times a week. He is a personal friend of Daniel O’Donnell and claims (with a sly glint) that Trotsky is one of his many middle names. He well remembers the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice of his earlier years, and this experience softens him towards the Roma.
“We’ve got to be gentle with them, because when we came in, people weren’t too gentle to us,” he says. “Let’s just hope our new neighbours, our New Irish, settle in just as fast as we did. Harmony is what we need.”
Harmony, and perhaps an appreciation of the way this part of the city, which always seems to be changing, is actually a strong link to our collective past, like an old recipe discovered anew. What Govanhill offers, arguably, is a glimpse of the auld jeely-piece Glasgow for which so many Glaswegians are nostalgic.
Here are the boys, in this case Roma children, playing football in the street. Here are the extended families in thronging tenements, granny put to use minding the wee ones instead of in a care home. Here are the shops and pubs – butchers, bakers, thirst-slakers – refusing to bow the knee to the supermarkets and chains. These few streets have that fizzing Glaswegian energy that, elsewhere, has largely gone flat. You can sense the spark in the bells of Holy Cross, in the Qawwali music playing in the cafes, in the chatter of children, and in the sizzle of bacon or tikki or goja frying in a hundred pans on a hundred stoves.
Govanhill is a great for food, no doubt. It’s also a fine place to feed the soul.