IF the army of Commonwealth Games volunteers has a benevolent frontline, it is deployed at Central Station, a place notorious in Glasgow’s psychogeography for the grousing that meets late trains, with worse awaiting those that don’t depart at all.
Cutting through its opprobrium takes inexhaustible altruism, a quality Larry Richardson has in abundance.
A silvery, amiable figure who is the custodian of a maritime museum in the West Sussex port town of Shoreham-by-Sea, the 71-year-old has journeyed north with his wife, Barbara, in their trusty caravan, armed with good cheer and goodwill. “Glasgow feels like the centre of the universe,” he says. “It has been simply amazing to be part of it all.”
Larry is one of 15,000 Clydesiders, the tireless shepherds of Glasgow 2014 who tend to their flock with an almost evangelical zeal. Clad in red polo shirts and grey trousers, they direct and explain, greet and console, guide and inspire. Above all, they smile, offering a universal welcome to those saddled with suitcases and fatigue.
A veteran of the voluntary sector who formed part of the purple mass of Games Makers during the 2012 Olympics, Larry believes the intimacy of Glasgow has helped the Clydesiders no end. “In London, a lot of the volunteers struggled to know about the city and the organisation was very professional,” he reflects. “Here, it’s a lot more relaxed. The Commonwealth feel is that bit closer and friendly.”
The image of the Games beamed throughout the world has been of elite athletes and world class venues, where records have been broken and remarkable narratives told. Although the Clydesiders have caught the odd event, most have witnessed little of the sporting glory. They exist in the spaces in-between: the dimly lit concourses of bus and subway stations; windowless offices in the SECC; the boondocks around Anderston, Carmunnock and Tollcross. None of these places have seen medal ceremonies, but they have been graced by a kindness purer than 24 carat gold.
At Central Station, the vanguard is based beneath the terminal’s famous suspended Victorian clock, a fitting locale given the way the timepiece has served as a meeting point for incomers and locals alike for over a century. With a central desk festooned with maps, timetables and pamphlets, around 14 Clydesiders flit among the throng of commuters, working in eight and a half hour shifts.
Like many of his fellow volunteers, James Millerick -a sprightly figure with a mop of sandy hair -belrience will have a transformative impact once normal life resumes. “I usually work 56 hours a week so even though it’s been busy, it has been brilliant to do something like this,” enthuses the 18-year-old gym instructor from Cumbernauld. “I feel like I could speak to anyone from anywhere in the world now. It’s been rewarding in so many ways. I don’t think I’ll ever take my uniform off.”
With the final weekend of the Games dawning, the Clydesiders do not want the spectacle to end. Some, though, are already making plans to put their newly acquired skills to good use once the Commonwealth show leaves town, bound for Australia’s Gold Coast. Narinder ‘Nina’ Kolhi, a bubbly 57-year-old, is hoping to spend a few days a week helping a friend with voluntary work. In the 40 years she has lived in Glasgow, she has never witnessed such an upsurge in positivity, and is determined to keep the momentum going. “I’ll be honest with you, when it’s over I’ll be upset and I’ll miss it. Glasgow has been good to me and my family, so I wanted to give something back to Glasgow,” she explains. “The atmosphere has been electric, just absolutely brilliant.”
Before Glasgow 2014, Nina regarded herself as a shy type, more inclined to curl up on the couch in front of the television rather than meet and greet people from around the world. The past week and a half, however, has given her cause to reassess her own character. “I always thought of myself as an introvert but I’ve found that I enjoy talking to people and helping them,” she adds. “It’s all changed and I can’t wait to do more voluntary work. It gives you a wonderful feeling.”
Only time will tell whether the Clydesiders leave an afterglow in their wake, but their ubiquitous and courteous presence around Glasgow seems to have heralded a change in ordinary people already. It has always been a friendly city, but the Games have added patience and humility to its long list of virtues. As I leave the glass and girders of Central Station behind, passing through plumes of cigarette smoke into the Gordon Street taxi rank, a burly Celtic fan three sheets to the wind offers up his place in the queue to a young Welsh woman bound for the Emirates Arena. “Ah don’t know a hing aboot badminton, the whole Commonwealth Games is a pile of pish,” he tells her. “But on ye go, I widnae want you missin’ any of it.”