Interview: May Miles Thomas on searching for Glasgow’s soul

Award-winning director May Miles Thomas has spent years exploring Glasgow, looking for the essence of the city. As the results are screened at its film festival, Susan Mansfield spends a day walking with her

Award-winning director May Miles Thomas has spent years exploring Glasgow, looking for the essence of the city. As the results are screened at its film festival, Susan Mansfield spends a day walking with her

MAY Miles Thomas and I stride down Osborne Street, railway arches on one side, a contemporary art gallery on the other, towards the St Enoch Centre, with its strange roof of glass pyramids. Glasgow is a palimpsest, layers of history resting unevenly on top of one another.

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Take those railway arches, the tracks long overgrown: they are a clue that trains once ran here to St Enoch Station, one of the city’s railway hubs, with its grand Victorian hotel. Miles Thomas’ uncle was a waiter there before it was demolished in the 1970s. He said the place was haunted.

Look back still further, and there is evidence of a medieval chapel near the site dedicated to St Thenue, a dark-age princess who was the mother of St Mungo and is said to be buried in the vicinity (St Enoch is a corruption of her name). She, with Mungo, is the patron saint of Glasgow. Miles Thomas raises an eyebrow: “Or the patron saint of shopping.”

Miles Thomas makes an excellent walking companion. Glasgow-born, she has criss-crossed the city many times to make her film, The Devil’s Plantation, which will be premiered this weekend at Glasgow Film Festival. In the process, she has built up a wealth of knowledge about the city and its history.

The Devil’s Plantation, named after an ancient burial mound between Eaglesham and Newton Mearns, began life as an interactive website which Miles Thomas created with support from a Creative Scotland Award (one of the last batch to be awarded). Visitors to the site were invited to make their own dérive, meandering through 66 meditative films made at key locations. An under-the-radar hit which received more than 40,000 unique visits, it won a Bafta New Talent award for best interactive work in 2010.

“I’d always wanted to make a film about Glasgow, but I wasn’t sure how to come at the subject,” says Miles Thomas, 54, a film-maker who won an array of awards for her first feature-length film, One Life Stand, in 2000. “I was trying to find something about the soul of this city.”

She found an entry point for the project when she discovered the book, Glasgow’s Secret Geometry: The City’s Oldest Mystery, by Harry Bell, a keen amateur archaeologist from East Kilbride who died in 2001. He believed Glasgow was laid out to a secret geometric pattern based on the alignment of ancient sites, and spent much of his life travelling the city trying to prove his theories.

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“I was captivated by the book. I love this kind of stuff, because it’s about place, it’s about mystery, it’s almost like a detective story. It turned out that one of Harry Bell’s leylines – he called them prehistoric communication lines – went straight through both of my childhood homes and my primary school in Kinning Park, now demolished.”

The final piece of the puzzle arrived when Miles Thomas discovered Mary Bell, a former psychiatric patient who was hospitalised at Glasgow’s Leverndale in 1959 when she had a child out of wedlock. She remained there for more than 30 years until she was released under the Care in the Community Act. She, too, made great meanders across the city on a futile search for the daughter she had been forced to give up.

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“I had found a file of notes in the derelict hospital when I went exploring there with my brother who was a photographer. It turned out that Mary went to a lot of the same places that Harry mentioned in his book.” She traced Mary to a flat in Brockburn Road and got to know her, but she died last year before the film was complete. Mary and Harry become the two fixed points between which the film interweaves, voiced by the actors Kate Dickie and Gary Lewis.

If one was looking for the soul of Glasgow, one might do worse than look where we are now, on the site of Paddy’s Market, a Glasgow institution closed down by the City Council in 2009. In the railway arches nearby, a couple of dealers in scrap and second-hand clothes are hanging on, one on either side of a halal butcher: old and new Glasgow, cheek by jowl. “Paddy’s Market was a thriving market,” says Miles Thomas. “I got all my clothes here when I was at art school, some great things. It’s such a shame to see it shut. They talked about crime and vandalism, but relative to what?”

A moment later, she stops to look askance at a security camera on a shop front just a few feet above our heads. Some say Glasgow is the most heavily monitored city in the UK. “One of the original chapters on the website dealt with Castlemilk and the number of CCTV cameras they have in the housing scheme. I’ve never seen anything like it. What do they expect to find?”

She says she found herself thinking of Kate Dickie’s character in the movie Red Road, a lonely woman who spends her days monitoring footage from CCTV cameras. “It got me thinking: is this what I’m doing in this film? I’m asking people to sit very passively looking at scenes of Glasgow where the streets are empty and not very much happens. But it’s not just that, they’re being told a wonderful story. For me this is almost like a fairytale, I’ve tried to give it that aura. If I have a story, I don’t need car chases, CGI, explosions!”

Indeed, her film has none of these things, it is lingering, atmospheric, beautifully made, easily comparable to Patrick Keiller’s psychogeographical films of London. It is a portrait of the city, dwelling on moments and details, from a burst water main outside a boarded-up tenement to the swish of grasses on an ancient burial ground. One writer described The Devil’s Plantation as “arguably as seminal a portrait of Glasgow as The Dear Green Place, the film Red Road or Joseph McKenzie’s photographs of Gorbals children.”

Miles Thomas spent two and a half years on the road with her camera making the film single-handed – “I joke that I haven’t got any credits for the end of the film!” – and edited it in her garden shed (“the shedquarters”). But filming in her home city wasn’t always easy. She was harangued both by officials and irate residents. One overzealous security guard even called the police, who turned up at her house to accuse her of trespassing (she hadn’t been). She is critical of Glasgow City Council for wooing Hollywood blockbusters such as Cloud Atlas and World War Z to the city, while charging homegrown film projects punitive rates to film.

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“It’s getting harder to shoot anything here. It’s the privatisation of the streets. I was challenged by one guy in a high-vis jacket saying I couldn’t film. I asked why, and he got really flustered and said, ‘Uh … terrorism.’ The terrorist threat is a good excuse to stop people recording the streets that we are supposed to own.”

Her deep affection for Glasgow is clear, but it is tempered with anger about the changes which have been wrought to its fabric. Much of the Glasgow of her childhood has been bulldozed and the changes go on. By the Clyde, we come across an overweight man in a JCB howking up the riverside walkway in preparation, Miles Thomas surmises, for the city’s latest transformation, to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

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She looks intently at a demolition site at the other side of the road – “What was there? How easily we forget what was in that spot” – and praises the 1970s brutalism of nearby Graphical House, a riverside office block whose future is uncertain. But she is scathing about Zaha Hadid’s new transport museum: “From the south of the river, from Govan, all I saw was the graphic depiction of a declining heart beat.”

In all her searching, did she find the soul of Glasgow? She pauses for a moment, and then talks about many ordinary people who approached her in the street simply wanting to tell her their stories.

“When I lived away from Glasgow I realised what I missed was not the place but the people here. I think the soul is embodied both in Mary and in Harry, because in spite of everything they possess an optimism which can define the spirit of this place. ”

l The Devil’s Plantation is at Glasgow Film Theatre on Saturday at 3.45pm, as part of Glasgow Film Festival.

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