Notebook: George Square is Glesga’s living room

George Square, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
George Square, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
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AT THE back of the Cenotaph in Glasgow’s George Square, on the seats carved into the granite, two men – strangers to one another – are taking their lunchtime easy. Between them they exemplify the social mix of this place. One appears prosperous, a solid, stolid middle-aged city gent in a business suit and heavy overcoat, his eyes closed, listening to Bruckner on large headphones while smoking a thick cigar.

FOR over a century, the statues of George Square have watched over everything from celebrations to demonstrations – now the latest protest could determine the very future of these silent witnesses

At the back of the Cenotaph in Glasgow’s George Square, on the seats carved into the granite, two men – strangers to one another – are taking their lunchtime easy.

Between them they exemplify the social mix of this place. One appears prosperous, a solid, stolid middle-aged city gent in a business suit and heavy overcoat, his eyes closed, listening to Bruckner on large headphones while smoking a thick cigar.

His neighbour, Alan Henderson, is 49, a little riled, a little ragged, his woolly hat yanked down against the cold. He’s upset about an appointment at the benefits office and is calming himself down by making a lovely little pencil sketch of the City Chambers. Earlier, he had drawn the statue of Sir Walter Scott, which towers on a column 80 feet above the centre of the Square. Did you know, I ask Alan, that Scott and the rest of the statues might be getting moved? “No!” he says, with sudden anger. “You’re kidding! Are the council stupid? Don’t they know people come from all over the world to see these?”

All morning it was the same. All afternoon. The people who are using the square on this cold January day are mostly unaware that the city council intends a radical redevelopment. And when they are told, they are angry. George Square has a special place in the heart of many Glaswegians. It is an amphitheatre of memory – the scene of fist fights and first kisses, picnic lunches and ­kerry-oots, protests and celebrations; newborn love and auld lang syne. Nemo me impune lacessit, to quote the ancient motto carved into so much Glasgow stone. You mess with this place at your peril.

Last week, the six shortlisted designs, submitted by firms competing to redevelop the square, went on display at the Lighthouse Centre for architecture, and quickly drew a grumbling crowd. “What the hell’s an ‘urban salon?’ ” they asked, mystified, before posting their written comments in the feedback box. This Friday, a decision will be announced. George Square will be a building site for much of 2013. When the hoardings come down next year, in time for the Commonwealth Games, it will look very different. All of the ­designs are radical. One, thought to be favoured by the judging panel, gets rid of all the statues and arranges trees and flowerbeds around an oval central ­water feature. “Why would anyone put fountains in the square?” asked Aidan Kerr, an 18-year-old student. “It rains enough here.”

Kerr loves George Square’s 13 statues – the poets and politicians, scientists and soldiers, queen and her consort. He doesn’t accept the idea that a bunch of dead, white Victorian males are irrelevant to the 21st-century city and its ­citizens. Knowing they might be removed, he has taken to walking among them, reading up on those he doesn’t know by Googling them on his phone.

This sort of communion with the dead is, it seems to me, what happens on an unconscious level every time we set foot in the square. We are walking in the footsteps of the Glaswegians of the past, hurrying to appointments as they hurried, stoating home drunk as they stoated, though we, of course, have an advantage in the late-night Greggs. Yes, we will still be able to do this after the redevelopment, but our sense of the past will be ­diminished.

Once, though it is hard to imagine, the area was a marshy area on the edge of the countryside, “a favourite resort,” according to one Victorian historian, “for drowning puppies and cats and dogs, while the banks of this suburban pool were the slaughtering place of horses”. The square was first laid out formally in 1781, and though it has evolved over the years since, it is now not so very different to how it would have looked to Sir Walter Scott when he was made of flesh not stone. Willie Gallacher, the Red Clydesider, should he rise from the dead, would recognise George Square as the place where, on January 31, 1919, he and some 60,000 striking workers squared up to the police. These visual cues are so important in preserving our sense of personal and social history. But we are now, many feel, in the last days of all that.

It is true that the square looks tired. Almost everyone agrees that it needs work, though not a complete overhaul. On the day I visit, it appears especially desolate. Much of it is fenced off, as workmen dismantle the Christmas ice rink. The hated red asphalt, laid down in 1998, is a pointillist canvas of flattened gum and fag dowts. The hunched bronze of James Watt, on the south-western corner, besieged by rhododendrons and wilting pansies, stares from his plinth at the bookie’s on Queen Street, dignity unalloyed despite the bird muck on his head.

George Square, over its lifetime, has been ruled by dynasties of birds. First rooks, then the starlings which Edwin Morgan hymned, and now pigeons. Rats with wings, most folk say, but not Edward MacWilliamson. This 56-year-old from Tollcross visits the square every day, except for weekends, nipping into Tesco for reduced price bread, and feeding his beloved birds. They know him by sight, he reckons, flocking down from the top of the Cenotaph on his approach. He’s been doing this for years. His tracksuit top is covered in crumbs. He accepts the sound of their wings, as they rise, sated, like applause due. What, though, does he think of the plans for the square? “A waste of money. That could be better spent.”

The cost of the project is £15 million. Gordon Matheson, the council leader, believes there is a need for significant change to the square if it is going to be, as he puts it, fit for the 21st century. Matheson, like many Glaswegians, has memories of the square going back throughout his life. When I meet him in his office in the City Chambers, he recalls being taken to see the nativity scene at Christmas, and later seeing Nelson Mandela receive the freedom of the city. “I think it’s fine to be nostalgic,” he says. “I’m nostalgic. I get emotional about Glasgow’s history. But Glasgow has always reinvented itself, and it ­always must.”

Matheson rejects the criticism that the redevelopment is being driven by commercial interests, and insists the vast majority of the events staged in the square in future will be free and civic in nature, citing the examples of the Christmas lights switch-on and the ar­rival of the Olympic torch.

What about the growing sense – nurtured on Facebook and Twitter – that he and his administration simply do not understand or value the things that make Glasgow Glasgow? Matheson, before he became council leader, was at the forefront of the controversial decision to close Paddy’s Market. More recently, there has been anger at the demolition of Springburn Public Halls and the threat to the Sighthill Stone Circle. There is a feeling that the council’s ­vision of Glasgow as a shiny shopper’s paradise will eventually engulf entirely the older, rougher, more characterful city; a triumph of the bland.

“Well, I think that’s an easy criticism to make,” says Matheson, “but I don’t think it’s borne out by reality.” The true Glaswegian way, he says, is to be aspirational and unafraid of controversy. “Our Victorian forebears wouldn’t even have been having this conversation. They wiped out much of the built heritage that was left to them. From some quarters you hear that we’ve got to lose all that sense of ambition and simply preserve what they did.”

Is this hard-nosed progress really the Glasgow way? It is certainly the tradition among those who run the city. The demolition of the Gorbals tenements and of much of Anderston to make way for the M8 are decisions still cursed by the older folk who used to live thereabouts. And there is, among the many Glaswegians I ask, little appetite for radical change of George Square. “Put it back to the way it used to look,” is what you hear from, among many others, the men and women queueing for the number 20 bus to Drumchapel – by which they mean before 1998 when most of the grass was removed and it was resurfaced in red.

What’s interesting is that there seems to be no generation or gender gap when it comes to these attitudes. “A George Square without its statues just wouldn’t be George Square,” says Gary Nisbet, a sculpture historian of middling years.

“The statues are pure really nice,” says Jenny Brough, a 19-year-old student filming the Robert Peel bronze for a college project.

Online, too, there is strong opposition. Comments threads on the Facebook pages of Restore George Square and I Know This Great Little Place In Glasgow lament a perceived lack of consultation and strike an elegiac note. People talk about getting engaged in the square, or using it simply as a quietish spot away from the bustle. A “dear green space” is what they say they want. ­Another Facebook page is drumming up a demonstration in the square against the redevelopment. George Square, it’s worth remembering, has long been disputed territory, a place of conflict between people power and civic authority. When the first statue was erected, Sir John Moore in 1819, it was pelted with rocks and attempts were made to pull it down with ropes. The reasons are unclear, but it is thought the statue was regarded as idolatry – the ­unwelcome celebration of one man in a place which belonged, by moral right, to the masses.

The current dispute is part of that historic tension. Or, as one man puts it, while standing having a cigarette outside the Counting House pub. “This is Glesga’s living room. The council ­urnae welcome in it.”

By the time I leave the square on Wednesday, it is twilight. People have finished their work and are hurrying past the stone lions to buses and trains. High on his column, unaware that he may soon be brought low, Sir Walter Scott stares south across the rooftops. On the horizon, clouds are gathering. «

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss