Oh to be in Glasgow now the Games are here. I spent a fantastic day in the city centre this week, overwhelmed when I stepped off the train by official meeters and greeters and guides. The place was buzzing. I seemed to be the only person without a lanyard or a javelin.
You can tell Glasgow has really pulled out all the stops for this. Even the cludgies at Queen Street station have been repainted. In Buchanan Street, an amplified beat combo played to large crowds. If you closed one eye, it could almost be the Edinburgh Festival – only in Glasgow, the audience gives the band warm cheers. In the Royal Mile, we shuffle our feet and curse the tourists.
George Square could not have been better choreographed. It was bathed in glorious sunshine, packed with visitors enjoying the atmosphere and a piper in full regalia. I had a rendezvous with a reporter up from Truro doing a piece for BBC Radio Cornwall. He had been taken aback by the friendliness of the city since he arrived the previous day. Above the square, an office block behind the station displayed a giant sign, “People make Glasgow”. How true – and how true it has always been.
Arguably more important than the Games themselves and all those giant laminated passes – 70,000 of those apparently, together with colourful logos, branded buses and taxis and Clyde mascots – has been the catalytic effect on how the city is viewed, both by visitors and by fellow Scots. It has opened our eyes to how handsome it is, and to its history and spirit.
I should know its streets better than I do, for as an Ayrshire man it was my first city and visits to it were greatly anticipated and enjoyed. As for Glasgow humour – ironic, self-deprecating and merciless – it must rank as the best in the world. These days my visits are limited to business, but I continue to delight in such pleasures as dining at Rogano, just off the main square. For an Edinburgh visitor arriving at nearby Queen Street, no street map is required for this, but it is still deep, deep Glasgow for many: dark, impenetrable mystery lies beyond. Well, that and Sauchiehall Street.
The strange thing about all of this is not that Glasgow can show itself as an immensely attractive city but why it should require an event such as the Commonwealth Games to trigger regeneration projects that could and should have been undertaken decades ago.
We admire athleticism and achievement. But it cannot be said that we have a particular passionate interest in discus-throwing and hurdle races. So why should the Games work such magic and major improvement await such special occasions?
It is, of course, to the city’s benefit that hosting the Games has acted to draw wider attention to the need for regeneration and improvement. A similar effect was evident in London with the Olympic Games. Vast amounts were poured into regeneration and improvement of the area around Stratford, much of it broadly unchanged since Hermann Goering paid his raucous visits 70 years ago. There was much complaint in the approach to the Olympics about the amount of money being spent. But given the outstanding success of the Games, the regeneration they achieved and, equally important, the uplift in local and national spirit they effected, few would argue that the investment was not worth it.
Now it is Glasgow’s turn for similar transformative projects. Funds have flooded in, with pledges from Westminster and Holyrood of more infrastructure investment and help to stimulate business growth. But the need for these has been evident for years. Why only now? Why should it take the Commonwealth Games to act as a trigger?
Much is made of the city’s industrial legacy or, more accurately, the de-industrialisation evident from the 1950s. Glasgow continues to be portrayed as a victim of itself, trapped in an unbreakable cycle of blighted life chances, deprivation, addiction and poverty. It’s as if it cannot recover, in the way, for example, that so many of Europe’s utterly wrecked, war-ravaged cities have recovered, rebuilt and re-invented themselves. Glasgow is frequently shown to be less able to move on and embrace a new world and a new age. History is not seen as behind it. History seems forever in front of it.
In all this there is little that has not been relentlessly traced back to the trauma of industrial triumph and subsequent deep decline. Glasgow has been depicted as not just blighted by its past but successive generations permanently entrapped. Of its entrepreneurialism and enterprise we are told nothing. We are bombarded with sepia portraits of auld industrial Glasgow, a populace of hammer-wielding metal bashers and workers toiling by vats of molten steel. It is not just, as the TV critic AA Gill noted about the programme From Scotland with Love last week, that all this agitprop, Dave Spart class-bound bar-thumping is “as moribundly familiar as it was depressing”. And it is not just that it is a simplistic and incomplete portrayal that strips our parents’ generation of the pride they took in lifting this country out of the ravages of the Second World War: indeed, they are belittled and insulted by these selective and grotesque portrayals. These continue to work – as historically they have always worked – to entrench if not celebrate this sense of helpless entrapment and victimhood, sapping both the will and the wherewithal to recover and move on.
These portrayals also make too light of the major improvements that have been made, particularly along the banks of the Clyde, and the continuous regeneration work already undertaken. The 1950s and 1960s may have brought architectural horrors in public housing and office blocks. But great improvement was wrought from the monochrome gloom of the immediate post-war years. Subsequent decades were a period of social advance and major improvement in living standards. This is all too often overlooked by those for whom industrial forging and the class struggle was a golden age never to be corrupted by such trivia as household progress and consumer betterment.
Glasgow has indeed greatly changed for the better, much of this by small incremental steps rather than as a result of Big Bang, international-event catalysis. And this has been brought about by the efforts and endeavour of its people. It is Scotland’s most entrepreneurial city and one of the most creative centres in Europe, with enduring triumphs such as the city library and the School of Art making the whole as much an improving centre of art and culture as its rival to the east.
For these reasons and more, the legacy of the Commonwealth Games is more than sweat and triumph and medal totals, important as these are. And it is more than the physical improvement wrought by regeneration. It is the opportunity it presents for Glasgow to shake free from those grinding, unrelieved portrayals of deprivation and poverty and to be seen for the vibrant and entrepreneurial city it is. History may contribute and the past may guide. But it is people who make possibilities. And it is people who make Glasgow.