Glasgow in Lockdown: Still Life exhibition captures the city making the absolute most of what it has – Laura Waddell

When I went to the opening of the Still Life exhibition down at Sogo Arts in Glasgow’s Saltmarket, on a day hinting at the first blue and yellow stirrings of spring, Liz Lochhead was in attendance, chicly splattered with paint from a morning in her studio, effusive with praise for photographer Angela Catlin and poet Henry Bell’s work.

A view of Glasgow's Buchanan Street in March 2020, shortly after the first strict lockdown was announced (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
A view of Glasgow's Buchanan Street in March 2020, shortly after the first strict lockdown was announced (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

When I got the book (nicely published by Speculative Books) in my hands, I read Lochhead’s foreword: “It’s an art to frame reality. For those of us that simply seek – in our various ways – to do so, we must give ourselves credit that the act of observation is also, always, necessarily an act of imagination.”

Still Life contains photographs and poems from Glasgow’s lockdown, which we are fortunate to now be able to consider in retrospect.

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I love Glasgow; seeing it in print really means something to me. There is always something new; always a street I haven’t walked down yet. I am known to scour Ebay for inexpensive, historic Glaswegiana.

In the mail then comes pottery and pinbadges, pamphlets and other paper ephemera, the oddly shaped, repurposed cereal boxes and messily duct-taped parcels spooking me when they arrive and I have forgotten I ordered them.

Of particular interest to me are Glasgow books which capture the city at a moment in time: the energised, optimistic City of Culture era of the 1990s; propagandist grandeur of Victorian exhibitions and fairs. This new book, for how it captures Glasgow going through a moment in history, makes a fine addition to my collection.

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Bell tells me: “I still see Glasgow as I did when I arrived in the city as a 19-year-old. It’s this thrilling place of contradictions: kind as it is brutal, beautiful but monstrous, a world city and a backwater, tenements and villas alternately ruined by motorways, hipsters and hard men, the city Edwin Morgan called the great bisexual capital of the universe. I love it, and I wanted to write about all those oppositions and the places in between them. Not leaving the neighbourhood for a year was the perfect chance to delve into all those brilliant Glasgows.”

One of his best poems in the book is The Battle of Kenmure Street, recounting the day last year when southsiders protested against immigration enforcement. “You and your neighbours / you spontaneously rise up / from your beds one morning,” he writes; a powerful Catlin photograph depicts the immigration van doors sprung open.

Still Life shows Glasgow as a city of power and poetry, community spirit and human connection. Here is all the colour of Eid, Diwali, and Old Firm celebrations, food being parcelled up, Black Lives Matter protests, the chattering of small children, teenagers jumping joyfully into the White Cart pond in Pollok Park.

Of course, there is stillness too: a photograph of the Stag and Thistle bar, light spilling over the manager as he sits alone at a table, has a beautiful chiaroscuro quality to it. Glasgow Airport, empty of cars, is almost unrecognisable.

Catlin’s photographs and Bell’s poetry are well balanced, both earnestly interested in local people and their stories. Still Life captures Glasgow looking at itself from a new perspective, making the absolute most of what it has.

The Still Life exhibition at Sogo Arts in Glasgow runs until April 17

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