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  • Dougie

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Today we visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum; Glasgow's finest and my favourite for all kinds of reasons (not all of them to do with art). But first we had to find the wheelchair access. By which I mean Spike went searching ... and found it.

The accessible entrance used to be round the back, through the basement where repair work benches, storage spaces and staff rooms were located. You saw a lot of what goes on behind the scenes. But that's now been replaced by a pleasant café, the obligatory gift shop, book shop and 'facilities' (as no one calls them).

The curatorial gubbins and administration offices are now elsewhere. Obviously.

The front door wheelchair access with lift is a lot less interesting and less informative than the old back door services entry. That is, I suppose, the price one pays for progress.

The 'new' way in has the added disadvantage, too, that the rough and not-exactly ready wheelchair ramp exposes your bald spot to any ruthless photographer (Spike). But this is Glasgow. Cheap French hats -- 90% paper and 10% polyester -- are not required. One's scalp is safe. There is no sun.

In the central entrance hall to the building there is a mighty organ in the side of the northern wall on the first floor. Free organ recitals are given every lunch time. The decades long activity is, I think, proof of the Scottish psyche's faith in hope over lived experience.

The great hall's acoustics are less than ideal. There is too much marble. B flat major notes bounce off every shiny column, balcony balustrade, floor tile and bald headed Scottish man in the cavernous room to allow anyone to 'Name That Tune'.

But we turn up. We enjoy the idea of an organ recital. We applaud enthusiastically. And the echo chamber space reverberates to the sound of -- not one -- but many hands clapping.

My father brought me to the Kelvingrove for the first time in 1963. He died in 1974, aged 44. Some years later, Betty -- the love of his life and our mother -- contributed to the building's refurbishment fund. My father's name -- and those of 9,000 others -- were engraved on plaques 'In Memoriam' fixed to the sandstone columns on either side of the great organ.

Today, I sat in my chair before the column. Spike photographed my father's listing on a bronze plaque above. His given name was used (of course). James -- the name of 6 Scottish kings -- although my dad was always Jim Herd.

He would have liked this act of homage (if that's what it is). A remembrance of things past in his dear green place (as Glasgow is known when translated into Italian).

The Kelvingrove was one of my dad's (almost) sacred places. One of Glasgow's great institutions, it brought (and brings) together the unifying ideas of early-20th Century Scotland's place and purpose on Earth. The Scottish Enlightenment's synthesis of rational thought, investigation, evidence and enterprise. Education for all and access to the best of all that human potential can create. Social solidarity through municipal good works. Faiths in non-sectarian harmony.

And -- all over -- a self-deprecating laugh. Never take yourself too seriously son. And never see yourself too grandly.

I kent yer faither. As our 'tall poppy' putdown cliché puts it.

But be open to the world. Learn its greatest lessons. Accept no other person's limits on you.

All the world's history, its pre-history, its flora and fauna, and all human art, culture and endeavour could be found in some way within the walls of this giant red sandstone building (which urban legend has it -- incorrectly -- was constructed back to front because some builder read the plans upside down. Not true. And the architect did NOT throw himself off one of the Gothic towers in despair).

Alright, we may not have your actual Mona Lisa hanging on our wall. But we do have J. D. Ferguson's Woman in Black. And you can sit or stand in front of it. Just looking.

We also have the Scottish Clearances in art suspended on a wall beneath a stuffed stag's head. We have other stuffed artefacts (all of which I remember with great fondness).

There is Sir Roger the Elephant who was paraded round Scottish towns in 1880s and 1890s. The company that owned the elephant put him in their zoo. But Sir Roger became "unruly" so they killed and stuffed him.

Dead or alive, the owners will always extract our surplus value. It's no wonder Scottish men take a long time to build up trust. One short period of elephantine revelry and the fuckers shoot you dead.

Sir Roger stands stuffed forever more alongside a stuffed ostrich, a giraffe and other stuffed mammals. Above them all hangs a Mark II Spitfire. As you would expect ... of course.

When I was six years old, in 1963, none of the ideological and cultural baggage that underpinned the Kelvingrove art gallery and museum mattered to me. It was a place of wonder.

It had a stuffed elephant called Roger. There were display drawer upon display drawer of giant moths, butterflies, beetles and bugs pinned to cardboard sheets. The ginormous shed 'skin' of a Japanese spider crab was fixed to a wall above the doorway to a room filled with crustaceans 'skins' and shells of every shape and size.

There is a solid silver Spanish galleon and a room full of suits of armour -- assembled randomly it seemed. There are pikes and staffs and swords and cleavers pinned to the wall. It's a wee boy's sweetie shop of death.

Since before I can remember The Kelvingrove has owned the most affecting work of art I've ever been in front of (and the commercial rights to its reproduction). Not for nothing as we known as canny Scots.

It's very Roman Catholic (which I am not).

That brutal, violent senseless sectarian divide between Catholic and Protestant scarred our city. And yet it made no sense to me as a member of a 'mixed family' through 'intermarriage' (all that means is I had / have Catholic and Protestant aunts, uncles and cousins).

It's also unambiguously not a Scottish work of art. The Dali. Christ of St. John of the Cross.

I wrote a short story about it once upon a time.

I sit before the painting every time I'm in the gallery. I say nothing to anyone or the world. Thoroughly un-Presbyterian tears well up. But I am a schooled and tutored Glasgow Boy. We do not weep.

I'm not exactly sure why the Dali always affects me so. I am no believer.

It may be -- I think -- that a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away, James Herd took his six year old son Douglas by the hand and together they stood before a truly great work of art. And we did not say a word. We just looked.

But that was way back when. In some other universe.

Back in our present day, Spike and I left the Kelvingrove after not enough time to see it all. As always. In every museum and art gallery. Everywhere.

I bought a tartan scarf in the gallery gift shop before we left. Not because I felt particularly nostalgic for 'the old country' (although I often do). No.

My brother Joe -- who we will spend 10 days with at the Trullo he and Stephanie own in Puglia, southern Italy -- managed to secure a ticket for me and a companion at the Scotland v Ukraine FIFA World Cup football match in Glasgow tonight.

We met my nephew Mathew at George Square. We took a taxi to Hampden Park via Glasgow's southside to drop off Spike who would join Mathew's brother Christopher and his partner Ray. The three of them had decided to take part in a life-drawing group in a pub.

The artists in the family had the better evening. By a long long way.

The triumph of the Scottish psyche's faith in hope over lived experience ran rampant throughout the build up to the game. And for maybe 12 minutes once the game started.

We lost.

Of course.

The nearest I will get to the World Cup finals in Qatar this year is our 13-hour stopover in Doha on the journey home to Australia. Supporting Scotland really should be re-defined as a congenital psychological disorder. It is in our DNA.

After the game we re-grouped on Victoria Road to take the obligatory family selfie. We agreed that football is only a game. One day in the future I might even believe that.

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