In the Second City of the Empire
Updated: Jul 9, 2022
Glasgow is the city in which I was born.
When people ask, "where are you from?" I usually answer "Glasgow" although the fact is I left home in 1975 to go to university in Stirling. I never went back to live in what Billy Connelly once called a "quiet little fishing village on the Clyde."
Work took me to other places: Edinburgh, London, Edinburgh, Sydney, Canberra. I have lived in 'not-Glasgow' for 47 years of my adult life but each and every time I arrive there after years away I still think, "home."
That seems strange. A bit like Glasgow's statues.
I do not remember exactly when Carlo Marochetti's Grade A listed statue of Lord Wellington (erected in 1844) first acquired his traffic cone. Some time in the early 1980s.
A Grade A listed sculpture with a bollard on its head for 40 years? That is as 'Glasgow' as the Deep Fried Mars Bar and "Partick Thistle Nil" (another joke from Sir William ... the patron saint of our wee fishing village).
I have no idea who put the first traffic cone on the Duke's head. I like to think it was some harmless half-drunk fool starting a long walk home on a wet Friday night when too much drink had been taken. Or one of Ally's Army, finally home from Argentina '78 where -- as is our habit -- Scotland's national fitba' team did not win the FIFA World Cup. Again.
In 2013 there was a mind-bogglingly silly plan to spend £65,000 (A$113,000) to double the height of Wellington's plinth to deter 'Coneheids' replacing the bollards after Council employees had been required to remove them. Whoever thought up that bright idea had obviously never met a Glasgow drunk on a wet Friday night.
Double the height? Twice the challenge. Here we go, here we go, here we go!
Within 24 hours, 72,000 people joined a Facebook page to keep the cone. 100,000 people signed a petition. The plan was dropped. Unlike the cone. It remains on the old Duke's head and has become a genuine Glasgow icon. Worth its weight in more than just plastic.
Our hotel looks out over George Square which is one of my favourite Glasgow places. It's where Glasgow meets itself.
Now that I've mentioned the hotel, can I just say this?
It was a disappointment to discover last night -- when we arrived 4 hours late because of the dead deer incident and the cancelled trains disruption -- that there are six steps at the public entrance to the Millennium Hotel. Six.
Remember those old jokes? What would like you first ...the good news or the bad news? The operation was a complete success. Unfortunately the patient died of unforeseen complications. Boom! Boom!
The good news was there was no stair lift anywhere in the building. Access -- sort of level -- was via a side entrance. On North Frederick Street. Google it if you must.
The bad news?
The side door is always kept locked -- double bolted AND has an iron bar across it. It's one of two locked doors between North Frederick Street and the hotel reception. The second door requires a staff swipe card to open. Between the two doors there is a public bar that has been shuttered since COVID-19 and a dining room.
Bars, restaurants, hotels. Bus drivers, train drivers, taxi drivers. Post-COVID there are labour shortages in every industry group. That, of course, was one of the inevitable consequences of Britain voting to leave the European Union (coincidentally -- unless it was the curse of Dougie -- during our last trip to the UK in 2016).
Last night, however, the wholly predictable macroeconomic vandalism of the BREXIT vote was not my principal concern. I simply wanted to enter the hotel and find our bed.
Spike climbed the six steps. I waited at the side door on the north face slope of Frederick Street. Some moments later there was the clinking of keys, turning of locks, loosening of bolts and clunking of an iron bar being set down.
I half expected Igor from the castle in The Bride of Frankenstein to swing open the large unlocked doors. But it wasn't Igor (whose visa would have been cancelled after Brexit).
It was a polite, smiling man named Brian. He welcomed us to the Millennium Hotel as we wound our way through the abandoned haunted house that is the empty bar -- still set up for service as if it might be busy again tomorrow.
As Brian used his swipe card to unlock the second door -- leading to the no less deserted breakfast room -- he smiled as we crossed the vast, vacant space then said, "if there is anything you need or want please let us know. I am on all night."
I almost said, 'six fewer steps at your front door.' But I'll have that not-unreasonable exchange with the hotel's management group when we return to Australia.
At that moment I had had enough with Sunday. Spike checked-in and we went to bed.
But -- to return to today and the city's somewhat unconventional 19th Century public monuments. George Square is a place where every black statue comes with a seagull on top (rather than a traffic cone). Thinking about it now, a traffic cone might serve a civic purpose.
Wherever there is a bronze black statue of some dead white male (or Queen Victoria) there is a seagull on the statue's head. And wherever seagulls take their rest on some bronze bonce there is a considerable amount of seagull shit. Greeney-white and streaked. Not to put too fine a point upon the bird doo-doo of Glasgow's statues.
When our father took up a job with the BBC -- back in 1963 -- we returned from Aberdeen to live in Glasgow. Bearsden, more accurately; a comfortable middle class suburb on the north east fringe of the city.
I remember our mum and dad took us to see the famous and fabulous Christmas lights in George Square with our cousin, Margaret Ann, who wore a bright new turquoise coat for the occasion. On our way back to Queen Street railway station (which shares an adjoining wall with what is now the Millennium Hotel) a giant glob of gooey, green and white bird doo doo appeared like magic on Margaret Ann's new coat. From above.
My cousin -- who may have been 4 at the time -- was inconsolable. We laughed of course.
But -- once again -- back to today.
We arranged to meet my Stirling university friend Mike Donnelly. We were Broad Left political activists together. Mike went on to be Chief of Staff to Scotland's former First Minster, Jack (now Lord) McConnell. In his illustrious career Mike has also been the Dean of Business and Enterprise at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh and at Swinburne University in Melbourne. That was the last time we met in person and I had a big personal thank you to deliver to Mike.
Mike also suffers from the lifelong ailment of supporting Partick Thistle.
Last year, during Canberra's second COVID lockdown, I received an unexpected and mysterious package from Scotland. When Spike tore it open for me I was delighted to find inside a pair of Prof. Mike Donnelly's hand knitted mittens. In the spectacular red, yellow and black colours of Partick Thistle F.C., the third best football club in Glasgow (but best in the world!!).
Mike, Spike and I met in The Wild Olive Tree Café at St. George's Tron Church of Scotland in Nelson Mandela Place. This is another reason I shall always love Glasgow.
Nelson Mandela Place used to be called St. George's Place -- one block away from George Square. In 1981, Nelson Mandela had served 17 years in prison on Robben Island. He would remain in prison for another 10 years. And at the time the British Prime Minister -- Margaret Thatcher MP -- repeatedly described Nelson Mandela as a "terrorist".
In 1981, Glasgow City Council resolved to confer on Nelson Mandela the Freedom of the City of Glasgow -- even though he was locked up on Robben Island breaking rocks. Five years later, the City Council also agreed to change the name of St. George's Place to Nelson Mandela Place.
The beauty of this renaming is that in 1986, the offices of the South African Consulate General -- the apartheid regime that locked Nelson Mandela in chains -- was located on what was now, officially, Nelson Mandela Place, Glasgow G1 2JA. They were forced to put it on their headed paper and use it in official communications as their postal address.
In October 1993 thousands of people -- including me -- filled George Square to cheer on soon-to-be President Nelson Mandela when he came to Glasgow to accept the Freedom of the City in person. Glasgow was the first city anywhere to make this symbolic gesture. Many others followed later.
Nelson Mandela climbed onto the stage. He said,
"Twelve years ago in 1981, you bestowed upon me the Freedom of your great city, Glasgow.
"It was an act of commitment. You, the people of Glasgow pledged that you would not relax until I was free to receive this honour in person.
"I am deeply grateful to you."
When he finished his speech, South African music started playing. Nelson Mandela danced on the stage under a grey Glasgow sky.
And Glasgow roared and roared with our joy and appreciation. As did all good humans, I believe.