Less than real

section from a stained glass window, showing the back of two figures and an industrial worker in foreground

We don’t remember the past, we only imagine it.

Paint pictures, tell stories, sing songs, of someone, somewhere, at some point in time.

But which memories are important, what past do we remember, whose lives matter?

Our heads used to be full of future possibilities. Mine was, anyway.

What’s for tea, how long till pay day, three points on Saturday. How history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.

Now we sit at home and think of things we used to do and look forward to doing them again.

The future will take care of itself as long as we take care of the past. It’s all we have, the past.

Imagine an industrial heyday, a city once the fourth largest in Europe after London, Paris and Berlin. A quarter of the world’s ships launched on this very river.

City of industry, heavy industry, with factories and docks and foundries, steel mills, gasworks and chemical plants. River of two hundred ship yards, of tug boats, warships, cruise liners and titan cranes. City of soot and smoke and heat, city of noise.

Screaming weans and women at windows shouting at men in crowded streets or voices raised in rowdy pubs or football grounds or music halls, on railway platforms and subway carriages or at the top the bus, all the way home.

That was a place, once upon a time, in the long ago.

Derelict brick buildings, covered in graffiti

But sometimes history speeds up, sometimes you wake one morning to find a city destroyed overnight.

Closed factories, abandoned buildings, vast acres of empty land.

There used to be places where there aren’t any now.

A hollow city, city of ghosts, people and communities demolished.

No more units of work and place and of who we are.

The visible carnage of rotting wood and dead masonry, burned-out holes in the ground. Invisible carnage of contaminated land, chromium, cyanide wasteland.

Weeds as high as trees, rats the size of dogs, black water lapping against stained walls.

That was a place, that derelict place. City of fog and thunder. Gale force winds again. Good later, not now.

The empty self is at home in this dead place.

Glass frontage of a modern office block

But new places can be built, new cities can appear, less than before and less than real.

Places of industry become places of consumption. Retail park shopping centre drive-thru strip malls.

Or affordable housing, maybe a bus garage, a new campus for a rebranded further education college.

A city of digital and finance and creatives and tourism. A low carbon, high-quality, cost effective location. A great place to live, work and invest.

Maybe that’s what Govanhill is now. An innovative place, whose people make it. Maybe that’s how we were invented.

Because we know better than anyone how things can change.

Remember the demonisation of Govanhill, the fear and loathing, when no one loved us and we hated ourselves?

Look at us now. Creative hub, development trusts, social enterprises, gentrification, the coolest place in the UK. 

A city of darkness moving into the light, is that it?

We were never sustainable before. Not white enough, or vegan enough, and far too working class.

Thank goodness being so poor made everything so cheap so the right type of person could move here.

Why not Bidgeton or Yoker, even Clydebank or Greenock? They might be innovative places too. Springburn, Rutherglen, Parkhead. Post-industrial, cosmopolitan, inexpensive.

Our story is the story of a city, a city longer and wider and deeper than anyone understands.

City of the past, a famous past, an illustrious past.

Slums, poverty, illness, alcoholism, violence, death.

We love you, the past. Don’t leave us, the past.

Cheers, mother Glasgow. You too, Govanhill.

Always changing, always the same.

empty street with rail bridges overhead

Every city has its wilderness, even a new city.

Places no one goes, paintings no one paints, sounds you never listen to, stories we won’t tell.

A city no one imagines. City of dust, of vacant land under motorway bridges, disused railway lines near the waterfront, empty spaces which used to be more.

Sometimes land for future use, perhaps a retail opportunity yet to be fulfilled.

Non places which are always around. Forgotten parts of an invisible city.

You can still walk in these places, though you’re really not supposed to, past light industrial units or garage forecourts, muffled engine exhaust fumes from somewhere overhead.

Wholesale cash and carry warehouse, car tool hardware stock room.

But no one belongs here and nothing much happens.

Can I help you?

Leave me alone.

You can’t go in there.

Wasn’t going to.

You shouldn’t be here.

I know.

Everyone is a non person in this non place.

So you keep walking. A scratchy path and gravel underfoot, a fence with a razor wire crown.

The tracks of other wildlife, fag ends and crisp pokes, even droppings. Invading undergrowth reclaiming concrete, weeds growing from walls.

And then you sit down, open a can and start to meditate, contemplate, listen to the music of the non place.

It might be repetitive, monotonous, like a passing train or an industrial drill.

Bury yourself in that distant ever-present rumble.

It might be the sound of the past, ghosts of the past, a forgotten place in an invented imagination.

A hollow city, phantom city, zero miles, becoming gone.

The silence of the past.

The sound of empty rooms and deserted streets.

A past and a future running away from us.

colourful abstract mural featuring human shapes

But now. Now. Everywhere is a non place now and everyone a non person, an almost person hiding at home from what can’t be seen.

We look through our windows at half places, frozen and empty. Closed places which won’t re-open, more abandoned, emptier still.

Maybe we walk from room to room, flitting round the house in our bare feet, hair sprouting, clothes unwashed.

Time doesn’t pass in this place, might not exist at all round here.

Black clock, dead hours, un time in a non place.

The drinking, insomnia, desperation, mental violence.

Everyone sounds like such a prick on social media too but it’s the only thing there is, the only place we exist, along with the past.

Wherever you are, Govanhill or Madagascar, Mesopotamia or Andromeda, Narnia, Zion, or Never fucking Everland, the past is all you have left.

So you think back to the good times, your best times, when you went places, met people, did things.

Paint that picture, sing that song, listen to the stories you tell yourself.

Young, good looking, unstoppable you. Confident, upbeat, employable you. Maximum you. Telling it like it is-slash-was.

And as you sit and remember and think of that time the past pulls you back to the present, the here and the now at the centre of you, the stillness and silence and the emptiness there.  

Half a person, less than real.

Staring at the wall, drinking too much, tired all day, not sleeping at night.

But if history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, then what went around might come back again.

Fingers crossed, Govanhill.

The future will be colder, warmer too.

Why Rab fae Torrisdale Street is a social enterpriser

Shapes and doodles that look like hieroglyphics

That artisan bakery over there used to be a pub, an old man’s pub, but no one ever called it a community resource.

There was a wee café nearby selling square slice and mugs of tea, but we didn’t know it was a magical safe space where like-minded people could gather, share tables, break bread.

Now Rab fae Torrisdale Street is calling himself an entrepreneur because he sells weed from his close.

Says he provides a vital lifeline for those looking for a sense of place and ownership.

I said okay, two grammes but it’s not for me and he said it never is, is it?

I’m joking, of course. It was ten grammes. Two is never enough.

That was also a joke, obviously. I am a responsible lifestyle blogger after all, and would never advocate taking drugs.

I know the dangers. Got high one night and quickly ended up in a shooting gallery then a crack house with junkies and dopers and dealers injecting crystal meth and ketamine into my eyeballs and my toes, before going to rehab and then recovery.

It made me late for work the next morning so I’ve learned my lesson, I know the pitfalls. It’s a downward spiral.

My mum always told me to just say no to drugs, keep saying no, and she was right. I did get them cheaper.

That too was a joke, someone else’s joke. Sorry about that. I just don’t know what words mean any more nor whose they are.

It’s a confusing time for everyone.

I see a bottle shop and I think of jakeys queuing outside an off sales at seven in the morning.

I see a bar and kitchen and think room and kitchen, alcove where granny sleeps, outside toilet.

It’s a coalmine out there. Sorry, coalfield. No, minefield, that’s it. Yes. It’s like a coalminefield out there.

Then I asked Rab if he sold avocadoes and he said naw, that’s the Mexican drug cartels.

Cheerio, Hovangill.

Victoria Road automatic

Photo of a shop front in Govanhill, Transylvania shop and coffee

My favourite shop in Govanhill and it hasn’t even opened yet.

Passed the guy putting up the sign one sunny afternoon and asked what it was and he said a shop and also coffee and I said cheers Govanhill and walked on thinking weird, but not, as usual, can’t wait.

Rising slowly, mainly fair, visibility moderate or good.

So Govanhill’s changing but it was always changing, even when some people didn’t want to come here.

We always had Kurdish barbers, Panjabi street food, Italian ice cream, magazin Romanesc, Irish boozers, African grocers, halal butchers, Polski Sklep, Polish Daisy.

Bin men and bone men and potato peelings and sharp-dressed chancers. And the fruit shops, Govanhill’s most popular characters.

We just needed the white bourgeoisie to become up-and-coming.

But watch out, creatives and innovators. This place is so quirky you might hurt yourself, even if you’re a freelance graphic designer.

Thank goodness you have this spiritual guide to give you a tour.

The shipping bulletin, area forecast, weather reports from coastal stations.

The soothing intimacy, the ritual incantation, travelling the seas without leaving your scratcher.

Kingarth Lane recent hail, Allison Street decreasing north, veering down Victoria Road later.

Complex low pressure, sooner dark at times, occasionally Polmadie.

Visit the uninhabited outlands, the crazy zone, where no one’s ever been. Hillpark, Merrylee, Croftfoot.

Hear the mysterious place names that exist only in our imaginations. Southside central, Strathbungo East, Queen’s Park.

Or stupid names a drunk guy made up, like Nithsbiggins Avenue, Buttermoreland Boulevard, Cathtoria Road. Orgasm Valley, frontal systems, warnings of gales.

So here we go, Transylvania automatic. No unsmiling fringes in sight.

Clear sky, ship ahoy, straight ahead, new high.

Always at last, never at first, variable in between and expected sooner.

Cheers Govanhail, hail hail.

The tenement opposite

View of two Glasgow tenements taken from a second floor window

I look outside and see the tenement opposite, full of people just like me, we, you and I.

It’s always there, the tenement opposite. Unchanging horizon. Nobody move, stay where you are, don’t touch your face, stand two metres apart.

Haven’t seen it for years, the tenement opposite. It’s like I stopped looking, took it for granted, didn’t even notice what was right there in front of me.

It’s reassuring, the tenement opposite. Fine blonde sandstone, west of Scotland light, kids’ rainbow posters in the windows. It’s better than having a garden.

I used to wave to the neighbours there as we clapped for each other once a week.

Tonight I see the moon in its little piece of sky above the roof of the tenement opposite. It’s reassuring, seeing the moon. It means the earth is still turning, somewhere.

Cheers, tenement opposite. For showing me the future. The future is wide and tall and clear, the same as the past.

But then I left my tenement and went outside and met Rab fae Torrisdale Street and he asked if I thought he was immune from the virus because he used to drink in the Corona bar in Shawlands and I said could be, you never know, but now that I think about it of course not, ya fanny.

Then he tapped me a fiver because he needed the fare to get tae his maw’s to go to the chemist but he’ll square me up, I know he will, I know he’s good for it.

After that he made no plea or declaration and I didn’t see him again for 30 days.

So I thought I’d go home and look out my window at the tenement opposite.

But my phone went and it was Conde Nast asking about a lock-in at Neeson’s.

Cheers, Govanhill.

Nae luck, travelists

upside down photo of a sunny beach with blue sky, sea and palm tree

It’s travel writers I feel sorry for in these troubled times.

All those pricks, dicks, dweebs, twits and twats with nowhere to go and nothing to say.

They’re the real victims of this lockdown.

Chat heads inactive, content ungenerated, adventure bollocks adrenaline rush untold.

Nae luck, travelists.

Nae Vietnam, Burkina Faso nor Pata-bastard-gonia for you.

Don’t go for it, just leave it, be less than you can be.

Try punching yourselves in the face instead.

So I started thinking maybe I should have a gap year. And naw, I don’t mean being on the broo again.

I mean do some volunteer work in Shawlands or Langside or Pollokshaws or Crosshill.

Build a school, teach English, help clear bulk items dumped in a close because it’s unsightly, attracts vermin and is also a fire risk.

Some of these people haven’t seen an outsider in years. Know the feeling.  

Immerse myself in the indigenous culture, top up those wilderness-based core skills climbing the north face of Mount Florida.

There’s so much to see and do, travelisers.

Have your voyage of self-discovery, coming of age, personal pilgrimage, travelist odyssey right here.

Wait till you plunge into Cathcart, get dragged into Strathbungo or swallowed up by Polmadie. 

Asda Toryglen broadens the mind.

If you want hidden lands, there’s always Inglefield Street.

And if you’re looking for ancient culture unchanged for centuries, try auld Fred in Aikenhead Road.

Cheers, Govanhill.

You’re welcome, Tripadvisor.

The wee mini dinosaurs of Langside Road

Side-on view of various tenements in Govanhill with a very blue sky

I’ve seen a cow before and I know what a sheep is, so wildlife holds few surprises for me.

But I learn things on these early morning walks through Govanhill.

Turns out birds don’t just shit on your head from above.

Turns out they write poetry and play music too.

You hear these wee fly men chirruping and whistling away just for the sake of it, for the joy of it, and it’s such a melodious highlight to the day it makes you wonder if this sunshine will ever end.

And to think these wee birdies used to be dinosaurs back in the day.

These things with wings have their own worries too, their own viruses to contend with.

Bird flu, avian flu, mad crow disease.

No lockdown for them, although I did see one fella social distancing on a telephone wire and another alone at the top of a tree beside the railway line.

Was that a great tit, a blackbird or a song thrush? Who knows, mate. Is this a lime tree, a rowan tree, sycamore, walnut? Could be.

They’ve been there performing for years, decades, centuries, but only now are we paying attention.

We may never hear their likes again.

Goldfinch, swallow, maple, giant redwood, doesn’t matter. I’m only a child, a puny child, so these birds, any birds, in these trees, any trees.

And you stand in the stillness and listen to this tiny wonder on a spring morning with no traffic and the sky bluer than ever and you think how beautiful and how generous your city is.

Thanks, Govanhill.

Because without that, all we can do is sit down and weep.

Go on up the road

photo of a nice row of homes designed by famous architect Alexander Greek Thomson

So I left Govanhill for the first time in years to stroll along the boulevards of old Pollokshields, tree-lined early morning with sunshine and bird song.

I’d been out for a walk, one piece of walk in my exercise yard, these hometown streets I know far too well.  

Tenements and building sites and half-finished bike lanes, road works barriers strewn all over the pavement.

I wanted Govanhill to show me something else.

So I walked to Pollokshields.

I’d been there once before, ages ago, years ago, when I landed in some pub which was closed for the winter.

I say winter, it was September. I say pub, I mean village hall with plastic chairs and cans of beer from the shop next door.

Asked the woman if the pub was going to open.

Aye, she said. In April.

But you know how things look from here in Govanhill, our city on a hill at the heart of the metropolis.

We see the Shields, the Shaws, the Gorbals and Cathcart as the rural idyll, all mountains and meadows and midgies all over your face.

But it’s not, I’m telling you.

I know, I’ve been there.

Detached villas and grand tenements, spacious homes on wide avenues with hedges and trees and a Mediterranean blue sky.

Early morning, no one around, always helps, looking fine.

And then, Pollokhill, after we’ve had our walk, Govanshields, we go home to stay in, lie low, steer clear.  

Do you really need that piss poor overpriced takeaway coffee or to stand at that street corner with four other people?

Go on up the road, eat chocolate, drink wine, masturbate, watch telly, remember a virus and stay in the hoose.

Cheers, or not.

Stone age dust

white cherry blossoms on branches of a tree against a blue sky

I didn’t want to go shopping and get arrested by the cops for having too much self-raising flour in my trolley.

So I didn’t go out, I stayed at home and went travelling round the flat instead.

My Govanhill flat, tenement flat, all the usual things. Walls and that. Ceiling, plumbing, wiring. Neighbours, mice, messy backcourt are just a bonus.

Exotic land, hidden gem, rich heritage, something for everyone.

Set off on the overnight train from the bedroom to the kitchen, a quick stopover in the hallway to stretch your legs, smoke a cigarette, browse the newspaper stands.

Hang on, these newspapers are at least five years old.

At the kitchen door you pick up a connection overland to the sink.

Scientists believe that noise is Radio 4 coming from somewhere in the corner, but they don’t know the origins of the local delicacies. Worm quiche. Knuckle kidney spleen.

From the kitchen, catch a ferry to the bathroom, with its ancient ruins, mouldy tiles, dead plants.

Fascinating, but a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria and infectious diseases.

Alien spores, toxic gas, you know what it’s like, we’ve all been there.

Just don’t sit awhile in the bustling centre, soak up the atmosphere, or watch the world go by.

Then it’s the long day’s journey into night, through the badlands of the so-called living room, past the burnt-out fireplace, the uninhabitable sofa, medieval coffee rings, stone age dust, all the way to the bay windows.

It’s all worth it for the views to the tenement opposite. And as a special treat, if you lean out the window and hang by your feet you’ll see a bus stop on Victoria Road just out the corner of your eye.

Diverse continent, land of contrasts, vibrant culture.

Next stop, Westmorland Street.

Cheers, lonely planet.

Ballistics will go ballistic

A 'stand here' sign on a pavement to help social distancing

So I was with my brother in Paddy Neeson’s and I might have been dreaming but I can’t really remember.

Maybe it was the Victoria, or the Café or the Hampden, there’s so many around here.

Penny Farthing, Star Bar, Bell Jar, they’re everywhere.

Heraghty’s, Rum Shack, Allison Arms, know what I mean?

Titwood, Prince Regent, the Bungo, there’s only so much you can take.

Or maybe it was somewhere that’s no longer there, like Kelly’s, Sammy Dow’s or McNee’s.

The Albert, Maxwell Arms, Pandora, remember?

Or even the Govanhill Bar, which was really in the Gorbals.

Wherever it was, we might have been there and we might have been talking that way brothers do.

Got any painkillers?

Nah.

Bastard.

I know.

I think it was my brother, but I wasn’t really sure. He was keeping his distance so I could hardly make him out, you know how it is when you’re asleep or you’re drunk.

You look like a chalk outline.

Like a dead body at a crime scene?

Aye. You’d better get the results to the lab.

The DA will be on my back.

Ballistics will go ballistic.

We both laughed and were getting up to leave when I saw a fat bluebottle throwing itself at the window again and again.

I thought these dafties had six pairs of eyes, but I went over and opened the window anyway.

Here’s your chance, big world out there, go wherever you want.

But it stayed on the inside, banging its head on the glass.

Remember, Govanhill. It might have been a dream.

Cheers.

Daddy, Haystacks, Nagasaki

A person dressed in black sitting on a couch with a hat pulled down over their face

So I was sitting at home keeping my distance, staying indoors, not going outside.

Thought I’d put on a mask, help keep me isolated from my own face and head.

Kendo Nagasaki himself would be proud.

You’d wear a mask too, if you were me. You know you would.

At least there’s no chance of me looking in the mirror now. Wouldn’t see much if I did.

I don’t trust mirrors, with their double meanings, twisted reality and sleight of hand.

There’s one in the bathroom. I don’t like the infinity of it, that something so small contains the whole world, the universe reflected in just one piece of glass.

Plus it makes me look like I have a fat belly and a tiny cock.

I remember cutting my own hair the night this photo was taken.

Didn’t even have to take off the mask, just worked round it, bowl-cut style.

Lost the end of my beard at the front and the tip of my pigtail at the back.

It was a good night, a Saturday night, and I might have been drunk but I can’t really remember.

I was taking a break from learning a language and baking a cake and practising yoga on the mantlepiece.

Alone in the kitchen, cans from the fridge, the sun was shining, even indoors.

New hip hair, haystack affair, high heels on. Wrestler’s trunks, light strappy dress, don’t need a mirror to make you do your best.

No time like the present, no place like home, it’s all we can do.

Here we fucking go, Govanhill. Cheers!