James Buchan

‘On Glasgow and Edinburgh’, by Robert Crawford - review

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On Glasgow and Edinburgh

Robert Crawford

Belknap Press, Harvard University, pp. 344, £

Glasgow and Edinburgh are so nearby that even in the 18th-century Adam Smith could breakfast in one city and be in the other for early-afternoon dinner. For all that, these two cities cherish a rivalry and have followed different paths.

Edinburgh, a royal capital until 1603 and a seat of parliament until 1707, and again in recent years, home to a great university and medical school and nurse to writers from Walter Scott to Joanne Rowling, has made almost as much history as Jerusalem. Edinburgh peers down from Castle Hill as if over a newspaper on its toiling rival to the west, besmirched with tobacco and slavery and laden with locomotives, boilers, ships, Vanguard-class nuclear submarines and incessant rain.

Apart from George’s Square (ruined by the university), Edinburgh has conserved much of the medieval and reformation city and also the ‘draughty parallelograms’ (Stevenson) of the 18th-century New Town across Princes Street Gardens. In contrast, Glasgow was smashed to bits by the City Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s, its tenements torn down and population cast out to windy new settlements or encased in concrete tower blocks, that have now themselves been demolished, so that it is astonishing that anything of the old convivial Glasgow surives. Those clearances, if I may use that word, are the principal event of Scotland’s placid postwar history.

In recent years, as Robert Crawford says in this book, the two cities have converged on a common ideal, centres of fashionable consumption and high-minded culture, all paid for, in the mysterious fashion of modern towns, somehow or other. Banks (Edinburgh) and football clubs (Glasgow) go bust with abandon. Both towns are now monuments to ancient mental and bodily exertion. In Edinburgh, the pedestrian can barely negotiate the pavement for new public statuary while even Glasgow, to return Hugh Mac-Diarmid’s phrase to him, seems unable to stand out of ‘her own light’. The insurrectionary spirit that flourished in both towns and in Glasgow till the 1970s is dormant or extinct.

A poet, who has also written on both Burns and Fergusson, Crawford’s interest is chiefly literary. He presents Edinburgh as a bizarre but thrilling mixture of the fanatical, the Gothic, the Romantic, the scientific, the polite and the sentimental, which last gives us the philosophy of Hume and Smith and the statue of the faithful Skye terrier, Greyfriars Bobby. Because so much happened within the walls of the Old Town, Crawford leads a series of tours often into strange corners.

That works less well in the larger compass of Glasgow, but Crawford takes us up through the Victorian shops of Buchanan Street and down Sauchiehall, the Sodom and Gomorrah of Glasgow, till it reaches the canyon made by the M8 motorway, with the Mitchell Library teetering over the chasm like the bus in The Italian Job. He resurrects the squalor and glory of 19th- and 20th-century Glasgow, the bows of unlaunched vessels towering over the tenements, while the sound of ringing metal drowned all conversation in the street, and shipowners like Burrell made ‘money like slate stones’. What remains of all that Glasgow sweat and ingenuity? The pictures in the Burrell Collection and the villas of the West End. In Glasgow, I am always reminded of Melville on the mansions of Nantucket, one and all harpooned and dragged up from the bottom of the sea.

For me, as for Crawford, Glasgow has a certain big-city esprit that Scotland’s ancient capital does not have. At the end of the 19th century, my great-grandfather was minister of the John Knox Church in the Gorbals (dem. 1973) when the first Jews, escaping persecution in Russia, arrived in that teeming district. One Sunday, my great-grandmother came on some boys playing marbles in the street and inquired if they had not a Sunday School to attend. ‘Ach,’ said one of the laddies, ‘we’re what ye call Jews.’