When I visit my birthplace, my stomach simultaneously churns with excitement and dread. 'Glasgow' is the word I always give my English students to define the word juxtaposition. It never ceases to make me smile when I read out the description from the dictionary, 'the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect'. Glasgow is defined by its past and present and the image it portrays to the rest of the world. Gritty, warm and honest.
There has been no planning with this trip, deciding only to come at the last minute, afraid to commit. Last-minute accommodation always results in a 50-50 gamble on what you get; this choice has no shades of grey. Standing in the damp bedroom, I observe my kingdom for the evening. The fousty smell lingers in your nostrils, and the wallpaper peels away at corners, exposing the grey plaster. Black mould has taken residence in the window frames. Dimly lit, the bedroom lamp almost enhances the dark, dreek twilight that peeks through the grey net curtains. Most people would turn afoot at this grim welcome, but I know better.
Clattering down the stairs on a threadbare carpet, the landlady ushers me into the cosy front room. She stands there with her hands on her hips, looking up at me, waiting for a reply. Her face red and bleary, not with the heat from the coal fire but the secret nips of the amber gold that laces her cups of builders’ tea. Lavished with tea and biscuits and promises of 'wee butties', I know that this welcome is of the authentic kind to expect from Glasgow residents.
Painful chilblained toes from inappropriate footwear in the past remind me to put on my knee-high boots. Long gone are the scantily clad underwear; they are now replaced with vests and thermals. Glasgow men are used to seeing the multi-layers of undergarments of a woman; it can make for an interesting one-night stand should you decide to end your evening that way. A fine line between passion killing and timing. I bury my head into my double-wrapped scarf as I brave the horizontal wind and rain as I climb into the back of the black cab.
Every taxi driver across the globe is chatty, commenting on the weather or sports depending on your gender. Not the Glasgow taxi drivers. They are moodily quiet, apart from the occasional outburst of road rage, which for the most part, is incomprehensible as the speed in which they curse is only intensified with the Glasgow slang words they use in the verbal assault. However, beneath this facade lies gentlemanly manners. They will never leave a lone woman to walk the streets home alone, and they will always be there if you have arranged for a return home.
Glasgow was built and sprawled along the river Clyde. Shipyards and warehouses lined the murky river; this was the city's heart in its heyday. Tenement buildings fan along the docks, cobbled streets, and close-knit housing communities. Both of my parents were born in these types of flats. It wasn't unusual for a family of eight to live in a two-bed. My Grandad's preferred sleeping arrangements were to lie on the kitchen counter, coats for bedding and the range heat for warmth. Lavatories were a luxury no one had. You shared your loo with the entire close, located outside, right next to the 'midden'. The midden was a tale of two halves; for the adults, it was for depositing your rubbish in the well-used metal dustbins with the frequent missing black lids. It was a magical playground for the children where you could create gourmet dishes from your mud kitchen or play frisbee with the remaining dustbin lids. Waiting for your bowel movement in the damp, cold cubical was not a mean feat; frightened to inhale as the stench of the dustbins threatened to invade your air and the screams assaulted your ears from the weans playing outside.
Nowadays, most average working-class people cannot afford these flats. The modern world has changed, updated and modernised these stone blocks with sleek lines with open plan living now the norm. Bathrooms are the size of bedrooms, with double glass sinks delicately placed on the wooden maple blocks. His and Her mirrors flank the glass bowels, and the shelves display the exotic potions and scents trapped in the colourful bottles, advertised only to the ones who can afford these heady scents. The range has been replaced with wood pellet fire burners that burn and glow and are suspended in mid-air. They seem to float in the cavernous tenement rooms, with their high corniced ceilings and thick walls painted duck-egg blue. But, of course, modern-day families consist of the two-point kind, and there is no such thing as over-crowding.
We trundle on through the dark, sleek cobbles of Merchant City; the name speaks for itself on its historical roots. Like this taxi ride, the merchant quadrant has had many peaks and troughs in its lifetime. When the dockyards went, so did the merchants. Not now, though; it has reclaimed its glory day hutias. Former banks with their high ceilings, stained glass windows and art déco marble inlays currently serve trendy gin cocktails selected from well-informed menus. I pay the driver and notice that the men in green hoops and those in royal blue are refused in the pub's warmth. These men wear their faiths through their colours but not necessary for the football team they support. They walk away disgruntled at being deprived of entry to this holy grail.
The pub does not disappoint; noisy, warm and welcoming. Rich wood tones embrace me, and so does the roaring coal fire. Everyone jostles at its perimeter, waiting for tartan wing chairs to become vacant. I long to join the jostle, but instead, I find my friends huddling around a small table at the back of the pub. Hugs and warm smiles engulf me, and I am glad I came.