Apr 9 2010


It is raining. Cold, grey and raining. Lambs shiver in bleak fields as we pass them on the train. One suspiciously lamb like shape floats bloated and dead in a burn. From the nothingness past Carlisle gradually arises a blighted lunar landscape -Motherwell, soviet grimness pockmarked with Barrat homes and tower blocks.  Then a grim gaping concrete bunker says Welcome To Glasgow Central and I suddenly wish we had got our passports renewed.

I have however exhaustively researched this stay- have spent hours, no days trying to find what I optimistically term a mini-break for someone with no car, no savings and no passport. Lancaster to Glasgow-eight pounds each way booked in advance. Check. Eyes bleeding after hours obsessively searching for a hotel that is both cheap and impossibly glamorous   (without someone on Trip Advisor ruining it  by mentioning the lack of absorbency in the towels in the terms people normally reserve for the Armenian genocide)  Check.

So it’s cold, grey and raining and we are on holiday. Time to go to visit death.

The Necropolis is a graveyard of all who were names in their day. Like finding in the future an Ozymandias bone yard of Heat magazine fixtures time warped and broken. It is a hilly jumble of death, cracked, disheveled, ostentatious.

Eminent Victorian statues stand over their graves – stone hands shielding stone eyes as they stare onto a visage so startling and different than what was there in their time.  Through the drizzle lie the old spires but in front is grim modern industrial interjected with Neo baronial buildings of undisputed antiquity all clashing together in a striking strangely alluring view.

It is slimy, treacherous and slippery on this hallowed Scottish ground-so foreign to this Englander with it’s plethora of Moffats and Malcolm’s, graves crowned with yellowing plastic candles with Jesus on-as wet and spent as the body beneath them.  I love graveyards, I love morbidity and death in a quiet removed MR James style but when staring through bars into a small dark mausoleum at a blank eyed virgin Mary, a sudden drip down her upturned face makes me leap and go back down the hill, back over the wonderfully named Bridge Of Sighs and towards sanity, bright colours, noise and an overpriced glass of house red in Mono, in the Merchants Quarter-a funky sounding vegan bar with attached record store.

It is bleakly industrially colourful with a sofa that reminds me of squats but the drinks prices of Knightsbridge. A wine and bottle of local beer come to 7.80 but this is not unusual I find out rather too frequently in the trendier of places.

The Merchants Quarter is a befuddling mixture of history, trend and trade. Tattoo parlours, pleasingly dodgy looking pubs frequented only by bald men over fifty in sports jackets and trainers, rambling grandiose yet crumbling red brick, decaying signs, shops and people.  It’s a tapering cave where no building complements another, poverty, bohemia and ethnicity co-exist under the arches and by the train lines, cheap rugs and Cyberdog clothes, ethnic veg and bookies.

The Trans Europe café is very Glasgow. It is diner style trendy yet beaten round the edges. Laminated plastic menus and loud music. The man working there is acting like his own viral marketing campaign for Glasgow Cool. As the rain shoots grimly down outside he is singing along to Franz Ferdinand with utter unconstrained happiness and uncaring as to who is listening or what they are thinking. And it made me remember how good Franz Ferdinand were as I have some nice warming morning soup, wipe the tears of sleep and mascara from my red eyes and try not to think about that sudden tear idling down the Virgin’s face.

The 13th Note came up first in my frenzied Google attack of vegetarian Glasgow.  It is a music venue and I feel like a slightly embarrassing wannabe trendy mum as the black clad band sitting in the corner look about 14. Especially when I study the menu more relevantly than the gig listings-a clear sign of age. It has for a place with faded gig posters of the terminally undiscovered and toilet graffiti of the permanently unshagged, a very good entirely vegetarian menu. My partner has risotto and Parmesan rice cakes with Thai green curry and I, potato cakes with mushroom and chillis with roast pepper sauce. I don’t know how the death metal band in the corner considered their garnishes but I was very pleased with mine-the food served with a slap onto a table was interesting, creative and well presented-a flourish of coriander here, a grating of beetroot there-no wine list, no view, no smiles but delicious and under seven quid a meal.

So from the old world of the merchants to the new-the brash superfluousness of New Look superstores, glass and crowds in Buchanan street. There is a pretty glittering arcade selling diamonds in their thousands where men in top hats patrol it and I wonder at their aerodynamicness should they need to give chase.

There is a designer mall, Princes Square, all Vivienne Westwood and fancy soap-style and no substance and I think of the quieter more dignified Merchants Quarter only yards away yet still with the elements of richness and brashness that made it hold sway a hundred years ago.  I doubt these malls will remain in a hundred years, insubstantial and mass-produced; they seem made of paper and plastic compared to the dark mass of the Merchants Quarter.

Onwards now to the West End-again, a twinkly glossy two fingers to those who still think Glasgow is entirely subterranean scum swimming in their own filth and Carling.

It is everything Glasgow is not considered to be and gloriously extravagantly so-reveling in its chi chi twinkliness on an expensive espresso high. Cafés with mopeds in the window where glossy haired girls with  designer tacky necklaces and flat shoes smile at white teethed floppy fringed boys-retro chic is everywhere-the plundered car boot bounty of dead people, sprayed with perfume and re-sold with a cutesy label on a ribbon. The Byres road charity shops are an intoxicating mix of George at Asda and labels you read about in style supplements.  Delis abound, ‘darling’ little restaurants and places with quirky names-it makes Crouch End look like Baghdad.  I like it here though. I like looking at the people and although expensive it is not silly expensive, not London expensive to get a frittata and coffee or an indie chic dress. It must be the coffee and cake capital of the country.

Lofty elegant houses line the side streets –some are all Fallow and Ball and thick soft draperies, others where tie-dye sheets are badly hung over grimy ornate windows. Our hotel, The Belhaven up one of these streets describes itself as a boutique hotel –I am somewhat surprised to see an abundance of Golden Wonder crisps piled high in baskets when entering. Surely Kettle Chips are ideal for the place with pretentions? The room is large, red and luxurious with a subtle tint of MFI and we paid sixty quid, which included such a large variety of breakfast the next morning, I farted the whole way around the Kelvingrove museum.

Tchai Ovna  is a rickety wooden teahouse straight out of Lord of the Rings balanced precariously on the banks of the Clyde.  When we went last time, it overlooked the city, now it is overlooked by a block of flats seemingly built out of Lego and there are dog eared petitions inside the hippy ambience of Tchai Ovna to stop the entire of Otago Lane being swept away by concrete and corporations. So maybe goodbye to the Dickensian bearded clockmaker surrounded by a cacophony of broken antiquated clocks who stares at us wild eyed when we pass and the bookshop filled with yellow tomes of defunct outmoded knowledge and courtly love, stacked high and dusty yet so seductive and mesmerizing. Goodbye the birds that sing in the trees in the heart of the city in a street that progress has just remembered.

Tchai Ovna is like being in the green fields at Glastonbury but with flushing toilets, so pretty much a pastoral idyll. I have a pot of excellent chai and sit on a large coloured cushion surrounded by hippy ephemera as people pleasantly chat, read and play scrabble. The limited yet of course veggie menu has crackers and cheese as a snack and I imagine a world where cream crackers and lumps of strong cheddar were freely available. I imagine a world with less fights, drunkenness and anger. Then again, the crumbs would be shocking.

The 78   is an unassuming looking building on an offshoot of an unassuming road but thrives with hipsters-and wow-it is a vegan bar/gig venue. I guiltily yearn for a piece of cheese but have wine instead. It is a good menu-innovative interesting vegan fare that is not diminished by what it does not contain. There is a fire, papers, horrid yet now trendy flowery upright chairs and more surprisingly expensive yet good drinks.

Dinner tonight is in a tiny yellow room off a tiny yellow takeaway-the Banana Leaf.

When hearing about its combination of cheapness and South Indian food I was drawn like a moth to a yellow flame. It did not disappoint. Dosas the size of your arm for four quid filled with spicy potato and cheese, rich spicy lentils, semolina balls. A small child is annoying in a small space in the delightful way only small children can be and his musical voice goes ever more piercing the frownier and less sibilant his father becomes-he has a similar aged friend with him and I feel for the friend-‘daddy daddy, he says. ‘He’s not Hindi-we’re Hindi aren’t we? To friend-‘are you vegetarian? -We’re vegetarian-don’t you eat beans? -Daddy, daddy he doesn’t eat beans! Do you like dosas? Do you? -You MUST like dosas!’ Etc.  I feel for the friend-when I was little, being suddenly introduced to spaghetti with Parmesan at a middleclass friend’s house reduced me to tears. ‘It smells of sick!”

Back on Byres Road, Oran Mor is pleasantly evoking God’s rage. Not only is it a former church that has now been turned into a gig/play venue and pub but a luminous blue glowing neon halo lies hugely yet casually over one of the spires. It has a renowned variety of whiskies and is calmly busy. A man of about sixty with a broad yet refined Glasgow accent starts to chat to us-he casually name drops minor royals names and places in Knightsbridge he is familiar with but it does not seem to be the beer talking or mere showing off or fantasies-his back is so straight and his dress so neat I have no doubt he is what he is.

Day two

I do not like the Kelvingrove museum. It is all dead. And whereas the denisons of The Necropolis probably did not go easy to their death, the stuffed animals here definitely didn’t and I look for bullet holes. There is a random photo of a gorilla’s head in a dish, which does not help. And I may be alone in this, and indeed probably am but the whole thing of museums seeming to cater for kids not adults annoys me more than it should. Kids are kids, they love to examine stuff, think and ask questions. When a piece of art has something posted next to it saying something like ‘How would you feel if You were being guillotined?’ it detracts from the adult’s study and I’m sure most kids would be thinking about it anyway, if not, they don’t care/don’t want to be there/have no thoughts apart from ‘OMG!! Is that a gorilla’s head in a dish?’.  Leave them to be kids and to think or  not think for themselves.

Or maybe I am just hung-over.

Glasgow today is radiant-there is a blue sky, my coat is off and it all looks beautiful. Apart possibly from Motherwell.

My other half has a random desire to see outside of Glasgow and take a train ride somewhere different and settles on Helensburgh.

The train ride is the best ever. Urban dereliction, foxes, a deer, a winking river Clyde snaking along it all, mud flats and then suddenly boat wrecks -happy cared for boats, knackered boats with peeling paint which gradually lead  (in a 5 second swoosh of a train) husk by prow by to blacked ribs in primordial soup. Kind of like that picture you used to get of how apes turned into people.

It was the best five seconds ever.

Helensburgh is a polite place. It is all very nice-people say thank you or apologise even when it is not strictly merited –it is one of those places that become remarkable for no apparent reason-it is described as like Edinburgh, Bath etc on the internet. It is not. It is a small seaside genteel town within commutable distance of Glasgow popular with day-trippers also on the genteel side.

It is sunny then windy rainy sunny then windy rainy and tantalizing glimpse of the lowest of the Highlands poke forth very occasionally in the distance like a cheap 3d poster.  The bay is blue; the charity shops another Scottish smattering of high and low, Primark and Karen Millen. And Dan Brown. Always the Dan Brown.

Listening to North Sea Radio orchestra on the way back to Glasgow whilst staring out of the window was very close to heaven.

In shock news there is another vegan bar/music venue to go to in Glasgow owned by the same people who own Mono and The 78 which gives exciting thoughts of a vegan mafia, tofu heads in beds etc.

Stereo is up a piss stained dark alley in the centre of Glasgow, a sudden flash of cool- a trendy corridor of hipsterness-again I am surprised by the cost of two drinks but am now resigned to supernoodle living for the rest of the year. The wallpaper is a printed electrical circuit, an American woman flirts with an Englishman-they are of course attractive, trendy and both in bands.

We order some tapas and it is excellent-large portions, crisp, fresh, unusual and delicious. Patatas brava, veggie tempura, lemony aubergine and bruschetta heaving with ripe rich chunks of tomatoes and herbs.

It is time for our train-and I have not seen the ‘real’ Glasgow if indeed there is one-I have not strayed off the beaten track, I have stayed safe and dull and middleclass. There is so much more to Glasgow, so much more and I have gently ripped around the middleclass edges complaining about the cost yet not going anywhere cheaper. But I am a vegetarian with a penchant for wine and have had a very wonderful little holiday.

And on the way home, the sky over Motherwell looks beautiful.