Glasgow's Victorian farewell

Scotland's largest city plans to remove Victorian-era statues from a landmark square. A backward move in the name of progress, says Christopher Harvie.

Christopher Harvie
20 September 2012

In 1969, I made a film on Victorian Glasgow for the new Open University, in collaboration with John Hume, later chairman of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments. It was something of a pioneer effort, and it became obvious as we wove through various distractions - airliners homing on Abbotsinch, dustcarts tipping rubble, small boys interrupting - that we weren’t God’s gift to television's "ravenous eye".

A year later, a similar exercise followed, this time with Olive Checkland, fine historian of Scotland and Japan. Our tour round Glasgow with OU students coincided with the great march for the Upper Clyde Shipyard workers then defending their jobs by means of an epic "sit-in". Down Hope Street at the head of thousands came their leader Jimmy Reid (of the Communist Party) and the Labour politicians Tony Benn and Willie Ross.

The film was, though we didn't then know it, an elegy. About half the sites we filmed would shortly vanish - notably the great Egyptian Centre Street works, in which John Elder and John Randolph had built the world's first successful compound marine engines, which revolutionised steamships; JJ Burnet’s workers’ dwellings at Cathedral Close, a bold design foreshadowing Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art; and the great dock complexes (levelled by a councillor who, according to Robin Cook, "wouldn’t rest until he had demolished every listed building in the place").

Four decades on, his ghost is on the loose. George Square, already deformed by a carpet of red chippings, is now to lose all its Victorian statues, "to ready it for the 21st century".

A ctadel in marble

My connections with Glasgow's City Chambers - the grand Victorian edifice whence the demolition of much of the city's architectural inheritance was planned - have been entertaining and varied. They include a Bailie so well-refreshed he couldn’t get through even a five-line welcoming address, and a Lord Provost who had once been an engineer and was still a socialist. His conversation, under the electroliers and Glasgow Boys’ murals of wonder-working saints and liners fitting out, sparkled with the curiosity and confidence of his trade.

"Mair marble than the Vatican": the City Chambers is a statement than needs the square as overture. Glasgow has best managed its transitions when it has kept faith with the past. When too much of the industrial order is junked, attempts to commemorate look more like mausoleums than laboratories. Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum of Transport: for all its plaudits: has it a semblance of the life of York's National Railway Museum - any feeling that its iron horses could roar out of the doors and down the tracks?

A funeral note

The Victorian folk on their George Square plinths are prospective victims of the modernismo that got its head in the 1960s, when councillors drove six-lane motorways through the city's Anderston and Charing Cross districts (chopping its population by a third in the process). Queen Victoria herself and her consort Prince Albert are threatened, as is Thomas Graham the medical chemist, and Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde who headed the "thin red line" at Balaklava during the Crimean war in the 1850s.

Thomas Carlyle - meet him at Kelvingrove Park - wrote his gloomy Hudson’s Statue on monuments built to catch geld, and (in the spirit of minding Bud Neill’s "Lobey Dosser and El Fideldo") there should be room for dissent. Fair enough. But we need more: Tom Johnston, a great Labour figure of the first half of the 20th century; "Don Roberto" Cunninghame Graham, Argentine gaucho and Westminster MP, friend of Joseph Conrad, writer and Scots nationalist; the many "Glasgow Girls" from St Thenew to the illustrator and designer Jessie M King, the gallus pro-independence politician Margo MacDonald, and the legendary "clippies" on the city's tramcars? Or have the Glasgow Herald's own George MacDonald Fraser celebrated by his ravenous imperial hero Flashman in his cherrypicker pants, pursued by a frieze of all his women, from Lola Montez to Queen Ranavalona?

Thomas Campbell, an industrious Liberal, should keep his place. Before even setting foot out of Glasgow, he wrote "Ye Mariners of England", "An Exile of Erin" and an unforgettable line on Polish liberty: "Freedom shrieked when Kosziusko fell!" The American state of Wyoming was named after his poem. Away with him?

Away with Walter Scott? The creator of the archetypal Glaswegian Bailie Nicol Jarvie, Rob Roy’s cousin, possessed of a commercial nous all too scarce on the ground today? Away with John Moore, who died at Corunna in 1809 after halting Napoleon at his zenith? His enemy Marshal Soult built Moore's tomb, and who didn’t know Charles Wolfe's lines:

"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note / As his corpse to the ramparts we hurried."

A last order

Let’s not kid ourselves about any new age. Glasgow's celebration of the Olympics mustered 15,000-20,000 to George Square: decent enough. But compared with the 90,000 trade unionists who milled through the square on 31 January 1919, when they were attacked by the police? This was the gathering-place that a generation of Labour and left-wing figures - James Maxton, John Wheatley, John Maclean, Emmanuel Shinwell (and, later, Nelson Mandela) knew; their history will be diminished by the vacuity on offer.

Each statue is a story, to be encountered with plenty of critical distance and disrespect, but also with enthusiasm and informed attention to a history more alive than we know. James Watt, instrument-maker to the university, engineer to the Monkland canal, transformed Thomas Newcomen’s mine-pump into the prime mover of industrialisation. Robert Peel, the Lancashire Tory, adopted free trade, the motor that drove cotton, iron, and shipbuilding in the Clyde valley. William Gladstone, a mixture of highland, lowland and Liverpool, preached democracy in the 1860s and Irish home rule in 1886, reviving radicalism and nationalism - even the socialist miners’ leader Bob Smillie regarded him as his greatest teacher.

James Oswald, MP. Away with him? But he can’t be moved: to throw a chuckie-stane into his top hat made you a citizen of Glasgow. In April 1923, Neil Munro, author of the Clyde's emblematic Para Handy tales and his guest Joseph Conrad, having taken a dram, were found trying to do just that.

It's a degradation too far. But if the worst comes to the worst, here’s a thought: if the statues go, retain the "dried blood" tarmac but have, dead centre, a huge inflatable of a wee round man with bottled spectacles in a day-glo waistcoat (think Lavrenti Beria) bearing the legend "Ye cannae dae that" on the front, and "But Ah can!" on the back.

It would be dedicated to the memory of the visionary late sculptor George Wyllie, and entitled - with an appropriate, uniquely Glaswegian word that captures stupidity, short-sightedness and philistinism in the equivalent of a swooping emission of one of George Square's notorious pigeons - "The Unknown Numpty".

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