Edinburgh Book Festival: Alan Taylor, "Glasgow: the People's History", Review

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Alan Taylor with Richard Holloway in the chair.
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Alan Taylor has a long history as a journalist with The Scotsman, where he rose to be the deputy and then managing editor. He has also contributed for some time to the Sunday Herald as well as editing a series of three anthologies and contributing generally to a wide range of publications. Most recently he has written and published his book, 'Glasgow: The Autobiography'. Some people forget that Glasgow has a rich past and that the city was once the second city of Britain and of the Empire.

Alan Taylor confessed immediately that he had been brought up in Musselburgh. Being small in stature he always imagined that he might be the Willie Johnstone of the future although somewhat smaller than Johnstone. But he went to school in the east and still remembers being taken to the top of Arthur's Seat by his teacher. It was a very clear day and everyone could see the plumes of black, acrid smoke away in the distance. When someone in the class asked what town that was, the teacher replied, "That's Glasgow and I hope that you'll never need to go there!"

At the time, he was an avid Hearts supporter, and they were all despondent as none of their players could get into the Scottish team, which all seemed to come from Rangers and Celtic. They had all the prejudices that people have in the east about Glaswegians - for instance if going to something special the Glaswegian would buy a new outfit, however, in the east people would borrow much more. There were stories that in Edinburgh the underwear was passed on from one generation to another! He had one story about a visiting group which was made up of Fulbright students who were asked what they liked most about Glasgow and the answer was "Greggs!"

He said that when Don Linklater, of the Glasgow Herald, who is no relation of the Scotsman Linklater by the way, was at the Herald there seemed to be more people at the Press Bar than there were working in the Herald offices. This seemed to be quite normal and was accepted, without demur. When Taylor was interviewed and then accepted for a job at the Glasgow Herald he said that he was taken out for lunch by the editor. They went to a restaurant close by and the editor was heard to say, as he passed through the bar, "two pints of lager and let me see your wine list!"

So this was Taylor's introduction to Glasgow. He never imagined that he would actually live there or that there could be real people actually living there in houses! There was something about being in the city where there was a great newspaper. It is said that the Glasgow Herald could at one stage get more planes in the air than the Luftwaffe! In bars, everyone wanted to be "Mr Glasgow" and this was hugely entertaining for all concerned. But how is it that, apart from Liz Lochhead, there were no writers of note from Glasgow? There were plenty of artists, but no writers. Taylor said that it had taken far too long to produce a writer of note. Perhaps, he said, we are witnessing a requiem for Scottish journalism?

That led Richard Holloway in the Chair to ask what the future was for Scottish newspapers when looking at the Scotsman and the Herald which are now just shadows of their former selves. Taylor said that there were many reasons for that and cited the explosion of alternate media outlets and the dominance of the mobile phone. Taylor then had a tilt at Andrew Neill saying he's only half my height but he has proved rather difficult, however, Taylor conceded that he had done rather well for himself.

There was always a place for Glasgow humour; many famous comedy acts had found life very difficult at the Glasgow Empire, so much so, that one comedian asked, "what do you have to do to get a laugh here?" One wag was heard to reply, "well telling a joke might be a start!"

But Glasgow always is prepared to laugh at itself. Taylor asked whether we all recalled the time that terrorists tried to blow up Glasgow Airport? All said that we did. "Who would waste their time bringing terror to Glasgow? And where on earth would we find 75 virgins?"

One day he was in the Horseshoe Bar trying to see Scotland playing football in the World Cup when he was asked by a punter, "Can you name the seven wonders of the world?" Taylor had a try and only managed three or four, "ah, said the man, "the rest are on a 'need to know' basis!"

In a restaurant Taylor was the guest of another journalist who ordered "two wines". The bartender then asked "do you want the small glasses or the larger measure?" The journalist friend replied, "Neither. Two bottles!"

Sometimes the visitor can go a little "off piste" and may end up in one of the 'hard' drinking bars. The only advice that he would give in this situation is to bale out as many people have unwittingly been caught up in things like the ice cream wars which raged for several years.

Some bright spark at Glasgow City Chambers thought up the bright idea that 'dropping' the flats (with explosive demolition) would make a spectacular start to the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony - thank goodness this idea was shelved. They were a really unsuccessful project because the lifts did not work properly and also when a high wind was blowing your bathwater was sloping the way the wind blew!

Taylor talked about the devastation that was caused by running motorways through the centre of Glasgow and of the story that there was once a flyover with an office block at the end of it - apocryphal I am sure! There is the story too about the nuclear war game where the entire population of Glasgow was assumed to have been wiped out "as they are expendable"! This was done to study the effects of a nuclear attack, but it was not very reassuring for the people of Glasgow!

Edinburgh thinks it is the centre of culture but in Glasgow there is culture every day of the year if you just walk down Buchanan Street. Apart from the Commonwealth Games in 2014, which were a huge success both for Glasgow and for Scotland, Taylor claimed that on the arts side Glasgow has had nothing since 1990. But there were some, as Taylor put it, "who had given their liver for their work!"

The floor was open for questions and one addressed the problem in the city of religious bigotry. Taylor said that he had experienced it personally when someone was picked for the football team and he was "sure" it had been done on religious grounds. Taylor admitted that religious differences ran deep - it was suggested that at one school they should have different gates for Catholics and another for Protestants!

Asked if Labour would win back Glasgow he said that in the past all you had to do was to produce a fish supper and you would be certain of the Labour vote, but not any longer.

Questioned about Glasgow's past, Taylor quoted the Lord Provost, Liz Cameron, who claimed that there was more marble in the City Chambers than there was in the Vatican!

Taylor (a Muriel Spark expert) was also asked if 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' could be staged in Glasgow and he was entirely positive in his answer!

Finally, he was asked if the recent revelations about Scotland's connection with the slave trade would make a difference in Glasgow? Taylor said that there is no doubt that we need to reappraise the slavery connection and this needs a lot more work. He pointed out that places in Glasgow like the Mitchell Library were actually built with tobacco money.

Taylor finished with a lovely story; he did a weekend attachment to the Glasgow Fire Brigade which turned out to be great fun, however, after one call the tender stopped by an all night stall near the old BBC building in Queen Margaret Drive, at which point he volunteered to get the coffees. While waiting to be served a small Glasgow drunk approached him and asked he was a fireman, "yes, sort of," Taylor said, "weel, wull youse gie me a lift hame?"

This was a super hour with many, many laughs.

Glasgow: The Autobiography (Sept 2016) by Alan Taylor is published by Birlinn Ltd.