Bonny on Clyde


It was mid-morning as the plane banked for one last time and settled down to its long approach.  Small clusters of houses, woods with arterial bike tracks and capillary branches, fields with horses gathered in anticipation round feed stalls.   Each growing bigger in the plane window by the moment.  Each adding to a patchwork  countryside typical of a city edge.


Greens.  Browns.  Off-white buildings flanked by regulation lawns.  A football pitch, where dozen of kids chased a ball: ebbing and flowing, a school of little fish. Factories and shopping centres. 

Normally the houses seem to go on for ages and ages, as if the whole land is swamped in urban sprawl.  But this is different.  Just over there are hills, and beyond those, more hills.  I suspect – maybe imagine – the glitter of water, spreading wide and long in valleys still rebounding from the loss of ice. 

This is not London with its gentle, rounded hills, this is Glasgow with its views to the highlands and its hints of lochs.  This is not England.  This is Scotland. This is not homecoming, but a form of out-going.  A journey to a place that is, once again, embracing its difference and finding that this difference is good. 

When you travel for business, but don’t travel Business, there are few better things to see the your name written on a board, where a friendly face offers help and guidance.  And above all else, offers an easier journey to your hotel. 



Whoever said it was better to travel than arrive, never went through the long night of Economy on the way to Dubai, or the endless daylight beyond it.  

I knew what to expect in Glasgow.  Grim rundown old place.  The ghosts of industry.  A place that once built ships but did not anymore.  A place to be before I went somewhere else.  I had seen the pictures on the TV in the 1980s, so what more was there to know.  I had the clear-eyed benefit of belief without the baggage of evidence.  I knew what to expect, and expected to see what I knew.

Maybe I should have taken the weather as a sign; clear blue skies unending.  Early summer warmth.  Swallows rushing past leaf rich trees, a magpie calling from a windowsill.  The taxi driver laughed at the weather and said it would be raining soon, as was right and proper for June.  He mocked the weather forecasters for suggesting the sun would shine and shine and shine.  And that the rain would stay away.

Jackdaws pecked at scraps on the side of the road.  Gulls swirled over the Clyde.  And the sun kept shining.    Two bright and shiny buildings sat by the river.  The Armadillo and The Space Ship.  The driver slowed for me to get a better view. If the Armadillo – really the Clyde Auditorium – had uncurled and walked off I would not have been surprised. 

But then it struck me.  The buildings were bright and shiny.  There were apartments being built, and the sun was still shining.

The taxi turned right onto a down slope.  A church of fine red stone stood across the far end of the road, and on both sides tall buildings of the same red rose up from the wide pavements.  In George Square, a large public space, tall statues and neat grass were studded with pigeons and people eating an early lunch or a late breakfast.



The taxi stopped outside an old industrial looking kind of building; the doors to the inside were wonderfully designed of old wood and new steel.  Reception was staffed by a sane collection of blue eyed eastern European and authentic locals with poetry in their accent.  I was offered a tea, for which I was thankful, and when it arrived, it was in a mug; “The cups are too small for a decent cup” I was told and I found myself in total agreement with the sentiment.

But something was not working; something was remarkably and deeply wrong.  This was not the Glasgow that I knew existed.   This had to be somewhere else - maybe Edinburgh with its festival cool, or Aberdeen with its….. whatever Aberdeen has.  This could not be Glasgow. 

What I saw and what I knew were clashing in a way, which compounded by jet lag, brought my confusion to almost fatal levels.  I was in that political dream state of the current age where knowledge is unhindered by experience, and certainty never challenged by evidence. Opinion, being far more important than the mere empiricism of measurement, meant that what I was seeing must be wrong.  I shook my head and went in search of my room.

The outside of the room’s single window was deeply speckled with dust and dirt, breaking the view in to a broken patchwork that hid the details of the buildings and courtyards behind.  The nearest rooftop sprouted a small tree and a few tiles were missing, slid off by winter storms or pushed off by the growing Ash.  Beyond that building was the back of a pub, where wide wooden tables were laid out with glasses and plates of food.  This was more of a vision of the truth that I knew to be true, and feeling slightly superior I took a shower.



An hour later I was back in George Square, where more people had gathered to soak up the sun and meet with friends.  On the outside wall of the Guilds Hall a metal plaque held a set of standard measures – one foot, two feet, a yard – and the back of a war memorial recalled the number of people from Glasgow who had died 100 or so years ago.  Measurement and numbers.  Facts and figures.  I think this may have been some form of sign as well.

I picked a sunny spot – and there were plenty to choose from – and tried to let the daylight reset my biological clock.  Tour parties came and went. People took selfies and flashed peace signs at family cameras as they stood in front of the War Memorial.  Kids climbed on the feet of the imperial lions that guarded the flanks of the memorial.  Adults walked past the ‘please do not enter’ signs to get a better shot of the catalogue of the dead, a digital memory, lest we forget.  I find such things disquieting.

At the other end of the square, away from the Lions and the cross of remembrance, a group of workmen, striking in bright orange, eat lunch below a statue.   Nobody seems keen to be photographed in front of them, preferring the memory of the past, to a vision of modernity.  Maybe it’s the spirit of the age.

I walk away from the square, following my nose, looking for the river.   Many of the buildings are grand in a way that I find surprising.  Elegant, if a little time worn, and red.  Warm.  Intricate.  The detail speaks of a history I do not know about, when the profits of industry must have stayed in the city rather than disappearing off shore in the digital brown paper bags of modern banking.



I find the river more by Zen than navigation, walking down unfamiliar roads, hoping that my foreignness does not show too much.  The Clyde is wide and brown, overstepped by bridge after bridge and often hidden behind high walls and cut off by fences.  At least in the sections I saw, Glasgow still seems to look to its warm red stone, than the flow of its river.  There are more buildings here in need of care than in the city center.  Nobody seems to be stopping for lunch. Gulls gather and fight over unseen scraps, mallard spin in circle eddies by the shore. The sun keeps shining.

I talk to a street-sweeper who bemoans that senseless violence of the bottle smashers; people who throw their empties at walls rather than place them in the bin.

“They could leave on the ground for all I care ” he says, “I’d pick ‘em up.  But once they are all smashed – the bottles that is! – they cut my bags and take ages to clean up.  Arseholes.”

This was my first, and certainly not my last, encounter with a kind of conversation humor that was as refreshing as it was unexpected.  I’m a serial conversation starter – and here, for once, I seemed to fit in.




The sunlight had not yet woven its magic on my biological clock and my eyes were closing despite the hour.   I had landed in Glasgow in full possession of a Fox News kind of certainty – one that was firmly rooted in a world where fact and fiction are indistinguishable, and all you need to know is that your own beliefs render things to be true.  It was a kind of Magical Thinking that surprised me when I saw it for what it was.  Knowing most of what I knew of Glasgow was wrong, and wondering what was true, I turned my back on the river and walked back towards the center of things.

On the edge



The two kids on the railway platform were almost certainly brothers, and the lady, sitting on the painted bench watching them fence with stick swords, was almost certainly their mother.  There was a certain swashbuckling joy to the swipes and thrusts of their swords that would sometimes find their mark, but mostly just cut through thin air.  One of the brothers, the younger one if size is a marker of age, took a couple of neat sideways steps, over the yellow markers, to avoid the artful thrust of his brother. 

The mother, suddenly animated, jumped to her feet and said:  “Stay away from the edge. It’s dangerous”.  The boy, as if pursued by demons, fled from the danger and found sanctuary waiting just a few meters away.

Edges are bad.  If you stray over them you die.

-

On the radio, the commentator was whipping himself into a kind of frenzy, as a team that the pundits had said would win were ground down and beaten, by an unfancied, but youthful opposition.  He summed up the situation thus:

“They don’t have that edge anymore, they just don’t have that passion!
They’ve lost it, and they’re going to keep losing until they get it back.”

Having an edge is good.  Without one you are destined to be an also ran, a seat warmer.

-

Most of the trees had lost their leaves in the storms of the last few weeks.  Piles of paper brown leaves lined the edges of the pavements.  Only the true Australian trees – gums – retained their foliage, ever blue-greens.  In the underpass water trickled down the walls, dark lines on pale paint.  There was a smell of cigarette smoke, but no sign of the smoker – an old smell, a familiar smell; student bars, walking up behind my father as he fished and passed the time with another cigarette.

The platform on the station warns me about the gap, but they really mean the edge.  Morning dulled workers and a few school age passengers generally respect the prohibition on edge walking, but a few risk takers stand way too close as the train arrives.  I’m surprised that they are not arrested, or at least warned by the watchful eye of the CCTV police in the control room somewhere distant and warm.  The train doors open with a hiss and let us pass into the safety of the carriage, leaving the yellow spotted edge behind. 

Beyond the edge of the tracks, out past the broken stones and rusting signal works, a line of nature has found a roothold.  A narrow strip of trees and brambles, garden escapees and natives; blending to make something new, something different.  These line edges hold birds that would otherwise have been driven away from the sweeps of inch perfect lawns and slug free vegetable patches.  These strips, with one edge facing the train and one edge facing the flanking houses, are the new wilds of suburbia.  They represent ecological possibility in a realm of manicured certainty.  On this day, just after eight in the morning, a trio of Black Cockatoos rise from the trees as the train passes, yellow tails bright in the morning light.  Their wings seem longer than their bodies, so that they look offset, uneven; but they also seem to float with wing beats too slow to hold such a large bird aloft.  They are without question wonderful.  No matter how good a day I have in the office (and how good can it really be?), the day may have already peaked in the vision of these birds.  This morning the rail edge dwellers make the trip worthwhile, breaking the solid edges of suburbia with a hint of the wild and the possible.  I move to the backward facing seats so that I can keep watching the birds as they move away from me – temporal and spatial.  If I had not moved seats the birds would have quickly moved over the edge of my observation and I would have lost them.  A small move makes the connection last longer.  A small move makes the day better.  A small move extends the edge of my experience.

At work I sit in a workspace with a window, a rare luxury in an office space that seems not to favour the distraction of the real world.  Trains come and go.  People walk past.  I may be distracted but I am connected, out over the windowsill to the weather and the clouds.   Sometimes I can hear the whisper of conversation leaking from the never-private workspaces.  Things that are not suitable for public consumption; gossip or maybe discontent.  The edges of such spaces are permeable, care needs to be taken so that the things that were best kept private do not pass into the public.  Mind the gap.

-

The view from the widescreen windows flows down over paddocks, crisped to brown by warm weather and a lack of rain, towards the sea.  A few stumpy trees, twisted and old, hang on in folds where a little moisture may linger when all else is dry.   This truly is an edge land – where land meets sea, where European faming assumptions butt up against the reality of a land unlike anywhere else on Earth and where now, the urban edges out the rural.

Curlewis is a small, essentially anonymous, little part of Victoria.  As a child, my wife knew it as a farming area, where dairy farmers kept cows on sparse grasslands that had never before felt the heavy feet of cattle.  Today the cows have gone, replaced by boutique vineyards, and many of the paddocks are studded with identikit houses, or the marker flags that plot their progress.  There are empty streets, strangely lined with streetlights that contain not a single house.  They feel like a zone of transition between the rural and the urban, and seem to contain the least attractive elements of both places; broken fences and weed lines, abandoned building supplies slowly falling back into the Earth from where they came.  There seems to be neither life nor community.  



This is the place where the unintended edges of government policy clash with each other and fail to form a whole; edges remain distinct and gaps arise.  I see houses but no schools, I see a supermarket but little else and I see houses with garages, but streets without bus stops, as if the assumption of car ownership is both a given and a long term option.  In a small gap between two housing blocks three ute loads of workers are taking down some form of agricultural holding pen. Maybe it was intended for sheep, maybe cattle.  But it’s clear that it is not intended for suburbia.  And later in the week when it is gone, almost all signs of farming have been removed from a place that was probably sold on the basis of advertisements rich with rural with images.   A small flock of magpies – maybe six – gather on a newly made driveway and only fly off at the approach of a small, but enthusiastic dog.  Around the corner, a few rabbits nibble the grass down to the level of the soil, and there are signs asking you to drive slowly because of the dust.

I feel a terrible sense of snobbery, but I would not want to live there.  But that is a feeling made from a position that I never imagined I would have, based on the fact that I have (remarkably) moved away from the edge of poverty to one of (greater) security.  What would it be like to still in a position where heating and hot water are not assured, the origin of the next meal uncertain, and where rainy nights were passed to the sound of water dripping on the ceiling above my bed?  How would I feel about these edge lands then?  What would these smart little houses look like to me then? What dreams would I dream in houses surrounded by these dust dry paddocks and haunted by the ghosts of agriculture lost? 

Edges that we step over.  Edges that we avoid.  Edges that we embrace.

Temporal and spatial.

They are unavoidable.