Arriving in Glasgow I got on the wrong bus, which took me through a vast hinterland of council housing. The area looked immediately familiar from Ken Loach’s film, Sweet Sixteen, a grim tale of heroin dealing and hardmen. Shops were few and most had been boarded up. Every available wall seemed to have been scrawled upon. The southern fashion for making graffiti look interesting and distinctive clearly hadn’t filtered out this far. I expected to see a badly drawn cock round every corner.
At every other junction were bleak windowless pubs which looked like supersized coal bunkers that somebody had tarted up very slightly. Some years back Glasgow rebranded itself with the slogan, Glasgow; miles better. As I hopped off the bus at a park and ride stand on the outskirts I couldn’t help wondering what it was like before.
But once I’d found the centre the place grew on me. It had a fine selection of art galleries and even better selection of poundshops so scored highly on my wish-list of requirements for cities. I’d read that Glasgow has more alcoholics per capita than anywhere else in Europe, but if it does, the drunks are inconspicuous and well behaved. On a night out I felt safer than I have in any other major city, partly perhaps because the city’s nightlife runs to such a late schedule. In London at half eleven people are wondering about last tubes and making it home without getting their throats cut, but in Glasgow the evening hasn’t even started properly.
Aberdeen, in contrast, seemed more obviously like a drinking town. I saw several fresh pools of vomit on the pavement around teatime. Their locations and contents suggested they weren’t supplied by the same person. Lone men lurched from pubs in the early afternoon wobbly on their pins, their soft-boiled eyes swimming helplessly.
The city gave the impression of being a place that keeps itself to itself, that minds its own business, secure in its position tucked away beyond the reach of all but the determinedly curious or the curiously determined. All but the most recent buildings are constructed from granite the colour of storm-clouds, architecture with a face that only a mother could love. The posters on bus-shelters encouraging visitors and locals to ‘keep Aberdeen beautiful,’ were optimistic and too late, I felt.
It’s a city with an oddly mixed identity. The university has given it a residual sense of austere gentility as well as an odd preponderance of pubs with a horror theme, presumably some pub managers’ idea of catering to student zaniness. One of these billed itself as the world famous Frankenstien pub. I can’t believe the Trades Descriptions Act doesn’t cover claims like that. Oddly for a city full of such committed drinkers there seemed to a belief among publicans that offering some form of interior design novelty was the best way to hook in the punters. A bar near the harbour had a television screen set into the brushed steel trough urinal in the gents. This took me aback when I spotted it. I looked down to see a man in a suit and tie giving a news report to camera. At some subconscious level I mistook the screen for a window, and the experience haunted me for the rest of the day.
The other influence in the local culture is the connection to the North Sea oil industry which has given Aberdeen a slight Wild West feel down near the docks. I paused on the waterfront to look in the window of the sort of clothing shop that’s all but died out; not macho enough to be army surplus, too shabby to be a gents’ outfitter. The glass in the window actually seemed to have yellowed with age. In one corner was a small pile of flies that had evidently got lost, then died. It struck me how refreshing it is that in a marketing-saturated world shops like this still exist for no better reason than the owner’s quixotic desire to bring thermal socks and penknives to the world.
Just then, a woman approached. She was soberly dressed in office wear. As she came level with me she smiled and, apparently, wished me a happy Christmas. As it was early September, I thanked her and smiled politely in case she was unwell. She frowned and walked on. I realised a few moments later that she’d offered me business.
That evening I ate at a chippy just north of Union Street. It offered various specimens of mystery meat, all encased in golden batter glistening with hot fat. It also did a brisk trade in cut-price cigarettes, so was quite the one-stop-shop for anyone hell-bent on heart failure. On my usual trawl of the local charity shops I noted Aberdeen had two British Heart Foundation shops, and evidently needed them.
In the Sue Ryder shop a new staff member was being shown the ropes. The manager gestured towards a partially obscured corner where the bric-a-brac was kept. ‘You have to keep an eye on the knick knack corner. We get a lot of theft.’
The newby nodded.
The manager went on. ‘Especially, keep an eye out for anyone who comes in wearing a baseball cap.’
The new volunteer brightened. ‘Oh, aye. Is that like a signal between the thieves, then?’
The manager gave a look that was just the polite side of withering.
I was charmed by the idea that there was an underground network of bric-a-brac blaggers at work in the area, perhaps touring the town’s sheltered housing, touting knocked off knick knacks. I imagined them clocking each other, their baseball caps a marker as unmistakeable as a freemason’s handshake. ‘Alright there, wee man. I see you’re a fellow ornament thief.’
‘Absolutely. Just on my way to knock over the British heart Foundation shop, actually.’
‘The one towards the station of course’
‘Mm. Nice choice.’
Such felons could do worse than ship their ill-gotten gewgaws to Perth; it’s got just the right demographic for that kind of tat. It gives off a mix of smugness and embarrassment that Americans would probably see as quintessentially English. Perth is prissy to the point of campness. Despite this, per capita, it still matched Aberdeen in the teatime-vomit-on-pavements stakes. I imagined the inhabitants spending the afternoons plumping cushions and straightening antimacassars, in between regular pauses for liquid refreshment, then taking a late afternoon constitutional rounded off by a good honk near a bus-shelter.
What I liked about Perth was what I liked about all the cities I visited in Scotland, the sense of being in an actual distinct place. Many of the names of shops were appended with the words ‘of Perth’, as if that counted for something. It might smack of snobbery and parochialism, but I’d sooner that than the creeping Swindonisation that’s crept across England like scabies. Certainly, Perth had its retail multiples and burger chains but mostly they were contained in one mall, as if quarantined. I had the sense that each corner was worth turning because I couldn’t predict exactly what would be around it.