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Glasgow: the pride behind the tears

BILLY Connolly spoke for many as he laid a bouquet of flowers at the site of the Clutha disaster last week.

Glasgow, he said, "has really risen to the occasion". He added: "I have never heard so many nice things about Glasgow. Everybody's talking about how well Glasgow coped. I was very, very proud to be a Glaswegian."

Ever since those chaotic, traumatic hours after a police helicopter landed on the roof of the Clutha bar late on November 29, much has been made of the city and its people's virtues. Solidarity. Community spirit. Selflessness. Quiet heroism. A gritty, unaffected, can-do spirit.

One survivor, despite having suspected cracked ribs, helped other people to raise the Clutha's shattered bar to free a man trapped underneath. Others formed human chains so that the injured could be brought out to safety. They did not run away; they ran in to help. "Despite the situation, everyone was so helpful and caring of each other," said Jessica Combe, part of Esperanza, the ska band playing in the pub at the time. As emergency crews toiled away, local people taped packets of biscuits to lampposts so that they would have something to eat. Politicians have paid tribute not just to the police, fire and ambulance, but to the citizens, too. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of "the bravery of the ordinary Glaswegians who rushed to help".

Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson said: "When there is trouble and people need assistance, the people of Glasgow head towards these situations." The city's motto, he added, was "People make Glasgow", an attitude "that was at no better time demonstrated than [last Friday night] and in the period since". Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, visiting the crash site on Tuesday, said the whole country was "full of admiration" for the community spirit, compassion and support that had been demonstrated.

And First Minister Alex Salmond, signing the book of condolence at the City Chambers, said a theme of solidarity ran through the messages. Ordinary Glaswegians had grouped around those who had suffered loss or injury and showed they cared.

There is no doubting that in people's response to the disaster, we saw Glasgow at its most supportive. Not, of course, that such pulling-together is exclusive to Glasgow. As Ruth Wishart said in our sister paper, The Herald, last Monday morning: "Common humanity doesn't have an exclusive postcode."

She did, however, praise the ordinary people who had rallied round, and also what she called Glaswegians' "instinctive connectivity" - that urge to blether, to make a connection. It might irritate some, she suggested, but that was an affirmation "that we operate in a city where an exchange of patter and banter oils the wheels of daily life".

So is there a distinctive Glaswegian character, as distinguishable from, say, that of Edinburgh, or Aberdeen? Something that makes it easy to understand why so many people at the Clutha dived in to help, heedless of their own safety?

Aberdeen-born author and historian Ian R Mitchell has come to know and love Glasgow in his near-40 years here. His latest book, A Glasgow Mosaic, argues forcefully that the city has made a startling - and largely unheralded - world contribution in economic, social and artistic terms. Outside of the capital cities, he believes, Glasgow has a peerless record in "culture", in its broadest terms, over the last two centuries: Mackintosh, Watt, Kelvin, physicians William and John Hunter, the Glasgow Boys, and countless others.

"As an outsider to Glasgow," says Mitchell, "I think there is a definite Glasgow character, a definite Glasgow sort of collectivist social identity and solidarity."

Such qualities may be shared by other large, post-industrial cities but, he adds: "From what we've seen of initial reactions to disasters in the US, we might not expect such reactions [as those at the Clutha] in what is a more atomised society. Incidents such as the one at Glasgow Airport [in 2007], and the Clutha, showed a lack of panic, and a willingness to help that was noteworthy."

Mitchell acknowledges that, although Glaswegians' openness and friendliness "is somewhat of an overworked cliché, it is probably more developed than I have seen anywhere else".

Where does it come from, this Glasgow character? The answer is complicated; there are, as you would expect, many contributing factors.

Among them, Mitchell lists the organisations and the civic society in Glasgow that were brought about by industrialisation. The unions, co-operatives and other political organisations promoted social solidarity, as did the city's tenemental lifestyle. In addition, there was in the past a wider civic society of sporting and social clubs, such as the Old Govan Club, and Burns Clubs, which also made society more organic.

Mitchell says: "Although the society which created these institutions has largely gone, and the institutions have perhaps been weakened or even no longer exist, a sort of culture-lag means that these values last down a couple of generations. The shipyards and many tenements may have gone, but many people who lived that life are still there, and have influenced people who came after, including ourselves.

"We're not just talking about working-class culture and the socialist Labour movement but also the middle-class civic pride, which was particularly developed in Glasgow in the 19th century - the interventionist city council and all of that. That is all still there, in one form or another, and it will hopefully never disappear."

For the city's Lord Provost, Sadie Docherty, "the heroism and kindness" demonstrated by ordinary Glaswegians following the Clutha disaster is "a source of great pride and comfort".

"Glaswegians are famed for their hospitality, wit and wisdom. They are also resilient and regularly resort to humour in the face of adversity. Our very own Freeman, Billy Connolly, who felt compelled to visit the scene, is testimony to that."

But was Glasgow's response to the disaster really unique to the city? Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and author of The Tears That Made The Clyde, says: "I think we would have seen the same actions elsewhere. In most cities, people would have helped. But it is the case that Glaswegians are very friendly and eager to help. The other day I was struggling to get a box out of my car while trying to close the boot at the same time. A guy immediately came over and said, 'Let me take that for you'. In other cities, some people would just have walked by. In these smaller ways, you get a friendliness in Glasgow that you might not in other, more anonymous cities."

Generations of Glaswegians lived cheek-by-jowl in the old tenements, sharing facilities; as a consequence, Craig believes, "there is a history of interacting with people, almost irrespective of circumstances".

The origins of this unique Glasgow character are traced by Robert Crawford, professor of modern Scottish literature at St Andrews University, in his acclaimed book, On Glasgow And Edinburgh. For many in the 19th century, he writes, Glasgow, heavily industrialised and polluted, was "Old Testamentally hellish", yet its citizens felt pride in the resolution and big-heartedness that, sometimes apparently in spite of itself, the city might produce. Crawford reprints a sonnet from 1842 and observes: "What emerges here alongside the note of piety is something very Glaswegian: a generosity of spirit that comes from shared endurance of an often adverse urban predicament." Such a spirit can still be found today.

The Glaswegian character was alluded to last week by Alan ­Crossan, the owner of the Clutha. Praising the "amazing" rescue efforts, he said: "That's just Glaswegians for you. When terrorists attacked Glasgow Airport they were rolling around fighting with them. They're mad, but this is what they do."

It was, of course, a Glasgow Airport baggage handler, John Smeaton, who became famous that day in June 2007. He wasn't the only one to intervene, but he was the one whose TV interview - "This is Glasgow. We'll just set aboot ye" - caught the imagination of the wider world, and helped confirm many people's view of the Glaswegian character.

Ah, the larger-than-life Glaswegian. Anyone who has lived or worked in the city will have encountered him - in the pub, down at the Barras, at a football match. Then again, he might just be a stereotype - like Jack "Jazzer" McCreary, the fictional Glaswegian in The Archers. "In wilder times," notes the programme's website, "he's been known to steal cars, grow cannabis and abuse ketamine, but in recent years he's shaped up, helping out with Tom Archer's pigs and Mike Tucker's milk round." Three years ago, some listeners complained to the BBC about what they saw as crude stereotyping.

Other stereotypes would include the equally fictional Rab C Nesbitt, a loveable rogue with lots of rough edges. Such clichés do, however, remind you of another side of the Glaswegian character; what Professor Tom Devine describes as the city's "schizophrenic personality".

In his foreword to Carol Craig's book, Devine writes: "[While] the body might seem healthy on the surface, it conceals a diseased underbelly. The city's grave social problems in certain areas have stubbornly resisted improvement even as urban reinvention has gathered pace." He cites the familiar litany of ills: poor life expectancy, incapacity, alcohol and drug addiction, obesity.

Glasgow is a fascinating, contradictory city. Over the years I've come to admire the rapid fire of the humour and the fact that strangers will talk to you for no good reason - Wishart's "instinctive connectivity". I've had so many entertaining conversations with taxi drivers here. I love the Mitchell, the Victorian architecture, Kelvingrove, George Square, the City Chambers, Billy Connolly's routines. I like the city's rivalry with Edinburgh (as Crawford notes, "it is impossible to live life to the full in either place without occasionally thinking wistfully or smirkingly of the other".) I admire Glaswegians' down-to-earthness, too, and, like everyone else, I am dismayed by the city's health record.

It's difficult, ultimately, to describe the Glaswegian character, but you know it when you see it.

A fine summary was provided by Michael Munro, in The Original Patter, his 1985 book about this "big bad beautiful city": "I maintain that Glaswegian is a rich, vital, and above all valid regional dialect which gives a true reflection of the city and its inhabitants with all their unattractive features, such as deprivation, bigotry, and pugnacity, but with all their virtues too, such as robust and irreverent humour, resilience, and abhorrence of pretension."

And, he might have added, had he been updating these words today, a readiness to plunge into a devastated pub to help others.

Ian R Mitchell's book, A Glasgow Mosaic, is published by Luath Press, £8.99

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