ONE of the things which was most striking during a visit to London last week was the contrast with the current feel of Glasgow.

London, although still facing major challenges with sharply reduced footfall in its centre, feels like a city firmly on its way back to normality.

In this column last month, the apparent challenges facing Glasgow, observed during a lunchtime walk, were highlighted.

More than a month on, it seems that Glasgow has not moved that much further forward. To take one example, walking around the area near Glasgow Central train station on a recent weekday evening did not provide any sort of reassurance that the city was springing back to normality. Sadly, it gave quite the opposite impression.

Of course, direct comparisons with London are unfair. London is a major capital city in a global context.

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Glasgow has in recent decades had to work very hard indeed to reinvent itself in the wake of the decline of heavy industry that had its roots in the Thatcher era, and to tackle all the social problems arising from the associated hopelessness.

It has also had to deal with the loss of major company headquarters. Glasgow is, unlike Edinburgh, no longer these days a major fund management centre, although it has enjoyed great success in attracting other high-value jobs, with US investment banking giant JP Morgan Chase’s software development operation a fine example of the city’s ability to reinvent itself.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown up huge challenges for Glasgow, as it has for so many town and city centres in Scotland, the rest of the UK and overseas.

And it remains very difficult indeed, walking around Glasgow city centre even with coronavirus-related restrictions largely lifted, to envisage a swift return to normality.

Bits of normal life are back, with some restaurants and bars doing well and shoppers back on the streets.

However, many restaurants remain closed, at least on certain nights of the week. And Glasgow, like so many urban centres, is having to deal with the closure of large numbers of stores as retailers have reassessed their needs amid the pandemic. Life had been difficult enough before on this front, with the rise of online retail.

Last week in London, walking from Paddington towards Covent Garden, a giant mound of turf catches the eye at Marble Arch.

Many passers-by, perhaps not surprisingly, do not appear quite sure what the mound is but the project is certainly attracting interest and visitors.

Signage informs visitors that they have arrived at the “Marble Arch Mound”, which hails itself as “London’s newest outdoor attraction”.

The project has, to put it mildly, divided opinion, although there have been some signs recently that it has been fighting its way back from a slew of initial criticism.

The attraction’s web-site declares: “In these unprecedented times, delivering a new and meaningful experience that captures the imagination of residents, businesses and visitors has never been more important.

“Commissioned by Westminster City Council, the Marble Arch Mound is a temporary installation that brings a renewed excitement about the area and manifests the council’s vision of a Greener, Smarter, Future, Together.”

It adds: “The Marble Arch Mound takes inspiration from the history and diversity of the area, whilst offering a new perspective of the future. Creating an experience of the ‘great outdoors’ right at the centre of the city, the Marble Arch Mound will be experienced through climbing, via a single continuous route to the top.”

The mound is at one end of Oxford Street, which like many other prime retail locations around the UK and the globe has not had its challenges to seek amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the turf is a giant scaffolding construction, and metal steps take you to the “22.5-metre peak”.

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The website notes: “When reaching the top, a viewing deck will offer views never seen before by the wider public.”

The Marble Arch Mound will be open to visitors until January next year.

After descending, visitors can experience a one-off light exhibition by W1 Curates in the “heart of the mound”.

This exhibition, led by British-American artist Anthony James, certainly appears to be capturing the imagination of visitors.

Observing the view from atop the mound, Hyde Park appears perfectly normal, as have most green spaces throughout much of the pandemic.

Looking further out across the London skyline, buildings such as The Shard highlight the scale of the difficulties the city has faced amid the pandemic with the lack of office workers and the challenges ahead.

However, the upbeat spirit of the Marble Arch Mound and the positive ideas behind it, regardless of people’s opinions one way or the other about the cost and the execution of the project, do very much chime with the general feel in London.

It feels like a city waking up from something like a bad dream and, while with many challenges to overcome, moving reasonably speedily in the right direction.

Chinatown is buzzing in the early evening sunshine, and the bars and restaurants of Soho are a hive of activity. Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden are bustling.

In some ways, it is difficult to know whether the contrasts between London and Glasgow should, from the perspective of Scotland’s largest city, be grounds for worry or hope, or both.

It remains almost impossible at times to envisage the path by which Glasgow city centre returns to more normal times. And of course Glasgow does not have the natural momentum of a major capital city such as London.

In many ways, Edinburgh looks better placed as a more powerful magnet for international visitors, with the tourism sector in the Scottish capital and elsewhere north of the Border thankfully now poised for a boost from a meaningful relaxation of international travel restrictions.

There have been some positives, of course, for Scotland’s cities in recent weeks. The start of the university year, while not normal in terms of the continuing delivery of much of the teaching online, has at least meant city centres have been busy with students enjoying going out again.

We have come a long way since a year ago, when students were locked down in accommodation amid the second wave of coronavirus before news of international vaccine success came much later in the autumn.

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There has been much debate over the current state of Glasgow, and whether the city is ready to take its place in the international spotlight for the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in November.

The simple fact of the matter is that Glasgow is unlikely to look like it did before the pandemic by November. The lack of office workers in the city centre remains striking. Numbers will obviously pick up from here but November is close, and it may be there is not much dramatic change in the dynamic of the city by then.

That said, the international focus and arrival of delegates from all over the world should give the city a major lift, at a time when Glasgow is desperately in need of such a fillip.

Unlike London, Glasgow is probably not going to be able to rely in coming months and years on a natural, powerful momentum fuelled by international money and the return of huge numbers of overseas visitors with money to spend.

However, while cold economic realities and policy decisions will be the key drivers of what happens from here, we should not underestimate the importance of hope and confidence in these unprecedented times. And we should not forget Glasgow’s underlying strengths, including those of its universities and businesses.

Hopefully, COP26 might give Glasgow a kick-start on what looks like a very long and difficult road back to better days.