The Elephant Under The Room

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As a kid back in the mid-1960s, I well remember the excitement of going to one of my father’s pre-Christmas works outings to the Circus at the Kelvin Hall. I was at an age of starry-eyed innocence (yes, a very, very long time ago) and marvelled at all the performing animals, especially the elephants – being so small and seeing something so big made quite an impression on mini me.

 

The popularity of animal acts in circuses has waned in recent years as many people have – rightly – become more concerned about animal rights and welfare.  These days what we get is the Continental Circus Berlin On Ice, a sort of Cirque Du Soleil with dazzling ice dancers, trapeze artists, beautiful contortionists, crazy comedy characters, Magicians and bouncing buffoons that promise us a thrilling, breathtaking experience filled with music, colour, incredible costumes and unbelievable acrobatics. But definitely no big game animals.

 

And my early elephant circus memories also brings us to a Glasgow urban myth that still does the rounds today. In the late 1920s and 30s, the annual processions of Chipperfields’ and Billy Smart’s circuses used to proudly parade the performing animals through the streets of the West End of Glasgow on their journey to the Kelvin Hall. The story goes that, supposedly, while on one of those parades, a large elephant collapsed and died at the Kelvin Bridge. As there was no lifting machinery typically available in those early years, the circus bosses decided just to dig a large grave below the bridge for the poor creature.

 

Yet despite a later major redevelopment through the area to make way for an expansion of the Glasgow Underground, there was no evidence of an elephant carcass being discovered. But in a city full of storytellers, the elephant entered into local folklore with many pub arguments being started about just where exactly it was buried. Its final resting place was believed to be beneath a bar and restaurant formerly known as “The Big Blue” – and illustrator and Glasgow School of Art graduate Eva-Maria Dolgyra created some stunning posters to tell of all those wonderful old Glasgow urban myths, such as The Elephant Under The Big Blue.

 

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Scotland had oil, as the joke goes, but it’s running out thanks to all that deep frying going on at the ubiquitous chip shop, commonly known as the “chippie” – and I counted seven within a 5-minute walk of my new locale here just off of Glasgow’s Victoria Road.

 

But Scotland’s diet is no laughing matter, as it has the worst of any developed country in the western world, and the highest incidence of heart disease. And our “culinary” adventures with deep frying is the biggest culprit – you name it, and we’ll attempt to fry it, and invariably all washed down with a bottle of “the other national drink” of Irn Bru.

 

One delicacy is the deep-fried Mars Bar, covered in a protective layer of batter, and first reported as appearing on the chippie scene here in August 1995. And since then, the menu has stretched also to Snicker bars and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. One Scottish chippie even came up recently with a new festive fare of the deep-fried yule log – all with a stonking great 950-calorie count.

 

And if you are off chocolate, there’s always the deep-fried pizza – and with some chip shops even going as far as adding chips in the pizza fold before deep frying. Other dishes include deep-fried black pudding and the deep-fried haggis, a speciality of one of my local chippies, The Flying Haggis.

 

Goodness, I can almost feel my arteries hardening just writing this blog.

 

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The River Clyde is an integral part of Glasgow’s history and recent regeneration along this glorious and historic stretch of water has given it a new lease of life following the demise of its industrial past. There are some 21 bridges spanning the Clyde, stretching from the Dalmarnock Bridge in the east to the Millennium Bridge in the west.

 

One of the newest – opened in 2009 – is officially known as the Broomielaw-Tradeston Bridge, a pedestrian and cycle crossing, that very quickly was dubbed by the locals as the “Squiggly bridge” because of its distinctive winding ‘S’ shape – and not to mention the little fact that, when it’s a bit windy (which happens a lot in Glasgow), there’s a certain amount of, shall we say, “play” that can be felt as you cross it. Believe me: a very strange experience when crossing on a windy night after a few drams in The Pot Still!

 

The bridge forms a link between the Tradeston area on the south of the river and the city’s financial district on the Broomielaw. It didn’t take long, though, for the local daredevils to also use the bridge for a dangerous new Glaswegian Olympic discipline known as “doing the Squiggly”, of running over the top of the footbridge’s two arches.

 

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Some headlines just write themselves. My heart skipped a beat a year or so back when I learned that an old Glasgow Pub favourite, which has been closed for a number of years, was going to open its doors once again – rising, I thought, like the proverbial pub phoenix from the ashes to quench the thirst of hard-working Glaswegians.

 

The Mitre Bar in Merchant City was a small and intimate city bar – so small and intimate, in fact, that it was a full house with half a dozen punters in it. It first opened in 1927 and served generations of thirsty Glaswegians until the key was finally put in the door for the last time around a decade ago. The pub lay a graffitied mess in a street that has seen better days. It’s probably no different from the countless thousands of other pubs around the country that have had to pull their last pint and bid their fond adieus as they go to the wall.

 

Alas, I was to be disappointed on hearing further details of its re-opening. While it was a re-opening of sorts, it was only as an exhibit in the new £75 million Riverside Transport Museum on the Clyde, and not as a working pub with beer for sale, as I had hoped for. The entire pub; fixtures, fittings, signage, lock, stock and beer barrel had been removed and relocated to become part of the Museum’s Flagship exhibit – a typical Glasgow High St from the early twentieth century complete with a grocery store, butcher, cobbler and even The Rendevous Cafe from Glasgow’s Duke St that has also been given the Mitre treatment and moved brick by brick to the museum.

 

But for the purists for this wonderful city pub, there lies – not far from where it originally served the public – one of its landmarks: its original neon sign has been erected in the back alley of Tontine Lane, not far from Douglas Gordon’s “Empire” sign, as seen in a recent blog entry.

 

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The Clyde Clock on Killermont St is distinctive but a bit of an oddity; a stainless steel statue of a running pair of legs, with a cube clock as a body. It always reminds me of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary of being published), singing: I’m late/ I’m late/ For a very important date. Aptly, its positioned outside the hustle and bustle of Buchanan Bus Station, whose vehicles almost always run on time; and past which many passengers run – and often fail – to catch them.

 

It was created by Glasgow-born artist George Wyllie. The work was commissioned as a gift to the city in 2000 by Radio Clyde to celebrate the station’s 25 years of independent broadcasting. Some of Wyllie’s sculptures have achieved iconic status through humour and bizarre subject matter. Rather spookily, though, shortly after Wyllie passed away in May 2012, the clock stopped working. But Radio Clyde and MSP Drew Smith launched a successful campaign to get the clock running again (if you pardon the pun).

 

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Ah, Glasgow! Back among ‘my ain folk’.

 

From just 77,000 in 1801 Glasgow expanded to a metropolis of one million souls by 1912 (and arguably 1.8 million if its district is included). This made it the second-largest city in the United Kingdom and on some estimates the sixth largest in Europe, on a par with the likes of Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. Hardly surprising then that during this period Glaswegians proudly referred to the ‘dear green place’ as the ‘Second City’, later adding ‘of the Empire’.

 

And this well-hidden sign which displays the word “Empire” backwards on both sides is actually a piece of public art. It won the Turner Prize in 1996 for Douglas Gordon, an internationally renowned artist from Glasgow who studied at the prestigious Glasgow School of Art. Originally erected in Brunswick Lane, it now sits in the even more inconspicuous back alley of Tontine Lane, part of the Merchant City, leaving many of its neighbours, many of whom are students, blissfully unaware of its existence.

 

There are lots of interpretations about this sign, none of which have been confirmed. One refers to Gordon’s work in video and film and his passion for Hollywood movies and Alfred Hitchcock. A similar “Empire” sign appears in the Hitchcock movie Vertigo. But another interpretation may refer to Glasgow’s role as the Second City of the British Empire.

 

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