When Pandas Strike

 

Recent years have seen an explosion of street art in Glasgow, providing a welcome burst of colour in this often, all-too grey city. The playful nature of these murals is a fitting complement to the “gallus” (that’s cheeky, bold, in Scottish slang) character of the city.

 

This hidden, realistic street art gem – which can be found in the narrow Gordon Lane off Mitchell Lane which runs between Buchanan Street and Mitchell Street, leading to The Lighthouse – is the work of the celebrated local artist James Klinge, formerly known as graffiti artist ‘Klingatron’, whom I explained in a previous blog, has now gone ‘legit’ with his work displayed in galleries all around the world.

 

Unfortunately, his striking giant “Glasgow Panda” mural on the rear of the former BOAC building is often obscured by commercial-sized wheelie bins – but is well worth making the short detour from Buchanan Street just to see it. Klingatron used hand-cut stencils to bring the black and white panda to life, almost at times looking as if it is rummaging through the bins in search of some bamboo shoots.

 

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It’s a quintessentially modern Seattle tale: downtown Seattle’s Icon Grill on Fifth Avenue will shut its doors this coming weekend to make way for  – yes, that’s right, you’ve guessed it – yet another yuppie high rise development slated for its prime downtown location.

 

To me, Icon seemed like a permanent anchor on Fifth Avenue and Virginia Street, and perhaps more familiar to millions of passersby over the years for its snarky readerboard (like the much-missed ‘Lusty Lady’) below its iconic Icon Grill neon signage; one memorable message in 1999 reading, “Thanks WTO. It’s been a riot.”

 

The Icon Grill was one of my favourite haunts, mainly because it was always right there on my doorstep, and served up wonderful comfort food in a tasteful, flashy interior inside an eclectically adorned dining room, replete with blown glass decorations and local art.

 

Sadly, Icon’s closure follows hard on the heels of other recent departures forced by development, including Old Spaghetti Factory, Tini Bigs and Hula Hula – and again, all were lovable haunts during my lengthy Seattle sojourn.

 

Progress, don’t you just love it?

 

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As we’re in Halloween week, what better time to tell the tale of the famous Glasgow urban myth surrounding one of the city’s graveyards that’s now been made into a play? It is, of course, the extraordinary case of ‘The Gorbals Vampire’ that gripped the city for the best part of a week, chilled the nation, mystified the media, and ended up being debated about in Parliament. 

 

It was like Oor Wullie meets Scooby Doo, with hundreds of schoolchildren (armed with whatever they could lay their little mittens on) roaming across Glasgow hunting for a vampire – and such was the outcry it led to new censorship laws in the 1950s for the new craze of American horror comics, that politicians blamed for the root cause of all the hysteria in the first place. 

 

More than sixty years on, the tale is being brought back to life with the help of the people of the community in a new play, The Gorbals Vampire. The play is inspired by the real-life monster hunt is now being staged at the Citizens Theatre, based in the Gorbals, involving performers drawn from the community – and already there’s talk of it being turned into a movie. 

 

The hunt was triggered by rumors which swept around school playgrounds in September 1954 that two boys had been killed and eaten by a vampire with “iron teeth” which was roaming Glasgow’s Southern Necropolis – and believe me, easily the scariest graveyard in the city – as shown in today’s photo.

 

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No, not Phil Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound from Gold Star Studios in the 1960s, with assistance from engineers Stan Ross, Larry Levine, and the unsung star session musician conglomerate known as “the Wrecking Crew” (who incidentally, feature in a wonderful Netflix documentary of the same name).  This one from the archives, with the omnipresent Space Needle peering over the top, is the stacked speakers mural painted by Jonathan Wakuda Fischer, on what was once the previously drab exterior walls to the KEXP radio station in much-missed Seattle.

 

But fitting nevertheless, as today is Record Store Day that will flood music outlets around the globe with new releases, reissued classics and thousands of fans looking to bring those coveted titles home, with everyone from Big Star to Justin Bieber getting in on the act.  The full list of 2016 RSD offerings include more split singles and vintage vinyl than you can shake a stick at.

 

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As it’s Halloween, All Saint’s Eve, everyone is looking for a costume. And reports say that skeletons are set to become one of this year’s most popular fancy-dress outfit; and also for the first time, it’s women buying into the tradition rather than children. According to Very.co.uk, sales of women’s costumes are well above those for children – and the bestseller is a skeleton costume for women.

 

Apparently the reason for this fad could well be the opening scene to the latest Bond epic, Spectre, set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, and whose timely, late-October release may have contributed to an increased interest in traditional Mexican DOTD costumes, that have jumped up by a staggering 234%. 

 

Another contributing factor is most likely the Game of Thrones.   In the Season 4 finale, George RR Martin paid a great homage to the original seven fighting skeletons created by stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen for the 1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts – and that certainly scared me as a kid when I first watched it.

 

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If Sleater-Kinney – the Olympia, Washington all-girl indie band that sounds more like a management consultancy group – can make a comeback, then I suppose I can hold out hope also for The Long Blondes from Sheffield, who were far more glamorous than your average indie band.

 

There was a time when Kate Jackson and her fellow scarf wearing pals looked as if they were going to make it big. NME and Radio 1 loved them – and like so many Sheffield bands before them, they made intelligent indie music with some of the wittiest lyrics in town; one of my own particular favourite being the mini-road movie, loosely based on Thelma & Louise, Separated By Motorways.

 

Wipe your eyes darling, it’s OK 
Meet me on the dual carriageway 
Separated by motorways 
The A14 and the A1 
Separated by motorways 
Two lonely girls go on the run

 

And as was hinted in the previous blogs on Renfield St Stephen’s Church, in the mid-1960s Glasgow was not so much separated by motorways but almost destroyed by one that was nothing short of an act of architectural vandalism. While many cities in the UK were benefiting from ring roads, the City Fathers and their planners – in their infinite wisdom – decided to bulldoze the M8 motorway network (to Edinburgh) through the heart of Glasgow.

 

Charing Cross was ground zero, so to speak – some of its finest Victorian buildings became victims to the wrecking ball in the name of progress. Thankfully, due to a large public revolt, some of these historic buildings managed to survive only by a last-minute reprieve, such as Sir John J. Burnet’s magnificent Charing Cross Mansions with its French Renaissance Beaux-Arts style curved façade that overlooked the cross. 

 

Charing Cross Mansions was designed in 1889 for one of Glasgow’s leading businessman of the time, Robert Simpson. The clock face is bordered by signs of the zodiac, with a male mask representing Old Father Time. Also included are the Glasgow coat of arms and monograms either end of the bay windows carved with the entwined letter R and S, representing Robert Simpson.  

 

Many to this day believe it was a shame that the west end of the Sauchiehall Street shopping section – and the Charing Cross area in general – was destroyed to such an extent. But nevertheless relieved that the Charing Cross Mansions, possibly the finest red sandstone building in Glasgow, did survive. But the landscape it inhabits is far removed from the one it was designed for, separated by motorways, watching over a mesh of constant commuter traffic.

 

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Stanley Baxter, a well-loved Scottish comedian often tapped into the problems of understanding the Glaswegian dialect with a series of famous sketches from the late 1960s entitled Parliamo Glesca. You see, because here, as Baxter often wryly observed, ”ordinary” words and phrases can often be used colloquially to mean something entirely different!

 

Take, for example, the word “winch”. You have it in your mind what it is – but here, its more often used to describe a romantic involvement (i.e. playing tonsil hockey) with someone, as in “Are ye winchin?”  The educated etymologists’ say its origins come from “wench”, the old fashioned word for a woman. And in acknowledgment of this Glasgow slang, the bronze sculpture in the middle of the concourse at Buchanan Bus Station has the official title of Wincher’s Stance.

 

A plaque built into the floor beside the statue said that it was commissioned by the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive and was named as such by Susan Ritchie, who won a competition in the city’s Evening Times newspaper to come up with its title.  And Wincher’s Stance was in fact a somewhat apt name for this 1994 statue – which some regard as Glasgow’s answer to Alfred Eisenstaedt’s storied photograph of 70 years ago, V-J Day in Times Square  – as it was designed by artist John Clinch! The artist, who died in 2001, was originally from Folkestone in Kent and this was one of his last works.

 

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Glasgow gave birth to the original ‘troubled detective’, as Jack Laidlaw laid the blueprint for Rebus and Co. to follow – but award-winning author William McIlvanney became the forgotten man of tartan noir. Now, like a good cold case, some 40 years after the first of his Laidlaw trilogy was published, he’s back from the wilderness – and by accident rather than by design.

 

The story goes that McIlvanney was receiving less and less royalty payments each year that he thought nobody was buying any of his Laidlaw books any more, so decided that was that and he’d had a good run. He then discovered, by accident, that the reason no one was buying his books was because the publishing company he originally had been signed to, had decided – in its infinite wisdom – to let it go long out of print without telling him.

 

McIlvanney casually mentioned this as smalltalk while a guest at a literary function dinner – only to discover that sitting across from him was Jamie Byng, the head honcho of Canongate Books. That week, Canongate had signed up McIlvanney and immediately set about reprinting his classics – not only re-introducing it to a new audience, but also for the first time doing a big sell of Laidlaw to the American market.

 

The new front-cover to the eponymously named Laidlaw, sees one of Jack’s Glasgow villains making a mad dash for it across the Carlton Bridge that spans the Clyde, which we’ve tried to reproduce in today’s photo. Fitting, really, because, now like McIlvanney’s books becoming popular in America, the wonderful arch pylons of the Suspension Bridge proved to be the calling card to America for Glasgow architect and chartered engineer Alexander Kirkland (1824-92), who went on to become the Commissioner of Public Buildings in Chicago.

 

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Next week, we could all be putting on our collective crash-helmets to ready ourselves for Referendum II (this time it’s ‘FREEDOM!’), with the polls predicting the SNP could win a large majority – some even going as far as wildly suggesting a clean sweep of all seats – of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats at the general election, as disillusionment with Labour, evident during last year’s independence referendum, has turned to visceral raw rage.

 

Labour’s fiefdom here in Scotland was forged from the socialist fervour and radicalism shown by the Red Clydesiders, led by the likes of John MacLean, Jimmy Maxton, Manny Shinwell and John Wheatley. Now, sadly, the disillusionment with Labour – forged during last year’s independence referendum – has seen the party’s brand going from tops to toxic and they are being dubbed “Red Tories”.

 

The decline in Scottish Labour has been a long, slow burn exacerbated by the crazy decision to campaign alongside the Tories during last year’s Bitter – sorry, Better – Together referendum campaign. I’m old enough to remember when that wily Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson offered the Common Market referendum vote of 1975, after Ted Heath and his Tory government unilaterally decided to partner with Europe. There were Labour yes and Labour no campaigners but Labour tolerated dissent back then.

 

The Labour leadership in Westminster should have done the same for the independence referendum. Now they are paying the price, with many believing that there’s now a political realignment, a reconstruction of the politics of Scotland taking place. And on May 7, a voting meltdown will more than likely hasten Scotland’s eventual departure from the union – and somehow I don’t think Lizzy will be exactly ‘purring down the line’ to David Cameron.

 

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You’ll certainly find no shortage of cowboys in Glasgow; but there are only two statues erected to known cowboys in the city. One of them is surreal – Lobey Dosser, who featured in our previous blog – and can be found in the West End of the city, and fittingly, the other, directly opposite in the East End of the city, is very real: Buffalo Bill Cody.

 

In 1891 Buffalo Bill Cody and his legendary Wild West Show rode into Glasgow that November – and they made a lasting impact on the city. Among his travelling troupe was Annie Oakley – of Annie Get Your Gun fame – and a number of Lakota Sioux Indians. Cody’s show had been a major success in America and the highlight of his European tour turned out to be Glasgow.

 

Events in the Wild West held a deep fascination for Glaswegians, with many having friends and family who had headed there hoping to make their fortune, and tales of frontiersmen and gunslingers became the stuff of legends. Thousands upon thousands turned up to watch their performance that was staged at the East End Exhibition Buildings in Whitehill Street, Dennistoun.

 

Cody’s Glasgow visit lasted for three months – with each night being sold out – during which time he and his troupe almost became honorary Glaswegians. Cody paid a memorable visit to Ibrox to watch Rangers play Queens Park in a Glasgow Cup tie; his troupe also played a charity match at Celtic Park against the Brandon Club. And one of the Indians, a certain Charging Thunder, became so at home here in Glasgow that he ended up spending a month in Barlinnie prison for assaulting the show’s promoter.

 

There’s a documentary currently in the works, Buffalo Bill in Scotland, which will mainly feature on Cody’s Glasgow visit. The statue commemorating this somewhat unlikely major theatrical attraction of 1891 was erected nine years ago – and its a little off the trail, hidden in a tiny enclosed park on Whitehill Street, just off of Duke Street.

 

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