On Oddness, or the Saving Grace of Glasgow

Ivor Cutler ~ I’m Happy

Scotch Odds, 1

Ivor Cutler has a gift – so says Billy Connolly – for capturing the dreich of Scotland, the dismal gray skies and the relentless, miserable wet that “seeps into you like a rumor.” It holds you in its clammy grip as closely indoors as out.

I did two years in the lowland dreich. As a young man from western Canada, who’d shrugged off one Russian Winter already (although the wind off the Gulf of Finland that carves through Leningrad in February does have its teeth), I felt Winter in Glasgow would hold no terrors, but I was wrong. After two months of the long daily trudge across Kelvingrove Park to the University, drizzle accumulating on my scalp and trickling down my back, and then back to an allegedly heated student flat, always coated in an icy film, I took to my bed and stayed there for a while. I wasn’t deathly ill, just wretchedly so, hacking, oozing and shaking.

I missed many Russian language classes and had to make my apologies to the instructor, a stern, thickly-accented Russian archetype with the unlikely name of Tatiana Frisby. She nodded with an expression of earnestness, but not of sympathy. She was always pleased to find a reason to get you to agree that life was shit. “Yiss,” she said, “everyone who comes to Glasgow gets this sickness. And then…
…they get the psychological depression.” She was right about that too.

Scotch Odds, 2

One of my office-mates was Peter Lentini (pronounced pee-dhu) from Rhode Island – black leather jacket, hiking boots, thick black mullet, and an accent straight out of Italian-American caricatures. A perfectly likeable man, perfectly unaware of how strange he seemed outside of his element, let alone in Scotland.

Kelvingrove Park bounds the University of Glasgow – where we were office-mates – on two sides. The park is large and sprawling, it straddles the Kelvin River which empties into the Clyde, and it is thickly wooded enough to seem pretty in the day, and to conceal all manner of illicit activity in the dark. Several times on my walk home I saw teams of policemen, in track suits with walkie-talkies, synchronizing their watches in preparation for a night in the park, peaking around trees. I was also aggressively curb-crawled all the way home, on a couple of occasions, by single men in cars who believed that I was for rent.

It was just one of the perversities of municipal geography that I had to walk across the park twice daily, and another perversity that all of the pubs you wanted to be at were on one side of the park and the kebab (and fish and chip) shop that was open latest was on the other. So, one night after closing all the pubs on the Great Western Road, Peter Lentini decided that he was just peckish enough to make the walk worth his while, and he set off across the park.

Halfway across the park, in the inky dark, he was confronted by a strapping lad who asked if he had any money to spare. Peter shook his head and made as if to continue, but the strapping lad blocked his way. “You misunderstand me, I am very politely mugging you.”

Peter began to splutter, and to dig through his pockets, and to let loose his absurd Rhode Island accent.

“Aoch, I’m sorry mate, you’re a foreigner. I’m sorry. What kind of ambassador to Scotland am I? I’m so sorry, off ya go.” And with that the strapping lad stepped back into the dark wood to await another – preferably English – victim.

Scotch Odds, 3

One visible manifestation of gender equality you’ll find on the high streets of Glasgow (on a weekend night), is the right of women to get just as completely legless, plastered as the men. They tend to do it in gangs; I suppose it’s safer that way. Safer for them, not necessarily so for solo males trying to get home after last call has dumped everyone out of the pubs and onto the sidewalks.

One late, lonely night (mid-week) I ventured out from my student flat in search of a payphone. The streets were empty. I had had to wait until late on account of the time change. It’s an irritating feature of payphones in the UK that you have to punch in several kilos of change before a long-distance connection will be attempted. As I was pushing in numerous fat British coins, and dialing and dialing, two women came into view. Rat-arsed. Hammered. Leaning against each other for balance. Shambling in my direction. They spotted me, and one of them called out, “Would ye look at that peach!”

My call had not been answered and the phone began spitting my money back. I was catching the coins and stuffing them into my pockets when they crashed through the phone booth door. In their eagerness to both get in, they became jammed. Spittle flew, “Did she let ye doon, son? Did she let ye doon? Ow could she?”

I dropped to the ground, scrambled through their stout legs and sprinted for safety. I needed a drink (but, of course, the pubs were shut).

Scotch Odds, 4

The University of Glasgow, Institute of Soviet and East European Studies had a reputation for Trotskyism – not that there was any unity of thought there, but there was a sizeable archive of unpublished Trotsky papers tended by the venerable Louis Sinclair. My office-mate, Ian Thatcher was a Trotsky scholar working these papers, but he was no believer, rather a “Marxist until he’d read Marx,” as he liked to put it.

Our tea room did suffer from periodic Leninist infestations, however. Characters of an enthusiastic, doctrinaire, cant-reciting type that I hadn’t realized actually existed would sometimes crowd the rear of the room, murmuring about the Grundrisse. They had no formal connection to the Institute, but they would make use of our fridge and kettle, taking the occasional biscuit without putting change in the jar. These were the halcyon days for Manchester Rave; hair was long again, and hygiene wasn’t at a premium.

By some sort of informal agreement the table nearest the TV was left for the actual students to watch the news while we ate our lunch. The USSR was collapsing and we’d tune in to see whose thesis had been made irrelevant that day. Thatcher was fond of using the news to bait our fellow-travelers. If there was a story about the Windsors, he would applaud and point, declaring, “The Royals! Now that’s what’s great about Britain.”

I remember two men grumbling about the scourge of Scottish nationalism, which tended to split the Labour vote and so might help ensure Tory rule post-Maggie Thatcher. (And indeed, Scotland got its own parliament and Britain got seven years under John Major). Nationalism, they agreed, was a terrible, terrible thing. Ian Thatcher spun round and roared, “And internationalism – even worse!” They blinked in surprise and incomprehension. “Parochialism,” he concluded, “that’s the thing!”

Scotch Odds, 5

It was 1986 and I found myself on a series of buses from the North Yorkshire coast down to London in the company of a girl I was no longer getting along all that well with. I was broke, at the end of a long crisscrossing tour of Europe, now on my way back to Amsterdam and a flight home. She, K, was going south to hook up with some fellow she’d recently met in Majorca (a hair-dresser). Her grandparents who had just let her fly to a clubbing spot on the Spanish islands, would not let her go to London unescorted; they were old and Yorkshire – London was the very bellybutton of evil to them. And so this task was handed to me because I was handy. I prefer the term ‘gentleman’, but ‘door mat’ would not have been wrong.

We found a squalid Hammersmith hostel and went shopping for trendy trash in Carnaby Street. K bought herself some cute little shoes. Perhaps to mollify my seething discontent, she bought me a pair of flash, but cheap, Mod trousers – two-tone, silver and red, and absurdly tight. Then we headed off to sunny Brixton. John Cooper Clarke was performing at a pub there, and I was eager to see the Bard of Salford in person. After the Tube ride, there was still a long way to walk. About halfway there, K announced that she could not continue. Her cute new shoes were biting into her heels; indeed they were already really quite bloody.

She said she’d sit on a little brick wall and wait for me, while I ran off in search of band aids (or plasters as they call them over there). I said I didn’t like the idea of leaving her alone in the middle of bleak nowhere, Brixton, and she told me to stop playing the protector and just go and find some plasters. So, off I went, zip-zipping in my tight two-tone trousers. It turned out to be a very long walk in search of a shop that was open after six, and that sold things like band aids.

By the time I got back, K was quite changed in her attitude. Thank GOD I was back, she was scared witless. People kept walking past and staring. A distinguished old gent with a Jamaican accent had told her, “you shouldn’t be here.” She was glad, so very, very glad that I was there now.

She began treating her feet, and I noticed three fellows checking us out from the doorway of a nearby pub. They were grubby, doss-house punks, bright spiky Mohawks now flopping to the side. After giving us a good looking over they retreated inside. “They keep staring at me,” said K, “I’m so glad that you are here.”

K was still dealing with her feet when they came back out and started marching towards us. And I thought, “well, this is great, I am about to get my head kicked in defending a girl I kind of hate right now, and, in the process, I am pretty much certain to split these ridiculously tight two-tone Mod trousers”.

They marched as if to go straight past up, but the leader, a pasty blond in Rupert the Bear bondage pants, pivoted on his heel and asked me directly if I had any change. I detected more than a touch of the scotch brogue in his voice. Trying my best to sound like my Sheffield cousins, I told him sorry, but I was skint. He leaned in close, close enough for me to notice the pen-and-ink tattoos on his face: L-O on one cheek, V-E on the other. And down this Scotsman’s nose, G-L-A-S-G-O-W.

“Where are ye from?” he asked. I squeaked that I was from Canada, and he said “Rush, Rush is from Canada. I love Rush.” He popped himself up on the wall with me and K and talked about how much he loved Rush, then he mentioned a grandmother in Ottawa – maybe I knew her. I explained that I didn’t and told him that Canada is kind of a big place.

After a few minutes he hopped off the wall. “Great talking to ye.” He asked me again if I had spare change and I said no, which was the truth. Then off the three of them went, and he called back, “watch yourselves, it’s a dangerous neighbourhood”.

Ivor Cutler ~ I Wore My Elbows Down

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