Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Dear green place,

I went to Scotland at the weekend. To see my friend Dan who moved there in January. He'd scheduled in a pretty full programme of events for us. I'd even worried the agenda would be as non-negotiable as the one lined up for Candice by Keith in Nuts in May. I needn't have been concerned. He was an excellent host meeting me off the train at Queen Street station and proffering regular cups of tea and porridge every morning.

Friday evening we ate in Usha's in the West End of the city. Indian street food. The emerald green decor gave the illusion, from the outside, of an Irish pub and although the atmosphere was as convivial it was considerably less boisterous. I had a malai paneer tikka washed down with a mango lassi.

After a failed attempt to locate an improv gig taking place in a chapel within the university grounds we took a saunter down Sauchiehall Street where we were either too English, too sober, or, most likely, too old to be offered flyers for the nearby clubs. Instead we retreated into the Saramago cafe bar in the Centre for Contemporary Arts. The advertised African music wasn't happening but it was nice enough and I wasn't too put out watching Dan sample their ale as they had Erdinger Alkoholfrei lager in big bottles so I felt I was getting a 'proper' drink. This forced abstinence malarkey hasn't been hard work as such but I'll be happy when it comes to an end.

We were up early Saturday morning and heading for the highlands. The West Highland Line had been voted the most scenic railway journey on Earth in the Wanderlust Travel Awards (beating the Trans-Siberian and Machu Picchu) so it was time to put it to the test. It didn't disappoint.

From suburban Glaswegian stations it soon headed up into the hills and, then, mountains. After Helensburgh the scenery starts to get really spectacular. Views over the Gare Loch, Loch Long and Loch Lomond. By Fort William some of the other passengers were getting stuck into their booze. Well, it was the day before Valentine's.

Lochs Eil & Shiel are next up before the sea looms into view with the snow covered peaks of Skye looming up across the water from the isles of Eigg and Rum.

It's more about the journey than the destination though Mallaig itself is a presentable enough fishing village with ferries departing for the islands, a Co-op, a second hand bookshop, and a place selling such tat as tartan patterned heart shaped confetti. We dipped into the Marine Bar for a drink. A pub where approximately 80% of the floor space was taken up by a pool table that no-one was playing on. On the train back I read a Guardian piece about brutalist architecture which seemed, in retrospect, inappropriate.

Sunday began with a stroll along the winding Forth & Clyde canal. Swans on ice are only marginally less graceful than those on water. The tower blocks standing proud against a bright blue sky persuaded me to take a few snaps.

We saw the recent art installations by Neil McGuire, Nick Millar and Minty Donaldsenior before reaching Partick Thistle's Firhill stadium.

From here we headed to the Kelvingrove. Outside of London it competes with the National Museum of Edinburgh for the title of the most visited musuem in the UK and it's easy to see why. There's something for everyone. Natural history takes up a big chunk but it's for the art that it earns most plaudits. We restricted ourselves to a brief tour of the work of the Glasgow Boys. Echoes of the Pre-Raphaelites permeated their work as did the Post-Impressionists though it's to Whistler to whom they owe their greatest debt.

If you want to see Whistlers in Glasgow, though, you need to go to the Hunterian - which we did. He's one of my favourite artists and it was great to see one of his nocturnes nestling amongst other lesser known pieces. Another interesting feature of the Hunterian (which also doubles as both museum and gallery) is its collection of birds nests and wasps bykes. I didn't know that word before and I didn't know magpies sometimes used coat hangers for construction. You learn something new every day and all that.

After three visits to Glasgow I finally got to see the 13th Note - and it was marred only slightly by a dog barking throughout the duration of our visit. I was told they'd won an award for their chips and having tried them along with a veggie burger that seems fair enough.

On Glasgow Green we looked at the stone spiral with its plaques telling of momentous events in the history of the city. The ones representing Celtic and Rangers had both been vandalised. Across from the green stands the Carpet Factory. In a city full of amazing buildings this one truly stands out. The architect William Leiper was asked to design an edifice so grand the town planners couldn't reject it so he took unlikely, if fruitful, inspiration from the Doge's Palace in Venice.

There's a very homely bar in there now so I looked lovingly at Dan's pint of stout and sampled a Nix wheat beer. The nearest thing to a non-alcoholic real ale I've yet to encounter. We returned via the Barras (and Barrowlands) to Mono for more food. A delicious vegan ham and pineapple pizza with tunes from Stephen Pastel's incorporated Monorail store playing in the background. I browsed the aisles for a while but I couldn't settle on a purchase. Not for lack of choices but because there was too much. An odd aside as regards Mono was its toilet facilities. 11 urinals. 3 cubicles and 7 sinks seemed a little over the top even for the no doubt incredibly hygienic vegetarians that frequent the place.

It was our final night so we stopped in a converted library in Hillhead for a drink. The non-alcoholic beer of choice was Tennent's Hee Haw. Not a company I'd hitherto imagined moving into that market. It was a big spacious pub full of couples out to mark the Saint's day of a 3rd century Roman and, oddly enough, a pub with a caged off ping-pong table and 21-a-side table football seemed a pretty damned good place to be doing it.

That brought my time north of the border to an end but I returned to London refreshed and educated and disappointed to find it was just as cold there as in Scotland. Dan proved an excellent host. There's not many people who can wax lyrical, and at some length, about subjects as diverse as the German romantic notion of the sublime, the dominance of the Lutheran tradition in Norwegian society, Nuneaton's contribution to the post-punk scene, and the disappointing tactics in recent North London derbies. Thanks mate. It was a pleasure.

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