Walking with Adrian Howells on 29 January 2011


An Architectural Tour

I am walking with my friend Adrian Howells. Adrian makes autobiographical performances. I write about autobiographical performances. On Adrian’s walk the autobiographical cannot fail but to tickle our heels since it is an Architectural Tour of Glasgow. Published in the Observer in June 2007, Adrian has been meaning to do this walk for some time. Adrian is no stranger to Glasgow, having worked in the 1990s at the Citizens Theatre. Since then, he has returned many times and in 2006 decided to make Glasgow his home. It’s a city he has fallen in love with. And what’s not to love about it?

This walk will mostly – but not always – lead us down familiar streets. As we walk those streets, we will step into our earlier footfalls, reanimating younger selves. We will realise that we have walked in the same places – albeit not at the same times. But alongside this oh-so-familiar landscape that which has gone unnoticed will reveal itself. This walk, then, traverses two tracks simultaneously: we will enjoy the pleasure of reminiscing at the same time as our sensibilities are startled by what we have missed.

Our walk starts at Queen Street Station, George Square Exit, and leads us past St George’s Tron Parish Church then up Buchanan Street, past the Old Athenaeum – opened in 1893 and, much later, home to Scottish Youth Theatre (I was in SYT in 1986, but then it was held, curiously, in the Nautical College). The Athenaeum now lies empty. Outside Buchanan Underground a woman holds a sign that reads ‘Free Hugs’. An act right up our street, we willingly avail ourselves of her congenial gesture. The statue of Donald Dewar, much liked first First Minister of the devolved Scotland, looks down on us benignly as we walk by. On Renfrew Street, I take a good, hard look at The Pavilion. I’ve never noticed the signage that proclaims ‘The Scottish National Theatre of Variety’. Then we head to the new, shiny Herald Building and another unnoticed feature – Annan Fountain, a unicorn on a plinth, erected in 1915.

On to Cowcaddens Road, then down Hope Street, past the Theatre Royal (a poster on its wall advertises a forthcoming contemporary dance performance of Lord of the Flies and Adrian reveals that he has worked with many of the people listed on it). On the pavement, a perfect cube of ice melts slowly. Across the road, the rather ugly RSAMD; but not as ugly as the monstrous concrete block that houses the down-at-heel Savoy Centre. We diverge from the map so we can walk through it, the smell of fried food enveloping us immediately.

The walk leads us to the handsome town houses of Blytheswood Square, which tell a story of Glasgow’s wealthy past. Back down to George Square, a site of jostling personal memories, mostly demonstrations against some injustice or other (and there have been many). At the feet of the Scottish Bard, a shrine of wreaths marks his recently passed birthday; one courtesy of the Glasgow Haggis Club. Adrian and I are struck, as always, by the civic grandeur of the City Chambers.

On Ingram Street stands Lanarkshire House – now a restaurant lit garishly with outdoor chandeliers. On the upper part of the building we see a row of statues, each one marking a particular place – Kilmarnock, Gourock… Into Virginia Place, and then Virginia Street, past another old haunt – the gay bar, Delmonicas. Years ago, Rach and I wrote some silly sketches that we staged here: Eastbenders, Are You Being Serviced? On the doorway of the nearby Jacobean Corsetry shop, beautiful traces of old signage – so precisely evocative and nostalgic in their process of fading that they could be fake?

At the bottom of Virginia Street another unnoticed aspect of my familiar city – a plaque on the sleek black M&S wall: former site of the Black Bull Inn, Burns’s residence during a visit to Glasgow. At St. Enoch Square we marvel at what used to be the Travel Centre – a miniature Jacobean-style building, complete with turrets – now a Café Nero. (Why have I never marvelled at this before?) Then down to the Clyde and under the Glasgow Bridge – an amazingly acoustic, atmospheric space made of numerous arches and pillars (though I have appreciated this site before as  Rach produced a performance piece here). Then back up Jamaica Street, a Woolworths sign beside a shop that is now a Poundstretchers, and up Buchanan Street. We fail to locate the statue, ‘The Concept of Kentigern’. But we do locate a coffee shop, where a warm cup of Earl Grey tea is the order of the day. It’s next to Rogano’s – where my Dad, Rach and I celebrated my PhD ceremony and where Adrian would come with Citizens’ staff on opening nights. Past the Gallery of Modern Art, former home of a rich tobacco trader (Glasgow’s connection to the slave trade is marked in its street names – Jamaica Street, Virginia Street; second city of the Empire after all…) We are relieved to see that the Duke of Wellington is wearing his obligatory orange traffic cone atop his head, a city landmark in its own right.

Further on, Bennets, the gay club (though neither of us has been in years), and there’s Rab Ha’s, a container of a favourite New Year memory – good food, good friends, good cheer. Look – at the other end of the street, the beautifully proportioned Hutcheson’s Hospital (now home of National Trust), with its bright blue clock face.

Back to Argyle Street, and the familiar Tron Theatre – but has that demonic cherub with willy and wings always been there? (Later, I discover it is an art work by Kenny Miller, erected in 97/8). And just off Argyle Street, though not on our guided tour, I share the treasure of Tontine Lane – a backstreet of white glazed tiles, a broken neon light that points to a non-existent bar, and another non-illuminated sign, Empire, all its letters curiously reversed. This could be straight out of a film set – and in fact the Empire sign (Cinema? Nation?) is an art work by Douglas Gordon.

A walk up High Street – centuries ago the site of the University of Glasgow, now a skyline of cranes signalling the building of almost-disposable flats then past the oldest house in the city, Provand’s Lordship. We arrive at the understated Cathedral and just across the way see the Necropolis – a place neither Adrian nor I have ever walked but resolve to do so.

Rottenrow leads us through the student village of Strathclyde University, to the scant remains of the Rottenrow maternity hospital (marked by George Wylie’s big nappie pin sculpture). Descending the steep hill we find our way back to Ingram Street, then past what used to be the old Court House (where I once considered producing a play in its cells, long before ‘site specific’ or ‘site based’ became a term).

As we’ve walked Glasgow’s streets, daylight has turned into dusk, which has in turn sunk into dark and the feel of our city has changed too, daytime shoppers replaced by night time revellers. This walk has honed our skills. Next time I see Adrian, we continue to point out the unnoticed in our everyday landscape, enriching it in the process.

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