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Tenementality

Richard Sutcliffe Mural on Govan Road

I shouldn’t be here. No, I didn’t have a near-death experience; it was Glasgow that almost died, bulldozed into oblivion. This large, lovely, light-filled flat stood in the way of progress, or, more precisely, the path of a proposed motorway approach-road. It was the early seventies and the promised land could be glimpsed just across the fly-over. One local woman said no, repeating her protest reverberantly enough for it to be heard above the boom-bang-a-bang of a great Victorian city being blown up and torn down.

‘Community’, has become a term so vacuously ubiquitous that there is probably a community community. Anyhow, that campaign helped meld one into existence here, in Woodlands. Underdogs versus underpasses. ‘Plucky’, as cliché insists all underdogs must be, but doomed. The bound-to-prevail arguments of the councillors, construction companies and other vested interests? She demolished them. Here’s to you Mrs Henderson, whose objections stood. And so did the tenements, their smoke-smudged sandstone restored to glistering gold, ‘An old grey city going blonde’, as I was to put it, a decade or so later, in a poem in praise of these stairs and their stories; urban living standing tall and for, density and intensity.

But immensity? Tenement town, with its layered landscape of vertical villages, became a metropolis missing in in-action during a war the evacuees weren’t aware was being waged, whose battle plans were on draughtsmen’s drawing boards. Whatever perfection was, you wouldn’t find it up a close. To cement the deal the sky was scraped and pastures paved over; schemes peripheral in every sense. With the lowest rate of car ownership in Britain, a city of labyrinths and lanes, vennels and courtyards would overtake history in the fast lane to the future; the UK’s most extensive network of urban roads — from alleyway to motorway, overnight. Many were gleeful. Some were sceptical. Most were docile. Only a few woke up and smelt the exhaust fumes.

Cinderella city did go to the wreckers’ ball.

As she had a century before.

Glasgow is the cannibal that eats itself. Only three mediaeval buildings are extant. A college founded in 1451 was replaced by a station; a freight depot. They re-used the stones from the cloister in its construction. A neo-Gothic university was erected in the newly developed West End.

Glasgow got a Victorian makeover.

And the tenement walls came tumbling down.

Those tenements, woebegone warrens of want, almost unimaginably overcrowded, rat, disease and crime ridden- slums, sordid and squalid enough to shock and shame the City Fathers into eventual action, these hutches and hovels had to be cleared away. Thanks to the City Improvement Trust of 1866, brass plaques now stipulated the maximum number of inhabitants for each remaining edifice. Municipal Socialism brought gaslight, clean water and humanely habitable space, indoors and out, to the city’s poorest quarters. What could and should be saved was saved. Sound buildings were refurbished, unfeasibly miniscule lodgings combined to form adequate if still cramped accommodation. Things in such new or renovated ‘single ends’ and ‘room and kitchens’, were scarcely cosy, far less rosy, but at least tenements were no longer lethal.

This was the cityscape that became classic, iconic, mythic.

Almost exactly a hundred years later, those by now long forgotten lessons were not relearned. Dennistoun, to the East, is almost as close to the city centre as Woodlands is on the West. There too activists prevented their homes being razed, invoking the example of the Improvement Trust to trust improvement and knock down inner walls rather than entire buildings. Forty-five years on, it’s an attractive mix of the trendy and the traditional. Not as hip, hot and happening, however, as fabular Finnieston, which is separated from where I live by Kelvingrove Park, another testament to Victorian vision and verve. When Glasgow town was falling down, dozens of equally viable tenement neighbourhoods never got the chance to be as fashionable as Finnieston, to whose chic mystique I propose a (crushed avocado) toast.

Closes are cool.

Physically, it’s quite tricky for a snob to look down on a tenement but my, the snooty try. When a friend’s daughter, precious in every way, was house hunting recently, ‘tenement’, was invariably imprecated as if denoting a bad smell.

And, historically, fragrant they were not.

In ancient Rome, which gave us the word; throughout the Old Town of Edinburgh during The Enlightenment; between the sun-starved stoops of New York’s Lower East Side as the old world’s emigrants streamed in, housing, high-heaped, cheerless if cheap, put roofs over dream-filled, weary heads. When buildings are packed, and denizens stacked, remaining aloof isn’t really an option.

Tenements didn’t do privacy.

Yes, neighbourhoods need neighbours. And for Glaswegians, almost aggressively friendly by habit and repute, indeed vocation, this really was a Gospel truth. A wee ‘hing’, whereby women from adjacent or facing flats would wind up the window sash for a good communal gossip. Fish suppers shared with the even hungrier children across the landing. Borrowed sugar and milk. A transgressor failing the ‘As Thy Self’, test of stair-head propriety would be subject to a sherricking, a public reading of their delinquent character: verbal tar and feathers. The Debretts-like rigidity of the etiquette regulating the cleaning of stairs, use and upkeep of outside lavatories and order of precedence at the communal laundry, or ‘steamy’; these rituals have passed into legend and lore, and thence into popular culture.

That masterly collector and composer of folk songs, Adam MacNaughtan could lay claim to being the laureate of tenement life. ‘Ye cannae fling pieces oot a twenty-story flat./ Seven hundred hungry weans will testify to that…’. The ease of throwing and catching jam sandwiches is indeed a compelling reason to insist that four stories remain highrise enough. Another McNaughtan lyric is entirely devoted, literally, to singing the praises of tenement values, mores and customs, ‘Oh where is the Glasgow where I used to stay,/ the wee wally closes done up wi pipe clay…’. Like ‘hings’ and turns for the stairs, pipe clay has had its day, but our lobby is tiled in precisely that elaborate and gentility affirming manner, though only to the first landing. I’m on the second floor.

Appearances were not kept up: we just got plastered.

Adam’s lament is undeniably sentimental and nostalgic. Brought up in douce, decent, Dennistoun, he has much to mourn and miss. His tribute to witness and solidarity, more ups than downs, so to speak, was scathingly parodied by Jim McLean, in a ballad excoriating the appalling poverty, the impoverishments of every moral and material sort, caused and made worse by damp, drafty, crammed contiguity —condemned, and justly so.

As is usually the case, the city’s posher parts endured no piledriven depredations. Gap site and dynamite were for the lower orders, a poor show. Let the drum beat a forlorn retreat for each sacrificed street, abstract plans made concrete to reduce beloved arts and parts to rubble, ash from which the only phoney phoenix to arise was a lung-blackening traffic jam in the world’s first drive-through city: nothing to see here.

Robert Moses had recently flattened Hell’s Kitchen to create the heaven on earth that is the Lincoln Centre.

Robert Bruce, no ‘The’, was Scotland’s postwar King of Conurbation, a con to be sure. Only a last-minute casting vote voided his disaster plan for Germania on the Clyde.

The tall towers that did get to harass the horizon have mostly been blown sky-high.

Our council thought the demolition of a few surviving tower blocks on live television would get the Commonwealth Games off to a suitably ‘explosive’ start. The tact and taste of the citizenry ensured sense was seen.

Glasgow became the tragic punchline to a joke told by a mirthless double act. The cynics intent on making money, names and powerbases had as their straight-men idealists who wanted to start again, building from scratch a modern megalopolis worthy of a Le Corbusier or more sinisterly, a Speer, a futuristic fantasy in which little plastic citizens made way for little model cars.

Utopia’s walkways and precincts would be paved with good intentions.

Tenement town was destroyed but not obliterated. We still have the words; the names I honour now: Townhead, where the Glasgow Irish lived and worked and played and prayed, where Joan Eardley had her studio. Cowcaddens, locus and focus for the wild, painterly and literary energies of Alasdair Gray. Maryhill, a bombsite blitzed not by the Luftwaffe, who were busy enough here, but by politicians. Gorbals, home to successive waves of immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe and Pakistan. Calton. Bridgeton. Govan, where on the banks of the Clyde, the Dear Green Place was first to flourish, the blueprint of monks.

Tenement town worked. Those who toiled here lived near the forges, foundries, factories, shipyards, machine shops, locomotive sheds, tram terminals and steelworks that employed them. When we got rid of the employees, the employment soon followed, though the globalised jobs had further to travel than the breezeblock El Dorados erected, without amenities, on the city’s outskirts — be-ware-houses for the permanently unsettled. ‘Decanted’ was the favoured euphemism, as if, poured out and swirled around, in this place, displaced and misplaced tenement dwellers would open up and breathe like fine wine.

Still, they could always visit the museum, excellent in every regard: a tenement Tardis, poignantly evocative of its tenant and her time. It’s in Garnethill, a ten-minute stroll from here, though stroll is not quite the right word, since to get there, by either walkably navigable route, you have to traverse the moat of motorway; passing under or flying over, a perambulatory inconvenience to the road lobby and the baillies and planners in its thrall. My father spoke often and piningly of the stores and trams and theatres, pre-museum tenements and life that I cannot recall.

In 1901, the awe-stricken mayor of Chicago sent a delegation to study Glasgow’s municipal miracle. They stayed three months and took the city’s Head of Transport home with them. These apartments were built that wondrous year, when Glasgow was in its progressive prime — peak tenement, one might nowadays say.

I spent my undergraduate years in this same building, living one level down, on the ‘preferred first floor’ as the estate agents simperingly insist. When I came back to Scotland from London I moved initially to Yorkhill, another tenement quarter, subsequently absorbed by the aforementioned Finnieston. Back then, avocado was a colour for bathroom ‘suites’. En route to directing my first television film, I was tossed the Herald by the electrician in the front seat. It was open, propitiously, at the property page. The flat I’m writing in and about now was available at a price I couldn’t afford and was anyway much too big. But I put in a bid. Mine was not the highest offer but my former neighbour, perhaps remembering some student kindnesses and courtesies, wanted me to have it.

That was in 1985. And I was twenty-six.

Then ‘heritable proprietors’ predominated. Today, landlords do. Our ‘conservation area’ is surrounded by offensively featureless, ‘purpose built’ ‘student accommodation’, the purpose being profit. Many a noisy night it is like living in an un-wardened hall of residence.

‘Tennis stars in saris, lobbing backhands at the bins’, to lift lines from my poem again. When I was studying, Woodlands was popular with Pakistani families. Some have stuck around. Many flitted to the ‘leafy’ suburbs.

Yet Woodlands is in leaf, the cherry blossom, late, and past, nature’s confetti now, but the urban glade that runs the length of the street, so green and shady, sets off the little spring-sprung cameo gardens that line the pavements, and from the café terrace where I sip a gentrified espresso, I can see my window boxes bud and bloom, planted the other day by a nurturing neighbour.

And I can see something else, the plaque and prestigious awards that commemorate the indomitable woman who just said, ‘No’.

The dry docks are obsolete but we’re still tied up in the paradox.

Glaswegians love to ironise their ironies. Mrs Henderson, a Tory in a-left leaning town, forced Labour to conserve. Her flat and the memorial above her door are directly opposite what we hoped would become a little ’community’ arbour, a sylvan and pastoral space, rather than a branch of Tesco and the block of flats thrown nondescriptly up as part of the planning package — a so-called ‘development’ that the council whipped through despite vehement objection, a reverse she did not live to witness, in the neighbourhood she rescued and transformed.

If you will permit me; that poem again: ‘God Glasgow it’s glorious/ just to gulp you down in heartfuls,/ feeling something quite like love.’ The ghosts aren’t gone. Nor is what their dwellings stood for. This city’s determined desire to live lovingly together, to care and share, to be fair, to thole and thrive, to laugh, aye, adding a wee bit of cheek to the cheek-by-jowl — that’s a timbre, a tone, a take, an attitude, a way of being, a style; a tenementality, if you like.


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