Review: Glasgow In 1901 By James Hamilton Muir Essay, Research Paper
Workshop of the world Glasgow in 1901
James Hamilton Muir
328pp, White Cockade One of the most vivid descriptions of Glasgow in 1901 is provided by the poet Edwin Muir in Scottish Journey. Plucked from Orkney, his childhood Eden, at the age of 14, Muir found it a slum-covered hell, inhabited by people whose faces “bear the knowledge of the slums within them”. Even the well-to-do, in Muir’s eyes, felt stained by the “surrounding filth”, as if harbouring a secret knowledge of living “in a lavatory”. So it is pleasantly perplexing to find his namesake, James Hamilton Muir, in the year of the poet’s arrival, promoting the effects on Glasgow tenements of the setting sun in terms of “Turner’s Carthage or the palaces of Claude”. No lavatorial stench disturbs this Muir – instead, the perfumes of the Botanic Gardens turn his head the other way. “At this hour the little wooden bridge over the Kelvin takes on its Watteau airs, and one half expects to see slim little Dresden figures in twining couples a-promenading.” Even the working man is “the pink of respectability”. Edinburgh is always touted as Scotland’s Jekyll and Hyde city, but it seems that Glasgow has trumped it yet again. James Hamilton Muir was, in fact, a composite of three young Glaswegians on the make: the artist Muirhead Bone, the lawyer Archibald Charteris and the journalist James Bone, who later moved to England as London editor of the Manchester Guardian. Glasgow in 1901 was their attempt to capitalise on a moment when, as Perilla Kinchin says in her introduction, Glasgow was the “undisputed Second City of Empire, the Workshop of the World… at the height of its confidence and prosperity”. It is a wonderful rediscovery. In spite of what Kinchin calls “a certain literary fruitiness”, it conjures up the democracy of Glasgow streets, the friendly informality that exists among strangers, the certainty people have that the people they meet will be like them. The early sections, written by Muirhead Bone, who also provides more than 60 etchings, spring some poetic surprises, such as that the feeling evoked by the “hundred thousand” graves of the Sighthill cemetery “belongs to the chastened pleasures whose cadence is music only to a Scot”. Then we have the vision of “bands of workers coming home for the night; a mild sun sinking calm and refulgent, and shining on their smeared faces”. A large amount about the city and its people in Glasgow in 1901 is recognisable today. Football supporters appear to be obnoxious, but are more often good-humoured. J H Muir is not much of a fan: “The best you can say for football is that it has given the working man a topic of conversation,” he writes. “His friendliest discussions tremble on the verge of a bash on the mouth, and his quips of argument are threats, but they are threats which lead to nothing.” Shipbuilding (which, together with football, occupies in Glasgow the place held by myth and legend in other societies) is already beginning its decline. The poorer people drink too much in public. The university is strangely lacking in focus, while Glasgow cathedral is no more familiar to most natives than Salisbury or Wells would be. These views could be expressed by someone who grew up in the city in the 1950s and 1960s. The lively account of the working man’s Saturday, an interval between week-long toil and gloomy Sabbath, is likewise familiar. Kinchin identifies the authors of the various sections. Bone wrote the pages on shipbuilding, an industry in which he had experience, and a typical Glaswegian pride braces every line. “We may say, without any straining of facts, that steam navigation was born on our river.” The first vessel “constructed for the purposes of steaming in open water” was launched into the Clyde in 1812. She was “christened the ‘Comet’, because she flashed through water at a rate of nearly six miles an hour”. The earliest transatlantic crossings were made by Clyde-built ships – by 1863, the “Scotia” had cut the journey time to nine days. Bone also described “another type of working man” who, “though his interest in Calvinism may have abated, its principles still control his conduct”. He is still around, that fellow, though absent from much contemporary Scottish writing. There are fascinating sections on the municipal improvements which made steady progress throughout the late 19th century, and scientific comment as to their causes, most of it informative. Glaswegians have always been proud of their water, which comes from Loch Katrine, but some will be surprised to learn that “beyond straining to keep fish, leaves etc, out of the consumer’s bath, it requires no treatment at all”.