The first thing you see upon landing at Glasgow Airport is an obnoxiously loud sign proclaiming People Make Glasgow. It’s as if the city has some sort of desperate need for approval: the sign calls upon you, and you, and you, to join together and create a wonderful metropolois, open and welcome to all. Except when Glasgow gets mentioned there’s still a hint of danger; the words “I’m popping to Glasgow” carry the same weight as “I think I’ll get married in Walder Frey’s castle.”
In 1935 “No Mean City” was published. Written by H. Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur, the book details life in the Gorbals, surrounded by hard men and razor gangs. It’s an account of lives getting on with things in the inter-war period, in an environment that isn’t a million miles away for some of you reading this, and sounds appealing to none of you.
In 2011, Glasgow was named the best city in the UK for personal safety (tied with Aberdeen). In 2004, The Guardian ran an article labelling Glasgow the murder capital of Western Europe, with homicide rates higher than London, Manchester, and, across the pond, New York. It’s like the Kevin Bridges joke says – you might get stabbed in Glasgow, but at least they’ll call you an ambulance afterward.
Glaswegian representation in the media can be divisive. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Groundskeeper Willie. His gruff attitude towards janitorial duties and wrestling with wolves is something we can all aspire to. Jack and Victor, pensioners from Scottish sitcom Still Game, are a future I can only hope for – still up and on my feet, still got a good group of pals.
But for every Willie, there’s a Fat Bastard. The Austin Powers Scot comes across as a vile, absurdly obese (weighing a metric tonne), unappealing figure. For every Jack and Victor, there’s a Rowdy Roddy Piper – a professional wrestler who is known for being one of the dirtiest players in the game, typically playing a villainous role. The city and its people don’t get a good rep in the media. In fact, on the excellent TV Tropes website “Violent Glaswegian” is listed as a trope in itself. It states that “Glaswegian is a very good accent and dialect for uttering threats.”
So, we have knife crime, sectarian violence, Glasgow smiles, Glasgow kisses, neds, Buckfast, terrifying voices, and River fucking City.
Despite Trainspotting being Edinburgh-based, Robert Carlyle admits to having portrayed Begbie as “a cartoon caricature of a Glasgow hard man.” Fans of The Thick Of It know that when a Scot appears on screen it means there’s a lot of swearing and/or violent imagery about to follow, from Malcolm Tucker’s “come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off,” to Jamie McDonald’s “Dae ye want me tae hole punch yer face?” For whatever reason, justified or not, positively or negatively, Glaswegians are seen as fucking mental.
It doesn’t even have to be overtly obvious. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter takes on a Glaswegian accent whenever he gets intense (and the word Jabberwocky sounds excellent in a Scots dialect), while Discworld has its own feisty Glaswegian in the Nac Mac Feegle folk.
The story Glasgow has to tell can be dark. Peter Mullan’s 2010 movie Neds depicts life in the 70s for young men growing up in deprived areas, surrounded by gang culture and territorial violence. The movie can be hauntingly relatable if you are from the west of Scotland. Episodes of Still Game deal with how pensioners can severely suffer over the winter with high costs of heating in areas of high deprivation.
But are we all that bad?
TV Tropes says Glasgow has two images. The positive City of Culture trope (awarded in 1990), and the McDetroit trope. It goes on to say that Glaswegians typically identify with the McDetroit image when they want to look cool, but will adapt to the City of Culture vibe when someone else labels us as McDetroit.
Citing Kevin Bridges again, he makes a similar claim – saying that you feel sort of proud when someone foreign says “You’re from Glasgow? That sounds awfully rough.” and you respond by woefully and defiantly saying “Aye, aye it is.” I would love to see more City of Culture in movies. Imagine a Love Actually-esque movie set in Glasgow. Ratatouille set in Glasgow. Amélie set in Glasgow.
But the cynic in me brings it back to reality. Love Actually would see Colin head to Viper rather than America to find love. Ratatouille would follow a rat’s dream to create the ultimate chips and cheese for that 3am mistake. Amélie would see the titular character skim stones not off the Canal St Martin, but off the River Clyde, before they inevitably hit a trolley and sink to murky depths.
It could be a cyclical case of cause and effect. The city’s past reflected in present day media perpetuates this deprived and violent image; or, we really are this feral bunch and the screen is portraying us accurately, inviting viewers on a safari.
I would like to see a change, but until then, at least we have Shrek and Merida.