A whistle stop literary guide to Glasgow

Published

Credit: Kirsten Colligan

Emily Hay
Columnist – Books

Exploring your new neighbourhood through its literature legends

You now live in Glasgow, city of sandstone tenement buildings and everybody’s favourite crappy lager, Tennents. I’m betting you didn’t see it as a centre for culture and literature – did you? Well, our humble home may not have the classical literary tradition of the more uppity Scottish cities – cough cough – but Glasgow is a hub for the new wave of Scottish writing and is racing ahead in the creative world. So, take note as I take you on a whistle stop tour of the need-to-know stuff that every self-styled bibliophile needs to know to truly understand Glasgow as a hub of the Scottish literary scene today. Edinburgh, eat your heart out.

You simply can’t talk about literature and Glasgow without mentioning the city’s most famous eccentric author: good old Alasdair Gray. The West Coast born and bred artist and author attended Glasgow School of Art between 1952 and 1957, and both his artistic and literary work is iconic in the city. In the West End you can catch a glimpse of his visual art in the ceiling mural of Oran Mor, opposite the Botanic Gardens; the walls of The Ubiquitous Chip restaurant on Ashton Lane and, perhaps a tad more accessible for students, his map of Glasgow in Hillhead subway station. However, if it’s a wander around the city you’re after, you aren’t just limited to the sights of Gray’s murals – Glasgow is heavily featured in his written work, and many of the prominent locations from his novels are right on your doorstep as a student in the West End. Take a wander up to Godwin Baxter of Poor Things residence at 18 Park Circus, overlooking Kelvingrove Park. Walk a tad further afield to Garnethill in the City Centre, where Lanark’s Duncan Thaw attended the art school; or, if you want to really put your imagination to the test, take a trip to the Necropolis and try to imagine the city as the hellish Unthank from the same novel. You simply cannot live in Glasgow and love books without reading at least some Alasdair Gray – his work will give you the best comprehensive overview of the city, its art and its politics as you could find in any one author.

Another author who personifies the city and its politics can be found in James Kelman, controversial author of the Booker Prize-winning How Late it Was, How Late. When it received the award in 1994, some of the more traditional people in the literary world were appalled by Kelman’s win with the novel’s use of Glaswegian dialect and heavy emphasis on the words fuck and cunt – he won nonetheless. Kelman succeeded in bringing a novel written in a local, colloquial language to the world, for the first time showcasing working-class Scotland, its art and its ideas on a broader level. Like Burns before him, he started a popular revolution in literature written in a local dialect. He made it possible for authors such as Irvine Welsh to follow in his footsteps with the smash hit that was Trainspotting, which showcased the darker side of Edinburgh – but never forget that it was Kelman and Glasgow that did it first.

If poetry is more your jam then rest assured, you’re among good company here. All three of Scotland’s Modern Makars, our own version of the Poet Laureate, grew up in Glasgow: Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay. It seems we live in what is currently the most thriving city in Scotland to be a poet or an avid reader of poetry. Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland is a good place to get started if you want a taster of Scotland, and particularly Glasgow, in poetic form. Pick it up and get reading as you explore the city and its history – this writing is the perfect companion to that.

If you want to discover more than just the written word and gain an insight into historically oppressed voices, Glasgow Women’s Library is the place for you. It’s a hub of creative women, women’s writing and women’s history in the city. As the only Accredited Museum in the UK entirely dedicated to women’s lives and achievements, it’s a must see while living in Glasgow. They host regular events centring around creative women, oppressed voices and women’s history, so you should definitely keep an eye out for upcoming events that might peak your interest.

Finally, if you’ve just moved to Glasgow and want a sense of the city’s literature right here, right now, look no further than the comedic writings of Chris McQueer: Twitter crusader and short story author extraordinaire. His debut collection Hings and more recent work Leathered are more great examples of working-class stories told in a local dialect, and these ones astound with utter hilarity at every turn of the page. Trust me, if you like reading and laughing (and who doesn’t?) you will love McQueer. Word on the street is that Hings 2 will pack even more of a punch, so you better be ready for the knockout when it comes. Also, Chris McQueer will batter you if you don’t read it – mark his words.

I hope that’s enough to get you started on your Glaswegian literary adventure, but please don’t just stop there. Keep on digging and keep on reading – there’s a whole lot more left to discover.