Beginning a Conversation about Change and Glasgow:
A Discussion with Carol Craig
Sunday Times, March 21st 2010
Glasgow is a place of complexity, many identities, of both dreams and problems. This is the city of ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’, the supposed new, vibrant city, and then there is the urban wasteland of gangland ‘No Mean City’. Then there is the Glasgow of fiction, film and prose, from James Kelman to Edwin Morgan.
Carol Craig’s new book on the city, ‘The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow’ is an attempt to address some of these contradictions. In particular, she has focused on looking beyond ‘the official story’ of what she sees as ‘trying to sell the city and play down difficulties’, and instead look at the other side of the equation, namely, the inequality, health, crime and violence, and examine what causes these and how real change can happen.
The book sets out to look at in Craig’s words ‘how we can explain social problems. We can look at aspects of the city in terms of cultural regeneration and the city centre, and say these are genuinely fantastic’, but they are only part of the story, and we wont bring about change by just ‘going on about the positives’.
She believes that Glasgow’s inequalities and wider problems need to be honestly faced up to, and to do so she borrows from Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s influential ‘The Spirit Level’. The inequality and divisions, distinct from ‘poverty and disadvantage’ have given birth to a city where much of life is disfigured, and in particular ‘an incredible sense of separate realms between men and women continues to exist’.
The book moves on to contentious and sensitive terrain in this area. No one can dispute that Glasgow is shaped by gender across health, crime and violence, and that much of this is about some men behaving badly and a kind of toxic masculinity.
Craig believes that ‘the seeds of hostility between men and women’ in the city can be found in ‘a heavy drinking culture aided by rapid industrialisation’. This culture saw women accept ‘a passive role as martyrs’ while also embracing escapism in ‘cinema and culture’ and ‘doing yourself up for a night out’.
Where I ask are the tales of the good men, and what it takes to be a good man in all this? What of the men engaged with their partners, families and children? Craig concedes that they are out there, but then answers the patterns of the past saying that ‘a good man in Glasgow would give his wife half his pay packet’, whereas in many mining areas a man would give his whole pay over. Glasgow today has 47% of children brought up by lone parents, mostly women, significantly above the UK average, and a generation of lost men living alone.
What is different in this book from the industry of books published on Glasgow? Craig believes that many of these efforts ‘attempt to romanticise the past and mythologise the tenement rather than acknowledging its grimness’.
There is the sentimentalising of ‘the Glasgow patter’ which is ‘not a language of endearment’ in Carol’s words, but one filled with put downs, humiliations and different words for belittling people.
Craig was a product of ‘Milngavie in the 1950s, often seen as the equivalent of a music hall joke’ in her words which was ‘divided between those who bought their houses and council houses’.
When she went to Bearsden Academy, she became acutely aware of class and status and has always felt that the Scots story of ‘the egalitarian myth is just that – a myth which disguises hierarchy, rank and fractions within the working and middle classes, and between classes’.
‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’, Craig’s first book came out seven years ago, and was a book I published and for which I have a special place in my heart. It is a book which very much divides people; loved by some and dismissed by others, a book which was controversial, contentious and took courage to write.
Craig, at the time of publication, was ‘pensive about the reaction from certain parts of Scotland’ such as elements of the left and some of our cultural gatekeepers, and here she is, bravely putting herself in the firing line again. One feels like saying to her in mockness, like a character from one of her own books, ‘hasn’t she learned to take a telling?’
Her thesis in her first book was that there was something in Scots culture which reinforced ‘black and white thinking’ and ‘pessimism’ and this analysis resonated with many. She argued that the Scots sought to many solutions ‘in going on about politics’ and ‘first principles’, and that rather than just look at such structural issues as poverty or the relationship with England, we should look at our culture and values.
Many recognised a Scotland they too struggled with; others felt it caricatured Calvinism and Presbyterianism. Some felt it went from being an original thesis to one which seemed to deny the importance of such factors as poverty and being ‘in bed with an elephant’, particularly in the embracing of parts of the thesis by the then Labour-Lib Dem Executive. Craig concedes that this embracing happened ‘a bit’, but that there is always the danger of simplification and that ‘lots of people in the SNP have been supportive as well’.
The book led to the establishment of the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being which has positioned itself as ‘a network and hub of organisations and groups crossing education, social services and business’, and which in particular has brought focus ‘to working with young people’.
Craig did for a period see Martin Seligman’s ‘positive psychology’ as one of the main ways to bring this about. She was ‘attracted by its encouragement and initiation of social change and saw this as a model of change, but ultimately it is not the whole answer’.
She has come in for some flak about one of the most crucial, passionate areas of Scottish life, football, causing irritation in the Tartan Army for a variety of remarks. Craig seems a little oblivious to the hurt she has caused in these sensitive footballing types, and remarks that these are ‘only words’, and that ‘she turns down requests to comment on football all the time’.
The Centre has developed numerous resources on confidence and young people, ran lots of high profile events, and Craig sees the book as ‘beginning a conversation about the city and change on part of the Centre’s website’. The Centre’s funding from the Scottish Government is ‘secure for another year, and not going to go out of business’.
What then of Carol Craig’s journey through her public life? She was active politically in the 1970s as a socialist, feminist and pro-devolutionist. Where does all that fit in such a changed world? There is in many respects, through this journey, with its embracing and then detour out of ‘positive psychology’ a sense of constancy in all the change, of trying to find tools for the Scots which are not ‘American self-esteem stuff’ as she calls it, but relevant and understanding of Scots culture.
‘I now see the concept of class and status as central’, she says, reflecting at the age of 59 that the political road she has travelled on has brought her back to some of the constants she began thinking about all those years ago.
There is a lot in Carol Craig to admire, the sense of mission and purpose, and in many respects she is an embodiment of the Scottish meaningful life. She has yet again put her head above the parapet, and said some difficult things in a way which is helpful and provocative. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could nourish and nurture a public culture which took such ideas seriously, and was at ease with constructive difference and debate?
Carol Craig, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow, Argyll Publishing £8.99.