Telling Glasgow’s Stories and the Culture of Miserablism
The Scotsman, February 15th 2011
Glasgow is a city rich with stories, myths and folklore. It has gone from being ‘the second city of Empire’ to branding itself as ‘the second city of shopping’ – statements which show the continuation of Glasgow swagger, ambition and belief – for all its undoubted problems.
Glasgow has throughout this experienced constant change and adaptation, of coming to terms with decline and proclaiming renewal. Often this has involved a simple backstory of counterposing a caricature of ‘old Glasgow’, of traditional industries and an omnipotent council, with the ‘new Glasgow’ – of shopping, style and tourism.
This rather simple story points to part of the problem we increasingly have with Glasgow beyond the economic and social problems. Namely, how these realities are represented, communicated and understood. Arguably, this has become part of the problem and is getting in the way of what we do about it.
Film is one way in which Glasgow and Scotland have come to see themselves. Peter Mullan’s latest offering ‘NEDS’ is part of what has become known as the Scottish miserablist tradition; films which portray an urban wasteland of lost hopes, confused souls and brutalised lives.
It wasn’t always so. Scottish films such as ‘Whiskey Galore’, ‘The Maggie’ and ‘Gregory’s Girl’ had a sense of hope, play, irreverence and community. Filmmaker Eleanor Yule who has studied the miserabilist genre sees ‘Gregory’s Girl’ (made in 1980) as the last vestige of ‘post-war modernist optimism’ and ‘the planned freedom’ of the New Towns, being filmed and set in Cumbernauld. The rise of miserablism she believes was ‘a legitimate response to the fading of post-war optimism’. But then it grew into an industry and suffocating account.
Undeniably miserablist films such as ‘NEDS’, ‘Sweet Sixteen’ and ‘Ratcatcher’ tell a predicable story of unremitting bleakness, misogyny, misanthropy and no escape or resolution. There is now indeed a well-worn template for such films. A tragic hero as the lead character, a dysfunctional childhood and family – the hero often intelligent but battling against their immediate environment before succumbing to it, little possibility of transformation or redemption, and women playing secondary roles, either trying to manage problem men, or walk around in silence. Such are the well-established rules it would be possible if so minded to easily write a comic caricature of the entire genre.
As Yule says ‘miserablism has become a commodity’. It sells to funding bodies, to domestic audiences, and even occasionally, internationally. This Scotland of the mind has detrimental effects on all of us – harming how we see ourselves and are seen by others. And this story of Scotland is mainly centred around the West of Scotland and Glasgow. Its toxic mix does little for the city’s image and perception of itself, or crucially for how we have an informed debate about the genuine economic and social problems we face.
Another account of the city is offered by policy makers, researchers and academics based at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health who have investigated and defined the term ‘the Glasgow effect’.
This term has been used to map and understand the patterns of ill-health and mortality which exist across the Greater Glasgow region. After allowing for social class and deprivation they have found an ‘excess mortality rate’ – which cannot be accounted for. A further study of Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, the three most deprived British cities, underlined this, showing that Glasgow had worse ill-health than the other two cities after allowing for social class.
This analysis found that deaths among Glaswegians between 2003–2007 (relative to residents of Liverpool and Manchester) were 27% higher in relation to lung cancer, almost 70% higher for suicide, 2.3 times higher for alcohol-related causes, and almost 2.5 times higher for drug-related poisonings.
This research is important – indeed path-breaking and of international importance – but as the authors admit it raises as many questions as it addresses, and necessitates more research.
One problematic consequence of the work – which is not the fault of the researchers – is the way that it has been interpreted and simplified in secondary accounts. In short, ‘the Glasgow effect’ has entered into myth and has almost become common parlance. It has gone in some accounts from being that social class doesn’t explain everything to that it is all down to individual behaviour and lifestyle. This has a feeling of a story we have been in before in politics and social policy: a road well travelled by many.
This profound shift leads to a pathologising of the poor, a demonising of the working class, and the re-emergence of the feckless, disorderly ‘lower orders’.
‘The Glasgow effect’ in the hands of the professional classes to some extent has become a way of problematising Glasgow as ‘the other’. For decades senior civil servants have viewed Glasgow as a ‘basket case’; now they have an intellectual peg on which to hang their prejudice.
And it is more serious than that. For throughout Scotland and the UK, after a decade of public spending increases, there is a widespread professional class exhaustion and frustration with people not responding to policy makers in the way they were meant too.
Part of this can be seen in an intellectual miserablism which is a more subtle version of the cinematic version, but which is just as strong and potent a brew.
This can be found in numerous accounts of the city which stereotype the entire post-war period as the equivalent of Stalinism: step forward George Kerevan for example. Another is the writing of Carol Craig in ‘The Tears Which Made the Clyde’ published last year that articulates a perspective which draws extensively on the work of ‘the Glasgow effect’.
Her elaborate thesis has much to commend it in addressing the dark truths of the reality of Glasgow life for many, but it is a one dimensional world: of a brutalised Glasgow, of men and women locked into damaging, dysfunctional relationships, of women without power and voice, and an out of control male drinking culture.
This is all a bit redolent of the black and white thinking and the fixed mindsets that Craig previously made the case against, but arguably now seems to articulate. In a blistering review essay by Sean Damer in ‘Scottish Affairs’ he compares ’The Tears Which Made the Clyde’ to ‘a Victorian tract’ that is ‘hectoring’ and ‘lacking in irony’. He does go over the top, embracing a simplistic Marxist version of Glasgow class struggle: which has through the ages been one of the potent alternative accounts of the city.
Central to miserablist accounts whether of the film or intellectual kind is the issue of gender and role of men. What they do is contribute to a caricaturing of the West of Scotland man, shorn of any subtlety or nuance; it is the educated version of Rab C. Nesbitt for the Guardian reading classes.
They tend to ignore that the West of Scotland man comes in many shapes and sizes, and offers the generalisation of one type as the whole story. Where are the stories of the good men of the West of Scotland? Of the men who grow up, keeping out of gangs and away from knife crime, taking responsibility? They are left voiceless in most of these accounts.
All of this entails telling a story of Glasgow which goes beyond simplistic black and white thinking from wherever it comes. We need to make space and encourage many voices and stories, the importance of hope and embrace complexity.
Part of this has to involve having the courage to tell alternative stories of Scotland which recognise the power of love, empathy, emotional intelligence, humour and irreverence. And recognise that many of these stories are already out there, and just marginalised or untold. These can be seen in TV programmes such as ‘The High Life’ with Alan Cumming or ‘The Book Group’: the sort of thing which get one-off or short commissions. There are different, magical Scotlands out there!
We also need to do more than this. We have to reflect on how we represent and explain inequality and dislocation and how it damages individuals and society. And we have to avoid simplistic accounts which celebrate or pathologise inequality. A start would be to challenge the miserablist accounts of Glasgow and Scotland.