Henry's Songbook

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The Glasgow I Used To Know

or: Farewell to Glasgow

  • (Jim McLean)

    Oh where is the Glasgow I used to know
    The tenement buildings that let in the snow
    Through the cracks in the plaster the cold wind did blow
    And the water we washed in was forty below

    We read by the gaslight, we had nae T.V.
    Hot porridge for breakfast, cold porridge for tea
    And some weans had ricketts, some had T.B.
    Ay that's what the Glasgow of old means tae me

    Noo the neighbours complained if we played wi' a ba'
    Or 'Hunch cuddy hunch' against somebody's wa'
    If we played 'Kick the can' we'd tae watch for the law
    For the polis made sure we did sweet bugger a'

    You've heard o' the closet that stood on the stair
    Oors had tae accommodate fifteen or mair
    And the wee broken windae let in the fresh air
    I sometimes went inside, ay but just for a dare

    And we huddled together tae keep warm in bed
    We'd nae sheets nor blankets, just old coats instead
    And a big balaclava tae cover yer head
    And 'God but it's cold' was the only prayer said

    Noo there's some say that tenement living was swell
    That's the wally close toffs who had doors wi' a bell
    Two rooms and a kitchen and a bathroom as well
    While the rest o' us lived in a single-end hell

    So wipe off that smile when you talk o' the days
    That you lived in the Gorbals or Cowcaddens' way
    Remember the mice and the rats you once chased
    For tenement living was a bloody disgrace

    (as sung by Iain MacKintosh)

Susannes Folksong-Notizen

  • [1970:] In some mysterious way some closes were smarter than others. The Cooperative close at No. 290 was considered really classy. For one thing there were no children, and instead of dark green painted walls inside the close, like the other tenements, this one had tiles which were the envy of every other tenement wife, for they could be wiped clean at the touch of a cloth, and this sparkling cleanliness awed us with its rich look. (Weir 12)

    Although we only had a room and kitchen for the five of us, we never felt overcrowded, for our accommodation was palatial compared with many of the tenement families. There were several large families living in a single room in our neighbourhood, or at best a single room with a tiny apartment opening out of it, not much bigger than a pantry. This small box-like room was considered a luxury to be envied by those who had to crowd into a single room, and they dreamed of what good use they could put the extra space [to].

    One family in our tenement had fourteen children and they all lived in one room with just this small box-like compartment leading out of it, and once they actually held a wedding reception there when the eldest daughter was married. [...] Long experience of living in such cramped conditions had trained [the children] to play noiselessly and happily [...]. Farther along the street, another family of fourteen had a room and kitchen like ours, separated by a lobby, and both rooms of equal size. They felt they were so rich in space that they added to their meagre income by taking in a lodger. (Weir 71)

  • [1983:] Jim McLean heard that song [The Glasgow That I Used to Know, by Adam McNaughtan]. And he thought back to his childhood in Glasgow. He had a much harder time as a kid, so he wrote a song as a kind of answer to Adam's. And no way is the McLean song sentimental or nostalgic. (Intro Iain MacKintosh)

  • [1988:] Tiled or "wally" closes were always more desirable than plain painted closes. Although thousands of beautifully decorated tiled closes were lost in the era of comprehensive redevelopment 1955-1980, the housing associations which have assumed responsibility for tenement rehabilitation have since recognised the fondness of Glasgow people for wally closes, and have retained or replaced the tiles, and have even in some cases introduced tiles to the older closes.

    Inverse nostalgia found expression in the old pantomime song:

    It's oh that I'm longing for my ain close
    Nane o' your wallies - just a plain close. (King, Palace 98)

  • [1990:] Written in response to Adam McNaughtan's The Glasgow That I Used To Know. 'I was brought up in the slums. There's nothing nostalgic for me about remembering seven of us living in a room and kitchen. Adam's song made me feel very upset.' [Jim McLean] Adam acknowledges that Jim's song also has a piece of the truth about tenement living, and has been known to sing it 'back-to-back' with his own. A review strongly praising this song was somewhat marred by a misprint which commented on the line 'Remember the rates and the mice ye once chased'. Very Kelvinside. (McVicar, One Singer One Song 90)

  • [1990:] I have stressed earlier that not all tenement neighbourhoods were slums. Glasgow also had areas of upper-working-class and lower-middle-class tenements, as well as those of the solid middle class. From 1900 until the start of the First World War, for example, perhaps 6,000 room-and-kitchen houses with a bathroom were built by private enterprises. Such a house - in a 'wally close' - was the acme of working-class respectability. This latter was a close with tiles on the walls up to a height of about four feet, as opposed to mere paint. (The term 'wally' refers to the kind of china out of which the tiles were made.) [...] The lower-middle-class version of this kind of house can be seen perfectly preserved in the Tenement House Museum in Buccleuch Street in the Garnethill area of the city. [...] But the fact of the matter is that such relatively good houses were beyond the reach of the great majority of working-class families in Glasgow. (Damer, Glasgow 97)

    Before, say, 1885 the Glasgow working class did not perceive housing as a top political priority. As Patrick Dollan puts it: "Housing reform was never even mentioned as everybody thought it was in accordance with the wishes of Divine Providence that miners, iron and steel and other workers, should be obliged to rear their families in single-apartment dwellings." But after the 1885 Royal Commission on Housing, the housing question was to become the single biggest and most persistent political issue on Clydeside for the next century. (Damer, Glasgow 122f)

    Cf. Henderson, Finding Peggy

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