A Glasgow Drift: 12th February 2017
‘Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees’
And so, my derive around Glasgow began. As I wandered along the banks of the Clyde, I stopped to read the words above; words that commemorate the contribution of Scottish lives to the Spanish Civil War but words that seemed remarkably prescient to me on that Sunday afternoon in February. Dying on my feet is a sensation I’ve often felt; perhaps on stage, perhaps in social situations, although generally when I’ve been at the behest of others. For me, drifting offers opportunities to be at the behest of no one. Instead, I am at the behest of the city. For the contemporary city, this often includes its machinations; I am moved around the city, as if pushed by an invisible force. The architecture guides me towards where it wants me to go although I feel more in control, as if I am in the driving seat.
Although I felt some of the machinations of contemporary urban planning controlling my drift around Glasgow, I also felt a sense that the city’s former state – perhaps as a hub of shipbuilding and other industries – was still very much present. As I walked along the banks of the Clyde, I noticed the juxtaposition of old with new, of industrial with post-industrial, of urban with urbane.
On the banks of the Clyde, I looked to my left and saw a stairway leading to such a juxtaposition. A boarded-up building, perhaps no longer of any use, stands looking up admiringly at the shiny newness of what it is to be a successful city dweller in the 21st century. By the time one reaches the foot of the building, the dirty greyness of the steps below is forgotten. Perhaps, inside the building, one looks down at the city and – on a sunny day – the glimmering of sunlight on the river might wash away the drabness of the old. These are the accidental machinations of the contemporary city, the Machiavellian machinations of urban planners.
As I continued my drift towards the city centre, I look up as I am used to in most cities, where I am dazzled and enticed by massive screens, distracting me from the reality of the city below. When I look up in Glasgow, however, I don’t see these screens of distraction; instead, I see the magnificence of the former wealth of the city, the grandiloquent fascia of more than a century ago looking down sadly at the orotund mess of a capitalism that has driven to distraction those with the means to participate, and driven to despair those who look on at the fringes of an orgy of frenzied Neoliberalism.
I walk around the edges of a shopping centre; I do not wish to enter the building; I do not want to be dazzled by the spectacle it promises, and so I take the long way around. It is Sunday afternoon and there is a sense of this building, even from the perimeter, being weary in it being ask to work a seventh consecutive day. This is not the mood of the workers, who perhaps appreciate the relative respite of Sunday shoppers, after the busyness and bustle of a Saturday crammed with intent purchasers and those enjoying a little retail therapy for those who can afford it and retail reconnaissance, for those who cannot. Those who want something and have the means to make this happen, do; those who want something but do not have the means, also do, but with a sense of strain (perhaps jouissance?); those who need something but cannot have it, do not. This is the way of capitalism. This is the way of the contemporary city.
When we look up, we see the past in the buildings looking down but we also see the future – or what a future might / should / could be – in the glaring screens of advertising, rolling news, and ideals for living. What we do not see – unless we look down – is those at the fringes of the city and of society. These are the individuals who may be forever on their knees because those of us who are dying on our feet (in more ways than we can possibly realise) want to accelerate this death. We have the choice of dying on our feet, rather than living forever on our knees; others may not have this choice. In a free society and a free world – a world that was fought for as those did in the Spanish Civil War – we should perhaps look down more often at the present than to live in the past and crave the future.
Belfast drift: 23rd-24th September 2017