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The City and the Writer: In Glasgow with Alan Parks

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Glasgow as you feel/see it?

It’s hard for a city to have one mood, I think. Stand on one street and it’s all money and restaurants and shops full of Gucci and Prada. Stand on another and it’s like stepping back a century, people wrestling with poverty, despair, and the odds stacked against them. I wouldn’t think that the two have much in common moodwise. Glasgow is a fractured, incoherent city. Just like everywhere else.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

This happened years ago now, on Maryhill Road. It was a summer night, still light at half past ten. We were walking up the street and there was a boy of seven or so with a younger brother, maybe four or five, walking toward us. My friend asked them what they were doing out so late and the boy said, “Looking for my Mum and Dad.”


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That it is slowly being destroyed. The same idiotic Glasgow council that tried to destroy every Greek Thomson building in the sixties is currently trying to knock down every single high flat in the city. The built environment of Glasgow is extraordinary and, unfortunately, its destiny seems to be in the hands of councillors who are at best short sighted and at worst criminally incompetent. There is a stunning, unrivalled collection of midcentury ecclesiastical architecture in Glasgow. That too is treated with contempt.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Peter MacDougall. He is a dramatist and he wrote a series of TV films in the early seventies that are still, to me, the best and truest writing about Glasgow. His best-known film, Just Another Saturday, deals with an Orange Walk and its aftermath. His ear for the rhythm of Glaswegian speech is amazing. Also, listen to the first Billy Connolly records, which are more evocative of Glasgow and how Glaswegians speak and act than almost any novel. Except The Papers of Tony Veitch by William McIllvanney.


Is there a place here you return to often?

Coia’s Cafe on Duke Street. Best breakfast in Glasgow. Proper cafe. Open all day. Italian waiters in shirts and ties, sells everything from bacon rolls to lobster spaghetti. Great ice cream. It’s well worth a visit if you are ever here.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Not that I can think of. Glasgow, unlike Edinburgh, doesn’t invest much in its literary monuments and sites. Its interests are elsewhere. Glasgow was always a city more interested in activities—going out, football, the pictures—than staying in and reading books. And long may it be so.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Everybody’s city is hidden from everyone else. It’s only when you stray into someone else’s that you notice the change. I used to work in a soup kitchen and you would see the people who went there in the most extraordinary places and contexts. The city you would imagine they inhabited, the places you thought they would go, were completely wrong. Everyone has a city they travel through; it’s theirs alone. And more often than not, it’s a mystery.


Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in almost every Glaswegian. Just not always where you think. I met a Glaswegian man on a bus in Sydney once. He spent a half-hour bus journey telling me in explicit and forensic detail about the different varieties of beetroot he grew in his garden. Last night in the pub a person I’d never met before introduced himself by saying he was a “Mad Shagger.” Then he told me all about his amorous adventures in the Middle East. As I said, passion is not always where you expect.


What is the title of one of your works about Glasgow and what inspired it exactly?

Bloody January (Europa Editions, 2018). A few different things inspired it. The physical landscape of my childhood. The places I used to go when I was ten or so to visit my extended family. The Milton, Springburn, Maryhill. I wanted to write about those places around the time I was there, the early seventies. I also wanted to write about the very poor in the city and the very rich and what happens when they collide. That collision tends to happen around drugs, sex, or crime. So a crime novel it was!


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Glasgow does an outside exist?”

Not to me. I carry it with me always.


Alan Parks was born in Elderslie, Scotland. He studied moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. As creative director of Warner Music UK, Parks fashioned campaigns for artists, including New Order, The Streets, and Cee Lo Green. Bloody January (Europa Editions, 2018) is his debut novel.

Published May 2, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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