18 Aug, 2009

Head to Head

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Although Edinburgh may be the summer’s cultural destination of choice, this year Glasgow is determined not to miss out on the action. Laura Barnett hops on a train to see how the two cities compare

Call me an English philistine, but I have never been entirely thrilled by the sound of bagpipes. So, as I emerge from Glasgow’s Queen Street station into the grand spaces of George Square, I am a little disconcerted to be confronted with an entire pipe band. The musicians stand in a circle, surrounded by camera-touting tourists. “Piping Live!” proclaim the banners on the marquees.

I’m not really supposed to be in Glasgow at all. I’m meant to be in Edinburgh. But I’ve made the journey – my first trip here – at the behest of the city’s marketing bureau, which is on a mission this year to prove that Glasgow (Scotland’s second city, but its biggest – home to around 2 million people) has an arts scene every bit as exciting as its ancient rival. Even in mid-August, they say, when every conceivable venue in Edinburgh – from theatres to swimming pools, church halls and even public toilets – is teeming with performances. I’m doubtful, and the World Pipe Championships isn’t quite doing it for me so far. But all the same, I’m intrigued.

It’s widely accepted, of course, that Glasgow’s arts scene is one of the freshest and most exciting in the UK. Almost all Scotland’s major arts organisations are based here, from the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet. The city has its own poet laureate (Liz Lochhead). The Turner prize-winning artists Douglas Gordon and Simon Starling work here – as do actors including Robert Carlyle and Simon Pegg. Belle and Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol and Travis all formed in Glasgow. But can the city really compete during festival month, when Edinburgh hosts the largest and most diverse series of arts festivals in the world?

Only one way to find out: spend a day here and explore. Which means it’s time to get moving. First off, I check Glasgow’s theatre programmes. This doesn’t bode well: there’s almost nothing on. The King’s, on Bath Street, is closed for restoration until September; the Citizens, in the Gorbals, is dark; as is the Merchant City’s Tron. Theatre at the Arches, under Glasgow’s Central station, has decamped to Edinburgh (an act of treachery, surely?). And the Theatre Royal offers slim pickings: in August I could see the variety show One Night in Vegas, the medium Gordon Smith or, this week, comedian Bill Bailey (usually a fringe stalwart, he appears to be swimming against the tide this year). But there’s not much more. A spokesman for the Ambassador Theatre Group, which runs the King’s and the Theatre Royal, admits things are quieter than usual. “During August, the onus is on Edinburgh,” he concedes. One-nil to Auld Reekie.

Such a disproportionate focus on the capital is exactly what the National Theatre of Scotland is keen to avoid. The company, whose offices are based in an industrial estate on Glasgow’s Civic Street, has no permanent home theatre, and tours productions around the country instead. NTS itineraries have usually included Edinburgh – the first being the internationally successful Black Watch, which was a five-star hit on the fringe in 2006 and later toured as far away as Australasia and America. But not this year, a spokeswoman explains: their energies are elsewhere. “That way, we can reach a larger geographical spread of audiences,” she says. Audiences in Glasgow, however, will have to wait. Although rehearsals are well under way for a new version of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba by Rona Munro, set in Glasgow’s East End, the show doesn’t open at the Citizens until September.

I ask Roberta Doyle, the company’s director of external affairs, why there’s virtually no theatre here during August. Competition from the Edinburgh fringe has something to do with it, she thinks, but also points out that very few Glaswegians actually make the 45-mile journey to the festival (last year, they made up less than 6% of fringe audiences – so much so that the festival management is trying to tempt Glaswegians down the M8 with specially-designed “package tours”).

There might be another reason, too – one buried in the past. “Glasgow’s history is very different to Edinburgh’s,” explains Doyle. “Unlike Edinburgh, Glasgow was an industrial city, an immigrant city. Every summer, the factories would close down for the same fortnight, and all the workers would go ‘doon the watter’, along the Clyde. So the people who ran the theatres in Glasgow knew that there was no point putting anything on in the summer.”

No theatre for me, then. Will Glasgow’s art collections fare any better? I head for Kelvingrove, the city’s huge, red-brick art gallery and museum, set in a park in the elegant West End. It’s definitely open; there’s even a short queue for the Doctor Who summer exhibition, which promises an array of Doctor-related memorabilia (not one for me, but the permanent collections are huge and suitably impressive). Outside in the sunshine, however, two French students eating sandwiches tell me they’re heading to Edinburgh next week. “Glasgow’s great,” says 20-year-old Hugo Alvarez, “but the Edinburgh festival is supposed to be unique – we wouldn’t miss it.” Glaswegian support worker Moira Reid, sitting nearby, thinks she might also head over. No competition between the two cities at this time of year, then? “Oh no,” she says cheerfully, “that’s all imaginary.”

Over at the offices of the city’s marketing bureau, Elizabeth Cameron, a councillor and chair of the city’s culture and sport committee, agrees. “There’s only an artificial rivalry,” she says. “Edinburgh’s very pretty, you can’t deny it, and the festival is an absolute joy. But it’s about working together, and complementing each other.” Regeneration has worked wonders, she says: “When I was younger, you saw a tourist in Glasgow and you thought they were either lost or on their way somewhere else. Now, we have 90% occupancy in our hotels, even in August. And”, she adds proudly, “a double-page feature in Paris Match about what a great city it is to visit.”

To show off the vibrancy of Glasgow’s art scene, the bureau is keen to show me around Trongate 103, a new centre for the visual arts, a five-storey converted Edwardian warehouse in the Merchant City. This is a trendy area beloved of actors and artists, full of high-ceilinged former tobacco warehouses that were tarted up in the 1980s (when estate agents also coined the area’s moniker). Trongate 103 will house eight organisations, including the artist-run Transmission Gallery and the Russian “kinetic theatre” company Sharmanka. It doesn’t open until September – I’m detecting a trend – so it’s still mainly an empty shell, but it’s clear that it will be a wonderful space, with the requisite lofty ceilings, exposed brickwork and high windows offering widescreen views across the tenements towards the Clyde.

I talk to the artist John Mackechnie, director of the Glasgow Print Studio, in an as-yet-unfinished space on the second floor. Mackechnie often goes to Edinburgh for the art strand of the fringe, he says – in fact, he’s often exhibited there. “We actually complement each other quite well,” he says. “The Edinburgh art scene is generally more conservative – a lot of old money. The more successful, younger artists tend to live in Glasgow. There’s just a bigger buzz around the art scene here. Artists come to study at the art school, and then they stay.”

Next stop, the Clyde itself. I take a taxi from the Merchant City out along the river. The bureau have another weapon in their armoury – the £74m Riverside Museum, designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid to house the city’s transport museum (Glasgow’s “second most popular tourist attraction”, its website states with commendable honesty). The Riverside doesn’t open until 2011 and is only half-built, but it’s already been dubbed “Glasgow’s Guggenheim”. There is no doubt that it is impressive, even half-finished, with a great, curving roof, the zinc cladding to its exterior already partly in place, and a cavernous, soaring interior. I’m told it’ll house such attractions as Kelvin Street, the transport’s museum recreation of a historically accurate Glasgow avenue, with the new addition of a 1980s-era block, and a series of cars mounted on the wall, like books on shelves.

It seems entirely possible that the Riverside Museum could very easily draw the crowds away from Edinburgh, even during festival season. And even a day’s limited acquaintance makes me fall in love with Glasgow’s arty vibe. As I make my way back to Queen Street station, I’m already making plans to return, and see the city in full cultural flow. But for now, it’s time to head back to Edinburgh – which still wins out as Scotland’s place to be for the arts. At least in August.

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