Listening to the River: the changing nature of one city waterway.

Glasgow’s had some balmy weather recently. We had many days over 20°, the kind of temperature where some ‘taps’ come ‘aff’. For those of us who keep our clothes on, double figures on the thermometer is still worth paying attention to. Many days have been known to pass in Glasgow between sightings of the sun. We like to pay our respects each and every time, just in case. On one recent summery day, I happened upon the river and decided to catch the last of the afternoon sun.

Glasgow’s most well-known river, the Clyde,  is a well-known point of interest in the city. It also flows through many of central Scotland’s towns – Including Lanark, Hamilton, Motherwell, Dumbarton and Erskine.

As seen from the Erskine Bridge.

The River Clyde is around 108 miles long (8th longest in the UK; 2nd longest in Scotland), and flows from the Daer water in South Lanarkshire through to Greenock. From here, the river spills to the sea through the Firth of Clyde.

A hint of an industrial past

In the city of Glasgow,  the river is central to neighbourhoods such as Dalmarnock, the Gorbals and Govan  The Clyde also features at many leading tourist attractions – including Glasgow Green, the Tall Ship, the Science Centre and of course, the eponymously named Riverside museum .

Riverside Museum and the Tall Ship

Of course there are also many notable points of interest for social history, one such being the Broomielaw. The Broomielaw is closely intertwined with Irish Immigration to the city, as well as Scottish Migration. It is also fondly remembered as the starting point of many  Glaswegian and Scottish family holidays, as families set sail ‘doon the watter’. Of course, I didn’t set sail but rather just sit doon next to the water. I lay on the grass for about ten minutes, closed my eyes and decided to pay attention to the sounds of the river. A ‘soundscape’ is an important part of pyschogeography and mapping a space. What you hear is an interesting way to gather clues to what’s taking place around you. In just a few minutes, I was able to note many sounds. The most intrusive included the ebb and flow of traffic at the lights behind me; I could also hear clearly the raucous shouts and chatter of a crowd of young, drunk people to my left. Intermittent noises included the shrill chirrup of a signalling bike bell on the pathway, and the whirr of cycle wheels spinning by. The soft slap of trainers on the concrete as runners’ passed.  Small children chattered and laughed with their families nearby, and the pleasant melodies of different languages being spoken. More distinct noises were heard – the pop of a cork leaving a bottle, the quiet thud of falling sycamore seeds hitting my notebook.

So, the Riverside offered up sounds that suggested it was a gathering-place, a place to meet, to socialise; a place of recreation and of individual sporting pursuits. The soundscape doesn’t just highlight what ‘is’;  the soundscape can also offer clues to what’s not around you. What was missing? Well,if the riverbanks were alive with people socialising, exercising and travelling, the river itself was surprisingly quiet. By no means is the river waterway redundant. Scheduled sailings still take place on the World’s last passenger-carrying, seagoing paddle steamer, the Waverley. Shipbuilding, although a shrunken and much troubled industry, still takes place on the banks of the Clyde. However, at the time of my listening exercise, I did not hear a single boat or rivercraft pass me by. This is particularly poignant when you consider that  Glasgow once made 20% of the world’s ships in her yards. The water that flows through the Clyde has been critical to the industrial development and success of the city of Glasgow.  The river was a key part of the story of population growth and the arrival and departure point of peoples’ journeys . Journeys to work, pleasure or to new lives. Whilst the Clyde continues to ribbon through the heart and future of the city, the recent history of de-industrialisation  means that  ships, steamers, ferries and boats have a strangely minimal role to play in the future life of the river. Unless of course, you’ve ‘heard’ differently…?

 

 

 

 

 

Psycho-what? The practice of psychogeography as I see it.

I was introduced to psychogeography as part of my community development studies. The exact practice is contested, with no simple agreed definition. But I ‘d like to tell you about what I think it is, and why I think it matters. In the interest of giving context, there’s a decent explanation of psychogeography here . If you get really interested, I’d recommend books such as Merlin Coverley’s ‘Psychogeography’ John Roger’s excellent and comprehensive website ‘The Lost Byway’; Lynsey Hanley’s ‘Estates’or John Grindrod’s ‘Concretopia’.The last two focus on post-war developments in housing and public buildings, but both feature in-depth studies and consideration of urban areas- important elements of psychogeography.  If you are looking for the more academic origins of the subject, read Guy Debord , from whom the term ‘psychogeography’ is derived.

So, back to me. What exactly is it that I get up to on this psychogeography nonsense? I was completely intimidated in the beginning. Firstly, the name sounds pretentious. It did not sound like the sort of thing a working-class woman from a housing scheme (me) would do, even one who was at University. When first asked to carry out a ‘derive’ (a sort of free flowing wander through a cityscape) as part of a course, I thought that I was pretty observant and completely aware of my surroundings. How much harder could I really look, I thought. But time constraints and convenience meant that I was reliant on taking familiar routes to places I knew well. Yes, I was in Glasgow city all the time for work and study, but I stuck to straightforward routes and the main thoroughfares. Psychogeography demands closer attention, a tuning in to your surroundings. The idea is to wander aimlessly through an urban area, the aforementioned derive, giving in-depth contemplation to all that you experience. Psychogeography requires that you have some time to explore, and encourages you to follow unknown paths. Go to the same places at different times. You don’t plan your route. This I found a little daunting at first, but most people are only ever a smartphone away from a map. Or a human away from advice. Are you Intrigued enough to start your own psychogeographical walk? Some things you could consider as a starting point:

  • When you are walking, notice who surrounds you.  Are there women and children present? Older people?  Are people their for work or leisure? Is the area  diverse or populated exclusively by one ethnicity?
  • Look for indicators of social class and divides too. Security guard in the store? Doorman in the entrance way? What pubs have smokers standing in the doorway as opposed to shielded and discrete designated areas?
  • Stop and look at street art. What are the messages in both the officially acceptable (yes, the city council funds most of those beautiful beautiful building-sized murals) and the ‘illegal’ kind, graffiti tags on railway bridges and in city lanes; vinyl stickers slapped on street furniture.
  • Look at litter with the same interest. The debris you see is often indicative of the people who frequent the area even when no-one is there. [In one example, I saw lots of lidless, polystyrene coffee-cups littered a fairly prestigious, seemingly residential area of Glasgow. It didn’t make sense. Returning on another walk at lunchtime, I discovered it was the debris of the pupils from a fee-paying school. They feasted on chicken nuggets and noodles from a nearby corner shop at lunch time. I had to be there at two separate times of day to make the connection]
  • If the street is clean, why? Whose image is being upheld? Are there council workers visible? If not, why not?
  • Engage all of your senses. Certain sounds and smells will stress you, others will calm you- this will change how you interact with a space.
  • What buildings are in the space? Can you enter them freely or are they out of bounds? If so, who gets access and why? Are there abandoned buildings? If so, how does that change the space?
  • What about evidence of retail growth, industrial decline, gentrification?
  • What are the features of areas where  people freely congregate? What is lacking or present in other spaces that prevents people from congregating?

What exactly is the point of all this walking, this wandering and wondering? I quickly realised, from the very first derive, that I was not fully engaged with the spaces I used.  Psychogeography incites new discoveries  and promotes critical thinking. For community development professionals, activists, and ‘ordinary’ citizens alike. Psychogeography hopefully encourage new insights and perceptions of the places that shape us. It should consolidate some existing beliefs and challenge stereotypes. You’ll probably make sobering discoveries. For example, early on, I found that certain prestigious city centre shops and malls are seconds away from loose communities of rough sleepers, amongst the city’s most vulnerable people. To uncover findings like this, you have to deviate from the safe,pedestrianised encouraged and’endorsed’ routes; you have to explore. I hadn’t exactly conceived that those without homes would congregate neatly on the periphery of the city by night to spare others the discomfort of the homelessness problem. But I certainly didn’t imagine that people would bed down at the back door of Glasgow’s luxury retail outlets. Retail premises, incidentally, which take up vast amounts of space and lie unused, with the lights on, by night.

Over time, your endeavours will excavate themes. Control, visibility, order and disorder, claimed and contested spaces (see John Gaventa on this). Discrimination and segregation. Permissions, omissions and transgressions. Beauty and decay. If you get hooked on psychogeography (almost certain) your familiarity and freedom within a space will grow.  Your ability to traverse the city by your own two feet will hopefully astound you, the radical realisation that many places are walk-able by the time you wait for and use a bus will be heartening. The streets will seem to shrink as your knowledge expands. And with the emergence of understanding, your ability to prompt change will increase significantly. I can’t tell you how exactly, because I can’t predict what will affect people most. Perhaps you’ll be moved to document your findings or become more politically aware. Maybe you’ll seek out like-minded people or get involved in activism.  Maybe you’ll feel sickened by the amount we consume and spend in the literal face of others’ adversity. Maybe you’ll go to places you thought were out of bounds. Certainly, all of the above have happened to me.  I’ve already written that I believe places are part of what makes us ‘us’. Irrespective of your background, we all have a stake in shaping the places in which we live, travel and work.  We just need to give ourselves permission to believe it. From exploration, comes insight and understanding. And with understanding, the impetus to act.