December morning and I stand with my back to the city; two concrete towers’ reflections are caught on a glass window in front of me behind steel mesh. Running my hand along the flaking black and green paintwork, I read, inscribed in gold above the door: ‘Licensed to sell alcoholic drinks.’ The thud of the pickaxe comes to me from above, the final tolls in the last moments of The Blarney Stone. When I look I see the labourer’s blows beginning to reveal the roof beams, exposed like skeletal ribs against the grey sky above the gutted, dusty shell.
The Blarney Stone, standing at the corner of acres of nothing; a last headstone to a lost Gorbals, a landscape swept away in the delirium of the sixties under the advancing roar of yellow bulldozers and swinging balls and chains. And the stones that once housed a cauldron of Glasgow humanity, thousands of workers and families shoulder to shoulder, were carted away in a line of tipper trucks, rumbling dusty through the streets. Asphalt roads and kerbstones formed a shadow on the ground in the line of where the streets had been.
The last empty silver kegs in the street, stacked in rows of two on four. Black Guinness sign on the green wall, its plastic stained with the decades, the light inside forever gone out, the last drop drunk, the glasses carried away in cardboard boxes. Two or three whisky gill dispensers lie scattered in leftover debris.
And after the bulldozers methodically razed the Gorbals, so that stoory rubble stretched as far as the developers’ eyes could see, The Blarney Stone and two or three other little buildings, a tiny raggle of pubs and betting shops, remained erect. The flats and single ends above them, scene of so many personal histories and encounters, lopped off like the top of a boiled egg, leaving these odd-looking, daft wee buildings with hastily asphalted flat roofs and blank rendered walls. The reasons for The Blarney Stone’s exemption from this masonry pogrom are not clear. Maybe the prospect of some continued commercial viability against a sea of desolation carried it through, or the obstinacy of a landlord who couldn’t understand the concept of ‘progress.’ And so it became a curious epitaph, a last awkward breath of history. No different from any of the other pubs in the area, and no different from many of the Glasgow bars made for men’s drinking. It had nothing special to merit its survival. But the levelling of the rolling bulldozers had been diverted and The Blarney Stone remained above ground, pulling punters out of the air to keep alive.
And I imagine them coming back then, the trickle of decanted and dispersed Gorbalese: clinging to lost dreams of their demised community, commuting from their new homes in the new peripheral estates, communing with old friends and comrades shunted out along with them td a prescribed new life at the four bleakest corners of the city: Castlemilk, Easterhouse, Drumchapel, Pollok. The others, who did not make it back, thrown to the wildernesses of the central new towns, drinking their weekends among new folk, between the sterile concrete walls of a new town tavern, dreaming of old connections.
My hands, blue with cold, shakily hold the camera, record the pickaxeman’s blows; the broken sign, revealing an older one behind it, the crumbling stonework, the wrought-iron ventilation gates below the steel-coloured windows.
I can see them now, staring from the windows, fingers wrapped around muddy pints, the pale eyes of punters viewing the void that once had contained their whole lives. Those who when looking through the emptiness could piece together in their thoughts the phantom stones and masonry of the adjoining buildings, so that the street, the people and the life returned. As did all the stories: the work, the football, brief encounters with transient girlfriends, those first kisses with the wife, the fights, Thursday’s empty pay-packets and Friday’s empty glasses. I can hear their murmurs, see the swirling cigarette smoke, hear their lungs coughing.
A rusting fan turns loosely on its axle in the window. Through the door, the floor’s disappeared; rusty nails stick vertically from the battered joists. The hardhatted silhouette of a workman crouches on the roof.
The grass grew over rubble untouched since the bulldozers left. Tower blocks were erected and came down, the city perpetually changing and readjusting itself to its own hidden logic. The Blarney Stone continued through the thirty years towards more and more difficult times; dwindling numbers of punters, some moving farther away from the city, others slipping away towards death or to nursing homes, and still others, grasping at the future, going their own way, unwilling to relive their past and make the journey down the road to drink in a pub that had nothing to offer but memories, a departed life m a landscape that no longer existed.
Around the back of The Blarney Stone, I piss in the cold morning where countless others pissed. The grey render wall stained with my flow. Bottles and cans cast there around my feet make a mosaic of faded colours and rusting steel.
And then daggers came out again for The Blarney Stone. Once more external eyes hovered over the Gorbals. It began again there, the developers’ dream, a full reinvention of the area: the Gorbals as a wonderful opportunity to experience inner-city life: flats for sale or to lee, supermarkets, car parking, two minutes from the city centre. Cheap brick buildings with ornamental iron and plastic pediments crept towards it, their future inhabitants the young and the wealthy. And in this new vision, The Blarney Stone, the lonely anachronism, became an assault on the image of a reinvented Gorbal: jarring sensitive dispositions; too ugly with too many memories of what came before; connotations of dirt and working classes.
I can hear the shouts from workmen, and the traffic on the road. Both come to me muffled by the walls. There’s an empty shadow where the TV used to hover above the bar. More sounds, the footsteps of workmen, the splintering of joists, the rattling of broken deadening dropping to the floor, the rhythmic dripping of a broken pipe.
It will be erased now, its site taken by the latest private apartment block, to be consigned to the domain of ghosts. Perhaps a framed picture amongst others in a brick pub with a plastic pediment: Glasgow long ago where sooty-faced urchins rummage through dirty middens, and half-finished ocean liners stand erect in dry docks surrounded by toothy workers grinning their pride. A working-class history reduced to a series of grainy images, behind glass, pinned to a wall.
And as I walk back northwards through Crown Street and Kwik Save, I think of The Blarney Stone as a metaphor for Glasgow. As the city reinvents itself, it systematically destroys a collective memory and creates a new one. Struggles and contradictions become negated by their potential to be presented as a picturesque history; distanced from the present-neat, sanitised, manipulated memories. The Blarney Stone stands as a lifelong antagonist, an obstinate cancer in the first clearing of the Gorbals. Too ugly to be assimilated in its reinvention, it slips quietly beneath the waves of redevelopment; our memories wiped clean.
I walk back towards the city centre, past the law courts and the Calton. And on the suspension bridge a Big Issue seller hunches against the wind, thrusting papers at passers-by. A pile of papers wrapped in clear plastic stands at his feet. We both shiver as I walk by.