When I first arrived in Glasgow in the summer of 2017 – an unusually hot summer for Scotland – I spent my lunch breaks wandering the streets around the university department where I now worked. Transplanted from rural Australia to lodgings in north London to an ex-council flat in Maryhill in the period of six weeks, I was psychologically jetlagged and still making sense of where I had finally ended up. I was 48 and had felt the need to end up somewhere rather than merely passing through.
In Hillhead, students live in HMO-licensed tenements, nineteenth-century flats converted by landlords into modern-day slums. The warm, sun-washed streets were picturesque in a way I hadn’t expected of Scotland. There was something languid, almost Deep South, about the crumbling sandstone tenements and the extravagant, encroaching greenery. Compared to the aridity of inland Australia, the midsummer foliage seemed tropical in its density.
I took photos on my phone, because in those first weeks everything was so vivid and disorientating. I thought that if I had a record of what I saw, these strong but fleeting feelings would not be entirely lost to me. I also wanted to witness this point in my life, of having finally arrived in the place I was going to live for the foreseeable future, with a proper income and a regular address, saved from the ritualised humiliation of applying for jobs and from eventual bag-ladydom, which had begun to seem the most likely endpoint.
One photo was of a building – I didn’t note what street – with a Saltire flag in one window, obviously a student flat. I posted it on Facebook, to signal my arrival, exploring a new city. I wasn’t new to Scotland, but Glasgow was fresh territory.
After my week or two of aimless yet self-orienting block-walking through unknown streets in 2017, I’d mapped out the necessary routes and become economical and pragmatic in my movements. I stopped taking photos, until the winter when the ‘Beast from the East’ covered the West End in snow, making it another place entirely, photographable for different reasons. I didn’t think any more about the window with the Saltire flag. There are many windows in Scotland with the Saltire flag in place of a curtain or blind.
One of my allowable internet distractions while working from home is to browse the website GlasgowLive. This provides the sort of hyper-local news overlooked by BBC Scotland: the discovery of a charred body in Ruchill Park; a black and white cat missing after swimming across the River Kelvin; the declaration by a Spanish sea captain, stuck on his cruise ship on the Clyde for a whole pandemic year, that Glasgow is ‘the friendliest city’ he’d ever been. (Glasgow sets great store by its friendliness.) After the weekend storms, a shaky mobile-phone video showed water pouring through the ceiling in Sauchiehall Street TK Maxx as customers evacuated up the escalator, still clutching their shopping bags.
(I shop in TK Maxx. It could’ve been me in that phone video.)
The other day, I read that a tenement building in Hillhead had been declared unsafe by a council structural engineer. Several student households had immediately been displaced, along with a tenant of 15 years. My attention was snagged by the photo of the closed-off street. The pale sandstone walls and the Saltire flag in the window were instantly familiar, even though the photo had been taken on a grey, wet day. I read that the factor could not obtain agreement between several private landlords on how to deal with the subsidence problem, and finally the building was condemned.
When I finished work for the day, it wasn’t raining, for a change, and I went out for a walk, compelled to see for myself if the building in the article was the same one I’d photographed four years ago.
I had to look up the street names from the article to orient myself. I hadn’t been down that street for years; I’d had no need. And there it was, the same Saltire flag, like an abandoned pennant in a battle lost. The building was cordoned off by chain-link fencing and already looked like a ruin. Uninhabited buildings die very quickly; unlike nature, they do not flourish in the absence of people.
Since I took that photograph of the Saltire in the window, I’d left Glasgow, to live with a man, and then returned, to live on my own. It seemed much longer than four years.
I stood outside the security fencing—it still wasn’t raining, although it constantly threatened—and briefly remembered that strange, stark, half-dreamed sunny afternoon when I had only just arrived in this city, on the brink of a new, unknown life, still on the outside looking in.