SOME PEOPLE ARE BORN HIP, SOME ACHIEVE HIPNESS, and some have hipness thrust upon them. On my first night in Glasgow, I'm hanging out with some authentic Young Hipsters, friends of friends. Niall and Ben take one look at my clothes and inform me they just won't do. My jeans, T-shirt, and baseball hat quickly give me away as an impostor—I'm the least hip person I know, at home or abroad. "Your clothes say, 'Hey, look at me!'" Ben says, laughing. "'Over here! I'm an American! Overcharge me for drinks!'" So before we hit a single bar or club, Niall suggests we hunt down some of Glasgow's happening shops, where he and Ben would thrust a little hipness upon me.
Niall's an artist and Ben's a filmmaker, and both went to school here in their Scottish hometown. Ten years ago they would have moved straight to London after graduation, but with so much going on in Glasgow, they decided to stay put. We shop like the students they so recently were, first browsing through the outrageously expensive clothes in the stores that line Ingram Street. All have live DJ's standing at turntables and blasting house music, making the shops themselves seem like clubs, with racks taking up all the space on the dance floor. Ben and Niall tear through the clothes, making note of styles and trying some things on, but buying nothing. After the third shop, I have a pounding dance-dance-dance-music-induced headache. We work our way up the street, threading in and out of the men's stores surrounding Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art. Then we head to the Buchanan Galleries, the city's newest mall, where Niall and Ben make a beeline for H&M, a British version of the Gap. They ransack the merchandise, pulling out cheap knockoffs of the designer duds we've just pawed over.
"This place is brilliant," Niall says, holding a pair of pants up to my waist. "Whatever you see in the pricey shops, they've got the same stuff a month later."
Ben and Niall outfit me in cargo pants, a tight electric-blue T-shirt, an orange bubble vest, and a floppy vinyl fishing hat—I suddenly look like someone I wouldn't sit next to on the subway—and it's mission accomplished. To celebrate, we head for tea at the upscale department store John Lewis.
"This is where the ladies of leisure take tea," Ben says in a stage whisper as we find a table. "Pure class, pure class."
While we pick over cranberry-and-Brie sandwiches and a selection of fruit tarts—tea is really about fattening food—I ask the boys to explain Glasgow's thriving bar scene. First, bars are not to be confused with clubs; the two are completely different. Bars open early and close early; clubs open late and close late. You drink in bars, dance in clubs. But once, I'm told, there were only pubs—places with lots of dark, carved wood, threadbare velvet, and beveled-glass mirrors.
"Then about ten years ago," Niall says, "around the time Glasgow was named European City of Culture, TM bars started opening. 'Twisty metal.' It's what we call bars with 'cutting-edge' design." Ben cocks an eyebrow. "Lots of rough, unfinished wood and uncomfortable metal stools."
TM bars—the first big one was the Living Room in the West End—shattered the pub aesthetic and created a desire for cool watering holes. Such a vast crop of new bars has sprouted in the last few years that the city's nightlife is facing something of a supply-and-demand problem: too many cutting-edge bars chasing after too few cutting-edge customers. But cutting edges dull quickly, so about five years after TM bars broke the pub mold, stark, minimalist bars began appearing. In fact, they're still opening—and still booming. Only now it isn't enough for a bar to be merely minimalist, my guides explain. It has to have a theme.
"Like the weather, or Asia," Niall says. "Or frozen tundra, or Ally McBeal, or spaceships."
Considering the number of bars Niall and Ben tell me we'll visit before the night is through, I worry that we'll wind up drinking in a place with a gastrointestinal-tract theme because the good ideas have already been snapped up.
They assure me we will not.
WHAT AM I DOING IN GLASGOW, SIPPING TEA WITH HIPSTERS while ladies of leisure sniff at my gangsta wear?Well, rumor had it that formerly grimy, formerly industrial Glasgow was taking its turn as the United Kingdom's hippest city, having wrested that coveted title from formerly grimy, formerly industrial (and now formerly hip) Manchester. Why the usually sensible editors of this fine publication would send a writer who is not even remotely hip and happening—that would be me—to investigate these rumors is a bit of a mystery. The idea that I could just fly into Glasgow and discover its hot spots seemed absurd. But, as my dear ol' granny always said, never say no to an expense account.
It was my job to experience Glasgow's new urban scene, my editor told me, and that would mean going out. At night. Drinking. I have long since passed the time when a great European vacation meant standing around in smoky dance clubs and drinking American beer while blood ran out of my eardrums. The last time I was in Scotland, I spent a week on the Orkney Islands watching sheep chew grass. The sheep watched me watching them. All in all, it was a perfectly restful vacation. I suggested to my editor that if he sent me back to the Orkneys, we could get ahead of the curve. I'd heard that Kirkwall on Orkney was going to be Britain's next Hippest and Most Happening City, I told him; next year all the hipsters would be tromping through pastures watching sheep graze. He didn't buy it.