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Scottish Revolution

The banners fluttering around George Square, home to the government buildings and watched over by a plinthed sculpture of Sir Walter Scott, offer up a clue to this newfound confidence. For years, the marketing of Glasgow labored under the dreadful slogan "We're smiles better," with a cheerful line drawing that underscored the point. Some genius has made the smiley face go away, and now banners proclaim "Glasgow: Scotland with Style." This is interesting for all kinds of reasons, not the least being that throughout my childhood, until I left for university as a 17-year-old, Glasgow never laid claim to a central role. Pretension was perceived in the smallest gesture, and the clear message that to be Glaswegian was to embrace an inferiority complex was endemic. The city may have once been "the second city of the empire," but it was generally understood that it was never the first, that Edinburgh was the more impressive Scottish city and that London ruled the south. This was both believed and not, in the sense that there was great disdain for the "sassenach" (anglicized, in effect) leanings of Edinburgh, and for the fancy-pants nature of those who ventured south, combined with an equally powerful feeling of not measuring up—and so now, to declare yourself both the center of the country and aesthetically superior?This is more than a marketing moment; this is a psychological breakthrough!

When I was a teenager, George Square was the traffic hub of my life—the source of the all-important last bus home, where the gangs of us spilling out of nightclubs at 1 a.m. ran to catch a ride to whatever part of the city we came from. My last bus rollicked noisily southeast and now I found myself on autopilot, retracing its route over to the Tron (which has become the home of one of the most experimental and talented theater companies in the country, and of a bustling bar scene that holds out the promise of a Peter Mullan, Bill Forsyth, or Billy Connolly sighting on any given night), and the remnants of medieval Glasgow, including the small gem of a museum, Provand's Lordship (an outstanding example of 15th-century domesticity, where it seems not even a chair has been moved since I was a kid), and the glorious Glasgow Cathedral, built in the 1330's. The tentacles of gentrification have insinuated themselves here, but the "mean streets" atmosphere of the East End hasn't been completely eradicated, and the nosiness that characterizes Glaswegians is still in evidence. I stood at an intersection trying to decide whether I should continue south to the banks of the Clyde; go north, to indulge in a Mackintosh fix courtesy of one of his earliest buildings, the Church at Queen's Cross; or head west to the manicured slopes of Kelvinside and my hotel. Within seconds, several passers-bystopped to ask me what I was doing, and proceeded to cross-examine me, in the nicest possible way, about my plans for the rest of the day. Glaswegians are not shy people, especially on their home turf, and they can spot an exile or outsider a mile off, even though what constitutes an "insider" has shifted considerably in the postwar period. Two of the women who stopped to help me were wearing vibrant, sorbet-colored saris, though their accents were as thickly Scottish as mine once was. They offered the same "nae bother" (basically "you're welcome") when I thanked them, as all the others had, and when I mentioned how much the city had changed since I moved to New York in the late eighties, they gavethe ubiquitous response, "Aye, it's right cosmopolitan now."

There's no escaping the energy and verve that the influx of Asian immigrants added to Glasgow during the sixties and seventies. In all manner of ways, they have brought bold color to the hesitantly muted Scottish palette, and encouraged in their subdued neighbors an appreciation for the flashier side of life. The influx of Bangladeshis, Hong Kong Chinese, and Pakistanis also played an important part in establishing the groundwork for an economy switch from heavy industry (shipbuilding and mining) to a service sector that thrives on tourism. An instant indicator of the cultural change is the emergence of chips with curry sauce as the favorite take-out item, but the haute side of the scale has taken off, too.

At the Killermont Polo Club, I found all the usual curry candidates, but there was also a menu of innovative dishes served dum pukht-style—a Moghul technique for clay-pot cooking. Five years ago, the food was good. But now, like the city itself, it has been ratcheted up a notch, with sharper presentation and more surprising combinations—an improvement that seems profound to those of us who knew Glasgow in the days when vegetables were always boiled into oblivion.

The town's official motto, Let Glasgow Flourish, was a joke for most of the 20th century, but now, on the unlikely back of belief in art and culture, Glasgow has indeed made itself a destination city. The appearance in the last five years of every major hotel chain (from Hilton to Marriott, Radisson to Novotel) seems proof that if you build it, they will come.

Making my way back to the West End (the original home of Glasgow's mercantile class, with Georgian terraces and sandstone villas) and my town-house hotel, I found myself in a nostalgic zone. Many of the Sunday outings that my mother insisted my sister and I join her on while my dad worked overtime were to the marble halls of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. There, we visited favorite paintings before marching on to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens and the serene walkways along the river Kelvin.

This is the turf of the University of Glasgow and its students, and although my mother never went to college herself, she found it soothing to be in the hallowed halls of higher learning. As a matter of course she would read aloud to us the descriptive cards that sat in front of any display, be it a cactus or a Rodin. (I haven't visited a museum with her in several years, but the fact that she still reads the newspaper aloud to me, sometimes even on a transatlantic call, probably confirms that her impulse to share facts hasn't abated.)

The Kelvingrove is closed for at least another two years for a major overhaul. The centerpiece of the gardens, the 1873 marvel of conservatory engineering called Kibble Palace—where I would jump nervously back from any leaf that brushed against me, believing my granddad's tales of kid-eating plants—is also closed for a face-lift. But old friends from Kelvingrove, like Rembrandt's Man in Armour, can be seen at the McLellan galleries. The silence of these empty spaces held me for several minutes, a tape of childhood playing in the recesses of my mind. It seemed a long way from the child in "Sunday best," searching for loveliness in a battered landscape, to the tourists who milled around me now.


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