I have never seen so many golf bags in my life.
I am sitting in the international arrivals lounge at Glasgow airport. So far planes have come in from New Jersey, Philadelphia and Toronto. I am waiting for friends arriving on the flight from Orlando.
They’ll have a great time in Scotland. Everybody does, especially the folk who take the time to see Glasgow instead of rushing north.
Glasgow has some of the finest art collections in Europe, and some of the finest buildings in which to house them. I’ve spent a day trawling the twenty-two galleries of the Kelvingrove collection, where an eclectic mix of Dutch masters and dinosaurs, Scottish design and samurai swords fuses harmoniously inside a Spanish Baroque palace of local sandstone.
It is a beauty. Much of the city is, stemming as it does from an era when its merchant elite amassed huge fortunes from importing goods which nowadays carry something of a moral question mark. Tobacco, rum and sugar were the commodities which lifted Glasgow from a provincial backwater to a global metropolis. With them came the trade in the slaves required for production.
Glasgow has always been good at making money, and its public buildings reflect this. The neo-classical ones are the best place to see how the city’s “Tobacco Lords” divested themselves of their profits. Between 1800 and 1900 this was Britain’s boom town, its population expanding by a factor of ten as workers flooded in to work in the mines, mills, steelworks and shipyards that powered an empire.
Unfortunately the Second City Of The British Empire hasn’t ever been quite as good at distributing the money that it makes in a fair and equal manner. While the city centre is a purpose-built grid of Victorian order, the suburbs which housed the city’s workers were some of the most deprived and overcrowded in Europe.
Their regeneration is an ongoing project. For Glasgow’s workers, the twentieth century consisted of exploitation, de-industrialisation and perceived indifference from London.
Today the city is seemingly lost to the British cause. Stories about spontaneous parties to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher are not exaggerated. A year later, the city voted “yes” to splitting from London completely in the Scottish independence referendum.
I’ve enjoyed my few days here, but it hasn’t all been perfect. My curry was fantastic but most of what I’ve eaten whilst out and about has been overpriced, overcooked and overkilled by hopelessly optimistic menu cards. In this respect, Glasgow’s gastronomy is still resolutely British.
Looking after paying guests is not something that we do well in this country. My hotel in Paisley, Scotland’s capital of faded grandeur, costs more per night than somewhere similar in Rome. Paisley is something of a hot spot for neoclassicism — but Rome it is not.
Check in is informal to say the least. The man at reception looks up from his mobile phone long enough to complain about his colleague’s organisational skills, then lists the various misdemeanours for which the system will deduct ten pounds from my bank account. He hands me the key and wishes me a pleasant stay.
“I’ll do my best”, I say. “Is there somewhere you can recommend?”
I don’t say that of course. I get the feeling that if I make cheeky comments then the system will charge me ten pounds.
I go to my room. The shower does hot water and cold water, but not at the same time. When I stretch out on my bed I can put my feet on the desk if I want. I decide not to, fearing that there may be a camera in the corner of the room which is wired to my bank account.
I sleep badly. Tomorrow I meet my friends at Glasgow airport and for twenty-four hours I will be experiencing the dubious offerings of the British hospitality industry in the company of an American restaurant owner.
I put the preparatory work in with him when I was in his country. He’s wanted to come to Scotland all of his life and so it took careful planning to prepare him for the disappointments to come.
This required immense tactical skill. Everywhere we went, I made sure to compliment the quality of American food and the reasonableness of the prices, taking extra care to add that “it’s not like this in Britain”.
I packed the conversation with anecdotes about some of my worst British culinary experiences. Everybody laughed when I told the story of the infamous Broomhill lasagne but I had to hope that the more subtle moral of the tale had sunk in. It happens to me and it will happen to you.
I brought out the one about the Lancashire pub where the roof began to disintegrate into my Dad’s soup and all were amused. Now I have to hope that they have realised that this is not atypical for the United Kingdom.
The plane lands and we go back to my hotel. They too are checked in here, they too get the list of offences for which the system will raid their credit cards. They get an additional list of things not included in the standard rate for which they will have to pay extra, using a credit card is among them.
“Welcome to Scotland”, I say. “If we’d charged like this at Culloden we might have won.”
The man behind the desk hears me and the system charges me ten pounds.
We head out into Glasgow and on to Stirling. Between us we feed a party of four for a day for about the same amount as would feed a family of four back home for a week. We pay to see Stirling castle without doing the euro/dollar conversions in our heads. It hurts less that way.
It rains, then comes the sun, then comes the rain. I breathe a sigh of relief that the fog stays away. The last time I was here was with guests from Germany; the fog came down so thick that the views which make the town so special were completely obscured. I had to explain the Braveheart battle with the aid of two postcards before abandoning the exhibition as the pubs opened.
We see the castle, complete with a tour which is drowned out by the noise of the staff putting tables and chairs into place for a wedding later that evening. We take the train back to Glasgow and dine early without converting in our heads.
As we walk back I remind my guests that hostilities have opened in the 2017-18 Scottish football season — and that this may at least partly explain the large numbers of prematurely refreshed gentlemen trading abuse with each other from opposite sides of Buchanan Street. At the station, the first drunks are being escorted into the back of police vans.
“What a miserable day”, you might be thinking. If so you’d be wrong. They had a great time and so did I. So did the fog-bound German guys actually. Everybody has a great time in Scotland.
I have no idea why. It is wet and it is expensive. Many of the locals speak a language for which there is no phrasebook. If you’re reading this in England then wipe the smile off your face right now — unless you’re the sort of person than thinks that Brighton is such good value compared to Spain or Portugal. Or that the dialects of our language spoken in Newcastle and Liverpool are but a miniscule phonetic shift from the Queen’s English.
Why people should choose to holiday anywhere in Britain is a mystery to me but it is still the seventh most visited country in the world. I would have thought that our politics would have deterred people from coming here but numbers are actually up since the Brexit referendum.
I can tell you what I like about it I suppose: the delicate light, the rolling skies, the gold and the purple of the hills. Free museums, sports you can follow once football shuts down for the summer, pubs with comfortable seats. Words like “mate” or “bud” or “love” or “flower” for which there is no German equivalent.
The people are nice too, once they’re out of their place of work and the system isn’t telling them what to do. I’ve got to admit that I don’t come to the UK very much these days and I never go south of Sheffield but everyone I talk to between here and there is friendly, uncomplicated and has a bright and breezy outlook on life. One of the problems in Germany where the sky is stagnant above us for days on end is that many people believe it will fall on their heads.
This is my first trip back here since Theresa pulled the trigger and I was expecting to write a piece about how this wasn’t the country I left behind or that I felt betrayed by my own people or something equally dramatic. I say these things often enough when I’m in Germany, on the rare occasions that I can find someone dumb enough to listen.
I was expecting to find myself a stranger among my own countrymen and voice my disgust about their rejection of the values which I hold dear. I don’t think that’s going to happen now. It just feels very, very good to be here. It always does.
It doesn’t feel like coming home particularly, so if you’re reading this Theresa then don’t get any stupid ideas about fetching me back. But I do still think that this is a wonderful country.
I’ve still no idea why people come to Britain on their holidays, or why so many of them come back time and time again. I think a lot of them fall for the things that I’ve just listed while others have fallen in love with the very idea of the place. Tomorrow I cross the border into England. Next stop is Northallerton, close to the world-famous market town of Thirsk.
World famous? Well of course. Downton Abbey was a huge hit in Germany. And then there’s All Creatures Great and Small. The television adaptations of James Herriot’s creations made it onto German screens and are fondly remembered, so much so that German newspapers recently carried obituaries for the actor Robert Hardy — Siegfried to the show’s many fans.
England sells, and so does Scotland. I mean, could you really imagine Harry Potter being such a hit if it had been set in America? Or even that most princely of film locations, New Zealand? You cannot buy the kind of publicity that the UK enjoys. Everyone knows the name of the British monarch: I challenge you now to name the king of Belgium.
One of the things I love about the place is that so many people around the world love it too. Britain trades on its name — and yet all too often we give our customers a rough deal.
The UK’s reputation is one of its greatest assets. If it allows this to be damaged then the country will feel the consequences. I’m talking about our hotels and our restaurants here, but I could equally well be talking about our foreign policy.
Either way, the system has just charged me ten pounds.