The People’s Republic of Govan


The piece was published in The Big Issue in June 2008.

Distant Dreamer has just whizzed past Madam Minogue to win the 10.50 at Perth, leaving Jim Buchanan a few quid out of pocket. Not to worry – another race pops up instantly on the big screen inside the bookies. The horses are digital, galloping over lime green turf under impossible sunshine, bearing names every bit as silly as their flesh-and-blood counterparts.

Only the money lost is real. Jim goes for Now is the Time, but is out of luck again. The horse finishes near the back of the field. “My goodness what an exciting race,” says the virtual commentator, before introducing a round of virtual bingo.

Jim, 64, has spent most of the morning in Ladbrokes. He was put out to pasture almost a decade ago after working for years as a welder in the Govan shipyards, in the days when they were owned by UCS and latterly Kvaerner. “It’s no good moaning about the end of the shipyards and all that,” he says. “I know there isnae many great jobs for the youngsters nowadays, but there’s still work if they want tae find it.”

On the street outside, the men share tips about possible Euro 2008 winners. Some suggest Holland, others Spain. “Naw, they always fall away tae f**k,” advises one wise old head. “Germany. Pit yer money on Germany.”

Everywhere you go in Govan there is chatter. Outside pubs, chip shops, on spare bits of dog-walking grass, at the bottom of closes. People stand around and talk the time away. For many there is not a lot else to do.

Once one of the great workshops of the world, heaving with skilled labour, the demise of heavy industry along the Clyde has left unemployment here almost four times higher than the national average. Attempts at an economic renewal have failed to counter decades of flight from the inner city (Govan once contained 100,000 people but now has a population of less than 25,000).

The 1988 Garden Festival was supposed to spark long-term investment, but a single summer of colour and novelty left precious little behind for the people living along the river.

Still, no-one here talks of deprivation or poverty. Those are dirty words in an area where the streets are remarkably clean, where second-hand furniture and old PCs are still passed around rather than left on the pavement. There is still an unusually fierce pride in being a Govanite, as if the ancient burgh was a nation unto itself.

“Govan’s not a scheme; never has been,” says Betty Ross, who has just finished serving tea and coffee at a Govan Cross cafe. She is part of a four-generation family still living in the area.

“The older folk still call it a village. We’ve always had a strong spirit here, marching against poll tax and rent rises. But people have lost a bit of fight since some of the schools closed down. I do worry that if the kids keep feeling neglected, they won’t have that pride in where they come from. You see them fighting with each other over street territories now.”

As for regeneration efforts in recent years – the £80m Central Govan Action Plan to attract new housing development and businesses – Betty and her friends have been conditioned toward scepticism. “Some of the councillors tell you all this great stuff that’s going tae happen, as if they’re going tae build it brick by brick themselves. People say, well, they said all this before with the Garden Festival.”

It is an assessment shared by University of West of Scotland academic Dr Chik Collins, who last week released a report arguing the many millions spent on regeneration projects across Scotland have made very little difference. “Some developers and agencies have reaped nice profits and incomes, but some of the poorest people have not been beneficiaries,” he says.

“The Govan Initiative [the area’s regeneration agency formed in the mid-’80s] was identified by its own community as actually contributing to the degeneration of the area. What they really needed was good quality social housing.”

What they got instead was mainly private flats, while older blocks of homes were torn down for business parks that haven’t always arrived. Down on Shaw Street, not far from the bustle of Govan Cross, Betty’s pal May Garrett sits at her ground-floor window with a cup of tea and a kind word for everyone who walks past. “This was a great street,” says the 60-year-old, glancing along the crimson-coloured tenements. Apartments marketed at young professionals as luxury living spaces can be seen in the far distance.

“It’s still a great street, but I think everybody’s forgot about us down here, it’s getting so rundown. You see these new flats getting put up down by the river, but what do we get? The worst of it is there’s nothin’ for the kids. My grandson is 11 and already he’s saying he can’t wait tae join the Army and get away fae the place.”

May has already lost one son, a talented boxer, to a cocaine-induced heart attack. She says she is glad the hard drugs of the ‘80s and early ‘90s have gone from Govan.

“People round here widnae put up with it any longer. People wid shout ‘junkies’ and chase the dealers away. It seems tae have jumped a generation, because the young ones are no’ interested in the drugs. I’m hoping things might start to improve. My daughter says I should leave, but I could never leave Govan.”

Glasgow City councillor John Flanagan, a Govanite born and bred, has the same kind of loyalty but is inclined to be more optimistic about improvement master plans. He has led efforts to attract £1m of lottery grants to refurbish some of the burgh’s landmarks buildings, including the Old Parish Church.

“It’s important to retain a lot of the high-quality buildings that have fallen into disrepair. It says to everyone, ‘these are the standards’, which provides a foundation for the future.”

The councillor concedes much of the private development has fermented resentment among out-priced locals, but insists the city council are trying to ensure a better mix of housing types. Norrie Mackie, manager at the Pearce Institute, also believes renewal could be round the corner.

His fine-looking community hall was saved from closure five years ago and now houses classes and clubs of all stripes; childcare, physiotherapy, fencing, theatre, youth and seniors’ groups, as well as training for asylum seekers and the long-term unemployed. “We’ve had our troubles in Govan but I think they’ve bottomed out,” he says confidently.

“There’s so many smashing houses left in Govan, lots of green around with blossom on the trees, and the tenements standing will remain. I think the council is learning how to get it right and there’s no reason the new can’t fit in well with the old. The dream is still alive.”

Norrie seems as dazzled about architect’s drawings for a ferry crossing linking Govan to the SECC as he is misty eyed about the old black and white images of trams and tenement rows that adorn his walls.

The past and future are easy to romanticise. For school leavers, however, present-day Govan doesn’t seem to offer much by way of work. And yet at least a little of the old greatness still resonates.

Over at the Gal Gael Trust, a tired-looking warehouse has been transformed into a new centre of craftmanship. Set up 10 years ago by a group keen to revive wooden shipbuilding,Tam McGarvie and his team now run training courses in wood and metalwork for troubled youngsters already seeking a second chance.

“We trying to give people a trade again,” says Tam. “Some of their fathers and grandfathers worked in the shipyards, so it’s providing a link with their past. It gets them away from watching Jeremy Kyle at least.”

Adrian Nairn, 38, who has been coming along for a few years, says the place helped him “get a bit of pride back” and wants to pass on what he has learned to those just starting out on adult life.

But he too worries about the disconnection most young people have with an environment that is changing all around them. “Most young people can’t afford these new flats,” he says. “They might look flashy, but they’re actually badly made. Some of them will be coming down in 50 years time.”

Tam and Adrian concur with Dr Collins’s view that bodies like the South-West Regeneration Agency, which control most of the regeneration cash, are too large and unwieldy to understand what people want and actually need to help them build a community.

“It has to happen from the grassroots up,” says Tam. “These managers can’t get a grasp what’s actually happening, what people are looking for. It’s only about ticking boxes and reaching targets.”

Dr Collins refers to the “alien” imposition of over-arching designs from above and says the rhetoric today from government ministers and town planners across Scotland is “spookily” similar to the failed projects of the past.

As Glasgow dares to dream of a miraculous revival of the east end around the Commonwealth Games, the academic worries that the same delusions are being forged all over again.

“Regeneration is often presented as a fairytale, heroic story, where things are always just about to get better,” he says. “For the most part, these people are not being disingenuous, they really want to believe it. The problem is, they are implementing the same policies that fail to tackle the underlying social and economic issues. Why should the outcomes be different?”

Down among the weed-covered dockland on the Clyde, the Wine Alley Boys’ only big plan is making the most of the afternoon sunshine. “You can get a good bit a fishing here sometimes,” says John McCrae, stripped to the waste and sipping Buckfast. Has he ever caught anything? “Naw, just a frog or two,” he laughs. “Maybe a three-heided fish.”

The men here, in their 20s and early 30s, are too old to be in a gang and too quick-witted to be out of work. But the past year of their lives has been spent adjusting to upheaval. The red sandstone tenements of Wine Alley have been cleared out, awaiting the demolition cranes, and most of the young families (like John’s) have been given smaller, boxy new flats tucked far along the river instead.

“Aw this…” ponders John, pointing in the opposite direction toward the centre of the city, the gleaming, postcard-perfect buildings of the Pacific Quay. “Aw this is no really meant for us, is it?”

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