oh, well, whatever . . .

at the mansion of the halloween lolitas

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This photograph shows Adam Smith’s bust in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. I took it on Friday. It shows Smith and his ghost looking at one another. I wondered if perhaps it could stand as a metaphorical comment on our current economic woes.

I went to Glasgow a couple of days ago, mixing business and pleasure. I went via the A69 to Carlisle and then up the M74 to Glasgow. The soft slow blaze of autumn smouldered up the Tyne Valley and over into Cumbria and all the way over the Galloway hills. It is Samhain, the time of the end and beginning of the Celtic year, the time of the festival of the dead and bone-fires, the time of apples, nuts, egg-whites and crows. The time of the final harvest and the beginning of the dark half of the year.

Kelvingrove is a beautiful place, the most impressive and enthralling gallery and museum I have ever been in. It contains and somehow or in some way integrates many diverse aspects of the cultural and natural worlds (although I might want to argue that once something enters a museum it can only be culture, and not nature, and not only for the obvious reason that there are no stuffed animals in nature!). Because of the design of this huge old mansion – all stone staircases and long balconies which look over its large lower spaces – it is a place which throws at the visitor an astonishing succession of quite unforeseen and often surely quite accidental combinations of items. These idiosyncratic juxtapositions, depending as they do very much on the eye and interest of the individual observer, make the experience open-ended and potentially unique for each visitor. Kelvingrove offers the imagination an endless feast, a chance to make chaos out of order and a new order out of chaos. It’s a magnificent junkyard rather than a marvellous jigsaw. Hugo would love it. Go there. You won’t see what I’ve seen, but what you do see might amuse you.

Kelvingrove is a metaphor for the city itself in the way it brings together disparate objects and experiences. Kelvingrove is also a metaphor for the attractive but ultimately misleading façade offered to us in the self-(mis)representation of modern cities by their marketing and PR people.  Don’t get me wrong, Kelvingrove is a fantastic, enchanting place and I’d happily spend a whole week there; but it doesn’t show the whole of life and it doesn’t show the whole of Glasgow life. Glasgow has higher child poverty levels than anywhere else in Britain. In some parts of the city forty-nine out of every fifty children are living on or below the poverty line. In Kelvingrove poverty simply vanishes up the sleeve of social history. Kelvingrove does its job incredibly well, but it’s just not its job to tell the whole truth.

I went to Kelvingrove on Friday to look again at the paintings of the Glasgow Boys, which I’d previously looked at while they were temporarily housed in the McLellan Gallery on Sauchiehall Street while Kelvingrove was being restored. In Kelvingrove the paintings are exhibited in the ‘Scottish Art’ room, along with paintings by the Scottish Colourists, whose work I also like a great deal. I used to like Fergusson the most, but looking on Friday on Friday at the Kelvingrove selection – which I think is relatively weak in terms of Fergusson stuff – I began the think that in some ways Peploe and Cadell were at least his equal and in some ways his superior. On the strength of the Kelvingrove, Fergusson’s work looks less original than theirs and his handling of paint far less subtle and skillful.  I’ve never yet been much impressed by Leslie Hunter’s stuff and Friday didn’t change my mind much on that question.

The Glasgow Boys’ paintings astonished me, as they always do, in their perception of light and their rendering of this in paint. On Friday I especially noticed George Henry’s paintings. His A Galloway Landscape is in the far corner of the Scottish Art room. I had mistakenly thought it was in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh when I last saw it, but clearly it must have been in the McLellan gallery at the time. I love this painting, but always wonder how it looked when it was first painted. I wonder if the obscurity of the cattle isn’t the result of the whites becoming dirty and dull – although this hasn’t happened to the clouds – and whether Henry really wanted them to be so murky, although of course the murkiness may well be one of the reasons for the painting’s success now in engaging some viewers. Things sometimes mean more to us when we’ve got to decide for ourselves what they are.

I had intended to go and see the ‘Impressionism and Scotland’ exhibition, which had just opened that day. But I spent too long in the other parts of the gallery it was late afternoon before I got there. I decided to leave it till another day. I bought three postcards instead – one of Henry’s Galloway Landscape, and another of Cadell’s Interior – the orange blind. The third is James Guthrie’s strangely haunting portrait Old Willie – the village worthy.

It was already dusk as I walked back up to Kelvinhall subway station and caught the underground back into the city centre. I wandered through the crowds of shoppers on Buchanan Street and back down to my hotel. Later I came back out and went looking for an Italian restaurant that might serve a good vegetarian meal.

Glasgow is a big city and seems to throng at all times of the day and night. By comparison, Newcastle looks hardly more than a small town. On Halloween Glasgow was full of weird and wonderful characters of all kinds. Of course, we all know that until recently Halloween was a humble folky sort of date on the calendar, but that like many other minor annual occasions it has been hijacked by business looking to make money wherever it can. The colours of this enterprise are orange and black, its sacred vegetable is the pumpkin.

On Friday night in Glasgow there was many a ghoul and ghoostie, some fine Draculas and Frankensteins, many a witch and crone. There were zombies and the undead, droves of unquiet corpses wandering the city with blackened eyes and theatrical blood on their anaemic chops. This is no more than you might expect.

But was there something else going on that night?

Maybe it was just me, but on Halloween in Glasgow it began to seem that nobody was who they seemed to be. The city seemed to be virtually inhabited by people in fancy dress, and I really don’t know yet if this was to do with Halloween or about something else entirely. What I do know, of course, is that on this occasion it was nothing to do with Flinty.

As I was crossing the huge space of the Central Station I noticed there were lots of young girls dressed as bumblebees and angels and fairies. Batman then passed me, arm in arm with Catwoman. When I got outside there was a whole queue of strange characters at the bus stop opposite. Interspersed with the usual vampires and ghouls I spotted Minnie Mouse and Scooby Doo, nurses, French maids, police women, Eskimos, Red Indian braves, Superman, The Grim Reaper, and, to my amusement, an Arab. It was beginning to feel like home.

Around the next corner I encountered my second batman, this time accompanied by a very short and tubby female Robin. Next up was Wonderwoman, and then a male superhero who was clad completely in a banana yellow skinsuit except for black trunks. I lack the knowledge to identify him for you with certainty.  I called him Banana Man. He shook my hand firmly and reassured me that the city tonight was safe in his hands. He had a heavy Glaswegian accent. I then encountered Rob Roy, Snow White, a tramp, a Roman centurion, and two ghosts in kilts playing the bagpipes. It was as this point I realised I could now no longer differentiate with any confidence between the real and the make-believe.

On Nelson Mandela Place I came across the three wise men talking to a female Dominatrix and my third Batman of the night. Inexplicably, Mandela himself wasn’t around, but of course the night was still young.

At the restaurant I played safe. I had garlic bread followed by the special for that night, pumpkin ravioli in tomato sauce. I had vanilla ice cream for dessert. Later, when I stepped back outside, I encountered a character who I think was Tintin’s dog, Snowy, who appeared to have had a little too much to drink. He was trying to catch up with a rather lean but stylish scarecrow, inspired, I felt, by the one in Wizard of Oz. As I headed back towards the river I met Robocop, Cinderella, and a black cat, along with the regular tribe of ghosts and hags and girls in leopard skin boots and bikinis.

I made my way back down past the Station towards my hotel. Outside the Solid Rock Café at the bottom of Hope Street there were a lively crowd of truly strange characters, some of them in fancy dress and some of them characters I hadn’t yet seen that night. There was a cool-looking gunslinger dressed all in black and – a particularly rare find, I thought – a Super Mario! In my head I was already working on my “I-Spy Weird People in Glasgow at Halloween” book. Super Mario will score you 25 points. Snowy and Nelson Mandela will each score 15. A normal ghoul or hag will score 2 points, a man in a kilt 5 points, 6 if he’s playing bagpipes.

I crossed the road to the hotel and made for my room. The Scots will know better than I do what to expect of Samhain. But what I’d just experienced seemed to me to be taking guising to a whole other level. If Tristan had been there he’d no doubt have explained the whole things in terms of commodity fetishism, or some such aberration. I put the kettle on. I wondered if I should drink my instant cappuccino by candlelight.

The next day I had a look around the shops and listened to the street entertainers and buskers on Buchanan Street. The world had regained its previous shape. I went to the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art and looked at the show of Jo Spence’s photographs, some of which were those she took of herself while she was dying of breast cancer. It’s a harrowing and somewhat dark exhibition, although ultimately her bravery and creative courage can only be seen as uplifting.

After nightfall I was out again, and for while at about eight or so, stood near Pizza Hut on the corner of Jamaica Street and Argyle Street. I was exploring my thesis that at nights Glasgow is always full of weirdoes and that what I’d seen the previous night wasn’t really a grotesque late Capitalist version of an ancient Pagan festival at all. I quickly spotted Scooby Do and two guys who were dressed a bit like turkeys. Then Batman crossed the road at the traffic lights. This was reassuring.

And then I noticed a stream of young teenage girls trickling out of the Cathouse, which I took to be a nightclub and which is situated below the Station. There were dozens of them, all aged between about twelve – and in some cases less – up to about fifteen, dressed as what I took to be fairies or angels or characters from children’s stories. They teetered from the Cathouse in high heels and stumbled over the road to KFC, often taking their shoes off half way across and walking on in their stocking feet. They wore socks that were knee high or just above the knee, often striped, sometimes white, sometimes with bows at the top. They were all wearing very short skirts, which were often bright pink and full and frilly and looked like tutus. The girls all had bare thighs. Some of them wore tiaras or antennae or red devil’s horns. Quite a few wore white or pink angels wings. It was obvious that their dress encoded a blatant combination of childish innocence and precocious sexuality. They were Alice in Wonderland crossed with Fifi the French Maid. The street was awash with Glaswegian Lolitas of some kind.

Did there bloody mothers know they were all out like this, I wondered.  Where the hell were their dads? Was this a one-off dispensation for Halloween, which in Glasgow goes on for several days? As I waited I watched the gauche, self-conscious young girls stumbling in twos and threes across the road and along the path and on past Poundland and Subway towards the east end of the city. Occasionally a stretch Limo would pass and sometimes toot at them. The police passed in a Panda, but they didn’t give them a second look.

I later researched these Halloween Lolitas on Google. It seems that Gothic-Lolita is quite a hot style for young teenage girls at present, and that the style owes some of its popularity to the Japanese harajuka girls and a look promoted by Gwen Stefani. These Glasgow girls display many of the key features of the style. In fact all that was really missing were the parasols. So it isn’t just a Halloween thing. And nor is it just a Glasgow thing. It seems pretty clear that girls like this will be appearing on a street corner near you any day now. It struck me that some of the girls we deal with at the office probably dress this way when they go out. I wondered if this was something we should care about.

When I got back home this afternoon, the house was filled with the sweet smell of onions and pastry. In the hall there were several large boxes of slippers. Christmas is on its way. I went into the kitchen. There were five onion pies on the bench cooling. De Kooning came scampering in to see me. He rubbed his head against my shin.

‘Hey, I didn’t see you in Glasgow the other night, did I?’ I said.

I picked him up and ruffled his fur. He began to purr.

‘Come on, then,’ I said. ‘You can help me unpack. I’ve got some new postcards to show you. The Glasgow boys and girls are something else. You just won’t believe the wonders I’ve seen this time.’


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