The Rules of Modernity
Glasgow, Stuart Murdoch and me
by Neil Taylor

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Books were never my friends.

Records were. Are. Not actual records, you understand; not big vinyl things. I’ve never had that nostalgia for the physical – I’m a child of Thatcher, I can’t remember an industry that made things, so I don’t need to have them in my hands. Much better, in the case of records, to have them in your head. In fact, nowadays, mine live in the sky. In my house of broad-band, and wi-fi, and iTunes, I like to think that every bit of music is already there, in the air, waiting to be caught in my white plastic box of butterflies.

Put it down to being an only child, if you like. I think I do now, if I didn’t then. Because records are the sound of company. For other people, books always seemed to be a refuge, somewhere to escape from the chatter of family life, or a marauding bullying brother. But I never wanted to escape. I wanted to invite my entertainment in.

Now I read. It seems the right thing to do on solo journeys by bus and train. But once I’m home, my first loyalty is to records. And for ten years, a particular loyalty to records by one band, mostly written by one man: Stuart Murdoch, of Belle & Sebastian.

I got to know these songs when I was living abroad. I was happy enough. But now I see the echoes of my only child-hood in that year. On my own again, this time an ocean away from family and friends, adrift in an unrecognisable strain of a language I thought I knew. I chat away, but no one quite gets me. In fact, I start to feel like a cardboard cut-out version of myself. I can talk about my day at work, what I’m doing at the weekend, “it’s a really nice restaurant, and not too dear”. But anything beyond a GCSE role play is hard work. I want to tell them about me, to make a joke, to discuss what I think of their politics, but I’m marooned. Everything I say comes out as straight fact.

While I was there, people sent me packages. The things I missed were details, drizzles, tastes, Lucozade, Lancashire cheese (I’ve never felt so British as I did then). And from Emma I got little square packages. Records. Records from the fringe of their native land, and even more out of place here.

But in those early Belle & Sebastian records, in the emo-tional sub-zeroes of Québec, I made friends. Stuart, of course. A Scottish voice, and a British one. It’s there in his turns of phrase, and his humour, and the cultural countryside he takes me walking in: Radio 4, Man About the House, Debenhams. The characters, too; Belle & Seb songs have a cast. Lisa, who goes blind; Lisa’s friend, who’s abused; Anthony, bullied at school; Sukie, the kid who hangs out in the graveyard; String Bean Jean; Lazy Line Painter Jane. These characters turn up in different songs, sometimes together, sometimes alone. The songs are rarely about just them, but it’s like they walk past as Stuart sings. Then there’s Belle and Sebastian themselves. Not the ones from the original French children’s story, but the ones from Stuart’s imagination. The ones who met outside Hillhead Underground Station (one of the stories from the record sleeves says so). I’ve always assumed Stuart and Sebastian are one and the same.

It seems to me like a lot of writers are always writing about the same thing. Different voices, and different situations, but the same thing. Stuart’s sketches are nearly always about the uncool school kid who learns to be confident in who they are. They don’t change to fit in; they find the world changing and find their corner of it. The road comes up to meet them. They don’t flower; instead the poppies that grew tall with adoles-cent cool shrivel in the glare of an adult sun, leaving our heroes to bask in the light.

Glasgow is one of Stuart’s characters, too. Its places namechecked with that easy familiarity my parents use of Blackburn; another place I have an imaginary bond with. So Stuart sings of the river, the Easterhouse, the church on the hill, and school discos. Never having been there, in the Canadian snow I invented my own Glasgow. It was a city of dinge, of grease (I think that’s all the cafés in the songs). It is usually grey, and dark. I see the cast in bedsits, or children’s homes, or hospitals, or maybe just on city buses. So I decide it’s time we met.

* * *

“Wow, New York, just like I pictured it!” (That’s Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”.) Glasgow isn’t. But there is something oddly New York about it. I think it’s because I leave Queen Street train station to the planned grid of American streets, to sirens wailing, and to traffic roaring over the brows of little hills I can’t see beyond. But after a few town centre blocks, I’ve been here before. Not here exactly, but places too like it. The station with its Smith’s and Costa’s, the pedestri-anised precinct of big shops and lousy water features. This could be the middle of Leeds, or Birmingham. Not much sign of the hipsters.

Of course, Stuart would want me to take the bus away from the centre. It’s what he and his characters are always doing. But buses are the most intimidating way of moving round somewhere new. They announce their destination, but rarely their route (maybe they’re as shy as their visitors). So for the stranger, they’re baffling. Of course, when it’s your own city, your own bus, all of this becomes second nature. You stop fret-ting about the route and listen to the people on board. That’s why I like people talking loudly on mobile phones. I like that they give me licence to listen. Of course, I have to fill in the gaps. But instead of making my judgements on clothes and faces, I get a string of clues to eavesdrop on. Meeting on Sauchiehall Street. Bored of the old men’s pub. Fish and chips.

Yeah, you take the bus to get to know people, without having to do the work yourself. Without the embarrassing list of small talk questions. You just join the dots. It strikes me that a lot of Stuart’s songs are dot-joining. I know he has a predilection for graffiti – it’s given him the name of a song, an album, and an early band. I guess graffiti is the line from the middle of a story you don’t get to hear. The writer writes the story instead.

So I don’t take the bus. I walk. I want to meet the place as much as the people. I start at Hillhead, and I’m heading for Novar Drive, where the band made their early records in the church hall, the church hall over which Stuart lived. The name fits with my fancy: It has the feel of sixties space-age optimism, like London’s Skylon, or the aching self-conscious-ness of all Britain’s Mandela Ways. On Novar Drive in 2006, I imagine tenements, kids at bus shelters, shuttered-up shops, ASBOs. The sixties dream soured.

On the way, I’m looking for The Grosvenor too, the café where many of the early songs unfolded. It looks promising. All I have is a road name which is difficult to find on a map. And turning the corner, I’m confronted with concrete and cobbles, and a litter-strewn street. It feels right, but the illu-sion doesn’t last long. Suddenly, the street is strung with fairy lights above my head, and I am theme pubbed to within an inch of my life. You can see it would once have been pretty, but now it’s just, well, twee. Just what Belle & Seb are always accused of. (They’re not. There’s too much bite, his cute lines too acute. But this is.) Maybe I need to see it at night. Maybe it needs a drunken fight against the whitewashed walls. I open the door.

The Grosvenor is not a café now, but an arthouse cinema.

Here I find the hipsters: university kids queuing to see the gay cowboys. It has a café, but not what I want. There’s too much chrome, it’s too expertly lit, the fruit is far too shiny. I’ve been here before, too – this time in Greenwich, in Cambridge, in Nottingham. I can only stay seconds. This just doesn’t seem like the place to write a song. It’s the place to write muzak. I keep my fingers crossed for Novar Drive.

There’s a Belle & Seb song called “Expectations”, and mine were wrong. It dawns on me that I’m in the poshest part of town. Did I know Glasgow had a posh bit? You don’t get to see it on the telly. Glasgow is murder, thick accents and gallows humour. But not here: Glasgow’s West End is wide streets, big houses, panini, cappuccino. There are no tenements. There are big bay windowed houses. They are grey, yes, but not depressing. This is hard-working Victorian grit. I peer in. Some of what I see matches my mind’s eye, right enough. Nasty beige carpets, and three bar electric fires which look danger-ously wired. But this is not the poor area I imagined. It is the closest us middle class types get to poverty – it is studenthood. Sure there’s the odd old person – just now I’m walking past a gentleman in a suit, mustard waistcoat, and peaked mustard pocket handkerchief – but he is outnumbered by the bereted girls of Belle & Seb gigs. It’s all they can do not to analyse poetry on the street. There’s the odd shop that feels right – a charity shop, and a card shop that looks like a charity shop, and an old ladies’ shop, selling tweedy two pieces and vinyl accessories which seem to match with slightly psychopathic efficiency. Oddly, the shop is called “Rage” (I can’t hear the old ladies saying it). But these three are paraded next to a wine shop – not an off licence, definitely a wine shop. And a coffee shop. With wi-fi. I sigh. I check my e-mail.

Of course, I should have known this, really. I mean, I knew he was at Glasgow University. Most of them were, and it’s just round the corner. So it makes sense that these are not the tales I imagined of lonely childhoods, or the wayward unem-ployed. They had time on their hands because they were students. He’s even said he likes to sing about University as “school”, like the San Franciscan it seems he would have loved to have been. I suppose I ignored it. When I listened, I took his ‘schools’ to be true to life, British, tales of woe in the secondary modern. I have been comprehensively misled.

I like it though. I’d like to live here, or have lived here, or been a student here. There are well kept terraces, views across the city, and home cooked carrot cake. Even the buses are brand new. Double deckers with digital displays that say they’re “transforming travel”. no one will be drinking cider from a carrier bag on the back seat of them (it’d be hard to write a song too, while the infomercials are looping along inside). And Novar Drive is nice. I see the church hall, but can’t get in. Next door, six “luxury flats” are on the rise.

I don’t feel cheated, just wrong. I can’t complain. In a way it should be reassuring. Stuart is from my milieu. Middle class former student, catholic record collection with a taste for the bohemian. Has it always been like this? Would he come back here and be surprised (like my mum and dad when the back streets they used to know lead to retail parks)? There’s gentrifi-cation everywhere. Where I live, too. I can’t complain. I’m to blame. I love my broadband, my organic fruit, my smoothies, my unknown parliamentary neighbours.

You can hear it in the records too: they’ve gentrified. Where once there were wayward harmonies, fluffed lyrics, too much echo from the church hall, or the sound of someone unzipping a cardy in the opening bars, now there are pop pro-ducers and shiny surfaces. It causes no end of grief from the fans. They blog their way through regretful nostalgia of times past. But they are not the students they once were either. They are buying Tesco Finest and working in ad agencies. They are going to the gigs but staying in their seats. “It’s very loud, isn’t it? I can hardly hear the recorder.”

To me, though, this is just so much packaging. Stuart is still there, his songs full of little moments of beauty and humour, squeezed into half sentences. There are no great story arcs; even when epic they’re no more than five minutes. Epics of the everyday. But there is always delight in the details: a sudden view of orthopaedic shoes, of “tartan garments”, of black washing turned grey at the launderette. Stuart’s writing gives me tiny smidgens of joy, the sort of joy you might get perfectly catching a jam jar which has chosen to jump from a cupboard, or when the things you’re buying in a shop come to exactly ten pounds, or when you see someone at a gig who you never knew liked the same music as you. My response to these divinely tiny joys is fantastically out of proportion to the things that cause them. That’s why Stuart can throw away a line about the wannabe actress who can’t act her way out of a paper bag, and leave me smiling for the rest of the day.

* * *

I get on the underground. It throws me, because it’s not the tube. Living in London it’s easy to forget that there’s anything else. Taking this bullety train is like visiting a foreign city. The seats are different, the ticket barriers different. I am abroad. I wonder if the people on the train know I’m writing notes about them? I’m looking for the characters in the songs. Not them them of course, but their types, the happy misfits, unafraid to be quietly different, to talk of Marx while walking into Matalan.

I think I see them. A kid reading photocopied sheets from “The Rules of Modernity”. He has grey corduroy flares on which are swallowing his shoes, the kind of round, smooth trainers that look like big balls of cheese. I only know they’re there because he has his legs crossed. If they were flat on the floor he’d look like an elephant, his legs unankled, straight down until they hit the deck. The man next to him is in a sort of suit, but his trousers have a flare, too. I can’t tell if this is fashion, or a silent hint of the non-conformity of Lisa, or String Bean Jean, or Judy (and her dream of horses). I give him the benefit of the doubt. I get off, and head for the bus.

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