Monday, 24 February 2014

Stalingrad and Dostoyevsky at the Cinema

The 10th Glasgow Film Festival is town this week.
As well as a lot of well loved classics there are a smattering of new releases on show. As I am a big fan of the writing of Fyodor Dostoyevsky I took the chance to see The Double, a few weeks ahead of its general release. The film, directed by Richard Ayoade, is based (loosely) upon the novella by Dostoyevsky of the same name. I have written here before of the lengths I went to in St Petersburg tracking down Dostoyevsky releated spots, so I grabbed the chance to see one of his stories being told on screen at the GFT.
The Double was written in 1846, a story of a put upon government clerk who starts to see a doppleganger of himself, but a doppleganger who is more confident, brash and pushy. The double begins to take over from him, and succeed where he has failed, driving him mad in the process. It is a recurrent and appealing idea in literature, even Scottish literature (written 20 years after James Hogg's "Confessions of a Justified Sinnner" and 40 years before Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Nobel prize winner Jose Saramango also re-wrote "The Double" for modern times.
It was a full house in the GFT's main screen for this showing, with a heavy presence of beards amongst the audience (I think suggesting an appeal to the hipster movie goer crowd). The film stars Jesse Eisenberg in the title role, more noted recently for portraying characters leading the vanguard of capitilism's onward march (Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and LexCorp's Lex Luther). The film is highly stylised and set in a dystopian world with steampunk overtones. Jesse Eisenberg is excellent in both his roles and there are a couple of entertainingly weird cameos from Paddy Consadine and comedian Chris Morris. The film plays with the same ideas that Dostoyevsky did; is it really happening or is he going mad? I suspect that ultimately he is an author whose ideas work better where there is the room to explore them in books, rather than onscreen, but I really enjoyed the film on its own merits. Far superior to William Shatner as "the saintly Alexey Karazamov" (the movie trailer for this is a classic in itself). 
When I had a couple of hours to kill this morning whilst my car was in for an MOT I decided to pass on the opportunity to see "Goodbye, Mr Chips" (again) at the film festival and took the chance to see Stalingrad (trailer here). This is Russia's highest ever grossing film, and also a huge success in China, Poland and the Ukraine, the first film shot entirely in 3D and for IMAX outside north America. 
Russian cinema has been an innovative and dynamic art form ever since the Lumiere brothers first put on shows in St Petersburg. Sergei Eisenstein used editing techniques and montage in new ways to tell the stories in his silent films such as Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky and Battleship Potemkin. The latter, telling the story of the warship crew's role in the 1905 revolution has found new life with recent performances with a live score by the Pet Shop Boys and I saw French electronic act Zombie Zombie do the same at the Glasgow Film Festival 3 years ago at the Arches. If you don't think you know Eisenstein's film you might recognise his scene of a pram falling through the gun shots down the Odessa steps when Brian De Palma recreated it in The Untouchables. Whilst I like the graphic design that Socialist Realism produced in painting in the post-war years, it had a rather more stultifying effect on post-war Soviet cinema. Then along came Andrei Tarkovsky with films such as Solaris and Stalker which showed a whole new way to make film (usually leaving you with a pleasant feeling of confusion). More recently there has been the excellent Russian Ark by Alexander Sukurov, telling hundreds of years of Russian history in one continuous rolling shot through the rooms of the Hermitage Museum and the blockbuster vampiresque films of Timur Bekmambetov, NightWatch and DayWatch.

The movie, Stalingrad, had a huge budget and the director is a supporter of Putin so I wasn't going into the cinema expecting to see something revolutionary. However the battle of Stalingrad is a phenomenal and horrendous story and is often described as the turning point in the second World War, where despite tremendous losses the Russians won out and for the first time the German advances were halted and turned to retreat. I don't think that this film captures the breadth or import of the battle of Stalingrad. It has been captured before in the stunning episode of The World at War documentary series narrated by Laurence Olivier, and in the Peter Blackman poem featured as a B-side on a Robert Wyatt single.

I'm not sure that the scale of it can be crammed into a film such as this. What this film brings it down to is a handful of soldiers and one woman (a not so subtle metaphor for Mother Russia), holding out for 3 days in a single building in November 1942 in the city. It seems to rely heavily on the action remembered within "Pavlov's house" which has even, bizarrely, featured as a mission in the Call of Duty video game. Some newspaper reviews have dismissed the film as overtly pro-Russian (What? A film about the battle in Stalingrad, crazy, eh?). I think that the nearest comparison I could make is to a patriotic, chest-thumping, American war movie, where a small band of American soldiers (probably amongst them John Wayne) holds out against impossible odds on a Pacific island. If you want to dismiss those as pro-America propaganda, then go ahead. If you want to enjoy a modern version of one of these films, with spectucular 3D shots of bullets careering through walls then Stalingrad's your film. Personally I rather enjoyed it (despite having to dash out twice to answer calls about my failed MOT).

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Glasgow and the Slave Trade. A Secret History?

In Glasgow the part of the city nearest to the old medieval centre is branded as the Merchant City, celebrating the merchants and tobacco lords whose wealth led to the rapid growth of the city. Watching the film "12 Years a Slave" at the cinema recently I was struck by the fact that whilst the characters in the film were labouring away in the sugar fields and cotton plantations, their produce was then traded to the great and the good of my city. We have streets named in honour of the tobacco lords, but I struggled to find any mention of the role of the slaves in creating this wealth. I decided to try to write down here what I have found out on the subject, which seems so absent from the city history as to almost amount to a denial that it happened. 

At the end of the 17th century Glasgow was not a large place. It was centred on the High Street where a cathedral had by then stood for 500 years. The nearby University of Glasgow, founded in 1451, was already 200 years old. However over the next 100 years the wealth and importance of the city would explode. Firstly driven by trans-Atlantic trade then manufacturing, invention and engineering. By the time of the Victorian era Glasgow would be known as the “second city of the Empire”. The medieval heart of the city, from Glasgow Cathedral down to the banks of the River Clyde would come to represent the shabby, ramshackle past and a new town would be built westwards by the wealthy merchants, laying out new streets running down from their mansions. Eventually as industrialisation encroached further into the old town even the University would up sticks in 1870, whilst Lord Kelvin was still teaching there, and follow the growth of the city west to Gilmorehill where it still stands. In the 18th and 19th century Glasgow was supplying doctors, soldiers, engineers and innovation to all corners of the Empire.

The old aphorism that “Glasgow built the Clyde and the Clyde built Glasgow” reflects the fact that Glasgow created a navigable channel for the larger sea-going vessels into the city to meet the demands of trade, and this river became the centre for industrial Glasgow with shipbuilding and associated industries meaning that a city of 77,000 people in 1801 had by 1939 grown to a city of 1.2 million citizens. So whatever way you look at it, the trade of the 17th and 18th century kick-started the growth of the Glasgow’s embryonic infrastructure. Firstly with sugar, then tobacco, cotton, linen and locally manufactured goods. When you look at that list it all seems quite innocuous, until you reflect on where the sugar, tobacco and cotton came from that generated the vast fortunes for the merchants. The clues are in any Glasgow map with its Kingston Bridge, Virginia Street and Jamaica Street. Trade, initially using the satellite ports of Greenock and Port Glasgow and then later with the deepening of the Clyde, the Broomielaw in Glasgow itself, built the city.

One of the many merchants' gravestones in Ramshorn Kirk 

I have visited the International Slavery Museum in the Maritime Museum at Liverpool, and I understand that Bristol’s Museum marks the city’s major role in the slave trade. In Glasgow we have large signs marking our Merchant City, but nary a word about what these merchants traded. In Scotland we tend to see ourselves as the oppressed colony of the English, without reflecting much upon our role in the “triangular trade” or as overseers and masters on the plantations. Robert Burns had already put down his nine guineas deposit for passage on the Nancy in 1786 as a job awaited him, a 3 year contract as bookkeeper on an estate in Jamaica. But for the success of the poetry of his Kilmarnock edition that autumn, our national bard would have earned his crust on a plantation in the West Indies.

Site of the Easter House sugar refinery, 138 Gallowgate, Glasgow

Until the Union with England in 1707, Scotland was theoretically banned from trading with the English colonies. However covert trading links were established, especially to Virginia, New Jersey and Carolina. Forced emigration, many of them Covenanters, in the 1670s and 1680s led to many Scots moving to Virginia and Maryland and family connections played an important role in the growing trade links. The level of trade at this time led to four sugar refineries being built in Glasgow between 1667 and 1700. Two of these were soon producing rum from the molasses they produced, others specialised in sweets, candy, treacle and syrups.

Map of Candleriggs from 1760, Wester and North Sugar Houses near
Trongate at the bottom and Ramshorn Church at the top

With the collapse of the Darien scheme and the signing of the Act of Union in 1707 the Scottish merchants now had access to new trade routes. One part of this was the "Triangular Trade" between Britain, Africa and the colonies where each of the three stages of the route could turn a profit. Until the 1690s the workers on tobacco and sugar plantations were largely people in indentured servitude, usually working for a fixed number of years to pay for their passage. Often convicted criminals, political prisoners or religious nonconformists would be sent to the colonies as a workforce too. The increased demand for workers was met firstly in Jamaica and Barbados and later in the Americas by bringing in slaves from Africa. Ships left Britain with goods such as iron wares, textiles, copper and iron bars. This was then traded for captured Africans. In horrific conditions they were transported across the Atlantic. An estimated 11% of all Africans in these ships died in transit. The slaves were traded in the Caribbean and American colonies for rum, sugar and tobacco which was taken back to Britain and traded on again for a profit. Estimating the number of ships participating in the "Triangular Trade" from Glasgow is complicated by these ships often heading to Rotterdam first on their "out" trip. Whilst Liverpool's docks recorded 1,011 slave voyages, Glasgow records show 27. Even this seemingly small number of trips accounts for about 3000 slaves. Between 1710-69 British ships transported around 1.5 million slaves from Africa. Many more of these ships may have departed from Glasgow as the Port Books from before 1742 have not survived.

A larger part of Glasgow's trade with the colonies was in trading locally produced goods - ploughs, pots and pans, rough woven "slave cloth" for the plantation slaves to wear were traded for tobacco and sugar. As 15-20,000 Scots emigrated to the Caribbean between 1750-1800 they worked at every level of the slave trade, as overseers, financiers, suppliers, bookkeepers and as slave and plantation owners. Research on the compensation paid out by the government to absentee proprietors after the Emancipation Act of 1833 shows a disproportionately high representation of Scots, getting 15% of the compensation money for a country with 10% of the British population. By the early 19th century Scots owned a third of Jamaica's plantations which supplied the huge sugar warehouses at Greenock.

Broomielaw today, with the Kingston Bridge now where Kingston Docks used to stand

Tobacco became the most important good brought in from America and Glasgow's position on the west coast meant a trip from Glasgow to Virginia could be completed 20 days faster than a trip from London. This resulted in almost half of the tobacco coming into Europe being distributed through Glasgow. It was then exported on to England, France, Holland and Germany. The increase in slave labour transformed the scale of the tobacco trade. However the Clyde was poorly equipped to deal with this increased trade, which largely came via Ayr, Dumbarton and Irvine. A deep water harbour and warehouses were created at Port Glasgow and a new harbour built at the Broomielaw to where smaller boats transferred the goods to Glasgow warehouses here. In 1768 the river was deepened and further docks developed. The goods traded back meant that when Jamaica Street was planned out in 1761 it soon had a custom house, shipping office, sail-cloth company. Leather works, glass works, breweries, potteries, producers of ropes and sails sprung up about the Trongate area too with the increased trade. Cotton was coming into Scotland too, supplying new industries all over the west of Scotland, with the goods produced here then sold all over the world. The new Glasgow infrastructure was financed by these merchants, and their growing international trade links.

Jamaica Street, Glasgow today
The merchants new found wealth was frequently put on display for all to see, often commissioning new churches or building the most fashionable, conspicuous mansions. The rising urban population was given a new church, St Andrew's in the Square, built from 1739-56, funded by the merchants. Here they showed off their wealth with its extravagant spire, imported Spanish mahogany furnishings and delicate plasterwork inside. The square laid out around it became a fashionable place to live.

St Andrew's in the Square, Glasgow
Another church was built between 1750-52 beside Glasgow Green. St Andrew's-by-the-Green became known as the "Whistlin' Kirk" as it was the first church in Glasgow to install an organ for worship. Although it is no longer a church a nearby pub still carries the Whistlin' Kirk name. It was built in the style of the villas of the time. The Oswald family were involved in the construction of this church. They made their money from tobacco, sugar and wine traded in Virginia, the West Indies and Madeira. Nearby Oswald Street bears the family name and they also had estates in Balshagray and Scotstoun, land stretching from the River Clyde west of Partick, up as far as Great Western Road. Richard Oswald (1705-84) was in the second generation of family members in the business. He purchased plantations and traded in tobacco, sugar, horses and slaves. He was one of the owners of Bance Island, off the coast of Sierra Leone, one of the busiest trading forts for slaves. This market place allowed merchants to bypass the local African slave traders. One ludicrous feature of Bance Island was a two hole golf course where captured Africans were clad in tartan and made to act as caddies.

St Andrew's-by-the-Green, Glasgow
The Oswald family were not treated as pariahs for the business that they operated in. They in fact are the only merchant family given the honour of a burial spot within Glasgow Cathedral. Ironically a later member of the Oswald family, James Oswald (1779-1853), a nephew of Richard Oswald, was an MP for Glasgow and a key supporter of the abolitionist cause. A statue of him stands in George Square.

Stone marking the Oswald family plot in the nave of Glasgow Cathedral

Few of the villas of this time survive in Glasgow, but one can be seen nearby in Charlotte Street and the similarities with the St Andrew's-by-the-Green Church are obvious. This was a street stretching between the Gallowgate and Glasgow Green that was once home to the "father of the cotton industry", David Dale. This street was laid out in 1779. Later it was where St Aloysius College was founded and home to a Mr Paterson, whose claim to fame was creating "Camp Coffee", the world's first instant coffee.

The last 18th century villa on Charlotte Street
One of the earliest mansions built by the wealthy merchants in Glasgow was Shawfield Mansion at the top of what is now Glassford Street. This set the template that later grew into the city centre grid street layout, with these mansions facing a street that ran straight down towards the Clyde, with premises being developed down the street to generate more income. Shawfield Mansion no longer exists, but was built in 1711 by Daniel Campbell, an early slave trader in Virginia who owned several sugar warehouses.

Top of Glassford Street where Shawfield Mansion used to stand
Nearby was Virginia Mansion, at the top of Virginia Street where the Corinthian now sits. This was built by Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier, a tobacco importer who also laid out Virginia Street. A plaque on Virginia Street marks the spot of the Tobacco Exchange where sugar and tobacco were traded in the 18th century.

Top end of Virginia Street, site of Virginia Mansion
Andrew Buchanan, the nephew of Andrew Buchanan of Drumpellier, bought the land for the street that took his name and Buchanan Street would have been on the periphery of the city at that time. With the continued westward growth of Glasgow Buchanan Street is now the central shopping street in Glasgow. The family's Virginia trading companies later folded due to the changes that occurred with the American War of Independence in 1777. Like many other families much of their money had been re-invested in land speculation and estates. One step down the rung from the Oswald's in the way the church honoured them, the Buchanan family earned a burial plot just outside the door of Glasgow Cathedral.
Buchanan family plot outside Glasgow Cathedral
Andrew Buchanan himself was buried amongst many other merchants in the most fashionable and expensive graveyard of 18th century Glasgow at the Ramshorn Kirk, although since the road was widened, his burial plot now lies under Ingram Street.

Ramshorn Theatre, formerly St David's Church at the top of Candleriggs
John Glassford (1715-83) came from a more traditional mercantile family in Paisley, but made his fortune in tobacco. He bought Shawfield Mansion in 1760 and his family portrait, which is on display in the People's Palace, shows them all sat in one of the rooms there. Research has shown a black servant in one corner of the picture, who appears to have been painted out at a later date. It has been estimated that about 70 black slaves were brought back to Scotland by families involved with the plantations, usually working as personal servants.
Glassford family portrait from The People's Palace, Glasgow
John Glassford ended up in debt after the collapse of the Virginia tobacco trade following the American War of Independence. He too is buried in the graveyard of the Ramshorn Kirk. I went in to try to find his grave, which lies in the south west corner of the graveyard and was amazed at how big it is. Despite passing the front of the church on Ingram Street a hundred times I had never looked in behind it before.

Many merchants are buried in the graveyard behind the Ramshorn Church
The next street west from Virginia Street is Miller Street, laid out in 1770. Number 42 Miller Street clearly has the features of an 18th century villa and became known as the "Tobacco Merchant's House". It is now home to the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust. This is the last merchant's villa standing in the Merchant City. In 1780 it was sold to Robert Findlay, a tobacco importer, who lived there until he died in 1802.

Tobacco Merchant's House, Miller Street, Glasgow

Alexander Speirs of Elderslie (1714-82), who came from Edinburgh, married into the Buchanan family and worked in the family businesses.  He bought the Virginia Mansion in 1770 and despite his business being founded on the work of slaves is remembered with a stained glass window in Glasgow Cathedral.

Window in Glasgow Cathedral commemorating Alexander Speirs

However, surely the prize for the most ostentatious mansion goes to William Cunningham, who died in 1789. From Ayrshire he had interests in tobacco and in sugar, owning a plantation in Jamaica and 300 slaves. He built Cunningham mansion, which later became the Royal Exchange. I quite liked the fact that when I tried to take a photograph of it earlier today a bus got in my way, emblazoned with a Pepsi advert proclaiming "Maximum Taste, No Sugar". Without the work of his slaves in Jamaica on the sugar plantations, this building which now houses  Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), would not have been built.

Cunningham Mansion in Glasgow, built on the profits of sugar
The nature of the slave produced goods traded through Glasgow was changing. The trade in sugar with the West Indies became increasingly important to Glasgow after the problems with the tobacco trade. Between  1790 and 1805 sugar imports to Glasgow rose threefold, and cotton imports quadrupled whilst tobacco imports fell to a tenth of what they had been in 1790. The West Indies was also a growing market for Scottish exports. In 1769 over 60% of all linen exported from Scotland went here. There was also a growing disdain for the principles and practices of slavery. In 1807 parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and in 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act (although slaves in British territories were still indentured under the apprenticeship system to their former owners until 1838). Much is made in articles on Scottish links to slavery on the important work of those Scots campaigned for its abolition. Many Quakers and those in the church were outspoken on the subject and frequent petitions to parliament were organised in Scotland, a way for the many people of the time who could not vote to express their opinion. However there were also those arguing for the continuation of slavery in the plantations. Glasgow merchants who traded in the area in 1807 formed the Glasgow West India Association. In the 1820s they complained about the way the British public had been "excited and deluded on the subject of slavery". Once slavery was abolished they successfully campaigned for compensation for their losses and the government awarded £20 million to owners of West Indian estates. Analysis of the wills of Glasgow merchants with interests in the West Indies shows that they were investing some of their money in Scotland in railways and cotton manufacturing.

After emancipation sugar imports dipped for a while, but soon picked up again as the merchants sought sugar from other sources. the value of sugar imports to the Clyde increased almost five-fold between 1857 and 1867. Cuban and Brazilian sources were becoming increasingly important. Of the twenty sugar refineries in Scotland in 1868, fourteen were in Greenock, one in Port Glasgow and three in Glasgow.

New industries were being developed around Glasgow. I cannot help but think that much of this was founded on the profits made from businesses with slave labour at their heart. So next time you come out of Buchanan Street subway station, wander down Glassford Street, see an exhibition in the GOMA or take in a concert at the beautiful St Andrew's In The Square take a moment to ponder where these things came from. I hope that Glasgow can find space somewhere to acknowledge the debt that the city owes to the men, women and children "stolen from Africa" to produce our tobacco, sugar and cotton.

Addendum Nov 2015. There is an excellent new book out on Scotland's connections with slavery in the Caribbean, which I would recommend to you if you are interested in this topic. (Recovering Scotland's Slavery Past. The Caribbean Connection edited by T.M. Devine). In his chapter titled "Did slavery make Scotia great?" Prof Devine concludes that "...the story is a complex one, but even when all the qualifications are taken on board, the central argument remains that the Atlantic slave-based economies can be considered key factors in Scotland's eighteenth-century transformation." Nowhere is that more evident than in Glasgow and the city is sorely needing public acknowledgement  of this fact in some way.


Monday, 3 February 2014

New Exhibitions in Glasgow: Sarah Lucas, Toby Paterson

Sarah Lucas. Tramway, Glasgow

Toby Paterson. Modern Institute, Glasgow

Filthy Granny, Sarah Lucas

Until the 31st of March, 2014 the main exhibition space of the Tramway will be taken over by a major exhibition by the artist Sarah Lucas. Known as one of the "Young British Artists (YBA)" who came to prominence in the 1990s her work is often more provocative, humorous and in your face than her contemporaries so it is great to get a chance to see it in Glasgow. She often featured self-portraits in her work, such as in the well know photograph of her lounging back with two fried eggs on her T-shirt. On show at this exhibition the first image that greets you when you come in the door is her "Self-Portrait With Cigarettes" (literally made with cigarettes). Cigarettes to the fore again, drooping from her mouth in a wall of black and white photographs, "Fighting Fire With Fire" as she scowls in the macho pose familiar from mug shots and James Dean posters along one wall. However what really catches the eye when you enter the hall is the huge, pink fibre glass "Wanking Arm" which mechanically rises and falls like some weird fairground attraction. It feels uncomfortable standing alone in a gallery trying to nonchalantly ponder such a thing or the wall behind it, huge photographs of her ex-partner lounging back with a variety comestibles lying in his lap over his genitals, generally meat and two veg. The unsettling and embarrassed feeling of looking at these things did make me reflect on the way the female body is used throughout art, and in popular culture. I can give no clearer example of the way women are routinely portrayed in art than by referring you to the Jack Vettriano exhibition which has been drawing large crowds at the Kelvingrove art gallery. This is emphasised by the tabloid newspapers which feature in several of the works, such as "The Man Who Sold The World", an HGV cab where the walls are completely covered in yellowing page 3 pictures, whilst a smaller version of the "wanking arm" rocks up and down in the driver's seat. The point of the representation of women in popular culture is well made, but the HGV cab and the shed plastered with tabloids nearby feel like too easy a pop at caricatures of working class men.

The Man Who Sold The World, Sarah Lucas

More nuanced was the stuff in the other half of the hall, although nuanced may seem like a strange word to use when you are faced with a couple of totemic 8 foot long concrete penises. It's all sex and death. Cold urban spaces are conjured up by the furniture about the exhibition made from breeze blocks, crushed cars and the unsettling wall of huge photographs ("Concrete Void"). It shows a dimly lit multi-storey car park and with all the sexual images about it is hard not to fear for what has been going on in the car park. The crushed cars here amongst the enormous cocks and marrows, one beside a neon coffin ("New Religion") make you think of the common saying of men with big cars making up for their small penis.

New Religion, Sarah Lucas
I particularly liked the Volvo (a car which has the male sexual symbol as its logo) with the glass smashed and lying, glinting on the floor, "Islington Diamonds". The way the windscreen has been smashed makes you wonder about whether someone had been knocked down by it, or whether it has just been vandalised. I also remembered a friend (who shall remain nameless) who vandalised her boyfriend's car after he had cheated on her, the coup de gras being the two bananas she shoved up the exhaust pipe. Actually now that I think about it, that car would have felt quite at home in this room.

The exhibition is excellent. It did make me squirm, giggle and ponder. The leaflet for the exhibition talks about this being some of her "seminal work" without really reflecting on the use of that word. They have asked that all children attending the exhibition are accompanied by an adult. From the evidence of the children running about it all with their parents whilst I was there they seem to take it all in their stride, but I hope I've given you a heads up of what to expect if you fancy making a family trip of it. ("Yes dear, it's a big hand waving").

The biggest collection of pricks on display in Glasgow since....(supply your own punchline).

The Modern Institute is a wee gallery hidden down Osborne Street that always has interesting stuff and I often pop in if I'm heading to Monorail to pick up some Monday morning CDs. They have a new exhibition by Toby Paterson on just now, "Soft Boundary". This features his sideways look at the urban landscape with a mixture of paintings, reliefs and painted pallistrades in the gallery. I guess you either like his stuff (I do) or you don't. Worth popping in ifr you are passing. Not a phallus in sight.

Toby Paterson at the Modern Institute