Both completely, utterly surrounded, ringed, enclosed, but at the same time free. And then the mass smashes against you, and you are tossed and turned like in a washing machine.

The buildings are shaped like pretend-fancy rectangles, like the sort
Jack Daniels whiskey comes in. Buildings, Pre- and post-Victorian,
soot-blackened and a little industrial here and there, loomed over me,
shadowing me with history and ideas I had considered before but never quite put
into words. Feelings of being watched and observed, sometimes maliciously, but
most often with the dispassionate stare of someone lost in their own thoughts; eyes
looking upon me but not seeing me as a person. Stares that did to me what I did
to them when I saw them walking down the road – so I was transformed into yet
another body in a sea of pedestrians. Idly watching me from square-latticed
windows that were once bedrooms and now housed office chairs. Drab inside, with
opulence outside; bright red and soot-black sandstone bricks making a mosaic
out of the walls, with green lead roofs sitting comfortably on top. Here and
there an elaborate chimney, perhaps a weathered gargoyle, and many an iron
casting on steep roofs. It is the use of multicoloured stone that makes me
think of Glasgow as a pixel art environment from SNES games come to life.

It was on my fourth day in Glasgow that I finally came to understand
such buildings as part of the Glasgow Style. Thus, adding another layer of
complexity to my understanding of the city. My perception of what I had
experience suddenly greatly expanded by the mention of one man, Charles Rennie
Mackintosh. Very few architects are remembered after they pass away; even less
have their designs constructed when they are dust and ash six feet under. I
might be paraphrasing unknown mutterings when I say that without these gothic revival
buildings – looming, watchful, impassable and terrifying in a way – Glasgow
wouldn’t feel the way it does. Yet a couple of structures don’t make a whole,
and this city is a mix of many, many, many bricks laid by a hand never to know
where the financing for the endeavour came from.

Something found on the ground floor of that building of flats © Ian Cooke-Tapia

The square structures clumped, stuck close to one another, shoulder rubbing against shoulder… Wherein in Iceland I experienced the irrelevance of my existence before a vast landscape, in Glasgow I felt a type of claustrophobia that I still can’t quite place. Architectural fear, I might’ve called it, height-induced, vision-interrupted. A type of fear. Perhaps. Until that August week, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place where the closeness of buildings directly contradicted the vastness of the space between them. Don’t misunderstand me, I do not mean that the whole city felt empty. Argyle Street and Miller Street were both particularly overflowing with human bodies; and I cannot forget the sense of seeing a type of “change of the work shift” when I walked up Buchanan Street and up the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall at 7am. People were about, both those who had witnessed the sunrise as the end of their work hours, and those who would replace them. As well as those for whom shifts and work hours mean nothing. Upon those being and weathered stone steps of the Concert Hall I saw a young woman in black, face pale and hair greasy. Her hoodie was faded grey, and she cursed under hear breath at a malfunctioning lighter.

No, Glasgow is not an empty city. But in places such as this, in the very “centre” of the city, you can find that strange “empty claustrophobia” I felt. Think of it this way: a concert, or a particularly crowded train. You’re amongst that crowd, where everything is just too close to one another. And for a frozen moment you find yourself in a small space where no one is touching you. Both completely, utterly surrounded, ringed, enclosed, but at the same time free. And then the mass smashes against you, and you are tossed and turned like in a washing machine. By the time I was regurgitated out of the shopping areas, I kept tapping my pockets every three steps.

Both completely, utterly surrounded, ringed, enclosed, but at the same time free. And then the mass smashes against you, and you are tossed and turned like in a washing machine. 

That is how walking those streets felt.

By contrast, a twenty-minute walk southwards teleported me to another
world. And in that place of isolation, I felt safer than in a crowd of five
hundred.

South over the River Clyde through the Gorbals Street Bridge, passing a
man who complimented my cowboy hat in a rough shout, and into the area a map
calls Lauriston. People started disappearing from the streets after going under
the rail bridge on Ballater Road, as if spirted away by a rapture of economic
deprivation. Pallets and brown traffic cones inherited the earth. Suddenly, well-trimmed
green grass gives way to overflowing rubbish and rusting car parts. All the
gates are locked, chained, boarded over; every place has a for sale or a to let
sign. Even lamp posts have been drafted into the war waged by temporal living.
Letting Agencies: the vultures feasting from the corpses of community that transient
living brings. Somehow, Central American advertisement strategies found their
way here: orange, yellow and often confusing type design finds its way to walls
ignored by commuters, boards on tops of owner-less fences, and stuck to the
soles of those in a rush. And, of course, on lamp posts.

It was in this gutted neighbourhood where I stayed, in a squat bottle of
glass and pre-fabricated walls, where the lift had wiring sticking out, inch-thick
bicycle chains were left abandoned on stair railings, and cigarette ash
coloured the lobby carpets a shade of vomit green like the branding design of
the House of Shere building across the road. A building like a snake oil
salesman’s worst tonic; preserving something we could do without.

At night the streets were barely illuminated, enough to get around, but
I bet hens and roosters would’ve slept there comfortably. Sometimes a passing
car would provide some extra illumination, and the shadows cast against smudged
windows would warm me up with a spark of paranoia inside. The keys poking
between my tight-fisted fingers wouldn’t remain there long, though, as I soon
realised that very few people can walk silently on gravel and shards of glass. There
must’ve been cats (there’s always cats in places like that) and where there are
cats you can hear the rats sneaking away.

The smell of sweat and cheap spices would slap me every time I walked into this place where mould made the bathroom dangerous

By the second night of walking back to that rotting, temporal
accommodation the unease of the landscape had been replaced by a feeling of
content lonesomeness. It wasn’t the good feelings of returning “home” after a
day of hard labours, for I was staying in a place that made my skin crawl. No.
Not at all. Wherein the crowds framed by trendy shops made put my arm over my
rucksack, the lack of people around the overpass where the M8 and M74 motorways
met like a hepatic artery made me feel safe.

A view of the river Clyde © Ian Cooke-Tapia

Much later I asked my friends about this feeling. Would they have felt
entirely comfortable walking down a street marred by broken glass, vandalized
fire hydrants, and missing buildings? Men said yes, women disagreed – safety in
numbers, you see.

And there it was: the reality of a gender gap even in experiences of
urban landscape. One of my female friends said something that cut through me:
“in a crowd, they can hear you scream”.

……

                                   …………

It says a lot about my priviledged experience as a male that my worst
worry going out on the streets is theft. Perhaps I am reading too much into
this, but our experiences of the world have a powerful effect on the type of
stories we tell, repeat and make true; about ourselves, about others. About the
world.  I’ve considered this for a long
while and I still would say, that I feel much safer knowing I am utterly alone
on a street. Contrary to any factual reality. Safety in society is… weird, to
overly simplify the concept of it.

These thoughts first came to me as I unlocked the door to the flat I was
staying in with a trick of the shoulder. The smell of sweat and cheap spices would
slap me every time I walked into this place where mould made the bathroom
dangerous. I’d say hello to the two men who were forced to share the living
room floor as a bed because the landlord rented out one of the rooms as an
AirBnB space.

The day I was scheduled to fly back to Cardiff I realised my passport
was nowhere to be found.

I never took it out of the room.