Many of the regular followers will probably have seen the latest two dialectograms, of the Mecca Bingo and Social Club and of The Brig Bar on the Red Road Underground website. But you will have noticed the absence of the usual whingeing, griping and picking fault with myself that customarily accompanies each post. So, now that Red Road Underground is launched, and the exhibition is open I felt it was the right time to go into more depth on these latest two drawings (probably the last two significant Red Road drawings I shall produce, save one – I’ll tell you more about that some other time…) and how they came about. We’ll start at the start, with…
THE MECCA BINGO AND SOCIAL CLUB (Red Road Dialectogram No 3)
Those of you who are familiar with Red Road Underground know the bingo’s cardinal claim to fame. It was underground, and it was massive, reportedly holding 1,000 seats . When drawing these seats, it became impossible, from the photographs, to keep track of exactly where they all were and how they were placed, not to mention keeping the right scale so in the eventuality I had to go with what I felt was right. As a result, I haven’t had the heart to count how many seats I placed in the drawing. All I know is I certainly got it wrong, so those of you so-inclined can count them and tell me just how wrong I got it, by looking at the pic below:
No drawing – no dialectogram – can capture everything about a place, there are always mysteries, but with both the Bingo and the Brig the mysteries left something of a gaping hold. Working with Chris Leslie we tracked down a number of ex bingo punters and recorded a series of very useful interviews. But the Bingo, like theatres, cinemas, fairgrounds and so forth, consists of two communities of interest – the audience, and the ‘acts’, the backstage, the people who make it all work. Staff.
Sadly, we were unable to get in touch with any staff members, despite a few promising leads, so this element is missing. What the bingo was like to work in, what the workers called certain rooms, was unavailable – as a result, I have had to use the ‘official’ names from the architect’s plans (kindly supplied by Jonny Howes via the Mitchell Library Archives) but have no ideas what the Mecca workers themselves called the storeroom, or the plant rooms. Or the punters themselves! These things matter to me, and they were missing from the drawing.
The Mecca Bingo drawing still brings me out in a bit of a sweat, to be honest. It was such a big space, with so much happening in it I felt all I could do was skim the surface of what was there. Bingo is a mystery to me; I don’t see the thrill and, it is (don’t shout at me!) primarily a female pursuit, and the Bingo hall itself therefore a very feminine place. I wasn’t sure I had the data, or the feel for the place. What I did have was a sense of atmosphere. When our group (which consisted of GHA officials, Iseult Timmermans of Streetlevel, Crawford McGugan and colleagues, from museums, Chris Leslie and myself) entered there was a strange mixture of feelings. It felt very much desolate, abandoned, decaying. and yet, in the better-preserved places, there was a sense that time really had just stopped, been hermetically sealed up and time had shifted. Romantic tomfoolery, perhaps, but feelings are like that. In the manager’s office, (see below) for example, we found all these glimpses and hints of what the bingo was – the yellow cheques given to winners (still in good condition, many feeling rather glossy and new), a bus schedule that detailed where people came into the bingo from, and when they caught the actual buses themselves. I turned the latter into a rather convoluted diagram along the bottom of the drawing (people came from a very wide radius in north Glasgow and Lanarkshire – the bingo hall was important to a lot of people), and, in a departure from previous work, used ‘mixed media’, which is a fancy way of saying I stuck one of the cheques I recovered from the bingo on the drawing. It started to deteriorate once I started handling it afterwards, so the freshness was something of an illusion. Speaking of illusions, here’s a ghost apparently haunting a corner of the main hall -
This feeling, of switching back and forth in time, was something I decided to put in the drawing, which is why the main hall has massive lochs and puddles, piles of debris and various mysteries in some parts, but is reconstructed (see the stage) in others to fit more closely with the bingo’s initial design. This often reflected the quality of information I had. The ladies who gave us the information for the drawing were very kind, and extremely helpful, but details such as where things happened, exactly what things felt like and where, are generally casualties of memory and become vague. This is why, I think, it is essential for me to actually see a place, and ideally, see it while it is still ‘alive’. The depiction of derelict parts of the bingo are therefore an attempt to give the drawing a firmer basis on my own experience of being there, and the occasionally creepy feeling the old bingo gave me. Hopefully, you get the same sense I did – one minute you are looking at something that pretty much looks on first glance, as fresh as a daisy and well preserved. Then, you turn your head and suddenly we wind forward again, to the wrecked and ruined bingo. If the upshot is an occasionally confusing, overly dense drawing then, I apologise, but it is pretty close to what being in the place can actually feel like, with the various layers of artefacts, different types of room, facilities, functions and memories all becoming apparent.
So what’s worth point out here? This involved a much bigger group of people than earlier dialectograms. Helen McDermott, June Aird (whose Aunty Molly was a regular), Mary MacDonald, Ruth Wright and some of the folk at Alive and Kicking all gave information for this. Helen, a real Mecca bingo pilgrim, gave a lot of crucial information that can be seen mostly on the right side of the dialectogram, about the details of playing bingo, her reasons for going, and her favourite seat (I was not sure we got the correct identification from our interview, but had a stab at identifying it in any case).
Ruth Wright went to the Bingo much more casually, and tended to remember events and incidents, rather than the detailed workings of the place. One of these took place in the ladies toilets, which seemed to double as a dodgy market stall for stolen goods – I’ve tried to recreate it in the top left of the drawing
Another thing that piqued my interest was the style of the Mecca – echoes of Art Deco (Mecca-Deco) here and there, with lots of shiny surfaces – as June remembered it, ‘sparkly’. I saw lots of things that reminded me of my uncle’s travelling amusement arcade –bright colours, plastic and fibreglass moulding. The bingo would have been a noisy place.
And then…the lights and the stalactites. The bingo closed because of a fire in the shop above aroundabout 98-99. The firefighter’s hoses flooded down into the bingo, pretty much drowning it. Damp and sodden, Mecca abandoned what had always been a leaky facility, and the water gradually did its work. The combined effects of melting plastics and seeping water turned the ceiling into a mess of ragged, stalactite like shapes as the tiles fell off and left the innards of the roof exposed. And then the lights – we all thought the lights that hung from the ceiling represented a style of lampshade (similar to the sweeping curves of the doors in the bingo) but actually, it’s a pure accident. The lights were originally sunk into the ceiling tiles. As the bingo decayed, the light fixture pushed through and fell down to swing on its wires. The tile that was left attached then drooped down, creating an accidental interior design flourish.
In the end, the bingo drawing represents a lot of missed opportunities for me. There were lots of things I never found out about, and could not resolve – how did the bingo-caller work? What was the real setup on the stage? And what was the closed off area where the mini-bingo used to be? Had I known these things, I could have used layering to show changes over time, and generally been better informed. But, with time at a premium and information sketchy, I eventually just had to stop the drawing, rather than finish it. So I look at it now with rather a lot of dissatisfaction (Just like every other dialectogram I do…)
THE BRIG BAR
This drawing was completed about a week and a bit before Red Road Underground opened. Chris, a man of infinite patience, got used to my reassurances that the Brig would be finished ‘any day now’ meaning absolutely nothing (I mean, after four months of saying the exact same thing you tend to lose credibility…). Like the Bingo, the Brig was offered subterranean leisure (for your pleasure) but was rather more distinctive in style, taking the theme of the interior of a boat or galleon. This in a location that is about as far north from the Clyde you can get without leaving Glasgow. Here’s the pic below:
The Brig was in some ways easier to do than the bingo, but presented difficulties all of its own. Being on safely masculine territory, I found I had more personal terms of reference with which to reconstruct the pub and its workings than with the Mecca.
What was particularly nice was the chance to reunite with Bob Niven (see Dialectogram No 2) and Finlay MacKay who helped me piece together the earlier days of The Brig and their experience of growing up with a nautically themed subterranean modernist pub as their yardstick for all other bars. They provided lots of useful pointers to both myself and Chris (although one of the meet-ups I arranged with Bob and Finlay ended up taking place in a pub, which resulted in some very scrawled notes (even for me) and a level of drinking which certainly separated the men from the boy (I’ll let you guess who the boy was)).
I also got in touch with Azam Khan, whose experiences at the Brig are captured in Alison Irvine’s novel, and he had me over to his place one teatime to fill me in on his experiences. As someone coming into the scheme in their rough and ready 90s, his experience of the Brig was somewhat different. Not negative, necessarily, but rather more hair raising and risky. It was an important perspective to have, giving a range from Bob (a real regular, stalwart of the darts team), to Finlay (who went there after football, and found ‘the talent’ in the Broomfield tavern more alluring) and then Azam, who came to the Red Road alone, went to the Brig alone, and eventually switched allegiance to the Broomfield as his first stop on a night out.
Nevertheless, it was hard to get folk to talk about the Brig. An ex-manager of the bar is known to all who work at Red Road, but has a policy of refusing to go on record about his times there. Other staff were unreachable or unwilling – in short, The Brig suffers from the same basic problem of the Bingo – it’s a one-sided view.
The other problem was more serious, and is the reason for many of the gaps and lacunae in the final piece. No plans of the bar survive, and I initially, only had a couple of hours to gain access to the bar and work out how the bar was shaped. I literally had to do a reconstructive sketch on site, with limited lighting and limited time. This sketch has – appallingly – gone missing, but I have kept other sketches, based on the minigrams I drew to help me get a feel for how the place was stuck together. On site it was very confusing! There were nooks and crannies that didn’t seem to belong there at all, whole sections that seemed to defy the laws of physics, and rooms that I was unable to place. The floor plan as it stands here then, is in good part imaginary, or to be more positive, an educated guess.
These problems aside, the Brig represents a more self-contained, manageable universe than its counterpart. As Bob, a regular from aged 15 noted, ‘not many people from outwith the flats went to the Brig’. The bar, or at least parts of it, was much better preserved. Though there is fire damage in places, this was from later vandalism – the bar closed, with the intention of reopening much the same time as the Bingo, so while many fixtures were taken away, a lot remained, including the distinctive compass tables.
However, there were two phases of usage that complicates depicting the Brig somewhat; the well-preserved, almost pristine bar we walked into was not the original ‘bar’. It was actually the lounge
For those of you accustomed to pubs being relatively liberal places designed for a bit of a dance, a chance to try (and fail) to pick up women/men and so forth, it should be pointed out that the traditional Scottish boozer operates according to strict rules, social protocols and hierarchies. There is ‘the bar’ and there is ‘the lounge’. The bar is primarily, a place for men, to do those manly things we men like to do, largely out of the sight of women, who are generally only seen in such places with their husband. If at all. Then there are the rules about seating, playing dominoes…too many to go into just now. Generally, a husband who takes his wife to the pub takes her to the lounge (which is where many Red Road couples reunited after the bingo closed). The lounge is also the correct place for students, visitors and any others who might not have an entirely nuanced sense of the correct behaviour and deportment traditional to the bar area.
So it was with the Brig. In fact, bar and lounge were so separate, there was no way of easily getting from one to the other. To meet your wife after an afternoon in the main bar, you would have to walk all the way round the side (very dark, as Azam Khan remembers) , turn the corner into the plaza to get to the lounge entrance, strategically placed next to the bingo. However, because (I think) parts of the underground plaza at Red Road were closed off in the early 90s, the main bar was closed off and decommissioned, leading to the lounge becoming the only bar. This meant the old bar (are we keeping track of all these bars ok?) lacked many of its features and fixtures, not least the actual bar itself, which was taken out. It took some detective work, looking at the holes on the wall and gaps in the flooring as shown on Chris’ photographs, to retrace what seems to have been its shape. I have no doubt I got it wrong, so if you remember it differently, feel free to tell me.
I had to look on the photographs for details of the bar, because at the time we entered the Brig in March 2011, I did not know this aspect of the Brig’s history and thought it was probably a function room of some sort, not noticing the tell tale marks that there had been something installed in there.. Luckily, Bob Niven has a terrifyingly accurate memory and I got a sense of what should be there, but I still got a lot wrong.
Still, I did get some pretty rich material for this one – I feel I got a better handle on the Brig than the Mecca. The distinctive style of the bar was a real attraction – drawing the compass tables (I rescued one, which now sits in my front room) really exercised my drawing muscles but was very satisfying and really anchors the drawing. I also like how the Brig links to the other Red Road drawings, as you will see noted here and there (Stuart MacMillan, who photographs bars around Glasgow and has been very helpful and supportive, suggested using hyperlinks to connect web-versions of the drawings. I might just give it a try).
There was more experimentation with mixed media here too (a fancy way of saying I stuck a beermat on the drawing) and I took a conscious decision, given the sheer bulk of testimony garnered about The Brig, to make this more ‘wordy’ than other dialectograms – it’s really one of the most dense I’ve done so far, at the cost of visualisations and explanatory diagrams. I’m not sure what I think of the effect overall, but I’m quite pleased at how I’ve used the people in this one – I’m getting better at drawing people from above, but also, I think the addition adds something important to the drawing and tells you something about the place.
When collecting artefacts for our show at New Glasgow Society we briefly returned to the Brig to find some useful objects. Of course, I had a chance to check for mistakes – and discovered more than a few! The storeroom is too large, the keg room is in the wrong place, and I have the doors to the main bar entirely wrong – there should be a double set of double doors leading in! As you can imagine, this has tortured me ever since – all I could do was make some notes on the drawing and berate myself at length
Overall then, while the Brig hangs together more as a drawing, again, I can’t help but feel all the missed opportunities. A little more time spent on the drawing could have brought out more of the relationships between different groups in the bar (though there is definitely more of that in this drawing than some of the previous Red Road Dialectograms) and shown more of the workings of the bar itself. But that actually would have meant a LOT more time in fact, and it would require actually drinking there. And that’s impossible now. I would have liked to have gotten more detail on the various bands who played at Red Road, and had the chance to show more of the drawing to the guys at various times. But, schedules being what they are, it just wasn’t possible. The drawing did confirm how complex pubs are; a whole social structure is represented within, and created within the pub, a whole way of life tied closely, irrevocably to that place, so that when the bar closes for business and last orders are called, a great deal of knowledge and understanding goes with it. The more of these types of traditional pubs close, the more we lose touch with this aspect of our past – sexist, insular, destructive and daunting as it can sometimes be, at others it can be life-affirming, fraternal, supportive, as shown on the old photographs Chris found behind the bar and noted on the drawing.
Maybe that’s why when we did go in, and saw that the Brig had deteriorated further, I felt very sad. I’d never visited The Brig in its prime, but having thought about the place, and soaked up as many stories about it as I could, I felt almost as if I had some kind of stake in it. I suppose that’s a by-product of looking so long, and hard at places. You fall into something like love with them. And that, the graphic novelist Dave Sim (Cerebus) warns us is a bad idea, as he put it ‘never fall in love with a bar.’
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
…we’ve been on the news. Red Road Underground has been on the news a lot*. First off there was a feature in the Scotsman – rather nice. Dialectograms were referred to as ‘charming sketches’. Dialectograms are charming? Well, yes, perhaps…but ‘sketches’?
I shouldn’t quibble I suppose – the press was very helpful. We also appeared on STV news.
Just a shame they didn’t mention where the show was! Incidentally, we are having another event for Red Road Underground this Saturday (18th) at 2pm – artists talks with Chris Leslie, Alison Irvine (This Road is Red), Crawford McGugan of Glasgow museums, and me.
Lastly (no, really) thanks to all of you who came along to the private view and opening of the exhibition – both nights were jumping and great fun. Neil Scott, a blogger and podcaster, made this record of the event. Shows a bit of the exhibition (you can see Finlay and Bob in the very first few frames, nearest the camera), gives you a flavour of how busy it was, and certainly tells you more than you ever needed to know about short women.
* thanks are due to Stuart Darroch, GHA for making a lot of the press contacts.