(james benedict brown) on the road

Dirty (un)sexy Glasgow

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 11 March, 2009

Terribly urgent business involving a punt and a smoke machine dragged me (kicking and screaming, of course) away from Glasgow over the weekend. I returned on Monday afternoon after a tolerable train journey, largely spent considering the three fallacies in the phrase “Try our mouthwatering meal deals!” that adorned adverts for the train’s buffet. Down south the weather had been changeable but largely pleasant, and with a conservatory tacked onto the house I was staying in, breakfast felt more like petit déjuner in the south of France.

Scotland, however, remains a bit parky, and there was still on snow on the ground south of Glasgow. The chill in the air welcomed me back to Scotland, and the mountains of domestic waste that had been dumped on the pavements of Govanhill welcomed me back to Glasgow.

These scenes might not seem unusual to a born and bred Glaswegian. But they are to me. They’re nothing short of shameful, in fact. While I accept that my neighbourhood (Govanhill) might not be the most attractive or affluent parts of the city, in general Glasgow is a monstrously filthy city.

I mean, downright sickeningly dirty. I have lost count of the number of people I have seen (of all races, ages and appearance, before any Daily Mail readers get hold of this rant) who openly hack and spit onto the pavement. Littering seems to be a Scottish art as well: carefree hands offer elegant flourishes as empty bottles, cigarette packs, wrappers and even (I kid you not) entire newspapers are thrown from the windows of moving or stationary vehicles.

But what gets my relatively tolerant back up the most is the city’s casual tolerance of street dumping. It’s quite acceptable for residents to haul outsize waste to their own kerbside for free collection. Almost any bulk domestic refuse – including furniture and white goods – can be left on the pavement for collection once a week. Everything gets picked up by a team of city cleaners and thrown into a refuse truck that crushes it in preparation for landfill. A few weeks ago a largely undamaged three seater sofa was dumped on the pavement across the street from my apartment. It was unceremoniously lifted in a rubbish truck and crushed for burial outside the city.

As far as I’m aware, no other city in Britain tolerates or encourages residents to dump on their own pavements. And while it’s true that no self respecting Glasgow hipster does not own (for example) a perfect 1950s telephone table that they happened to find while out walking, most of the stuff that’s dumped is just waste, often with no regard for the conditions for collection (nothing over four feet in length, nothing dumped loose on the pavement).

And because the city willingly cleans this up, residents continue to haul junk out without consideration to the cost or implications of its disposal. While I can see the logic in defending a system that allows other citizens to save bits of furniture before they get collected, this act is technically illegal, since household waste left for kerbside collection is technically the property of the council once it hits the pavement.

But here’s the irony. It’s legal for residents to expect uplift of ‘bulky items of domestic waste’. But it’s illegal to ‘fly tip’ … i.e. dump domestic or commercial waste, normally from a vehicle, in a public place.

I’m confused. So it’s legal for someone to dump their own waste on the pavement outside their apartment, but illegal for someone else to come and dump it there?


Ze Germans are coming. And so is Carol Smillie

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 February, 2009


Something was different in our local supermarket this afternoon. Since moving to Glasgow last summer, I’ve rejoiced in the affordable rent, plentiful old-man-pubs and cheap local butchers and greengrocers of Govanhill. It may be a downtrodden and occasionally troubled part of the city in which to live, but it’s lively, diverse and brilliant value. Queens Park is right on our doorstep (as is our allotment) and we’re an 8 minute train journey, 10 minute bus ride or 30 minute walk from Glasgow city centre.

We do lack a decent supermarket, though.

Although we try to avoid it, the Somerfield on Victoria Road is our nearest and most convenient food retailer. Allison Street provides most of our fresh fruit and vegetables for a lot less money, and with a much more entertaining shopping experience to boot (if you overlook the fruit flies and milk that is never stored in refrigerators). But for certain things (cheap cheese, flour, free range eggs that are definitely free range, cat fod etc) Somerfield fills the hole.

We’ve know for a while that its days were numbered. The Co-Operative Group applied to the relevant authorities to buy Somerfield last year, and it looked this supermarket brand was up for the chop. And to be honest, I was delighted. Somerfield products are not competitively priced, the fruit and vegetables are rarely great quality and special offers don’t normally save me any money – they just add stuff to my basket that I could really do without. The Co-Op has a dividend programme for members and a laudable commitment to reducing unnecessary packaging on fruit and veg, and to encouraging fairtade, organic and free range products.

But not for us, it seems. Word reached the staff today, that this Somerfield will close its doors on 28 February 7 March, and re-open a week several months later as a branch of the German discounter Lidl. The interior of the store is now bedecked with sale signs.


Is this good news? Well, yes. I remember the predecessor of Somerfield in the small market town near where I grew up. It was called the International Food Stores when I was born and became a Gateway by the time I was walking. And even then it was a depressing place, with downright cheeky pricing and a terrible customer experience (crowded aisles, hideous own-brand product design). Not much has changed: the green and blue colourscheme developed by Somerfield for its staff and stores must rate as one of the most hideously artifical and putrid colour pairings in retail.

But is it all good news? No, not entirely. Lidl are profitable and successful, but they manage it with a much tighter range of products and very few branded goods. I enjoy shopping there for store cupboard stocks, but a Lidl is no use for the specific type of pet food we use. Nor is it any good if you believe in buying organic or fairtrade products. And nor is it any good for the staff of Somerfield. I counted at least 15 members of staff on the floor of the shop this afternoon, and I’m pretty certain that Lidl will not be hiring as many when they re-open the store on 7 March.

I expected a sombre mood at the check-out this afternoon, but interupted a lively conversation between two younger employees of Somerfield. Were they distraught about receiving their notice?

Yes, but one had just served the Scottish TV celebrity Carol Smillie. She’d come to buy an evening newspaper, which happened to have a full colour photograph of herself on the front cover. Hearing my English accent, the girl at the till asked “is she famous down south as well?”

Life goes on, it seems.


Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 February, 2009


For the first time in my life, I have achieved something in a garden. Above, our half-plot as we received it. And 2 weeks later…


A couple of cm of snow, and now two or three nights of hard frosts are hopefully killing off the exposed roots of any of the weeds I wasn’t able to dig out myself. The soil seems in good quality, although we have (with very generous help from neighbouring plot holders) located a plentiful source of free horse manure and now plan to bring a truck load in.


Meanwhile, a day with a panel van produced five euro palettes in striking colours (from the pavements of Govanhill and Tradeston), seven doors (Freecycle) and concrete blocks for foundations (from Travis Perkins, the only items that required purchase). More materials are hopefully in the pipeline, or whatever conduit it is that brings materials to the allotment…

On my hands and knees in the mud

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 24 January, 2009

We are moving up in the world, so to speak. I don’t need to borrow a patch of mud to crawl around in, we have our own.

As you can see, it’s not bad mud to be crawling around in, although this photograph was taken after many hours of said crawling (and weeding). It has been a not unreasonably damp January in Glasgow, and taking on an half-size allotment garden that has not been tended to since before Christmas has given us plenty to do. The soil is generally in good condition, although it decidedly damper at one end than the other. We have yet to establish soil pH, and have been warned about many known instances of Horsetail on this plot. Some of the (many) people who have taken the time to lean over our fence and share a suggestion or two have advised us to do everything we can to get rid of it. Others, more prosaically, have just told us to keep bashing at it, since it doesn’t really interfere with anything else we might be growing. That said, the root system is likely to be draining the soil of nutrients that could be used elsewhere, so we’re on guard, although I’m not entirely sure what to be looking for in this largely dormant soggy soil.

A handy delivery of some old palettes from Glasgow Wood Recycling has allowed us to whip up a compost bin. Somewhat oversized, it has made a modest pile of rotting vegetables look even more modest, but my competitive spirit has been piqued, and I intend to consume many more vegetables this year so as to help the pile get on its way.


The advantage of my employment (sic) is that I have plenty of time to spend up here. I say ‘up here’ because Queen’s Park is on a large hill, and our second floor apartment is at least five or six floors lower in altitude than our plot. While much of Queen’s Park is pretty drab right now, today the first hint of winter relenting was felt in the air. Perhaps that was premature, but there is usually a spring in my step when I climb the hill to dump some compost and crawl through the dirty looking for roots that could come back to life when it warms up.

Red cabbage

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 December, 2008

Perhaps one of the best value vegetables I’ve discovered in the strangely alluring fruit and vegetable shops on Allison Street here in Govanhill. Less than a pound for a massive (i.e. large mass) red cabbage. So far it’s been oven roasted with apples and red onion for a kind of… well, skiddleymathingamijig, and sliced up with a red onion, potato, butter and stock for the strangest soup I have ever made. It was delicious, but by God it was purpler than any food has cause to be.