Although born in Glasgow, each time I arrive from Edinburgh, I feel I'm in a different country. Something in the atmosphere. A more spontaneous openness. Complete strangers talk to you. They welcome you with a smile, making you feel you belong to the human race. But don't get above yourself, mind.
I've many family links with the city, dating from childhood, but my longest association with it was in the late 1970s, working for four years in the academic registry of Strathclyde University. It wasn't a happy time. Not Glasgow's fault. I was emotionally uprooted. A broken relationship in London. Several family deaths. An oppressive working environment. I remember reading A L Kennedy's collection of short stories, 'Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains'. I loved the title, and the bleak lives of her unremarkable protagonists resonated.
Priced out of the trendy academic hinterland of Byres Road, I lived in a modest tenement room and kitchen in Shawlands. My local railway station was Crossmyloof, two stops from Central Station on the southern route that winds out to East Kilbride via Thornliebank, Giffnock, Clarkston, Busby and Hairmyres. Crossmyloof was known then for its ice-rink, the first indoor one built in Scotland in 1907. It closed in 1986 to make way for a supermarket. Its name intrigued me. Something to do with crossing one's palm with silver. The origin is disputed, but two suggestions focus on Mary Queen of Scots on her way to her final military defeat at the Battle of Langside in 1568. Either an encounter with a gypsy fortune-teller before the battle or a defiant claim by the queen afterwards. A nearby corner pub, the Corona, has a sculpture of a hand, its raised palm bearing a cross.
I sought social refuge in the university's lively theatre group, run at that time by the immensely talented Hugo Gifford, younger brother of Professor Douglas Gifford of Glasgow University. Hugo died tragically young a few years later. I knew about the group from a powerful production of the medieval play of 'Everyman' I'd seen performed in St Mary's Cathedral, Palmerston Place, during the Edinburgh Festival some years before.
While working at Strathclyde, I was involved with some other memorable productions. Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus' and an adaptation of Charles Maturin's 1820 novel, 'Melmoth the Wanderer', stand out. It was one of the few bright spots during those four sad years. It didn't banish the blues, but it kept me sane. I often went home late in the evening, delaying my lonesome return. I remember crossing the echoing emptiness of Central Station towards my train one misty February evening, carrying a box containing a small portable colour television. It was bulky rather than heavy and, with no one to help, involved continual stops for a rest, exacerbating my sense of loss and isolation.
One of the better programmes on the new BBC Scotland channel has been its documentary series on the work of the staff at Glasgow's Central Station. Nothing bleak there. It's resolutely upbeat. Everyone smiles. Even when trains to Edinburgh refuse to move. Or there's an expectation of thousands of fans en route to Mount Florida for a celebrity gig, or Scottish Cup Final match, at Hampden and a dearth of staff to deal with the huge last minute queue for rail tickets.
Everyone on the staff seems to be related to everyone else. One station attendant counted 10 members of his family currently working at the station. Another is 'married to the Voice', the woman who announces the train departures. Perhaps that contributes to the apparent harmony of the team. Everyone understands everyone else. The accents, the tones of voice, the banter. 'It's more like a family than a job.'
Susan, the station manager, sporting a waterfall of jet black hair, wants her station to be top dog in the National Rail passenger survey. She's been there before and has a trophy to prove it, but this year Central comes in at sixth. She's gutted. 'That's a fail,' she says, the smile quivering. What can she do? More seats. More bike-parking places. But can she find the space?
One feature the station does have is a piano on the concourse. Anyone can play, so they do. A man from Nottingham in a tweed jacket dons a tartan bonnet and ginger wig and settles down to play 'Good Morning' with aplomb. Craig, a young conductor on the TransPennine Express to Manchester Airport, limbers up on it before he starts his shift. A refugee from Wishaw, he has seven guitars and a piano in his single bed Glasgow flat. 'Layla' by Derek and the Dominos is his signature piece. But for one of the women at the information desk the piano is frustrating. Most people play one of only four different tunes, not always well, and sometimes very loudly, so she can't hear her customers.
Paul, a tall man with an Old Testament beard, is the station's resident tour guide. 'Central to Glasgow, that's Glasgow Central' is his motto. He's been there for 20 years and knows stuff. He knows the main concourse gradient was a deliberate form of Victorian crowd control. He knows there are 48,000 panes of glass in the longitudinal ridged and furrowed roof: 'the epitome of Victorian virility. Biggest was best'. The panes were painted black during the war to fox the Luftwaffe and later replaced. He loves descending to the Victorian lower level under the noisy escalators and wandering for hours in 'the land that time forgot'. It was opened in 1896 and closed off in the 1960s. Now it lies dusty and derelict, like a location from a Craig Robertson crime novel, the old arches regularly punctuated by the modern suburban trains, their windows lit up, moving southwards through the gloom. A veritable exercise in time travel.
Floyd is an English springer spaniel trained to detect explosives. His police handler's security checks take him on a 15-mile walk round the station each day. Floyd stops at a red case left outside the ticket office. No, it isn't dangerous. Just left there momentarily by an octogenarian former railway guard who should have known better. Turns out he's a veteran of the Cameronian Scottish Rifles en route with some old mates to a veterans' garden party at Buckingham Palace. Spontaneously they join in a recitation of Laurence Binyon's 'For the Fallen' to entertain the friendly officer.
Central Station was opened on 1 August 1879 by the Caledonian Railway, on the site of a village called Grahamston, summarily evacuated to make way for it. Currently it handles in excess of 32 million passengers annually – 100,000 per day. It's Scotland's largest and busiest station, running over 950 trains daily to more than 160 stations on the national rail network. On Cup Final day they budget for 4,500 fans. When it's Beyoncé and Jay-Z, or Ed Sheerin, they anticipate 10-14,000 fans and lay on special trains. In a summer heatwave during study leave in Scottish schools scores of exuberant hormonal teenagers board the trains down the Ayrshire coast to Irvine or Troon.
Things do go wrong. Storm Hector, otherwise referred to as 'Hurricane Bawbag', blows up. Gusts in excess of 70 miles per hour cause havoc. Trees on the line. A trolley on the tracks. Damage to overhead wires. Trains and drivers end up at opposite ends of where they need to be. Another day the brakes on the Edinburgh train won't budge. Crowds are redirected from platform to platform and not everyone's happy. One expansive guard with a distinctive bleached hairstyle declaims in stereo: 'If there's one thing I hate, it's an unhappy passenger'. A colleague demonstrates their whistle routine and adds a jazz riff for good measure. Against regulations he has an image of a saxophone discreetly printed on the back of his orange overalls.
Another day the tracks overheat, causing points failure. So at night, when the station is closed, a posse of workmen paint the rails white, reducing the heat by 5%, so less risk of points failure. Delays cause consequences. 'People are here to move. We're here to move them.' Even if it involves hiring taxis to take people as far as Lockerbie or Carlisle.
The old romance of steam engines, the Turneresque clouds of steam, the atmosphere of Edwardian crime novels, has long gone. But there are still trainspotters about, as a grandfather and grandson testify. 'I like the sound, the colours and travelling on them,' the small boy says.
The staff take great pride in their work: 'A snapshot of the universe.' 'A town within a city.' 'If you like people-watching, this is the job for you.' 'Organised chaos, but we make it work.' 'No job too big or small.' Monday is pigeon check day. Up on the roof seagulls dive-bomb any inspectors foolhardy enough to emerge during the breeding season. 'Every day something happens, so you have to be ready for anything.' There are medical incidents and drunken episodes. 'Glaswegians like a good swally,' a man sings joyously to the camera.
Sajid from Pakistan retires after 45 years. While down under the Hielanman's Umbrella, in the Blue Lagoon chippie on Argyle Street, Nizar from Syria ladles fish and chips to takeaway customers during Ramadan, philosophically allowing himself to be bossed by his female manager, who has taught him all the Glesca lingo he needs to combat culture shock, serve Justin Beiber incognito and survive with an engaging smile.