Once, Glasgow sold things. Now it works hard at selling itself

I sit on a bollard in the rain and watch, gratefully, as blue sky breaks above the silver, armadillo-shaped roof of the Clyde Auditorium. This is where they launched Glasgow's UK City of Art and Design programme a few days ago. The foyer is still littered with the cardboard boxes from the party.

Photographs always deceive. The new auditorium by Norman Foster, pictured below, is always shown close up. I hadn't realised how bleak its surroundings were. Nor how small it was. Nor does it look very durable.

It is all part of the campaign which began in the mid-1980s: the selling of Glasgow. Once, of course, Glasgow sold things - most of them riveted together on the bitterly cold river I am now staring over. Now it tries to sell itself. It works as hard at this as it once worked at shipbuilding. Unlike Liverpool, Glasgow decided there wasn't a career in whingeing.

There is, however, a career in fixing. The new Scottish Parliament, over in Edinburgh, will have a West of Scotland bloc vote, which, many suspect, will run the place. I have always thought it would be better to be poor in Glasgow than in Edinburgh, because - behind the imagery - it is a city that has always been about poverty. But the corollary is patronage politics, Tammany style, with a continuing undertow of religious bitterness.

Scottish politics sometimes sound like Ireland. But the violence of Scotland is personal, not political.

Outside the City Halls, in the middle of the regenerated warehouses of Glasgow's Merchant City, I stare up at a small, shabby memorial plaque to John MacLean, "socialist pioneer". MacLean often spoke here. When he was sentenced to his last term of imprisonment in 1921, two years before his death, his defence (it says) was that "the only city in the world where the unemployed were organised and did not riot was Glasgow".

MacLean, a visionary, died derided by the Clydeside apparatchiks of both the Labour and Communist parties. But his pacifist defence has echoes throughout Scottish modern history. If the SNP succeed in breaking the Act of Union it will be by working the system, not through riot or open revolt. (The act itself, also, was the outcome of a deal, not a conquest.)

I reach Foster's armadillo through a maze of underpasses. There is a glassy Moat House hotel one way, the Skypark hotel the other way. Next to an old crane they are laying the foundations for a third hotel. You could come here and never see the old Glasgow. I can just glimpse the top of the Gothic spire of Glasgow University. (With 18,000 students, 5,500 staff and a turnover of £180 million, this is now one of the city's biggest businesses.) Otherwise I am in an abstract, salesman's world.

A ferris wheel, painted mauve, stands idle next to the car parks, outside an ageing conference and exhibition centre. A huge poster announces that Vivienne Westwood will come here to launch her new collection. A poster next to this, and just as big, says: "There must be a McDonald's around here somewhere!" And it assures you there is one, "only minutes away", through a long covered walkway across the expressway, "opposite PC World".

Glasgow never stays on the high wire for long. That is its charm. I walk under the arch of Central Station to look at the shops. Last time I was here, windows were packed with luscious hugger-mugger heaps of hams, cheese and fruit cake, all in the same display. Now I see that the shop fronts have all been painted in racing green, with identical smart lettering, as if this were Knightsbridge.

But I look at the shops behind the new facades. A cheque cashing company. A shop selling trainers ("was £9.99, now £6.99"). Another offering takeaway chips at £1, and chips with gravy for £1.35.

I go across the river footbridge into the Gorbals. There is a special way of walking in Glasgow. A kind of hunched scurry. I can see why. It is the only way to stay warm.

From this side of the Clyde you can look back across the city and see the grotesquely tall blocks of flats beyond, which were the previous high hope of "the wee hard men" who ran the city. Gorbals is a sad wasteland. It is trapped between the debris of that same wrong-headed Utopia and the attempts to reshape the entire district yet again. I stand by a small park which seems mostly to grow plastic bags and empty quarter-bottles of scotch.

I scurry back across the river, along a street where solicitors advertise criminal defence, pet shops advertise budgies, and bus stops advertise a new deal for single mothers. And then I am abruptly back into Merchant City, with its Italian clothes shops, its smart bars and restaurants, its art and design.

This is the tension I like about Glasgow. On one street corner, the grandiose Glasgow headquarters of the Bank of Scotland. On the opposite corner, a shop selling sausages in white bread rolls.

For information on the City of Architecture and Design programme, ring 0141-287 1999

Paul Barker is group automotive editor at BusinessCar.co.uk.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage