Niall Murphy (00:12):
Hello everyone, I’m Niall Murphy. Welcome to If Glasgow’s Walls Could Talk. A podcast by Glasgow City Heritage Trust about the stories and relationships between historic buildings and people in Glasgow.
Now each human story is different, but some relationships with the city are more complicated than others. In this episode, we’re going to go off the beaten track into a parallel world. It’s a distinctive part of Glasgow, but rarely visited or recognised by the more mainstream world until planning problems arise. So the story is full of colourful characters, complexities and contradictions. Perhaps that’s not surprising when a travelling community becomes more settled and their traditional wintering grounds lie in the way of new development possibilities. According to established views, Glasgow’s home to the largest concentration of show people in Europe. Historically, they have made their mark. Show people opened the city’s first cinemas, they created the tradition of winter fairs at the Kelvin Hall and summer shows on Glasgow Green.
Even so, this tight-knit community has remained largely unnoticed. And according to today’s guest, that’s the way proudly independent show people have tended to like it and he should know. So today’s guest is Dr. Mitch Miller, social researcher, artist, cultural activist and creative community collaborator. And Mitch was born on four wheels and spent a happy childhood with a show people parents on the road travelling from fairground to fairground. Yet unlike his siblings or many of his peers, Mitch completed and furthered his education leading to a PhD in communications design from Glasgow School of Art. He is an acknowledged expert on the history of travelling show people, but always a cartoonist as at heart and a cartoonist as he has said, with delusions of grandeur. So when the Commonwealth Games threatened to sweep away show people’s homes, many of them inconveniently located in the path of the games, Mitch picked up his pen and the dialectrogram was born. And we’ll get on to more about what a dialectogram involves in a minute.
So Dr. Mitch Miller is an eloquent writer and speaker. Over the last couple of decades, he has become a pioneering presence in Glasgow. That includes co-founding the Drouth Magazine, hoping to establish exhibitions at Riverside Museum and Kelvin Hall about the history and heritage to show people, as well as documenting the lives of other vulnerable communities in and around the city. So a very warm welcome to the podcast, Mitch. It’s a great privilege to be taken inside this kind of fascinating but endangered parallel world and there’s so much to talk about. So it’s hard to know where to begin, but perhaps we might start with your own beginning. So first question, it’s probably fair to say that your beginning was unusual. Not many of us are born on four wheels. So can you tell us a bit more about your early years and why along with many other show people, you’ve chosen Glasgow as your kind of natural home?
Mitch Miller (03:18):
Thanks, Niall and hello. Thanks for having me on. I hope I can live up to that wonderful introduction. I feel very inadequate.
Niall Murphy (03:25):
Of course, you can.
Mitch Miller (03:29):
So yeah, I was born to two show families, both my mother and father’s families go way back in this tradition. Both from kind of mixed circus and fairground families as well. And yeah, I mean, to me it was normal. I had a big extended family. They travelled in the summer when I went to see relatives. We were often off to find them at different fairs around Scotland. I never paid to get on the waltzers or indeed any fairground ride. That was normal to me. And aye it was just life really, I suppose in those early years. But I think when you do kind of live with a foot on either peer, you’re kind of more aware again of what does make it distinctive. And I suppose I started to notice that whereas my friends had weekends, for example, as I got older, weekends were for work. You had a role within the family, you had a job to do as part of what your family did.
So I didn’t have Saturdays or Sundays for most of my life until I went and got my own job and then I could take them off. And yeah, I just sort of lived part of that life and lived in the flow of it really. And yeah, it was a good life. You were surrounded by relatives, cousins. I still discover new cousins to this day. My mother’s great phrase was, “That’s your cousin.” Because there were just so many of us.
And yeah, it felt like a very safe life, a very protected life, quite a hard one at times. So it’s a hard way of making a living, travelling from place to place and breathing the Scottish weather in the summer. But yeah, I always felt it gave me a very good grounding, a very good sort of base from which the work. I always had a very clear idea of who I was, I suppose, in relation to that. And then as I grew older, I suppose I started to explore the outside world a bit more and learn more about that and in some ways appreciate that background even more as a result, although it wasn’t always a smooth journey, I would say, in any respect.
Niall Murphy (05:40):
Okay. So can you tell us more about the long-standing relationship between show people and what is their favourite winter ground in this case Glasgow, and any of the issues that can potentially have emerged from that over time?
Mitch Miller (05:56):
Yeah, so sorry. Yeah, the relationship with Glasgow is a very old one. So just to start from my family, I suppose it’s a good way of explaining it. So my dad’s family were border travellers, so they travelled to border towns and the north of England mostly and ranged out from there. They often wintered in Carlisle actually, but sometimes in Glasgow. But my Mam’s family, they were what was called Tramline Travellers. And the term came from the fact that, you could travel around the greater Glasgow area without leaving it and entire season. There was all these different fairs that…
Niall Murphy (06:37):
Right. Okay. And it’s the tram.
Mitch Miller (06:40):
Exactly. Yeah. And Glasgow has a long history of travelling showgrounds, in part because theatre used to be banned here, you weren’t allowed to have theatre until quite recently, like late 19th century. So the fairs performed a very important function in terms of bringing entertainment. So Mam’s family, they ranged out a couple of places in the season but generally stayed within the Glasgow kind of environment. And that sort of reflects a longstanding relationship with Glasgow, as I said, because you didn’t have theatre here, they weren’t allowed to have theatres here. A guy called David Prince Miller, who was a travelling show person, I don’t know if he’s a relative actually, he had his Adelphi Theatre famously burnt down. Glasgow was very against that in the old days. So that created a sort of ecosystem of small fairs and often a lot of winter fairs as well that go way back 200 years or so.
But Glasgow’s also geographically perfectly placed to go south or north, you can access the north and the south from here. It’s a good sort of locus for that. But also it’s an industrial city. It has lots of brown belt, it has lots of yards and lots and bits of ground that just sit there. And unlike Edinburgh see, if I dare mention the name of that city in this podcast, it’s available. You can be out the way and tuck yourself into different parts of the city. So I think a combination of factors made this the capital for show people in a sense, of Scotland, it’s where most about 80% of us live we think, and where we tend to range out from.
Niall Murphy (08:21):
Right, okay. Oh, that kind of brings me onto my next question, which is it is quite extraordinary that there is this really significant community within the city that has been relatively unnoticed for so long. So how many show people actually live in Glasgow? For Scotland’s latest census, that was the first time that show people were included within it. And so does that kind of make a difference?
Mitch Miller (08:45):
Yes, well we hope it will. So we haven’t actually got our census figures back yet from this census, and we’re very keen to see it. Now, there’s figures that go between four to 6,000 living in Glasgow is what it’s thought. Now, I can tell you now, honestly, that’s a back of a beer mat calculation. It was the best efforts of those who had been doing a bit of research in it, but we didn’t have inclusion in the census, for example, which would mean that we’d have more robust figures. So myself and a bunch of other researchers actually campaigned to get us added to the census for the last time. And hopefully when those figures come back we will know. And I can tell you honestly how many of us there are.
Niall Murphy (09:27):
Yeah. Very much. Because things like that are absolutely critical for being able to direct services towards a community. So you need to be able to gather that information somehow, because it’s going to influence other things like planning as well. And not just in the sense of building stuff, but planning for communities.
Mitch Miller (09:47):
Absolutely. And when we’re having these discussions, I work with Fair Scotland an organisation that advocate for this and the Showman’s Guild, and when we’re having these discussions, we’re saying, “Well, there is a community here that we need to address certain things.” And then we get asked, “Well, how many?” We get asked for the hard data behind that and it’s very hard to provide it. So I think just in terms of that discussion, it will help that a great deal.
Niall Murphy (10:12):
Okay. So show people tend to occupy land where no one else has chosen to live until the grassroots of regeneration appear. So the Commonwealth Games threatened to sweep away many traditional wintering grounds and yards, and that led to the creative activism of your dialectogram. So can you tell us something about what a dialectogram is? And can you tell us more about how collaborative dialectography, if that is actually a word, supports community campaigns around the city?
Mitch Miller (10:49):
Yeah, I think the thing to emphasise is that all these words are made up obviously. So I made up dialectogram, it’s a bad pun, I think we can all agree with that. It’s what happens after several cans of beer and a bit of panic comes in. Because when I was going to work at Red Roads, I was asked to define what I did and I actually didn’t quite know at that stage the kind of work I was bringing out. So I don’t know, I just plucked out somewhere and dialectogram came out of that. But yeah, it’s a bad pun basically of dialect and diagram. They’re very complex illustrations of places and they’re sort of made from conversation, observation and a lot of ink, I suppose is the easy way of putting it. I’ll spend a lot of time in the community getting to know its places, working out how a building or a site or a location of some kind works, what it means to those people, trying to bring people into an ongoing and kind of rolling conversation about it.
And then in the middle of that, I’m starting to draw and map out a kind of representation of it. And everyone’s different, everyone is made differently. There’s the kind of shape of the community, the way the community works will really determine who wants to have their say, who doesn’t. I’ve done some that had only about three or four people involved and others about two hundred. It’s a real range in terms of that engagement. But at the heart of it is this idea that I’m trying not to make something about the community, I’m trying to make it with and through it as much as possible, trying to include them in that discussion, trying to be directed by them to some extent as well. And then to let this kind of visual trace or visual record of what their place is come from that.
Niall Murphy (12:49):
Right. How do you actually work on them? Is it a spontaneous thing or do you sit down with a sheet and know how you’re going to populate it? Or is it something you plan in advance or? How’d you go by doing it?
Mitch Miller (13:07):
Well, if there’s a dialectography, it’s not a science, I think there’s the first thing I would say. Basically, as I said before, I’m a cartoonist with delusions of grandeur, and that is sadly very true. I kind of treat it like a comic initially. So I work on this A0 mount board, and that’s like the basic unit of these. Some are double size from that, but the smallest that goes is A0. And I’ll start with the ground plan and I’ll start with just working out how the ground is laying out. And I use it almost as a comic panel to then think about how the narrative can be shaped within that and placed within that. And then from that it just sort of grows. And what happens is, I’ll sort of have a wee burst of work and I’ll start to flesh it out. Then I’ll do an artist do an prevaricate horribly and think about it and maybe go and do some more field work because that’s way more fun.
Niall Murphy (14:04):
Mitch Miller (14:05):
Yeah, way more fun. And then I’ll come back to it and I’ll maybe do a bit more. I also will often involve people at that stage. So I’ll bring people in to let them see the drawing and process. So for example, at a place called The Claypits up in North Glasgow, for example, I spent many kind of days introducing it to the community again and showing them, “Look, it’s half done, it doesn’t look terrible. How can we fill this up? What can we add to this?” And we sort of have an ongoing conversation about what could be there, what should be there, how people feel about that. Somehow through all of this, and after many weeks, and I know you’ve talked to Chris Leslie on this podcast and he has to work with me, so pity this man because I spend ages, it takes me ages to finish a piece.
It’s a very messy process. Whereas, he of course is a proper photographer, nice and clean, press the button, get the image. He’s done in five minutes, I’m done in about eight months. And yeah, somehow it comes about. And then we have this piece of work that exists. After that, what I do is I’ll photograph it so there’s a digital version. We can make that into signs, we can make that into various outputs, never a tablecloth, which is my ambition. And then we also can do things we… I mean imagine the tablecloth you can add to it as well, a bit of mayonnaise here, a tomato sauce there. You’re adding to the dialectogram, but the original always stays with the community as well.
I always make sure it stays somewhere, it can be accessed. And so it kind of belongs to them too. So I try not to go in, make the artwork and then leave. I tried to leave a bit behind so that it’s there for them as well. And yeah, I’ve done that in all sorts of weird places. Tower blocks, showman’s yards, nature reserves, African art centres, Steeples. It’s been a very strange catalogue so far.
Niall Murphy (16:07):
You’ve, as part of your process, it kind of talk about a sense of social responsibility for us. And it does sound as well, like it can be quite energetic at times. Do you want to talk about that at all?
Mitch Miller (16:19):
Yeah, I mean, I have all sorts of clients. So I’ve had clients from libraries who want to rework what their library is and how it can serve the community, to grassroots organisations, to more community groups. I’ve even done work with some anarchists at the University of Glasgow. It’s been a very strange trip. And I think what that does is that every time I’m going into working with a group, I’m having to adjust myself to that and learn from that as well and learn how this is best done. But yeah, there’s a lot of energy. It’s quite an exhausting process. If you want to do this, it’s not an in and out, it’s not a quick job that you can turn out. For some reason-
Niall Murphy (17:06):
Yeah, it’s an emotional connection to a subject as well. And that can obviously be quite draining as well.
Mitch Miller (17:11):
Absolutely. And I have had projects where there’s been quite strong stuff in terms of the theme and the material we’re dealing with and it can get to you a bit. So you need to take a break from it and so forth. But yeah, I think the whole methodology is about that though, it’s about really getting to understand the place and really being willing to just let the place lead you a bit into making the work as good as it can be.
Niall Murphy (17:36):
Okay. Now, just for our listeners at this point also want to save that. We are going to at the end of the podcast, give you links so that you can appreciate just how amazing Mitch’s dialectrograms really are, and how much kind of information he manages to get down on the page for each of these and just what fascinating narratives come out of them. So, absolutely well worth looking at. Okay. So we haven’t talked about architecture so far, but elsewhere, you’ve beautifully described things like the plug-ugly, prefabs and lives without plumbing and things like inward facing circles of wagons. Can you take us inside some of these settlements and dwellings that you’re observing and tell us who lives there? And then what was it that eventually drew you back to living in a tenement flat?
Mitch Miller (18:27):
Yeah. So we call our sites yards or grounds, it’s just the term that we use. And I suppose I’ve just lived in and arounds all my life and they’re just very familiar. So it’s interesting to have to actually describe it. So as you walk in the gate, so most of them have some kind of wall or fence around them. And if you walk in the gate, what you’ll find is nowadays, certainly is a mixture of what you might call chalet homes, quite posh. They are on wheels, but you can’t really see the wheels. They’re tiny wee things and they’re designed to go in flatbeds and be moved. I think park home is another term for them. But I think we like chalets, I think we all like to imagine we’re in the Swiss Alps or something. So you’ll see a mixtur of those. You’ll also see road going wagons, which are coach built designed to be in the road all year round.
And our homes, they are family homes all year round. And that’s what my parents grew up in, I was born into and my grandparents would live from soup to nuts as it were. And then you’ll also see what we call wee trailers, which is caravans as other people would call them, the tourer caravans. And then a bunch, you see lorries. At one end of the ground you’d see a lot of lorries and kind of work areas and the lorries do everything. They pull the thing, they have all their stuff in them, they have a generator in them and they double as work sheds. And so you’ll see lorries opened up with the steps and usually guys in the winter painting around them or fixing something. And that was always the fun part as a kid, to go down there and see what your dad and your uncles were doing and annoy them quite a bit.
So you’d have that end of the ground there. The kind of more domestic end is where the chalets and wagons are. And there’s a lot of life there too. The steps were always very important. I remember travelling in the summer and you’d sit on the steps and when it was a nice day you’d play with your toys on the steps, there’d be lots of domestics, some people would wash around them. And that was just normal. So a kind of modern yard, a contemporary yard. Has plumbing now, we have from about late 90s we started to have these kind of hose systems where you could plumb them in and that was amazing. But a lot of them, even very modern chalets will still have a water can on the step as a weak kind of reminder of how it used to be, which is that was your water supply.
And I remember as a boy being sent down to the tap and you filled the water up. If your Mam was washing, you’d be going doing that three or four times a day, if not five or six. And that was just kind of normal then. So there are ways in which the lifestyle’s more modern. You go inside one of these things. And whether it’s an old wagon or a chalet, I mean firstly clean, I mean, this doesn’t look clean here, but this is my studio, this is my work shed I’m in right now. But you go into a chalet, I mean F spotless. Usually someone wiping up crumbs right behind you as you go in. A lot of the old wagons used to have winter and summer carpets actually to sort of deal with the kind of outside stuff. A lot of ornaments, very, very well appointed.
It’s like a palace inside, but tiny often. And it was tremendously, could you call it house proud, wagon proud, I don’t know. Was a big thing. So outside you had this very organic life of quite dirty life. A lot of fixing and smell of diesel is just such an evocative one for me. But inside pristine, shoes, off, newspaper down if you’re coming in from working on the lorries and stuff like that.
Niall Murphy (21:57):
Being respectful, yes.
Mitch Miller (21:59):
Yeah. And that was very much the life I kind of remember and still is. And you go into some of these big grounds. There’s some down in kind Rutherglen and Cambuslang that are just… Everyone’s sort of copying each other as well in terms of the style and stuff. And they’ve got the best ornaments and stuff. It’s really, really posh. So it’s quite surprising to a lot of people. They expect I think quite rough and ready and it does look that way outside to an outsider.
But then you go inside and it’s like, “Oh God, dare I sit down on this couch with these pristine lovely plump cushions and so forth.” And that was always the life I remember. In terms of why we moved back, so I lived in a tenement for quite a few years actually and liked it. Tenements are a great way of living in many ways. Very interesting way living. But I think a lot of reasons, one, we wanted to start a family. And for a child it’s a great environment because you have… Well, okay, childcare, you talk to my friends and talk to me about childcare. I am doing so well right? On that front. There’s like an auntie next door, there’s my cousin there, my nephew there, all these people I can just help for childcare in a second. And I just remember as a kid just playing outside with this circle of wagons around you because most showman’s yards are a rough circle or rectangle.
We all sort of face into each other and it’s just very safe and very kind of comforting. There’s an adult who knows you nearby at all times, but you can also just do your own thing and get into trouble and do all the stuff that you want to do, skin your knees and so forth. So when we were thinking about having our daughter who’s three now and really enjoying the travelling life too, it was a kind of no brainer, it was like, it makes sense. And then it’s also quite a cost effective way of living in many ways, we could live more cheaply.
Also, my parents were getting older and I just wanted to be around for them and able to help a bit more in that. But yeah, wife’s not a show person, she’s a normal, but she very bravely said, “Let’s give it a try.” I would never say to her, but she said, “Let’s give it a try, let’s see what it’s like.” And we had a five-year plan. If she was fed up after five years we would go and get a house again. And it’s been seven now. So I think she’s liking it. She has not requested to move at any stage and is actually talking about getting a bigger chalet home maybe in the future. So yeah, it’s a way of life that I think really suits us and has a lot to recommend it.
Niall Murphy (24:37):
It sounds incredibly close knit and real sense of community about the place, which yeah, tenements can be like that, but not to the degree that you are talking about.
Mitch Miller (24:51):
Yeah, I mean, obviously that’s got us up upside and downsides. I did have to, I explained to my wife about how you get some privacy and the methods of that and people don’t knock on doors, for example. My sister has never knocked on my door ever. She just walks in and you just hear her coming in. And everyone can see what you’re doing as well. And so there are obviously, I suppose a price to be paid in that sense if you’re more used to doing your own thing. And it’s just a sort of balance you have to have. During the lockdown. My mother-in-law came to live with us from Fife and she loved it actually. She really liked living there. But I think one thing she never got used to was the fact that people just came in the door. When she saw someone coming to see us, she would go to the door and they were like, “What are you doing? Why are you…?”
Because we just walk into each other’s doors all the time and just… No one ever comes to the door to greet you if you’re another showman, you’re just “Yeah come in to the tea is over there.” It’s very kind of informal that way. So yeah there are, as I say, that can be great, other times it’s like, “Okay, they’re going to see what we’re doing here. How do we stop that? How do we get some privacy?” So it’s not for everybody. And I would say, I think what was interesting was my wife dealt very well with it, but is a culture shock as well, when you go from being an individual unit within a city to you’re kind of living in a village really
Niall Murphy (26:11):
To be something that sounds more like an enlarged family.
Mitch Miller (26:14):
Yeah. I mean, we do live in big extended families, so our wee ground, most of us are there. My brother, my sister, cousins, my brother’s kids, my mother and father, in-laws as well. It’s all a big sprawling extended family. And that’s-
Niall Murphy (26:32):
Sure. It sounds much more like how a village would’ve been.
Mitch Miller (26:37):
Yeah. Everyone knows who you are, they know by your face, they probably knew your grandfather as well. They probably knew you as a child, shall we say, in short trousers. And that’s just how it is. And that again, there’s a lot I missed about that and a lot I kind of love about it, but it’s also-
Niall Murphy (26:55):
I can imagine why, yes.
Mitch Miller (26:58):
…it’s a tight embrace, put it that way.
Niall Murphy (26:59):
Yes. Okay. Bearing that in mind, that kind of brings me onto my next question, which is, you’ve talked about this really kind of close-knit community. So then when you’re looking at things like the regeneration of the city, particularly in places like Water Row, Govan, that must be a huge threat to what is a small, really close-knit community. So can you tell us more about the feelings about that?
Mitch Miller (27:25):
Yeah, so Water Row and Govan is one of the older sites that we have. It’s at least over a hundred years old. As I say that we can trace our sites in the city back at least 200 and odd years. But certainly there’s a handful of sites that are over a hundred and we have a very long history in the city and certainly Water Row is one of them. That’s if you include Govan as part of Glasgow, and I know that for Govan that’s a big issue.
Niall Murphy (27:53):
Mitch Miller (27:54):
It’s the issue isn’t it. Yeah, Water Row, there’s two yards there, owned by two different families, but again, big extended families. And there’s about 12 families involved there. 12 plus, actually I think, not quite sure exactly how many now. So around roughly two tenement buildings worth of people live there and have lived there for a long time. And there’s a very old association with Govan as well. And Govan, Old Kirk and things like that. So they’re in the way of the new development at Water Row. Now I think a couple of things to emphasise whenever these discussions come up. One is we pay council tax and we pay lease on the ground that we do. No one’s squatting here. These are the Johnsons, for example, who have one of the yards. They’ve been playing their way on that yard for a long, long time. And it’s always something that comes up. “Now, do you pay council tax? Do you pay your way?” And “Yes, we do.” We’re like everybody else, unfortunately we have to pay the tax man.
Niall Murphy (28:48):
Yeah. You have just as much a right to the city as everybody else.
Mitch Miller (28:53):
And I think that’s the issue, Niall. It’s not like we want special treatment, actually, it’s just we pay our way. And we live an odd way. We know that it’s odd that not everyone’s cup of tea, but all we want to do is live that way and not bother other people. And what you’ll find is in most the parts of the city we’re in, people don’t even notice us half the time. So the Water Row has to move, and that has been known for a while. And actually a lot of the families there were fine with that. It was like, “Okay, we’re not going to get in, we don’t in the way of this, we can see what benefit that brings to Govan.” And they are Govanites, their kids go to school there, their doctors are there, their lives are there when they’re not travelling.
Niall Murphy (29:32):
Mitch Miller (29:33):
So it wasn’t as if they didn’t want things to get better there or go ahead. But what happened was… Unpicking this is quite complex. So I’ll tell you my involvement and my perspective in it.
Niall Murphy (29:45):
Mitch Miller (29:45):
In 2018, when that first was announced and it was announced that the family had to move, I think the attitude was they wanted to work with the council as much as possible and cooperate. But certainly, the consultation was very thin and engagement was very intermittent. They were not never actually to their knowledge deemed to this day, told in writing what was happening. They were just told verbally that this was going to happen. Myself and a group of other researchers who are from a showground background and Fair Scotland, we wrote a series of letters, open letters to different councillors just asking to deal with this issue and to firstly improve the level of conversation and then to address the provisions in Glasgow’s own housing strategy.
Page 94 to 97, if I remember rightly, which says they have to provide an alternative model site, like for like as best they can. And as I say, picking apart what some people think on different sides can be difficult. But from our perspective there has not been a positive engagement with that. There has not been a conversation or a paper trail round out of any quality. And we sent a letter in 2018, it has yet to be answered by anybody and this is 2023. So you can see the predicament the families are in and why they’ve went from cooperative to now really quite angry and scared as well.
Niall Murphy (31:18):
I can imagine. I mean, I recall going along to the consultation and it was just kind of a drop in thing in Govan at the time, just because I was interested in seeing what was happening. And I remember there being a woman from the Water Row site there, and that did seem to be a real disconnect, which did make me feel really uncomfortable, because there’s kind of a core thing of consultation is you got to be able to connect into communities and explain things to them. And yeah, it’s very difficult because it is a very private community and then this kind of massive thing is being done to them. And yet Glasgow with its kind of history of comprehensive development areas and regeneration from the kind of 1960s onwards, you would’ve thought would learn the lessons that you can’t do things to people, you’ve got to take people with you. It’s very frustrating.
Mitch Miller (32:09):
Yeah. And we’re not the only community who has this kind of issue. We know this, of course not. There’s lots of stories around Glasgow like that. I suppose what kind of worries me is that when we were included in the 2017 to 2022 housing strategy, which was great, that was a step forward. It was the first time they recognised they should be trying to push the envelope in how they work with our community. That was hopeful, that was progress. But then we’ve seen the first test case of that and-
Niall Murphy (32:39):
It’s not worked out.
Mitch Miller (32:40):
…it’s not been very encouraging. And as someone who lives in a yard myself, just to be selfish, I’m like, “What happens when mine’s in the way of something?”
Niall Murphy (32:47):
Mitch Miller (32:50):
Does the fact I live in four wheels just make me a different type of citizen? Should I build foundations legal or not, to make me a better citizen? I don’t know. You know what I mean? It’s clearly quite concerning. And I think Glasgow’s missing a trick actually here to lead by example. We have a big community here.
Niall Murphy (33:08):
Mitch Miller (33:08):
It’s a big community. It’s a community that lives for the most part, very peacefully and unnoticed as part of this city. And they could really be showing how it can be done. And so far I’m not seeing it.
Niall Murphy (33:22):
Completely agree. I mean, it’s funny because it’s not as if it’s a new issue when the whole regeneration of the East end kicked off even in advance of the Commonwealth Games. I was involved in that kind of from 2006 onwards. And I remember going and having a look at that area relatively early on, because we got involved with looking at Bridgeton Cross and the area around Dalmarnock Station and a potential regeneration of Dalmarnock Station. And so this was my previous life as an architect. And we’re wondering around the area taking photographs and just trying to get a feel for it because you didn’t really know that part of the city terribly well. Of course, there’s a big community bang in the middle of that. And it was made really clear to us, “Would you please not take photographs of our spaces?” And we respected that as you should be respecting and any community that you come across. But it seems so, it strange to me from that basis there when you’re thinking, “Hold on a minute, there’s an issue here. We have to think about this.” Nobody’s really done it.
Mitch Miller (34:31):
And I could talk about Dalmarnock for quite some time as well, but I wouldn’t bore you to death. But Dalmarnock was why I picked up the pen with dialectogram back all those years ago. That was the clearance of Dalmarnock or the potential of the clearance of Dalmarnock.
Niall Murphy (34:46):
Mitch Miller (34:47):
And we didn’t lose as many as we thought. It’s still the biggest concentration of us actually in Glasgow.
Niall Murphy (34:51):
Mitch Miller (34:52):
But that was looking like, wow, all these relatives, I’ve got all these people I know, that life I remember visiting these yards going down there, that’s just going to be cleared away. And where did it go?
Niall Murphy (35:05):
Mitch Miller (35:05):
What’s the plan? And wasn’t one really of any kind. And that’s kind of why I did the first dialectogram actually, which was kind of made in anger slightly. And I just wanted to show that, you know what? You might not like this way of life or you may have issues whether you may be even prejudices about it, but what you can’t say is, it’s not a way of life.
Niall Murphy (35:23):
Mitch Miller (35:24):
There’s a system to how we live. There’s a culture here.
Niall Murphy (35:26):
There’s a whole culture there you should be respecting. And a key part of what kind of emerged from all that process was that there had to be, and this is very much due with the regeneration of these East Enders part of it, there should have been a health impact assessment. And so the impact on that community should have been properly assessed. Because we know from what happened in Glasgow back then that this is the consequence of suddenly scattering communities to the four winds, how tight-knit these communities were. And suddenly all those kind of soft social bonds are shattered that the impact that has on people’s health and psyche and it’s really damaging.
Mitch Miller (36:05):
Absolutely. Yeah. And again, what concerns me about Water Row is that I know there’s a lot of elderly, lot of very young families there and young people. I’ll call them vulnerable in the sense that they could be made vulnerable by this. They’re quite proud and I wouldn’t want to just play that on them. But the effects of this movement, if it’s not done right, if it’s just a scattering of them, if it’s have them towed some site that’s just really deeply unsuitable would just be terrible. And the effects, as I say, are almost hard to quantify.
Mitch Miller (36:39):
But we do have an example of this before. There used to be sites in Whiteinch and Hull Street in the West End, other side of the of the river. They got moved to Dalmarnock of course, and they were right next to the sewage works again. So there’s all sorts of ways in which you do find this obviously in the least pleasurable parts of the city or the parts that people really don’t want to go until, of course someone realises something can be made of that, of course. And then again suddenly we’re a problem.
Niall Murphy (37:08):
Mitch Miller (37:08):
So I do think people might listen to us thinking, “Well, why can’t they just be more reasonable or be more normal or live in houses?” And I think it’s not that we want special treatment.
Niall Murphy (37:19):
But it’s your land.
Mitch Miller (37:20):
Yeah, exactly. This land is bought, it’s leased, it’s legally bought. And they apply for planning. I have a cousin who has a site and it’s just beautiful. It’s like I wouldn’t even eat my dinner off it because that’d be besmirching it and he keeps us all there.
Niall Murphy (37:33):
Mitch Miller (37:35):
And it’s just, all we really want to do is actually get on with our lives and not be a bother, in a sense.
Niall Murphy (37:44):
Yeah. I mean, this kind of brings me on to my next question because it’s about the stress that communities are placed under. And at the same time there’s this massive change going on in the Glasgow and you are living through this time of enormous disruption and your work, what you’re doing celebrates that really unique culture. But then how much is that culture already changing and evolving and are you seeing those changes in the way the younger generation think and speak and about how they want to live? So are you seeing that too?
Mitch Miller (38:19):
Yeah. I think that one thing to stress is that we’re not immune history, however that history comes to us, whether it’s through regeneration or just through the processes that are there. Our young people have phones, there’s interesting pictures of Valley speaking our own dialect and Glaswegian going on there. We’re like anybody else, we’re sort of changing with times. We have PlayStation 5s and broadband. So yeah, no, there is change, and I think it’s a change I’ve kind of been charting and noticing quite a lot of, so. For example, in my grandparents’ time, you were 80% nomadic, very rarely, and your season in the winter was very short, as in the off season. You were out again by February knocking ice off the wheels and you would just wear a perpetual nomad really. And that was life and that was fine. And you lived very cheaply and you did your thing and you did that one thing, which was fairs and circuses. That was what you did.
But that’s changed now. It’s very diverse now, I think. Even on our tiny wee yard, which is not a big one, we’ve got some people who work in offices, we’ve got a joker who teaches the art school and draws for a living, which is just a ridiculous thing. There are many different jobs that people do, but actually interestingly, people still want to live on the yards with their family. They still want to retain that. Even those who do travel, they often do it part time where they’re almost like portfolio work now, where they might have a job driving or doing something with a snack bar. If you meet a snack bar in Glasgow, by the way, you’ve probably met a relative of mine, just to be clear. But they have a kind of mixture of ways of incomes that they bring in as well.
So yeah, it’s changed. Our young people, for example, we have a very good education system here in Glasgow for them. That came about because, well, basically a bunch of women in our community really fought for it. And so it’s now quite normal for people to go into higher education. But they don’t necessarily leave. In my day, you did, it was a choice you made, were going to assimilate, you were going to go out there. And that was what we did. And you never mentioned where you came from either.
But the younger generation now, I think they’re a actually a bit more ballsy, a bit more like, “No, we’re not going, we’re not going to hide it. And also we’re going to go to uni, but we might just come back and still work on the fairs. We will blend our lives in interesting ways and not necessarily make that break that would’ve traditionally come with that decision.” So I’m it’s trying to embrace us a whole range of complexity. It’s quite hard to put into words actually. It’s changing a lot. I don’t think my grandparents would quite recognise. They’d recognise some parts and feel comforted by that, but also be quite surprised I think at how much we’ve changed as a community.
Niall Murphy (41:09):
The kind of traditions have evolved over time in generations.
Mitch Miller (41:14):
Yeah. Having said that, we have these big chalet homes and they’re palatial and they’re big, but they still own wheels. They still move if they have to. We still want them to be able to move. So there’s all these ways in which things persist as well. And it is kind of amazing we’re still here as well. The fairs are not going through a good time. It’s not even legal in some fairs to have your caravans there with you. And yet we’re still doing it. And it’s not because of the money, because it’s a terrible way of making money. I can’t stress that enough. It always has been actually, if you look at what my great-grandparents were going through.
But it’s a tradition, it’s a lifestyle, it’s our world in its own. And yeah, my nephew, who’s 22, he wants to do this and I’m like, “You’re mad, but it’s great. Well done. But you’re insane. It’s a terrible way of making a living.” So I don’t know, I always get asked, “Is this lifestyle going to survive? And I think, well, as long as there are people bloody minded enough to want to still live it, then yeah ii will.
Niall Murphy (42:13):
Okay. Can you tell me more about who the Glasgow giant is? This kind of big bull fat guy with elephant feet, this cartoon figure that kind of emerges from the rubble of Red Road. Can you tell us any more about that?
Mitch Miller (42:27):
Well, this is the cartoonist part of me, I suppose. And also maybe a part of my brain it’s based, not explored, but I worked at Red Road for many years as you know-
Niall Murphy (42:37):
Mitch Miller (42:37):
I produced five dialectograms.
Niall Murphy (42:37):
Mitch Miller (42:39):
Fascinating place and a place that really kind of made me as an artist, if you like. Oh, a lot. I kind of really came to love the place even though I had all these contradictions. And I think just looking at when that demolition happened, and actually that demolition was ongoing, there was successive demolitions before the big one as it were. I think I was after maybe the first or second of them that happened. I sort of started to really just think about this character and developed this character in my sketchbook one day of, I don’t know, what represents progress or what represents a city, a big organisation it’s very complex. It doesn’t always know what one hand is doing from the other. How to represent that. Apparently it’s a big fat bald guy with elephant feet. I don’t know. It just came.
Niall Murphy (43:28):
Just a large.
Mitch Miller (43:31):
And yeah, it’s not about saying… It’s not like being pejorative even, it’s about… I think Glasgow, listen, I love the place unconditionally much as it annoys me at times. And I think the way in which the city tries to improve itself can sometimes be inspired and sometimes just be really destructive and terrible. And so the giant kind of represents that. He represents a sort of lumbering attempt to move forward and occasionally crushing things flat and occasionally making a mess of things. And I don’t know, it’s a bit…I mean, my wife finds it very creepy because of the way the eyes are and stuff. But to me, I look at it affectionately, it’s like this is a city trying to change and not always getting it right.
Niall Murphy (44:13):
Mitch Miller (44:14):
So there’s a series of these drawings I’ve made, did a bunch for The Guardian where it’s just different places like Red Roads or a travels yard or other types of site. And I’m just putting the giant in there as a sort of marker of what’s happening.
Niall Murphy (44:30):
Touching on that, do you feel a sense of responsibility for how you record people in your dialectrograms?
Mitch Miller (44:36):
Oh, huge. Yeah. I mean, it does actually worry me sometimes. “Am I doing this? Am I getting this…? Am I doing this well? Am I doing this responsibly?” Because I do think as an artist, get some licence and I see it myself. I go into a place as an artist, for example. And I can ask really stupid questions. I can get in on conversations I really shouldn’t be involved in. And it’s quite easy in a way. And you could really misuse that.
Niall Murphy (45:02):
Mitch Miller (45:03):
You could really do terrible things with that if you wanted. And some have, let’s look at the history of art, there’s loads of that.
Niall Murphy (45:08):
Mitch Miller (45:09):
But I am trying not to do that. I’m trying not to be wishy-washy per se, but to just be very careful and thoughtful about where that power goes, how I’m using that capital I get from my position. And yeah, trying to make it with that community. Again, not trying to pretty them up or make it too feel good or touchy feely even, just trying to be genuinely objective, admitting my own subjectivity and then trying to work through that to make images and representations that mean something. But also trying not to cause chaos in my own wake as well. That’s really important to me.
Niall Murphy (45:50):
So what lies ahead for you? What kind of new work are you’re planning at the moment?
Mitch Miller (45:54):
Right. Well, there’s one thing I can’t announce yet, so I wouldn’t even talk about that. So forget I even said that right now.
Niall Murphy (46:00):
Mitch Miller (46:00):
But at the moment I’m working with the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation in Marseille.
Niall Murphy (46:09):
Mitch Miller (46:09):
Isn’t that an impressive sentence? Yeah, which is a really, really interesting and nerve-wracking project looking at Romany culture in Europe. So Barvalo will be the first big exhibition in a European museum about Romany culture. Unbelievably, if you consider the thousand Europe history and all the opportunities that they’ve had. And this will be so, I don’t know if you know the museum, but it’s a big Borg cube on the kind of harbour at Marseille. It’s kind of amazing. And I’m working on two works for them at the moment. Looking at migration and language. And I’m working with an amazing team with the museum, University of Vermont and an organisation called ERIAC, which is the European Romany cultural organisation who very nicely asked me to be part of the whole thing, which was really quite something. So working on that right now, looking at it just now. And still kind of working on that, and that will be exhibited in April as well. So that’s the main thing I’m working on.
Niall Murphy (47:11):
Any sort of positive changes you’d like to see?
Mitch Miller (47:14):
In terms of Glasgow?
Niall Murphy (47:19):
Oh, just kind of general, your work and kind of your impact on Glasgow?
Mitch Miller (47:22):
I think I’d be very careful about overstating any changes I make. I think what I get to do is, I get to ride along with people who are often doing very good things and are good people in that sense. So for example, a dialectogram I did a Baltic Street Adventure Playground. Those guys are doing amazing work with the young people down there, bringing play to that area that really needed it. I’d just been working up at Possil with The Claypits, local nature reserve people who took a bit of wasteland, which was in effect to nature reserve already, but very hard to get into and made it into something beautiful that anyone can go and see and access. And I was there this other day with my daughter and it was amazing just how diverse the communities of people who use that now are.
So you have to go. And if you go, you might bump into a big dialectogram installed there, which was quite a job actually, it was quite a trick one to draw. But I think I also often feel I’m along for the ride in a lot of these things. And there, I get to see these people doing the thing and I get to maybe contribute something to it, even if it’s just a record of that in some way. And that’s always been… That’s what keeps me doing it, to be honest with you. Because honestly, sometimes you’re there at 12 o’clock at night still drawing this damn thing and you really just wish you’d done landscapes or cartoons down in Hyde Park or something. Just think, “There’s got to be easier ways of doing this.” And you do get a bit scunnered with it, but every time one of these projects comes about, I realise why this is a great way to work and a great kind of job to be able to do.
Niall Murphy (49:00):
Mitch Miller (49:00):
So I carry on doing it.
Niall Murphy (49:02):
Mitch Miller (49:03):
Until till the end probably.
Niall Murphy (49:06):
Okay. Final question, and it’s a total loaded question we ask everybody who comes on a podcast this question. What is your favourite building in Glasgow? And it can be a building that has disappeared or is still around. It can be static, it could be mobile. What would it tell you if its walls could talk?
Mitch Miller (49:27):
Oh, I thought about this quite a lot. This was the hardest one. When I got the question I was like, “Oh my God.” And I really wish I’d called Chris Leslie and copied his notes, but okay, I’ll talk very briefly about the ones that didn’t make it right. So I did the Barrowland always makes me happy just to see it. Always will. And it’s one of my favourite dialectograms of course, as well that I did. But I’m not going to choose that. I’m not going to choose the Kelvin Hall, which would be the natural one given the theme of today.
Niall Murphy (49:55):
Mitch Miller (49:55):
…because I grew up with stories of the Kelvin Hall Carnival. My Mam was in there from a very wee girl to her final days there. And it was just the stories and the lore of that. I’m very tempted to pick that. But what I thought I’d do is I’d go hipster. So there’s a very strange building on Balmore Road that when I was working up at the stables, Lambhill stables, I was doing a dialectogram up there and I would pass this every day. And it’s a bookies, so it’s a bookmakers. And go and see it, it’s kind of boarded up now and it’s looking like, I mean, it looks like if you would touch it would fall down now.
Niall Murphy (50:30):
Mitch Miller (50:30):
But it’s a very strange building. It’s got two gable wings, it’s really quite well built. It’s got a bookmaker sign on it and it seems to represent just a different era. There must have been buildings around here that were just… It just very different landscape to what we know and it’s still there. And I don’t know anything about it and I want to. And just every time I walk past it, I see it and I’m like, “I want to know more about what that is.” So I’d love to know more about the building. I’d love to hear it talk.
Niall Murphy (51:00):
I don’t know it. So that’s intriguing. I must go and have a look, see if I can figure it out.
Mitch Miller (51:06):
Go and check it out. It’s on Google Street View as well. You can see it on Balmore Road.
Niall Murphy (51:10):
Mitch Miller (51:11):
It’s not a distinguished building, but it is a very interesting one. And that’s my choice.
Niall Murphy (51:15):
Interesting choice. Okay. Right. I have to go and check that one out and see if I can figure out something of its backstory and where it came from.
Mitch Miller (51:24):
Let me know what you find out.
Niall Murphy (51:26):
I will do. That would be, yeah, wonderful. We could have a further conversation about that then.
Mitch Miller (51:31):
Niall Murphy (51:32):
Mitch, that’s a complete pleasure. Thank you very much for answering all the questions and letting us know what your favourite building is. It’s very much appreciated.
Mitch Miller (51:40):
You’re welcome, And thanks for having me on. It’s been great.
Niall Murphy (51:42):
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Mitch.
Mitch Miller (51:43):
Katharine Neil (51:45):
Glasgow City Heritage Trust is an independent charity and grant funder that promotes the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Glasgow’s historic built environment. Do you want to know more? Have a look at our website at glasgowheritage.org.uk and follow us on social media @GlasgowHeritage. This podcast was produced by Inner Ear for Glasgow City Heritage Trust. The podcast is kindly sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland and supported by Tunnocks.