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Hardeep Singh Kohli: I Belong To Glasgow


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The comedian and commentator explains how sectarianism puts racism in the shade in his native city but not always at the expense of outsiders

THERE are many myths about Glasgow; it's that sort of city built on stories, legend and (as Billy Connolly describes it) kidology. One myth about the city of no meanness is that if you were ethnically brown or black you were less likely to get racist abuse in Glasgow. Why? Well, the locals were too busy knocking lumps oot each other based on the Catholic/Protestant divide. Like I said, it was a myth.

But behind every myth lies a little truth, a dynamo that drives fact into deceit.

Glasgow is a city riven by sectarianism, in some ways shaped by it: the embryonic east end, the Barras, the heartland of the Irish, happily ensconced north of the river. And Govan across the other side of the Clyde defined by two colours: the red of the sandstone and the blue of the team. I've been away for almost 20 years and, while edges may have softened, language tempered, my hometown is still very much a city of two halves.

As a boy in Glasgow, the child of immigrants, I had no-one to advise or guide me through the minefield of religiosity that divided the city, let alone the complexity of the footballing allegiances. (Football was as alien to my parents as fish suppers and clootie dumplings.) Such was the hostility between the Orange and the Green, it wasn't till my teenage years that I worked out Catholics and Protestants weren't completely different religions; only then did I work out that both were no more different than sects, branches of Christianity.

And while this dichotomy, on the face of it, should have caused me, a chubby Sikh boy frae Bishopbriggs, few problems, the reality was different.

As a youngster, I fell in love with the dark blue of a certain football team called Rangers. Big Tam Forsyth, John Greig, Derek Parlane, Sandy Jardine, Peter McCloy… all heroes of the wee me. I loved Rangers FC, the Protestant team, the Unionist team, the monarchist team. And ultimately my team. But I went to a Catholic school, taught by the Jesuits. A school where the kids would "follow, follow" the Hoops, Celtic, the team celebrated by the working-class Irish immigrants, the Republicans, the Papists. It was so confusing, so unfortunate, so sectarian. The Sikh boy at the Tim school was a Proddy.

Caught in the middle of this conflict taught me a lot about religion, bigotry and hate. There is an old joke (which isn't a joke but a reality) about a Sikh kid being asked if he is a Catholic Sikh or a Protestant Sikh in order to establish whether he was going to get a kicking. I have to confess that in later life I managed to avoid the awkwardness of the "wrong" response by becoming a Partick Thistle Sikh… there's no greater pity expressed than that for a fan of the Jags.

Glasgow is much more than the tribal divide of sectarianism. There are more that eschew the whole cavalcade of small-mindedness that seems to rear its ugliness on the day of an Old Firm game.

Let me be clear. I love Glasgow. There's no finer city to hail from, in my very humble opinion. And while sectarianism may occasionally loom large on the horizon there is a wider faith template to the city. It's no coincidence that the world's first museum to religion is in Glasgow, in the gothic shadow of the Cathedral.

The city has a deep and meaningful history of multiculturalism, and with those many cultures came many religions.

At one point the Jewish community rated as the second most prominent faith group in the city. Sikhs now enjoy the run of the city, a Gurdawara (place of worship] in every corner. The small Hindu community also move unimpeded to their Madir by Kelvingrove Park. And Islam is alive and well and at the heart of the Nationalist movement, with rising stars of the SNP such as Humza Yousaf at the vanguard of our city and our country's future.

Nowhere was this welcome more evident than at Bridging the Gap in The Gorbals. While making a series on religion for Radio 2, I interviewed the Reverend Ian Galloway about the Church of Scotland and its stance through the years. I learnt a great deal about the modern outlook of the church and its new aims and objectives. As we were packing up to leave, Ian mentioned Bridging the Gap. It was a drop-in centre in Gorbals, pulling in folk from all backgrounds for a modest meal, a game of bingo and a blether. What could be more Glasgow?

We wandered down with him, having been warned to be sensitive to those we encountered since some would be asylum seekers and some immigrants contesting their cases with the Home Office.

I wasn't at all sure what to expect when I arrived. All I knew was that it was about outsiders. Memories flooded back from my days as an usher at the Citizens' Theatre and the indomitable Mary Sweeney who ran the front of house there. Ironic since Mary was an outsider herself, an Irish immigrant to Glasgow. Yet she couldn't have been more inveigled into the bricks and mortar of the Citz.

A nondescript building sat in among some more nondescript buildings. This was the community centre. The room was full of all sorts. A Kenyan man helped Jamesie (the cook) wrangle some pasta. A woman who had fled Kosovo was laughing as she chopped veg. A couple of Somali women sat quietly nursing their young children.

There was an incredibly welcoming atmosphere. Indigenous Scots mixed with newcomers and there was a genuine sense of warmth and mutual caring. There was a sense of Christian goodness in the room, a goodness that affected and changed the lives of those that gathered there at lunchtime. I'd left the august majesty of the cathedral to come to this rundown wee shack in the Gorbals, but this place had all the majesty of a cathedral and all the importance. I felt hugely proud to be from a city that cared as much about the less fortunate. Bridging the Gap was a Church of Scotland funded venture that looked after all people of all faiths. And there are churches, mosques and temples doing the same all across the city.

If you ask my father why he chose Glasgow of all places to settle with his family, he'll tell you it was predicated upon this self-same friendliness, generosity and spirit within the city. He was made to feel incredible welcome from day one, a welcome that has pretty much maintained over four decades on.

So there's the contradiction of the place. Ripping itself asunder on sectarian lines, yet welcoming to incomers, a port town with port traditions. But that's Glasgow for you: a city of contradictions.

I was a little protective coming home to make a documentary about religion, faith and belief. I'm the first to criticise Glasgow – and the first to jump to its defence. I wasn't sure how well we would come across once we excavated the sectarian legacy of the city. But that is just a part of a vibrant, religiously accepting, multicultural city. We have much to celebrate and a little to repair. I left for London knowing that whatever else happens, I will always belong to Glasgow.

• Hardeep Singh Kohli presents The Great British Faith on BBC Radio 2 from today until Wednesday at 10pm. The programme about Glasgow is on Wednesday. Listeners can share their own experiences of living and worshipping in the UK and how important their own faith is to them on the The Great British Faith website at www.bbc.co.uk/radio2.



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