The Arcades Project

In 2018, over the course of a year I made several trips to a derelict shopping precinct in Shawlands, Glasgow; the Shawbridge Arcade. Among the last units operating when I arrived were the city council’s housing offices, a branch of William Hill Bookmakers and a motorcycle workshop. Here were signs of previous shops and businesses: Character’s Lounge Bar, a kebab shop and the New Wine church, long since shuttered and abandoned. The Arcade, late-Brutalist in design, featured a car park on its upper level that overlooked an open courtyard from where a concrete staircase led to ground level with seating areas and planters. On the main façade was a sign, Shopping Precinct. Or rather, S opping  recin t.  

While shooting Tilo in Real Life, virtually every location I’ve used has since been demolished. Some have even re-built on to become new places. The disappearance, not only of buildings, but entire streets and areas of my native city, caused a deep-rooted anxiety I’ve carried my whole life. The loss of physical surroundings and what it meant was unexplained to me as a child and, as if living through war, the destruction of my home, street and district was an ever-imminent threat.

Conscious or not, lost places and distant memories appear in my work more often than I care to admit. They appear in The Devil’s Plantation and Voyageuse and in the sequences I’ve edited for Tilo I can already see the traces. The film is set in an anonymous modern city, a dystopia of urban blight and suburban homogeneity.

Early on in the project I decided the storyteller was German, in homage to the Brothers Grimm, the collectors of Märchen – folk/fairy tales. Taking the fairy tale as a cue, I’m exploring the nature of storytelling and how it impacts on the audience. After a hiatus and several false starts I know now how hard it is to write something simple yet affecting. It’s not about plot – the events in Tilo have been on my wall for years, handwritten on index cards. What I’m aiming for is to balance a wry humour with pathos while staying true to the premise.

Which leads me to this: last week, my local supermarket caught fire, which in Glasgow is usually a euphemism for having gone bust. Forced to shop at an alternative store, I passed the Shawbridge Arcade or, rather, what was left of it – a pile of rubble gathered in what was once its central courtyard. As I remarked to my husband, “at least I captured it for posterity.”

Here I’m reminded why I want to make films in a minimal way rather than wrangle a large cast and crew. For me, it’s still about the experiential. Each time I went to the Arcade I’d meet a varied cast of characters – the wee wummin walking her dog, the guys from the drinking school sat on the grass verge next to the ‘Queer Folk of the Shaws’ stone, who always asked what I was shooting. In the courtyard random guys walked towards me, throwing their arms open to the camera and telling me they were ready for their close-up. One man gave me a potted history of the area, indicating how the design of the new houses is based on that of weaver’s cottages.

On one of my last visits to the Arcade, it was more derelict than ever. The shuttered units had fresh graffiti, the shattered paving had more broken glass and the lost trolleys from Lidl and Morrison’s congregated en masse. Weeds escaped the planters and were on the rampage. Here I found a curious sign soliciting responses about the lack of green spaces in the city, with a mobile number. I wondered – was this a play for some kind of community or arts initiative? The Arcade had been there all that time, yet ignored for years.

No sooner was the site sold for £1 million than its last tenant, William Hill Bookmakers, received a notice to quit. The site of The Arcade, is now scheduled to be replaced by 70 ‘mid-market rent’ apartments built by the Wheatley Group for the Glasgow Housing Association. The day after I saw the Arcade had been razed, I returned to take photographs. Standing next to the John Maclean monument, I wondered how many people living here have heard of him, a man so renowned that the USSR produced a postage stamp to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

What would the great socialist Maclean make of the area today? The Arcade, located beside his less-than-worthy tribute, was built when the working classes of Shawlands, two decades or more after post-war austerity, received (in part) the longed-for social provision promised by governments and the city corporation. Housing, schools, libraries, medical practices, community centres and shopping precincts were the well-deserved fruits of people’s labours. Sadly this period of progress was short-lived – less than my own lifetime – and the state of the city feels like a betrayal.

After surveying the remains of the Arcade, I look at my surroundings. A row of shops comprises a supermarket/off-licence, a pharmacy and a barber’s, each dispensing their own kind of therapy. Close to the Maclean monument is a phone kiosk/pissoir and an outsized black litter bin covered in stickers from disposable vapes. Beside it, a forlorn shopping trolley waits to be claimed. In late morning sun, I reflect on Walter Benjamin’s references to the grand Parisian arcades and their displays of luxurious goods. A more remote cry from Shawbridge one couldn’t conjure, unless tinned food and toilet rolls count as luxury. In the 21st century this squalor, to a sentimental old soul like mine, is one of heartrending poignancy.

As I leave I think of Betty, the wife of John Thompson. After serving in the British army, John became a weaver and settled with Betty in a cottage on Pollokshaws Road, which today is a branch of the Co-operative supermarket chain. Betty was the daughter of Robert Burns and was raised by Jean Armour, the poet’s wife who, besides raising nine children of her own, took on young Betty, one of Burns’ three illegitimate children. Today Betty can be found at her burial plot in Kirk Lane cemetery, Riverbank Street, close to Lidl, a spit away from where the Arcade stood.

The German word for what I feel is sehnsucht, loosely translated as a yearning or longing, even a suffering. Like the lost voice of a deceased loved one or the pain that comes with magical thinking, perhaps it’s better not to dwell so close to the past. There are some good aspects to constructive reminiscence, e.g. the building of 70 flats means 70 new households and a fresh start for those living there. Not that I subscribe to pop psychology but recently I find living in the moment is enough to deal with. The past, like the future, can wait.

The above image is a frame grab from Tilo which I shot at the Shawbridge Arcade in 2019. It’s a test grade to determine if I can create a convincing day-for-night look. There’s still a lot of FX work to do. There’s also the rest of the film to shoot but I’ve promised myself that nothing can happen until the script’s complete.