Welcome to Glasgow, where the rain falls and the diplomats sofa-surf | Zara Janjua

Rich and poor, healthy and unhealthy, the city offers a smörgåsbord of humanity to its international visitors

As 25,000 Cop26 delegates flood Glasgow, like the rain we ordered to welcome them to the largest political gathering ever held in the UK, the global spotlight falls on us – the hosts. If anything, the “dreich” weather (we create words for rain in the same way Inuits do for snow) is an authentic experience for them. Let’s hope they brought their waterproofs.

Glasgow is a game of two halves, much like in the sport that divides its Rangers fans from its Celtic supporters. On one side, it’s a jewel of Victorian architecture, a fashion hub, a progressive, diverse ecosystem of boutique coffee shops, designer cocktail bars and other abundant displays of what, for many of us, makes quintessential modern Scotland. And in the other lineup – social inequality, food poverty, homelessness, an obesity crisis and drug deaths soar to record levels.

So were Glaswegians looking forward to Cop? Yes and no, or aye and naw, depending who you ask.

The event is located at the SEC in Finnieston, a conference centre that is home to Scotland’s biggest music concerts and events. At this time of year, it is usually gearing up for panto but instead, the Cop26 mascot Bonnie the seal is the only costumed icon on display. Away from the conference centre, however, Glasgow is transforming into Edinburgh during the fringe, swapping street performers for protesters. While the 2014 Commonwealth Games saw the peaceful hosting of competitive sports teams from 71 different countries’ teams, Cop26 looks a bit like threatening to turn into Squid Games plus road closures.

My mother grew up in what she calls “the slums of Glasgow” – a place called Bridgeton which sounds a lot like Bridgerton but is a world away from elite Victorian balls and classically performed Ariana Grande tracks. Machete gangs, she said, roamed the streets and police rarely ventured into these communities. You don’t have to step back in time to see the evidence of that period; the legacy lives on.

Social class divisions are entrenched in Scotland, and very visible in Glasgow. My family moved to Bearsden, a wealthy suburb where life expectancy for men is 12 years greater than the deprived community of next-door Drumchapel, just two miles away. The pandemic fuelled this division and many are now asking why, just a few months on from being told they were unable to visit family and friends, go to the football or travel abroad, we are opening our home to thousands of visitors when the “tree huggers” could have done it on Zoom.

Cop has also raised for some the unwelcome spectre of lockdown. Some 100,000 vehicles use the Clydeside Expressway every day but it has been closed for 23 days before and during the conference. It snakes along the Clyde, bypassing the West End rush-hour traffic and connecting drivers to the busiest motorway in Scotland – the M8. Even on foot it’s proving problematic to get around, with some residents denied access to their properties while world leaders dine in nearby restaurants. We feel a wee bit left out: people are still wondering how you get tickets or even if they are allowed to go.

Not that everyone has somewhere to stay. Thousands of delegates are struggling to find accommodation in a city that’s a hotbed for homelessness. One apartment in the well-to-do Kelvingrove district has been rented for £103,000 for 12 nights. At that price, foreign dignitaries and heads of state might find themselves bunking on sofa beds across the city. Imagine having António Guterres on your futon in Easterhouse. It’s a shared bathroom, Antonio, chop chop.

This in a city with the highest rate of homeless households in Scotland. Just two months ago, a housing crisis for returning students hit the headlines. The lack of available and affordable rentals turned freshers’ week into a damp squib. Private rents in Glasgow are up 46% in a decade, creating a bonanza for landlords. As hotels and Airbnbs inflate their prices to record levels, the people of Glasgow have been asked to open their hearts and homes to visitors for the 12-day event, with the Human Hotel Network securing hosts for about 600 delegates. Many locals find the greed inexcusable, while others wonder if the royals could do their bit and offer the spare rooms at Balmoral.

Glasgow is friendly, welcoming and warm (in spirit, if not in weather) so we might not be polishing the nice silverware and washing our curtains, but visitors can expect us to greet them with a smile. We have a fierce belief in social justice and a strong sense of community. The city unites in times of crisis. During the Clutha helicopter crash in 2013, people ran towards the scene, pulling injured revellers to safety. A year later, when a lorry collided with pedestrians in the city centre, killing six and injuring 15, Glasgow fell silent as thousands attended vigils for the victims. And in 2007, the city’s response to a terrorist attack at Glasgow airport made headlines, when baggage handler John Smeaton tackled and restrained the bombers and was dubbed a hero.

Thirty-two years ago, the city banded together to battle against the poll tax. Our response caused such uproar it forced change. The city is capable of mobilising for the greater good. Rain or no rain, we won’t waste the opportunity to showcase the best we have to offer – the people of Glasgow.

  • Zara Janjua is a writer and comedian


Zara Janjua

The GuardianTramp

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