Intervention – "A Perecian Attempt to Exhaust the Glasgow Subway"

A Perecian Attempt to Exhaust the Glasgow Subway

by Jack Donaghy, Johanna Jokio, Anna Nienhaus, Dennis Rodgers and Evan Williams

Urban Studies, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow

Introduction (Dennis Rodgers)

This collective piece is the result of a practical fieldwork exercise undertaken by students in the context of an MSc-level course on “Urban Theory and Research” that I taught at the University of Glasgow between 2013 and 2015. This course explored the epistemology and methodology of urban research, in order to get to grips with the ways in which different investigative approaches shape our understanding of cities. It particularly highlighted how cities can and have been apprehended, interpreted, and represented on a number of different scales, from the individual to the global, and through a range of different lenses, and how this has critical consequences for our knowledge about cities. The course also examined how and why different types of narratives and representations about cities are produced through urban research, and involved a practical fieldwork component in order to show this in a concrete manner.

Life A Users ManualThe practical component of the course was inspired by the work of Georges Perec. Perec was a member of the “Oulipo” – Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature – experimental and absurdist writing group that was founded in Paris in 1960 by the surrealist writer Raymond Queneau and chemical engineer François Le Lionnais, and which sought to promote constrained writing techniques in literature. Perec is probably best known to English-language speakers for his novels Life: A User’s Manual and A Void, both of which have been available in translation for a while now (Perec 2008a, 2008b). The former offers a narrative made up of a series of interwoven stories based on descriptions of the inhabitants of a single Parisian apartment block, as they were at 8pm on 23 June 1975. The latter was written entirely without using the letter “e” (and rather amazingly successfully translated as such!). Much less well known is another of his works, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, which was originally published in 1975, but which has recently been translated and published in English (Perec 2010), and formed the basis for the practical exercise.

A VoidAn Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is a collection of observations that Perec wrote as he sat in Saint-Sulpice Square in Paris. His aim was to totally describe the place until it was “exhausted”, and his method for doing so was quite simple, namely involving sitting in cafés around the square on three different days, sipping coffee or wine, smoking cigarettes, and attempting to record everything he saw in minute detail: every passing bus or car, every pedestrian, every advert, every texture and colour, even every sound. The book reads as a series of lists, but is strangely compelling and evocative, and pedagogically, highlights both the value of careful observation, but also its inevitably partial and limited nature. Students on the course were therefore asked to read Perec’s book, and then to attempt to first, reproduce its method faithfully in either one of two locations, Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and the Glasgow Subway, before then carrying out a more free-style form of place observation inspired by their reproduction of Perec’s work in the other location.

AN ATTEMPT AT EXHAUSTING A PLACE IN PARISWhat we present here are a combination of attempts both to reproduce Perec’s place observation technique and to produce something inspired by his project in the Glasgow Subway. The Glasgow Subway is the third oldest underground metro system in the world after the London Underground and the Budapest Metro. It opened in 1896, and is made up of a 10.5-kilometre long loop that is divided into an Outer and an Inner Circle, on which trains run respectively clockwise and anticlockwise in separate tunnels. Operated by the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), the Glasgow Subway has 15 stations and carries around 13 million passengers every year. It has several unique particularities, including a striking orange and brown colour scheme and retro-1970s design, as well as having rather small carriages due to tunnels having a diameter of only 3.4 metres. A further particularity of the Glasgow Subway is that its route has not changed since it was opened over one hundred years ago, although plans are regularly touted to expand it, particularly into the East End of Glasgow (although a multi-million pound programme of refurbishment of the existing network is currently under way).

All four pieces below attempt to convey something of the feel and flavour of the Glasgow Subway. They do so in quite different ways, focusing on different aspects of the Subway experience – people, stations, movement, adverts – and offer different levels of reflexivity, as well as different broader visions of Glasgow. Some of them are more faithful to the form of Perec’s Attempt at Exhausting… than others, but all are inspired and, in the words of Evan Williams, “pay homage” to Perec, both intrinsically, but also more broadly, in that pedagogically they clearly demonstrate the enduring relevance of his endeavours and his work. Taken together, they highlight the way that the Subway is a highly particular form of urban space – one that forces and constrains social interaction, includes and excludes, is both banal and exceptional. As such, they offer a picture of a subterranean Glasgow, one where the social dynamics are quite different from those on the surface. We therefore hope that readers will enjoy what follows, and that it will at the very least pique their curiosity about a particularly iconic Glasgow institution!

Glasgow Underground

People Watching on the Subway (Jack Donaghy)

I’ve just jumped on a train on the inner circle at Buchanan Street station, and I’m going to attempt to “exhaust” this subway carriage over the next hour and a bit in the style of George Perec. I’m sitting on the bench seat right next to the train door in the middle section of the middle carriage. Whether this will aid in getting a middling view of the subway, I don’t know. One thing which is immediately apparent is that it’s difficult to observe anyone on this bench except the man next to me without leaning forward and making it obvious I’m watching them. I’ll see how that goes.

The first thing I do is take off my headphones and switch off my iPhone, ignoring the masses of notifications which have been queued up since the last time I checked. This is making me a little nervous – what if some major world event has taken place and I have no idea of it? But this is a necessary step, and it’s made me realise that although I take the subway almost every day, I’ve never really been aware of my surroundings much as they’ve been muffled out by the sounds of whatever my country music obsession of the week is…

We’ve just passed Hillhead and a load of student types got on. I’m now surrounded by 3 girls and a guy. Heading away from the city centre? Unexpected. I’ll have to watch and see where they get off.

Three of them got off at Partick. Now there’s a man with an impressive beard sitting next to me, leaving enough room between us for someone else to sit. Looking to my left there’s a man on the other side of the door tapping away on a tablet computer. Unlike me, he’s not looking up every 10 seconds to see how his surroundings are changing. There’s another man across from him with a bowl haircut and camouflage jacket. I think the girl across from me is aware that I keep looking at here. She’s staring into her iPhone. Looking around, it seems everyone in the immediate vicinity is staring down at the floor or staring straight ahead unwaveringly, as if they’re scared they might make eye contact with a fellow passenger.

Three people have just boarded at Ibrox, and for the first time there are people on the train talking to each other, and not desperately trying to avoid eye contact.

Seven school kids have gotten on. They’re split into a group of three and a group of four. The group of three next to me are chatting about school work, and a boy who didn’t do his homework. The two school kids on the other side of me – a boy and a girl – are talking about another girl at school. It’s hard to hear what they’re saying. You can pick up parts of conversation when the trains stop at a station, but when the train starts moving all you can hear is the screeching of the tracks. There are also two Asian men nearby talking in a language I don’t understand. They’re having an upbeat conversation, smiling and laughing with each other.

Looking upwards to the adverts around this train, I see ads I never see anywhere else. There’s an ad in Gaelic (which I don’t speak) which seems to be seeking people interested in becoming Gaelic language teachers. Why do they always advertise for Gaelic teachers on the subway? I shall listen out to see if I hear any Gaelic speakers on this journey.

A man in a suit with a briefcase has gotten on, along with a younger man in a big grey coat.

At Buchanan Street we were joined by a teenage boy reading a newspaper, a woman in traditional African dress, and a man who has decided to sit next to me. He knows I’m looking at him, but he’s trying not to let on that he knows, maintaining a fake smile looking off at nothing in particular.

The man in the suit is staring at my Converse shoes.

Up until now I’ve been struck by how few of the passengers have had their heads buried in mobile phones, but that’s changing. All the people that just got on, with the exception of a group of friends, are staring intently at virtual space. Of course, just as I wrote that, they all put their phones back in their pockets. A few are listening to music, but most seem to be staring at nothing – the floor, the darkness outside the window, the empty seat opposite them. The lack of connectivity in these tubes necessitates finding something else to do.

The train has now stopped at Govan. One girl in the group of friends at the other end of the carriage asks her friend why the trains always stop at Govan. Her friend says they’re checking for bombs. The girl is unimpressed by the joke. Just then, a man in a cleaning uniform boards, grabs a newspaper lying on a seat, and takes it off the train. No bomb-sniffing dogs.

A woman across from me is reading the Metro; another one for the man at Govan to pick up at some point probably.

We are now at St Enoch. Two people get off, three people get on.

A girl who just got on has chosen to sit next to me, separated a little as usual. I hear a noise and notice that she’s crying, fairly heavily. I suddenly understand my fellow passengers’ will to avoid eye contact at all costs… As I scroll through my notes on my iPad, I think the girl next to me might be looking. I wonder how she will react if she discovers I am writing about her.

I notice that the girl across from me – who has a bag of Cool Original Doritos that is giving the carriage a delicious smell! – has a pink cast on her arm. It doesn’t seem to bother her.

A man gets on at Cowcaddens. He has a weathered face and unwashed hair. A man moves up to make room for him, and he says “cheers”. The other passengers in the carriage collectively look over in shock at this interaction between strangers…

The crying girl gets off at St George’s Cross. After she leaves, glances are exchanged between passengers who were sitting near her.

The man who got on at Cowcaddens has started talking to the man who moved over for him. Some on the train look quietly appalled; others look relieved he’s not sitting next to them.

The girl across from me with the Doritos and the cast is sitting next to her mum. Her mum moves up closer to her, and the girl thinks that she is trying to get a glimpse of what is on her phone. The girl looks a bit huffy for a few seconds, but then leans over to fix her mum’s hair which is slightly thinning. Peace is restored!

There’s a man next to me. He’s wearing outdoor gear and is playing Candy Crush Saga on his phone, which is an older model with a smashed screen. He’s making occasional noises – it’s hard to tell if he has a cold and is sniffling or if he’s making quiet victory noises in response to his game.

They’re just sniffles.

We’ve just left Govan. Looking at the seat in front of me, the woman with the Metro must have taken the paper with her. There is nothing for the cleaning man to collect.

Cessnock. A man gets on. He sits across from me, pulls out his phone and starts playing Candy Crush. There is a man sitting across from me and down a bit playing with his phone. I am tempted to get up and look if he is playing Candy Crush too.

Shields Road. A man in an outdoors jacket and jeans, carrying a backpack, gets on the train while humming a tune. He sits next to me, separated of course by the width of one person. He continues to hum quietly. Another man is standing next to me. He is doing something on his phone. I can’t see what he’s looking at, but I can see he’s looking at it in a web browser which he’s set to private mode.

For the first time since I began my observations, the train is so full that someone has sat directly next to me. He is using Twitter on his phone – reading tweets, not actively tweeting.

Hillhead. Time for me to get off and go to class.

Space in the Subway (Johanna Jokio)

On Friday at lunch time, 1:30pm, the subway leaving from Hillhead is quiet. A lot of people get off at the station, mostly students. The few who get on wait for their turn to step in.

At Partick, I notice a couple of women who seem to have come from work get on. One is carrying a take away bag, for her lunch break perhaps, and the other is wearing a professional-looking outfit. She reads a free paper that has been left on the seats.

At Govan an SPT employee comes and collects the rest of the papers people have scattered on the seats during the lunch break. My carriage remains quiet for the whole time on this side of the river, with only a few people in it. Someone is eating a sandwich for lunch.

Lights from the tunnel flash as the train goes on.

A young boy with a large backpack and trainers gets on. He is probably coming from the sports centre at Ibrox. He looks at his iPad with earphones on.

Nobody speaks until Shields Road, where three older people get on and keep chatting quietly.

On a Friday afternoon, at 5:30pm, the subway is full with people coming from work in the city centre. There are lots of people travelling by themselves; a man in his thirties with a backpack is reading a book. For most, the subway must be a daily and ordinary event; always go through the same stations, perhaps sitting in the same favourite seat…

Some chatter is coming from a group of young people with luggage that got on at Buchanan Street and has probably coming off a bus.

There is a group of middle-aged men sit at the other end of the carriage, and one of them has a camera that he is eagerly looking into. They are chatting and laughing, they must be tourists. There are posters above them calling on people to “Visit Las Vegas”.

There are also signs that everyone is meant to see – signs giving instructions: “If you see anything suspicious, report it to the police”, posters extolling the fact that “SPT is working to improve the subway”… What do people see and what do they not see? Is the subway experience in the same way by men and women?

Most people sit by themselves during working hour traffic, and some immerse themselves into a book or put on headphones to listen to music, which other than passing the time allows them to hold on to their private space. I wonder how they hear station announcements, though.

Looks are directed to the feet, to the posters on the walls, someone stares at their ticket in their hands, and one particularly nervous look peeks out from behind a bag held firmly with two hands on a lap.

A couple of times someone looks at me and my notebook; a girl through the window from the next carriage, and a man opposite me in a full train during a rush hour. I feel uncomfortable.

A tearful woman gets on at Hillhead during lunch time. She sits and reads a paper.

On Saturday, around 7pm, a train going to the centre from the West End seems to consist of shared spaces among friends, filled with chatter, with headphones and books exceptional.

I wait for the train at Hillhead on Monday morning. People pour into the station and the train fills up. I sit between the middle section and the doors. Passengers sit together in twos, each pair slightly apart from others. Most, it seems, are equipped with rain clothes and umbrellas. Some talk, daring to take on the noise of the train. Two men are talking in Spanish.

I stare at my phone making notes.

An older woman leans on her hand and observes three young people talking to each other. Some, mostly men in this carriage, are standing holding the steel bar above the benches as there are no more free seats.

Trainers, bags, backpacks.

A man reading a newspaper in a suit stands facing the bench and has to turn towards the centre as somebody takes the seat in front of them.

A woman has a magazine spread on her lap.

Someone is holding a drink and sucking it with a straw, she looks exhausted, staring straight ahead.

A girl with a backpack takes out two envelopes and is opening her mail. Bills? Something important? She is talking to the woman – whom I’m guessing is her mother – next to her.

As the train pulls in people watch from the other side of the station where they are waiting for their train.

“SPT is working on a major upgrade of the Subway”! The sign seems to me incongruous. The train seats are orange and the floors brown, perhaps they were modern some time ago but they seem retro now.

There are designated priority seats next to the doors.

It’s after 11pm and I board at Buchanan Street. A man with crutches, limping, has walked down the stairs and into the train. He is wearing a tracksuit, and has no bag. After a while, his ticket gets stuck under the bench and he tries to pull it out unsuccessfully; a man sitting opposite him comes to help and as the other man lifts the bench, he sticks his hand under the seat to grab the ticket. Why did whoever was nearest not help the man? He is thankful and continues to chat to the other in a strong accent but I cannot hear what the other man replies.

The carriage swings back and forth at speed.

The squeaking of the rails sounds like horses galloping when the train moves slower; going into the tunnel, it makes a swoosh sound.

At times, between the stations, it moves slower and then accelerates again into the darkness.

At some stations the train hardly stays longer than need to just open and close the doors, at others it stops for longer, waiting for passengers to exchange places in and outside of the vehicle. Sometimes the driver even looks out from their side window to make sure everyone gets in.

The inner and outer lines run in a circle. Is it impossible to know where someone is coming from?

Sunday evening is quiet. Except suddenly, at St. Enoch, a train packed with football fans pulls in. A mass of blue-clad (Rangers?) supporters pour out from the carriages: men and some women, boys. The train carriages are all left with steamed windows and hot air. More fans alight at the next station. Two men are clearly drunk, even if “alcohol-fuelled behaviour is not tolerated” according to the SPT signs.

Everything quietens down afterwards. I am the only passenger in the carriage for two stops – a private ride through underground Glasgow!

The Subway: Glasgow Through the Looking Glass? (Anna Nienhaus)

Tuesday, 2.30pm

Beginning my journey in Kelvinbridge, I enter a crowded train heading towards St. George’s Cross. Many people around me seem to be students. I have to stand, every seat is taken.

Two girls talk to each other, but they fall silent after a few words. The noise of the subway makes it hard to understand each other.

A group of three is sitting in one corner with suitcases between their knees. They shuffle around as more and more people try to enter. It does not make any more room, but their gesture shows that they feel uncomfortable with their luggage, but nobody seems to bother. Quite the contrary, the people standing around them are trying to give enough room to the travellers to sit comfortably.

Nobody in my carriage gets off at St. Georges Cross. One man wants to enter, but it is too crowded and he steps back onto the platform, obviously deciding to wait for the next train.

I realise that everybody is really well dressed. Clean shoes, perfectly fitting clothes. A girl is wearing sports trousers under her coat and has a gym bag with her.

The two girls, equipped with heavy looking shoulder bags, get off the train at Cowcaddens and immediately re-start their interrupted chat while stepping out.

Many people are looking at their smartphones. One young man is reading a book, but looks up every now and then. Nobody is talking.

A young man takes a sandwich from his bag and begins to eat, even though it is still very crowded and he barely has enough space to move his arms. The woman next to him tries to give him some space by shuffling closer to her friend – a small, polite gesture to further interaction?

At Buchanan Street, most people leave the subway. I sit down, between a young woman and the couple who have just entered. The couple have two bags with them: Marks & Spencer, Forever21. Although clearly travelling together, they both take out their smartphones as soon as the doors close. The women sitting on my other side is listening to music. I can only hear it when the train stops. She rests her eyes on the doors, seemingly lost in reverie.

St. Enoch. In front of me now sits a woman with large bags full of household articles from Poundland. A teenage girl sits with her, both are staring at the advert above my head. The mother’s eyes and mine meet for a split second, but she looks back up immediately. The two exchange an amused look. I look up, too, to see what they are reading: “Las Vegas. Where your accent is an aphrodisiac”. Which is actually quite amusing although I wonder if the advert has a different impact on Scots than it has on me as a foreigner.

The other people on the train seem to be quite keen to avoid eye contact. Those who are not looking at their phone, a magazine or a book are looking out of the windows into the dark or at their shoes or the floor, or are looking at the adverts on the walls. Staring at people is clearly to be avoided – an unwritten rule.

The train is quite empty now. Nobody enters at Bridge Street, but I see people standing on the platform to get on the train heading in the other direction. There is still no interaction between travellers. Smartphones, headphones. An issue of a free newspaper on the seat next to me. I consider reading it and think to myself, who left it there?

The man who gets on at Shields Road is wearing a nice suit. The colourful tattoos you can on his neck and wrists form an interesting contrast.

The woman and her teenage daughter leave the train at Kinning Park.

Nobody leaves or enters at Ibrox.

A large group of six teenage boys enter the train at Govan, all dressed in school uniforms. Only one of them has a backpack, though. They sit down at the other end of the carriage, squeezing together on the smaller benches and talk and laugh.

Two middle aged men leave at Partick. Both are wearing suits and carrying briefcases. Are they commuters?

A few people leave at Kelvinhall, including the suited tattooed man. He did nothing during his trip – no phone, no music. His just sat down, with his hands resting, folded, on his lap.

It gets busy again at Hillhead. There are many students, mostly in groups of two or by themselves.

I’ve just realised, I haven’t seen any small children!

I get off at Kelvinbridge and head home.

Thursday, 8.00am

Again, I get on the train at Kelvinbridge, albeit at a different time of day from last time. It is very busy again, but there are noticeable differences. Apart from one girl who does not sit down, although there are free seats, nobody looks like a University student. My first thought is that the train is heading away from Hillhead and the university, of course, but what about the other colleges and universities in town? Maybe it is just a coincidence.

A woman in a skirt and high heels is reading a free paper while drinking tea – I can see the teabag tag – out of a thermos flask. Several others are also reading a newspaper. Nobody is talking. Although it is crowded, the atmosphere is generally calm and quiet.

Things change at Buchanan Street. Nobody is particularly frantic, but everybody seems to get into motion at the same time. Apart from the teenagers and me, everybody leaves the train.

At Bridge Street, two women in burqa enter the train, while a woman in a skirt and jogging shoes gets off.

I can see sandwiches, a banana, more sandwiches, coffee mugs from Nero, Tinderbox.

Saturday, 8.00pm

I begin my last stint of place observation at Kelvinbridge station again. Notable differences with my previous shifts: More groups. I see three people sitting together, chatting although the train is loud. A group of four is standing, even though there are free seats. They talk, too, raising their voices when the train gets louder. Most people are very well dressed. I see heels, make-up, dresses. It gets busier and busier until we reach Buchanan Street, where most people leave the train. Clearly Saturday night is a night to go out!

Some people however enter here and at St. Enoch wearing business outfits, suits, briefcases, leather shoes. Are these commuters coming back from Edinburgh? People leaving work late? People on their way to a business dinner? Surprisingly, I finally see children in the Subway! A young family enters at Kelvinhall. A mother, father, and two daughters – I guess 3 and 6 years old – with one stroller. A couple offers them the seats closest to the exit.

I get off at Kelvinbridge. Suddenly I am in the mood to go out tonight.

Staring Below, Staring Above (Evan Williams)

The first thing to catch my attention when entering the Glasgow Subway was a billboard. On it ran the tagline: “One look is all it takes to lose her forever”. The advert in question was for a production of the ‘Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice’, in which Orpheus descends into Hades in an attempt to bring Eurydice back from the underworld. Standing on an escalator, sinking slowly below Glasgow’s outer surface, I became acutely conscious of the unique underground space that awaited me. Pondering my fate in this netherworld, I then remembered a short film I’d seen a few years back – Necrology by Standish Lawder (1971). The black-and-white film depicts people standing on a tightly packed New York Subway escalator, and is regarded by the filmmaker as an anthropological account of city life. The footage itself is run backwards in slow-motion, and so the city dwellers are seen ascending into the redemption offered by the darkness above.

Reflecting on these enigmatic images, I boarded a subway train and sat down to attempt a Georges Perec-style observation of the Glasgow Subway. Within seconds, however, I’d already relapsed into my usual response when sat opposite strangers – idly reading the adverts posted above our heads whilst awkwardly avoiding eye contact. As this game progressed, I realised that most of my previous metro experiences had consisted almost entirely of such strange interactions. It was via such thought processes that I ultimately attempted my Perecian observation of the subway. Perec wrote his novel A Void without using the letter “e”, to which the piece below pays homage. Written using only vocabulary from the advertisements on the subway trains on which I sat – and at the various stations where I alighted – it presents a dual interpretation of the observations made.

The extent to which the piece represents an accurate portrayal of my experiences is, of course, ambiguous. The various companies and organisations that advertise on the Glasgow Subway attempt to portray the city – its people, places and relationship to the outside world – in particular ways, and in so doing shape the very experiences that people have of Glasgow’s urban spaces. Part love letter and part hate mail, admiration mixes with condemnation to describe the Glasgow Subway and locate the experience to the city outside. Indeed, through exposure and repetition such advertisements – with their slogans and exhortations – come to inform our vocabulary and the language which we use to think about the city itself.

What are you waiting for?

Jump to it. A wild world that’s yours to explore.

A special place to create your perfect day … or lifetime?

Untameable freedom.

Fly. Soar. Exclusive speed.

Enter a space where your accent is an aphrodisiac – saucy Saturday’s beyond control.

It’s an urban ballet with great cuisine, friendly locals and perfect yum cha.

There are folk of all kinds here – independent, native, international. Hard workers. Merry devils.

Yes! There’s madness at midnight. Jeely jars and seeing stars.

Burnt passion. Thrilling, subversive and dark.

Fabulous language. Inspiring people looking for a new way.

Young innovators and arty mums.

Still remember the city?

A blast of music, late night jazz. People, perfect, you.

Beautiful. Desirable. Affordable.

The price?

Your soul, forever.

A terrifying journey and limited space. Suspicious reports.

Blazed truth. Universal prohibition. Each taste, razor sharp.

“Wow! Amazing!” You have to gamble.

People make Glasgow. People make Glasgow. People. Make. Glasgow.

I feel fantastic.

So, what are you waiting for?


Perec G (2008a [1978]) Life: A User’s Manual (trans D Bellos). London: Vintage

Perec G (2008b [1969]) A Void (trans G Adair). London: Vintage

Perec G (2010 [1975]) An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (trans M Lowenthal). Cambridge: Wakefield