From the square’s extensive grounds and considerable statuary, G. and I knew that the the open space before us had to number among Glasgow’s most important and were later confirmed in this opinion when I later had time to examine a map and learn more of George Square. A product of the late 18th century, Georgian cityplanning and, by connections more obscure, the Scottish Enlightenment, the square spent its early years as a muddy span of open ground, running over with dirty water and horse blood left from slaughter. Only with the turn of the century did Georgian townhouses and hotels begin to people its east and west ends. The century’s midmark brought with it the addition of an eighty-meter column, topped by Walter Scott’s likeness, as well as the north side’s Queen Street Station and increasing mercantile bustle.
Like the garden squares in the Empire’s first city, George Square had its origins as a fenced-off private square for use by the tenants of the surrounding townhouses. Yet here, as elsewhere, the work of unruly mobs led tenants and city alike to convert the space to civic use. Not unrelated to this development seemed to me the 1880’s decision to establish the Glasgow City Chambers at the square’s east end, necessitating the removal of a number of townhouses, in addition to other public services, such as the Bank of Scotland, the post office, and so on.
The space’s layout appeared, upon closer inspection, rather simple: four corner lawns, interspersed shrubbery and flowers, pavement running between lawns and the Scott column. Arrayed about the square, both on green and pavement, were statues of famous Scots, almost uniformly men: Burns, Watt, Clyde, amongst others. An exception to the rule proved the equestrian statues of Victoria and Albert, which my companion and I only noticed after having completed a full circle.
That circle at an end, we continued on towards the City Chambers with brisk strides. Each step brought the details of that Victorian structure more clearly into view: a classical facade of fronton and columns, divided by clean lines of the Italian Renaissance, at either end a corner dome, the whole in grey stone. Above it all rose a flagpole, that day flying the Belgian flag at half-mast, and a square tower, fitted out with a series of smaller domes, themselves supporting a narrow rotunda. As we drew nearer the entrance, the tower progressively disappeared from view, being set farther back into the building.
Before entering, we paused before two metal plaques to the entryway’s right which had been fixed to the building’s side. Provided by the City of Glasgow Corporation in 1882, the display provided standards of imperial linear measurements. The foot and the imperial yard, the chain and the link, gave up their secrets through the careful placement of metal pegs and blocks. Further reading revealed that the adjoining footpath likewise measured out one hundred feet for those who required illustration. The plaque’s text assured that all measures had been verified at a temperature of sixty-two degrees Fahrenheit, although it failed to make clear the significance of this point, intimating to onlookers like myself that those measures might vary by season, giving such unorthodox lengths as the winter foot or the summer yard.
Beyond that, the display held our attention more than a minute as G. attempted to explain for my benefit how unreal those measurements were for him. Indeed, they represented a fiction of which he could make little sense, so poorly did they fit his daily interaction with objects and space. To see them cast before him as they were, as those these figments of human mental life here took on concrete reality, baffled him in much the same way as the skeptic stubbing his toe over the Platonic Ideas.