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Glasgow - A Moving Portrait

Allan Massie opens our special issue on Glasgow and urban history by reflecting on 'ways of seeing' the city's past and present.

The historian of a city is presented in an acute form with the question common to all historical writing: to what extent is history narrative? Or the question may be reversed: is it possible to stop the clock and paint a portrait which escapes being an illusion? There are some forms of history which lend themselves to linear treatment. Of course in any historical narrative different things are going on at the same moment, though they cannot be narrated simultaneously; nevertheless a battle, for instance, or a diplomatic negotiation, may be seen to have a beginning, a development, and a result. At the end of the day one army holds the field, and the other has withdrawn, or a treaty has been signed. No such conclusion is possible in urban history; it is always and forever in the making.

The temptation is to try to stop the clock. There is good precedent for the attempt. The historians of the influential French Annales school essayed what was essentially descriptive; history; the idea of movement was, if not eliminated, at any rate submerged. There was a genuine and worthwhile effort to arrest movement, to create a living portrait by the accumulation and deployment of significant detail. Yet it is impossible to read even the masterpieces of this school, like Braudel's volumes on The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II, without feeling a lack. What has disappeared, or been stifled, is the concept of events taking place in time that never stands still.

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