19 December 2019
Jackie Brambles, BBC Radio Scotland
Jackie Brambles: It is 10:52 on BBC Radio Scotland. Now cast your mind back about three years and you may remember a controversy in connection with the funding of what was called a ‘durational performance’. This was when Creative Scotland awarded £15,000 to the artist Ellie Harrison to launch a year-long project with a mission statement that asked: ‘How would your career, social life, family ties, carbon footprint and mental health be affected if you couldn’t leave the city where you live?’ Well Ellie called the project The Glasgow Effect, widely seen as a reference to the city’s poor public health and used a photo of a greasy plate of chips in the project’s imagery. It provoked a pretty big backlash online in 2016, but after that all died down, Ellie decided to publish not just the results of the original project, but also to write about the furore that surrounded it. The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism & Carbon Footprint is her new book and she is joining us this morning to talk about it. Morning Ellie.
Ellie Harrison: Morning.
Jackie Brambles: So it was a kinda double-pronged thing wasn’t it? It was the actual project and then the project sort of had part 2, which was the backlash that came after it. Were you stunned by how people felt about it?
Ellie Harrison: Yeah, I mean that was the beginning of the project. That was the beginning of 2016. So I was just starting out on what was going to be a year-long ‘durational performance’, as you called it. I had vowed that I wasn’t going to leave Glasgow for a year and I wasn’t going to use any vehicles apart from my bike.
Jackie Brambles: Right.
Ellie Harrison: So the idea was to slash my own carbon footprint for transport to zero, which I was able to do… And to see what could happen if, instead of travelling around for work, which I found myself doing all the time (which was constantly leaving the city where I was living), what I could make happen if I invested all my time, and my energy and my ideas in Glasgow instead. So that was what I was setting out to do at the beginning of 2016, and when I launched the project online I switched the title. The title was originally ‘Think Global, Act Local!’ – that was the working title that I’d used, which is a phrase coined by Patrick Geddes, the famous Scottish Thinker, which implies that… if we want to try and solve big global problems like climate change, then the best place to do that is…
Jackie Brambles: Where you live.
Ellie Harrison: On a local level, exactly. But at the same time, you know, I’d been living in Glasgow for seven-and-a-half years by that point and I was starting to notice all these massive inequalities in the city, all these big contradictions in the city, which were summed up by the phrase ‘the Glasgow effect’, which comes out of the field of public health, which refers to Glasgow’s mysteriously poor health outcomes compared to similar post-industrial cities in England like Liverpool and Manchester. So I chose that title because I wanted to… draw attention to…
Jackie Brambles: Throw a spotlight on that… inequity.
Ellie Harrison: Absolutely. And also, most importantly, to make the connections between social and environmental problems. And ultimately to say that the ‘climate emergency’ that we’re facing is being caused by the richest, wealthiest, most privileged people in our society, but it’s the poorest people that are going to be suffering as a result of that – on a global scale, it’s going to be the poorest countries that suffer from the climate emergency, but on a local level as well. It’s the poorest people in Glasgow that do least to cause air pollution, for example, not many of them own cars (including myself, I don’t own a car), but yet, we’re more likely to be walking down the side of roads breathing in the air pollution that’s being caused by people who do own cars.
Jackie Brambles: So, I mean, were you surprised then by the sort of backlash that you got. Because what you were trying to do, you had the best of intentions, was to throw a light onto perhaps a topic that doesn’t get enough of being highlighted, which is people… on the periphery of society being maligned, marginalised and forgotten about, and then you got this great big backlash.
Ellie Harrison: I guess… I mean I was surprised by the scale it. But I knew it was a provocative image that I had chosen, and I knew it was a provocative title. And I wanted to provoke a debate. I mean that was one of my main intentions. So, you know, if I’d have just done this and nobody have known it was happening, then it wouldn’t have had the same impact and it wouldn’t have caused the same conversation. But at the same time, I learnt so much from that process. On the Facebook page itself, The Glasgow Effect Facebook page that I made, there were 8,800 comments…
Jackie Brambles: Wow.
Ellie Harrison: posted within the space of a few days. And then there were thousands of other comments… across Facebook and across Twitter and elsewhere. So I read so many of those and actually quite a lot of them are quoted in the book, because I learnt so much from people’s response to it. And that was what really drew my attention to the fact that… the core contradiction in the project really that, you know, I’m not from Glasgow, I’ve been living here for eleven years now…
Jackie Brambles: But I think there was a misconception that you were sort of this English girl who had just arrived in the city and was having a go.
Ellie Harrison: Exactly.
Jackie Brambles: Not that you love the city and that you’ve lived here for a long time and you wanted to really focus a project on the city that you loved.
Ellie Harrison: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I wouldn’t say I loved the city though. That was the issue. I had a love-hate relationship with the city and the book kind of deals with that and looks at… you know I think a lot of people do have a similar relationship with this city and…
Jackie Brambles: And with any city then, any place that you live… things drive you mad about your local environment don’t they?
Ellie Harrison: Absolutely. So what I was trying to do with the project, and what I’m continuing to do, because obviously I still live here and that really a year might sound like a long time, but in terms of the sort of changes that I want to see in this city, which are long-term changes – to the public transport network, to make it a more sustainable, connected and more equal city. These changes are going to take a long time…
Jackie Brambles: And you’re going to come back actually, in about half-an-hour and we’re going to talk about the news on transport and trains that’s happened… But just to wrap this conversation for the time being, for now (we’ve got about 45 seconds), I know that one of the criticisms that you got was from Darren McGarvey. But that, then you guys met and had a love-in [laughs] and that he retracted a lot of what he’d said and that he learnt from you that things aren’t always as black and white as perhaps they seem. And that you were actually inspired by his own book to write your own book.
Ellie Harrison: Absolutely. His book, Poverty Safari, which I’m sure a lot of listeners will have read – brilliant book about his life growing up in Pollok, and that title ‘poverty safari’ came from his initial criticism of my project. So my book is really a response to Darren’s book and I think that they are interesting… counterpoints and different perspectives on the social determinants of health and how a person’s background can affect their health outcomes.
Jackie Brambles: Well we’re going to continue this conversation when you come back at 11:30 and get your take on everything that you learnt from your project, especially around the carbon footprint. Thank you very much indeed for the time being, Ellie Harrison. The news is coming up next…