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Now Calton fights back

THE COFFINS under the floorboards of Saint Mary Of The Assumption, in Glasgow's Calton area, have little room to breathe: their verdigrised copper handles and dusty tops surround the skeletons of priests long since passed.

Extract: Sunday Herald
By Paul Dalgarno

It has one of the worst health records in Europe and experts claim it has the lowest male life expectancy.

Lagged pipes pump heat into the church above, the second oldest in the city, and the birthplace of Celtic Football Club. The crypt's shadowy walls are held together, it seems, by faith alone, and there is barely enough space to stand. Father Tom White, dressed in denims, crouches down beneath a solitary cobwebbed lightbulb and dusts the name plates on the eerie wooden casks. Most of the priests were barely boys: they died in their 20s, during the 19th century, as a result of tending locals with typhoid and cholera. It's spooky. "There's more to worry about with the living than the dead," says Father White, as he clambers up through a hatch in the church's floor. Premature deaths in Calton are not new; nor is the marking of them by their community.

A sign outside Saint Mary's - God Bless Tommy Burns - has been spread between posts like a crucifix since the football player's funeral service at the church in May. It overlooks Abercromby Street, the eastern spine of Calton. Across the road, just out of sight of the elevated Burns, beats the heart of a community much maligned by the press; an area consistently portrayed in the negative, and yet rarely, if ever, seen. This small pocket in Glasgow's east end stretches from the Barras Market to Abercromby Street, and is hemmed in to the north and south by the thoroughfares of the Gallowgate and London Road. "I always get the impression that people just drive past here," says Father White. "These major roads form a commuter route, an artery to the city. Calton is a wee village, a hidden island within the city. People here are intimately aware of each other's struggles and problems, their joys and their celebrations."

The area, though, is far from anonymous. Following a World Health Organisation (WHO) report in August, in which Calton was identified as having the lowest male life expectancy in Europe, the British press descended in numbers, as they had in the past, looking for ways to put flesh on the story's bones. Calton's men die at 54, claimed the report. (Its women do considerably better at 74, although this is rarely mentioned). Print and television reporters asked young mothers how they felt about their children's diminished life chances, even as those infants ga-gad in their parents' arms. More galling for locals was the choice of camera shots used to illustrate Calton's grim reputation as a hive of multiple deprivation: a boarded-up window here, a broken wine bottle there. The area's more presentable streets were either erased or never recorded; footage of residents with anything positive to say was left languishing on the cutting room floor. The local barber's sign - "Looking Good Is Feeling Good" - was perhaps ignored for fear of seeming ironic.

But what if the WHO's figures were unfairly skewed? "It's important to take the statistics with a pinch of salt," says Mark Feinmann, director of the East Glasgow Community Health And Care Partnership. "It's unfair to lambast a whole area for its lifestyle when, in fact, we're talking about certain parts of Calton, certain streets and certain families." The health of long-term Caltonians is not great (rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and suicide remain alarmingly high) and is on a par with much of Glasgow's east end. But, says Feinmann, there are mitigating factors. "There are a number of homeless hostels here, and a certain number of people who may once have been homeless and are living in found accommodation in the area." This constituency of people passing through and passing out in Calton is not insignificant - not when it comes to crunching the numbers. "If Calton is someone's place of death," says Feinmann, "that becomes our statistic."

The WHO's study, though released this year, lifted its figures from a 2006 report, Let Glasgow Flourish, which was based on a set of "community profiles" compiled by Glasgow-based researchers in 2004. Those profiles took guidance from deaths recorded between 1998 and 2002, and from 2001 census data. So what was the British media actually saying? That Calton in 2008 has the lowest male life expectancy in Europe? Or that it did have, but several years ago?

"We included quite a lot of text with the original profiles pointing out the caveats," says David Walsh of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, who was involved in compiling Calton's community profile in 2004. The approach taken by the WHO, and regurgitated verbatim by many in the media, was flawed - particularly the headline-grabbing idea that an Iraqi or Indian child would outlive a male child born in Calton. "They were comparing Calton, which has a population of a few thousand, to India, which has 100 million people," says Walsh. "Within a country the size of India there will be small areas where you could show much worse statistics in terms of life expectancy. They were not comparing like with like, so it was an inappropriate comparison."

Since the initial report in 2004, Calton's demographic has changed considerably. Several council-run men's homeless hostels - such as James Duncan House in Calton and Neil Robertson House in neighbouring Bridgeton - have closed, their residents dispersed to smaller, specialist units elsewhere. Death records for other hostels, such as the privately-owned Bellgrove Hotel in the Gallowgate, were included in the life expectancy figures for Calton, even though the Bellgrove is situated beyond Calton's boundaries. Were another community profile compiled now (the most recent studies, released this year, no longer consider Calton in isolation), things might look different. There is a vast psychological gulf between the infamy of living in an area with poor health and living in an area with the lowest life expectancy in a continent of 730 million people. The stigma of the latter is keenly felt.

"Reporters make up a lot of lies and distort the truth to sell their papers," says Ann McGuinness, who lives on Calton's western boundary. After 21 years living locally, she loves the area, but not the way its residents are routinely painted. "It's insulting," she says. "It's as if we're all daft. You always read stories about us eating fry-ups or burgers, as if we can't eat right. We know how to make a decent pot of soup."

We are talking in the East End Healthy Living Centre, a fairly new, very modern complex near Calton, which offers gym classes, smoking cessation guidance, art and computer lessons, as well as track and field facilities. The centre is well-used, with 9000 members, and offers hefty discounts for local residents. McGuinness is here for a digital photography class, not athletics.

"I'm registered disabled," she says. "I've got a heart condition. I've got asthma. I've got pins in my foot because the nerves are dying. I've had operations under both arms to take abscesses away." Her health is less than perfect, but the bad press bothers her more. "Not everyone in Calton is a junkie," she says, "but the papers make out that we are. That really gets to me. People come here poking about for a negative story and look for the worst places to take their photos. I just think we're being dealt a dirty blow. Is that the right word?" she asks. "A dirty blow?" It probably is. McGuinness insists that "Calton is a good area with good people" - a refrain that many other locals seem to know well.

Walking around, you come across plenty of individuals who, on the face of it, are bucking the life expectancy statistics. In fact, the number of elderly residents, male and female, seems disproportionately high. They shuffle round the red-brick cul de sacs and drab interwar homes, perhaps cheered by the belief that they are way past their allotted 50-odd years of life. Most speak knowledgeably about the area's proud history as a weaving district, its past traditions of making pottery and keeping bees. None seem in the thrall of depression.

"Come to any of our clubs and you'll find anything but doom and gloom," says Ann Gray, a Caltonian who works for the Thenew Housing Association, which cares for dozens of elderly residents in the area. "You'll find people with very positive outlooks who have lived in Calton most of their lives. We get a lot of bad press about our kids but I would say most of the kids in this area are very respectful." Her own son, raised in Calton, is an actor. She talks at length about several other youngsters who have "gone on to do great things". The recent comparisons in the media between Calton and the relatively affluent Glasgow suburb of Lenzie (where male life expectancy is reported to be nearly 30 years higher) makes Gray, and others like her, "very, very angry". The implication is that living in a poorer area equates to living a poorer life. "It's your way of life that determines your life expectancy, not the fact that you live in Calton," says Gray. "You won't suddenly add 10 years onto someone's life if you move them to a different part of the city."

One thing sorely needed in Calton, which might improve the quality of residents' lives, is a community centre. Gray remembers a time when the area was buzzing with activities, from Irish dancing to netball. At present there is no communal facility: instead, priests, like Father White at Saint Mary's, open up private rooms in their homes for social functions. Talks are ongoing to convert part of a listed school building on Green Street, which has had its windows boarded up for several years. Local SNP councillor Alison Thewliss says the neighbourhood has been "neglected" by her civic predecessors and is taking part in the discussions regarding the feasibility of a Green Street community centre. The only alternative - constructing a new community centre from scratch - is a non-starter. "Unfortunately there isn't any money to build a new centre or for the running costs thereafter," she says. But Gray, and other residents, see it as a priority. "It's badly needed," she says. "Do you cost these things by finance or by the human misery of us not having a place to go to? People here, and especially young people, need something to look forward to, a place to relax."

Some measure of the way the area is viewed from the outside comes from Betty Cosgrove, who heads the Calton Area Association. The hardest part of her role, she says, is keeping people's morale up. "Because this is described as a deprived area', people think our brains are deprived as well," she says. Cosgrove took the reins of the association earlier this year after the previous incumbent fell seriously ill, and immediately began meeting with development agencies and city planners. "To say the least, they were very surprised that we were so articulate," she says. "In some of their faces there was pure astonishment, and that's because of the negative picture that's been painted of this area. We want a positive Calton identity brought back."

One of the initiatives Cosgrove promotes is the Spotlight Theatre And Dance Group, run by local mother Betty Spence for children from Calton. "The dance group started in February," says Spence. "We've had no facilities for girls, but now they've got a dance school which is actually promoting health and fitness. It's a three-hour class and it's lifted the spirit of the weans as well. Calton's starting to come together as a community again, and this is just a wee starting point for us."

The troupe currently meets at St Luke's And St Andrew's Church in Bain Square, where the floor is unsuitable for dancing, and there is a waiting list of children wanting to join. "It's all funded by the parents, who are on a low income and sometimes find it a bit difficult," adds Cosgrove. Her own begging bowl, she says, is getting bigger. "We just go about brazenly saying what our area needs and asking people if they can help, because we haven't got any funds at all." A colleague from the area committee nudges her. "I'm sorry, I beg your pardon," says Cosgrove. "We've got £100, we're rolling in it."

As with others I speak to, Cosgrove has mixed feelings about the plans for the Commonwealth Games to be staged in the east end of Glasgow in 2014. People think it's a good thing for the city, broadly speaking; some hope it will leave a legacy of real, long-term benefit to communities such as Calton. Others doubt that it will; some fear that their neighbourhood will be bypassed by city planners completely; some are disappointed that £298 million of public money will be poured into the event when the area has suffered the worst side-effects of chronic under-investment for generations. Some say the Games can't come soon enough; others, who are elderly, know they will come too late. No-one is arguing that Calton, as it stands, is a bed of roses.

Joanna Moore points out towards Abercromby Cemetery, which backs directly onto her garden, and explains that three local "martyrs" are buried within the graveyard's walls. The buried men were weavers, who went on strike over pay in 1787, and were gunned down for their troubles by the British military. With her group, Friends Of The Weavers, Moore is trying to protect and promote the cemetery as a site of historical importance, and draw a line between the area's distant and more recent past. "Some of the antisocial behaviour we had in the cemetery was really horrendous," she says. "We had prostitutes and gangs of drug users. They built a wee campfire in the graveyard to cook their breakfast, and left needles with contaminated blood." Since demanding action from the council, she no longer sees "people injecting into their groin" from her kitchen window. The cemetery gates are now locked at nightfall, the grass and gravestones kept presentable.

Moore gives talks, with her sister Maureen, at local schools, and leads trips to the graveyard. "I think local kids should find out about their own area," she says. "It's a proud history, a positive history." She is not blinkered to the challenges. Her eldest son was stabbed in a nearby street some years ago; she worries for the safety of her youngest boy, who goes to a local nursery; she was recently propositioned by a man who mistook her for a prostitute.

But she insists that trouble comes from the minority. "Everyone gets tarred with the same stick," she says. "But there are lots of good people living here. We've been misrepresented politically and the feeling of many people is that we've been left to rot. This place needs to be promoted properly and positively to bring it back the respect it's due. If our children see positive images of the area then they'll probably want to be part of that."

Too often, at present, they see the opposite. Without any scientific proof, it's probably fair to say that the constant media emphasis on poor health and antisocial behaviour in Calton reinforces certain ideas: that carrying a knife is a good idea, for example, or that dying early, and in poverty, is a foregone conclusion. A recent survey by YouthLink Scotland claimed that children who grew up in the country's poorest areas were less likely to achieve at school, more likely to offend, suffer poor health and unemployment. It's not the first such report. It won't be the last.

Ben Queenan, who coaches Calton's Shawfield under 13s football team, thinks the effect of negative press is overestimated. "It just goes in one ear and out the other," he says, with reference to his two young sons and their football teammates. "The boys know the news exaggerates things because they're growing up here and know what the area's really like." Queenan started coaching the team in his spare time four years ago and currently has a squad of 20 local boys in the Glasgow And District league. After their matches and twice-weekly training sessions "the boys are so knackered that they can't get into any trouble". Without any sponsorship, Queenan is losing money with every game the team plays, given the cost of hiring pitches and referees. But he talks enthusiastically about widening the boys' horizons and increasing their confidence.

Last year he took the boys, and their parents, to a youth football tournament in Holland, funded in part by the parents, in part with cash raised by the team from car boot sales and a stall at the Barras Market. "Ten people had to get passports," he says. "A few of them had never been out of Scotland. When we got back and stopped the bus everyone was asking where we would be going next."

The answer is Germany, next year, if Queenan can find the funds. Without the help of the Thenew Housing Association - which provided the boys with strips to play in - and the Calton Area Association, such plans would remain a pipe dream. "There's a brilliant sense of community here," says Queenan. "With a bit more money drafted in, Calton would be an even better place to live."

Queenan's commitment seems exceptional, although he is not necessarily an exception. "Where people can give, they generally do," says Betty Cosgrove. If not with money then with time; if not with time then with short bursts of concentrated, community-minded effort.

When pushed to give an example, she talks about the local Masonic hall, the owners of which stepped into the breach when the church hall at Saint Mary's was closed to the public some years ago. The dilapidated hall had long been the site of dances and christenings, of bingo nights and wedding receptions - celebrations of a community beaten down, overlooked and still somehow finding reasons to be cheerful.

"We've got a great rapport with the Masonic hall now," says Cosgrove. "People help beyond their means, God bless them. It's not one group against another group. We're all just together, we're all Caltonians