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This article is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.

The Upas Tree Iain Bamforth
The civic tree that would not grow

When I was studying medicine at the University of Glasgow, I came across an arresting title in the university bookshop which made me pick up the book for a second look. The Upas Tree: Glasgow, 1875–1975 was a short history of the city written by the university’s former professor of economic history and published by its press: indeed Sidney Checkland had probably taught my mother when she studied economics there in the 1950s. In the spectacular nineteenth-century growth of the hundreds of malodorous, blackened and often squalid tenements (‘closes’) that would house the workers who put their labour and lives into the industrial achievements of heavy engineering and shipbuilding, with Glasgow serving as ‘a Liverpool and a Manchester together’ long before the Clyde became a by-word for British engine power, and the ensuing slow painful twentieth-century contraction of the ‘second city of the empire’ due to its over-reliance on a very specific set of skills, capital and goods, Checkland saw a paradigm for the decline of the United Kingdom as a whole, a process that had become seemingly unstoppable by 1981, the year of the book’s second edition.

For all that his was a book centred on economic history, Checkland had chosen a symbol of natural growth to represent the city itself. The tree as a metaphor for human well-being – indeed as the fund of life itself – is a reassuringly solid one. Though humans are ambiguous creatures suspended between nature and culture, trees and their root systems are entrenched in our metaphors ...

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