Glasgow Subway Poetry

I rarely take the subway in Glasgow because the university is within walking distance, and I go to the city centre usually by bus. Today I took it, and this is what I discovered in Kelvinhall station.


I wonder how many passengers have noticed it. I obviously missed it for a few times, as this definitely wasn’t my first time in this station. A typical goal-oriented Hongkonger doesn’t usually notice anything in a train station except the electronic displays that I always suspect intentionally underestimate the number of minutes before the next train arrives, but maybe Glaswegians are more perceptive? I can’t speak for them.

Why isn’t there a poem in a train station in Hong Kong? Or is there, but I didn’t notice?

This lovely little poem is not by any well-known poet. In fact, the author is unknown and even Google God doesn’t give any relevant search results about this obscure poem in an obscure subway station. (Almost all Glasgow subway stations, perhaps with the exception of the two city centre stations, St. Enoch and Buchanan Street, are somewhat obscure. The subway here isn’t anything elaborate anyway – it’s just a small loop that takes only 24 minutes to travel back to the departure station.)

From the official website of STP


This poem has a challenging title – For Pilgrims and Passengers. Am I an ordinary passenger, or am I a faithful pilgrim? It seems to suggest a new understanding of pilgrimage in late modernity, not only in the sense that we passengers can see ourselves as pilgrims by instilling meanings into our journeys, but also how we can understand pilgrimage not in the conventional sense of a somewhat linear journey, but a circular one. Look at the subway map. Besides being circular, the trains also go in two directions, and most logically, the majority of commuters would travel to and fro along the inner and outer circles in the morning and in the evening respectively (or the other way round), rather than sticking to one same direction every time. It might look more complicated if you travel on Hong Kong MTR or London underground, but it is the same idea of circularity, best graphically exemplified in Glasgow subway.

‘The Flowers of Time / the bags you carry / The Flags of Romance / the everyday signs’ – a juxtaposition of grandeur and the mundane. How do we understand this? Because of its simplicity, the Glasgow subway is able to operate rather accurately in terms of time. We can see the time required to travel to other stations on the signs, but can we see the Flowers during the passage of time? What do people do anyway when they travel on the subway? The poem seems to suggest that we passengers should give a little bit more thought to those 10 to 20 minutes during which we do little other than carrying our bags, and it confronts our numbness to the ordinary by erecting the Flags of Romance. Can a little bit of poetry add scents of romance to the old and uninteresting station?

‘Each other / Each other’ – the repetition sounds to me like the to-and-fro journeys commuters take, but what are they referring to? We passengers? The items in the previous stanza? The phrase evokes a sense of connection, perhaps a sense of reconnection of previously disconnected things that ought to be connected. Although individuals seem to be rather disconnected from each other in city life, all the passengers are actually connected by the fact of being in this city, the sharing of an urban routine. We don’t belong to the ancient age of individual heroic quests. What characterises our age is perhaps this collective circular pilgrimage that doesn’t have an end point. This subway poem seems to suggest that to seek a destination in this circularity is meaningless, and let’s appreciate the journey itself. We need faith, not to believe that we can reach the goal some day, but to believe that the journey is beautiful.

Anyhow, the fact that a poem is inscribed in a subway station means something. It’s not a commercial advertisement disguised as art (e.g. that controversial Hong Kong Palace Museum thingy in Hong Kong MTR Station), which is probably more indigenous to such a locale. This poem is an artistic expression and challenge, and the invisibility of the author inhibits the temptation of venerating any artistic authority. It simply belongs to every passenger, or pilgrim.

We don’t actually need a huge vacant space spared for displaying works of renowned artists. What we really need, and lack, is an atmosphere that encourages the permeation of art in our city – Everyart for Everyone.

Author: Aaron Y.K. Chan

Aaron Chan is a Hongkonger who loves literature and his city. He is going to resume his career as a teacher of English Language and Literature in English in the coming school year. Perhaps teaching is his true calling after all.

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