Thin Ayrshire

Andrew O’Hagan goes back for the missing

David Gibson was a man stiff and parsonical; by all accounts the sort of man who got things done. You could say he was obsessed with ridding Glasgow of its slums, with turning them into something bright and high and unquestionably modern. That’s what he wanted, and he’d already made vast advances towards getting it when he became convener of Glasgow Corporation’s housing committee in 1964. We’re fond of hating his ideas nowadays, of seeing the horror of those damp flats and pointing up the stupidity of the planning. But Gibson and his allies were visionaries of a sort. They thought they could obliterate the past with new production, and they had reason to think a project like that might turn out to be for the good of everybody. It may be obvious now how wrong they were, but Gibson’s urge to remake, to deliver his own people out of the slums and into a pure, new, shock world, has plenty of wrong-headed nobility in it, and no shortage of high-mindedness.

Gibson was a workaholic. He was the most frighteningly determined house-builder of his age, and he made time for little else. When not forging political alliances, steam-rollering committees with his rhetoric – with his guile – and not out searching the city for gap-sites where he might build more blocks, Gibson would put in some hours at his wife’s sub post office in Springfield Road. He smoked furiously, and drank sugary tea like there was no tomorrow. He’d search the city in his car late at night, after office-hours, looking for possible construction sites. He hardly ever ate. He was agitated, burning on all cylinders, and he died in 1964. A colleague in Motherwell later described him as the man who killed himself trying to solve Glasgow’s housing problem.

He solved it well enough, but only for the shortest time. Those blocks couldn’t handle the Glasgow weather, and people couldn’t live on top of one another and still feel they were in a community. Dampness spread, violence brewed, lifts broke down, vandals got to work. I was hardly into my twenties, when many of Gibson’s blocks were being evacuated or blown down.

The elect of Edinburgh and London had been thinking about new towns, and they were of a mind to decant as many of Glasgow’s young families as would happily go. East Kilbride, Cumbernauld, Livingston, Glenrothes and Irvine. These were the Scottish New Towns, all designated by 1968. For many, they seem to have represented the New World.

The housing developments of Irvine New Town seemed, to our first eyes, like places with nothing missing, places with no past, with no secrets or dark configurations under their sunny tops. It was 1970, and we felt like the first men to walk on the moon. There was a children’s play-area in the middle of each square; little clusters of rock and bench and swing, surrounded by triangular patches of bush and mucky flowerbed. Man-made grass-slopes rose to the side of them, bordered by the kerb and a car-park marked out with paint. Those rocks and slopes, for many of us, were our first domain, and they’d prove themselves equal to representing the entire universe. The way to the other squares in the scheme was through what we called tunnels, but were actually spaces between houses which worked like underpasses, because in each case a bedroom of one house would run over the top of the gap. You could also move along a number of narrow paths made from gaps behind the gardens, and as a child, you always had the feeling you were in some sort of clever maze, some complicated underworld designed as much for amusement as for function. The prefabricated world of that housing scheme, Pennyburn, still sits in my head like something invented only this morning. You could blindfold me, and take me back, and I’d find my way from one end to the other without too much trouble. Except that I wouldn’t, of course, seeing as much of it has changed by now, just as you’d expect.

In what the scheme’s builders liked to call Phase One, there were 30 families in each square, four squares in each block, and four blocks in the whole grid. There were two roads into it – Cranberry Road and Muirside Road – and these came off a main artery that circled the scheme and ran down towards the old town of Kilwinning, and the rest of the world. My childhood was about seeing things emerge out of nowhere: seeing buildings go up every day, as we played among the cement-mixers, and seeing history come out of the blue, as we adventured, with increasing awareness, among the historical ruins in the towns and parks beyond our estate.

As time went on, we wandered, too, into ruins of another sort: the empty factories and halted industries which surrounded us suddenly became central to our sense of where we lived, and how we lived. And of how they’d lived before we were thought of. We started to read books, some of us, and got to know properly the ancient ground under our stomping feet. Just as my sense of the family’s history had been a wee bit dark and tied to thoughts of my missing relatives, so, too, was my sense of things emerging in our new town tied to the fact that people could disappear around us. As everything was coming, on all sides coming, so were things going, vanishing. The news of that, the feel of it, surrounded me then, or at least surrounded me in my own head. Sometimes it surrounds me still.

One day, my mum took me into Irvine town centre in the afternoon, Kilwinning is a satellite of Irvine, the main town, as Pennyburn is a satellite of Kilwinning. We came from the station, and she brought me up to some high flats. My eyes were everywhere; the present wasn’t just opening up in the usual way, it was opening up against the past. There were things around us that were old. All of a sudden, not everything was new. We went up in the elevator, and went into the flat of a woman who I’m sure was doing hair. My mum sat on a stool, I seem to remember, and she had a purple cap on her head with holes in it. Bits of hair were coming through the holes. Yes, I’m sure it was a hairdressing day. I sat eating biscuits by the window. As you looked down at the river, you could see that they were demolishing an old bridge. There were diggers pulling and hauling, men in white helmets climbing over steel girders, right in the shadow of a great steeple. The church was fancy, the steeple very high. I thought only television masts went as high as that.

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