Problem Families

Ian Jack

  • From Moorepark to Wine Alley: The Rise and Fall of a Glasgow Housing Scheme by Sean Damer
    Edinburgh, 209 pp, £25.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 85224 622 6

Southern Britons may be forgiven for thinking that most people in Scotland grew up in cottages among the purple bens, or in tenements dwarfed by shipyard cranes, or in douce villas where grace was said over every scone. This is the legacy of Scottish literature and Scottish comedy, which in the course of this century has replaced one romantic stereotype with another – J.M. Barrie’s soft mothers with William McIlvanney’s hard men, Harry Lauder’s but-and-bens with Billy Connolly’s tenements – and it is in large measure a lie. In the decades between Attlee and Thatcher, Scotland could fairly be described as a nation of council tenants. During these years the towns and cities of the Lowlands accelerated a process which had begun before the war and decanted their populations into houses built by and rented from the local authority, an internal migration which gave Scotland the highest ratio of public to private housing of any country in Western Europe, and higher even than many countries in the Eastern bloc. Old industrial towns such as Coatbridge still accommodate four-fifths of their population in council houses. England, even its New Towns, has never seen the like; but then England, even in Victorian Salford or Limehouse, never quite attained the degree of squalor which Scotland’s new council houses were supposed to remedy.

They can be wearisome places, these council estates. Long looping crescents of grey pebble-dashed houses, a few shops selling processed food and fags, a bus shelter with the glass removed. Here the most regular visitor from the outside world is a chiming ice-cream van. Abandon wishful thoughts of the ploughman’s fiddle or the riveter’s rattle; since the Fifties most of Scotland has grown up to the first few bars of ‘Greensleeves’ or ‘Under the Bridges of Paris’, calling the faithful to satisfy the Scottish appetite for sugar and animal fats.

Their dreariness was not of course intended. It is easy to forget that Scotland’s council estates have a history – some are now more than sixty years old – and that this history begins with the rustic idealism which imagined that a Briton’s (or at least an Englishman’s) perfect living arrangement was a two-storey cottage with a garden front and back. If the ‘garden cities’ of the Home Counties were the happiest consequences of this idea, then Moorepark, the subject of Sean Damer’s study, must be one of the saddest. Moorepark is not the most infamous of Scotland’s housing estates: Paisley’s Ferguslie Park, Edinburgh’s Craigmillar and Glasgow’s Blackhill occupy in the national demonology the place which was vacated when the old Gorbals came crashing down. But it is still a hell-hole, a hopeless patch of shabby poverty located just outside Govan, which is Glasgow’s old shipbuilding quarter. Govanites used to know it as ‘Wine Alley’, cheap fortified wine being the last refuge of the Glasgow drinker. Now they call it ‘the Acid Scheme’, and talk about drug salesmen with guns.

Yet once it was a place of hope, famed in Govan for its bathrooms. Glasgow Corporation built Moorepark in the Thirties to receive families displaced by slum-clearance projects elsewhere in the city. The scheme comprised about five hundred houses and flats built on 16 acres of land next to a railway line. As homes, they were hardly luxurious. Kitchen equipment was confined to one cold-water tap and a coal bunker. The only electrical outlet, other than the lights, was one five-amp socket in the main bedroom. Nor were the rents cheap. When the first tenants moved to Moorepark in 1935 they paid on average £1 15s 8d a week and earned on average £2 10s. They included shipwrights, caulkers, cabinet-makers and coppersmiths, labourers, locomotive drivers, widows and spinsters. The rent seems to have been paid over happily enough. These people were delighted to be where they were – bathrooms! – and their memories of those early days are vivid and moving enough to survive the author’s decision to transcribe their interviews, relentlessly but not always accurately, in the Glasgow patois of a Kelman novel.

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