Sunday, 22nd January, 2017
In the morning, a pristine white feather drifted down from an empty sky in the supermarket car park. Later, as my sister and I left the crematorium, a robin hopped onto a branch and watched us intently. Then, as we were pulling out of the car park, a tiny stag of the species of roe deer we have in our mainly suburban corner of the Lowlands crossed the road in broad daylight, pausing only to gaze at us before disappearing in a patch of scrubby woodland between the Crem and the housing estate that seemed to offer no camouflage whatsoever.
On another day, only the third of these might have seemed at all out of the ordinary. But this was the third anniversary of Dad’s passing.
Memories. Two things have been stirring themselves together in my subconscious recently: Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, which I’ve just finished; and memories of my own childhood, prompted by my (so far) unsuccessful attempt to have an old cottage across the road from my childhood home saved from demolition.
Now, I can’t attempt to match the Boss’s evocative description of his early days – for me the best part of the book, as his early to mid career description lacks the same emotional punch and descriptive flair, confining itself to less interesting – for me at least – recall of bands, band members, recording sessions and contractual niggles. Besides, I came from a very different place.
For starters, my own childhood was pretty much as idyllic as a Sixties/Seventies upbringing in provincial Scotland could get: I had parents who loved and looked after me; kind and loving older siblings who spoil me with their affection to this day; and a schooling which, whilst not perhaps equipping me for Harvard, was probably above the average Scottish comprehensive product on offer at that time.
Anyway, this piece isn’t all about me: it’s also about the – in retrospect – unique place I grew up in.
When we moved to Alburne Park, Glenrothes was only fourteen years old, a product of the post-war drive to build new towns to alleviate the bomb-damaged urban sprawl: planned communities where places to work, rest, play and, most importantly, live, were designed in a holistic way. Light industry (especially after the Rothes Pit flooded, the way the old miners had said it would) provided the backbone of the jobs. There would be town and neighbourhood shopping centres, parks, landscaped areas, precincts of houses designed around primary schools in such a way that parents could walk kids to school without crossing a major road.
A lot – a whole lot – of imagination, creativity and sheer hard work went into all of that. If the end result that we live in today isn’t Utopia, then where is? The town’s problems are shared with most of the Western developed world: poverty that never gets solved, increasing social and economic inequality, a lack of attention to detail by governments of all stripes; conflicting priorities. And the residents themselves being, well, human and therefore less than perfect.
The land the town was built on existed before it, of course. It was mainly farmland, with the river that runs through it being used for papermaking. A blank canvas, but not entirely. In Alburne Park, there was a small ‘big house’ credited to Thomas Alburne, a plasterer for the local laird, the Earl of Rothes, dating from 1677, called Alburne Knowe. Nearby was a farm, Woolmill, and the previous main road ran crookedly through the middle, down across the bridge over the Leven, and on up towards Balbirnie Estate, where the neighbouring big cheeses had lived. There was an orchard in front of Alburne Knowe; fields for pasture and fields for crops.
By the time my family got there, in late 1962, when I was nine weeks old, the Corporation had built two lines of houses on either side of the road. Next came private house plots in what became Alburne Crescent and Orchard Drive, the latter being where my family moved when I was about five.
It was a special place to grow up in as a kid. There were still apple trees in the old orchard, little stunted things long past their useful life; some of them ended up enclosed in our garden as a temptation for local youths to come over the fence and raise my Dad’s blood pressure. Down the brae towards the river, there were rope swings, sticklebacks, and frogspawn to be collected in jars; a field with horses in it. From there westwards, a shelter belt of trees ran along the back of the housing, with a path up the middle. Lots of hiding places, places to ride bikes, and – it was rumoured, though I never found any – scud mags the older boys had discarded amongst the undergrowth.
Back along the top of the road, fields of cereal crops led to others used for a herd of cows; and, originally, a huge playing field with a massive old tree that caught all manner of kites and formed the venue for Guy Fawkes night bonfires – organised by the neighbourhood’s parents, toppling milk bottles of rockets and all. Leftover fireworks could be later inserted in the neighbouring field’s cowpats for experimental purposes.
That side of our territory also held a useful slope of tussocky grass that, covered in snow, provided mild peril on the old iron-bound sledges that came out of the neighbourhood’s garages as soon as it snowed. As we grew older and less heedful of our parent’s boundaries, a crumbling viaduct led up a railway branch line where a diesel shunter of an obscure class prowled with wagons from the paper mills, all the way up to the nearby village, where, for a brief summer or so, I became interested enough in railways to sneak into the old goods shed and see the A4 class Union of South Africa steam locomotive that, in those years, was housed there.
In short, it was a fantastic place to grow up. We played and played, or that’s how I remember it: football, cricket, tennis when Wimbledon was on – there was even a tennis court left behind by the last owners of the old house – or just explored, talked, wrestled and sat chewing grass stalks in one or other corner of our little empire. There were just enough neighbourhood kids to make up a single gang.
If this all sounds too good to be true, in a sense it was: what was really remarkable about where I grew up was the pace of change all around it. The football field where, according to some, I kicked the future Hollywood film actor Dougray Scott so hard he ran home crying (unlikely, since, apart from not being a violent kid, I’m three years older than him, a vast age difference in childhood games) was presently built over for a new road. Orchard Drive was soon built out, and then the horse’s field disappeared beneath Alburne Court; Alburne Crescent was developed out on both sides, taking down the kite-catching tree and the bonfire site.
Alburne Knowe, flattened to its foundations, was encircled by new housing, including ours: as I began to take an interest in plants, I realised that the rhododendrons clinging to existence in the all-pervading long grass were the last survivors of a garden some unknown owner had once taken pains to cultivate. When my Dad chopped down the apple trees to save his blood pressure, the last of the old orchard was gone.
Year on year, the remaining vestiges of what had been there before Glenrothes disappeared under the new town’s footprint. Not such an unusual story, I suppose: what was different, I think, was the steady, planned march of progress. The Territory, as I called it in a (as yet unpublished) novella years later, shrank and warped under concrete and blockwork. When writing this, it occurred to me just why I’ve been so bent out of shape by the proposal to demolish the old cottage the Art Club occupies, across the road from my childhood home: it’s because what was left behind of the old buildings was meant to be left behind: a reminder of times past. In fact, I remember now that in that novella, I had the central character protecting the wooded strip from development by the local Council – years after I lived there, but years and years ago.
It was, as I’ve said, a special place to grow up. It was then on the edge of town, so as kids we had all the benefits of suburban living coupled with an understanding of the countryside, because the countryside was a step away even childish legs could manage. At night, I used to lie awake on those mythically long summer nights, listening to the pop of tennis balls in the court nearby; listening, too, for the trains crossing the viaduct on the main line, a couple of miles away: the sleeper to London from Aberdeen, rollicking through, pulled by a Class 55 Deltic, maybe, its distinctive engine note rippling out like a beetle’s droning flight over the fields.
London. As I grew, I knew it only as the place where the films came from; the BBC people with their RP vowels. When I visited it, it seemed like a film set, all the street name plates familiar from a dozen tv dramas. Later, I came to know it was where our laws came from, too. As I drifted off to sleep, a provincial kid identifying himself as Scottish, it seemed a long way away.
The time came soon enough to put away those childish things. I would go to university, not in far-off London, but in the nearest city to my province, Edinburgh. News of the outside world came from the Scotsman (then very much an Edinburgh paper) and the wise and witty ramblings of Clive James in the Observer on a Sunday. My charismatic English teacher had told me I could write: I read books and book reviews, like a trainee chef studying menus.
Now, the territory seemed less like a self-contained world and more like a series of unwanted boundaries. In a household dominated by classical music, I started listening to the grown-up albums of that mid-to-late Seventies golden era of the long player: Rumours, Dark Side of the Moon, and, of course, Born to Run.
At some point when I was 16 or so a school pal gave me my first Dylan album, which he’d been bored by. It was the live album at Budokan, and Dylan had me at the first guitar intro to ‘Mr Tambourine Man.’ Here was this kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, who’d lain awake listening to trains, who’d escaped the suffocating small-town confines of his upbringing, and found his way to fortune, fame and (perhaps most importantly) girls, with little to his name except an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and a preposterous talent.
Well, I quickly acquired the first two and learned how to play them, and reasonably quickly accepted I wasn’t going to get the third one any time soon. No matter. I was busting out of this place, and if my mode of transport wasn’t a Harley Davidson with a girl called Wendy strapping her hands across my engines, I got the message that Springsteen was sending me loud and clear. I wasn’t ever coming back.
It was only decades later, at my Mum’s funeral, that I heard how hard it had been for her when I, as the last of her brood, flew the nest. She was from the generation of parents that weren’t expected to emote all over the place, of course, so that just wouldn’t have been discussed. By then, a parent myself, I understood.
All things must change; all things must pass. Back when I was a kid, my Dad told me he’d seen deer once, in the harshest of winters, venturing close to the house on Alburne Park in search of food. I’d never seen one in all my childhood there: and yet, here, now, outside the crematorium in the middle of the day, in the middle of the next door town with scarcely any cover to be had, was this little stag, coolly holding us in his gaze, before trotting across the road and disappearing into thin air.
Not all things change for the better, but all things do change.