As I explained in a recent blog, I consider myself what you’d call a Philistine. This despite being brought up by parents that were a published author and an underrated (especially by herself) artist, both of whom played classical music instruments. A sister who worked for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Opera and the National Youth Choir of Scotland; a brother who, like the rest of them, played in an orchestra at school, is also a published author, and has a doctorate on something to do with Walter Scott and some Marxist philosopher dude called Lukacs.
Yeah. Despite all that. So when I say my home town of Glenrothes could be unfavourably compared to a pot of yoghurt in the culture stakes, I don’t do so lightly. And furthermore I don’t do so without recognising and applauding the sterling efforts of the likes of Fife Libraries and Fife Cultural Trust to instill culture amongst the natives whether they like it or not.
I remember, for example, attending an event in the town’s Rothes Halls some years ago – I think said sister had a hand in it – where a pianist performed a piece that seemed to involve him mostly standing up and blowing bubbles through a straw into a goldfish bowl on top of the piano. I think it was by Philip Glass. It’s fair to say that the Shadows tribute act on the next night was a whole lot closer to capacity audience.
Be that as it may, poetry has been quite literally hot property in the New Town recently. According to a somewhat breathless account on the BBC website, Fife Council stands accused of ‘losing’ three paving slabs containing famous works of Scottish poetry. Embedded in the concourse around Glenwood shopping centre, the three slabs have, in fact, been stolen by person or persons unknown.
Why this resonates so much with Glenrothes folk is, as so often, to do with context. The shopping centre, designed as one of the town’s key neighbourhood centres in the Sixties, has fallen on hard times. Commercial pressures have closed most of the retail businesses in the original design, and there’s a new build private development up the slope which has effectively replaced it. The flats, designed into the centre to keep it alive and vibrant, are hard to let, although inevitably some of them have been sold off to sitting tenants who are now caught in a devaluation spiral.
In that context the poetry sits – or sat – in the middle of a slow-moving process of decay and projected demolition. It’s a far cry from the glory days when it was first built, and David Harding, appointed Town Artist by an innovative and confident Development Corporation (Scotland’s New Towns sat slightly apart from the rest of the country, local government-wise, with their own development corporations) created a body of work that to this day is acclaimed as a remarkable example of mid-century public art. You can read about it on David’s own site here.
Back to that poetry though. There’s three paving slab poems – a poem by Sydney Goodsir Smith about Loch Leven, Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘The Little White Rose,’ and Douglas Young’s ‘The Last Lauch.’ The MacDiarmid one is the best known; but I always remembering having a wry smile at the last of these as I went about my business in the centre:
‘The Minister said it wad dee,
the cypress buss I plantit.
But the buss grew til a tree,
Hit’s growan stark and heich,
derk and straucht and sinister,
kirkyairdie-like and dreich.
But whaur’s the Minister?’
David Harding had quite a time of it getting permission to use it: by the time he wrote to Young, he had moved on from his academic post at St Andrews University, as he found the place too conservative (Young, as an early member of the SNP, and a colourful character in the 20th century Scottish Literary Renaissance, was almost definitely right!) His wife forwarded David’s letter on to the University of North Carolina, where Young was teaching.
Unfortunately, the poet died shortly after and Harding thought he had lost his chance to get the consent. It then turned out that, the night before he died, Young had written a letter to him agreeing to the poetry paving slab: ‘they cast Pindar’s Odes in tablets of gold and hung them in the temples so why not let the Fifers walk over mine’!
You can hear David Harding tell the story and read all three poems here.
So what’s to be done? Well, to be honest, it’s not the crime of the century. Nor indeed is the presumed negligence of my former employers, Fife Council, in failing to secure the paving slabs before someone nicked them, the worst thing they’ve done. The Development Corporation was wound up in 1995/6, and the Council acquired much of its assets – although not all – via the then District and Regional Councils shortly after.
The Tory Government sold off the industrial estates in the town to the highest bidder (many of them are now twisting in the wind, or de facto retail parks) and tried to do the same with the housing: one of my most satisfying career moments was doing the legal work for the District Council’s successful bid for the housing stock, keeping it in the public sector.
Even the Council’s neglect of the rest of David Harding’s artwork in the town – or, on occasion, unwelcome interventions, such as deciding to paint them in bright colours, or moving the concrete hippos and Rexie the dinosaur from their original locations – isn’t the worst of it.
To my mind the worst of it is the lack of care of the entire area that the Glenwood shopping centre serves, particularly the estates of Tanshall and Macedonia. The Council’s response to budget cuts has been to close the public offices in the area; first the Local Office where people paid their rent and generally accessed Council services; and then the Glenwood Library, which had always been the main library in the town. The Rothes Halls, with all due respect to the hard-working librarians in it, is a sub-optimal replacement given its limited space (I know: I did the lease for it back in the day).
Although some progress has been made in recent years in replacing the problematic maisonette flats in Tanshall with more modern social housing (the maisonettes were, according to my Dad, only built because the Scottish Office insisted that year that GDC build them to secure the inward investment of a concrete panel manufacturer somewhere else in Scotland) there is still the strong impression that too little is being done for that western side of the town’s original core, too late.
Anyway. This isn’t meant to be a rant against my erstwhile paymasters. There are a lot of complicating factors, including many years of Conservative Government, globalism, recessions, etc. etc. Councils have to balance their budgets somehow. So here’s what I’m going to do in a more positive way.
I’m hoping that whoever has, er, liberated the poetry paving slabs, is keeping them for the good of the town, and not just fancying doing up their back garden. I’m prepared to offer £100 to the person or persons unknown if they get in touch with me with a view to securing their safe return: as a former Cooncil lawyer, I’m reasonably well placed to negotiate, on a confidential basis if necessary, with my former employers to try to secure some guarantee that the slabs when returned will be used with due deference, possibly in consultation with David Harding himself.
Incidentally, rumours that a certain well-known local politician has had Cooncil workies install them in their patio are almost definitely unfounded…
It’s really something that once-stable, once-thriving areas can go south over time. Or maybe it’s all very normal, actually — major empires have dissolved over the millennia.
That’s true, Neil. My experience at the Council suggests all areas require an effort from time to time to regenerate them – it can’t just be left to the market.
Glenrothes went downhill when I left – that’s correlation not causation. I believe Glenrothes went downhill when the GDC folded. I can think of two more politcal parties on top of the Tories to share the blame for its demise. On a recent visit I detected a hint of recovery, the new shops outside the Kingdom Centre and the frenzied building on the TR site should inject some life into the place. Surely. Glenrothes is, like me, now middle aged.
I grew up in Glenrothes during the 70’s and started drifting away in the mid 80’s leaving fully in the mid 90’s – employment taking me back and forth for a decade or so. I’d like to come back for some reason, perhaps it’s friends and family, perhaps it’s the memories of a great childhood in what was at the time, a great place to grow up. The poems? I remember the one about the ‘Meenister’ in Glenwood shops, it was on my walk from the bookies to the Rothes Arms. I don’t get it, get someone to chisel the words into another slab, job done.
Thanks for your comment. Fair point – the Tories have never had control of Fife Council. I also take your point that we could just chisel another paving slab. However, it’s kind of the principle of the thing – the seeming lack of care from the local authority.
You’re also right, it was a great place to grow up.
Yep, tune in soon for the inside story (sort of)