They say a new year is a new beginning and this one has me thinking of my first beginning. On New Years Eve I met a woman from the Scottish town where I was born, who happened to be standing next to another woman from the Canadian city I grew up in.
I was in the Cascade, a fairly new pub-eatery with a friendly enough vibe on Main Street here in Vancouver, where I exist. She was asking about Absinthe. Do they have it? Is it the real stuff, like she’d had in Budapest, or the imitation? I pointed out the two bottles behind the bar and that one looked like the stuff I’d had in Prague, which was unavailable in the west at the time. I asked her what part of Scotland she was from, cleverly deducing that she was by her accent, and she said “Cumbernauld”. Well, what a coincidence - that’s where I was born. Apparently, Craig Kilborn, of Late Late Show fame, was too. Or his mother was – I can’t remember, there was alcohol involved.
We talked some more and, as it turned out, she’d not only lived not far from the house I was born in, she had also lived in the Maryhill district of Glasgow, where relatives of mine lived. Pleasantries aside, she then told me how lucky I was not to have grown up in Scotland in general, and Cumbernauld in particular. If I’d grown up in Scotland, I would probably be an alcoholic, drinking whiskey for lunch, she said. I recalled stories of visiting relatives for her, in which I was hospitably fed whiskey like it was beer.
She would later say something that reminded me of another unpleasant aspect of life in Scotland. She asked about my religious origins, making an assumption on my name. Apparently, in Scotland, people can, and do, guess your religion based on your given name and treat you accordingly. This is just one aspect of the religious divide there, particularly in Glasgow, where soccer violence has been fuelled by religious affiliation. The two rival teams – Celtic and Rangers – deliberately encouraged this to build fan support, thus profiting from religious hatred and violence. I let her know that I rejected all religion as nonsense.
But Cumbernauld, she said, was a bad place within a bad environment. In fact, it was a bad idea. A great place to get raped, I think is how she put it. With pedestrian underpasses replacing crosswalks, it seemed designed for crime. All part of the ‘new concept’ design of the time. The lack of foresight is astounding. Even a child would instinctively know they were a bad idea. My sister may be the proof. I’m told her claim to fame is that she was the first person to be hit by a car in Cumbernauld, a town designed to prevent people getting hit by cars. Probably thinking, “That tunnel looks scary”, the little girl crossed the road instead. The driver of the car, probably not expecting a child to be crossing the road because he would have been led to believe there wouldn’t be any, hit her. So, this ‘people friendly’ design actually seems to have been more car friendly, as it kept traffic moving, and put people at greater risk by creating a criminal friendly environment. Maybe the drugs really were stronger in the old days.
Curiosity led me to visit Cumbernauld, once. During a visit to Glasgow, where I drank much whiskey, I decided to go see the place of my birth. For anyone who has never heard of it, Cumbernauld is one of five new towns built in Britain after the second world war. Others include Eastkilbride, also in Scotland and home of postpunk pop band The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Milton Keynes, in England, which has a reputation for being rather dull. Anyway, after waiting at least an hour for my connecting bus, I finally got there. The driver, who had clearly been in no mood to explain the delay earlier, dropped me off at what I initially assumed must have been the wrong place.
Most cities and towns are established and grow in a location for a reason - there’s a good harbour, a river, or a useful resource or good farm land nearby. Cumbernauld doesn’t appear to have any of these. It sits in the middle of central Scotland, roughly at the centre of the triangle created by Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Stirling, but not close enough to any of them to be considered a suburb. I could be wrong, but there doesn’t appear to be any water nearby. If the land surrounding it is arable, it seemed it wasn’t being farmed. I know this because the place I was dropped off by the side of the road was also beside open land, empty except for a power pylon near a hill. On the other side of the road were buildings. So there it was, in the middle of nowhere with no apparent purpose.
I looked at a map and found I was not only not in the wrong place, I was actually near the street I was born on. It was just on the other side of the road which, as it turned out, was the main road. To create the people friendly town that wasn’t actually very people friendly, it seems to have been designed with the main road going around the town rather than through it. Now there’s a way to create a vibrant, people friendly atmosphere. I left the emptiness of the main artery and walked into town. One street in I turned into Lennox Road, walked a short distance and found it. The house I was born in was a little pebble covered townhouse, identical to all the others around it. A bit dreary, really, and hardly worth the pilgrimage. Be careful what you look for, you might find it. I came, I saw, I left.
This trip planted an idea in my mind that was confirmed on New Years Eve by the woman I met. I am the product of a failed, terribly misguided social experiment. This explains a lot. But, on the bright side, look what it did for Craig Kilborn. Alchemy?
As for the other woman, we agreed that Windsor is a place people come from. More about that fabulous metropolis will no doubt come. In case you’re really wondering, one is married and the other has a boyfriend so, no, I didn’t get my tongue down either throat. However, it may come as no surprise that the Scottish woman is the one who stood on the bench against the wall and counted down the new year for everyone.