John Mullin: Salute to bella Cumbernauld

Kenny Dalglish, then just 16, scores for Cumbernauld United at Guys Meadow in 1967. Picture: Johnston Press
Kenny Dalglish, then just 16, scores for Cumbernauld United at Guys Meadow in 1967. Picture: Johnston Press
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The oft-maligned new town of ‘what’s it called?’ fame was a great place to grow up and was ahead of its time in many ways – one more surprising than others, writes John Mullin

Daphne Kirkpatrick got there more than 40 years before Guy Claxton. In case you missed it, he was the visiting professor at King’s College London who this week lambasted the eraser – the rubber, to you and me – as an instrument of the devil. Daphne? She was my teacher at Seafar Primary in Cumbernauld, and she shared his view.

Bulldozers last year knock down Abronhill High School, which featured in Gregory's Girl. Picture: Michael Gillen

Bulldozers last year knock down Abronhill High School, which featured in Gregory's Girl. Picture: Michael Gillen

The prof believes using the rubber perpetuates a culture of shame about error. It is, he says, a way of lying to the world, of saying: “I didn’t make a mistake. I got it right first time.”

Your mistakes, he goes on, are your friends. You learn from them. They are your teachers.

Daphne – as we never called her – was way ahead of her time. I have never heard of a teacher banning the rubber, before or since.

She figured that if we couldn’t rub out, we’d learn to take more care about what we write and how we spell. It was to prove perfect training for reporting, in the days you had to type news stories in triplicate, and think ahead to avoid a god-awful mess.

With clever games and classroom races, Daphne drilled our times tables into us. My own kids, in contrast, were still struggling with them at their primary schools when two years older.

And she made projects magical: Australia, Romans and, in the summer term, all roads lead to home, a surefire lesson in life. No-one knew that then, of course.

That year, my mother had just qualified as a teacher, and her first class was also primary three, thankfully at another school. Every evening, I would be rigorously debriefed, copious notes would be made, and, the following day, my mum would parrot Daphne’s lessons to her pupils.

This was a time when everything seemed possible, and Cumbernauld was very much part of that. Hope and optimism were the order of the day, and I don’t think that’s just a rose-tinted view.

Young families were moving into good, new housing, often for the first time. It was the time of Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology; the new town was just that – modern, but also ambitious.

Everyone had work, and decent jobs they were too. There was dynamism, pride and a sense of community. And, more or less, it was a sectarian-free zone.

For those who scoff, Google Magnus Magnusson’s documentary Cumbernauld, Town for Tomorrow. True, there’s an element of advertorial about it, but the belief that a town – homes, shops, schools, a trailblazing traffic system – could be created from scratch and so transform lives is inspiring. You can taste the excitement.

Even football seemed on the up then. I saw Kenny Dalglish play for Cumbernauld United.

Four decades later, on my first day at work at the BBC two years ago, I was smugly relating this boast, when the bloke next to me said: “Saw him? I played with him!”

In a previous life, award-winning documentary-maker Murdoch Rodgers had – rather exotically for the time – worn the Number 10 claret-and -light-blue jersey while playing centre-half.

He looked worried when I recalled him being knocked out scoring an own goal at Ballieston on 8 May, 1971, the same day, incidentally, as a drawn Old Firm cup final.

Thinking about rubbers and Daphne led me to some laptop research about my old home new town. Up popped the story, with photograph, of the three 11-storey tower blocks in Seafar being knocked down this week.

To a child, these had been the very acme of modernity, stretching into the sky as far as the eye could see. Well, 34 metres of the way, anyway.

Three of us – Brian Wilson and Jackie Crompton were the others – would play in the lifts, especially when we found out our teacher the next year, Mrs Campbell, lived in one of the blocks. She went spare.

No doubt the flats had to come down, and the homes which will go in their place will be better. After all, they were Cumbernauld’s first high-rises, and had been there more than 50 years.

But the demise of Bruce, Buchan and Douglas Houses seems to say something about all of that sixties’ hope. Where is it now?

Scotland’s schools were once worldbeaters, and there was then nothing the son or daughter of, say, Cumbernauld could not achieve. Social mobility, though, feels like it is becoming another casualty of the passing years. Every few years, I drive back to Cumbernauld to look at the old house in MacTaggart Road and the park where I played football for every possible second. Where is that air of optimism now?

The Scottish Government has done away with the right to buy, but it’s too late now for where I used to live. Where the houses were once, yes, uniform but carefully tended by the council, along with the surrounding gardens and fencing, now they have clashing doors and windows, and snaking, ugly gas pipes. And the surrounds? In some disrepair.

No criticism of folk buying their own house. Most people who could afford to did, and then set about making their improvements.

But perhaps where once we looked out, we have since been encouraged to look in on ourselves.

Cumbernauld has twice won the Plook on the Plinth award as the country’s most dismal town. The Kabul of the North, they called it. Win it again, and Cumbernauld probably gets to keep the trophy.

Not so fast, old man! For Cumbernauld is fighting back, winning Best Town at the Scottish Design Awards in 2012 and the Best Small City category at the Beautiful Scotland awards two years ago.

And it still has its fans. Gregg McClymont, former MP and Cumbernauld native, says: “This stuff about it being a concrete jungle? Rubbish. There’s loads of beautiful green spaces.

“And the place keeps growing – unsuccessful towns just don’t do that. It’s a young, energetic town, and it’s outward looking. It is – to use that word of the moment – still very much aspirational.”

He remembered Daphne too. She had by then moved on to be head teacher at Kildrum Primary. His recollection was she was viewed as a little too unorthodox. A bit too theatrical.

No piece about Cumbernauld would be complete without mentioning the magnificent Gregory’s Girl, filmed there 35 years ago. I named my youngest after the dressing room scene.

Why? Calling my daughter Bella was to hope she had as happy a childhood as mine, and of saying: “Thank you, Cumbernauld.”