A secret history of Cumbernauld Town Centre

A secret history of Cumbernauld Town Centre

Cumbernauld Town Centre eats pigeons alive. They find their way into the guts of the building, flying into windows and walls, slamming so hard they drop to the floor. Residents of Cumbernauld sympathise, because we often feel like we’re hitting walls too. It wasn’t always this way. Town planners trying to find space for the Glasgow overspill must have believed the sun would shine on Cumbernauld forever, because they gave the houses flat roofs. In hindsight, a silly decision, but perfectly in keeping with Cumbernauld’s brand of weirdness. Cumbernauld strange corners and sharp angles have always loomed large in my dreams (and nightmares), because it’s where I lived some of my best and worst times. It’s a place I understand a little too much. Then again, I wrote the book on this town. Alongside thousands of other residents, I grew up in the shadow of a superstructure that won’t be around for much longer. Last week, it was announced that North Lanarkshire Council had agreed in principle to buy the Town Centre (or The Toony as we call it) so they could redevelop it. Once gone, something sleek and shiny will arise. It took me a few days to process the news. Somehow, I expected to feel downcast at hearing the news.

Instead, I breathed a sigh of relief. God, I thought, at last.

No-one outside of Cumbernauld should underestimate how significant that building was to us. We see it when we open our windows. We go there to pay our bills. Our books come from the library on the third floor. Nowhere was like Cumbernauld Town Centre. A multi-levelled shopping mall, the first in Europe, it looked unlike anything anyone had ever seen in Scotland. Cumbernauld was the town of the future, so it made sense it should have the shopping facilities of a new unseen era. Sometimes it felt like The Toony existed before the town itself, that our streets and homes were built around it. In many ways, Cumbernauld is Cumbernauld Town Centre. Their identities have merged to become synonymic. Sometimes I confuse them too. Cumbernauld is many things, but it isn’t boring. It always provokes discussion. It is either loved or hated – sometimes at the same time. But I was always grateful to be from this town. I don’t think I could have been me anywhere else. Even in the ’90s, Cumbernauld Town Centre (and by proxy the town itself) had a reputation for drabness. When it first arrived, it was something. I’ve spoken to people who still remember and smile about leaving Glesga for a new life in a council hoose here in Cumbernauld. One woman couldn’t believe she had a garden.

Cumbernauld was built with art in mind. Brian Miller, forever our artist in residence, got his hands on The Toony, bringing colour and psychedelic weirdness to it. By the time I came around, an ’80s baby and a ’90s teen, the colour had faded but echoes of it remained. My mum sent me up to the Post Office every Monday to collect our benefits, then to City Bakeries for crusty rolls and chopped pork. A treat for everyone but me. But this building, huge and ugly, full of wrong turns in the right direction, really changed my life. I found Cumbernauld Library and free books. I’ve often said I love libraries because they make us all equal. Rich or poor, all have the same access to books and information. We were poor but that library up on the third level made me forget, if only for a wee while. It’s still there, trapped in a binding lease that refuses to give it up. Back when The Toony was built, each of the four levels were busy. Everything had a place and position. In order to understand the genesis of Cumbernauld as a New Town, you need to understand how Cumbernauld Town Centre was designed. Everything was deliberate, each floor part of a delicate ecosystem feeding the other.

Level Four was the Penthouse Apartments, full of professionals. My mother’s boyfriend once helped a pensioner into his flat and he still recalls the sight of the iconic porthole windows. Their ghost appears on the cover art of Happiness Is Wasted On Me. The artist, Andrew Forteath, didn’t know what they were and couldn’t understand my insistence that they be represented somehow on the artwork. I don’t think anyone else noticed, to be fair. These flats were surprisingly spacious. However, they stopped being used as residential area and became offices. Before news of this redevelopment, there were plans for these offices to become social housing. On this level, there was also the CDC Club (Cumbernauld Development Corporation Club?), an exclusive bar that became less exclusive as the years progressed. This upper floor was full of people, who would travel downwards towards Level Three. My favourite level. The library and old Town Hall exist on this floor. There used to be shops here too as well as the old Cumbernauld News headquarters. Fenella Fielding had a field day in Cumbernauld Hit, the promo film made to promote the town. Lots of Level Three can be seen in it. I say that because Level Three is very different now. Doors remain locked, lifts stay broken down, and buckets are scattered across the floor to catch leaking water. No-one seems to care about the library. Why should they? In a building full of leaks, the only thing that doesn’t leak is the watertight contract that forces the library to stay where it is. And why not? Easy rent and reliable money. Putting it in a better location just isn’t going to happen – until now. Without passing trade, the library is cut off from the town. It is somewhere you need to find, and not everyone knows it exists. Even now, I hear people gasp when they discover they have a library in that building. Knowing it’s there one thing, reaching it something else.

The town hall (now the old town hall) was up on Level Three until it closed. A few years ago, a new business opened. A soft play area for families. The woman in charge of the business tried to advertise it with posters, only to be told (so she told me) that she couldn’t put posters up anywhere. They were a safety risk! Only designated billboards could hold posters. The week of her business opening, the old town hall was closed for Asbestos removal – directly across from the new soft play business that was trying to get people to visit! Imagine having a safety tent and boilersuit clad Asbestos removers outside the premises of your brand new business. I’m not sure it lasted too long afterwards.

Level Two is where the shops are located. There was a strong selection too and the entire place felt easy to navigate. Initially, a lot of the building was open, each area a street in the sky. But the cold turned The Toony into a series of diabolic wind tunnels, each one freezing the pensioners in their scarves. Areas were improved by walls and doors, if only to keep the cold away. As a child I remember shops like Scotch Corner, Price Invaders, What Everyone Wants, MacKays, Woolco, Gateway, Our Price, the Kopper Kettle, William Low, 1st Choice, Jeanster, The Vineyard, State of Independence, Capital, Mothercare, Clarks, and John Menzies. Some people have told me about the other shops, the ones I’ll never see. Remocker Shapiro, Radio Rentals, Just Wot U Needed, Baxters, and a lot of other businesses that were set up in hope, all gone into memories and the odd JPEG uploaded onto Facebook groups. My favourite shop, of course, was The Scan. The Scan wasn’t just another bookshop, it was Cumbernauld’s only book shop and a rite of passage for anyone wanting to buy their first book. You saw it from the other side of the centre, because the shopfront was covered in pine, which stood clearly against all that concrete. When it first opened, there was a cafe upstairs where Kunzle Cake was sold. This I say because everyone I’ve talked to mention how good it tasted. Literally, the cake is mentioned before any books they might have bought and read. The Scan, like many other shops in that building, couldn’t justify paying the rent, which they apparently felt was too high.

Level One is the bus station, which is still there today. Two sides, none easily accessible because the bridge linking them is blocked off. Pigeons have died there too.

Level Zero, or The Ground Floor, is the parking area of The Toony. There used to be weird sculptures on the walls, more evidence of Brian Miller’s creativity. There was also an Unemployed Workers Centre which became more popular in the ’80s as Thatcher’s grip in government and the economy became suffocating. I would pass there on my way to the lifts that took me up to Level Three, back when the lifts were reliable. As a child, I got lost inside Cumbernauld Town Centre, a Lego play set no-one else wanted to play with. Growing up in the town, I was immune to the weirdness that outsiders saw in the building. Everything made sense to me, including the bubble floor lino that split to reveal cracks on the floor underneath.

The first mistake was made when part of the original building was knocked away to make room for the new Antonine Shopping Centre, opened in 2007 by Princess Anne who quickly fled the scene. The absence of the huge ramps and roof section left the remaining part of the building looking incongruous. As I wrote, everything in Cumbernauld and the Town Centre was perfectly placed, each piece complimenting the other. If anything, this town was over designed, but at least it made sense. The Antonine Centre looks like it doesn’t belong as part of The Toony. With Asda and Tesco by each side, sucking life from the original building, it becomes less sensible to keep it. Worse, from the library, you can feel the building shake when weightlifters in the gym underneath drop their dumbbells. Drop them? It feels like they throw them down. If concrete cracks, then I’m waiting for a chasm to open and pull everyone down to hell. Then again, opening a gym in The Toony, completely closing off a huge amount of space formerly used by different shops, seemed like a bad idea from the start. Especially considering the gym just a few metres outside The Toony. Yes, The Tryst has been there for as long as I can remember. For me and others, it really does feel like anything goes if you pay rent. This has led to years of jokes in the local community about the amount of pound stores in Cumbernauld Town Centre. It really does feel like a lot just appeared. Also, card shops. Lots of them for every birthday, Christmas, graduation, and funeral. RIP Cumbernauld Town Centre, anyone? Taking parts away from an old building and grafting new bits on is like having a nose job and getting the wrong shaped nose on your face.

The news of a potential redevelopment feels like something of a mercy killing to Cumbernauld Town Centre. Finally, a chance to have something that works for the people of Cumbernauld rather than the fans of brutalist architecture who want the building to be listed, safely staring at it from a distance, never having to live with the sight of it outside their windows. It is easy to want a building listed if you’ve never had to suffer in a lift that sticks between floors, the parts required to fix it no longer in existence. Sometimes, you’ve got to let something you love go. For me, and a place that’s inextricably linked to my soul, it’s time to say goodbye to Cumbernauld Town Centre. But who will we be without it? For a town linked to a building so indelibly, what will it become afterwards?

I can’t wait to find out.

2 responses to “A secret history of Cumbernauld Town Centre”

  1. Only you, dear Kirkland, can do justice to Cumbernauld. As Johnny Rotten once sang,”The Future Dream is a shopping state”. I can’t imagine it gentrified, but we’ll see. I’m sure it will be as homogenised as everywhere else.

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