The diabolic horrors of brutalism gone bad

Strangers in a library.

It is rare to meet a stranger when you work in a library. Most users are regulars and even when you don’t know their name, you know who them at first sight. This man, however, was a stranger. Also, a tourist and a fan of brutalist architecture. We get them every now and then dressed in long coats, cameras dangling like thuribles at mass, rather than a crucifix to ward off evil. They pay tribute, I read last rites. That’s my relationship with the building. Many of these visitors are from another country, having made the long journey to Cumbernauld Town Centre, a place they’ve only seen in photographs or read about in architecture textbooks. But that can’t prepare them once they arrive. I’ve seen them walk around in a kind of daze, not quite believing they’ve finally made it. My everyday normal is their once in a lifetime dream. A few months ago, news came through that North Lanarkshire Council wanted to buy Cumbernauld’s infamous Town Centre, a brutalist superstructure that looks like the legacy of a prolonged holocaustal bombing. Of course, there are upsides to this town. You can’t walk too far without passing a field or a nice thatch of nice green grass, which is a lovely respite in a town that has a reputation for greyness. The transit system is brilliant, meaning you’re never too far away from a bus into Glasgow, Stirling, Falkirk, or Edinburgh. But the town’s reputation is poor because the Town Centre is poorly kept. The shopping experience isn’t a winning one, for sure. Last year, there was talk of a new shop opening. Oh, we were all excited until the moment the sign went up announcing the new shop was actually a funeral parlour.

The fan.

A few weeks ago in the library, I was speaking to someone who seemed like they belonged in another place. The Hawaiian shirt, French beret, and camera hanging around his neck gave it away. He’d traveled far to see the building he’d loved for so long. Was he disappointed? No, he was shaking with the sort of barely contained glee of a true fan finally meeting their hero. I was the same way back in ’96 when I met Tom Baker at John Smith & Sons. “This wonderful building,” he cried out. “I’ve been around all the corridors!” Oh, there are lots of corridors. They turn and twist and lead to dead ends, signs with TURN BACK on them, barricaded exits, and toilets that no longer work. Sometimes, if you’re lucky enough, the corridor leads to the library, which is where he found himself. And, if you’re even luckier, that same corridor might lead you to me.

“Do you think the corridors would be nice for someone on a wheelchair?” I asked, hoping he’d see reason.

Actually, I think that was a ‘light-bulb being switched on’ moment. He seemed to understand, thankfully. We got talking and at some point, he asked to see the ‘Gregory’s Girl’ files.

“The what?” I asked, completely bamboozled.

“The files. You know…for the film.”

He was greatly expressive with his fingers. Everything was punctuated by waggles and wiggles. Honestly, I felt terrible having to disappoint someone so excitable, but he was searching for something that didn’t exist. Aren’t we all?

“There are no files for Gregory’s Girl,” I explained.

“No files. You don’t have production information? Photographs? Nothing?”

“No!”

He told me he wanted to go and visit the school Gregory’s Girl was filmed at.

“That’ll be hard,” I said. “They knocked it down years ago.”

He was aghast. So were the parents in the local area when they heard the news.

“Okay, the clock…what about the clock?”

Ah, the clock. It was in Gregory’s Girl when Gregory went to The Plaza. No-one here called it that, but the area was a large meeting point between McKay’s and the entrance to Woolco, which later became Gateway, then Asda. That entire area was demolished, a huge chunk of the Town Centre knocked away into rubble, turning the surviving structure into a sore thumb without a hand.

“It’s downstairs in the Antonine Centre,” I explained, “but I don’t think it’s open to the public right now.”

The clock is famous. A gift from Glesga, it belongs to them. They’d treat it better, display it with pride. We don’t deserve it. Of course, I don’t say any of that, because it would feel mean spirited and this man, whoever he is, clearly loves this place. Maybe he loves the idea of it more than the drab reality?

Finally, before he left, he enthused about the pigeons outside The Library doors, all of them flapping around the inside of the building. Though I might have had it wrong, I thought he assumed they were meant to be there.

“They’re going to die,” I said.

Every day in this building, you can hear them in the vents, trapped, suffocating, banging their heads and flapping their wings. They’ve found their way in but can’t escape. The maintenance men have tried their hardest, blocking off vents, sealing holes and cracks, but it never works. There are too many pigeons and not enough caretakers.

The fan eventually headed off to the bus station. His parting comment was a prayer that the gang hanging about the corridor wouldn’t beat him up. He didn’t laugh or smile, so I knew it wasn’t a joke.

Closed doors on the third floor.

The doors on the third level are no longer unlocked in the morning on certain days. The weekend, mostly. On a weeknight, they get bolted before seven o’clock, even though The Library closes at at time. The corridor that leads to the carpark is immediately made inaccessible. What a bother, I think. Then again, there was that short-lived period of time when someone from the Centre security team tied fire exits with plastic tags to stop kids using them, which of course was completely illegal because it made the exits completely inaccessible. But when you enter Cumbernauld Town Centre, you give yourself permission to experience the absurd, events so stupid you can’t believe they’re happening – and they probably wouldn’t in any other building.

But wait. I have lived this. I am still living it.

In addition.

The new Lanternhouse at Cumbernauld Theatre is a brilliant venue. There’s air conditioning, which came in useful for when I popped in to see Dr. Who and the Daleks. It was a lovely, quiet, happy experience. I’m not sure about actual theatre going on as the schedule seems packed with Scottish folk music, comedy, and film. I’d like to see some really good plays, something thoughtful or funny and topical. The bill can change, of course, and hopefully there’ll be good proper event theatre alongside the many comedy shows and musicals.


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