It’s easy to spot a tourist in Cumbernauld. They’re the people with cameras looking around in awe at the places that make the rest of us shake our heids in disgust. They’ll ask for directions to ‘The Plaza’ or try their luck at finding the bus that’ll take them to the school where Gregory’s Girl was filmed. Mostly, they arrive off the bus full of excitement and leave on the same bus slightly stooped, humbled by a reality that people living in the town have accepted, even embraced, a long time ago. When they realise The Plaza was knocked down and the school was completely flattened, they can’t comprehend the very thought of such a thing happening. Everything stays the same in a film. A recording can be rewound, and we can relive the past repeatedly, enjoying that moment, getting the cosy welcoming feeling back. Real life, however, can’t be rewound. The past can’t be replayed or replaced. In my capacity as someone who works for the town’s library services, I’ve been asked by visitors where ‘the Gregory’s Girl files’ can be located. They think such a thing exists in a filing cabinet in the back room. I think they have an image of Cumbernauld that doesn’t hold up to reality. They either see Gregory’s Girl and keep the image of that charming wee town frozen in their thoughts, or they lived in Cumbernauld decades earlier, their childhood memories mixing with thoughts and feelings, clashing against anything that might interfere with those memories. Progress and change are minor inconveniences for people who want to live in the past – and if the decision to list Cumbernauld Town Centre had gone ahead, we would have been trapped in the past alongside these people. Locked in here against our will.
Why is this building so important? It was vital a long time ago. What it represented, we would have been told, is too significant to let go. The phrase ‘carbon footprint’ might also be uttered as a way of shaming residents into accepting that keeping the building would be better and cleaner than obliterating it. However, I disagree that this is a necessary reason to keep the Town Centre intact. A building that lives and breathes is a building that is used and cared for, which isn’t something anyone could possibly say about the Town Centre. The Library, which would have been doomed had this listing gone ahead, would have been forever trapped on the third floor that no one can reach. Historic Environment Scotland might be struggling for money like everyone else in the world if we consider the spending cuts, which are reported to be on the horizon of thirteen million at least. At the same time, North Lanarkshire Council won’t spend cash on something they do not own. Why should they invest millions in a gigantic concrete Lego playset no one wants to play with? It’s a ludicrous expectation for anyone to believe this is a viable possibility or a feasible project.
When I first heard whispers that someone had reached out to block the council’s bid to buy the building, I wasn’t surprised. As a feature of the town, The Toony has as many fans as it does opponents. Most of its fans tend to live outside the town. They appreciate brutalism and will explain in unbearable detail why brutalism was such a wonderful concept back in the ‘60s even though we’re living in 2022. Rumours quickly zipped around Cumbernauld, as they do in any town, many of them being relayed to me via email and in person. It’s a guy in Belgium who wants The Toony listed, someone told me. He can’t believe we want to knock this wonderful building down. Another bit of tittle-tattle blamed a local Councillor who later had to deny he was behind the listing attempt. My favourite piece of gossip was that a fan of Gregory’s Girl was responsible for lodging the listing application. Years after it vanished, someone still wants to meet Gregory, Dorothy, and Susan at The Plaza.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to someone walking around the building, taking photographs with his camera. Only this time it wasn’t a tourist. In fact, he was a qualified town planner who’d been sent by Historic Scotland to check out the viability of restoring the building to how it looked back in the ‘60s. This, I told him, felt very unlikely. Patiently, he explained it was his job to be dispassionate and rate every location on merit. The problem he had was in matching the current incarnation of the building with the photos he’d been given. They were nothing alike. I recognised certain places which used to be open plan. Years later, they’d had roofs grafted onto them, huge glass partitions erected overhead, all massive changes made for reasons lost to a shredder somewhere in an office that no longer exists. If you play Eye Spy on the Third Floor, all you can see is something beginning with the letter ‘b’ – buckets, basins, and bins. Another ‘b’ you might see if you’re fortunate is a ‘borrower’ for the library. The lease that ties the library into that level of Cumbernauld Town Centre is unbreakable. If the council couldn’t buy the building, the lease would stay binding, and we’d be stuck in perpetuity on a floor with barely any access, with broken lifts and dangerous ramps that have caused too many accidents to count. Meanwhile, on Level Two, the benches outside the barber shop have vanished. A place for pensioners to rest their feet and a gathering point for teens, they must now meet somewhere else in the building. It can be a terrifying experience walking through The Toony after five o’clock, which is something most sensible shoppers refuse to do in Cumbernauld. Last Monday I walked through the bus station into the loudest group of teenagers ever, about thirty of them at least, on my way upstairs to the library to get ready for Book Week Scotland (while dressed as a beatnik in leopard print shoes), it suddenly occurred to me that there was no security at all. You used to see them on occasion. Not anymore. A disembodied voice pleading over a tannoy for teens to behave isn’t exactly reassuring and I could see from the corner of my eye that the pensioners waiting for a bus looked slightly unsettled. When you have to pretend the screaming, yelling, and hollering aren’t happening around you, anxiety is a probable side effect. These kids were probably just having a great night, but when you’re alone, walking through a silent echo chamber with closed shops by yourself…it feels daunting. The Thistle Centre in Stirling, meanwhile, continues to feel safe and welcoming. We deserve to have a better experience locally – and a safe one.
As a result of today’s decision, Cumbernauld will no longer be stuck in the past and the people living around The Toony won’t be trapped in an uneasy coexistence with something they hate, an eyesore they’re constantly being told is too significant to destroy. The level of gaslighting the people of Cumbernauld have suffered is remorseless. So what happens now? Presumably, North Lanarkshire Council buys the site, knocks it down, and replaces it with something people here can use and – more importantly – enjoy. It might be an expensive undertaking, but keeping the building and restoring it would be just as pricey, if not more. Restoring the building back to its ‘60s heyday is fruitless because no one can restore the optimism it once inspired. In another world, one running parallel to this one, the wrong decision was made and someone managed to get The Toony listed. In that world, Fenella Fielding is waiting with her henchmen, preparing herself for a second hit on the town. This time she will not fail because she has all of us willing her on to victory and success! Or not. At least the tourists who look at The Toony from afar, studying photographs on websites about design and architecture, will enjoy themselves for a while, all of them proud to know that someone got the damn building listed once and for all. They might even visit on a pilgrimage with their cameras, possibly stay for a few days in the newly restored Golden Eagle Hotel (because nostalgia won’t rest until the past is present) before going back home again. But what if you’re already home and The Toony is what you see from your bedroom window? It felt deeply unfair that this could have been our fate, a decision made above us all, a choice arbitrarily decided on by a committee of experts who chose the past over our future. Thankfully, the right decision was made this week. Cumbernauld Town Centre will not be listed. Instead of being excited about the past, let’s try and find the same enthusiasm for the future.