Always Different, Always the Same

If we think of our towns differently, writes James Barrowman, we can think of our world differently too.

At the start of this year, I returned home to Cumbernauld after a decade of life in Dundee. Family circumstances encouraged the relocation, but it turns out I was needing the change. Any disorienting feelings were quietened not only by the intimacy of the town I grew up in but also by the familiarity of a new job in a certain high street retail coffee outlet that previously employed me for five years, in a new post-industrial east coast town known for its funny accents: Falkirk. 

On one of my first shifts, a particularly charming and sharply-dressed regular was quick to notice the fact ‘that isnae a Falkirk accent.’ When I told him I originated a few towns over, in Cumbernauld, he answered ‘you’ve done well for yourself, son.’ It reminded me of a workshop I attended at the Women’s Library a few years back, when I introduced my joint Cumbernauld-Dundee heritage and the organiser replied that I was ‘really moving up in the world’. I joked back that one day I hoped to graduate to the dizzying heights of Paisley or Kilmarnock. 

Slagging off rival touns, even and especially the ones strikingly similar to our own, remains a national pastime. It is often diagnosed as a symptom of a particularly Scottish sickness: parochialism. That being said, the parish has been of interest not only to Scottish writers. John Berger wrote that for the peasant who ‘considers his village the centre of the world, it is not so much a question of parochialism as a phenomenological truth.’ For Italo Calvino, in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Cyrano de Bergerac’s visions of the moon are illustrative of how ‘the sluggishness of the human consciousness in emerging from its anthropocentric parochialism can be abolished in an instant by poetic invention.’ 

It is remarkable then, that for a country so rich in poetic invention we are still beset by this peculiar malady. Pillorying it was certainly a driver for Hugh MacDiarmid’s polemical efforts to prove our infinite, multiform Scotland anything but small. Even Shug’s less caustic contemporaries viewed the parochial mindset as an immense hurdle for us to overcome. William Soutar thought it ‘inevitable’ that parochialism ‘should spread like a national blight’, naming specific political conditions we still find ourselves in a century on: ‘severed from our continental ties’, our national traits ‘withered into idiosyncrasies’, and our types ‘degenerated into characters’. He concluded that a tracing-back to the roots of our ‘assumed meanness’ could be one of Scotland’s ‘most sanifying exposures’. 

Today, even the more sharp-tongued rebukes of our regional origins rarely cross the line into downright meanness. They are often delivered in good humour. This also is a Scottish speciality; our most cutting remarks are met with mutual laughter and a pat on the back. Perhaps when we still had industry the enmity between our locales had higher stakes, when competition had tangible effects that went beyond a knowing nudge and wink. It is hard to take them so seriously now, especially when they are delivered in retail spaces that bear such close resemblance to their equivalents in thousands of towns and cities across these islands, with near identical decors and atmospheres. In the wake of the well-documented decline, or death, of the high street as we know it, we can only speculate as to whether our reconstituted town centres will make our communities feel smaller once again, or more expansive. 

One quirk of Scotland’s specific form of parochialism is that the largest urban centres are where it is most keenly felt. There is none more inward-looking than the long-term inhabitants of our major cities. A citizen of a town like Falkirk may spend a great deal of time there, but they will also travel around the loose conurbation of adjacent but distinct towns that surround it: to Camelon, to Grangemouth, even as far afield as Cumbernauld or Linlithgow. Glasgow and Edinburgh are much greedier polities. If you are within their reach, you risk being subsumed. Even when you lie too far from them to be entrapped within their borders, you may well be called up as an ally in a proxy war. Cities are assumed to be worldly places where the people have greater concerns than the petty grievances of villagers. There’s something about ours that overrides this. It’s telling that Mark E. Smith, who wrote countless songs about restless leg syndrome, about those who ‘talk of Chile while driving through Haslingden’, finds true settledness through the eyes of his ‘Edinburgh Man’. He who don’t want to be anywhere else, he who proudly proclaims you can leave me on the shelf.

While thinking about Falkirk during my short-lived tenure there, I reached to my shelf for the work of James D. Young: the town’s most eminent radical historian. In his Women and Popular Struggles, he elaborates on Christopher Harvey and Tom Nairn’s distinction between two types of Scot, ‘the red outward-bound’ and ‘the black stay-at-home’. In women like Sophia Jex Blake, Helen Crawfurd, and Mary Brooksbank, Young finds examples that shatter this binary. The history he wrote of his beloved hometown is entitled The Two Falkirks. It wasn’t intended to establish another binary but rather to encourage a pluralistic and dialectical approach to place, one not typically found in works of local history. There aren’t just two Falkirks then, but Falkirks up and down the country: multiform, infinite Falkirks. 

Perhaps figures like Blake, Crawfurd, and Brooksbank, or even Young himself, can aid us in developing a new way of being, some combination of outward-bound and stay-at-home. In her Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘The embrace of local power doesn’t have to mean parochialism, withdrawal, or intolerance, only a coherent foundation from which to navigate the larger world.’ Solnit arrives at something akin to the old ‘think global, act local’ maxim of Patrick Geddes, both ‘an identity embedded in local circumstance’ and ‘a role in global dialogue’ that she believes can be the ‘antithesis’ of the homogenisation ushered in by retail chains and corporations. By thinking of our village differently, we can think of the world differently. Doing so, we all end up like Marco Polo in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, who describes 55 fantastical cities to the Khan, but every time is fundamentally ‘saying something about Venice’. By these means, whether you are a bairn of Falkirk, or Cumbernauld, or Dundee, or Venice, your surroundings can become your very own Neighbourhood of Infinity.

James Barrowman is a poet, a barista, and is working towards a PhD on Dundonian literary history.