Thursday, 6 September 2012

Favourite Places

Greenock 1856 o/s (NLS)

Here's a slightly extended version of a piece I wrote for The Scottish Book Trust blog as part of their My Favourite Place programme. 

My favourite place seems a ridiculously obvious choice and if you know it well, perhaps also an unlikely one; Greenock in Inverclyde, the town where I live. It’s not always an easy town to live in, not always easy to love – but every good relationship requires a bit of work. Here, you sometimes really have to put the work in - especially in the rain.

On those transitory sunny days, the views across the Clyde are unparalleled, whether standing at the top of Lyle Hill, walking along the esplanade towards Gourock or exploring the moorland on the hills behind the town. Strangely, all these places and more will shortly become familiar to fans of BBC’s Waterloo Road, which has relocated to Greenock and been filming everywhere, making our scenery another star of the show.

However, some of my favourite places in Inverclyde aren’t even there any more; the Castle of Easter Greenock, Crow Mount, Cresswell, Lurg Moor Roman Fort - places that sound like they belong in fairytales, not the post-industrial town I grew up in. But I see them still, in old photos and etchings, or hear about them in the reminiscences, songs and stories that remain – the ghosts of places.

For me, it’s really the stories and personal histories that bring any place to life, and I enjoy those stories wherever I go. In my hometown though, those stories do something more, they connect me to people long gone, to demolished factories and castle rubble; they help me understand where I live today, to see an old town in new light

My favourite place in Greenock right now is The Dutch Gable House, one of the oldest buildings in the town, recently purchased by the community development trust that I work for. Tucked behind it, hidden away from the main street is a little cobbled courtyard, and the shell of the oldest house in the town. A tiny stretch of street practically unchanged since the 18th Century, locked in between the Municipal Building and the Planning Department. In it’s time it’s been a family home, a cooperage, and (if rumours are to be believed) a house of ill repute. Those are just the first stories though, we’ll find many more to bring it to life.

The Dutch Gable House stands on William Street, one of the first four streets in the town important enough to actually need a name. William Wordsworth passed through Greenock on a Highland Tour in 1833, and I imagine him, walking down this street, perhaps already composing the short poem he wrote about the town. On the corner, the house where James Watt, father of the industrial revolution was born. One street over, on a lane no longer there, the house where Burns Highland Mary breathed her last. Little reminders of past glories we would do well to celebrate more often.

Over the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with a project which is doing just that. “Identity” is funded by Heritage Lottery to work with the local community to explore the history and traditions of the migrants who have passed through Inverclyde over the last two hundred years. We have produced a graphic novel retelling some of those stories and exploring the heritage of our area – created with the assistance of 13 local schools and employing 4 local young people for 6 months to research, illustrate and design it.

Each school had a few weeks to get their pages together, with our artists coming in to sketch ideas as the class explored their stories; some classes chose to focus on the area surrounding their school, others worked with family members, a few came with us to our local archive at the Watt Library to get some ideas. We all learned things we didn’t know before. We’re really proud of the results.

The graphic novel will be available at The Dutch Gable House in Greenock on Doors Open Day – Saturday 8th/ 9th September. We’ll be making it available online later in the year via graphicly.

The pages below celebrate just one of the many ways the river shaped our town and our people. Everyone likes a good Fish Story...