Cumbernauld: Meet Daniel Gray

Ahead of a series of special workshops with the young and old of Cumbernauld, we asked our three resident artists to introduce themselves and share their thoughts on how they’d approach the questions they’ll bring to local people. Writer and historian Daniel Gray is working with service users at Cumbernauld Action Care for the Elderly to gather stories of the town’s past and thoughts on its present and future.

‘Scotland, I’ve found, oozes stories…’

When I think back, I have long been mildly obsessed with the idea of places, the people in them, and how one influences the other. There I am, eight and staring at my Weetabix World Atlas, baffled and intrigued by the scale of the world, by the mesmerising shapes of islands and singsong names of faraway cities. Then, in my teens, I am travelling to watch my football team, Middlesbrough, in Derby, Coventry, Bolton and other towns Lonely Planet forgot. The best thing is, in each location I find things to be fond of.

People and place. That is at the core of what I write and why I write. People and place now, people and place then; fables in pubs that make me chuckle, and social history that makes me gasp in awe. The very greatest thing about living in Scotland (apologies, obscenely beautiful landscape and tattie scones), is that here, all of that thrives.

I had good geographical pedigree for these themes, for knowing a place rich in history, humanity, humour and heartbreak when I saw one. Born on and definitely of Teesside, with its industrial might and working-class soul, I was moved to York and grew up in that den of history (“if you want the past, here it is, weighing tons”, said my favourite writer JB Priestley of the city). Since moving to Edinburgh – Leith, to be precise, and that matters in Leith – 12 years ago, I’ve had six books published on subjects from the Spanish Civil War to lower division football, written a BBC series about whisky, and talked with an awful lot of people about those aforementioned themes, sometimes on TV and radio. Scotland, I’ve found, oozes stories.

Cumbernauld will be no different. In fact, having visited a good few times in the past, I sense a particularly rich seam of tales, opinions and hopes. I will have the privilege – and writers always use words like that in things like this, but believe me, I mean it, I’ve been – of working with people at Cumbernauld Action Care for the Elderly (CACE). My main task will be to gather their yarns and thoughts and give them a platform to express them. Most of all, I’ll be listening. I can’t wait to get started.

‘My Life in Cumbernauld: The Movie’…

Some years ago, I was advised to distil any new idea (in my case for books I thought I wanted to write), into a 500-word proposal. It works for an awful lot of projects too, not least when faced with questions or topics that might seem intimidatingly wide in scale. It works even better if you simply write the name of the project or issue at hand, then add a colon and the words ‘The Movie’. As such, here, I’d go for the working title ‘My Life in Cumbernauld: The Movie’.

The 500-word proposal would need headings, building blocks, themes, tenets, paragraphs, fillers…whatever you want to call them. Were this question asked of me, I’d decide what these comprised, list ideas they aroused and questions they provoked, and go from there. A bit like this, in fact…

Time and Place
Choose a year, or an era. Perhaps a time when living here was the very sweetest. It was almost golden, and when you think of it, your memories are coloured like a movie. What were the surroundings, the buildings, shops, parks, paths, trees, traffic, air like? Close your eyes, take yourself there again, describe them. How did being here, in Cumbernauld, make it so good? Did the way people lived here help, or could it have happened anywhere? Perhaps these halcyon days were early on, filled with the excitement of leaving choked city life for Cumbernauld.

Place is, of course, vital. But was that golden time possible without those around you? Talk about them, the names, the nicknames, the sweethearts and the mishaps. And, where there’s people, there’s laughter. This film needs those one-liners and those stories. What about the visitors to your life in Cumbernauld – what did your family and friends still living in Glasgow and elsewhere make of it all? Did they say you ‘talked different’ now?!

We probably need a plot. It could focus on those people and places above, and they should certainly feature. But what is this overall story? From the outside, it seems like one of hope and optimism, in the early days, anyhow; people moving to a new life, people moving to the future, or even utopia. That’s a story in itself, but what happened when they, you, got there? What about working, and laughing and falling in love? What part did Cumbernauld play in that? And then what? Happily ever after for person and place? And what of the future, in this place that was once just that? Find your inner sci-fi and imagine what you’d change. Let us dream again…

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