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September 20, 2009
Image via Wikimedia
in the public

2009 sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Rabbie Burns, the national bard of Scotland. In celebration of this, the Scottish Government declared 2009 to be the year of homecoming, an opportunity for expat Scots (like me) or those with Scottish ancestry to return to the homeland. In other words, a tourism campaign.

I have been home twice this year so far, to visit my family, not as a tourist. But I did get the opportunity to view my hometown of Paisley through the eyes of a visitor, not as someone who lived there.

Wow. It has changed, and for the worst. If my family didn’t live there, I would never have any reason to go back. The town is dying on its feet, and given what it used to be in terms of architecture, industry and culture, that is incredibly sad. The fabric of the town is decaying, commerce has fled, leaving behind an impoverished façade, a familiar shell which has lost its vitality and soul.

Paisley was an industrial town, and like many industrial towns in the West of Scotland viewed the arts with suspicion – they were only for “poofs and wimmin”. Despite an at times hostile attitude, it has nonetheless produced its fair share of artists. Currently, one of the biggest names in British music is Paolo Nutini, who attended the same high school I did. David Tennant (Doctor Who) attended our rival school, Paisley Grammar. Actor Gerard Butler (300, The Phantom of the Opera) calls Paisley his hometown too.

Perhaps Paisley does, against expectation, in some way nourish and encourage the arts. Singers, actors, writers have all called it home. In addition to those mentioned above, John Byrne, the artist and playwright, Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan (of Stealers Wheel fame), actor Tom Conti (Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence), writer Stephen Moffat (Doctor Who, Jekyll) and even hairdresser Trevor Sorbie (!) are all from Paisley. We even produced a poet who, if not internationally recognised, has at least national prominence – Robert Tannahill, a contemporary of Robert Burns. Speaking of poets, near to my parent’s home is a memorial to Paisley-born poet Alexander Wilson who, though not best remembered for his poetry, is certainly celebrated in the United States for his ornithological illustration which inspired John James Audubon.

Paisley seems proud of these people once they become famous, but the town still holds a certain hostility towards those attempting to become an artist. I remember how difficult my older brother found it trying to become a professional cartoonist, and it was really only leaving for Glasgow that allowed him success. For me, had I stayed in Paisley, I would have become another one of the high street solicitors, heading down to the Sheriff Court every other day to defend someone accused of breach of the peace and the like, and becoming increasingly frustrated with Land Registry transactions. All these successful artists had to leave the town before they could achieve their ambitions. I would never have believed I could become a writer had I stayed. Maybe you have to leave home in order to find out what you want in life.

Paul doesn’t want to everyone to think he hates his hometown, although there’s no love lost between them. It is however the setting for the story idea that got him really excited this week, but that’s a tale for another day…
  1. September 20, 2009 8:46 am

    I still find it a little amazing and lots spooky my maternal line springs from Paisley Scotland and how I’ve always dreamed of going back there. It was a bit of a slap in the face when you mentioned it was an industrial town with nothing too romantic about it.

    I’m back “home” at the moment and have been so for a week, brought back here (less kicking and screaming this time) by the birth of a baby and a wedding. This is where I sat on the beach with my A4 loose leaf and a clip board scribbling pages of a novel aged 14 with the dog frollicking at my feet. This is where I struggled to try and find purchase after high school and my failed attempt at uni, to write pages and pages of narrative that went no where. This is where I wrote my first short story since high school. This is where I seem to be drawn back to for NaNo to explore a narrative based on my teenage years.

    While I’m not certain what my future as a writer would have been had we never moved away – I am glad to have been here once upon a time – both as a teenager and as a twenty-something. It is not until I come back that I realise how much of my history is bound up here, how much of this place is “me” – whether I like it or not.

    Funny too – I was just reading my QWC magazine which has focused on the theme of “place” for the September issue. I should have given more thought to my column for tomorrow because location was one of the ideas I had been tossing around but went the path of least resistance instead.

  2. September 20, 2009 9:23 am

    Maybe post-industrial would better describe it. It was a center of weaving and threadmaking – Clarks and Coats (which became Coats-Vayella then just Vayella) started there, and the mills were open until the mid-20th Century I believe (some pulled down, some now converted.

    Robertsons jams and marmalades started there, as did a spice factory who’s name escapes me now, plus there was the Ciba-Geigy chemical works (still going) and a few others, but as manufacturing shuts down and leaves the area, there’s nothing to replace that.

    My mum tells me stories that you used to be able to walk down Paisley High Street and get a tailored suit, fountain pens, electrical goods, bread, meat, fish and confectionary, then go to the cinema. Now you can buy cheap sports shoes and birthday cards, the main shopping centre is near deserted, and some of the best architectural features were pulled down in the name of “progress”.

    I suppose though in a sense I do care about it though – it wouldn’t sadden me to see what it has become if I didn’t care.

  3. September 20, 2009 9:47 am

    My Great-Grandparents emigrated in the 20’s – I’m not sure if it was from Paisley (will need to ask Mum) but my Great Grandma was definitely born in Paisley (I remember some of the very old photos were taken in Paisley)

    I wonder if the local council considers the arts as a replacement industry? I’m thinking mainly of the cultural revolution Sheffield had when it lost most of it’s industry – and instead poured money into creating it as a cultural centre, utilising old factories and industrial space.

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