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.