Monday, February 01, 2016

Of urban open spaces and a post-war childhood

I was reading the other day about a dispute over an area of land in the West of Glasgow which is currently used as a (relatively) wild place for children to play, for people to grow things, to be free, and which is threatened by proposed housing development. The writer went on to enlarge on the features that make it so important to retain its use for recreation, particularly the benefits to children's health and wellbeing of such unstructured play in a traffic-free area in a city.

It had me thinking of my own childhood freedoms, also in the West End of Glasgow - freedoms positively enhanced by the relatively recent World War 2. I'm sure I've mentioned much of this before - the place where the land-mine demolished a bit of Polwarth Gardens' tenements, and the huge blocks of red sandstone that still littered the site sticks in my mind, although as a Novar Drive kid I didn't stray there often; we were very territorial in these days. My usual companions lived in the next close and we barely tolerated strangers ...

My usual playground was an open space in Novar Drive where the end of Lauderdale Gardens didn't reach as far as the Novar and was linked to it by a muddy track over empty, hilly ground. On the lower side, which has now been built on, there was a rubbish dump, an infill site, I suppose, where building debris (a result of bombing?) shared the space with more mundane litter like soot left by chimney sweeps (great face-paint) and at the top of which was the underground air-raid shelter in which we sometimes lit illicit fires. To the far side of the dump were two brick-built shelters with thick concrete roofs; we rarely went inside (too smelly) but played Kingball, precariously, on the roof of one.

When it snowed, I borrowed a sledge from a neighbour whose daughter was a good 6 years older than me - she would be at school and I'd be hurtling down the sloping field, often alone, for hours. I have a feeling that the winter I'm recalling was my first at school, when Hillhead Primary had an intake in January; some primary teacher must have doubled up and taken my class in the afternoon after her morning class had gone home. My mother, already having to attend to my 2 year old sister, would despair at converting my wet, grubby morning self into a schoolgirl in time for the 1pm start. (Crazy idea, now I think of it again.)

When the days grew longer,  we spent hours climbing the stunted hawthorn trees on the hillier side of this area; swinging from branches and making dens under - or on top - of them. And then there were the marathons, when we ran round and round a small path that cut through the long grass until we were gasping and scarlet in the face ... and the hiding places in the grass where we used sticks for rifles ... to say nothing of playing chase the arrows all over Hyndland, all the way to Clarence Drive ...

I was always grubby, always scratched, always exhausted by the time our parents summoned us all from the windows of our flats. When we left Hyndland for a "low door" in Broomhill I was devastated. At the age of 10, my life outwith school had been changed for ever. Shades of the prison house ...

I looked up my old haunts on Google Earth. They're barely recognisable, though "my" tenements haven't changed. This first picture is of the play area I've described in such tedious detail. The whole tenement block on the right is new - that's where the rubbish and the overground air raid shelters were. The trees are new - though clearly they've been growing for a while. The play-park just visible on the left is new, and I would have scorned it as tame and at the same time treacherous (I always got sick on swings).

 The second picture looks from the same place as the first, down Novar Drive. New tenements on the left - but you can make out where the old ones begin, with a lane in between which was always there. The top flat we lived in has the bay window just before that tall chimney head on the right of the road. It all looks very crowded, with the cars on either side. We played in the street and in our wilderness, and no-one worried. (Actually, children don't know the secret worries of the mother marooned with a baby in a top flat who suddenly can't see her firstborn and wonders where it might be ...).

What I'd actually like to know is how my own offspring would have fared in this environment, instead of the seaside town we brought them up in - and even how their children would cope with a top flat. What I do know for myself is that I couldn't return.

It was good, though, back then ...


  1. Nothing tedious about this, Christine. I thoroughly enjoyed it and despite our very different childhood settings (I grew up in the Lancashire countryside) it resonated strongly with my own memories of running wild outside. A former colleague, who was a child in the East End of London during and after WW2, told vivid stories of playing in the rubble from the Blitz and of the many uses they found for the air-raid shelters after the war. Children will play wherever they find themselves.

    1. Thanks for the reassurance! I tend to fear I'm turning into my grandmother, who in her 90s could still recall her childhood even though she couldn't remember if she'd had any lunch ...