Mum announcing a move to Dundee, to live with her sister, came as a hammer blow. We’d only moved to London from Yorkshire four years previously, and the “Swinging Sixties” was about to kick off – why would anyone want to move to Dundee? I begged to stay in London with my big sister, who was almost eighteen, but she didn’t want me queering her pitch. She tried to pacify me with the idea of “new city, new start”. I was twelve – why would I need a new start?
But Mum couldn’t afford for us to live in London after Dad walked out and, since I was too young to be left behind, she duly hauled me off on a one-way-ticket to Dundee. The train chugged north with me silently praying for it to crash, leaving no survivors. Better that, I thought, than reaching my unwanted destination. Through the blur of my tears London’s concrete and steel and glass rushed by, giving way to hills and vast skies, fields and tractors, sheep and cows, bridges and houses, trees and hedges, brakes screeching and hissing when the train stopped at Sunday-quiet stations. No matter how hard I prayed, it rumbled on, relentless in its goal to get me to Dundee – a dull town full of dull tenement buildings, as if Dracula himself had sucked away the city’s lifeblood.
One of those tenements was to be our new home. Three-storeys of grey with sash windows, a cold, stone close and stairwell. The view from the front, net-curtained sashes looked out onto the tenements across the road, and to the rear to something called a “green”. I dreamed of our light-filled flat in London, with panoramic views over the rooftops of Brixton and Tulse Hill. Not exactly exotic, I know, but a sweeping cityscape I couldn’t forget. I swore to myself then that I would find a way to get back home.
My new school, built before the Second World War, seemed as ancient as the Colosseum compared to the modern, comprehensive I’d left. Worse still, because of the difference in the education systems, I found myself two years behind the rest of the class. A mixed class, no less. Boys and girls – together – not at all what I was used to.
Both my parents, Scots by birth, had never lost their accents. My three sisters, two brothers and I, all spoke like them, but only at home. Outside we adopted the accent of where we lived – to fit in, I suppose. It became easy to switch between the two, but it confused visitors to our house no end. Moving to Dundee I didn’t quite know which way to jump but, for some unfathomable reason, I kept my English accent outside the home. No wonder my classmates kept trying to make me say words like Loch and Lochee, laughing their heads off when I pronounced them “lock” and “lockee”.
I met aunts and uncles, who regaled me with their stories of tenement life: outside toilets, coal bunkers, and hanging washing out of a window on something called a “pulley”. They laughed about marks left on the back of their legs from wearing wellies all day, and coats over the bed in winter. I would roll my eyes at the old folks and get on with the extra work I needed to do to catch up with the rest of my class.
The kindness and generosity of Dundonians has never been surpassed in my experience. It wasn’t long before I tuned into their droll sense of humour and made some excellent friends. Along the way my English accent slipped, but my London home stayed in my thoughts for a long time. I would be sixteen before I saw it again.
It was only for a week, but I was going home. Butterflies rioted in my belly as me and my friends boarded the London train. Everyday I took my friends on the bus and tube into the city, thrilled to show them the sights: Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London (one of my favourite places), the West End theatres and the Carnaby Street hippies, mods, and new romantics in their colourful clobber. Even returning to Brixton market was a huge treat for me. Wherever we went we were jostled by the mingling multitude of tourists and we eavesdropped on European and American accents, while keeping a look-out for famous faces. We revelled in that youthful sense of one-upmanship when we queued to see Easy Rider, a film that wouldn’t reach Dundee for years.
Still, I didn’t remember the stale air and exhaust fumes, or the crowds, or the noise, or the traffic. Everywhere so much busier and dirtier than I remembered, leaving a coating of grime stuck to our clothing and hair. I didn’t like that so much and, as the week wore on, found myself looking forward to clean air, wide open skies and Dundee’s long hours of sunshine even in the dead of winter.
My Mum used to say, “What’s afore ye, will no go passed ye”. The world grew smaller and everything I thought I’d lost when we left London came to me in the end, through Ready Steady Go! and later, Top of the Pops. Changing fashion trends came with the opening of new shops and shopping centres like the Wellgate, and the remodelling of the Overgate as the city rebranded itself.
I could’ve gone back to London as an adult, I suppose, but to quote Bob Dylan – everything passes, everything changes. Mum did what she had to do under difficult circumstances and as I grew up thoughts of a London life faded away. I’ve developed and changed along with this city, through work, marriage, children and the death of my mother. I’ve seen most of Scotland from this place I love, where I’ve lived longer than anywhere else.
All in all, not such a bad one-way ticket.