It’s not every day you wake to the sound of unfamiliar voices in your house. This morning I discovered two police officers in mine, come to investigate – well, nothing as it turned out because as the officers later conceded, no crime had been committed. This episode serves to show how we citizens going about our lawful business are under constant surveillance, our identities, movements and whereabouts held on myriad files and databases increasingly managed by private – i.e. unelected and unaccountable – outfits. It’s one thing to be accused of criminality, but in a corner of Glasgow where several murders and countless sexual assaults on women have been committed in recent times, it’s hard to grasp why police resources are being squandered on non-crimes. Dressed in my pyjamas in my own kitchen, under interrogation by two Glasgow cops, this question could use an answer.
The previous evening, at the end of one of our rare glorious days, I asked my husband to accompany me to Dumgoyne, cited in Harry Bell’s Glasgow’s Secret Geometry. Situated off the A81, this imposing hill sits at the end of one of Harry’s prehistoric site alignments, a place of some importance. Travelling by way of the Clyde Tunnel, past Anniesland via the Switchback Road heading north-west, we paused at the sight of St Andrew’s College, illuminated by the late evening sun.
Not that it’s hard to notice. Designed by architects, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia in 1968-9, a practice perhaps better known for St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross, a place favoured by local urban explorers, this A-listed Roman Catholic teacher training college remains an outstanding, if poignantly bleak example of the brutalist school. In some respects the complex is redolent of Kolloss von Prora, the Nazi holiday resort built from 1936-9 on the island of Rügen at the edge of the Baltic Sea, a place we stumbled on during a visit in 1998.
Disappointingly, St Andrew’s is currently fenced off due to construction works. The perimeter signage bears a name, Morgan Ashurst, presumably the main contractor. Rather than enter the site unauthorised, I decide to ask the security staff for permission to take a few photographs from a discreet distance. My request is met with instant, unveiled hostility, a first for me in the year and a half since embarking on this project. Normally folks clamour to be photographed while regaling me with their life stories.
The guard on duty nixes my request. By way of non sequitur, he adds that a school in Kirkintilloch was recently set on fire. It’s the way he says it. I pause for effect. I’m a 50-year-old woman, I reply, do I look like an arsonist? In spite of my justifiably indignant response, he’s having none of it. Then, when I enquire about the construction works, I get a stony silence. Resigned, I tell the guy that by moving five feet back to the public highway, I can simply assert my rights and take any photographs I want, adding that I only asked as a courtesy. To which the guy threatens me with the police.
Not that I blame the guard personally. In this climate of disproportionate intervention, his role requires him to make a fraught decision – e.g. to assess whether an individual can or cannot take photographs – and in the guard’s case, without the intellectual capacity or legal expertise to do so. This kind of amateur policing, operating under the guise of health and safety, is becoming scarily frequent – you see it all the time in the public sector, where the unqualified now have to weigh up threat or risk as part of their (low-paid) job without the skills, experience and tact necessary, their decisions too often based on value judgments with the end result ineffective at best, dangerous at worst.
In the frisson of the moment I depart abruptly and, entirely lawfully, start snapping, much to the annoyance of the guard. I reason I have nothing to lose, since clearly they’ve already got the cops on speed-dial. Later, while attempting to fathom why my request provoked such full-on belligerence, it occurs that the site, announcing itself as Bearsden Academy, is a PPP project and therefore can be assumed to be politically sensitive.
Backed by East Dunbartonshire Council, the new Bearsden Academy is a joint venture between Morgan Ashurst and SPIE/Matthew Hall in association with others named on the signage, including architects, SMC Parr and inspirED – the latter betraying an Orwellian newspeak mindset by nomenclature alone. Did I commit a facecrime, I wonder? Later, grazing the internet in the privacy of my shed, nowhere can I find the cost of this project, who’s financing it or how, as a PPP, it will be administered in future, e.g. for how long will it cost us fifty quid to change a lightbulb? Still, it’s reassuring to know that St Andrew’s, with its A-list status, is bulldozer-proof. It’s just a shame the commanding view the college enjoyed is about to be obscured.
Still, never known to be thwarted, me and the husband take a quick detour round the back of the site. Here we’re confronted by the usual homogeny – twee, boxy, detached houses of the type developers resort to furnishing with specially-commissioned, reduced-scale pieces designed to create the illusion of space and detract from the tiny windows. Oddly, garages here occupy a third of the footprint. In other words, the kind of dwelling most people find desirable because developers provide little by way of alternative. In Scotland, it never used to be like this. In a land of tenements, the aspiration to own a tiny detached house always struck me as a peculiarly English fetish. Leaving my partner to survey these crimes of non-architecture – each house boasts at least two cars parked outside miniscule unfenced ‘gardens’ – I climb up a steep, unimaginatively landscaped bank where, behind a steel fence, I catch a glimpse of the back of St Andrews and a breathtaking view of the south.
To the west, I note another of Harry Bell’s sites, the distinctive mound of Castlehill Roman Fort, off the Duntocher Road. I note how the area is on a direct flight path to Glasgow International Airport, evidently not cited as a wow factor in the sales brochure, but possibly a reason for the tiny windows. In my current frame of mind I couldn’t give a toss. The developers obviously didn’t.
Returning to the sanctuary of my man’s beat-up car, surely an anomaly in this quarter, I’m chastened by an irate rap-on-the-window from one of the Wendy-householders, doubtless for trespassing on her excuse for a garden, unfenced, in a country where there no such law exists. I find my poor husband plainly traumatised by the surroundings.
A pair of fugitives, we speed towards Dumgoyne and, as the light fades, the beauty of the surroundings compensates for our earlier encounters. I pause on the way to take more pictures, reflecting how, on my first trip to the De’il’s Plantin another hill, Duncolm, has managed to elude me. Looming and dark, Dumgoyne is not an attractive hill, a volcanic vent plug standing at 427 metres or 1402 feet, prominent enough to be seen from any high ground in the city. At its base is the Glengoyne Distillery which I later discover loses 2% of its annual output by evaporation, a phenomenon known by the delightful phrase, ‘The Angel’s Share’.
And it’s here my trip ends. Much as I’d like to climb to the summit, it’s growing dark and I’ve no desire to add to my woes this evening. Later, I learn on the national news that the residents of a small village outside Milton Keynes attacked a Google Streetview vehicle taking photographs of their houses. But a photograph of an empty building? After my experience, I’m more concerned about the erosion of my civil liberties than worry about what the exterior of my house looks like.