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Homes, hopes, dreams and dust

WE all have indelible memories of the home in which we grew up.

Above, a tower block at Lincoln Avenue in Knightswood in Glasgow. Previous page, flats in Sighthill in the city were demolished in the early hours of the morningPhotographs: Colin Templeton; Colin Mearns
Above, a tower block at Lincoln Avenue in Knightswood in Glasgow. Previous page, flats in Sighthill in the city were demolished in the early hours of the morningPhotographs: Colin Templeton; Colin Mearns

Bath nights, Christmases, birthday parties. Doing homework on the kitchen table before tea. Family nights spent grouped around the television. We might remember, too, some of the little things, bought for decorative or leisure purposes, that not only turned the house into a home, but that also spoke to the sense of optimism with which we led our lives.

Philip Larkin caught something of all of this in his poem Home Is So Sad, written in 1958 after a sobering visit to the home of his widowed mother, Eva, in Loughborough.

"Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase."

As Larkin's biographer Andrew Motion would write, Eva's house "preserves all the odds and ends ... which represent the original good intentions of a couple making a home together" - but all that remained of their "joyous shot" was faded hope.

The appeal of the poem is universal: it is impossible to read without thinking of your own home. One of my most vivid memories of my first home is of an elderly neighbour in his shirt-sleeves leaning out of his kitchen window, watching kids at play in the back-court, sometime in the mid-1960s. The whispered word was that during the war he'd witnessed the terrible things done by the Japanese. Half a century later, I can still remember his sombre, withdrawn presence at the window.

Memories of home run strongly through a new Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) documentary and exhibition, A View From Here, which opens next week as part of Refugee Week Scotland. For this arts/integration project the SRC wanted to document the heritage of three Glasgow tower-blocks: Norfolk Court in the Gorbals, which is earmarked for demolition next year; and two blocks at Lincoln Avenue, Knightswood, which will be knocked down later this year.

Both areas are home to refugee and local Glaswegian communities.

With the help of artists, the residents shared and recorded their memories of life in the flats, through visual art, photography, storytelling and performance. At one point in the film, a handwritten poster reveals what people admire about life in the Lincoln flats: it lists things like living among decent, hard-working families, a diversity of cultures and communities that reminded one person "of my childhood in Asia and Africa".

The notion of what home is - what it means to us - has been given added relevance by the public outrage expressed over the plan, since aborted, to screen the demolition of five Red Road tower blocks during the opening ceremony of Glasgow's Commonwealth Games.

Many people objected that the plan treated the lives of those people still living there with scant respect.

The notion of "home" is a powerful one, a fact summed up by the writer Kelli D Esters in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "The word home is supposed to conjure up a feeling of familiarity, a sense of sameness, a place of comfort," she wrote, adding that it was the one place that had

helped define who she was. When, during her first semester at college on the other side of the country, she learned that her parents were divorcing, she returned home to find that everything had changed - and not just her family.

"Home didn't feel like home any longer. I had travelled back all the way from new, unfamiliar territory at school to hopefully return to the comfortable surroundings of home. But I couldn't find it. I wanted to get back home.

"When it came time to head back to school, I became overwhelmed with grief, not because I was saying goodbye to my father or mother ... but because I would never again step foot into my house on the corner."

At least her home was still standing. What happens when the house is demolished? What happens to the memories then?

That question is never far from my mind when yet another tower block succumbs to artfully-placed explosives and collapses in a rearing cloud of dust. You can't help thinking of all the lives that were lived there, year after year after year. These people's memories are now, in effect, homeless.

We've seen a lot of these demolitions in Glasgow over the years, but at least the wider world was spared the spectacle of five Red Road tower blocks being felled as part of the Commonwealth Games ceremony. Why did the plan shock us so much? Was it because we could visualise our own homes, the repository of so many of our earliest memories, being treated in such an offhand way?

Of the 17,000 people who signed former Socialist MSP Carolyn Leckie's petition on change.org, did many simply feel that the plan treated the residents' lives with little or no respect? "Definitely," responds Leckie. "Everybody who signed left a comment, and there were lots of comments about respect, dignity, and people's memories.

"People described their mixed emotions about what had been family homes being blown up, whatever their thoughts were about the flats politically. I think people were motivated emotionally, and almost viscerally."

It was these kind of feelings that led her to launch the petition in the first place. "At first I wasn't really sure why I felt so uneasy, and I felt I was maybe being a bit daft.

"Then I felt as if there was a [personal] connection with the flats. I never actually lived there, but I lived in social housing in the Gorbals, where tenements were being demolished when I was growing up.

"Everybody's lives were in full view as the tenements were being brought down - the wallpaper was still on the walls, you'd sometimes see pictures still hanging, too.

"I got to thinking about the lives of all the people who had moved through those flats. I found it really poignant when I was a child, and I suppose something from then struck a chord when it came to memories, and feelings.

"The more I thought about it, some of the more political questions came to mind - about the message to the rest of the world, about leaving one block standing for asylum-seeking families, about the practical aspects of shifting everybody on the day of the ceremony, about road-blocks, and dust everywhere.

"All of that was part of it, but what made me feel uncomfortable was [to do with] dignity, and memories, and respect."

Leckie's own parents had been relocated to a flat on Pollokshaws Road in the Gorbals from an older tenement. "They were among the lucky ones to actually get rehoused in the Gorbals.

"I was lucky enough to grow up, for the first wee while of my life, in a house with a bathroom, whereas my mum and dad, and older brother and sister, had been in a room and kitchen before that."

Darren Murray, 34, one of the Gorbals community contributors in the documentary, believes the ceremony plan "was a touch insensitive for the people who were still staying in the Red Road flats".

Taking part in A View From Here made him acutely aware of how much is woven into the walls of tower blocks such as Norfok Court and Red Road.

"There is a lot of history there," he says. "People's stories, people's lives. People lived in these flats and didn't actually move anywhere else, so their full lives revolved around these flats. It really saddened me that they were going to open the Games with the idea of renewal, bringing the new Glasgow out, but they seemed to forget about the old Glasgow. When these flats come down, all it is then is memories in people's heads."

For many Red Road residents, poverty has defined their lives. "So all these memories of a life lived - they don't mean anything to anybody any more, bar the individuals," says Murray. "There's no way of documenting that, like A View From Here does, which is so important."

As it happens, Basharat Khan, the documentary's director, has another film, Future Memory, out on June 18. It celebrates many of the people who have lived in none other than the Red Road flats.

He has been working there, on and off, for the last 10 years, on photography and film projects with Street Level Photoworks.

Once, during a public art event at Red Road, someone asked a friend of his: "What the f*** are you celebrating here? There's nothing to celebrate."

KHAN says now: "Certain people have a mindset about Red Road but you quickly realise that many people have a powerful connection to this place, regardless of where they come from. I think you have to respect people's connection with Red Road. People and places should be celebrated, but to attempt to use a demolition as a celebration was highly misjudged. I'm happy they took the public consensus on board, and reversed the decision."

The central question at the heart of A View From Here is this: "As the high flats are demolished, what happens to the memories of the people who lived there?"

"We wondered," says Khan, "how we could capture people's memories and stories. We're quite lucky to live in a time when people are capturing images and sounds and stories as never before, because we have access to that technology, which gives us the tools to communicate with each other and learn about the world around us. We're at a healthy stage where people are realising the importance of preserving these stories for themselves, their families, their communities."

Joe Brady, head of integration at the Scottish Refugee Council, is under no illusions about the importance of the project.

"This is a unique moment in time in the history of Glasgow, and we wanted to capture that. As far as the demolition of the high flats is concerned, many of them are iconic buildings. But when they come down, you're also looking at the future. Refugees and asylum-seekers are part of our communities and the future of this city."

Brady says he was struck by Glasgow's reputation as a city where people have for generations arrived in search of protection and shelter. "When I was looking at the timeline for the demolition of the Norfolk Court blocks, I was reminded that the Gorbals has always been a place where people came to, my family, among others.

"Some were refugees, others were migrants. That's who many of the indigenous Scots in our communities are. The project was about exploring that past, not only with the indigenous communities but with asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, too.

"It's an eternal story, and the concept for me was trying to find the universal aspect in all our experiences. The film shows how for certain communities in Glasgow, their homes and lives have been ripped up and cast to the four corners of Glasgow in the big schemes.

"This was all about working with people to get them to see the links between them and refugees: refugees' lives have known upheaval, they have been cast to the four corners of the earth. And they ended up in communities in Glasgow, where that experience of upheaval is happening again."

The closing shot of Khan's documentary shows two Gorbals high-rises coming down. More memories being rendered homeless, then: but maybe the modern technology Khan spoke of can rescue others from that billowing, choking cloud of dust.

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