Writer and historian Daniel Gray leads the final stage of our ReimagiNation tour of Scotland’s New Towns. He’s been speaking to Livingston locals at various locations and events, finding out about life in the area. Below he reflects on the beginning of this process and meeting train passengers at the town’s two stations. Two further updates will be published in the coming weeks.
My train slinks beneath the shale bings, those crimson pyramids of West Lothian. Dongs, beeps and an electronic voice announce Livingston North. With further shrill alarms and pneumatic whooshes, doors part. They are curtains opening onto the fifth New Town of my residency.
In common with Cumbernauld, East Kilbride, Irvine and Glenrothes, neither of the stations here are in the middle of town. In each place there are geographical and historical reasons for this, but once again a thought occurs to me: New Towns were not built for those of us reliant on public transport. When you announce to a New Towner that you can’t drive, they tend to look incredulously at you, then either offer you a lift anywhere of your choosing, or shut down eye contact and sidle slowly from view.
Stories of transport, of moving, are my focus in Livingston. It is a focus born from stereotype. When I ask non-Livingstonians what they know of the town, these answers always come up: that it is a commuter-town for Edinburgh workers; that it is good to visit for shopping; that it is impossible to find your way around.
My own feelings of the place are based in movement, too: the football team transposed from its Meadowbank base; Edinburgh and Midlothian children born in St John’s Hospital and then carried away, home; the view from aeroplanes taking me north or arcing towards the runway. Flight paths make Livingston one of the most seen, least visited towns on earth.
In this New Town, then, I am standing and sitting still to observe the moving, and in doing so trying to find Livingston’s beating heart. I am hosting workshops, too, in which local people walk, cycle and drive to tell me their stories, impart their views on this town past, present and future. Those stereotypes from elsewhere inform many of the questions I ask and the activities I plan.
The pneumatic curtain drawn, I step down onto the platform at Livingston North. It is 10am, well after rush hour; the idea of being here, now, is to see what happens in-between the commuter stereotype. Who comes and goes, what are their stories? What do they think of their town?
The trains here are many; half west to Glasgow, half east to Edinburgh. There is a rhythm to what happens, and it is the same on both platforms. One train departs, and everything is still and silent, in the same way a room suddenly seems quieter than it has ever been after a group of children exit. Then birds begin to sing once more, before a plane smothers their tunes.
Next, people begin to drift in again, each performing a cursory glance at the Departures screen. The pathologically early – and I relate to them having caught earliness from my Dad – are easiest to snare. With good humour, here until mid-afternoon, and then across town at Livingston South, people talk to this odd writer and his recording device.
Among others, I meet retired men on their way to boozy lunches, two Russians who are not sure where they are and an excited lady destined for a surprise party. Some of their words I document in a Twitter thread, others will go towards this project’s live finale at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and later we’ll come to store the many stories I’ve collected across Scotland’s New Towns.
The most representative words today are those of Marj, who arrived in Livingston forty years ago from Devon:
‘They call it a concrete jungle, but all I can see from my garden is a huge park, and deer.’
NEXT TIME: ON THE BUSES
ReimagiNation at the Book Festival
Take part in debates inspired by our New Towns tour, and celebrate the stories we've heard at a special showcase event hosted by Daniel Gray.Learn more
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