Girvan is a seaside town in Carrick, South Ayrshire. It has 8000 inhabitants and is the biggest community between Ayr and Stranraer, straddling the main A77 road to the main Irish ferry port and thus prone to constant thrumming attack from giant lorries.
Growing up in Troon, eight miles north of Ayr, I loved Girvan. It was where we travelled from Troon for particularly good fish’n’chips. It had great beaches, a proper, working harbour, a state-of the-art indoor swimming pool and a certain raffish charm. And, for a couple of crucial years when I was in my early teens, it had a go-kart track and The Fifth Dimension.
The outdoor go-kart track was, until the owners grew tired of spectacular, machine-wrecking crashes, best used just after a shower of rain, when you could engineer marvellous spins, slides and collisions. It was a safe place to dream of driving a proper car very badly. The Fifth Dimension, also known as The Girvan Fun Palace, was the dream made plastic of an English architect called Keith Albarn, father of the better known Damon, lead singer of Blur. It resembled part of the Dr Who set, a collection of bulbous, multi-coloured pods offering, inside, a ‘multimedia sensory experience.’ There was black light, strange textures, strobes and eerie psychedelic sounds. It was like Dark Side of the Moon made out of Lego, with soft furnishings by Timothy Leary. Two bob to get in. At 14, I was absolutely fascinated by it.
It was the local council’s doing, and it sat, bizarrely, next to a paddling pool and in a seafront rock garden. Predictably, it attracted much local criticism, but while the go-kart track has faded from most memories, it’s The Fifth Dimension visitors of the time remember, are haunted by. Learned articles are written about it. I contacted Keith Albarn, friend of the Floyd and the Rolling Stones, two years ago and found him proud and delighted to recall this strange, alien apparition on a wee Scottish town’s foreshore.
Nothing remains of it now. Girvan, where I stayed overnight during the Mull2Muckle trip (see article in this issue) has a dilapidated, run-down feel. There’s a chip-and-charity shop tone to the juggernaut-dominated main street, some fine but horribly decaying buildings and others that should never have been built in the first place. Tours to the offshore volcanic plug of Ailsa Craig are offered (‘Paddy’s Milestone’), there’s a fine new PFI hospital and the shipyard still functions. Up the road, they distil Virgin Vodka, and the millionaire’s resort of Turnberry is just six miles away, but on a Saturday night, there are lots of roaming, shouty youth, elderly drunks and threatening Vauxhall Corsas and Citroen Saxos with blacked out windows and ear-bleeding sound systems. It’s a rough old town. When the holidaymakers go home, it feels threadbare and threatening. The swimming pool closed suddenly and was then, without consultation, demolished.
But there is a garden. I was there partly to meet the people behind Girvan Community Garden; delightful they were, and what a garden it is. Next door to the traditional Knockcushan Gardens, it is reached by a beautiful little maze of paving stones, and a narrow door like something out of the Lord of the Rings. Inside, a beautifully-tended walled garden is revealed, full of greenhouses, allotments, flowers and a location for art workshops. A small lottery grant has just funded two full-time workers and they are engaged in spreading the glories of gardening out into the wider community. There is enthusiasm. There is joy. And there is activism and hope. People talk of a new swimming pool, of the need to work together. To make Girvan better. South Ayrshire Council seems remote and uninterested. But when you’re in the garden, the council seems irrelevant.
And here we are in Shetland. Cuts notwithstanding, this is the wealthiest, best-provided-for community in Scotland. Here we’re not looking at two gardeners provided by the lottery, but a multi-agency funded £12 million arts monolith. There’s a swimming pool for every day of the week, a job, it sometimes seems, for everyone who wants it. A council we seem slavishly dependent upon. Massive outside investment, and more coming. Potentially huge community income from Viking Energy. A strong and vibrant musical and artistic culture, great social and health care, fine education, brilliant roads…
And what do we do? We moan. We fight. We gossip, criticise and complain. We are like bored teenagers. If only we had a go-kart track and a plastic multi-media sensory experience. Oh. But wait a minute. What’s that thing on Brown’s Road for again?
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