Aberdeen

Aberdeen

First of all, forgive me: I know I started this blog to talk about my art. And in a way I am, but this will mainly be a rare political aside. I feel there should be a warning before I begin: the opinions expressed here are solely my own, please don’t blame the artwork if you see something you don’t like in this one solitary post. But of course, the art is the artist and vice versa. Perhaps I ought to start up a separate blog where I can get on my soapbox about non-art topics, but since I plan this to be a very rare occurence, it isn’t worth it, so you will have to endure this one aside about something that has been bothering me for some time.

It’s a sad lovesong of sorts to Aberdeen. That sounds really overly dramatic, but it’s true. I know Aberdeen never makes anyone’s top 10 list of places they want to visit or live, but having come to Aberdeen 6 years ago as an outsider who had hardly heard of Aberdeen before I moved there, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Okay, the monochromatic colour scheme gets a bit tiring when the weather matches the buildings, but the architecture around the Castlegate area, the sunken Victorian garden in the centre of town, the cobblestoned Lilliputian villages of Fittie and Old Aberdeen, the wedding cake gothic frenzy that is Marischal, and the beaches… Aberdeen does have some real selling points.

Or it did. For my American and other non-local friends, I will attempt to summarize what has been happening in Aberdeen since I moved here. It is a list of disturbing and systematic destruction of many of the things I first loved about Aberdeen by the government and those with power and money (often times, one and the same thing).

First of all, Marischal College (where I used to work in the conservation lab) was taken over by the city council for their new headquarters. Mind you, their current headquarters were…… right across the street from Marischal. Literally. In a perfectly sound, if not particularly attractive, building. But they decided that the millions they were already facing in city debt wasn’t quite enough apparently, so instead they took on another major refurbishment project to the tune of at LEAST £80 million (MTA: apparently it came in at under budget at nearer “only” 65 million or so ) – this at a time when they are shutting schools and social programmes and even considering shutting ALL of the city’s parks due to budget problems. They gutted the building entirely, leaving only the Disneyfied, polished facade standing. To be fair, the interior of the majority of the building was going to ruin, so in a way they have preserved it, but only by ripping out all of the original fixtures and putting in modern glass and concrete and all the other bland, characterless office space features.

The second tragic property deal to befall the area was when Donald Trump decided he’d make a trip to his ancestral home of Scotland to bulldoze the Balmedie beaches with their stunning dunes (housing complex and unique ecosystems – the only ones left in the WORLD) and threatening to forcibly evict people from their long-standing homesteads to create a giant golf resort. Because, you know, that’s something Scotland just does not have enough of… The dunes of Balmedie were classed as SSIs, “sites of scientific interest”, and should theoretically therefore have been protected by the government. But something odd is happening there – the government are the very people who have turned around on their own laws of environmental protection and slapped Trump on the back like old cronies, done the secret masonic handshakes with him and said, ‘Sure, go ahead and tear down those dunes! Scotland needs more golf courses!’ Apparently it was because they were dazzled by promises of economic revival through creation of over a thousand jobs for the local populace, which now looks unlikely to materialise after all. The poor residents of Balmedie who were at first threatened with compulsory purchase orders and are now I guess “just” being harassed and pressured to leave have – bless them – been fighting tooth and nail to stay put. Sadly, though, given that the Scottish government is seemingly in bed with Trump, they aren’t winning (MTA: apparently the compulsory purchase orders aren’t going to happen now, thankfully, although there are other ways to make life unpleasant for the residents…). There’s a new documentary film, ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ out about this travesty of a project, which I saw yesterday afternoon.


It was brilliant, but I left the theatre even more angry and scared than I already was by the gobsmackingly unbelieveable extent to which money and celebrity seems able to get around the law. It’s not that I’m against the golf course really (as unnecessary as I think it kind of is), just not on the dunes of Balmedie, and not if you have to bully and torment a whole neighbourhood of people out of their homes to manage it.

And then there’s UTG (Union Terrace Gardens). Ah, UTG… The issue of what will happen to the UTG has made it blatantly clear what the state of democracy is in this day and age, in this city. Union Terrace Gardens, the lovely, big sunken Victorian garden in the very heart of town was one of the things that really took my breath away when I first came to Aberdeen. I am a sucker for sunken gardens in general, but in a place like Aberdeen (which I like to lovingly call Gotham City), leeched of colour by the invariable granite of which all the buildings are built, the green centre is an incredibly necessary oasis of nature and colour. It was starting to get a little frayed around the edges and not used as much as it should have been, so a local art group came up with a plan to revitalise the area, by building an art centre into the side of the gardens. They raised all the money necessary for the building and had obtained planning permission. Suddenly, out of the blue, one of the local billionaire businessmen, Sir Ian Wood, threw a spanner in the works. He did not want an arts centre, or anything else that preserved the sunken garden, he wanted to level the whole thing to street level and build… a mall around a concrete piazza. Now, Aberdeen has… 5, yes 5! shopping centres in the city centre already. I’m not sure how much more a city really needs, especially since the existing ones don’t look all that well attended when I’ve been there… Wood pledged to donate £50 million of his own money to the project (with the rest of the £140 million to be paid by the taxpayers of Aberdeen…), and thus began a fight over what to do – the art centre or the city square (meanwhile time was running out on the funding for the art centre – it was eventually stalled long enough that the art centre lost their funding). Long story short, they held a vote of the people. 55% voted against Ian Wood’s city square project. Aaaaaand… the city council and the various groups involved in lobbying for the city square project decided they’d ignore the majority of people who said they were opposed, and do it anyway. Ah, democracy… I just came across a post on a blog I sometimes read describing a third option for how to keep the gardens but revitalise the city centre. It’s well written and worth a read, and it got me thinking, yet again, about something that’s been bothering me in general, and which I find bothers me in general about what has been happening in Aberdeen, and indeed the world.

I am not a religious person, but I am bothered more and more by people who seem to worship at the temple of money above all things; I would rather that they take up some Bible-thumping fundamentalist sect religion, quite frankly, at least it might teach them some scruples. I realise a certain amount of money is necessary to comfort and happiness – a decent living. But people seem to be running themselves ragged just to make enough to get the latest gizmos, and whatever the Joneses next door have, and those with money seem able to do anything they please, no holds barred. My soon-to-be masters/PhD thesis topic is on ‘flow’ which is about the ‘good life’ – living in such a way that you enjoy what you do intensely, something that enriches your life, the lives of others, and which is about the thing, the activity itself, not the profit to be turned from it. But I feel many people see this topic and think I’m being too idealistic, too soft, too bleeding-heart-liberal touchy-feely new-agey or something.

After all, everyone wants to be rich, right? Money is king, money is why we get up in the morning and drag ourselves to our jobs, no matter how tedious and soul-sucking they may be. So we can have the latest iPad gadget thingummy, the flashest car, designer bags and a plastic nose just like Nicole Kidman’s… That’s all that can be expected or wanted from life, right? To get so rich and bloated that all you have to do is sit on a beach lounger all day on some beach somewhere (not Balmedie though, even if the weather were warmer…), playing Angry Birds and watching your stocks in Donald Trump’s toupee company rise on the NASDAQ or whatever. Nevermind nature, it always seems to find a way to bounce back from the myriad ways we mistreat it, right? And never mind history, it’s old and boring and so 10 minutes ago. Why bother preserving, saving, making the most of what we already have when we can have a new glitzy headquarters, a golf club, or yet another mall? Because what would we do with ourselves if we didn’t have shopping, golf and gadgets, right?

So yes, I used to love Aberdeen. But whereas I once thought, naively, that all that oil money might be spent on things like a more beautiful city, with parks and art and culture, it turns out that all the rich people of Aberdeen seem to want is to shop and play golf. I painted the above painting when I started to realise that about this city. For a long time I defended Aberdeen when people maligned it as the poor third cousin of Scotland, lonely and grey and boring up at the NE corner of the island, a place no one would bother to go if they could help it. But I honestly think that as soon as I can, I am going to move somewhere else, where people value some culture and creativity a bit more…if such a thing still exists in our modern age. The oil tycoons seem to be labouring under some strange misconception that the reason people don’t come to Aberdeen is because there’s just not enough golf or shopping. We have plenty of these; what we’re lacking is a viable art scene and an environment where culture is fostered. The oil that made this city rich has not made it more beautiful or more cultured, it has made it more and more grey and uniform, in a way that has nothing to do with all the granite.

So why don’t I get more involved? Why am I this armchair activist? I’ve been asking myself that question for the past few days. I joined all the Facebook groups for the UTG campaign, I even wrote to MSPs and signed petitions. But whenever there were marches or protests or events, I didn’t bother turning up, because ultimately the pessimist in me feels it’s hopeless. I fear it will take an uprising far greater than a tame, peaceful protest to make any kind of change these days, but the pacifist in me can’t really get too eager for guillotines either. I just wish something would open the eyes and shame the people who currently are turning their backs on their principles and decency for the sake of money and make a change in the way people see things. Aberdeen could be so much more, but it’s becoming a corrupt, hopeless, even more colourless place to live. It may ‘just’ be buildings and urban development at stake here in Aberdeen for the moment, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about the rich controlling our governments for their own means and steamrolling over democracy, and it’s the beginning signs of something by which we should all be very very frightened and angered.

P.S. If you feel you want to help with the Trump thing, one thing you could do is to donate to the ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ filmmaker’s crowd funding campaign to take the film to New York. The filmmaker Anthony Baxter apparently remortgaged his house in order to make the film, as it was mostly self-funded, so any help you can give the man to get it some publicity would be great. It’s a really powerful film I think everyone should see, even if they don’t care about the boondocks of Aberdeen specifically (MTA: The crowd-funding campaign was a success! Anthony Baxter has gone to New York, and there is a showing at the IFC Center on July 7th – if you’re in the area, please go! And spread the word!). While you’re at it, rent ‘Capitalism: A Love Story‘, Michael Moore’s latest. It’s a great film in a similar vein, important for all to see.

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