The horror on my own doorstep


by Kenneth Roy

A few Mondays ago, the road out of the village was closed by the police. As the bus driver embarked on a circuitous detour, he said he had heard a rumour that there had been a fire at the derelict farmhouse – a sorry landmark on the outskirts of the neighbouring small town. Later in the day the next part of the story emerged: the house had been set on fire deliberately. The horror inside was still to be revealed.

It is relevant to consider why this substantial, rather handsome building was derelict at all. It was once the home of a productive farm; the next we heard both it and the land had been acquired by developers for house-building. The farmer promptly moved away and the house was boarded up.

The nature of the proposal, when it leaked out, dismayed the local community. What was proposed for this fertile agricultural land was no ordinary development but a massive expansion of the small town: 600 new houses, most for sale but with the now obligatory inclusion of some ‘social’ housing, giving the plan a veneer of civic respectability and making it harder to object.

There was no attempt by the local authority to consult the people of the area about this extraordinary scheme. It has never communicated with me or with anyone I know. Nor has there been any serious examination of its wisdom or practicality. If there had been, the proposal would have been thrown out at once.

The local secondary school is bursting at the seams. The roads, feeding into a dual carriageway to Glasgow, are strained by the existing volume of traffic. The area, which is close to the coast, floods disturbingly easily. Bus services have been cut, and the nearest railway station is not within easy walking distance. Nor are shops or essential services.

These objections come easily to mind; there will be others. Yet they do not appear to have occurred to the developers and planners; or, if they have, it seems they have been dismissed. There are larger philosophical questions: the over-development of small communities, the destruction of the natural environment, the aesthetic nightmare such a sprawl would inevitably produce.

It seems to have been a random happening, without motivation, simply a way of spending an evening, of passing the time.

Fortunately from the community’s immediate point of view, the timing could not have been worse. The sale coincided with the financial crash and the subsequent collapse of the housing market. Even now, demand is so sluggish that one of the largest local estate agents packed up last week. If there is no market for existing houses, where is the market for 600 new ones?

So there has been a long pause which has turned into a silence: no one knows when this monstrous development will begin. But begin it will some day: we do not delude ourselves otherwise. Meanwhile, there is the derelict farmhouse as a crumbling symbol of a profoundly undesirable intrusion. Its sudden abandonment, left to rot for years, is an act of vandalism in itself and a visible sign of the lamentable state of local democracy. Who asked for this? Who voted for it?

I suspect that such questions were not in the minds of the young people who entered the house on a night in late July. I suspect these young people were not even aware why the house had been lying empty for so long. Their entry was not a political act; not a protest of any kind. It seems to have been a random happening, without motivation, simply a way of spending an evening, of passing the time. Life is short, but the days of summer are long. Time passed. The house was set ablaze.

One of the young men was 19 years old. How does one describe someone of that age in a word? ‘Boy’ does not feel right, but nor does ‘man’. ‘Youth’ is almost a term of right-wing disapproval, particularly after the events of two weeks ago; it is fairly adjacent to ‘scum’ in the debased lexicology of the media and political classes. We probably need a new word.

Somehow or other – the circumstances are unclear – the young man in the derelict farmhouse accidentally set himself alight and suffered 50 degree burns. His family stayed at his bedside for several days until he died. It is clear that he was much loved. Indeed, so far as I know, no one in the area had a bad word to say about him. He was good-looking. He had, as they say, everything to live for.

It is tempting, in the light of all that has happened since, to see this incident in the derelict farmhouse, close to my own doorstep, as a small, curious precursor; a presentiment. We can plan for the obliteration of our communities – that is within our scope and our understanding. We can just about cope with such officially approved brutality. But what goes on inside the human mind, the mind of the young? That remains a mystery.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.