King of the Hill as far as I knew

25th June 2004 at 01:00
I was driving through Motherwell to have lunch with two astronauts when I felt the usual temporal dislocation induced by the town's Brandon Street.

I spent the first five years of my life in a tenement flat there, and going back always has the same effect on me. For a nanosecond today's buildings vanish, to be replaced by the ones that were there in the early Sixties: Russell's fruit shop; the butcher's where my two-year-old brother, having slipped his reins from my mother, ordered a pound of jellied veal; the newsagent who sold toys.

I remember the exciting things that could be seen from our living-room window. There were fire engines, dustbin lorries that tipped up to compact the rubbish, and marching bands I always assumed were all Salvation Army but now harbour the suspicion that some were Orange walks.

Moving to Carluke changed my life. I could leave the house and go out and play without fear of being reversed over by a bin wagon. The countryside around the grandly-named Braemar Crescent was full of exciting places.

Central to the world of the band of children from the street was a grown-over quarry spoilheap we called "The Hill". It was ideal for hide-and-seek or commandos - like hide-and-seek but with invisible (though not inaudible) machine guns.

It was cruel beyond expression by my five-year-old self that I had only weeks to enjoy this amazing freedom before I had to start primary school, something that felt like a life sentence. I knew I had to go if I wanted to be a scientist or a geologist or a mechanic or an astronaut when I grew up.

Though I couldn't have put it in those terms at the time, I needed to see the bigger picture.

Pictures don't come much bigger than those seen by my lunch companions in Motherwell. They have both looked out the window and seen the Earth. A Frenchman from the European Space Agency talked of his awe at seeing a thunderstorm from above, where lightning arced from cloud to cloud. An American colonel said he had become an environmentalist after watching so much of the southern hemisphere burn. Both appeared humbled and enthused by their experiences.

I hope my five-year-old self is not ashamed that I became a teacher lunching with astronauts, not an astronaut lunching with teachers. My 44-year-old self is ashamed Britain is not in ESA's manned space flight programme.

"Think," said the colonel, "what the effect of having a Scottish astronaut might be on pupils thinking of studying science."

As I said, he was someone who could look out of his window and see more than a garbage truck.

Gregor Steele found it hard to find a place to land near Motherwell Civic Centre.

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