The Dark Room: “Whitburn Spider Monkeys, 1979” by Steven Anderson

Sometimes, it takes the benefit of adult perspective to gain a true appreciation of your home town. The nuances of local history go unnoticed by the restless child: they are buried in musty library books, or hidden on rusty plaques obscured by overhanging hedgerows. Or they simply become intrinsic parts of a landscape that is inevitably taken for granted amid frantic kickabouts and intrepid bike rides.

In recent years, Steven Anderson – recording as Letters From Mouse – has made affecting music inspired by his Scottish surroundings. His 2021 album An gàrradh is a serene meditation on the lockdown wildlife he observed in his garden, and follow-up single Everything Fades is a similarly soothing rumination on the passing of the seasons. But he wasn’t always so content with his lot, a feeling epitomised by this photo of Steven and his younger sister Julie in the summer of 1979:

Over to you, Steven…

“I’m not really sure what the main message would be from this picture. Haircuts, fashion and animal welfare are perhaps forefront, but I guess it’s also a story about appreciating where you are, where you have come from and maybe where you’re going, too.

The picture was taken at the 1979 Whitburn Gala Day, in West Lothian. It’s a day when the whole town comes together and crowns a queen from one of the local schools. There’s a parade through the town centre, then everybody converges on King George’s Park for races and fairground attractions.

And spider monkeys? We paid our money to the stallholder, and were allowed to hold them for a couple of minutes. Times have changed for sure – you can’t even get a goldfish at the fairground any more! And the fashion? My sister here is committing no crimes apart from unwittingly camouflaging the monkey that she’s holding. Me, on the other hand… wow. Look at the trousers, the shirt lapels and that fine jumper, all topped off by a plastic hat and bowl cut.

My parents came from Whitburn, but had moved away. We returned after a spell living in Stranraer – which, for a boy my age, had been heaven. The seaside was a constant source of fun and mischief, so landing back in Whitburn was a real shock. It was a mining town, and the landscape was a troubled one over the next few years, especially with the eventual closure of the mine during the 1984/85 strike. Flooding played its part, too.

I guess we were lucky. My father had been a miner, hated it and became a policeman instead. That’s why we moved around a bit. This was all happening as I was approaching working age myself, and understanding a little more about the world and its politics. I must say, back then, I thought Whitburn was the arse end of the world.

Fast forward a few years. Well… more than a few. Having lived in lots of other places, I’m back in Whitburn again with my family and can honestly say I’m enjoying it. I’m constantly inspired by my surroundings. There are still signs of the old mining industry if you look around, and if you start digging a bit deeper there’s a rich history surrounding this place. I’ve done a fair bit of research for an album coming out in January, all inspired by local history: the links between the local estate and the coal industry; the Polish airmen who lived here (my wife is Polish); and even Rabbie Burns, whose daughter is buried in the local churchyard. The threads connecting these things have been fascinating to explore and to interpret through music. It’s all made me appreciate this place even more.

I reckon Rabbie would have approved of my 1979 lapels and possibly the hair as well.

And just to confirm the haircuts had been around for a while, here’s a 1974 photo…”

Thanks, Steven. The Dark Room is a collaborative effort. If anyone would like to contribute their own childhood photos from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. Thanks so much.

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