I was raised in Glasgow, forged like a riveted girder from the hard grit that rolls through the city’s streets. I took form in London, battered into shape by its blunt indifference to individuality and gilded by the molten gold that pours in opulent torrents from the tops of its penthouses. Now, I am being finessed in Bucharest, polished to a high shine by the promise of endless love and artistic prosperity; riding the resurgence of the ‹Paris of the East›.
I wish that were all true, because it sounds dead sexy. But the truth, inherently, cannot be that pretentious. To romanticise my relationship with those cities neglects the battle of belonging that I have faced in each. What the flowery description omits is that my mother was from Komenda, Ghana; my father, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. With roots spliced between two such different cultures, where, if anywhere, does such a person belong? White and black; colonialist and colonised; developed and developing; cold and hot.
It is true that I have lived in Glasgow, London and Bucharest. Living in these three cities has helped me decipher these paradoxes. They have each contributed to my understanding of what it means to ‹belong›: do I belong to a place; does a place belong to me; or do I feel belonging towards something else altogether?
Twice, I have lived in Glasgow. First, during my school years and later, as a thirty-something. I returned thinking I belonged to Glasgow; that it was the container of my character, the rainy frame within which my sunny portrait hangs. Glasgow is a place where people really belong. Its culture rewards participation: be one of us and you will become one of ours. Going back to Glasgow, I found myself outside of this bubble. Perhaps I had never been in it.
Strictly speaking, I never really lived in Glasgow. Most of my time was spent in the inoffensive suburbs of East Renfrewshire, a place packed with converted bungalows and good schools. It lies as close to the brown moors of Fenwick as the tarmac of the city centre. Its anonymous, inoffensive, residential streets are a far cry from the rough and tumble reputation of the city I aspired to belong to. As for my accent – often the last stronghold of belonging after everything else has fallen – even it has been smoothed off after years of trying to be better heard in other parts of the world. It is now frequently confused with the softer tones of Edinburgh (a painful accusation for any Glaswegian, even a conflicted one), Ireland, or even Canada. «You don’t sound like you’re from Glasgow», has become even more profane than the, «You don’t look like you’re from Glasgow», to which I had long become accustomed.
London was the corruptor of my accent. During my itchy seven year break from Glasgow, it put buttered lobster inside my Glaswegian, battered pizza sandwich.
For the most part, I worked in London as a corporate lawyer. I will forever remember the excruciating moment when a plummy partner in my Firm exclaimed he could barely understand what I was saying, and would prefer it if I sent emails rather than approaching his desk. Clearly, I didn’t much belong in that environment.
Nevertheless, London and I did chime for a while. Unlike Glasgow’s insatiable craving for me to be one of its own, London’s insatiable apathy was freeing. It felt like the city was mine, to do with what I wished. That is, until the cost of living became grotesque, and belonging in London came with an ever-lengthening invoice. I started to feel like I owed the city; my sense of belonging bankrupted.
I now find myself in Bucharest, a place that barely crossed my mind until the beginning of the year. Fending off boredom during my second stint in Glasgow, I invented ‹Skyscanner Roulette›: find the cheapest flights to a destination more than 500 miles away; go there, within the month; photograph the place for three days.
Bucharest won March.
Initially, I felt anything but belonging. I was uncharacteristically nervous, crippled by insidious stereotypes of Eastern Europeans that drip into the British psyche from venomous, blackened newsprint ink. After three days of observing, shooting and speaking to the people who lived there, I gained a sense of the city’s true character – cordial neutrality concealing the bountiful energy of an ambitious youth. It compelled me to return.
After a break of mere weeks, I found an excuse to go back. On this occasion, I discovered the green shoots of a secluded young arts scene that is desperate to blossom. I felt charged by that potential. A third visit turned into an open-ended adventure. The warm weather, the affordability, the lifestyle – I stayed. Oh, and what does this description omit? On my first trip I met a dynamic and captivating woman with whom I fell very suddenly and unexpectedly in love. She asked me about my camera in a coffee shop. Our conversation continues.
For now, my romanticised version of this city is accurate. I belong to Bucharest. Even so, I know my feeling of belonging cannot be sustained by a place. In my paradoxical world, it is essential to find belonging closer-to-hand. If anything has revealed this, it is my relationship with my camera. It dragged me from my desk in London, tossed me north to re-examine Glasgow, then sent me East to new exploits in Bucharest. The camera might belong to me, but with everything it has given, I very much belong to it.
A version of this essay was originally published 2018 in Scottish fine art magazine, «SOGO».