My (mostly) scottish upbringing was blighted by one tiny but intractable fact. Embarking on the crooked journey of adolescent self-discovery, I scoured a (mostly) Scottish landscape for reassuring reflections of that most important entity: me. They weren’t very reassuring-bits of border country, a few dank drinking holes in Perth, many grim-yet-transcendent highland years, my Scottish-nationalist granny in Orkney. I didn’t come from any single one of these places. Echoing my teenage self, they were contradictory and temporary. But they were (mostly) Scottish. Or, at least, they would have been if it weren’t for my “black fact.” I was born in London.
Later, while living in Glasgow, if I had told people I was born in Kyoto, they would never have thought to riposte: “so you’re Japanese, then, ya bastard.” But merely because my parents had once made a temporary and ill-advised emigration to the south-east of England, conceiving me in the process, Glaswegians felt at liberty to grip me in a pally but painful arm-lock and rejoice: “so you’re UNG-lish, then, ya bastard.”
For ten years in Glasgow, I wrestled with my mildly beleaguered identity and found it a good city for the puzzle. Scottishness there isn’t as important as west-Scottishness and then the only real issue is Catholic or Protestant. In fact, if you live in Glasgow but come from New Town Edinburgh, you might as well be UNG-lish too.
In Glasgow, for the first time, I found myself at liberty-in the way of American cities-to be who I wanted to be. Despite its working-class myths, Glasgow is the closest thing Britain has to a classless city. And, again in the manner of some American cities, it is not so much the idea of national identity that matters as a deep, self-made municipal character: its very city-ness.
The black spot of my London birth didn’t quite get laughed out of me in Glasgow. But what was left of it, I repudiated. In the lead-up to the devolution referendum there was a reason for repudiating London, one that elevated itself beyond resentful anti-Englishness or chippy Scottish nationalism. Indeed, there was a sensible “not-London” political view. A settlement was in the offing that would help Britain curve off its post-imperial decline, a decline for which London seemed to be the centrifugal drag. Scotland was becoming a place you could belong to without fighting daft old battles of history or childhood.