Home Coming: Edinburgh
An intimate tour of one writer's home town, one emo hangout at a time.
My Edinburgh is basically just a jumble of drinking spots I used to frequent as a teen. I don't know what this says about my adolescent experience, but they're genuinely the places that hold the most resonance for me now, as an adult. And a little bit of tragedy too.
I moved up to the Scottish capital from London in 2002, just before I turned nine. It was beautiful, cold and 98.1 percent white. Despite a ready-made friendship group, thanks to my best mate having moved up a few years beforehand, I was immediately propelled into an identity crisis.
I'd always felt like an outsider, and often positioned myself as one; in Hackney, where I was born, I became friends with the only white girl in my class, and year on year we were allowed to work in a tiny nook in the classroom, where the teacher couldn't quite see us. And yet, going from an outsider in a diverse class of black and Asian children to being a minority among white people was a different and difficult place to find myself in.
I fought against being called black for so many years because it seemed to hold more damning connotations than being mixed-race. When I moved back down to London for university in 2011 I hadn't necessarily wanted to escape Scotland, my home, but I was desperate to become one of the majority again. To blend in amongst the crowd, no longer be pigeonholed – as I often had been in Scotland – as the "angry black best friend".
I grew up in Leith, which is where my parents still live. These days, it's not the same post-industrial wilderness as depicted in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting – in fact, it's now home to the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the country – but that edge is still there; it's one of the most diverse, and creative, parts of the city.
Walk north from the grand, gothic city centre, where all the trains from London pull in, and Leith eventually spills out in front of you – its cobbled streets and picturesque quayside buildings ringed by new-build developments. The further down Leith Walk you go, the more likely you are to come across patches of poverty, but generally the area is undergoing a monumental change; one property firm predicts that house prices in the area are going to rise by around 23 percent over the next four years. Rapid gentrification isn't only a problem in London.
I didn't go to school in Leith; instead, a group of us from the area descended on Broughton High School, which is in a middle-class area called Stockbridge and directly opposite the local police station. The catchment area was wide, and brought in plenty of people like myself from working class backgrounds.
Searching for my place during my school years in Edinburgh meant dancing in and out of subcultures. I tried to be an emo scene kid for a while, but I couldn't afford the clothes or do the hairstyles (afro hair doesn't mosh). Still, I hung around with people on the fringes and went to the underage emo club at Studio 24, ringing my eyes with kohl and pulling fishnet gloves onto my wrists.
Walking up to Hunter Square, once a hotspot for "emos, goths, stoners, skaters, neds (sound ones)", as put by The Knowhere Guide, there's no hint that it used to be rammed with people who didn't feel like they fit in anywhere else.
The death of subculture – an issue by no means restricted to the land north of Hadrian's Wall – means that all the teenagers I see look fairly identikit, and by that I mean: not wearing double the amount of eyeliner you're supposed to wear.
I found my first real group of mates during my third year of high school. One night, running around the centre of town, near Hunter Square, my girl friends met a bunch of boys who went to one of Edinburgh's many posh schools – the type where you have to wear kilts every day. They introduced us, fairly quickly, to drinking outdoors, soft drugs and sex. Or maybe we introduced them.
Either way, every weekend for about six months we would head to the base of Arthur's Seat, the huge, dormant volcano which sticks out from the middle of Edinburgh – a genuinely beautiful spot which somehow manages to feel completely wild, despite the fact it's surrounded by a big old city – and get pissed on cut-price Lidl alcopops and Strongbow. Always home by 10PM.
Looking up at the Sailsbury Crags – the cliffs that drop off the top of the hill and down to Holyrood Park – it's hard to comprehend what happened next. For me, the end of that time came only a few years after it began.
We didn't hang around as a group any more, but we'd always had plans to have a reunion. And then one of the boys died. We'd kissed once, at a New Year's Eve party. A few months later, he was found at the bottom of the Crags. I didn't know him well, don't know the full story and don't ever expect to. But it really brought home the danger of what we did as teenagers. It would have only taken one drunken misstep up the top of those sheer drops for that to have been any of us.
My fascination with the upper class bubble didn't stop with the end of our friendship with the private school guys. It couldn't. Fettes College – an £11,000-a-term Hogwarts-lookalike public school – towered over my shitty state school, a dramatic reminder of the wealth disparity that still exists in Edinburgh, where 45,000 people live in areas ranked among the most deprived parts of Scotland, a country whose wealthiest 10 percent own nearly half the nation's wealth.
Broughton wasn't an awful school, and it was knocked down and rebuilt from scratch while I was there, but it always seemed to us that Fettes students were purposefully being kept away from us commoners, lest we pervert their precious minds.
Their current rulebook notes that "pupils in Third, Fourth and Fifth Forms must not go alone into town and members of the Sixth Form must not go alone into town after dusk". This could, of course, simply be a way for the school to account for its students' whereabouts. But looking up at its imposing spires, protected from the outside world by great black gates and a spiky, gold-tipped fence, it's tempting to think – as we always did – that those rules are more about keeping people out than in.
In any case, we didn't interact except to fight occasionally, plus an "exchange programme" once a year in which a couple of Broughton's best students swapped places with Fettes students and learned to stand up when a teacher walked into the room instead of throwing condoms at their heads.
They weren't even allowed out at lunchtimes, missing out on some of the best fish and chips and deep fried pizza (yup) Edinburgh has to offer, at Francos, in Stockbridge, and being forced to skip the underage drinking sessions in Inverleith Park, our local swan-infested beauty spot.
I was already en route to becoming political when I realised how foreign our lives were to those in positions of power in our country, and that people at private school were being moulded into power-wielders; Fettes alone produced two Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The Scottish Independence debate burned as fiercely at our school as at any other institution. After being elected as a youth parliament representative for North Edinburgh – the next step in my identity crisis, it seemed, was to try to become a politics nerd – I debated an SNP MSP on a panel at the Scottish Parliament.
When I said something about being against Scottish Independence, a large number of my schoolmates cheered, reflective of the fact that 61 percent of Edinburgh voted to remain in the UK. That debate is ever-evolving, of course, but the SNP lost a third of their seats at the last general election, and polling conducted afterwards found that 53 percent would vote No in a new referendum, compared to Yes's 39 percent.
One part of the city that has barely changed since I lived here is Newhaven, an area right next to the Firth of Forth estuary. It feels like you're next to the sea – which, technically, you are – and seagulls shit on you indiscriminately.
Images of the working class community in Newhaven, on show at the National Galleries of Scotland when I visit, are thought to be the first ever photographic studies of ordinary working people. It's a special little cobbled place, which used to be home to a large fishing community. We moved into Newhaven when we first came to the country, and I have such happy memories here, as I do throughout most of Edinburgh.
The Scottish capital wasn't ever a place where I was able to come to terms with my identity, as I've managed to do – just about – in London. But it was, and is, still home.