V&A Dundee

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City of ghosts

Happy LGBT History Month 🏳️‍🌈 In this special piece of creative writing, Ryan Petrie lets his feet and mind wander through Dundee’s streets as he considers how his unique but relatable story is tied to the city and its architecture.

My town, Dundee, is one of the stranger towns in Scotland. I know it’s strange because of a singular fact: it is a city of ghosts.

Everywhere you go, you feel the presence of something. You may not know what it is, it might even be your overactive imagination, but you feel it. And nowhere is it felt more than when one walks the streets at night.

As I walk, I’m conscious of the many buildings around me: Victorian, Georgian; some new, others not so much. They are touched by modern hands, passed between them, and they have their stories to tell. Like I have mine.

A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
Photo over Dundee at night, with Fife in the background. It's very dark and not much detail can be made out.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night looking up at a building.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

I like to walk the streets where buildings converge. Each area houses different people. I wonder what they do and how they live their lives. Do they live with their biological families, or do they live with the chosen ones they have waited years to find and make? As I ask myself this question in the darkness, my mind wanders to buildings from my own life.

Allow me to show you a block of new red brick, with a green door and a cheerful disposition. This is Wentworth Gardens and it is here that I grew to be a writer. The gardens are green and bursting with flowers.

In the smallest room, under a high-sleeping bunk bed, I started writing stories based on my favourite shows. I wrote like the writers I was reading until I read a series of books that changed my life: Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. These books cemented my desire to be a writer and spurred me on to write something real, something of my own.

A dark alleyway in Dundee at night. The streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night looking up at a building.
A dark street in Dundee at night looking up at a building.
  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

During those days, I knew something in me was not right. Something deep in me had awakened and would not stop bothering me. I went to school the next day and thought nothing of it. Not until I was older.

In that house, I learned fundamental truths about myself. I learned what I was and who I am. Never an easy process, it’s one we must endure all the same. I learned things that many would not find comfortable, for the truth is never a comfortable thing. But live with it I must. And I did. Though the truth of my secret weighed heavy on my shoulders.

My night-time walk through Dundee’s streets continues as my mind travels back to a happy place: an old house. Victorian, an old flat in an old block, built sometime in the late 1890s, I think. It was here I became me. This is Bright Street, and it is here that I wrote the first book I was ever truly proud of.

A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
A dark street in Dundee at night. The road is cobbled and the streetlight lights up part of it with the rest in darkness.
  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

This house had its secrets, like I had mine. And it had its history. History is one of my great joys in life and I wanted to know every inch of the place, breathe in its scents, feel the ghosts around me. I wanted to become part of the house, to feel like I belonged. And for a long time, I did. I wrote and wrote, feeling the words tumble from my brain, down my arm and out onto the paper, telling a story I had every love for. My secret was out, and I was living happily.

My truth was that I loved those of my own gender, and that it was natural. I loved, and I loved strongly. But things in life fall apart because of circumstance, because of mistakes made, because we were not ready. I had to accept that. In a house that has history, I had grafted my own. Even if it was an unhappy one.

It has been a long, unhappy history for the LGBT community; people like me. Each law passed drove us underground. Each amendment seemed to make things worse. And I wondered about that old house. My pen went scribbling as I thought about what the house had witnessed. Who had it protected, who had it betrayed? Did it protect people like me…or did it betray them?

V&A Dundee at night, all dark with pockets of light.
V&A Dundee at night, all dark with pockets of light.
V&A Dundee at night, all dark with pockets of light.
  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

The last stop on my walk tonight is a strange one, but one I like best: a bench outside our new museum, V&A Dundee. Stylish, weirdly proportioned, peaceful. I look up and see the twisting frame of the building, the lights shimmering in all the right places, especially at night, burning like a beacon.

Whether you think it’s ugly or not, it doesn’t matter. Because it simply is. The building has form, shape and dimension. Its tangle might well be the tangle of my story, the symbol of any human life: messy, wonderful, harsh, sometimes ugly. But still there is beauty. And I thank the tangles that made me, for they are the roots that delve deep. And if they were to be pulled from their place with a single, violent tug, I wonder: which roots would hold firm?

I used to wonder what was wrong with me. Especially before I told my truth to the world and said, “I’m gay”. It took a very long time for me to love myself as I am, and I instead sought to love myself through the medium of my pen. Writers write because they want to show people what they have discovered. And as my pen went a-scratching, this is what I found: the love I have to give is pure and good. How can anyone say otherwise?

V&A Dundee at night, all dark with pockets of light.
V&A Dundee at night, all dark with pockets of light.
V&A Dundee at night, all dark with pockets of light.
  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

  • Dundee at night.

How can love be evil, as I have been called, when love shows us the world as it can be? It’s what drives us to do noble things and, sometimes, very stupid things. But love is what I’m talking about: that beautiful cataclysm in one’s being, that strange and wonderful accident. One of the great gifts that can be given us for our time on this curious little world to which we are consigned.

I sit on the bench, and I feel the ghosts of the city around me. I want them to be proud, I want them to smile. I feel their hand on my shoulder. There’s a voice and it says: “You’re doing fine.”

How can I be evil when all I want to do is love?

Ryan Petrie is a writer from Dundee. Photography by Russell Dornan.