Friday, 13 November 2009

A fine and desirable thing

Several years ago I sat in on a discussion at a conference in which people were moaning about how terrible cities were and how the future of humankind and the planet depended on us all returning to a simpler way of life in the country. I sat silently, waiting for someone to speak up in defence of urban life, but no one did. I thought about all the benefits cities offer us as centres of art and culture, and what we would miss out on if cities no longer existed. For a start there would be no symphony orchestras, and probably no big bands.

Of course, no city is perfect. There are some cities I have no desire to visit at all (Los Angeles springs to mind), but of all the great cities I've visited around the world, few have left me disappointed. I was rather underwhelmed by London, but that may have been because I spent much of my brief stay there in bed with a cold.

The middle section of Manituana is set in Georgian London, where the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant travels in the hope of meeting King George III to reinforce the alliance between his Iroquois Confederation and the British crown. At the time of this visit in the 1770s (like most of the events in Manituana, it actually took place), London was a dangerous, crime-ridden city - much more dangerous than it is today, in fact - the poorly lit streets teeming with pickpockets and gangs of robbers. Brant and his colleagues, the "savages" from far-flung North America, are shocked at the squalor and poverty they encounter in the capital of the empire.

In "The Solitary Stroller and the City", the chapter on urban walking in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit describes how London became less lawless over the following decades. "By the time Dickens was writing about homelessness in 1860," she writes, "London was many times as large, but the mob so feared in the 18th century had in the 19th century been largely domesticated as the crowd, a quiet, drab mass going about its private business in public." In the late-20th century, she further notes, New York (and Manhattan in particular) underwent a similar transformation from a city so notoriously violent that "the well-to-do feared its streets as they once had London's" into a comparatively benign city, a haven for urban walking.

One thing that all big cities offer - and this is something that strikes me whenever I visit Tokyo - is anonymity, which Virginia Woolf, who often enjoyed wandering the streets of London on foot, described as "a fine and desirable thing". The following excerpt from Wanderlust sums this up quite well, I think:
There is a subtle state most dedicated urban walkers know, a sort of basking in solitude - a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars… In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. The uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

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