The concept of ‘city’ is vast and hard to define clearly: is it about people? businesses? buildings? There are simplistic interpretations which aren’t very interesting (“it’s where you get the big buildings!”) and there are other viewpoints which would take a whole thesis to cover in only the vaguest detail (“How does a city become a city?” for instance). I’m tempted to wax on about what makes a city a city but there are probably much better pieces of writing out there on the subject than I can muster here.
Having grown up in London (a big city) and then relocated to Perth (a tiny city) I feel quite a personal connection to the concept of city, and to London in particular, so I thought I‘d offer up a more personal view of ‘city’.
The big city
I said I grew up in London: that’s not strictly true. London’s a huge, sprawling place that expands beyond the city centre and encompasses many suburbs. I grew up about 10km from the city centre which is still close enough to consider myself a city boy. My earlier years were more about discovering my home town (Twickenham, if you’re wondering) but as I grew so did my boundaries: London was no further away than a few stops down the train line and so became part of what I called home.
My awareness of what it must be like to live in more confined environs (a remote town, a small village) was limited to books, films, or occasional visits to far away relatives. The change of scenery (whether real or imagined) was always nice but somewhere at the back of my mind was the recognition that your life was limited to this one place (remember: this is a the perspective of a young boy to whom an endless, empty meadow is possibly one of the most boring things in the universe). Where I lived there were always people, always things happening, and if those things got boring it was never more than a bus or train ride away to the next place where things were happening.
As I got older I always fancied a stint of living right in the city – perhaps an apartment near Tower Bridge, or somewhere within walking distance of the West End (the sort of place where a Hugh Grant movie character might live) – but that was never a realistic option. Living in London is *expensive*. The closest I got to living in the city was Shepherd’s Bush, which is one step away from Notting Hill (oh, hai Hugh!) which is right next to Kensington, which is virtually the city. Sort of.
I’m not going to pretend that Twickenham eventually got too small for me: I did plenty of socialising around Twickenham, Richmond and the general area: I even moved back to Twickenham for a while after getting married. There were great pubs, excellent restaurants, beautiful scenery. However, I also spent many happy days or evenings over the years heading into London to shop, browse, socialise, drink, eat, see films, work. Like any city it has an energy that can be inspiring and infectious. Also, like any city, it’s a natural focal point. I guess in the end living just outside of the city meant that going into the city was still a bit of an adventure. And it never really stopped being an adventure.
The undiscovered country
I vividly remember once finding the idea of moving away from London almost unimaginable. I can’t remember what inspired this thought, but it was probably during my twenties when I was truly starting to discover the city (clearly my feelings on the matter changed). At the time the city represented my friends, my life, a whole world of possibilities.
I’ve often thought about what it would be like to live in the country. While the peace and quiet have a certain appeal I’m almost certain I’d never settle (though I’m pretty sure that certainty has diminished over the years).
I grew up in a flat (or unit, if you like) and was used to having neighbours on all sides, used to having a main road outside, and used to not having an upstairs or downstairs (or even much of a sideways, for that matter). One time I house sat for some relatives who had a ‘proper’ house. It was unnerving. There was no noise from neighbours. There was no constant drone of cars outside. There was a garden directly outside the window (I forgot to mention my flat was on the first floor, so not much chance of anything climbing in the window or back door). On one occasion the phone ‘binged’ – it didn’t ring, just binged – as if someone had picked up the handset upstairs. Of course, there was no one upstairs.
Or was there…?
Needless to say removing the noise and confinement, part and parcel of city living, had an unsettling effect. The irony was that the house was in Clapham: far closer to London than my flat, but it made me realise how accustomed you get to your immediate, familiar environment. I suspect that, having been brought up a city boy, moving to the country (to eat a lot of pee-eaches) would be similarly unnerving.
The little city
I now live in Perth and I take great, yet ironic, pleasure in dismissing the place as ‘not a real city’. Patronizing, sure, but ironic because it’s absolutely my choice to live here and right now I would not want to live anywhere else. I’m ready for a little city.
Samuel Johnson famously said: “… when a man is tired of London he is tired of life” (I can only assume women don’t tire as easily). I’m certainly not tired of life (perhaps tired of not getting enough sleep, exercise or green vegetables) but I reached a natural point before emigrating where I was comfortable that I’d ‘done’ London.
Of course there’s no way you can really ‘do’ London: any major city is so large and ever-changing that you could never exhaust all its possibilities. Even in our last few months there my wife and I took great pleasure in discovering a few corners of the city that neither of us had really explored before. However, I was happy with my experience of London: what was left was places I had little desire to visit or places I’d been to many times before: favourite places to be sure, but often nothing new. It’s all too easy to repeat yourself and stagnate: new surroundings allow us to open our eyes again.
Perhaps that can be my definition of the city: a place that keeps your eyes open.
You can go to any place, even somewhere you’ve been a thousand times before, and if look at it with ‘new eyes’ you’ll always see something new. I’d walk around my hometown sometimes and make an effort to look up where I’d usually look down, look right where’d I’d usually be distracted by something on my left: every time I would see something I’d never noticed before. Usually you have to make yourself do this: in the city, where everything changes all the time, you often have no choice.