‘And what is your favourite of them all?”, people often ask me, when they learn I have spent most of my 83 years looking at cities around the world.
Dear God, what a question! To my mind cities are distillations of human life itself, in all its nuances, with all its contradictions and anomalies, changing from one year to another, changing with the weather, changing with history, changing with the state of the world, changing above all in one’s own personal responses. How can I have a favourite? Sometimes I prefer one city, sometimes another. Inconstancy governs my responses to cities – fidelity in personal matters, promiscuity in civic affairs.
For one thing, there is a difference between liking a place, and loving it. Take London, for example. How moved I used to be by this city, when I first knew it, war-scarred but indomitable from the second world war. I truly loved it then – the proud battered style of it, the blackened and ruined monuments, the posh-and-cockney mixture, the Union Jack flying gamely through the smog upon the Palace of Westminster, the grimy tugs churning up the Thames –”Liquid ‘istory”, as John Burns called the dear old river in one of my favourite civic quotations.
Look at it now! Does the flag still send a tremor down anybody’s spine? Is there anything indomitable about today’s London? Any atavistic pride? Evelyn Waugh said he saw it declining into squalid cosmopolitanism, and it is true that when I step off my train at Euston now I find myself entering a different city altogether from the one that used to thrill me.
But here’s an odd thing. If I certainly love London less nowadays, I actually like it more! I like the glitter and fizz of it, the jumble of manners, the pace and the bitter brilliance and the kaleidoscopic parade of faces. It is no longer England, to my mind, but instead it is a marvellously invigorating sort of Dystopia.
Or consider Venice. Physically, by the nature of its geography, few of the world’s ancient cities have changed less in my time. Its shape is the same, most of its buildings are unchanged, you must still walk about it, or take a boat to supper – “streets full of water”, as Robert Benchley famously complained. Nevertheless, although I loved Venice passionately from the start, I haven’t always liked it. Fragile and exquisite melancholy is what I felt, when I first went there, but who could feel that about it now?
Even its most besotted addicts can hardly say they like the place, when stepping from their vaporetto at the Piazzetta they find it enveloped in a caterwauling nightmarish jam of their fellow visitors, blocking the bridges, drowning the cafe orchestras, all but hiding from view the totemic quadriga on the facade of the Basilica. Even I sometimes feel like re-boarding the vaporetto there and then, and going home to Wales; but no, love conquers all, and I never do.
There are places in the world where my responses have not been fickle, and the chief of these is Trieste, which I first knew as an adolescent at the very end of the second world war. I found it strangely haunting then, and thought of it hardly as a city at all, but more as a kind of idea – a place to drift through, a place on a fold in the map, neither quite one thing nor another, part Slav, part Latin, part Germanic, with nothing in particular to resound in my memory, only a sweet bewilderment.
It was Trieste’s history that cast this tantalizing spell upon me, and my feeling about the place today is exactly as it was when I first sat, 19 years old, upon the then deserted waterfront. Today it is a bustling, vigorous Italian city, but not for me. For me it remains a city of lost powers and forgotten certainties, and when I came to write a book about it – my final real book – I called it Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, because a calm, kindly nowhereness is what I feel there to this day.
Of course, if I can be unreliable in my attitude to cities, cities can be decidedly capricious in their relationships with me. Venice, after all, betrayed my passion when, in 1983, the four golden horses of the Basilica were replaced by the dullard substitutes we see up there today (if we’re lucky); for me it was a definitive moment, when the city gave up being a real, organic human habitation and reconciled itself to symbolism and tourism. As for London, when once it had welcomed me like a dowager to her run-down stately home, now its greeting is more like the air-kiss of a tabloid celebrity.
My acceptance by other places, too, has shifted down the years, as circumstances have affected our mutual responses. When I first went to Sydney, in the early 1960s, I detested the place, and it equally disliked me. I wrote of it then (in the Guardian, too) that its origins were unsavoury, its temper was coarse, its politics were crooked, and the expressions on the faces of its ladies were “steely, scornful, accusatory and plebeian”. It retorted with fusillades of vituperation, and colourful letters reached me from down under for five full years thereafter.
I must say I enjoyed this full-blooded assault, which seemed to me to speak of Australia’s pioneering days, its convict days, when no holds were barred and a man’s spit was his handshake. Twenty-five years later I wrote a book about the city, and by then my attitude to it had mellowed. In fact I had grown affectionate to the whole Sydney ethos, and by and large wrote admiringly of the place. But the city’s responses this time were much less fun. No scurrilous invective came my way. Criticisms were gentlemanly. I thought the least I could expect were snide accusations of Pommy condescension, but no – the worst that happened was a general coldness of reviews, and alas, an evident reluctance to buy the book …
I have had nothing but kindness in the cities of India, the odd robbery apart, although I never was an admirer of the Indian civilizations, their multiplicity of gods and dogmas, the gaudy elaboration of their architectures. My heart used to sink when I was debouched into the tumultuous streets of yet another immemorial capital, or confronted by the rituals of another holy shrine. This is because I was always there specifically in search of a single brief period among the countless successive layers of Indian history – the period of the British Raj. It was the bungalows, the clubs, the cricket pavilions, the commissioner’s offices, the barrack blocks, the steepled churches, the pompous hotels, the drains, canals and railway stations of imperialism that I was after, not your temples, ghats and maharajas’ palaces.
Where are they all now, when I go back to India, having spent 10 years writing about that lost dominion? The mighty Viceroy’s House in Delhi is mighty as ever, as the residence of India’s president. The cricket grounds are livelier and more crowded than ever they were. The ever-kindly Indian people display no resentment, as they show me a half-crumbled bungalow, or direct me to the remains of a long-besieged Residency. And even in Mumbai, Kolkata or Varanasi beside the Ganga river, they only smile tolerantly if I talk about Bombay, Calcutta, or Benares on the Ganges.
The truth is that if books furnish a room, people do make a city. Preoccupied as I have always been by the look of places, their histories and their municipal postures, I have all too often neglected to write about their citizens. It is only now that I have come to realize how vital to my craft have been my contacts with people – fleeting contacts usually, not the general brushing of the crowd, but those moments when just for an instant I feel I have come close to the meaning of a place. Years ago, in Canada, I devised something called the Smile Test, which involved smiling urgently (perhaps unnervingly) at anyone I met in the street, and marking their reactions. But later I came to think that it was too contrived a technique, and that one could only rely upon the absolutely unpremeditated meeting of psyches.
Utter purity of contact is the thing, and sometimes I have achieved it. Occasionally it has been with judges in court, caught by surprise between judgements; sometimes with women in post office queues; occasionally, I like to think, with babies or cats; more often with mere passers-by; and best of all I remember it happening to me years ago in Alexandria.
I was pottering around there one day when I happened to catch the eye of a wrinkled cabby, lounging high above his emaciated horse on the driving-seat of his carriage. On the impulse of the moment I winked, and instantly there crossed his face an expression of indescribable knowingness and complicity, half comic, half conspiratorial – as though between us, he, the city and I had plumbed the depths of human and historical experience, and were still coming up for more.
“Well, then”, they often say next, “what’s your un-favourite city?” But I have a glib answer to that question. Fifty years ago it was put to me in America, and as I had just spent a single comfortless night in one of the industrial cities of the Middle West, I replied without thinking “Indianapolis”. For some reason or other this raised an instant laugh – and whether it is the name of the place, or the way it rolls off the tongue, I still find the reply inexplicably funny myself. It is most unfair, I know, and the city is probably lovely really, but still my response to the familiar inquiry is instant and unvarying. “Indianapolis” I say without a second thought, and it still makes ’em laugh.
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