WHETHER you’re rolling in over St Patrick’s Bridge of an evening or wandering down Washington Street with the setting sun behind you, the city is before you and around you.
Which begs an obvious question. Are we too close to the city to appreciate it?
How can we take the necessary step back to evaluate it or — harder again — to see it as new, to experience the cityscape as though coming to it for the first time?
Because nothing comes between me and my search for the truth, I thought I’d ask Ana Kinsella about this. Author of a new book, Look Here, and purveyor of the excellent London Review of Looks newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/londonreviewoflooks), who better to analyse our relationship with cities?
The Dublin native, who’s lived in London for 10 years, pointed first to the city’s citizens:
“I realised during lockdown and covid that a lot of the energy of the city came from people being around, and the spontaneous way we interact with each other and pass through each others’ lives on a daily basis without even thinking about it.”
As Kinsella sees it, lockdown brought many of us face to face with the most basic questions about a city’s purpose.
“During lockdown, a lot of people were talking about the value of cities, and saying ‘if I can’t access all the professional benefits and cultural benefits of living in a city while in lockdown then what’s the point in living in a city at all?’.
“And I realised it was more than that, it was more about the energy that comes from having so many people living near each other — not knowing each other, necessarily, but sharing a space and a life together, in a way.
I’d been observing people for some time before lockdown because I started my career as a fashion journalist and was always interested in how people presented themselves.
“It was something I really enjoyed about living in London, the opportunity to see so many people presenting themselves in so many different ways, and living so many different lives.
“That really appealed to me and when those things converged during lockdown I started writing my book, which is made up in part of direct observations of particular parts of the city, while other parts are more digressive, about different topics related to living in the city and to the different kinds of people you see in a city like London.”
For many of us, city life can be a double-edged sword. There’s stimulation and variety but there can be dirt, noise, crime ... dare I say it, other people.
To be fair to Kinsella, she acknowledges that not every day is a festival of discovery no matter what city you live in.
“I’ve always been very happy to have that experience of being inside the city but also being a slight outsider in that you’re watching what’s going on.
“That kind of dichotomy can be what doesn’t appeal to people, too — people who visit somewhere like London can find that it’s cold and that people don’t talk to each other, so the thing that I enjoy and find energising and exciting, the level of anonymity in a place, is something that others don’t find to be positive.
“And I understand that, but the book is intended to be celebratory because I was writing in lockdown about the things I missed, and when I did so I realised there were a lot of things for me to love about a place like London.
“But there are times when I find the place difficult as well, having said that.”
How significant is it being a non native, though? Kinsella’s newsletter features an excellent account of the simple pleasure of taking the new Tube line in London, but the level of wonder or appreciation might not be as high among those born and raised in the English capital.
“You can certainly live in a place that’s much smaller than London and still find somewhere new and exciting there.
“I consider myself quite lucky that I haven’t lost that sense of novelty about London after 10 years but I also know people who wouldn’t be as excited by a new Tube line as me.
“It’s probably more about a way of looking at the world rather than a specific set of conditions.
There’s a balance, isn’t there? I don’t have to take the Tube every day to commute to work, for instance, and I think if I did that some of the wonder would be reduced.
“There are certainly days when I’m not as interested, when I have things to do, but I also try to keep room to appreciate it if I’m out with friends or somewhere nice, to think ‘this is really great being here, this is why I moved here’.
“It’s like a muscle in that you retain that sense of wonder if you use it, whereas in lockdown none of us were going anywhere and just seeing the same place and people over and over.”
Not that the term ‘same’ is always accurate. Cork is unrecognisable in places compared to 10 years ago, and other cities are the same.
“Going home to Dublin I see that because I’ve been gone 10 years. When I left there were so many empty buildings and now I come back and there’s a new office or your favourite pub has become a hotel.
“I find that quite difficult sometimes but I think to myself that the part of the city that’s truest is the part that matters most to you, and that doesn’t have to be a building. It can be a feeling that can be quite private, a view or a walk or something that doesn’t have to belong to someone else — an idea and nothing physical.
There’s one person I’ve seen in Camden Town station, a guy in his seventies who gets off his bicycle and uses the mirrored facade of a shop to comb his hair.
“It’s a very private gesture that you’d associate more with someone in their bathroom but he’s surrounded by hundreds of people. It reminds you that even in a city, which may appear to be cold and lonely, there’s something human that connects us all.”
TAKING the time to appreciate the city has been a challenge for decades, if not centuries, but kudos to Kinsella for challenging us all to do so in a novel way.
Yours truly had a different perspective on town as he went over Brian Boru Bridge as a consequence last week, though I have to confess I’m still some way off combing my hair in public.
- Look Here: On the Pleasures of Observing the City by Ana Kinsella is published by Daunt Books.