Dictionary of Drift

Restless Cities
edited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart
(326pp, £12.99, Verso)

The most frequent references in this collection of sixteen essays about 'the metropolis as a site of endless making and unmaking' are to two writers, Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, and to two groups, the Surrealists and the Situationists. Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire captured much about the ambivalence and paradoxes of urban life--the individual's complicity in the menacing spectacle of the crowd and his or her simultaneous wish for the distancing leisure of the flaneur or flaneuse--while Louis Aragon's perambulations in Paris Peasant and Guy Debord's dˇrives imagine a city structured like the unconscious. Just as cities are, to use the words of David Morley's poem 'Special and General Theory' out of context, places which 'build up to things, build down' so our business in them is unfinished and unfinishable. This is reflected in the restless titles of the essays in Restless Cities--e.g., 'Commuting', 'Driving', 'Lodging', 'Recycling'.

The pleasing consistency of the essay titles is reflected in the way the essays echo each other. So, for Ian Borden in 'Driving', the urban landscape 'becomes a true machine of possibilities' whereas for Esther Leslie in 'Recycling' 'The city is an immense machine for creating waste' and Michael Sheringham begins 'Archiving' with the proposition that 'One of the city's archives is its detritus.' The blobs of gum noted by Sheringham are turned into miniature paintings by Ben Wilson, an artist discussed by Leslie. Similarly, for David Trotter in 'Phoning' the decline of the public telephone booth raises the question 'How are we to go on being private in public?' while Michael Sayeau's 'Waiting' discusses the privatized public spaces of airport terminals. Other essays share a concern with transience, permeability, ruins, and collapse.

It's interesting to reflect on how firmly the essays' titling words are rooted in the present and the future. 'I was a commuter' is a barely imaginable phrase while the lodger hopes for a future permanent residence and more and better recycling is a personal, local, and national aspiration that guarantees the future of the planet. But the city's emphasis on the present and the future is founded on one of the paradoxes I mentioned earlier: in cities we are surrounded by the past on all sides and, particularly, by the re-use of its physical structures. Some examples. A bar and restaurant in Leicester called Entropy
in an old butcher's shop which has retained the black and gold sign saying 'Purveyors'. The many city centre bars and clubs in old bank premises in Manchester. A nineteenth century industrial works in Sheffield turned into artists' studios and rehearsal spaces.

Pleasure and aesthetic production, then, involve nostalgia and forms of cultural memory but these examples also remind us that cities are peculiarly melancholy places, melancholic in the sense of unfinished mourning. The figures of Baudelaire, Benjamin and Aragon remind us of the importance of discourses of melancholy within both modernism and early twentieth century modernity. World War One had revealed basic cultural, social and political suppositions to be inadequate and had legitimated anxiety and melancholy as authentic responses. Similarly, modernism's rejection of optimistic Enlightenment assumptions led to a turn away from modes of meaning that reflected the ideal life of society to those necessary to contemplate a world of ruins or a world always on the brink of becoming ruins. Aragon's Paris Peasant
was kind of lament for the loss of the passages of shops in Paris, the passages that were the subject of Benjamin's uncompleted masterpiece.

If all this suggests that our ideas of modernity are almost a kind of heritage site in themselves then so be it. Baudelaire's imaginary city and Benjamin's reimagining of Baudelaire's city still speak to the mix and mash-up of past/present, memory/forgetting and loathing/desire that characterise the urban experience. All the essays here are written in an accessible style and wear their critical and theoretical frames lightly. Here are my particular favourites. Michael Sheringham's 'Archiving' uses a range of books including Patrick Modiano's The Search Warrant
and Paul Auster's New York Trilogy as a way of understanding cities as vast, palimpsestic documents that need us to be their amanuenses. Matthew Beaumont's 'Convalescing' sketches a poetics of convalescence in which the recovering patient is 'acutely sensitive to the life of the streets but at the same time oddly anaesthetized to it.' This seems to describe a common experience of modern city living. Geoff Dyer's 'Inhabiting' moves between London, Paris, New York and Tokyo in a little OCD comedy of the search for the perfect coffee and donut combination.

Finally, Esther Leslie's 'Recycling' has the merit of exploring an aesthetics of rubbish and of drawing attention to Sean Bonney's excellent Baudelaire in English
(Veer Books, 2008). For Leslie, Bonney exemplifies a new kind of artist who looks for new ways of being in urban spaces that are controlled by licenses and profit. Bonney's choked and convulsive typescript versions of Baudelaire have, she argues, a 'visual and graphic form [that] suggests something splattered on the pavement' and, one might add, something of the processes of erasure, demolition and over-writing that characterise the urban landscape. Bonney's lengthy note to his Baudelaire versions talks about the 'wrecked and 'delinquent' parts of town' as 'the occult secret at the heart of society's discourse about itself'. This tells us a lot about the enduring fascination of Baudelaire's unreal city and why Bonney is one of the most important British poets now writing. Visit his blog, Abandoned Buildings, and marvel at his poems 'after Rimbaud' and the sweep and crackle of his Commons project. And buy his Baudelaire in English.

Restless Cities
is a highly entertaining and thought-provoking read but there are a few oversights. First, the book can seem a little London and European capital-centric. What about regional cities? More importantly, if would have been useful to have balanced the book's emphasis on Western European modernity with something on the mega-cities of the Far East. In parts of China one can drive for several hours and never see countryside at all: just vast movements of goods and people through a concrete eternity. Second, one would have liked more on how fears of crime and of terrorist violence have changed our view of cities and life in them from about 1970 onwards. Finally, there is surprisingly little on how cities have been shaped and continue to be shaped by internal migration and external immigration. For example, the reputation of nineteenth century Paris as a culinary centre derived in no small part from the coal trade between the Auvergne region and the capital. Many Auvergnats settled there and opened the cafˇs and restaurants which made the city famous. Similarly, Asian and African immigrants have been as important to twentieth century cities as Jewish settlers were to those of the nineteenth. It would have been good to have some sense of these communities and their representations. But for that you'll have to turn to something like Rachel Lichtenstein's collaboration with Iain Sinclair Rodinsky's Room (Granta, 1999) or Tony White's Foxy-T (Faber, 2003). White's novel is set in an internet and international call shop in Bangladeshi East London and told in street talk from the perspective of an unnamed customer:

     Then opposite the Golden Lion is a old close down Jewish
     shop use to be call Roggs. Left from time man. Since year ago
     man say this a Jewish area init only it aint no more fe real.
     Just that man kept open him deli fe sell all that Jewish food
     init but since none a them Jew live round here him no do no
     business and him close. Is all board up and them upstair
     windows open fe let in the weather and the pigeon so man
     know in a couple year time this all be demolish and turn into
     flat or whatever.

                     © David Kennedy 2010