“The conversations had a nightmare flatness, talking dice spilled in the tube metal chairs, human aggregates disintegrating in cosmic insanity, random events in a dying universe.” — William Burroughs, Junky
Originally published in Thoughts&Ideas.
Cities are addictive. You’ll know that if you’ve ever lived in one, or even spent time around those who do. You’ll know it all the more if, like me, you moved to one after spending much of your life in not-cities.
We don’t talk about them the way we should talk about a geographical location. We talk about them the way we talk about lovers. Not partners or spouses or stable friends. Lovers who crash into our lives, upend things, stir up our emotions with their intensity. Then disappear until the day when we encounter them, aged and changed, living with someone who managed what we never could; to tame them.
We talk about falling in love with cities. About feeling like we truly belong. About being at home. We talk about leaving them. About missing them but knowing the version we miss is gone. We talk about growing to dislike them. About feeling confined by them.
We talk about hating them. You can’t hate a city. That’s like saying you hate the sea or the sky or a forest. There’s too much, changing too fast, too variable and complex, to be able to hate it all or even understand it all.
‘The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where 2 am changes to 6 am.
You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line.’ — Jay McInerney, Bright Lights Big City
Cities are addictive because they offer us excess. They offer us constant stimulation. Constant change. A rush, euphoria, the thrill of knowing there’s always more out there.
Whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with, whatever you’re feeling, you feel the vast expanse of all you’re missing out on spread around you.
When I first moved to London, after living in a dull seaside town- the sort of place where people move when they’re sick of London and just want a beach and some good schools for their kids — for years, I found it near impossible to sleep.
I rarely slept more than three to five hours on weeknights. I’d get home, finish off my work, write, read, whatever. Then I’d feel the lure of the city, like a crouching form beyond my vision, the sense that so much was happening. I couldn’t bear to just go to sleep.
I’d get up, hop on a series of buses to see my best friend and sit on her fire escape, looking at the little boxes people lived in opposite, lights in kitchens, pot plants on windows, like a scene from Rear Window.
I’d make eye contact with someone else doing the same; sitting on the fire escape, watching nothing. There’s a huge, sodden stuffed teddy bear on one of the balconies opposite. It’s been there for at least a year. I like to imagine an over-enthusiastic lover left it as a surprise and the occupant was so horrified they never touched it or spoke to them again.
Some nights were spent running between parks, bars and anywhere else that was still open with dates, resisting the lure of home. Even when the company wasn’t exactly ideal, it gave me an excuse to be somewhere. I’ve never been to a club or a party or more than a couple of bars. But I’ve spent a lot of late nights in green spaces or by water.
I’d go to late night museum openings. Or sit in bars alone to write on napkins and loose scraps of paper (a solid creative thinking technique.)
That’s fading, but barely. At least I sleep now. But still, at least twice each evening after getting home from work, I need to go out and walk once around the block. Maybe loop through another street. Or do a circuit of a little green park, like the one in Notting Hill. I take the dog (my housemate) out at night to chase foxes and snuffle at bushes. At least once a week, I return to the canal.
It’s not about exercise or fresh air; it’s a need to remind myself where I am. It’s the joy that comes with having escaped a place I used to hate, where I used to live. Not being there is a blessing, but being here feels miraculous.
Time slows down in cities. It’s the old cliche that the more new experiences you have, the slower time passes.
Cities let you kid yourself that you could live forever. That you can keep doing more and more until time grinds to a halt. That you can fight against the 24-hour cage that confines us all.
I’ve been here three months now. But it occupies more psychological and memory space than six months, more like nine, where I used to live. The days are full, the weeks seem to last for months, the months are a story in themselves.
I used to get up, walk to my office, start at 8am and get home past 10pm, then read, shower and sleep every weekday. At the weekends, it was the same just in coffee shops and a few hours off to walk along the beach, the odd day to visit friends. But it was monotonous. I hated it. Time sped by, things were quiet. I knew I could blink and wake up to find a decade had passed. That’s changed, immeasurably. I used to fear the passing of time. Now I welcome it.
‘The Underground is a deep pool of individual solitude. Somehow ‘I’ is now indistinguishable from ‘them.’ It is a profoundly egalitarian, or flattening process.- — Peter Ackroyd, London Under
Time warps in other ways. Perpetual motion is the penance you pay for everything else. Wherever you want to be is always somewhere else. It’s strange how easily ‘near’ morphs from ’10 minutes away’ to ‘an hour away.’
People talk about travel all the time. I’ve noticed that in most cities I’ve visited, but all the more so here. You arrive at someone’s house and they ask you to recount the combination of buses, tubes, and walking you took. Then they tell you how you should have done it. Of course, the transport links aren’t the point. No one cares that much about saving 3 minutes travel time.
The purpose is to assert that you share a language. You understand the curves of the streets and the tunnels beneath them. You know that you breathe the same air and live in a place you both call your own. It’s that feeling when you meet an ex’s new partner and find yourselves one-upping each other on how intimately you know them, testing their knowledge of habits, scars and anecdotes. It’s an assertion of ownership, almost.
‘The Underground can also be the haunt of furtive desires. It can be a place of chance encounters and secret meetings, with all the pressure of the old earth lending a fervor to the scene.’ — Peter Ackroyd, London Under
What cities offer is what we all seem to crave; the chance to always be part of a group. They let us feel like we can belong.
By living there, you’re part of that group (same for any place.) Although city dwellers might treat each other with contempt as they race through the streets, when they encounter each other far from from home they’re best friends simply from living or having lived in the same area of land.
When you feel odd or weird or lost, cities have enough people for there to always be an in-group for you to participate in. You can always find people like you and who understand you and who share your interests or whatever. It’s the power of the size of the sample; it’s so much easier to feel like you belong when you’re surrounded on every side by other people who are also trying to belong and who might, if you find them, be like you.
That’s comforting. That’s one of the things that pulled me here in the first place- the sense that I could find whatever I needed here. So far that’s proven to be true.