Two recent events prompt Will Wiles to consider the hidden links that make our living, thinking and inquiring lives part of a larger whole
The year started with reminders of two great, and neglected, books about the city. The first was the 25th anniversary of Geoff Ryman’s novel 253, published in 1998. Published in print, that is, as the novel appeared as a website the previous year, a daring feat of technological élan in the buccaneering infancy of the world wide web.
Similar hypertext experiments have not endured, but Ryman’s is miraculously timeless. It is a collection of 253 biographies, each 253 words, giving the life stories of the passengers and driver of a Bakerloo line Tube train. Starting at the front of the train, we learn that the driver has fallen asleep, his jacket hung on the dead man’s brake. The passengers are connected to each other, not only by the fact that they are all on the same train – which is now their shared fate – but also by a subtle web of prior acquaintance and coincidence, invisible to all but the all-seeing reader.
Hypertext was the perfect medium for this myriad story, with every hidden join between these Londoners expressed as a link (see box). The novel could thus be read in an entirely non-linear way, by following the connections. But the secret of its endurance was that also worked as a more typical novel, and was a hugely enjoyable read.
Second was the death of the writer Jonathan Raban. Famed as a travel writer, memoirist, journalist and novelist, in 1973 he bemoaned in the Architectural Review the emerging failings of modernist public space. Brilliantly, this was coupled with a critique of the private space of older London, the white stucco and railings of west London, now generally applauded as a triumph of gracious urban form: ‘Everything is spiked, barred, palisaded. There are barbed railings everywhere – on the pavement, on cornices, on window sills. These spikes, needing only the adornment of a chopped head, are the dragon’s teeth of 19th century capitalism: sown by the Cubitts in the speculative building of Belgravia, they spread through Tyburnia and Bayswater, down to South Kensington and the wilder reaches of Brompton.’
Agree or disagree, that’s bold, vivid, funny architectural writing. Those neighbourhoods were rather down on their luck at the time, and he writes more fondly of their odd populations of bohemians, faded aristocrats and mysterious emigrés. I could happily devote my whole column to that essay, but that would be to overlook Raban’s singular triumph, Soft City, published in 1974.
Soft City was written at a time of urban decline and professional pessimism, and fits into that genre of writing – in places it is an evocative period piece of bedsits and cigarette smoke. The contemporary prognosis for the city was not good: they were regarded as borderline ungovernable, and doomed to slow evacuation or even sudden disaster. Raban took a different tack. Soft City is about the experience of living in a large city. Not just living in, but moving to, experiencing the city as an outsider – and learning the ways in which cities make outsiders of all of us.
‘To live in a city is to live in a community of people who are strangers to each other,’ he wrote. It was isolating, alienating, anonymous. Yet people lived and moved there. Why? Because the vastness and anonymity of the urban crowd offered a huge advantage: One could fashion one’s own identity and be oneself freely. Far from being an antisocial prison, it could be a place of personal exploration and growth. You chose your society and company, could be a different person. Into the hard city of deafening traffic and spalling concrete, Raban wrote the soft city of dreams and freedom. We are alone, together. Like 253, it is a reminder of the invisible web of interconnection that is urban life.