Three cities in three paragraphs

The Phoenix Park, Dublin. Pic: CGP Grey

The Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Pic: CGP Grey

The One City, One Book event run annually in Dublin always strikes me as a tease.

Whenever I read of this year’s nominated book I usually think: what of X, or Y – when will Z get the credit it deserves?

Some years ago a visiting friend asked me what books she should read ahead of a visit to the city. I was stumped. Who would to attempt Ulysses as a primer for a city break? Kavanagh’s Baggotonia represents Dublin but just one part of it.

I’ve found myself similarly stumped when travelling abroad. For years I’ve sought out The Great London Novel – to no avail. Dickens, Greene or Ackroyd each wrote part of what that city is, but as the deeper I read the more I’m left with a sense of the enormity of the task, the impossibility of knowing the place through literature.

Perhaps it’s a side-effect of Twitter, or a symptom of distraction, but lately I’ve turned to extracts, simple paragraphs, as triggers to evoke a memory or mood of certain places.

In the past year I’ve spent time in three world cities – all of which are of course impossible to depict in a single paragraph. But if I had to pick…

Jones Street, NYC

Jones Street, NYC

…my first choice would be Pete Hamill’s Whitman-esque evocation of his home city in Downtown: My Manhattan, an account written by a man – as I always envisage him – standing alone on that island’s west side piers on a late Autumn afternoon, just before sundown.

Go down to the North River and the benches that run along the west side of Battery Park City. Watch the tides or the blocks of ice in winter; they have existed since the time when the island was empty of man. Gaze at the boats. Look across the water at the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, the place to which so many of the New York tribe came in order to truly live…Gaze at its ruins and monuments. Walk its sidewalks and run fingers upon the stone and bricks and steel of our right-angled streets. Breathe the air of the river breeze.

My wife is from Los Angeles and I’ve spent time there, but not enough to fully appreciate the astonishing capacity it offers for reinvention, the cost of which is grinding failure, the reward searing success. Joan Didion understood the distance between the two, writing in Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

Venice Beach, California

Venice Beach, California

The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.  Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who  come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways.  Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look:  the movies and the newspapers.

Finally, to Joyce – and Dublin. Not Leopold Bloom’s city wanderings, but rather those of Mr Duffy in the Dubliners‘ story ‘A Painful Case’, who pauses on a hilltop in the Phoenix Park and looks over the city stretching eastward along the Liffey, thinking of his deceased lover.

When he gained the crest of the Magazine Hill he halted and looked along the river towards Dublin, the lights of which burned redly and hospitably in the cold night. He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying… He turned his eyes to the grey gleaming river, winding along towards Dublin. Beyond the river he saw a goods train winding out of Kingsbridge Station, like a worm with a fiery head winding through the darkness, obstinately and laboriously. It passed slowly out of sight; but still he heard in his ears the laborious drone of the engine reiterating the syllables of her name.

_____

 

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4 thoughts on “Three cities in three paragraphs

  1. Didion really nails LA there – as do you in “…astonishing capacity it offers for reinvention, the cost of which is grinding failure, the reward searing success.” So very true.

    • I came across the Didion in Tom Wolfe’s 70s anthology The New Journalism. LA is a place – more than any other I’ve seen – where human ambition is completely unleashed, with all the good and the bad that follows.

  2. Anne says:

    Now you need to find one for Tokyo….:)

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