By James, 12 September 2017 #
He stood on the bridge, looking upriver to the Cathedral. It was an unseasonably bright, still autumn day, and the city was doing its best to look simultaneously modern and ancient in equal measure. A long time ago, when he knew he would be leaving, he got the feeling this place would be a good one to come back and visit one day. And here he was, returned from the other side of the world after enough time for the skyline to have changed, but for the city to still be reassuringly familiar.
His gaze swept along the river bank, past facades old and new, and rested once more on the Cathedral. Against many odds, it seemed to him, the building was still standing. But for what did it stand? Like all ancient monuments, the depth of its cause had slowly evaporated, and now the primary source of its significance is simply its continued existence. Like going to a centenarian’s birthday party: it doesn’t really matter what they have been like, just that they’ve continued to be. And like the centenarian, the cathedral may have witnessed almost unimaginable technological progress, yet the mysteries of theology still evade the comprehension of the people who enter, walk past, and eat their lunch under the gaze of the great building on this day as much as they evaded and inspired the building’s founders.
Cities are a connection to the past. Like a time-lapse montage, the fonts on the signs change, horses turn to cars, paintings turn to black and white photos then colour. The people are different, but the city is still the city. The layout and names of the streets, the path of the river, the ancient monuments and old buildings, they all create this connection to the past, to stories and collective, sometimes imagined, memories. Come to think of it, the people aren’t all that different. Sure, there are different people, but people are basically the same as they have always been.
On the other side of the bridge he watched a small child pointing up at the sky, being pulled along by an au pair fully absorbed in her phone. He followed the child’s gaze and saw a seagull slowly wheeling through the thermals created between the modern glass skyscrapers that jut upwards out of the city’s foundations. For the seagull, these shiny buildings are great at creating a consistent updraft of warm air. For the people, they are the newest piece in the symbolic jigsaw puzzle they exist in day after day. A constantly evolving comic strip of allusions to grandeur.
From his vantage point on the river, he could survey pretty much the full gamut of monumental history of the city. This is what gives a city its individual character — the symbols and stories embedded in and emblazoned across its physical structures. In roughly chronological order, there were monuments to divinity, palaces of royalty and government, imperial pomposity (some are pretty ridiculous now: A first-century terrorist warrior queen and her bare-chested daughters immortalised in bronze seems a pretty bizarre idea now, but was a potent symbol of nationalism to the Edwardians, keen to retain and reinforce the grandness of empire), then there was a brief break when the symbolism shifted to the collective sacrifice of war, before a relapse to grandiosity, but this time to celebrate capital accumulation with brutal concrete and shiny mirrored towers.
Everything he can see has a voice and speaks. The voices are different volumes and some of the messages are less distinct, but the out of this symbolic cacophony a theme emerges: this city values things that are old, or big. The only thing we build monuments to nowadays is money. And so the very fabric of the city is shouting at the people: “KEEP CALM AND ACCUMULATE!”
The image of rush hour flashed through his mind. Everyone plays a role like Human Fidget Spinners. Trying to run faster and faster, in order to try and somehow get ahead, but just staying in the same place and getting more blurry. Perhaps that’s what we’ve become: Addictive, pointless, distracting and ultimately disappointing. A waste of time, effort, and ball bearings.
His attention returns to the bridge with a sharp shriek. A fitnesswear-clad woman is mortified as her dog sniffs enthusiastically at a plate-sized scab of vomit on the sun-baked pavement. She tugs at the leash pleadingly and then with attempted authority. The child on the other side of the road points and laughs. The au pair walks on, still not looking up.
The relationship between a city and its people is one of power, and power structures have a natural tendency to be psychotic. There are exceptions to this rule: some examples survive in places like remote Pacific islands. In those communities, the role of the Chief is not to control, but to resolve dispute. Societies like that, while tending to be happy and peaceful, unfortunately also tend to be conquered. And so the natural evolution of society has been towards structures that concentrate power, and hence require symbols and monuments that control.
He looked across the other side of the bridge to the shinier and more modern part of town, and noted that the more recent the building, the less distinctive — these glassy shiny abstract shapes could be in almost any city. This is because the story that all financial centres tell is the same. The buildings are aloof because the stories they tell aren’t human stories.
The dogwalker and the au-pair and child have stopped — they have formed a small audience around a young man who suddenly dropped to the floor on the pavement. As the girl reaches down, the young man looks up with a huge grin and pulls out a small box with the other hand. The drone of the city is briefly drowned out by the choral sound of a squeal of delight, an intake of breath from the crowd, a collective happy sigh, followed by cheers and applause at the acceptance and their embrace. The au pair has taken a picture on her phone and tugs the pointing child over to offer to send it to the couple.
In his mind, he made a conscious effort to make the scene part of his story of this place. He then smiled at his wife and gave her a squeeze. In each hand, he took the hand of each of his children, and they finished crossing the bridge.
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