Monday, 15 December 2008

Taxi Fun

London has changed alot in the past decade, and while I don’t agree with those who opine that the very “soul” of the city has been lost (I refer here to the kind of Londoner who doesn’t begin his diatribe without first thoroughly scrutinizing your origins through your accent, clothes, composure and physiognomy, in order to ensure he is not wasting his breath on an uncomprehending outsider), I can at least see that in their terms, with their definition of “spirit” and “soul” as being general concepts of local kinship based on shared prejudices, each of which constellate around levels of affluence and their specific urban locations; that indeed if this is what constitutes the genuine life of a city for some people, then for them London has indeed been radically emptied of reality, of “soul”, shaken-up and rendered incoherent and unintelligible. Passing through a field of inexplicable and alien phenomena, from tapas bars to cafes with outdoor seating, to the raucous cacophony of languages, to the spectacular array of uncategorisable fashions; those who find themselves searching for a consistent set of images -groups of markers indicating a social distinction- become utterly lost in an assemblage of discrete particulars that is so vast and shapeless, so uniformly unfamiliar that for them it is impossible to determine any of its edges, let alone its constituent parts. In this case the city can take on a menacing aspect for someone who had called it home, for the person who had shared it in the past with other (never entirely dissimilar) people that had clustered together to form a finite number of discernable groups. There may have been rivalry, aversion, even contempt between the groups; but every member of each was equipped with a conventionalized understanding of the other, a set of defining characteristics based on origin, language, labor and wealth that provided a reasonably accurate, reasonably extensive abstract of their role in the city. Whether in covetous fascination, contempt or pure hatred there was a unity spun of mutual recognition, an exchange of affirmations hidden in reciprocal condemnations and stereotypes; there was a dialogue of parts which was constantly reaffirming the identity of the city as a whole, reminding its inhabitants that they were cells in functioning organs which, over-and-above any differences between them, preformed together to maintain the life of the city. To someone who had been imbedded in this experience of London, in this world of newspapers, vocations and football clubs, of utter equilibrium between balanced parts, of the total absence of the unknown, of the absolute constancy between appearance and prejudice; to someone rooted in that London -in the mechanics of the tabloid- this city that has befallen them must seem like a terrifying cancer eating away at those healthy organs which comprised his society, a freakish growth of horribly malformed biological matter, caked together in a pulsating mound of uncontrollably proliferating cells. There is too much difference for any form of shared sereotypification let alone dialogue, too many degrees of transition between classes, too many incommensurable systems for anyone to be able to span them all, to recognise their own place by seeing other people in theirs: there are no clear divisions, no clear parts, and no clear functions, only the blur of a film in fast-forward. Or rather I would like to say there is a blur for some, but for others there is the abundance of a nature in full fertility, in ripe luxuriance, in all her feminine fullness. For some the essence of London (its “spirit” and “soul”) was a combination of repetition and predictability on the level of exchange between a finite number of groups, and the grounding of them in a clear spatial order around the city; for some that is what made their home legible, what made urbanity comfortable, and the diluting of this order by a burgeoning multiplicity of groups, habits, behaviours and ethnicities has left them floating with no reference point, feeling like outsiders in a place that has no “soul” anymore. And so I am guessing that maybe for some this beautiful Babylon, whose multiplying forms I find it so difficult no to see as the arrayed breasts of the Ephesian Artemis, swollen with succour for the aesthetically undernourished, may see instead the heaving corpse of an organism to be mourned. Although there is always much to remember, to miss and perhaps recall with nostalgia, when it come to the people who occupy this vast area of ground (as opposed to the volume of buildings which they occupy, and the mass of institutions they empower), I find it impossible to mourn. Wouldn’t that be a mourning the object of which is not dead, and which one nevertheless has to occupy each day, from morning til night? Would that not render you as totally exterior to the very thing you had belonged to, and still exist within? It would be a conscious rejection of urbanity for the simply reason that its state had changed, a willfully inflicted impoverishment because nothing could be recognised, a forcing of oneself into the position of an outside outsider without realizing that there is now a fellowship of outsiders. It seems like a form of unpleasurable masochism whose presumably uncontainable and explosive anxiety was directed at me yesterday, in the form of a cabby who became progressively more aggressive towards me, finally kicking me out of his taxi in the middle of Portland Place, about 5minutes after I had referred to the West End as “Central”. After asking what country I was from, then exactly what part of London I lived in, what age I was, what I studied –after these attempts to situate the strangeness of my terminology (he had never heard the term “Central” used instead of “West End” before) in origins suitably alien had failed, he shattered both our composures by desperately demanding that I should (especially as an “original” Londoner, as if a species in its own right) stick to what all Londoner’s can understand: that the West End is the West End, will always be, and should therefore be referred to as such, and that by calling it by a different name I was doing violence by him, was excluding him. I mentioned that unofficial or rather everyday words and names change as much as people do, from generation to generation, place to place, and reflect taste and style and convenience, and that there can be more than one word or name for something, and that often the meanings they refer to are slightly divergent (stupidly I tried to explain that “Central” generally refers to Zone 1 of the tube, which includes but is not itself the “West End”), and so there was no need for him to be upset: our two terms were commensurable. He demanded I admit that London is his London, and can be no other way, that everything is static: I suggested he write a definitive dictionary/encyclopedia for London, and that I would make sure to read it before meeting him next time, so as not to misname anything or mention anything that doesn’t really “exist” in his city, and so not upset him. At that point I was deposited into the street opposite a lovely façade by Robert Adam.

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