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Thread: An Englishman's Dream of a City

  1. #1

    Default An Englishman's Dream of a City

    April 27, 2003
    An Englishman's Dream of a City

    SINCE I came to live in New York in September, I've been trying to remember what my future was like. When I was 9 or 10 in my quiet English suburb, I had a little slide show of mental images that represented what was to come. As with any boy of that age, there were glimpses of a racetrack, a winner's rostrum, heroic orations or, later, bright lights and record-album covers; but all these faded in time.

    It didn't matter what I ended up good at - there had to be something - what mattered was where I'd be when it happened.

    There was one constant backdrop. I didn't appear in this image as a sports hero or film star or writer or any kind of functioning grown-up, but as my child self, seated calmly by a tall window against a vista of countless high buildings brightly lighted at night.

    It was a glimpse of loftiness and space and strangeness, distant from the familiar so it couldn't be London, that dreary glow 20 miles south, but it was also an image of welcome, of warmth. The vision was without anxiety. I belonged where I was. I seem to be here now, with my child self right beside me.

    There are thousands of reasons to be here now, in New York. Mine are not economic, political, social or even professional. I can write here - silence isn't hard for poets to find - but that's not the reason. Some- thing about this city, some blue- print or template, seems to have existed in my mind for as long as pretty much anything.

    If life begins with dreams and ends with memories, perhaps there comes a point in the middle where the two impulses are somehow balanced and neutralized, where the past is a manageable parade, and the future has been fed enough of our daylight to be sated for a while. One is confronted, faced, nailed, by the urgency of the present. These are the moments when we are doing what we dreamed of, or what we know we'll remember always, yet they are moments with no time for looking forward or back.

    Coming from the place I do, in the time it takes, with the language I speak, at the middle age I am, New York simply feels like the present: glittering, breathtaking, with its back to the past, its horizons heaped too high to see far. Something very young in me - or do I mean old? - always wanted to spend the present with people from everywhere, at a great meeting place in the center of the world.

    But it's beyond childish; it's a deeper layer than that. The only comparison that springs to mind is with an earlier visitor, King Kong, who, in his terrible panic, for a still, bewitching second of film, believes the cityscape is the rocky peaks of his island home. It reminds him of simplicity; it reminds him of safety; he sets off for the summit. And of course that sad, flickering denouement was the first glimpse of this metropolis that millions of 20th-century children had on my own little native island. New York City reminds this primate, too, of something far away, something lost and found, some improbable yet necessary next step.

    Wonder is a privilege of any new arrival, but perhaps an Englishman's view has special resonance. We are the old country, the reason for flight, the bygone: our journey to America is a journey in time and space and the English language.

    We've been the controlling parent, the rejected patriarch, we've been proud and ashamed, the forgotten ancestor - we, not the Scots or Irish, but the English, are perhaps as invisible as foreigners get. And as the land stretches out dizzyingly westward, our own language drifts from us, its quaintnesses all ours now, and New York, the gate through which the European mind passes to contemplate America, is a day away, a constant tomorrow, a handhold on the future. When we English move here and speak to those we miss, they are five hours ahead; we have five more hours to sunset, and they might just be the five hours when we make our mark on the earth

    Drawing maps of imaginary cities was a persistent habit of my childhood. I didn't realize I was sketching the future. Each place had a strongly defined sense of the compass: my inhabitants could never mistake east for west. Each city was within reach of the sea and not so far from the wilderness. There were zones of threat and zones of comfort. There was often a scary wood in the middle, because a scary wood was called for and it needed to be handy.

    Streets were straight and logically numbered, so I could remember where I'd put things. Where the streets curved and had curious names was the place to go at night, south, to the labyrinth, where you weren't to be found, to the regions where the plot advanced, where the face was glimpsed or the secret told. By morning you'd be back on the grid, telling your east from west, gazing for miles in sunlight down the endless avenues. And each new city was bigger than the last, packed more densely, built higher, crayoned in more fiercely, as if the wax itself could lift from the page's horizon, be a landscape in a third dimension.

    Perhaps what draws me to New York is that, alone among the great cities, it looks created, not over politely differing centuries by emperors or kings or presidents or committees, but somehow all at once on a rainy afternoon. And not so much created as made up, by a child open-mouthed and drooling with concentration, numbering the streets to save time for later, carefully using a ruler for the avenues, marking a big green oblong in the center, dotting it with lollipop trees and calling it Central Park. Calling the middle of town Midtown; the river to the east East River; and the island to the east, the one that disappears off the page, Long Island.

    And then, when it all looks too neat and systematic, fetching an eraser and swiping a fat diagonal white path down the island starting to color the place in with names that tell stories: Hell's Kitchen, the Battery, the meatpacking district. Names that recall other worlds: Little Italy, Chinatown. Making childish compounds full of secret meaning: SoHo, NoLIta, TriBeCa, Dumbo.

    The more I know about New York, the more its form really does seem a blossoming of childlike dreams and fantasies: the Flatiron Building, Coney Island, Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Great White Way, the Empire State Building, still lit up nightly as a little boy would have it, always in color. All those inanely grinning picnickers poised on iron girders, kids given superpowers for one day only. At Thanksgiving, the town is roped off to make way for gigantic toys, as if it is these that have to be thanked all dreams. But then nightmares come too, jealous, puerile, sickened by the breadth and dignity of humanity prospering.

    When the new map is colored and completed and named, what is left to its maker to do but to lower himself gently into its streets, and people the place with stories? And to walk the blocks of New York is to experience a warm anonymity. I've lived in the kingdom of the smirk and the chuckle, I've passed through the town of the sneer and the village of the snarl - we all have - but I'm at home now, in the city of the shrug. It's not the shrug of not caring, but the shrug of having cared, the shrug of acceptance that so many have come, so many have suffered, so much has happened. The Maker, the real one, would be greeted with a shrug here - He probably is, every day, somewhere near Port Authority - yet, speaking as a child who made up cities and wanted to live in them, I suspect that would be absolutely fine by Him.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

  2. #2

    Default An Englishman's Dream of a City

    "Drawing maps of imaginary cities was a persistent habit of my childhood."

    I'm so glad I wasn't the only one. *

    The English have a particular fondness for New York, no doubt about it. *This article just confirms it once again.

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