Tag Archives: cities

Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson

Under the name @Oniropolis, Darran Anderson maintains a fascinating Twitter feed, full of images of utopias and dystopias from film, fiction and video games, and imaginings of buildings and cities from the medieval to the modernist.  I think it must have been through his Twitter feed that I learned he had a book coming out — Imaginary Cities (London: Influx Press, 2015) — and I awaited it eagerly.


Now that I’ve made time for it, I’m sorry to say I’m disappointed: disappointed because although there are all sorts of fascinating snippets and glimpses within its pages, a modest level of editorial intervention could have made it a better book, and even within that projected work there is the potential for something stronger.

Imaginary Cities is a rich and sprawling work drawing on wide knowledge of fiction, essays, film, and the history of architecture and urban design. It’s not illustrated, perhaps surprisingly, but texts that Anderson quotes from present such vivid descriptions that, having laid it aside, you might be forgiven for believing there had been images.  It’s concerned with the cities and buildings that Europeans and North Americans have imagined from the late middle ages onwards. It’s about — if an argument can be boiled down from its 570 pages — the way that the perfected building is always shadowed by its potential to become a ruin, and how the actual city is shadowed by never-to-be-built future cities. ‘All cities are built with their ruins in mind, even if only subconsciously’ (p.35).

Who is it written for?  In some ways –in its footnotes, its broad range of literary and scholarly reference — it looks like an academic book, but in the way it’s constructed, it’s more like a popular crossover book: something like A. Roger Ekirch’s At day’s close: a history of nighttime (2005) or Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France (2007). It’s rich in particular instances and anecdotes drawn from wide reading, but reluctant to engage in a explicit deeper analysis of those materials. Like other works in this genre, although Imaginary Cities often documents its sources with scholarly care, it doesn’t bring its arguments to the foreground, and it certainly doesn’t engage with other scholarly writing in the field.

At the level of production, there’s something particularly frustrating about the quality of the footnoting. True, this sort of book doesn’t have to observe all the scholarly conventions, but if you’re going to give a footnote reference (and the book uses footnotes, not endnotes), there are some basic things to get right.  Repeatedly, Anderson gives page references to books without indicating which edition he is using.  In some cases it may be there’s only one edition, but I can say with some confidence that’s not true of Gulliver’s Travels (quoted on p.55), Great Expectations (quoted p.243) or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (quoted p.281). Page references like these are of no use to anyone, except perhaps the author, if he has the relevant editions on the shelves.  At worst they give a bogus appearance of scholarliness to the book.

The book has been let down by poor typesetting.  On p.18 we encounter the following horror:


Not, as you might think, a footnote cue to note 45, but one to notes 4 and 5.  The unconventional habit of placing the note cues before the terminal punctuation in a sentence is annoyingly frequent, but not consistent.  On p.199 a semi-colon goes stray and is placed at the beginning of a line. On p.202 a quotation from Werner Herzog begins without a quotation mark, and it appears for a moment as if it were Anderson and not Herzog who had ‘hired two drunks from the next town.’  There are plenty of similar instances.

The prose also needed better copy editing. If you’ve decided not to end a sentence with a preposition (‘with which it was once imbued’, p.135), it’s a good idea for you or your editor to delete the trailing preposition and not print ‘with which it was once imbued with’. Facts and names needed checking for typographical errors and errors of fact: The Alchemist was written by Ben Jonson (not ‘Johnson’, p.94), the protagonist of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is Marlow (not ‘Marlowe’, p.54), and Paul Klee painted an Angelus Novus, not an ‘Angeguls’ (p.258). Miss Havisham appears in Great Expectations, not Bleak House, and she’s not called ‘Miss Havisahm’ (p.243).

This kind of carelessness or informality extends to the organisation of the exposition. In a discussion of dystopian films (p.346), Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) is mentioned first by its title, and discussed for a half a paragraph before the director’s name is dropped in.  The date isn’t given at all. Perhaps I’m not this book’s ideal reader, and Anderson is assuming that everyone knows who the director is? Or perhaps he’s assuming that we can all look it up on the internet?  Or, to think about it another way, Anderson seems unconcerned with the linearity of reading and of conventional exposition. Early on, he remarks that ‘All cities are subject to the Rashomon effect’ (p.22): to the film illiterate, or semi-literate, like myself, this was baffling until p.129, where in a discussion of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, he goes on to say, ‘The real becomes unreal and the unreal becomes real.’  At least, I think that’s what he means by the Rashomon effect.

The non-linear quality about the exposition suggests that by earnestly reading the book through from start to finish, I’ve been going about it in the wrong way. It might be better to treat it as an anthology rather than an argument, and to dip into it at random. It quotes generously, and I’ve come across a variety of passages that I’d like to investigate for my own purposes, as well as being reminded of books that I should have read and films I should have seen.  But to treat it as merely an anthology wouldn’t do justice to the moments where Anderson brings his ideas into focus pithily and forcefully.  Some examples.  There’s his account of the utopia of the seventeenth-century utopia ‘Christianopolis’, devised by Johannes Valentinus Andreae: ‘Its egalitarianism is extended only to those bearing scrotums’ (p.102).  There’s his characterisation of the monsters Mothra and Gorgo, in post-war Japanese films, as ‘fervent architectural critics’ (p.169).  Of the nuclear appcalypse that never came: ‘Instead, we spent forty years destroying our cities in our imaginations and wondering what we’d do in our four minutes of freedom’ (p.174). And there’s his account of futuristic cities of monorails and bridges:

Following the law of unintended consequences, bridges over land will offer shelter and cast shadows. What happens in these havens and hideouts is the stuff of further multiplying stories. There is always a shadow, sometimes literally but always symbolically to our advances. (p.321).

Shadows are everywhere in this book.

There’s a significant amount of writing and photography about cities and ruins at the moment. Imaginary Cities steps beyond nostalgic ‘ruin-porn’ to think about the longer intertwining histories of utopia, dystopia, and ruin.  Had it positioned itself explicitly against sentimental thinking about ruins, or found some other larger argument, it could have achieved a clearer sense of direction without sacrificing its richness and range of reference.

Cyclogeography, by Jon Day

Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions, 2015) is, in two ways, a book I’ve waited for for years.  One because I know the author, in the perhaps distorting context of having supervised his M.St. dissertation and his D.Phil. thesis; neither work concerned bicycles, but he mentioned a long time ago that he was writing about the cyclist as flâneur, and my ears pricked up.  The other reason I’ve been waiting for this book, and the reason for my interest, is simply that being a cyclist has been, at various stages in my life, very important to me.  At an early stage in my love of bikes, when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, I devoured the Penguin Book of the Bicycle by Roderick Watson and Martin Grey, which I recall (hazily) as being a mixture of history and technical detail; but on the whole cycling has been something I’ve done, but rarely read or talked about.

Jon Day's Cyclogeography: beautifully printed and bound

What’s revelatory about Cyclogeography — though much of this material is concentrated in the early chapters — is that it’s an account of the bodily, physical experience of cycling and the connection it gives you to the landscape — and not ‘landscape’ as it would be understood by painters, but landscape understood primarily as road surface, as the micro-contours of road cambers and curves, and only then as something involving the middle distance and the broad panorama; and, because of that immediacy of perception, it’s also about the heightened awareness you acquire when a significant part of that environment has the potential to maim or kill you; and about the heightened awareness of your body’s aches and frailties that you acquire when you’re doing sixty to a hundred miles a day. Cyclogeography starts from Jon’s experiences as London cycling courier, but it also takes in his experiences riding out into the country beyond London, and ends with his retracing the route of Edward Thomas’s 1913 cycling-travelogue, In Search of Spring. My cycling experiences are very different from Jon’s, being primarily rural; apart from a couple of journeys through Paris, the most dangerous place I’ve cycled in is Oxford. But there’s a lot in the book that articulates familiar feelings  and muscle-memories.  Some of this comes in vivid set-piece accounts:

I join the peloton, attacking when I see a gap until I’ve moved to the front of the bunch. I cast a wide loop around a pedestrian on a zebra-crossing, grabbing the side of a bus to pull myself through a gap. I weave between the taxis that are cruising the road in search of fares. Cycling in traffic like this is an opportunistic business, part instinct and part analysis. You have to move from gap to gap, navigating the flow of traffic with the detached concentration of a boulderer addressing a climbing problem.

At the lights the exhaust of a bus blasts my feet like the warm nuzzling of some enormous dog.  The aerial of my radio sticks out form the strap of my bag at an angle and extends for a few inches beyond my shoulder, functioning like a cat’s whiskers, alerting me to the width of gaps as I squeeze through them. My shoulders are no wider than my handlebars, so I know that if I can fit them through the rest of my body will follow (pp.23-24).

But some of the particular and peculiar form of knowledge that comes from cycling is dropped in more casually, as when he mentions the awareness of the changing quality of the road surface with the changing seasons, or the awareness of the peculiar smells of different quarters of town.  And his being able to articulate these sensations comes from a wider collective knowledge in the community of couriers: he describes how in slack time between jobs, they would ‘memorialise the city … discussing our favourite streets and the perfect runs we’d made along them, hymning serendipitous formations of tarmac, those sweet-spots of camber and incline we had discovered hidden in the grid.’

But as well as articulating things I’d wanted to see written down for years — without ever having fully realised it — Jon gives an insight into a subculture that I knew nothing of, that of the London courier: I knew nothing of who tends to do the job and why; nothing of their informally organised races (‘alleycat races’); had no idea how jobs are allocated or just how far a courier might ride in a day; nothing of how the preference for fixed wheels originated. He’s interesting too on the place the courier occupies in the employment pecking order, and there’s an interesting dissonance between his account of the immediate pleasures of cycling through the city, of owning the spaces as you make them, and his account of the informal and temporary nature of the work, on account of which the couriers own next to nothing. The tone is often elegiac, as the fax machine and the email have reduced the need for couriers; and because the working life of the courier is always shadowed by an awareness that most bodies can’t endure the kinds of pressure that the job places on them; and  though the author doesn’t foreground it, there’s an awareness throughout of death and serious injury.  With my supervisor’s hat on I found myself asking ‘what’s your argument’, but that’s the wrong question for this kind of work; Cyclogeography is exploratory and non-linear in its approach, and all the richer for it.