10 November 2009

Cities and Ambition: the case of London

A friend linked me to Paul Graham's 2008 essay, Cities and Ambition. Its thesis:

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.
The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.
What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you've been meaning to.

What about The City of this blog - my city, London? What is the quintessential London ambition, what is this city’s message?

Graham is a little opaque. He calls London a city that cares about “hipness” or ‘knowing what’s what’. “So maybe,” he writes, “it has simply replaced the component of social class that consisted of being ‘au fait’. That could explain why hipness seems particularly admired in London: it’s version 2 of the traditional English delight in obscure codes that only insiders understand.” True enough - though it’s definitely not cool to call it ‘hip’, and ‘cool’ is pretty over too. Fashion? Being on trend? ‘Chic’ and ‘style’ are more Paris; London is about the ineffable it that is all the more it by remaining unspecified.

Graham also detects the ghost of a message that one should be more aristocratic, as too in Paris, New York and Boston. (Class itself is of course ‘version 1’ of the “obscure codes” Graham believes we Britishers love.) It would be easy to write off such a statement as a USian stereotype of this country, but there’s a certain truth to it - how many super-social creative venture-starting party kids are doing so funded by a nice little inheritance and a recognisable surname?

The modern London aristocratic is about being that multi-faceted word, ‘smart’. Smart as in well-presented, knowing the codes of double cuffs and just how much you can bend the rules with your haircut. Smart as in well-educated (always paid for, through fees or catchment area house prices), and appearing informed and intelligent in a manner with some autonomy from the question of whether or not you actually are. And smart in the Tatler sense: the politically acceptable word for posh.

Yet ‘being smart’ or ‘having it’ - these are good things to do in London, but could we say they’re this city’s message? I don’t think so - I don’t think London has one message, not in any soundbiteable sense.

It is of course very white to talk about a city having one message: newsflash, Graham’s (or my) middle class white sensibilities can hardly speak for the many and various dreams and desires of a hamlet in Surrey, let alone those of a metropolis. The process by which a city gains an ‘image’, however - that amalgam of representations of history and population and economy and cultural production - that sociocultural process is pretty white- and middle-class dominated. And we’re certainly talking about image here, rather than a genuine belief that the average person in LA really is more celeb-oriented than one in NY. A city’s ambition is instead the beliefs we don’t think we hold but believe those around us do.

So, problematic as the idea is, perhaps we can talk about New York and Los Angeles and Boston/Cambridge having images. Why? Because the US is big enough, with enough big and distinct cities, for like-minded people to cluster. You want a tech job you go to the tech city; you want a sunny eco lifestyle you go to the sunny right-on city. It is at least conceptually possible. Britain? If you want an interesting job, you probably have to move to London: it’s the only city big enough to offer a substantial choice of employers and industries.

I’m a social researcher. In London I could work for a think tank, or government departments or quangos or NGOs, or I could work in public sector market research or in a strategy-oriented consultancy. In Southampton I’d have to work for the Office of National Statistics, or leave. My friend’s a theatre reviewer. Here she can go to see comedy, or musicals, or big West End actors doing Shakespeare or serious Polish avant garde things they prefer to call ‘bodywork’. There’s a dozen gigs a night needing reviewing, and a hundred newspapers or magazines to review them for. Try starting that career in Manchester...

One probably could, of course. It’s not that the rest of the country is a cultural wasteland, it’s just that London believes it is - and that’s what the London-centric national media tells us all. In this culture London gains a monopoly on imaginative possibility - it’s the place you go if you want to make something happen in your life. Even if you’re not quite sure what that something is yet, you can probably do it there. Paul Graham says that New Yorkers want money, Washingtonites proximity to political power, and Berkleyites to live better. Does London have such a clear ambition? Probably not. Instead, the city is just an urban glamour, a dream, an illusion of possibility.

But that is why London is interesting: it could be anything.

1 comment:

oedipamaas49 said...

Yes, the fact that so much of what happens in the UK is fixed in London is a real, real problem. Same with Paris. Compare to Germany, where no city dominates. So Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg -- all can have a recognizable culture of their own.

For those inside the London bubble, that's probably good. Media, business, politics can all rub shoulders and intermingle. But the rest are left outside, peeping in through the window.