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  • 15 mins
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Imagination and the city discussion

Updated Wednesday 27th August 2008

Thinking Allowed gathered a group of city-experts at Broadcasting House to explore what makes cities so attractive.

What is it that brings people to London?

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Laurie Taylor:
Right, I'm going to come to the audience, though. Because I said I’d come to you a great deal and I haven't but I am now. But just, perhaps, it might be interesting to talk about people who have arrived here from outside London and to talk about why it was that they wanted to come to London or perhaps even their first impressions of arriving in the place ,and the extent to which they synchronise with what we've been talking about here. If you like, the qualified anonymity that we were, oh, I was talking about with Will.

Would anybody like to perhaps make a comment or an observation about their sense of London? Up in the back right hand side up there, Alexa. If you wouldn’t mind standing up and giving us your name then…

Jim:
Jim Nugent. I'm from Liverpool, like yourself Laurie, so I can remember arriving for the first time as an individual in control of myself, rather than as a child with my parents, in 1970 in London and be absolutely overwhelmed with the place.

I’d read about it in the Musical Press, it was highly important, to me, but I had no idea that the place was so big, so vast, so quick, so fast. I had no idea at all. I just wanted to be a part of London and was desperate to be a part.

Laurie Taylor:

You wanted to be a part of it in what way, Jim? I mean you wanted to live here, to be with the crowds?

Jim:
Oh yes.

Laurie Taylor:
To be accepted as a Londoner, to be mistaken for a Londoner, even as a Scouser?

Jim:
No, I don’t think that would have been possible at the time. The sound of my voice has smoothed off a little bit since then. But no, I wanted to live here, certainly. I wanted to be in the music business, which I eventually did. I don’t do that any more, I hasten to add. But no, I just wanted to be a part of it.

This was a big story and I just wanted to play a tiny little part in it, if I could. The speed of the place was just unbelievable. Every single part of the big city was famous as well. There wasn’t a suburb you’d never heard of.

Laurie Taylor:
Speed is an interesting addition to our little list of lures isn't it? Thank you very much, Jim.

Doreen Massey:
But can I just?

Laurie Taylor:
Yes please, Doreen.

Doreen Massey:
I agree, I came down from Manchester and had similar feelings. But Manchester and Liverpool are cities too. I mean I think we need to be careful of what we’re talking about here. London is not the only city in this country. And there are also cities right around the world which I'm sure we shall come back to.

So we’re here, in London, in a studio in London, but we’re talking about cities in a much more general sense than that, and I wouldn’t want us just only to think that the city in this country is London.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, yes, so do we have another? We have another contributor from the audience in the middle there, Alexa, at the third row from the back, a gentleman there?

Gustav:
Hi, I'm Gustav Swanbo-Idiom. Well, if we’re talking about cities in the context of, I guess, being the opposite of rural or high density of the population being close to each other, wouldn’t one of the lures of cities be to have a choice to interact and that there’s a congregation of opportunity to choose what to do so that you can walk down the street and, like you say, if you’re jovial or you want to talk to someone, you can, but also if you’re a, you know, Londoner who’s snobbish in their preferences about who they talk to, you can also choose to do something completely different and just go about your own business.

Laurie Taylor:
So you’re talking really about the opportunity to meet people who are different, don’t you?

Gustav:
I think choice on a general level. I mean choice about what kind of, I mean there’s just lots of people. So if you have particular interests or that, perhaps, in a small rural community there’s no-one else that shares your interest, in a city there'll be a larger number of people so you can go to a specific place and engage with that type of people and choose to interact in certain ways...

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you.

Has a new city developed, out of step with how far its citizens can afford to to live there?

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Laurie Taylor:
I want to just take a couple of observations from the audience about your sense of moving around the City in the sense to which you feel the City belongs to you, the sense in which the City feels increasingly alien, the sense in which you, as a human being moving among these buildings, find very little comfort, very little satisfaction within them. Could we have some observations? Yes, a gentleman in the second row here, could we come down here?

Gus:
Gus Meyers. As a retired person, I have a bus pass, a freedom pass and travel all over London and really it's like living in a grown up Disneyland. Did all the things that there are to do, it's absolutely marvellous.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, thank you very much. And let me take somebody from here.

[Applause]

Laurie Taylor:
If we can broaden it out from London, it would be absolutely marvellous but in the second row, yes, there please, Alexa?

Diane:
Hello, Diane Pace. I'm actually a North Londoner and perhaps the most important north/south divide is North and South London. But just an observation that when I live …

Will Self:
Only North Londoners seem to take that view, interestingly, and you’re a fascinating bunch of self-regarding snobs.

Diane:
Well, I work in South London. I work in South London and every time I cross Blackfriars Bridge, going north, I feel very happy.

Will Self:
Well, no …

Diane:
But that wasn’t the point I was …

Laurie Taylor:
I was trying to move this away from Metropolitan parochialism. We’re digging deeper and deeper down. Could we lift it a little above the streets of…?

Diane:
The actual observation I was going to make is that I run a course which is about taking students to walk around the streets of London to understand urban change through social and physical change, and to see why, in the Elephant & Castle, where I work and where they study, suddenly that has become bijou loft living Manhattan residences, the idea that... and these are not homes that my students would ever, ever be able to afford, and they’re stuck on the estates, on the edges, on the peripheries, but they’ve never really walked through and around the streets to think about why is it this used to be a poor area and now it's a rich area.

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you very much.

To what extent does the media create a sense of foreboding for city life - and are there other aspects to the city?

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Laurie Taylor:
I want to go to the audience. I want to talk about your sense of being frightened in the City, of feeling the City has become increasingly dangerous or the way in which in newspapers trade in arousing our fears and whether or not you feel, perhaps, that your fears in the City are being manipulated, are being aroused. Reality, myth in the city of fear, yes, I think there’s a hand in the middle there, yes.

Gail:
Hi, my name’s Gail Burton. I started doing a series of night walks in the City, with two other women, and these walks were really based on routine walks but we inverted that to do it at night time. And the very first time we did this, which was in East London, and it was particularly in areas that were abandoned or overlooked, typically, I suppose, what you’d think were dangerous areas, when we first started doing it, we were terrified and we only got so far.

The second time we did it we'd built up more confidence. And, on subsequent times, we took on the role of being the bad guy, we did fly posting.

Will Self:
Good for you.

Gail:
And we just felt this sense of power as we posted up our own posters which were stories related to our experience. We didn’t feel afraid of other people and we thought they were probably afraid of us or thinking we were up to no good, and it was hugely empowering, and ever since then we’ve felt very different.

It's changed our perception and it's changed the nature of the space.

Laurie Taylor:
It's a fascinating story. Did you consciously set out to do this in order to conquer a fear that you had?

Gail:
We set out to do it as an art practice, and it's something that has evolved and we now take groups of people on this same route. We wanted to inhabit and inscribe ourselves into that route and really take possession of it.

Laurie Taylor:
I think you’ve joined the psychogeography club.

Will Self:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
That’s fantastic.

Gail: Ours is a kind of anti-derive so it's coming from a different angle.

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you very much. Will, I think you wanted to?

Will Self:
Yes, I mean I think it just put me in mind of when I was a student, back in the early Eighties, you know, we would have reclaim the night marches for women to kind of reclaim urban space at night. I mean, it often seems nowadays as if the night’s been completely abandoned. So I just sort of applaud you for doing it and for fighting that perception that urban space is somehow out of bounds in that way.

Laurie Taylor:
There was somebody I think just behind you that my attention was being drawn to but yes, I can see the hand in the back row there, Alexa, if you can...?

Kate:
Thanks. Hi, my name’s Kate Evans. I'm not from London; I’ve come over from Swansea today. My thoughts really, I mean I’ve moved down to Swansea, I'm originally from Cardiff and I moved back to Swansea from living in a village in West Wales, and my thoughts are really about the feeling of safety in the urban versus the rural environment.

And I know that when I moved from Cardiff, I took with me a lot of feelings and sort of baggage about can’t go out at night, mustn’t do this and mustn’t do that, and particularly in unlit streets. Many of which in rural areas are, of course, unlit streets.

Even though I'm not shy about going out in those sort of areas and I have no reason to be, and I’ve never experienced any violence or anything in the city either, it just struck me that the alienation that you spoke about at the start, in terms of how many people and the anonymity of the cities is actually, when you’re taken out of it, quite reassuring. I mean people can hear you scream when you’re in a city. When you’re in the middle of a field and it's pitch black around you and there’s nobody but cows.

But sort of fears start to play on you when in those sort of areas. It just struck me as a contradiction.

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you very much. Would anybody else like to make a point? Oh gosh, good heavens, we have a gentleman in the front row here and then I shall come to you sir.

Dominic:
Dominic Pinto. Having been someone who was brought up in North London, then into Central London, I think I can remember, well maybe sort of it’s rosy coloured spectacles of sort of being brought up in the Sixties, and I think I can remember we roamed quite freely. We used to walk to the library and that’s sort of like a couple of miles. We'd be up on Hampstead Heath, the school in Hampstead. But it seems now that there seems to be a very fundamental perception or fear people have.

Laurie Taylor:
Is it a perception or is it a reality?

Dominic:
Well I think it's mixed. I mean sort of I live in, back in Central London, Covent Gardens, I'm really sort of in the heart of the City, and certainly some of the neighbours fear I think the volumes of people, and that sort of goes back, perhaps, that our centre has been taken over by visitors rather than people who just live and work there. And it's very intimidating.

I’ve been out walking and I do a lot of walking all over and we had one walk over Mile End way, a couple of months back, and there a group of ten or fifteen of us were intimidated by a few kids. This was early evening, and it was feeling quite frightening in some ways.

But I don’t think it's particularly a gender thing because I think both women and men were feeling a bit intimidated by these kids. You know, ignore them.

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you very much. Yes, a gentleman there.

David:
David Simmons. Doreen said that the level of crime has gone down, and what my observation is, it has gone down but, likewise, the age of the violent criminal has gone down as well. I remember the days when it wasn’t safe to walk in some parts of London, or go into some premises in some parts of London, for the likes of the Kray twins who were much older than the villains of today, and also they weren't using knives, and I think that’s another issue where we have an easy obtainable weapon.

Because before it was guns, now it can be a kitchen knife, but why is the question it's happening, and I think they do not have, the youngsters today don’t have the same facilities at hand as I had when I was a youngster. I was always busy doing some sort of sport and everything else because it was cheaper, and those sort of things are quite expensive today for many families.

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you very much indeed and we had one person here, I think in the middle, here, yes.

Doreen:
Hello, my name’s Doreen Taylor and I live one stop out of East London, just Essex, and I’ve spent all my life walking around London, East London, and I bicycle to the station, and I work at the moment in Whitechapel, and I don’t feel any fear at all!

I think that the knife crimes are mainly territorial drug-related. They’re not anything to do with me. It's a certain age group. And I find it’s, I would never let fear dictate my life and I’ve never experienced it in London and I walk everywhere.

Laurie Taylor:
Thank you very much.

[Applause]

Laurie Taylor:
I’m just after a little tiny, just a slightly more general observation about the programme about cities, about your sense of cities, because I think if we go down the fear of crime a little bit further we’re in danger of turning into Any Questions. I just have a slight, I just have a slight Any Questions feel coming over me.

Will Self:
I don’t know what you’re talking about, David.

[Laughter]

Laurie Taylor:
Yes, shall we have that, I can see somebody there and a hand?

Victoria:
Victoria Walsh. I'm enjoying today but one thing I’ve sort of missed was hearing anything about the seasonal city. One of the things I really enjoy in London is the amount of green space and the public parks. But also at this time of year is when your neighbours open their windows and you hear their music, you hear their conversation and then you know who your neighbours are, and I really enjoy that.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, thank you very much. All right, Doreen?

Doreen Massey:
I’d just like very much to agree with that in that sensing the early autumn when the lights start going on in the shop windows and things like that. But it's very much because of the latitude at which we live. I lived for a while in Managua in Nicaragua and the sun goes down, bang, at six o’clock every night and you don’t get that seasonality and the long evenings and then the winter contrast. So it's a real special feature of cities of these latitudes and I love it too.

 

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