Friday, 18 March 2011

If you prick a city, does it not bleed?

The newspapers tell some pretty gloomy stories about our world at the moment.  The eternal struggle between man and nature has claimed thousands of lives recently.  A powerful few are making decisions which have an impact upon the lives of millions; often without a thought for anything but their own self-interest in obtaining more terrifying power.  Lives are being utterly remodelled and everyday patterns turned upside-down.
In the past week poor Japan has been shaken then drowned.  Its cities, towns and villages have been pounded by a force which has done more than caused financial damage and a bloody great mess to clean up.  Infrastructure systems have been destroyed and disrupted.  Roads have ground to a standstill.  Businesses have been shut up or abandoned.  In the unfortunate areas in the proximity of Fukushima, even breathing the air and simply staying put could kill you.  Towns which were once safe homes are now threatening, dangerous places.  It must be a terrifying, suddenly alien place to be, yet the Japanese are behaving with immense and quiet dignity.  They are living their lives as best they can, coping with this hideous disaster.

Tokyo is a capital city, the nerve-centre of a country, yet it too is struggling; trying to keep the rest of the nation going whilst dealing with its own traumas.  Cities are not merely collections of buildings and communication and transport systems.  They are not all hard concrete and steel, tough yet before the power of the natural world pathetically brittle.  Cities are alive.  They are organic communities that experience happiness, sorrow, fear and hope.  People do not shatter down their seams like skyscrapers in the event of a disaster.  They absorb the impact of a threatening force (whether it be natural or man-made), rather than crumbling before it.  A collapsing wall feels no pain, but cities hurt.  Cities scream in shock and terror, and they weep in grief and mourning.  
After two planes tore a hole in New York City the entire island of Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs cried out.  The city's cries were heard in swiftly erected banners and flags, and photocopied prints of people who had vanished.  They were heard in the establishment of volunteer centres where ash-covered firefighters slept in cots at the back of churches, taking breaks from desperately searching rubble for fellow citizens.  In some places you can still hear the cries today, maybe softened as life has attempted a return to normalcy, but when a city is hurt the wounds take time to heal.  No shiny tower, however high, will replace the Twin Towers, which in their absence have come to mean more than they ever did still standing.
Not so long after 9/11 London too came under a similar attack.  I wasn't yet living here, but remember frantically phoning friends who commuted along the same routes hit by the terrorist attacks on 7th July 2005.  The morning rhythm of the entire city was disrupted.  The streets filled with shocked and disoriented people, passengers slung off transport services which had stopped running.  And despite the oh-so-British practice of trying to go back to normal as soon as possible, the effects of the bombings could be seen in the everyday functioning of the city.  Patterns which Londoners could normally reproduce with their eyes shut suddenly required full concentration to begin replicating once more.  A once tedious and frustrating commute became a challenge, and formerly annoying fellow tube-riders became suspicious enemies.  Even today, with an awareness of what once happened in this city, I watch seemingly unattended baggage nervously.  Regardless of the fact that it probably contains nothing more scary than two weeks' worth of dirty laundry and a straw donkey, I imagine the potential explosive horrors which could destroy me inside.  As a wound leaves a mark on one's skin, so an attack leaves an imprint on the collective consciousness of a city.

I am one, small, Accidental city-dweller yet I can all too easily imagine the horrendous feeling of violation, of one's city and home, currently being experienced by those millions of people who have built their lives in the cities of Japan, in Benghazi and Tripoli, in Sanaa and in Manama.  Yet from the living energy of a city comes its power to heal itself.  Buildings will not repair themselves, yet people will begin to piece a city back together.  Not just by reconstruction of the physical environment but by speaking and sharing experiences and showing support for one another.  Just as the human body is surprisingly resilient to the knocks it sustains in a lifetime, many a great city has witnessed violence, fire and flood.  Yet there are few cities which are completely abandoned by their citizens in times of crisis.  When the mourning is over the city slowly begins to regenerate, through the return to urban life by its inhabitants, driven by that most insanely optimistic yet utterly human emotion - hope.


  1. New type of post today! It looks like you are slowly becoming a full blown Londoner rather than an Accidental one...I was on the Victoria line on 7/7/2005, near Euston, when my train was stopped and we all got out due to a "power surge". It was my third day after coming back to work from maternity leave. Just like you, every luggage seems a threat. London bled that day. Such a memory is part of being a Londoner...

  2. Wow, Muriel, so you really know what it feels like. Glad you were ok. Must have been a pretty traumatic return to work. You're spot on about such a memory being part of being a Londoner.

  3. A thoughtful, well-written piece and I agree with Muriel, you don't sound at all Accidental!

    Here's a discomforting story: my youngest daughter was in Thailand the winter of the devastating Sumatra earthquake and tsunami. Her last email before the tsunami told us she and her friends were staying in a small town just north of Phuket, place of some of the worst casualties. The email also said they were thinking about going to the infamous 'Full Moon Party' on an island in the Bay of Thailand, on the other side of the country (recall the full moon that year was the same day as the tsunami, or the day after). I'd heard so many warnings about this rave, all the drugs, the increasing incidents of rape, how the entire affair could get out of hand in a heartbeat. So in my return email I tried to convince my daughter not to go. But here's the discomforting part - mother's don't always know what's best for their kids. Why do I say this? As it turned out, if my daughter hadn't been dancing her up a storm at the Full Moon party she'd still have been in that little town north of Phuket and, well, in the center of a storm of devastating proportions...

  4. Oh Cathy, what a story. You must have been terribly worried. It just goes to show though that sometimes amidst these horrendous things something miraculous happens. I'm very pleased your daughter was ok and safe, and thank you for sharing your story.


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