Soft City, a book by Jonathan Raban who died last week, is not about London only but contains many telling insights about the city Raban moved to when in his twenties in 1969. Published in 1974, Soft City was described in one review as “a pyschological handbook for urban survival”. It’s a work I still dip into, hoping to be more inspired than demoralised by its brilliance. There are already plenty of obituaries (the Spectator, the Guardian, the New York Times) and I am not not equipped to add to them. Instead, here are three short passages from Soft City. The first is about homes, neighbourhoods and taste:
“With houses, in the city at least, their epigrammatic possibilities reside primarily in the postal district in which they are located. Certain areas, at both ends of the property market, clearly belong to the ‘investment’ category: Belgravia, whose denizens talk of it as ‘just round the back of Harrods’, or, several tens of thousand of pounds lower down, Hounslow or Catford.
Some London suburbs are traditional class ghettoes; ownership of a house in, say, Golders Green or Cockfosters, merely reflects the income bracket and status within the middle class of the purchaser. But there is a great deal of soft territory where people buy houses to announce something distinctive about themselves, and not just that they have a certain quantity of money.
I have already mentioned Islington and Camden Town as places of this kind.; as I write, it is becoming a very clear signal of personal identity to buy a house in Kentish Town, a recently resurrected dark quarter of the city, to which those who are discriminatory, left of centre, but scornful of the swarm of Islington camp-followers, are currently flocking.
The NW5 postal district is moving into the pantheon of style, where it joins N1, NW1, NW3, SW6, W8 and others. A year of two ago it had all the characteristics of an area awaiting rediscovery; heavy dilapidation, absentee landlords, houses let off in single rooms, a high proportion of immigrants and students, and relatively low property prices. As these things go it was a junk quarter, a natural piece of raw material for the stylistic entrepreneurs. Its very unlikeliness was part of its charm.”
The second is about rage, crowds and the Tube:
Coming out of the London Underground at Oxford Circus one afternoon, I saw a man go berserk in the crowd on the stairs. ‘You fucking…fucking bastards!’ he shouted, and his words rolled round and round the lavatorial porcelain tube as we ploughed through. He was in a neat city suit, with a neat city paper neatly folded in a pink hand. His fingernails were clipped to the quick. What was surprising was that nobody showed surprise: a slight speeding up in the pace of the crowd, a turned head or two, a quick grimace but that was all. I think we all knew, could feel on our own pulses, the claustrophobia and the hostility that was eating away at the man who was cursing us. Inside, we were all cursing each other. Who feels love for his fellow man at rush hour? Not me.”
Finally, Raban on paintings of London by Claude Monet between 1871 and 1914:
“The earliest paintings represent the city as a castellated frieze on the horizon, seen from across the wooded meadows of Hyde Park; a jagged rectangular construct imposed on a lyrical nature of sweeping curves and intense greens. One painting of this period shows the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge, half shrouded in mist in the distance, their gothic pinnacles and curlicules softened, as if they might fade altogether into the sky; while in the foreground, the violent hard-edged outlines of a half built jetty stand out against a river of pretty ripples. At this stage, the main content of each painting is the play of nature against culture, the arrogant rigidity of man made shapes against the soft, diverse and promiscuous activity of things in nature.
Later, in the brilliant studies of Westminster Bridge, painted between 1899 and 1904, Monet explored the visual osmosis which seemed to take place in the heavy industrial smog of the city; the bridge, an unearthly blue, soft in shape but strident and surreal in colour, exchanges its characteristics with the river and the sky. Its colour spreads into nature, while it borrows from nature the rusty oranges and yellows which might come either from the sun or from the flame of some giant industrial retort. The freest shapes come from the smoke from chimneys; the most intricate colours from the traffic crossing the bridge. It is impossible to know where nature ends and culture begins.”
You can buy Soft City here.
Image: One of those Monet paintings.
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