‘Soft City’: The London of Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Raban’s book Soft City was first published in 1974, and much of it describes London. The blurb of the 1988 edition, which I bought and still own, characterises it as capturing a city of the imagination, “as real, or maybe more real, than the hard city we can locate in maps and statistics” and as documenting “the experience of carving one’s own path through the tangle and sprawl of urban metropolitan life”.

In a chapter called The Magical City, Raban challenges the idea that cities represent a triumph of rationality over the backward superstitions of rural life. He relates how his life in London was formed out of habits and perceptions and geographical handholds that often defied logic or sense. Read from the vantage point of 2017, it also provides vivid pictures of a capital that was then in the grip of decline. Here are some excerpts I particularly like.

Living in a city, one finds oneself unconsciously slipping into magical habits of mind. As I have tried to show in earlier chapters, surfaces are in any case of enormous importance to the city dweller: he has to learn to respond to a daily cascade of people and places in terms of briefly-exhibited signs and badges. His imagination is always being stretched.

In a junky antique shop, I stop bargaining over what might be a late Georgian chair because the man selling it is wearing a navy-blue peaked Carnaby Street cap; his hair, dyed silver grey, curls coyly in ringlets round its rim. Just that hat and those curls make up a message, and I do not trust it; it belongs to the area of the grammar used by sharpies and plausible perfumed frauds. I know next to nothing about Georgian chairs, but the cap and curls are part of the everyday language of the city, and I understand – believe I understand – them as well as if I had actually seen the man spraying woodworm holes into the furniture with a sawn-off shotgun…

I move on the streets always a little apprehensive that the whole slender crust of symbolic meaning might give way under my feet. At the same time, I collect more and more signs, a jackdaw’s next of badges and trinkets, continually elaborating the code which I use for deciphering my own world. When new cars come out of motor shows, I watch who buys them; who wears platform heels, buys Time Out of Spare Rib, ostentatiously sports Harrods carrier bags?

We map the city by private benchmarks, which are meaningful only to us. The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball and 25 miles long and 20 miles wide; my city is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is no more than about seven miles from any other. On the south, it is bounded by the river, on the north by the fat tongue of Hampstead Heath and Highgate Village, on the west by Brompton cemetery and on the east by Liverpool Street station.

I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do I feel I’m in foreign territory, a landscape of hazard and rumour. Kilburn, on the far side of my northern and western boundaries, I imagine to be inhabited by drunken Irishmen; Hackney and Dalston by crooked car dealers with pencil moustaches and goldfilled teeth; London south of the Thames still seems impossibly illogical and contingent, a territory of meaningless circles incomprehensible one-way systems, warehouses and caged bird shops…

The constrictedness of this city-within-a-city has the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its boundaries, originally arrived at by chance and usage, grow more, not less real the longer I live in London. I have friends who live in Clapham only three miles away, but to visit them is a definite journey, for it involves crossing the river. I can, though, drop in on friends in Islington, twice as far away as Clapham, since it is within what I feel to be my own territory…

Inside one’s private city, one builds a grid of reference points, each enshrining a personal attribution of meaning. A black-fronted bookshop in South Kensington, a line of gothic balconies on the Cromwell Road, a devastated recreation ground between Holloway and Camden, a cafe full of Polish exiles playing chess in Hampstead, a shop window stuffed with Chinese kitsch, illuminated sampans and revolving perspex table lamps with tassels, in Gerrard Street – these synecdochal symbols, each denoting a particular quarter, become as important as Tube stations.

And the underground railway itself turns into an object of superstition. People who live on the Northern Line I take to be sensitive citizens; it is a friendly communication route where one notices commuters reading proper books and, when they talk, finishing their sentences.. But the Piccadilly Line is full of fly-by-nights and stripe-shirted young men who run dubious agencies, and I go to elaborate lengths to avoid travelling on it. It is an entirely irrational way of imposing order on the city, but it does give a shape in the mind, takes whole chunks of experience out of the realm of choice and deliberation, and places them in the less strenuous context of habit and prejudice.

You can buy Soft City here.



Categories: Books

1 Comment

  1. Peter Watts, Up In Smoke and how to ‘write London’ – Dave Hill ON LONDON says:

    […] and personal knowledge and experience – something Jonathan Raban explored so skilfully in Soft City – and that the vastness of the place and the infinity of its past make it hard to hold in […]

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