Central London, Leicester Square. I had never been so clammily hot in the heart of theatre land. I could barely think as I caught up with my longest standing friend on one of my visits from living overseas. I gabble my joy at seeing her again. ‘That’s what happens when you want to see the world,’ I said, perhaps too grandly for what was just a take on more and more people living and working in other countries, a lively life that, if we could afford it, we took for granted (until COVID-19 intervened and dramatically shifted our expectations).
Drifting through city streets is one of my favourite mental lubricants. Yet a London reminding me of Manhattan’s steaming blocks with a blast of sweat and expectation, was unexpected. Sleeveless, no cardigans, just the freedom of a flimsy cotton dress. It was 1981, or thereabouts, a respite from Hong Kong, still impossibly humid and higgledy piggledy, where I was working as a journalist.
In contrast, my friend and I were remembering our modest, beachside home town, near Liverpool. We rode tricycles idly up and down lanes, past dairy farms, to the sand and water where my friend excelled while I, a non-swimmer and frankly loving the sound of waves but fearing the consequences of getting into them, idly walked up and down.
In contrast, I much preferred dancing, gyrating, embracing intimacy, rhythm, carefree movement. Cities as a backdrop at first conceal their possibilities then gradually reveal unrelated moments, distracting and then cusping at the forefront of memory and hope. We choose what to select or not.
I once wrote ‘call me shallow, but when life got too much I searched the city looking for shimmering harbour lights, neon signs, multi-sized buildings, teeming shopping high streets, food markets, cafes, restaurants, anything to get me out of myself.’
I was so (perhaps too) easily distracted. I know plenty of people do that by going into the countryside, relishing nature, flowers, trees, birdsong, perhaps during COVD-19 more than ever. But my type of nature is more parks than raw hillside. I have to be coaxed into greenery – the past few months, mind you, have shown the importance of walking within grassy areas, near privets and tufts.
Getting out has been essential, helping mental health as we emerge from anxiety, as involuntary as blinking, even breathing. But I quake at the thought of walking home and tripping on cracked pavements or being knocked down by a delivery bicycle whizzing past. I worry, but have considered the potential hazards as a way to ensure I stay alert.
Nature even scares me. Funnily enough, I find succour in city streets. I was never a racy child but was always curious about life, taking advantage of impromptu moments. I remember in New Orleans, shuffling out of the budget hostel I was staying in, to the old quarter, my eyes on the jazz musicians, trumpets, cymbals, people falling out of the bars, locals cracking on to me, from front bar flirting to them showing me their trailer parks. The next day, returning to the centre of town, I was assumed to be a local, which I took as a tremendous compliment. Could I look that relaxed and stoned without having smoked anything?
Now, New South Wales has pushed for a 24-hour economy from open-air spaces, proposed pedestrianisation to al fresco dining. But spacing is organised, pre- arranged, unlike those rambunctious, roguish gatherings of yesteryear, when things just happened, queuing for the cinema, or as a student waiting and chatting in line for cheap tickets to Covent Garden ballet, in the Gods but gee it was to see Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Some would think this too genteel to be exciting but I was game for any one-off experiences.
Pining for what I had loved
I pine for my favourite cities and incidents. Tokyo will always be up there. The subway still closes between midnight and 5 am. How to kill time? Like so many others, I went to the stupendous discos and nightclubs, of which there were thousands scattered on every level in the multi-floored entertainment buildings. Often, as a teaser, there was a traditional noodle bar on the ground level.
Taxis were prohibitively expensive so this was an attractive option. The 2000 yen entry allowed you to eat and drink all that you wanted, and dance, dance, dance. The Japanese love to dance especially in front of mirrored walls at the discos, watching themselves move (this was before selfies) and living to the sobriquet gay abandon.
I was working as a conversation-only hostess, wearing a delicate black silk dress that suited my new, uninhibited party persona. It was far more stylish than my normal clothing; it had to be, but for all the polished appearance, I was still a klutz.
Japanese backstreets are bamboozling at the best of times. I did not put on my contact lenses after long nights, talking to customers, nibbling on food, sipping sake and luckily being able to distract the regulars by dancing; I had chosen one of the few clubs that let hostesses get up and dance. The mamasan was also well-known for looking like a Japanese Elizabeth Taylor, the brunette, sultry actress. She especially liked one of my flowery suits; I never told her that I had bought if from the Salvation Army shop near where I lived. The Japanese generally deemed it demeaning to buy second-hand goods, even occasionally.
Everything was out of kilter, abandoned to a light-headed joy, thinking that you could conquer the world until sober and on that subway home. You just wanted to crash on the faithful futon found in the gaijin supermarket, where foreigners scrabbled around piles of second-hand goods that the locals had put out in the streets, as I said, when they no longer had use for them.
I did not wear specs back then so I often got lost walking back to the ramshackle wooden buildings of the cheap apartments I was staying in, the rickety stairs treading as if they would completely splinter at any moment. The set up was for travellers and unconventional Japanese such as students, poets, writers, people who had left the parental home. I had to ask the few Japanese around in the early hours for directions. They usually walked me back, proving that the legendary stories about them going out of their way to help people were true.
I remember poignant encounters so well, when we could look and touch each other rather than peer at a password-controlled on-screen image, the times before, times now and the times that surely will come.
Cities showing off their wares
Urbane, metropolitan, cosmopolitan, at their best beguiling, unpredictable, open to difference, welcoming others, not pinned down to what they are but awaiting what they might become. These characteristics directed me to the buildings, parks, public libraries, theatres, galleries, exhibition centres, places where cities showed off their cultural wares.
George Macaulay Trevelyan, a British historian and academic said that after a day’s walk everything had twice its usual value, and I, for one, can see what he meant. Writer Nikki Gemmell asks, what will become of our cities? During COVID-19, I have frequently read the headline, ‘The end of the city is nigh?’ or less prescriptive, ‘Is the end of the city nigh?’
What city? Large, small, capital, regional, metropolitan, established tourist, newly tourist, ignored, transformed, dynamic, standalone, unknown, and how dependent on a workforce coming and going, eating, drinking, driving, cycling, catching public transport?
They are lurking, I say, awaiting a regeneration, not disappeared but reassessing new appearances and rhythms. We are in the land of conjecture. Who knows what lies ahead? In the 1970s my mother urged me to learn how to touch-type at night school. Graduates were not supposed to need such skills, too low-key and menial. Yet, thankfully, she encouraged me to learn what have become invaluable in our digital, gig economy.
New York comedian Jerry Seinfeld is adamant. He is tied to being in a city. He does not like remote working. ‘Energy, attitude, personality cannot be remoted, through even the best fibre optic lines. … Everyone hates to do this. Everyone. There’s no energy. Everything has to go through up and down cycles, but you can’t replace New York. it will be back and better than ever. It feels better when you’re jammed in with other people. Life is more fun that way.’
The environment is not all gig. The masks, the social distancing, and other restrictions also make it prescriptive, too much for a flaneur, the sauntering observers as they navigate their world in their own time. Rather, we need to be ready and waiting for the human spirit to lead us on, sensing it needs to move somewhere, but not sure where.
How long, I wonder, before we can spill out of doorways again to seek out what a city will still allow us to enjoy and stay safe?