Can you move down a bit, please? Commuters on a packed London Tube train. Photo: Getty
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Standing packed together on trains but studiously ignoring each other is nothing new

A complex repertoire of psychosocial behaviours has been built up over the past two centuries in order for it to be possible.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd”, the unnamed narrator chances upon a strange old man in a London tavern. Following him through the streets after closing time and then throughout the night, the narrator realises, with mounting horror, that his quarry is compelled to seek out his fellow men – the waifs and strays of the urban night – simply so he may continue to be part of the generality rather than a singular individual. The poor fellow cannot otherwise exist: he is the man of the crowd.

Written in the late 1830s and set in London – at that time the largest city in the world – Poe’s story is a seminal work registering the creation of modern urban life and our psychological response to it. Translated into French by Baudelaire, it became a foundational document for his conception of the flâneur; but what I find most suggestive about the story is the narrator’s description of the old man’s face – which he says is shockingly grotesque, to a degree unprecedented in his experience.

In common with most city-dwellers I inhabit the urban mill-race much as a fish does a shoal: regarding my fellow men and women of the crowd but little, so long as they are swimming in the same direction. A complex repertoire of psychosocial behaviours has been built up over the past two centuries in order for it to be possible for us to exist bum-cheek-by-wincing-jowl with myriads with whom we have no connection: we don’t speak to them; we appear purposive and goal-driven; the advent of modern technologies – particularly personal sound systems – has been incorporated, so that now we can stride through the streets, or stand packed together on public transport, each occupying our own parallel world of reclusion.

Actually, this is nothing all that new: the emergent technology of the mass-produced newspaper and the book were factored in to the crowd dynamics of the late 19th century. Ambulatory City commuters of this time – the clerks and computers, Eliot’s undead who streamed across London Bridge – spontaneously formed into contraflow lanes so they might read as they walked, thereby snatching a few reclusive moments apart from the mass tyranny of the clock. But perhaps the most essential attribute required to be an urban survivor is a strange visual impairment: a concerted ability not to look anyone in the face.

It’s said of those on the autistic spectrum that because they have no intuition of other minds – what George Eliot typified as understanding that other people possess “an equivalent [and separate] centre of self” – they display little interest in facial expressions. By that analysis, everyone sitting in the train carriage with you right now is functionally autistic.

We do look at other visages in the crowd – but these are only brief, probing glances, the aim of which is to establish the likelihood of threat or the remoter possibility of sexual attraction leading to lifetime love and security. What we don’t do – what, in fact, we daren’t do – is examine strangers’ faces for prolonged periods, bringing to bear on them all our imaginative and empathetic capabilities.

Over the past week or so, having previously enjoyed a period of intense solitude while working on a book, I’ve been savouring my regained freedom and exposure to humankind by doing just this: instead of walling myself up behind book or screen, I have been surreptitiously scrutinising faces wherever I go. Several things have struck me while undertaking this field research on our species. The first is quite how difficult it is to describe faces. Of course, as a writer, I knew this already – although it’s an axiom of fictional characterisation that in respect of physical appearance less is usually more: the reader needs to have something for his or her own imagination to do, and so cherishes being given a free hand on these immaterial countenances.

We might say that a mouth is generous, or eyes deep-set, or cheeks acne-scarred, but when set beside the living, breathing, infinitely subtle interplay of inner thought, outward reaction and the nexus of superimposed cultural conventions, it tells us next to nothing about what a person really looks like. We often experience this disjunction between appearance and reality most acutely in representational art; in painting, for instance, we readily grasp the distinction between artists who can portray the fleshly form of the psyche, and those who merely produce likenesses. Not for nothing did Baudelaire entitle his essay about the flâneur “The Painter of Modern Life”.

The flâneur stands apart from the crowd and is unafraid to see the individual rather than the functional stereotype imposed by mass urbanism – but it is a deeply uncomfortable perspective to adopt. Once you begin to analyse a stranger’s face she ceases to be a stranger: you feel the living oppression of her illnesses and neuroses, her joys and her sadness – she becomes part of a tightly knit community that takes up residence in your mind alone. And this explains why it is that Poe’s man of the crowd is so very physically repugnant; because he can only exist in a condition of anonymity, he has absorbed all of the alienation and lack of feeling such a state necessarily implies. To employ a favoured idiom in my part of the world: he looks like the back of a bus.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage