A view over south Bombay (now Mumbai) from Cumbala Hill in c1890. Photo: Getty
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From Boston to Bombay: the ten cities that made the British Empire

All ten cities share a self-confident belief: that it is quite unthinkable any of their number might ever dim or wither, no matter the tides of human history that sweep around them.

Ten Cities That Made an Empire
Tristram Hunt
Allen Lane, 514pp, £25

“And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers,” asked Kipling in 1911, in a piece of Edwardian doggerel written for a children’s history of England, “And where shall I write you when you are away?” “We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver./Address us at Hobart, Hong-kong, and Bombay.”

Such were once the great cities of empire. Theirs were names to be learned, recited, remembered. Lines of this sort were designed to inculcate pride in our little drawing-room darlings, youthful propaganda made easy by rhyme and poetic rote.

A century later, the perspective has changed, just a little. The great jewel-cities of the British Raj, with their palaces and parks, their pleasaunces and parade grounds, all still stand, of course, the most visible legacy of five centuries of London’s pink-washed dominion. But time catches up. Some of Kipling’s one-time gems have dimmed in the public’s esteem. Who thinks much these days of Hobart? Of Quebec City? Or even, beyond Canada, of Vancouver? Aspic or decay have settled on some of these once-grand ports. They slumber on – still charmingly, true; but on the world stage rather unrated, mostly overlooked and somewhat unremembered.

Yet some other cities once fashioned for our imperial benefit retain an enduring importance. Perhaps now is the time – at least for those still titillated by dreaming about empire (and, to judge by the shelves of bookshops in London, a great many still are) – to sift the diamonds from the sand, to examine yet another niche and nook of what seems the insatiable British appetite for Matters Colonial, to parse in some detail the British urban legacy as it exists to this day in the faraway. And also to try to see beyond an imprint that was once writ large, and much rhapsodised about, in marble, memorials and manhole covers.

Tristram Hunt, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, turns out to be very much the man for the task. He is an able educationalist and a trained historian, a man brimming with pedigree, cleverness and made-for-television good looks. To give him extra chops, he also had a grandfather who was born in that most imperial outpost, the south Indian hill-station of Ootacamund, a place of eucalyptus jungles where snooker was invented and where nut-brown colonels still ride to hounds, chasing jackals.

For his sturdy new book, with its useful maps and illustrations and a style and tone that manage to be enjoyable yet authoritative, good for the academy and for casual bathtime wallowing, Mr Hunt has opted to look closely at ten post-imperial cities. All of them are British inventions, now grown large, solid and mature. All share a self-confident belief: that it is quite unthinkable any of their number might ever dim or wither, no matter the tides of human history that sweep around them. Some, we gather here, are doing well enough to justify this notion; others, not so much.

All of these cities, with the exception of Delhi, are ports (which allows us to wonder whether the rising tides of global warming will one day do for them instead). Three of them (Bombay, Hong Kong and Melbourne) were on Mr Kipling’s exceedingly fine list of a century ago.

The rest – Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta and, most interestingly of all, Liverpool – have been cleverly selected, seemingly to demonstrate the essence of what I take to be Hunt’s thesis: that the British origins of the more potentially successful of these places are slowly being erased and obscured by layer upon layer of architecture and attitudes of their own making; and that this, in terms of the cities’ various futures, turns out to be of considerable benefit.

The choice is simple. To continue to bask in the refracted glory of empire, to be too wedded to the comforts of nostalgia, is to risk sharing in the ultimate destiny, if not entirely unhappily, of half-forgotten towns such as Hobart. On the other hand, those cities that manage forcefully to cast off their origins seem more destined to enjoy sustained prominence, success and the hope of a long-range measure of significance. To become cities of the future world.

Take the pullulating immensity of Calcutta. All of her grand and mouldering memorials, all of those mansions and barracks and churches and government buildings still dominate the city, and in doing so they help to define her. Calcutta today in consequence is something of a mausoleum, a heaving hothouse of a museum, a place unable or unwilling to break free of her shackles as the one-time capital of imperial India.

But then, for contrast, look west across the subcontinent and consider Bombay. Here, though India’s infuriatingly leaden bureaucracy manages to keep the city’s full potential in check, there is the gleam and glitter of the new. There is Bollywood, there is gossip, there is gaudy fortune, excitement, brio. There is mercantilism being conducted at warp-speed. Granted, one can still trek dutifully up to see the burra sahibs’ houses on Malabar Hill or gaze with fond regret at Victoria’s Necklace of lights tracing out the beachfront. One may still take a passable tea in the old wing of the Taj hotel and you may pass – if you dare, at rush hour – through the majesty of VT, the greatest British railway station of them all. But all these confections now lie half hidden in the city, much as do the ruins of Rome or the Tower of London. They are structures that no longer dominate as once they did. They have lifted their impress from the minds and the affects of Indian citizens. Bombay has broken free from empire in a way that Calcutta, despite all its fiery Bengali bluster, manifestly has not.

Lately Hong Kong, too, has shaken free. “In stark contrast to the imperial riches of Calcutta, Dublin or Cape Town,” Hunt writes, “the British imperial footprint in Hong Kong is now limited to the Tea Museum at Flagstaff House . . . St John’s Cathedral, the Old Dairy Farm building, Government House, the LEGCO Building on Statue Square (previously Royal Square). The heart of activity is in the Central skyscrapers . . . the haggling bustle of the Chinese markets,” he notes. “The colonial sunsets of Somerset Maugham, veranda drinks and social faux pas on Victoria Peak are long gone.”

All this I found fascinating and refreshing, for I had feared the book would be just one more melancholy reflection on the passing goodness of British times. It is instead a keenly valuable portrait of cities that have shared in a unique common experience, but one that then recounts with enthusiasm how a few among them have decided to build on that past, to unshackle themselves from it, and to develop themselves in consequence, unburdened.

Liverpool was Hunt’s boldest choice. It was once one of the greatest of the British imperial port-cities, a place whose fortunes ebbed and flowed and finally declined with the fortunes of the empire that she served. Today, however, all has changed, and quite suddenly. Liverpool is poised to become the British city most firmly linked, if plans materialise, with something that locally would have been quite unimaginable just a few years ago: with the world’s rapid shift of interest towards the Pacific region and, more specifically, to China.

One symbol could say it all. The Three Graces – that great wall of Merseyside waterfront buildings that was echoed almost a century ago with the construction of the Bund in Shanghai – are perhaps soon to be joined by an immense new structure. It is to be the Shanghai Tower, 55 storeys of Chinese-financed glass and steel that will stand as a stark and highly visible reminder of how the world order has changed, and will continue to change. And to be built in Liverpool, of all places.

Importantly, most of Liverpool now seems quite happy to accept this change – suggesting that this once-grimy, ironbound British metropolis of the past is fast unleashing herself from empire and is joining Hong Kong and Bombay and Melbourne and my own neighbour-city of Boston in demonstrating what post-imperial success can look like.

Tristram Hunt has performed a signal service in demonstrating the benefits that can accrue to those cities of empire that dare to look beyond all their years of colonial history. He has also, if perhaps unintentionally, offered something of a road map, making one wonder just what might happen if we tried similarly to unlatch Britain, the mother country, from the long imprisonment of her own imperial history. Although Rudyard Kipling might well turn in his grave, it is perhaps worth looking at these cities of tomorrow, at grandly swelling places such as Bombay, Melbourne and Hong Kong, and Liverpool, and wondering if as a country we should soon attempt to follow in their footsteps.

Simon Winchester’s most recent book is “The Men Who United the States”, newly published in paperback by William Collins (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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