It's a wonderful town: the New York skyline. Photo: Getty
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Life is a love affair of places – but as you get older, you find your co-ordinates change

Ed Smith’s Left Field column. 

Experience is as much about receptivity as what actually happened. How good is a novel? It depends on when you read it. Read The Great Gatsby or Brideshead Revisited in early adulthood, before you can see the tricks, and you’re more likely to get swept along by the wrought glamour.

As with books, also places. How great is a city? How old were you when you arrived, how hungry for experience, how open to risk? How precisely did you register social distinctions? A city is only the sum of your memories of it. And memory is uneven; there are phases when events lodge more luminously.

“A writer can spin on about his adventures after 30, after 40, after 50,” F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in an essay, “but the criteria by which those adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of 25.” Autobiographies, John Betjeman said, should end at the authors’ late twenties. By then you’ve been through all the interesting bits. While I hope Fitzgerald and Betjeman were wrong, I suspect they were on to something.

For me, those adventures were divided between summers playing cricket in England and winters in Lower Manhattan. For a five-year spell in my early twenties, I lived in New York for three or four months a year. Partly I wanted to escape my very English life; partly, after seven months of county cricket each summer, I was so tired of living in a contained, limited environment that I needed an injection of city life; and partly it was that I had made new friends in New York and missed them.

It sounds both sloppy and grandiose to say, “I fell in love with New York.” But places can exert a hold on us at certain moments, just like people. “Dear Chicago”, Ryan Adams’s wonderful confessional song, deliberately blurs the distinction. Is he writing about a place, a person or both? It’s not clear.

We usually explain away infatuation with places apologetically, as though it shouldn’t matter. “Life is an affair of people and not of places,” wrote Wallace Stevens in Adagia, “but for me life is an affair of places and that is just the trouble.” There isn’t even a common word for “cityphilia”. Urbanity, too tied up with manners, doesn’t quite catch it.

Last month, 15 years after my first visit, I went back to New York. I walked everywhere, as I always used to, following no particular plan beyond the staging posts of superior coffee houses. Imagining I was observing how New York had changed, I was in reality following a different journey. Cities change, but not as fast as you do.

The first shock is the most obvious. Falling in love with a city, you are being seduced by it. The particulars, however real they feel, are incidental. You realise that, experienced more objectively, the shops are just shops and the restaurants are much like other restaurants; even the parks don’t look as remarkable as you remembered them. Those things, however nice, did not define the experience. They provided the canvas. The picture was the feeling of observing while being mostly unobserved, walking and seeing, part of something and yet removed from it, absence in presence.

When you are in your early twenties, still working out who you are, the city is rich not just with entertainment but also with influences. When career, temperament and sensibility are all in flux, the range and scale of what is relevant and interesting are almost infinite. Later – when you are, perhaps, clearer and certainly busier – so much is subconsciously filtered out. The downside is diminished instinctive receptivity.

In his perceptive essay “Here Is New York”, E B White distinguished between three versions of the city: first, that of the native New Yorker, for whom its turbulence and scale are facts of life; second, that of the commuter; and third, the New York of the person who comes “in quest of something”. “Of these three trembling cities,” White concluded, “the greatest is the last . . . the city that is a goal. It is this third city that
accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment.”

I lived mostly on St Mark’s Place, in what is now called the East Village, a few doors from where W H Auden spent his winters for 20 years. A friend of mine – a resident of St Mark’s since 1963, when he was an improbably handsome young man – remembers Auden, not surprisingly, as an especially attentive neighbour.

Once I could have bored anyone who might listen on the apparently vast differences between the West Village (ex-bohem­ia-turned-über-gentrified-boutique) and its younger and – then – poorer hipster brother, the East Village.

Now? I found myself thinking, equally often in both areas, “You’re not getting a pram easily out of that doorway.” Preoccupations change.

And yet somehow experience, like the city itself, does remain more concentrated in Manhattan. Cities rely on proximity to generate their sense of serendipity and nowhere else squeezes so much life into a small space. The collisions and contrasts take on their own energy.

Having watched the New York Jets charge into the Chicago Bears on Monday night, on Tuesday I attended the opening gala of the New York City Ballet. On the pavement outside Lincoln Centre, I bumped into an old friend.

Over an impromptu dinner, joined by friends from richly contrasting professional spheres, I realised how such chance events, which I always associate with New York life, have influenced my way of thinking. If the city seems less dazzling than it once did, that’s partly because it is so bound up with who you are. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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