Flying books in San Francisco. Photo: Flickr/Sonny Abesamis
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From brutalism to Borgen to blogging: how the language of cities has changed

Do you speak urbanism? The way we read and write in the language of cities has transformed.

One language most people speak fluently without really realising it is urbanism: reading and understanding and engaging with a city. Of course, being thrust into an unfamiliar urban environment can often be disorienting at first but it doesn’t take too long to find your bearings, even if you happen to be one of those people who are absolutely hopeless at reading maps.

Cities abound in as many varieties as snowflakes but most can be "parsed" without too much difficulty, actual linguistic barriers notwithstanding. For some people, this engagement goes beyond the merely functional – the city is a sounding board, an external stimulus, a puzzle to be deciphered. The late, great Ian Nairn said he liked to see how the architecture of towns and cities came together and "operated" the same way others like to watch football; it was "the greatest game in town" for him. 

Such forays have long been a staple of tourism, but the tourist, even at their leisure, is often following a prescribed curriculum laid out by their guidebook, package tour or the travel pages of their favourite broadsheet. Others go off on their own bat, be it when travelling or in the city they call home, choosing the vulgate of happenstance rather than the scripture of travel guides. This has proven a rich seam for a particular subset of writing about cities that is loosely known as "psychogeography".

Curiously though, it is only recently it has really gained a foothold in the English-speaking world. Not that there has been any shortage of writing about place in English, with travel writing having flourished since the heyday of the Grand Tour in Georgian times (though some might even put it as far back as Geraldis Cambrensis and Chaucer). But cities and their urban fabric have rarely been central to these works –– even in fiction, as Perry Anderson pointed out recently, 19th-century English novelists were rather coy about the settings for their books, often dressing them up in fictitious names, while French, German and Russian novelists used topographically real locales.

Much of the non-fiction written about cities in English has historically tended to the sociologically taxonomic, such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. Vital and urgent as these works were, their concerns were more focused and their narrative more methodical than much of the city writing that emanated from across the channel.

The French concept of the flâneur, the dandy who traverses the city on foot in search of impressions and experiences – "the gastronomy of the eye" as Balzac called it – is at the root of what we now know as psychogeography. Charles Baudelaire was the most famous of a number of illustrious avatars though even he acknowledged a debt to Edgar Allan Poe, whom he translated and whose short story, The Man of the Crowd, served as the spiritual and aesthetic template for these urban strollers.

Whereas the Romantics’ relationship to their environment bordered on ancestor worship, with their fondness for ruins, the stuff of antiquity and the "perfection" of Latinate philology, the Parisians of the later nineteenth century were more attuned to the immediate city of their everyday life. They found fascination in the metropolis rapidly growing around them, its sporadically paved streets newly connected by a network of covered arcades housing cafés, boutiques, curiosity shops, cabarets and boulevard theatres.

A number of theories might explain why such a subjective exploration of the urban space took hold in Paris at the time – rising consumerism during the Second Empire is one and another is that Paris, even more so than other European cities during a tumultuous century, had seen its topography change so often and so rapidly. It was occupied by Russian troops in 1814, who reportedly brought with them the word "bistro" (meaning "quickly") which in time passed into the French lexicon.

Barricades dotted the streets of the city on three occasions, in 1830, 1848 and then during the Commune in 1871. In the meantime there was the 1851 coup d’état that turned President Louis-Napoléon into Emperor, leading to two decades of authoritarian rule. Baron Haussmann had free rein to dig up and bulldoze entire neighbourhoods, and remodel the city with his "strategic embellishments", intended to facilitate the easy movement of troops and artillery to quell any future uprisings (as the Versailles Guard would do to the Commune in May 1871). To Parisians of the mid-century, it would probably have been natural to view the city as a series of palimpsests, a protean morass of urban activity.

Though the city featured heavily in much French writing of the nineteenth century, particularly Balzac’s Comédie humaine and Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, it was with the Surrealists that the more recondite aspects of Paris took centre-stage. Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926) delved underneath the skin of the city, using maps, newspaper cuttings and restaurant menus, anchoring his narrative around the gothic Victorian Parc des Buttes Chaumont and the Passage de l’Opéra, one of the 19th-century arcades, which was demolished during the writing of the book.

The book echoes the Surrealists’ favourite photographer, Eugène Atget, whose ghostly images of statues, doorways and staircases present a much different Paris from the branded city of romance later crystallised in the work of Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The eerie, unpeopled pictures (unpeopled largely because of the lengthy exposure times of the day) were a spectral counterpoint to the everyday, something which would become a hallmark of the ‘interior’ writing of the psychogeographer.

The Situationists took things a step further, Guy Debord coining the term "psychogeography" and theorising it while simultaneously taking a playful, "ludique" approach to the city’s terrain, which involved explorations of the city guided by fixed rules, and also intoxication (Walter Benjamin had in 1928 experimented with familiar surroundings by taking hashish for the first time in Marseille). The dérive, or drift, ostensibly an unserious phenomenon in the service of a critique of contemporary society, underpinned the reification of urban existence in contemporary French writing, be it in the nouveau roman, the experimental games of the Oulipians or Julien Gracq’s long meditative essays. It began to seep into Anglophone writing first through JG Ballard’s fiction, initially ignored by the literary establishment because of its "genre" status, and also by way of Alasdair Gray, Paul Auster and the non-fiction works of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Geoff Dyer and Will Self and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films.

But it was the huge international success of WG Sebald’s novels in the Nineties that finally gave geographical writing a settled place in English-speaking countries. No doubt it helped that he lived in England for more than three decades before his death in 2001, and even more so because most of his novels took England at least in part as their setting. Sebald was an outsider familiar enough with the locale to offer a recognisable portrait of Britain while erudite and foreign enough to provide the necessary distance of strangeness. Though writers taking the city and/or geography as their subject didn’t need Sebald’s prompting, he certainly raised interest among readers and made publishers somewhat more receptive to it.

Teju Cole’s fictional exploration of New York and its history (and in passing Brussels too) in Open City draws from the same well as Sebald, while the pot-smoking narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station reminds you of the ingenu Benjamin getting stoned in Marseille. Karl Whitney’s Hidden City brings the dérive and the games of the Situationists to Dublin. Lee Rourke’s 2010 novel The Canal channels Ballardian anomie on a graffiti-strewn canal on the interzone between Hackney and Islington. The latter novel, whose titular canal runs through an urban landscape with one leg in an edgy working-class milieu and another in the oncoming tide of corporate gentrification, embodies the background against which the rise in city writing has taken place. 

It may even be this changing face of the urban environment and of the perception of cities that is driving this interest. After decades of being associated with social decay, alienation and violence, cities have enjoyed a newfound good press in the past 15 to 20 years. Gentrification is the most obvious vector but there is more than simply that to explain how people are more comfortable in cities. Falling crime rates, particularly for violent crime, on both sides of the Atlantic, have encouraged people to be adventurous and more attentive to their surroundings.

A greater respect for public transport has brought improvements and also elided psychological divisions within cities, as has the greater mobility facilitated by technology. Even Brutalism, long maligned, is coming back into fashion. The growth patterns of inner cities and suburbs has in some cases been reversed (though this again is largely because of gentrification).

There has also been a proliferation of informal street tours that fall outside the traditional tourism remit, such as those focused on the 1916 Rising in Dublin, street art in Paris or the TV shows The Killing and Borgen in Copenhagen. Some excellent blogs such as Messy Nessy Chic, Forgotten NY and Invisible Paris cast a light on the underside of major cities. Urban explorers have always been the more intrepid of sorts (even those that have steered clear of sewers and condemned buildings) but cities certainly seem less daunting places for the ordinary citizen than they did three or four decades ago.

There is also a more nuanced impression of neighbourhoods that might previously have been dismissed out of hand by middle-class people as "dangerous". French people reacted with anger and derision when Fox News announced parts of Paris were no-go zones for non-Muslims, and residents of Nørrebro in Copenhagen were similarly bemused by some of the commentary after a resident killed two people in twin attacks last month.

Some might argue that these neighbourhoods are in the process of losing their soul or becoming sanitised as property prices rise and public spaces become gradually privatised. This is certainly true, though "boring" parts of town can be just as much of interest to the psychogeographer, not least for what lies hidden beneath the exterior.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

Claire Denis. Credit: SARAH LEE/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA LTD
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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge