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)