Making a City Breathe

Greenwich Book Festival Part 2

The second talk I heard last weekend was called ‘City Fictions’ and included readings from a novel set in London and a novel set in Birmingham. The novels were chosen because the writers had tried – and presumably succeeded – in making the city a character, or character-like.


I love this idea, and it is something I tried to do in A Perilous Margin. The city we live in makes such an impact on our everyday lives – it takes me over an hour to get to work every day, I can see squirrels from my window at home, I walk streets everyday that have been bombed and rebuilt, just blocks from my work are thousands of objects stolen from around the world (controversial!) – these experiences effect me, as do the people I interact with and how they sound and what they have experienced. Using a city as merely a backdrop ignores the history, atmosphere, and layers of humanity unique to each place.


The woman who wrote about London moved here as an adult, while the woman who wrote about Birmingham grew up there. If I had been game enough to ask a question, I would have asked if they think those differences effect how they see the cities. There is something undeniably magical about the transition from tourist to local when you move to a new city. There is the first honeymoon year of finding a job, a home, buying plates and forks, watching your routines meld and mesh with these new spaces and pinching yourself everyday that THIS is where you live. There is the second year of getting a better job, a better home, buying a third and fourth fork (because you might have guests!), having visitors, learning to navigate without a  map and the thrill of returning to places that you already know you like. And by the third year it’s just home. Or at least, this is how it has worked for me.

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Hometowns are different. I didn’t stay in my hometown and now I find it quite impossible to imagine relating to it as an adult. All I know is the personal history is inescapable no matter how much the city changes, and I presume that is the same for people who stay.

The only place I’ve tried to write about is Sydney. When I first tried to think about how a city works in our lives, I thought about the difference between the New York City in Friends and the New York City in Sex and the City. I know, deep stuff. In Friends, they could be anywhere with a flat and a coffee shop, and occasionally that cardboard-looking street outside Central Perk. But the city is everywhere in Sex and the City – the views, the weather, the pedestrians, the taxis and traffic, the food – all of it informs the lives we see and seems much more realistic.

I’m writing my second novel now, and I’m getting a bit stuck. Sydney is feeling further away, and yet I can’t imagine knowing London well enough to write about it. It’s not just a new city, it’s a new culture, and it has so many bloody accents. Maybe one day I will know it well enough. Maybe that comes in the fourth year, I’ll just have to wait and see.

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