Giles Coren: ‘The idea that cities are no longer viable is not a new one’

Time Out’s new columnist thinks that cities stink, so why the hell does he live in London? In the first of his weekly dispatches he tells us what keeps him tied to this loud, hectic, messy and wonderful city
Giles Coren
Photo: Paul Musso
By Giles Coren |

At some point in the last couple of years the number of people on earth who live in cities became greater than the number who don’t. They did put a date on it but I’m sure they were just guessing. Statisticians will do anything to get their boring sums on television and maybe meet some girls. But in 2014, it is generally accepted that 54 percent of us live in cities and only 46 percent live in, well, the other places: chocolate-box villages, poky little one-horse towns, treehouses in forests full of bears and elves. I don’t know. I’ve never been there.

It is bizarre to think that as recently as 1960 the world’s urban population was barely 20 percent. And if you ask almost any old person, they will tell you that life was much better back then. If they can remember what the question was. Or even why they came into the room in the first place.

So what on earth are we doing?

We hate living in cities. They are loud and smelly and the air gives you cancer. Life expectancy is lower than in the country, the traffic doesn’t move, there’s no room on the trains, everything costs twice as much and you can’t scratch your arse without getting mugged. That’s why everyone who lives in a city mostly talks about leaving it – usually either because ‘It’s no place to raise a family’ or because ‘It’s no place to get old.’

But if the city is no place to be born and no place to die, then what in the world is it a place for?

In the beginning, we huddled in cities for our own protection. We built walls around them with slits through which to fire arrows at scary, cross-eyed rural people, and brought our food and family inside because they were the safest places to be. But any notion of safety from war in cities died out with aerial bombing in the 1940s. And double died out with the nuclear threat. And triple died out after 9/11 with the advent of serious international terrorism. In 2014, we are not only unsafe in cities, but we feel unsafe in cities. Some people have left because of that, but millions more have gone the other way.

It can’t be because there is work here. That expired with the digital office. In the online age we all just do what we do, wherever we like, and then provide it electronically to the people who want it. We don’t have to go outside and get polluted and mugged any more to make a living. We just turn on a computer.

And we don’t need to be near food supplies any more: they get delivered to our door in refrigerated trucks. Book and music shops are extinct and every other kind of shop is on the verge, apart from pound shops (which are surely not the only reason for cities). And there’s no point talking of the ‘theatres and cinemas’ that are so often cited as the reason for sticking around, because people don’t even watch television any more, let alone go out to see things. The future of visual culture is Snapchatted photographs of each other’s sex organs and nude celebrity selfies stolen from iCloud, and you might as well enjoy those things from a cottage by a river with a view of hills.

The shops are gone, manufacturing has left, universities are selling buildings and moving online, and the one set of workers we do still need to see in person – the police, nurses, firemen – can’t afford to live here any more.

In fact, who does live here? In London, in the nice parts, it is all non-domiciled foreign millionaires from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia taking advantage of our democracy, safe streets and stable currency to store their ill-gotten profits in property, resulting in the ‘coring out’ of the best areas – the pubs closed, the little useful shops gone over to international megabrands – so that the big stucco-fronted houses stand empty, with just a terrified Filipina maid staring out of an attic window, finger on the panic button.

Not since Ancient Greece have cities been thought of as the ideal living environment for humans. And that was so long ago it predates the invention of trousers. Even by the time the Bible was being written down, cities had become shorthand for all that was grim and immoral. Which is why God spent his whole time destroying cities, not cute little villages or picturesque spa towns. For Shakespeare the city was a place of conspiracy, for Milton it was literally Hell, for Dickens it was a metaphor for the loneliness of the human soul and for the Romantics it was pure poison.

The idea that cities are no longer viable is not a new one. They were a terrible idea from the very beginning. But the thing is, they were our idea (it’s why God didn’t like them). They come from within us and they are as sick, messy and irrational as we are. Man in a state of nature is anarchic, wrote Thomas Hobbes, and his life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, and that is how we like it, and it’s why we made cities.

It is only now statistically official that most of us on the planet do not want a long, quiet, God-fearing life in the countryside. But we truly do not want it. And the occasionally stated desire to return to it is a vanity we should get over once and for all.

I tried to leave the city once, for one of those other places. And, my God, the silence. I could hear myself think, and found that I wasn’t. I am not designed to be lonely as a cloud. Like 54 percent of people, I want to be lonely as a burger wrapper blowing through an empty football stadium. Lonely as a single girl on a night bus, sad as a half-eaten chicken nugget carried down a sewer by a cat, happy as a warm pub glowing on a black street, angry as a bar brawl, fat as a cash machine, busy as a tenement, smelly as a tramp, big as a cathedral, broken as a pavement, impatient as a taxi queue, bright as a tilted tower-block window in the setting sun, dark as an unlit park, empty as a bus lane, shrill as a car alarm at three in the morning, as big, bad, stupid and psychotic as a city.

Because there’s plenty of time to live in the countryside when we’re dead.

Read Giles Coren’s column each week on the back page of Time Out, starting in the next issue. Here are five topics you'll never see discussed in Giles' column.

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