Town and Country
I grew up in a small, rain-polished town buried in the rich green depths of Ireland – which may sound slightly more romantic and mysterious than it felt at the time. I visited cities, as a child, but I’d no real understanding of them. The people I met on the street, the time I spent there, didn’t so much blur together as… average out. The average colour was concrete. The average person was taller than me. Their average speed was faster than I was walking. I didn’t resent the difference between me and the average city dweller, I just couldn’t keep up with them yet. So I put my head against my mother’s arm, and stared out the train window and dreamed of a time when I would walk faster and grow taller, and look out of one those endless glass windows, rather than trying to see inside them.
By the time I was 17, I’d struck out for brighter streets and milder weather. I found a tiny room of my own in a house full of people who’d lived in Dublin all their lives. My walls were lined with posters of friends’ bands, with photos of us standing on street corners and in bars, framed with tickets from shows we’d been to see in the weeks before. Looking back, it feels like I wanted to gain a better understanding of the city and was slowly piecing the clues together. At the end of long nights out, I would lie in my tiny bed and smile to myself. Because then I thought cities were as good as the best people who lived there. People who raised the bar for everyone else, who pushed up on the realms of possibilities. So if my friends were the best and the brightest, then surely I was living in the best city in the world. I was sure then that it was the people who shaped the city, and not the other way around.
Having visited more cities now than I had when I was 17, I know two things to be true. You don’t know a city until you’ve walked it’s dim and silent streets in the hours before sunrise. With no traffic to hide behind, no noise to drown out its sighs, Dublin before sunrise is possessed by a rare vulnerability. It yearns for people, for its history and a strong community. Whitehall in London at that same hour holds itself upright with a cold pride, as if it’s preparing itself for the inevitable onslaught, for the duty of providing strong streets for its citizens. By 5am, New York seems tired. With the strains of traffic bleeding through the buildings, it feels like the city is forever dragging itself to the next great event, reluctant and weary, and at the same time convinced it’s on the verge of something great.
Because the subtle truth of cities is that they impose their own personalities on their inhabitants. The buildings of Dublin cluster together for warmth. The narrow streets feel like they focus the worst of the rain but after a long day’s work, the gentlest hills guide you home. The streets of London don’t run in straight lines, but have unyielding curves and are nested in a fractal of alleyways. The people who live there push things out of sight and into their own side streets – to keep them safe, to keep them buried.
I found some old photographs recently. Photos of myself and my friends, the same photos I’d pinned to walls of different homes in different cities. And I was surprised by just how much each city had changed a little bit of me. Made me harder, made me happier, made my accent a little different. So for now, I live in the countryside, where the trees and the fields and the sky are open to endless possibilities. I stand quietly in the gentle summer sunshine, and watch the clouds roll over distant hills, and brush off the dust and concrete of the city’s endless sentences and wonder what it is I want to say next.