Skip to main content

Confessions of A Streetwalker

ISSUE:  Autumn 1992

Someone—John Updike, to be precise—once said that a real New Yorker was someone who believed that anyone who lived anywhere else had to be kidding. There are those who love cities, in short, and there are those who love a city. The odd thing is that there is no word for what they think or are. Urbanity will not do. It sounds amiable; and rough manners, once thought natural to yokels and countrymen, are now widely imagined to be the mark of a metropolis. The city-lover knows they are not, or else he does not care. No life but one is possible to those who need the vibrancy and eloquence of city streets, and yet there is no simple way to express what they feel. They can only live it. It cannot be called a love that dares not speak its name, since it has no name to speak. In literature and conversation alike it is strikingly under-described: to be characterized, if at all, by cases and examples, in the hope of finding somewhere an echo in an unknown mind.

There are those (to begin) for whom places, whether urban or rural, are more important than friends.. That is not a matter of pride—far from it. “Life is an affair of people and not of places,” Wallace Stevens once confessed in his Adagia (1957), a work never published in his lifetime, “but for me life is an affair of places and that is just the trouble.” The avowal is evidently shamefaced, and in an age that prizes human relations it is easy to see why. It suggests an unappetizing self-sufficiency, perhaps even a frigidity, that leaves nothing to boast about. To love places more than people is to be odd.

The case for the defense is seldom heard: that place-love is among the more innocent affections, the love of one place the most pardonable of prejudices. Wallace Stevens has no case, in the end, to answer here. I do not know whether his favorite places were metropolitan or not. But those who like to be planted in the middle of a town or city, to live in one, and above all to be left alone in one, are without a title, a club, a prophet, or a scripture. Mark Girouard has recently told in The English Town (1990), a book so far removed from the travel-book as to look more like a labor of love, how he fell in love with Chichester, on the south coast of England, at the age of 13 when, as a Sussex schoolboy, he went there to visit a dentist and first looked on its exquisite Georgian streets. They take one into another time as well as another place: streets so startlingly 18th-century, to this day, that it is surprising to see pedestrians in 20th-century costumes walking through them.

That is the positive view. The negative was represented years ago by The Lonely Crowd (1950), which implied that city-solitude was something pathetic. But then David Riesman, when he wrote it, may have heard no other view. There is no very impressive body of literature to celebrate that most characteristic creation of civilized man, the city, and not much that is celebratory about towns. Travel-books merely describe them, and the praise of great poets and novelists, at least until recent times, is usually grudging. When Wordsworth in 1802 began a sonnet on Westminster Bridge with “Earth has not anything to show more fair,” he was uttering a paradox, not a received truth, since cities are not traditionally supposed to be objects of admiration like rural prospects, and before his day there had been few notable literary celebrations of what Rome, Paris, and London had to offer. Mark Girouard’s book, with its rich illustrations of streets, is the more to be welcomed. Though well informed, it is proud to be naïve and impassioned.

A touch of the provincial, after all, overshadows all such enthusiasms. A provincial, it is said, is one who believes there is a metropolis, and not everybody wants to admit it. The Young Man from the Provinces in Lionel Trilling’s famous essay in The Liberal Imagination (1950), as portrayed in the novels of Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, and Henry James, looks far from shrewd in his admiration of the urban world. Though more or less a John Updike-style New Yorker himself, at least until his later years, Trilling viewed the phenomenon with an analytical coolness that bordered on condescension—there was nothing provincial about him—and revealed in a footnote that there was no better setting for loneliness and self-doubt than Sunday in a great city. One is left, as always, with a faint sense of distaste and shame, as if an epic theme had failed to find its epic. Even Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1939) is no more than fragmentary, as a poem, though it gets close to catching the essence of city-love with its talk of mysterious kitchens and “refraction of a thousand theaters, faces. . . .”

The city-lover, for all that, cannot be altogether singular. There are too many, after all, whose behaviour suggests they share his preferences. They choose to be there and to stay there. So perhaps this is the moment to pierce beyond the pastoralism that assumes something inherently virtuous in country life, and to look at what lies beyond.


The issue is not primarily one of architecture or of amenity but a fact of mind. There are spirits that can only function in cities, and some that can only function in a given city— usually one that they have known since youth. As a mood it is perhaps datable to the mid 18th century. John Gay’s Trivia: or the Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716) is too early and has none of it, though its title sounds promising, since the author of The Beggar’s Opera only seems interested, in a good-humoured mock-heroic poem, in staying clean and staying alive, though he patriotically insists that London is cleaner and safer than some foreign capitals. But Samuel Johnson has it, in his famous remark about being tired of London and tired of life; and so does Charles Lamb, who rejoiced in the city where he was born as in a pantomime or masquerade: “all these things work themselves into my mind and feed me.” There may be an unknown prehistory, to be sure, to that state of mind. In his life of John Donne (1649), for example, Izaak Walton remarks that Donne, who was born near the St Paul’s where he became dean, “could not leave his beloved London, to which place he had a natural inclination,” and in a letter Donne reveals that the city was his spiritual home: “I do not make account that I am come to London when I get within the wall: that which makes it London is the meeting of friends.” But that sounds more like a love of company than a love of streets.

The real age of the city, as a creative stimulant, is the 19th century. In August 1846, for example, Charles Dickens wrote from Switzerland that he was finding novel-writing extremely difficult away from home. “I suppose this is partly the effect of two years’ ease,” he wrote, as he struggled on with Dombey and Son,

and partly the absence of streets and numbers of figures. I can’t express how much I want them. It seems as if they supplied something in my brain which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose.

By numbers of figures he means street crowds. “A day in London sets me up and starts me,” he added, calling London his magic lantern. The lantern of a city scatters its light from shop-windows, one must imagine, on the thoughtful pedestrian, who is not usually thinking of the city, however, as he moves through it, but about matters that already engage his creative life: the next sentence, the next incident, the next paragraph. Strange as it must seem to country-lovers, a city is a contemplative cloister, and even its noise unlocks the mind. “My thoughts are my darlings,” Diderot, an inveterate Parisian, remarks at the opening of Rameau’s Nephew, slyly implying that he scarcely notices even beautiful and available women as he walks every afternoon, in good weather or bad, a solitary thinker in the gardens of the Palais Royal, a notorious place of resort. Such pleasures are not primarily aesthetic. The walker is not studying architecture, which is already familiar, or even noticing it; nor is it a sociable or amorous activity, since what Milton called “the busy hum of men” can leave one as isolated as in a hermit’s cell, though any city is a paradise for eavesdroppers. The crowd is not lonely, in the end, but stimulating: one can think nowhere but there.

That absence-in-presence is the ultimate charm of city streets. One walks them, unlike village streets, unnoticed and unknown. One can talk or be talked to, on occasion, as a stranger, but on the whole one prefers to think. A city, moreover, is not just a place where things happen but one where they have already happened, and the member of Parliament who called the Thames at London liquid history had the right idea. If you are forgetful, then statues or monuments like the statue of Charles I, an equestrian figure in Trafalgar Square facing down Whitehall where, in 1649, he was beheaded, can force you to remember. And to make a point rarely acknowledged, you are safe. Unlike the country, the city sets one free from material cares, since it is full of cafés and restaurants, and you never have to fill a flask or pack sandwiches. It is a mood immortally described in the opening pages of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Crowds and shop-windows achieve the impersonal charm of bric-à-brac, where no single object may be greatly prized but where everything conspires to create an effect of cheerful confusion and mental association one would prefer not to have to live without. “The vast and roaring heart of all adventure,” D.H. Lawrence, that classic Young Man from the Provinces, once called London. The city-lover may admire the country and respect the provinces. But they cannot, as Dickens put it, set him up and start him. He needs crowds—numbers of figures. “Is this not very fine, Sir?,” Johnson remarked to Boswell as they crossed Greenwich Park, and Boswell admitted that it was—adding that it was not, however, equal to Fleet Street; whereupon Johnson, a London-lover to his boots, replied, “You are right, Sir.”


One reason is absurdity. All great cities are absurd, and should be. They have ladies in improbable costumes, preferably with lapdogs, old men muttering to themselves, chattering packs of adolescents, and implausible collocations of buildings. They should be full of odd words and odd names which are yet somehow fitting. It is absurd, and yet fitting, that there should be a Café Hegel in Berlin, where he once taught, that the oldest bridge in Paris should be called the Pont-Neuf, and that Whitehall in London, where Charles I was executed, should still have mounted guardsmen in scarlet jackets and bearskin hats. A city is ultimately a joke, and knows it, and it asks no one to take it seriously, at least for long. It will answer with graffiti if anyone does. In East Berlin, where a humorless régime has recently collapsed, there is a more-than-life-sized statue in bronze of Marx and Engels, one sitting and one standing, both infinitely solemn and Victorian in frock coats, and someone has written indelibly on the base “We are innocent.” When the Berlin Wall was dismantled in November 1989, it was so whimsically inscribed for miles and miles on its free side—the other side was a mass of trip-wires, barbed wire and free-fire zones— that it is perhaps a pity nobody edited it all before it came down.

The greatest absurdity of all lies in the thought of those who have incongruously lived and died there. It is absurd that London, for three centuries the least revolutionary of European capitals, should have housed Karl Marx and Alexander Herzen, two refugees whose brands of revolution were so distinct that they were barely on speaking terms; or that it later, without much fuss, became the last residence of Sigmund Freud, who died there in 1939. Tom Stoppard has written a play called Travesties about Lenin and Joyce living in Zurich, unknown to each other, during the first World War, but that is no odder than Dostoevsky and Ibsen living a few yards apart in Dresden, half a century earlier, and never meeting. No exceptional scholarship is needed to know all this. Cities record such names on the walls of houses where they once lived, and one could not walk Salzburg without knowing it was Mozart’s town, or Florence without learning about Dante. Perhaps the most curious instance of all is Seville, where Cervantes wrote the first part of Don Quixote in prison; and incidents from the novel, with quotations, are abundantly recorded in its streets and on its walls. Sometimes the great lie oddly conjoined in death: the oddest conjunction I know being Henry Fielding and Admiral Horthy of Hungary, who lie together in the Anglican cemetery in Lisbon. Fielding died there in 1754, Horthy two centuries later, though they have nothing in common except that they died as Protestants in a Catholic place. To inhabit a city is somehow to belong among those whom it chooses to remember.

Such is the city one lives in, and by choice. Other people’s cities are of course different. One notices them, after all; one even tries to characterize them. They belong, as the stranger sees them, to an age, sometimes to a single age, and they transport the visitor into another time.

That amounts to a paradox of history, in some instances, since cities do not always reliably reflect the epoch of their power or influence. Venice was a great power in the late Middle Ages, and it shows. But Rome was at its height in ancient times as a temporal power, as a spiritual power in the Middle Ages; and yet though it preserves the remnants of both, it impresses, above all, by its 17th-century baroque, and the monuments that now dominate it are the creation of a papacy which, after the Reformation, was defiantly in decline. Paris is a late-medieval-to-18th-century city, at its heart; Berlin, Budapest, and London are above all 19th-century; Manhattan is 20th. Spain and Portugal confront the traveller with puzzling time-shifts, being artistically conservative, and the grand baroquery of Lisbon was mostly built as late as the decades that followed its catastrophic earthquake of 1755, when baroque was old-hat outside Iberia; while there is a 1920’s monument in Seville that looks as if it belongs to the same age of design as London’s Albert Memorial, which was built a good 60 years before. Los Angeles is wholly 20th-century, and some would say a little further on than that. In fact it once fathered the famous witticism, “I have seen the future and it does not work,” though my own guess is that the 21st century is unlikely to look much like Beverly Hills and will emerge as something less sprawling and more tightly woven. And as for Amsterdam, it belongs so completely to its own first century of independent life, from the 1580’s to the late 17th century, that anything outside the sturdy elegance of its tall merchant houses and demure tree-lined canals, like its railway-station, looks like a graceless intrusion. Even its red-light district is antique.

Such, at least, are the broad lines of the urban universe of Western man. But no generalizations fit for long. Someone once said that it was good of God, wherever there was a great city, to make a river by it. But the river in Berlin is wholly unimpressive, its lakes and forests vast and unforgettable; there is no river in Vienna or Seville, as one expects, merely near them; and though the Tiber flows through the middle of Rome, the city turns its back on its river, unlike at Paris and London, as if afraid of pirates or of floods. Some cities, like Prague, Athens, and Edinburgh, are built on two levels, so that one looks up or down from one to the other—up to the Old Town or down to the New. Some, like New York, are largely geometric patterns of streets, some (like London) higgledy-piggledy, while Paris is a mixture of the two. Some, like Istanbul or New York, look best from the sea, or like Chicago from across its lake; others, like London, have few vantage-points, though the top of Hampstead Heath or Greenwich Park can give a partial sense of its immensity. And there are some great cities, which I shall leave unnamed, which one would prefer not to contemplate from anywhere.


The essence of a city is choice, and choice in what it has to offer is what distinguishes it from a town or village, so that in the end no city belongs wholly to a single age. It is always a collection of villages. Even where its early buildings are lost, the lie of a street can powerfully suggest another age. The Fleet Street and Strand that Johnson and Boswell loved now contain almost no secular buildings that stood in their day, but they have kept their archaic, winding flow, neither straight nor evenly curved, and Samuel Pepys would have recognized their contours even though nothing but churches have survived from earlier times. Chelsea, in west London, largely belongs to the decades around 1800, when it began to be filled in, and it is not even certain where the great house by the river once stood where Sir Thomas More entertained Erasmus and Henry VIII. Kensington, to its north, is eminently Victorian, with stoops, pillared fronts, and what in America (but not in England) are called English basements, once meant for domestic servants but now apartments; and Bayswater, further north still, is Victorian, too, in a quieter way, and takes one back to the trivial, intimate bourgeois world of Osbert Lancaster’s childhood described in All Done from Memory (1953). An imaginative journalist once memorably remarked that there is untapped mystery in Bayswater; but those who live there are puzzled by the remark, and it is more probable that what it looks like, it is.

To walk across a city, then, is to open an anthology. There is a theme; but the theme is varied, and the interest of its items is highly unequal and readily attuned to mood. For a Londoner to walk east from Chelsea, for example, is to find Belgravia, which is not bourgeois but grand, full of embassies and millionaire mansions; further east still and southwards towards the river is Pimlico, now smartening and even gentrifying, but traditionally full of rooming-houses. Any New Yorker can play the same game with his city: he knows the kind of people who are likely to live where he walks, the cheapness and dearness of it, the humanity that is reflected in its architectural face. City-lovers are to that extent snobs, and need to be. They are self-trained in social discrimination— though they may choose to make, or not to make, snobbish use of what they know. We are all amateur sociologists now; and since professional sociologists depend on what amateurs know and tell them, we need to be.

There is a city-state mentality which, like John Updike’s archetypal New Yorker, refuses to live anywhere else.

Italy is perhaps the supreme instance of that conviction, and it is commonplace for an Italian to refuse to live anywhere but in the place of his upbringing. It is less a matter of architecture than of people, though he may occasionally express his fierce preference for home in architectural terms. A Florentine once told me she could not live in Turin because of its straight streets, but I felt sure she meant something else: a dialect, a way of life, the hours of meals and their contents, and ultimately a state of mind. Florence, like many Italian cities, is above all a state of mind. That loyalty runs far. One may work in another city because one must, but return, perhaps overnight, to one’s own, and Italians can spend half their waking lives on trains. The French and British are not like that, though they entertain opinions— even strong opinions—about where to live. Hazlitt tells of a friend who, on receiving an enthusiastic letter from Rome with three exclamation-marks after it, replied with four exclamation-marks after London.

But then the British, it must be said, are not classicly a city people, and even their big cities tend in aspiration to be pastoral. London is unique among the great capitals of Europe in offering houses and gardens rather than apartments near its center, as if a pocket-handkerchief of green were essential to a balanced existence; and those who live in them probably get out of town for the weekend, that most potent and original of all British social inventions, to countryside or sea. An Italian, unless he is choking, is more likely to stay at home, if he can, from Monday to Monday; and even if he is rich he is content with an apartment and finds greenery enough in a city park, though he is seldom seen in it. I do not know of Londoners who openly take a John-Updike or nothing-but view of their city, though they no doubt exist. They weekend outside, they plan retirements in villages, and their natural style of talk largely has to do with the petty inconveniences of city life. All that may occasionally mask a fierce determination to stay where they are, and they are probably conscious that London has music and theater like nowhere else. But it is left to foreign visitors to enthuse about it openly; and the natives, when they do, merely look amused.

Paris is different again. Enthusiasm is not the approved mode of talk, at least among Frenchmen. But then Paris is the least French of French cities, and the city is full of people who would not dream of living anywhere else, some of whom have never lived anywhere else. There is a classic cycle of events there where a celebrated artist or man-of-letters announces that he has had enough of the traffic and is leaving town, with tearful farewells at the station. He returns: “In the end,” he remarks sadly, “there is only Paris.” It is not architecture that draws him back, or the ravishing sweep of stone walls that contain the Seine and its two islands, moored between mainlands like great ships and encrusted with medieval spires and turrets, or its façades of 17th- and 18th-century stone, seemingly untouched, unlike London, by two world wars. It is rather the intricate and overlapping networks of human relations—villages téléphoniques— centered, nowadays, on the telephone but embracing a host of meetings, whether chance or arranged, in the world’s greatest concentration of cafés and restaurants. No one who has inhabited that world from youth onward can easily live in another. There are chestnuts in blossom elsewhere. But the chestnuts that really matter, in the end, are those that float over familiar pavement cafés and shelter a world of talk.


Even the most extravagant city-lover admits that there are towns.

A town, for this purpose, is an ambiguous entity, smaller than a city and bigger than a village, and perhaps the best instances are in Italy and England. Towns in Germany, to put it simply, tend to be dull unless you have friends in them. There are excellent towns in France, no doubt, but they impress one as imbued with an oppressive consciousness of not being Paris; and since they are not Paris, they are right. That leaves them with little to say; and their human atmosphere, if not dead, can be somnolent. Perhaps Tennyson’s famous phrase about lotusland, “in which it seemed to be always afternoon,” sums them up best. Nor are they reliably friendly, and one cannot be confident of knowing the neighbors or of wishing to do so. France, as Montaigne saw four centuries ago, is a city-culture: “Paris has had my heart since I was a child,” he wrote in a late essay—it is a sentence carved on his statue near the Sorbonne—and he always knew that Paris was more than Bordeaux.

Italy is plainly something else. An Italian town feels as if it exists because its inhabitants ardently wish it to be there, and they have created within it a rhythm of life utterly compelling in its predictability, from early cock-crow to the calling of children at evening supper; and it embraces above all the pre-prandial walk, climax of all daily rituals, where families perambulate and age-groups know where to congregate. You know where your friends are taking coffee or where you can play dominoes. In Venice, for example, after five in the evening, the young are found standing or sitting in the Campo Goldoni by the hundred, sometimes drinking but always talking, earnestly, disputatiously, or affectionately. The point about an Italian town is that you know where to go in it, and when, and what kind of people you will find when you get there.

England, too, is remarkable, though in another way. Though it lacks, on the whole, the physical drama of hill-top towns in Italy—Lewes in Sussex and Bridgnorth in Shropshire are charming exceptions—its better towns, like Stamford and Richmond, have an affability and elegance that is infectious and taking. In their classic form they are places for medieval churches and Georgian streets, fading usually into Victorian outskirts and into more recent and regrettable excrescences. Their amenities are easily undervalued. The real disgrace of England, Anthony Trollope once wrote, is the railway sandwich, but then no one has to eat at the station. Even when small, the English town is gastronomically cosmopolitan—utterly unlike its French or Italian counterpart. It offers, in all likelihood, Chinese, Indian, and Italian cuisine, among even more improbable delights. As their collecting habits illustrate, the British are naturally, even avidly, eclectic, and to an extent unique in Europe. Its pubs, meanwhile, are intimately and pleasantly lit, softly upholstered, and inordinately chatty, and if you want to know anything about the locality you can learn it there. Those who frequent them soon discover that British reticence is a myth. If you are thinking of buying a house, they will know what is the matter with it; if an antique, who has it. Its inhabitants, who may be no more than polite if you ask the way in the street, become effusive on entering its doors. Its conversational style is wide-ranging. A Briton is less interested in his relatives than an Italian, more in local and world affairs. He is more likely to know the history of his town, and to care about it; his interests, however uneducated, tend to the antiquarian; he knows of battles fought and famous men who spoke, and he goes to pubs to teach and to learn.

The love of city, being nameless and even a trifle shamefaced, has no literature fully worthy of itself.

The omission, though not absolute, is still striking. When Johnson remarked that to be tired of London is to be tired of life he was content to leave it to others to record what he said, and his poem London (1738), in imitation of Juvenal’s third satire, condemns city life in classic vein and might have been written about almost anywhere—which is Johnson’s point. There is nothing very Londonish about it. Other exceptions remain charming but minor. Hazlitt once wrote an effusive article called “Oxford” (1823), where he was never a student, capturing its spirit in a few paragraphs; but as a portrait it has few notable successors:

There is an air about it resonant of joy and hope; it speaks with a thousand tongues to the heart; it waves its mighty shadow over the imagination; it stands on lowly sublimity . . . and points with prophetic fingers to the sky.

its green quadrangles, he adds, ecstatically breathing the silence of thought. A dozen years after settling in London, which was in 1876, Henry James wrote an article called “London” (1888) where he coolly assessed a city for which, his love was in truth inordinate, calling Charing Cross station a crime but commending “the mannered houses of Chelsea,” which “stare across [the Thames] at Battersea Park like eighteenth-century ladies surveying a horrid wilderness.” But he confessed in his conclusion that London has no essence: “out of its richness and its inexhaustible good humour, it belies the next hour any generalization you may have been so simple as to make about it.” Venice, by contrast, has an essence, and perhaps the most memorable of all literary accounts of city-walking is to be found in the last pages of his Aspern Papers (1888), in the same year as the London essay, where his hero rushes out into its trafficless streets “more than ever struck with that queer air of sociability, of cousinship and family life, which makes up half the expression of Venice.” That is because, alone among cities, it has no noise but that of humanity:

Without streets and vehicles, the uproar of wheels, the brutality of horses, and with its little winding ways where people crowd together, where voices sound as in the corridors of a house, where the human step circulates as if skirting the angles of furniture, and shoes never wear out, the place has the character of an immense collective apartment in which Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner, and palaces and churches, for the rest, play the part of great divans of repose, tables of entertainment, expanses of decoration.

though Venice reminds James, too, of a theater, and its pedestrians of actors: “its footways, as you sit in a gondola, assume to the eye the importance of a stage,” while its human flow

moving to and fro against the battered scenery of their little houses of comedy, strike you as members of an endless dramatic troupe.

Years later Elizabeth Bowen, in A Time in Rome (1960), told at length of her six months of gazing and contemplating, ending in a farewell of tears: a charming, lonely little book about city-love. But perhaps James on Venice reigns supreme, at least in English, for recounting the spell woven by a great city on a sensitive and watching mind.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading