Sat 15 August 2020

Bonnie Greer explores the divide between city and country in Britain and how this will be played on in the years ahead to sow more discord, not unity.

One of the things that has always fascinated me is how little the UK seems to care about its cities. Not that cities are neglected or are powerless. It is just the fact that the country does not really seem to like them. Not in the way that Americans like cities, or the French.

In Britain, the city seems to have a slightly sinister, foreign air; an ambiance of treachery and dishonesty. You move out of the city, not to one. A city is a place where you go to die, not to live in. Agatha Christie, that master of the prejudices of the English, places her detective Hercule Poirot in the city. Whenever he goes to a village or a small town, he treated with suspicion.

Once, during my time with an arts organisation based in Yorkshire, I spent some time in what could be termed “a pretty English village”. It was indeed, with its carefully preserved streets and the houses, tiny and authentic and pristine. It did not seem to matter to the present day inhabitants that these houses had once been cottages back in the 19th Century – hell holes where people were crammed like animals as they lived and died over a spinning loom – or that the well, now close to a fashionable restaurant, once carried disease and death.

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There is a heritage train close to the outskirts of the village, a slow moving thing that chugs through the hills and through the vales. It even has steam. The city close to it, one of the great cities of the world, is referred to like some den of evil lurking in Another Place.

The election of a Conservative majority Government under the ludicrous slogan of “Get Brexit Done” – as if it was a pie – hastens the divide between the city and those outside. The Tories are launching their latest attempt at division as a battle between the city and “everywhere else”. This is because “the city” is a place where a dangerous cabal live known as “the Elite”, who control everybody and everything. The “real people” live outside of it. This idea could accelerate as the next five years crawl by. The very reality of the metropolis – its complexity, multiculturalism, uncertainty and the fact of strangers – will be deemed somehow un-British.

This projection is positioned on the Royal Family, those silent movie actors the nation uses as exemplars of its dreams and hopes. So it is possible for us to see the Cambridges and the Sussexes as examples of the divide between the city and the village. Prince Harry, with his multicultural family, is seen as suspect, rogue, strange. That he and his wife and son reside in the grounds of the massive Windsor Castle, away from the public gaze, deep in a kind of countryside does not take away the point. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are urban, international, multicultural. Therefore, in time, they will be rendered as bad.

In contrast, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are village, small town, the countryside – even though they reside in London, at a palace compound a few feet from a major road in Notting Hill, is beside the point. They look and feel like the village, the country. Catherine makes tree houses and William has pet names for the kids. We have no idea what Meghan and Harry call their baby boy other than the name that they gave him. That is city – a place with no neighbours. Because neighbours would know the baby’s nickname.

Cities Lead to Emergence

Now, more than ever, is the time to uphold those metropolitan values of live and let live. Of embracing the world. The city does not “take back control”. It relinquishes it.

In stating that an “urban Elite” runs the country, Boris Johnson – a product of the very elite he rails against – does not encourage unity, but sows discord.

I choose to live in the West End of London. I was born in a big city and moved to another big city and I suspect that I will die in a big city. Let me state for the record that it is not nice to be awakened at four in the morning by I Will Survive blasting out of a rickshaw. But I prefer that to the sound of a fox rattling around my garbage bin.

Cities encourage, cities generate the thing that takes our species forward; that develops our brains: emergence – by the constant encountering of the new and the strange, our brains grown and change. It is not that living in a village or a small town makes a person less clever. Rather, that the city and its collisions add another dimension to our humanness. One which is vital for the 21st Century – a century in which, soon enough, we will have to begin to out-think our machines in order to retain what it is that makes us human.

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