Seeing/Unseeing.

Cover of "The City & the City"

Cover of The City & the City

I’ve just got back from an all too brief holiday to Rome and have noticed a change in my perception of Birmingham. It was a brief change but the change was there and it was interesting.

I think part of the change in perception came from reading China Mieville‘s superb novel “The City and the City” whilst away. (I had hoped to read something set in Rome but it clearly wasn’t meant to be)

The thing I loved the most about TC&TC was how the plot of the novel takes place in two cities (Besźel and Ul Qoma). These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens, they are perceived as two different cities.

A resident of one city must dutifully ‘unsee’ (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the residents, buildings, and events taking place in the other city — even if they are an inches away. This separation is emphasized by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and the way denizens of each city generally carry themselves. Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognize things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them.

The twin cities are composed of crosshatched, alter, and total areas. “Total”‘ areas are entirely in one city, the city in which the observer currently resides. “Alter” areas are completely in the other city, and so must be completely avoided and ignored. Between these are areas of “crosshatch”. These might be streets, parks or squares where denizens of both cities walk alongside one another, albeit unseen. Areas that exist in both cities usually go under different names in each one.

The novel is a wonderful leap of imagination, beautifully executed. It feels like a traditional crime/police procedural thriller but it lives within a totally realised world (or worlds).

So here’s where my thoughts crosshatch with the book…

Rome is a city to see and be seen in. Everything is carefully stage managed- clothes, photo opportunities, viewpoints. Immerse yourself in that for even just a few days and it’ll start to rub off.

Returning to Birmingham, a city I love and have deep affection for, I noticed how I’ve spent much of my time unseeing whole parts of Birmingham. My first walk to work from New Street Station felt odd. I couldn’t place my finger on what it was… then I realised. I was seeing Birmingham in the same way I’d be invited to see Rome. I’m on autopilot when I walk to work, I routinely walk past marvels of architecture, beautiful design and monuments to history. I’d been averting my gaze, listening to music and following my usual footsteps to work.

I need to be sure to see more than I normally allow myself.

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