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Free Thinking : The city

From Liverpool, playwright Esther Wilson

A City of ideas?

  • Esther Wilson
  • 3 Sep 06, 12:06 PM

Here is the second of my 'guest bloggers'.
Roger Hill has lived in Liverpool since 1978 and works as a broadcaster, writer, lecturer, performer and consultant in arts and education. He's also a very good friend.

THE IDEA OF THE CITY
There are too many words about, and an abundance of expression neither guarantees the presence of thought nor freedom in thinking. In times when we inundate ourselves with self-expression it is reasonable to require an underpinning of ideas, for culture is surely more than a collection of individual outpourings, and needs for its efficacy a sustained engagement with formalized thought without which society cannot progress.


My current pre-occupation is with our present situation. We write from within the experience of Liverpool, a city in which many actions have been taken recently, and many decisions, in the name of “regeneration” and “culture”. Have we addressed ideas in the process? Are ideas still current in urban development? Does our city have a sufficient tradition of intellectual enquiry to incorporate ideas into its own self-direction?

The relationship between ideas and cities is an interesting one. Do cities produce ideas? For W.H. Auden ideas proceed from landscapes and climate,-

“to own
That surfaces need not be superficial
Nor gestures vulgar, cannot really
Be taught within earshot of running water
Or in sight of a cloud.”

If he is right then there is a set of ideas which have emerged, maybe uniquely, from a windy riverine enclave in the North-Western corner of Europe. But it would seem more logical that ideas proceed from individual human beings who just happen to live in a particular place. Our city is not poor in a history of inventions and discoveries, from the uses of lasers and the electroencephalograph to radio and the neutron, from the precursors of Age Concern and the RSPCA to school meals, but all these are products of individual initiative and energies and each has been produced in response to a particular problem, good solid practical ideas. Has there been an overall idea, intrinsic to our city, which has made these things possible? Not one that is unique, probably, except in the city’s singular determination to use knowledge to solve problems and therefore to take advantage of a culture of education and learning. Nor were all these initiatives and discoveries those of local-born individuals, although each was more or less welcome to work here. Is there a “native genius” here, for more than humour and making-do? If Birmingham excelled in the small machinery workshop and ancient Rome in government then our city’s pre-eminent skill seems to have been in value-added handling of goods and money, cargoes and insurance accounts, and more recently in capitalizing on its cityscape for film-settings.

But these are activities not ideas. Athens is seen as the cradle of democracy and modern Beijing the triumph of bureaucratized communism and much of their structure and appearance as cities expresses these ideas. Do ideas shape cities then, rather than the other way around? Hedging our bets we might say that ideas and cities grow in symbiosis based upon local experiences. Somewhere in a city is a generator of thoughts and realizations which become the history of the place and can be read in its physicality. So, we had a river, and sometime a few centuries ago the possibility of reaching out to the wide world occurred to its inhabitants. The thought then, the idea, was – the world exists for our profit. What followed was two centuries of trade, expansion, building and prosperity, - but not for all.

We could say that the 19th Century thought hereabouts was – with prosperity comes civic power and with civic power comes civic responsibility. We could say that, but a deeper delving into the times and personalities involved might suggest that the thought, the idea, was – civic power is an exhilarating experience, let us deploy it as fully as possible, even if not all of its effects are good. When prosperity waned and civic power became emaciated the burden of responsibility remained together with a taste for that power. The sum did not add up, a new idea was necessary, which even to the present vies with a disempowered civic authority – people can manage their own lives. But to live in a city which cannot function as it did when it invented itself is to be lost, in the present and in the past. The Beatles gave us the complementary thought, the idea – nothing is real and nothing to get hung about – and John Lennon its surrogate – above us only sky. All those people living for today – no need to imagine, come and see the idea in action.

So much for our city and its ideas. Unless perhaps we remember one other idea which has underpinned so much of our history here – the family is paramount. It would be hard to find a thought more crucial to the economic and emotional survival of our city than this. Come power, come reality, or witness the loss of both, family has been the presiding force within our urban life, its salvation and its vulnerability. But many things have finally weakened the dominance of the traditional idea of family here – greater social mobility within the country as a whole, the decline of organized religion, unemployment, the arrival of families from other cultures, questions about the relationship between poverty and parenting. Whatever their impacts we might see all of these developments as the cue-lines for the entrance of new ideas, if, and only if, we are prepared to see our city as unique.

At present our city – and in this it is not unique although maybe uniquely vulnerable – is the Capital of Imitation, the Capital of Cliché. Off-the-peg and overworked strategies for recuperation from the low decades of the 20th Century are rife here. The service economy, industrialized education, new apartments, bars, clubs, tourism, heritage, tall buildings, are all fine in their way, but they have little or no relation to the city as a unique location in the world. Of course it exists in that world and cannot ignore it but neither fight nor flight will produce the self-sufficiency within diversity which will secure our city a place in a sustainable future. So, at present we are in a frenzy of self-searching. Our premier arts event, the three-month-long Arts Biennial, is once more requesting artists from elsewhere to give us a view of ourselves. Our city with yet another mirror held up to itself. Tell us who we are, please! Yet it is the mark of a city which is secure in itself that it doesn’t need to ask that question, and the answers will not make us more secure. When does self-reflection become narcissism? When does a city re-emerge from an anxiety to give the correct answers into making strong confident statements about itself based upon a clear self-determination? When it has ideas, of course.

Our city is still a windy riverine enclave in the North-Western corner of Europe but the ideas it embraces will now need to be more global. No-one can impose ideas on a place but it would be good if a few suggestions took root here. Here then are some proposals as to thoughts, ideas, which might shape our urban destiny in this new century,-

With independence comes achievement, with openness quality of life
Others’ cultures are valuable and the more valuable for our embracing them
Keep looking over your shoulder and you will continue to trip over
It’s possible to remember your future – seek your roots
As long as there are questions to answer there is always something to do
The relationship between human beings and their environment is the most important issue to address – get on with it!
Home is many places, many and one

And if the city is to reflect its new ideas its appearance will be rich in images, greenery, space, water, poetry, gateways, pathways, colours, contrasts, contributions.

Two quotes to finish with – both second-hand (thanks to Ursula Le Guin),-

From - Lao Tzu – the Tao Te Ching

The ten thousand things arise together
and I watch their return
They return each to its root.
Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.
Returning to one’s destiny is known as the constant.
Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment.
To ignore the constant
is to go wrong, and end in disorder.

And from Claude Levi-Strauss,

“The societies which best have protected their distinctive character appear to be those concerned above all with persevering in their existence”

Comments

  1. At 01:59 PM on 04 Sep 2006, jason wrote:

    "The Beatles gave us the complementary thought, the idea – nothing is real and nothing to get hung about – and John Lennon its surrogate – above us only sky"

    look, they are just a pop group, you scousers are always going on about em !

    lol

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  2. At 04:32 PM on 04 Sep 2006, esther wilson wrote:

    W H Auden was just a poet and from York & Levi-Strauss was just a French anthropologist.

    But all of them - across time & space, addressed the relationship between man and his enviornment. (at some point)

    I think Roger's actually saying that constantly looking backwards without regard to what we are creating in the present will be dangerous to our future.

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  3. At 06:02 PM on 04 Sep 2006, Eman wrote:

    "There are too many words about, and an abundance of expression neither guarantees the presence of thought nor freedom in thinking. In times when we inundate ourselves with self-expression it is reasonable to require an underpinning of ideas, for culture is surely more than a collection of individual outpourings, and needs for its efficacy a sustained engagement with formalized thought without which society cannot progress."

    I don't see much issue being taken with this. However, why should many businesspeople want to embed ideas per se, when many ideas encourage pathways to the detriment of profit?

    What I mean is that while the people ultimately pulling the strings won't make the most vulgarly philistine of statements, won't begrudge a few million spent on having an image, they're hardly going to allow the creation of any playing field which would allow ideas of the left an equal chance. Sooner or later, organisations which threaten them have to be humbled. (And we don't have to go far back in the media history of our new century to find the primary British example.)

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  4. At 12:43 PM on 05 Sep 2006, Fitz wrote:

    ""There are too many words about, and an abundance of expression neither guarantees the presence of thought nor freedom in thinking.""

    Yep! - that just about sums it up around here at present.

    Can we have the next topic please - short version only?

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  5. At 03:03 AM on 06 Sep 2006, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso,CPUR wrote:

    We should learn from the past so that we do not repeat the same mistakes. But if we look to the past to resolve our present problems, it would be a disaster.

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  6. At 12:58 PM on 06 Sep 2006, Fitz wrote:

    Cities just develop from small villages or embankments on a river.

    They develop to serve a purpose but that purpose is never for the betterment of man(woman)kind, it is for money and trade and economies etc but never for the betterment of man(woman)kind.

    I travelled to London once daily for several years and worked there each day, and met Londoners. But they were really villagers not cityites.

    They were Elephant and Castle people, Old kent Road people, Campbell Town, etc etc.

    Yes London was the city but their real home was a 'village' in a city. The city was certainly convenient but not home.They used the city for their various needs but survival daily needs.

    No cities are just conveniences of commerce and not what people really need to satisfy their daily, spiritual and family needs.

    We often here talk about cities as if they have a soul; they have but just a concrete, stainless steel soul or a rotting Asian humid, decaying soul, but not a human soul. the human souls are in their villages adjacent to the city.

    Don't let's confuse cities with souls and life, they are merely conveniences to be used as such as any other public convenience but not to revive the soul or rest the weary head.

    That's why so many people die in cities without a friend and without notice and are often found weeks later rotting in the rotten city!

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  7. At 12:02 PM on 16 Oct 2006, Tony Hall wrote:

    'Nothing is real'

    Imagine
    .. a building of ideas
    .. 40 floors high with a street spiralling through it.
    .. a new generation of round and curved tall building
    .. a sustainable environment for a community to develop in.
    .. a place for lifelong learning
    .. a place for people to live, learn and work in, mass-produced, built anywhere, around the coasts, over railway stations, in place of wind turbines; with a light/slow transport system linking them all together.
    .. a self-sustaining community.
    .. a starting point for future micro-cities (or sky villages)

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  8. At 09:34 PM on 16 Oct 2006, Douglas Schwab wrote:

    Living in a yurt in Wales is not sustainable with our present population. We need to address density of population and its cooperative development rather than just think of houses. The city in a tower may seem alien enough to our current thinking to get us talking about what life will be like when we live closer together, otherwise only a few of use wiil be trying to live sustainably whilst the ozone layer depletes further.

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