City Living

(Extended essay alert)

I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t looking for it. But a couple of weeks ago I walked into the National Portrait Gallery on a whim, and came face-to-face with Grayson Perry.

Here, laid out for my inspection upon four etching-plates, was the citadel of his life and character–Vauban-impregnable, pregnant with the paradox and the passion of his personality. Entrenched fortifications are there for his most trenchant opinions; buildings from the once-stately to the now-ramshackle; public monuments and boulevards; hiding-places for “the parts of me I cannot easily face up to”.

Grayson Perry, Map of Days, 2012–2013. Courtesy the Artist and Paragon Press, London. © Grayson Perry. Linked from

I have an almost obsessive fascination with the idea of The City–a vast organism, post-human in scale, yet which exists solely, as Richard Rogers once observed, as a place for people to meet. The City belongs to all of us, collectively and personally, and to none of us. It means something unique to everyone, as a place of commerce and government and industry and culture, of life and obscurity and fear and love, of conviviality and of alienation–yet like a great work of art which has weathered countless contradictory interpretations, it still stands big and vibrant enough to hold all those meanings and more.

Extract from a map of Britain by Matthew Paris, c. 1250

A map says as much about what is important to the cartographer or the mapreader of its day, as about what’s on the ground. Look at the significance of rivers to the 13th-century mapmaker Matthew Paris, whether as obstacles to be crossed or as the country’s great transport routes. Later maps were dominated by fortifications; our great and sometimes good national mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey, still bears its military origins in its name. Look at a contemporary map from a distance: the things that stand out and give you your bearings are its motorways and trunk roads, drawn at twice life-size or more so we can’t miss them. These are the things that matter to us, the ways we define the landscape in which we live.

By describing A Map of Days as a self-portrait, Perry sets a particular challenge to the viewer. This is his place, every street and building meticulously annotated to tell his story. (It is something of a diary and travelogue too, with precise dates mapping his six-month progress across the territory.)

Because cities by definition are shared places, he demands that as we look at it more closely we write our own narrative too. Many of the labels in A Map of Days are about the artist as he relates to other people, positively and negatively. His main thoroughfares of Alpha Masculinity, Nepotism, Unearned Privilege, Boasting, Reputation, Bullshit Detector, Doing Your Own Thing, all suggest ways we are defined by our connections and reactions to others. The ruined church of Assumptions is surrounded by Wasted Potential, Doing Your Best, Ignorance, and Father. (Freudians please form an orderly queue–over there will do, just a few steps to the north-east, by the equestrian statue of Sex–but I suspect he’s saying something more than just the obvious.)

For all that others have helped define him, he deliberately won’t define them. Inset to the map, superimposed but disconnected, is a symmetrical, anonymous suburb of terraced houses and identical garden plots. Them, it reads; The High Street, and Other People.

In one respect, then, Perry ducks one of the most important questions he raises: how do we live together in a shared world? In another, though, the whole nature of his approach answers that very question: it demands that we either share his city with him or build our own–or both.

We are all shaped by shared experience, and I recognise a good many of Perry’s landmarks and street names. I can see how I might function within the community he has drawn. I’m reassured, for example, to find a street called Non-Specific Anxiety–something I’ve become even more aware of since reading Francis O’Gorman’s Worrying (a superb book which deserves a post of its own). I could walk that street and many of Perry’s streets at night, as I used to walk the streets of Romsey, a fugueur in the safe, hidden alleyways of the dark.

“Separate, not unworkable”

As one RSA speaker pointed out recently, one measure of a healthy community is the ability of its members to distinguish themselves from it, to leave and re-join it whenever they choose. Deep down, despite sharing many of Perry’s labels and landmarks, I would still be an outsider here, an expat. Against this map I can define myself more easily by my otherness than by my sameness.

That’s not in itself a bad thing (“Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home, strangeness made sense…”). And the decision to withhold oneself from a community can be just as positive and benign as the choice to participate: if I choose not to go to the community carol-singing in Romsey market place, it validates and reinforces the free choice of those who do want to be there.

Speaking in Oxford recently, Chris Patten argued that we inevitably define ourselves in terms of labels, but that reliance on the labels alone is simplistic, and the results can be dangerous. (Here’s an article from a different source that starts to explain why.) He listed his own identifying markers–British passport, Irish ancestry, Oxford education, Northern-born Londoner, Conservative, Catholic but married to an Anglican, all seasoned by “a bit of cheerful pessimism”–but he qualified each definition, and was careful to distinguish himself from each, as well as defining himself by them. Without the qualifier, the label–however factually truthful–may obscure more than it reveals.

(An aside. Talking to a friend after writing this, he asked “What is the first label we use to define ourselves, and why?” A good question, and one that will need another post.)

Not all communities cope well with this. It’s in the nature of a community that it defines everything and everyone in it in terms of itself. A few years ago I was invited to attend a “knowledge cafe”, which I was told was an open conversation about whatever the participants wanted to talk about. It wasn’t, of course. It was a gathering of business people who were only interested in talking business. I wanted to talk about creativity, not in the sense of economic innovation, but in terms of the hidden passions which can never be captured by a CV or harnessed by a job description. I got nothing but blank stares. Oh, and one look of undisguised contempt.

Our employers tend to do this to us too, and not just the ones that expect their staff to work 70-hour weeks. The intent may be essentially benign–to foster a sense of belonging, perhaps–but the effect, as often as not, is to reduce us in our own minds to no more than our job descriptions. RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor recently made the point that

the idea that you should do what you love, you should follow your vocation, has…turned into the idea that you should love what you do–that the modern corporation tells its workers that they should sign up to the mission statement, that they should believe in the company. The old idea that part of a worker’s self-respect was resistance…was holding something back…that’s gone.” (The Moral Maze, BBC Radio 4, 28 October 2015, 29’55”.)


Other communities are more tolerant, more welcoming even, of otherness and complexity and inner contradiction. There are the silent communities which grow up on social media, made up of people on the edge who can keep each other from falling as nobody else can. (A note to the families and friends of people experiencing depression in all its forms: don’t be afraid of your loved one being part of these communities. In my experience at least, they’re a force for good.)

There are the clandestine thinkers of 1980s Prague, whom Roger Scruton describes so poignantly in his novel Notes from Underground, drawing a careful and helpful distinction between those who “want knowledge, scope, a way out of this prison”, and the dissidents whose only benchmark for success is the stridency with which they rail against the system.

Then there are the lost voices and dissenting opinions, the introverts caught in an extravert world, for whom Susan Cain set up her online community, “Quiet Revolution“.

And there is the “unseen academy” described by Thomas Docherty as a place essentially in opposition to the strident measurement-and-accountability structures created by politicians, peopled with

teachers, learners, researchers who are actually getting on with unquantifiable activities. Those activities require that we go into a seminar or a laboratory or a library not knowing what we will have found out when we leave. What we learn there will actually make the world darker, more mysterious, more demanding of further research and enquiry. But we cannot say this.

Nowhere is this truer than in our honest investigation of our selves. There is, of course, a “double slit” phenomenon when we do this; our very awareness and consciousness of the things we are observing changes them almost before we observe them.

“Through a glass darkly”

Perry himself seems to have experienced this in the making of A Map of Days. Asked whether the map would be substantially different if he were to do it again, he said:

It would. It would be a lot more organised and easily interpretable for conversations like this, because I tend to have a very vague idea when I start a piece and then it comes into focus as I’m working on it. But that always lends it a certain charming, chaotic nature and that works for me. Sometimes if you can look at an artwork and you can see how it was conceptually constructed and it all fits together like a neat intellectual puzzle, it can die at that point. I never try to do the same idea twice, because then I wouldn’t go on that journey myself, of finding out what I was trying to say.

The map, then, can never be finished–can never be a final, static, definitive image–because the thing it represents is never finished. The task of mapping oneself is no less important for that, though, both for the record it gives of how one perceives oneself, what one is and might be, and for the way the process itself changes the mapmaker. “Some things,” as Francis O’Gorman puts it, “really are too important to get right.” (Worrying, p. 90)

This is the beauty of the city as a metaphor for the self: cities are in a constant state of self-renewal. They have their main thoroughfares and public spaces, recognisable to all despite the passing of time. They have their run-down areas, their neglected corners, their no-go districts. But look closely enough, and we also find the brownfield sites under redevelopment, buildings under repair, plywood being carefully removed from windows to let in the light, interiors being carefully refurbished to create the right acoustic. Here there is room for exploration and for hope.

They offer, too, the chance for us to be our whole, complex, contradictory selves, without needing to define that self or know what it is before we set out. The artist Jenny Saville captures something of this in her dazzling series of drawings shown alongside the Titian to Canaletto exhibition at the Ashmolean–in the energy of her work, the way her figures are everywhere at once.

There’s always something, though, that a map will withhold. Every map is an artist’s impression–a narrative deliberately selected and told by its maker–just as all language, from the modernist poem to the news bulletin, is a selective narrative. In that respect, it can both tell the truth and mislead. Even OS MasterMap, arguably the most accurate large-scale mapping in the world, won’t tell me if I’m looking at a quiet suburban development or a run-down, neglected estate. And even the most accurate looking map may include a trap street or two. The truth may be, must be, the defining factor of any self-portrait and any trustworthy news report; but for these purposes there is no such thing as “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.

This isn’t an excuse for relativism or spin, of course, any more than it’s an excuse for the manipulative propaganda of extremist news outlets of whatever stamp. It’s about finding space to explore the multiple, though all quite authentic, facets of our real self–facets which might not otherwise see daylight. Re-reading this blog, I’m acutely conscious that that is why I started to write it nearly five years ago, though I doubt I would have recognised it at the time.

It’s about making space to experience the exhilarating sense of rightness one can feel when encountering something new, or something old, of oneself that one knows to be fundamentally true. It’s the feeling I described about my re-discovery of Britten’s Violin Concerto four years ago–the deep connection back to oneself as well as to the person or thing or idea newly discovered, which cannot be manufactured or even sought, but which makes all the self-examination worthwhile.

“The Secret Me”

Even then, something is always withheld, and must be. Philosopher and web scientist Maire Evans writes about a picture of the self

that is entirely outer, and more importantly, that only really accords ontological status to words and things on paper, and speech and all our data-exhaust…Any sense of privacy in there seems a bit accidental. There is no sense of an inner me, my secret me, the me that no-one can access. I’m just a set of cyber-trails splattered across the web. Do I reduce down to these, or does something emerge from the sum of these trails?

It is a significant point she makes. Our data-exhaust is the product of the self, it may offer pointers to what makes us tick, but it is not a complete record.

I’m happy to be part of one community or many, to be associated with one or more labels or definitions, but I’ve no intention of letting those communities tell me (or anyone else) who I am. I may order books from a certain (dis)reputable online retailer, but they’ve never once recommended anything to me that I’ve wanted to read. Nor do I want them to second-guess the direction my brain will take next. I don’t want to be reduced to algorithm-fodder.

The unknown factor to the algorithm is “my secret me”–the foundations and infrastructure of my city, the pipework and the power supply–which, if they are to provide any support to the buildings visible to others, need to remain firmly below ground, protected from those who would bring in the heavy digging equipment to try to investigate them, whether in the name of friendship or of the false gods of Transparency and Accountability. I’ve said something of this previously.

I’ve also written elsewhere about the importance of those very rare friends, trustworthy beyond the ordinary, with whom one can share the “secret me”, not least when one is forced by circumstance to live behind some façade or other to keep the peace. One may need to pretend to give a damn about the corporate mission statement for the sake of the mortgage payments. However, one must beware, or at least be aware, of letting it become the defining truth about oneself.

“The end of all our exploring”

This raises another aspect of the “secret me”: the dreams and (yes) fantasies we cherish, which some may dismiss as trivial unrealistic self-gratification, but which can keep us safe and sane through the times of greatest stress. “Artists use lies to tell the truth,” says Natalie Portman’s character in the film V for Vendetta, “while politicians use them to cover the truth up.” We can afford to let our dreams tell us the truth, and to be kind to them; there is a lot they can teach us about the things that make us tick, the things we need to prioritise in our lives, the things that characterise the other “secret me”, invisible but ontologically essential, of our foundations and roots. In the words of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips:

All of us lead two parallel lives: the life we actually live and the one that we wish for and fantasise about. And this life unlived (the one that never actually happens, the one we might be living but for some reason are not) can occupy an extraordinary part of our mental life. We share our lives, in a sense, with the people we have failed to be – and this can become itself the story of our lives: an elegy to needs unmet, desires sacrificed and roads untaken.

It makes me wonder whether any of the roads shown on A Map of Days are roads untaken by the artist, places wished for but never yet visited. I’d guess not; it would be too public a place to reveal anything that private.

But nor does the “secret me” require the legend “Here Be Dragons” to appear on any map. We don’t need to draw attention to it. Grayson Perry has–with what precise blend of honesty, bravado and generosity, only he knows–shared as much as he is willing to share and invited us into his world. With the map he has given us, we are free to explore and imagine at will. What we bring to the exploration, what we gain from the imagining, is not about him but about ourselves.

In entering his city, in exploring and recording my own, I am finding it “darker, more mysterious, more demanding of further research and enquiry”. “We shall not cease from exploration,” says Eliot,

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The further enquiry will take me the rest of my life, and will perforce be left unfinished. But it needs to be started.

Because, to paraphrase a deeper thinker than I will ever be, “I am too important to get right”.

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