• What makes cities so comfortable?

    The urban condition – that in-built terror of small town life that makes city folk twitch when they try a new life in the country – is sometimes thought of as a new disease. 

    Not so. 

    Listening to Anton Chekhov’s 1900 play Three Sisters, all about three sisters who once lived in Moscow and are now reduced to the desperation of life in a small provincial Russian town, the following line rang out:

    “In Moscow, you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you and yet you don’t feel like a stranger. But here, you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger.”

    Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters

    Oh, to be anonymous! 

    It’s a catch 22 that many will be familiar with – I want to feel connected to a community, but I don’t want everyone I meet to know all my business. I want an element of mystery. 

    The allure of the city – as I found when first living in London – is that despite having a close circle of friends, you can still walk out of your front door and simply disappear, for days on end, into a mass of humanity in which you are unknown. 

    There is clearly a certain liberation and freedom in this very act. Sitting in a busy pavement café, surrounded by life, watching everything go by, part of and yet apart from it. This is the great gift of urban life, one that all provincials like myself discover as such an unexpected delight. 

    Some existentialism with your coffee, monsieur?

    The trouble that lurks in every city since civilization began is alienation. The risk that in being able to move freely, and unmolested, among strangers, one loses all connection with a tribe, and becomes so adrift that life begins to lose all its meaning. 

    No doubt Chekhov grappled with this dilemma in Russia over a hundred years ago, as it ran breakneck into modern life. And it is still the great dilemma facing us today. To sit in that enormous restaurant, or to go home where everything is known and familiar…

    City life sounding a bit tough? What Would A Soft City Feel Like?

  • Christianity for export

    Naipaul book The Middle Passage sitting on a travel trunk
    Travels in the West Indies

    Christianity is an imported religion to anyone who’s not from the Middle East. This may be a historical fact, yet it’s often overlooked. I am reminded of it by V. S. Naipaul’s reflections on “the faith of the heathen convert” in his 1961 travelogue of the West Indies, The Middle Passage

    “Indian girls not good.”

    Naipaul is being led through the Guyanese jungle by two Amerindian teenage boys from a local Christian mission. One of the boys says he wants to marry, but not an Amerindian girl: “Indian girls not good. They don’t know anything.” By anything the boy means, of course, anything of Western civilization. 

    “The missionary must first teach self-contempt.” 

    For anyone outside the eastern Mediterranean to embrace Christianity wholeheartedly, must they inevitably renounce something of their own heritage? Is there something fundamentally alien to the land in which it lies that a British country church is full of references to Middle Eastern places and people? 

    Naipaul was reflecting on the more visceral import of Christianity from a colonizer to the colonized, and from the slave-owner to the slave. Christianity was initially a racial faith in the West Indies. It enabled the European plantation owners to divide the population into (white) Christians and everyone else. 

    “The Berbice slave rebellion of 1762 was a war between Christians and rebels. The captured rebels were tried for ‘Christian murder’.” 

    This reflection of course makes the conversion to Christianity across the entire ex-colonial world problematic. Is it a final vestige of European domination? Can it ever be detached from that history? And to what extent is the Christianity of Britain a vestige of its subordination to Rome? 

    All quotes: V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, p. 160, Picador, 2001