In Birmingham, the second biggest city in the UK, defining the concept of ‘the city’ is understandably relevant. It is little wonder, therefore, that the Barber Institute has interpreted it also. The institute has been called ‘a haven of tranquility in a bustling metropolis’; procuring the status as a perfect island in which literary fans can gather and act the flâneur; observing the city through the eyes and mouths of storytellers.
‘Art and Writing: The City’ was presented on Thursday 11th October by Andrew Killeen, the resident writer at the Barber Institute; guiding listeners through the ‘concrete jungle’. This main event, he explained, was preceded by a series of creative writing workshops that aimed to provoke ideas about cities and our relationship to them. Yet, he emphasised writers did not simply sit in front of art and write. They met and discussed themes together, later reconvening to share and critique each other’s work. The finished products were then brought to the final workshop. Killeen was pleased to note that the experience had been ‘inspiring’, and that works had been chosen this evening to demonstrate the ‘breadth of ideas’ throughout the project.
Certainly, the stories brought some interesting interpretations to the fore. Cities were popularly situated alongside the countryside; most storytellers portrayed the country as backwards and boring, a ‘void’ where ‘a computer [became] a rare gift’. This rendered ‘the city’ a glamorous finale to a journey of escapism. This notion, however, was often dispelled by portrayals of multiple cities.
Jenefer Heap’s modern London was ‘rendered sterile from a safe distance’ for tourists. She superimposed this image upon a city so that the character of ‘Lu’ could walk with her younger self ‘Lulu’, confronting distasteful elements of her past. Aaron Jackson portrayed a dark and bloody underworld to his initially attractive Tokyo and poet Jessica Holloway Swift held Oxford up against London, stating that ‘Oxford was the city of the king, London the city of the usurper.’
Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, Swift’s London smog was innovatively replaced with the presence of Puritans that apparently ‘polluted the soul’. In each, the ‘seductive’ city became sordid, the ‘nonchalant’ city became ‘violent’ and the ‘instinctively chic’ city became morally ambiguous. Death also permanently pervaded its horizon like ‘a weight of bloodied metal’. The word ‘survival’ echoed throughout; it seems that the workshops had stimulated an urban anxiety.
This was especially evident in Killeen’s short story, Hardcore, where a country dweller’s attempts to remove a traveller’s family from his local ‘green belt’ made evident fears about the spread of suburbia. Killeen claimed in his introduction that the city has ‘burst out of the walls’ that once defined it; rural/urban boundaries are being swallowed by a suburban landscape. Killeen asked, ‘How do we know who to include and exclude?’ His protagonist certainly does not want to include travellers, whom he sees as destroying his ‘way of life’. The implication, however, is that his bigoted views are influenced by his fear that ‘Eventually our green and pleasant land will become one big ugly dirty city’; his enemies are developing and changing a field into an (albeit basic) built-up area.
Combatting this aesthetic of unease were the readings that punctuated the workshop’s storytellers. Lecturers from the university brought a fresh and positive attitude to the project; a love for the city, that has been explored by English writers in times past. We heard the hustle and bustle of Virginia Woolf’s London that leads Mrs Dalloway to proclaim that this ‘was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.’ Hugh Adlington performed a more serene London in William Wordsworth’s Composed Upon Westminster Bridge where ‘the very houses seem asleep/And all that mighty heart is lying still’. This poem seemed particularly appropriate as Wordsworth’s stolen moment of ‘calm, in the midst of Mrs Dalloway’s London, mirrored that of the audience’s in the Barber Institute’s intimate lecture theatre.
In the course of the evening, it became clear that the city has many faces, and that art has the capacity to capture each of them, including the people living within them. The relationship between urbanites and the metropolis is a complex one, and Killeen’s project displayed urban love and hate in a wonderfully widespread and indeed inspiring fashion.