Travels through absence: letters from the European city
15 April 2019
What images do we carry of our home cities? How well can we describe them? And are we simply witnesses to their familiarity, or do we feel a part of their shared story? Writer and filmmaker Christopher Thomson returns to his 2011 book 'Travels Through Absence' with a new epilogue, reflecting on his own disappearance from the city in which he was born and what has changed since.
I write to you from my city
and my hometown,
…………even if I don’t have a house here,
…………even if it won’t recognise me,
everyone always wants to know where you’re from.
So I write to you from the city centre,
the place where nobody lives.
It’s an old impulse, to seek out the open sky of the main square,
a clearing in the forest, guided by the highest steeple,
a chance to catch your breath and bearings.
A try at arriving.
Yet I walked and I walked and I couldn’t tell where to stop.
The centre pulled me in tighter and tighter as I walked
further and further from the centre.
It was hard to find a place to settle, to focus, to concentrate,
to concentrate on you,
to make a picture and connection.
And it’s hard to come home.
Now this will have to be your city too,
you who can’t go home.
A sense of familiarity is not the same as a sense of home:
home is a practice, something worked for
I have always asked, how can this be my home if it
doesn’t respond to me?
If when I push it doesn’t push back?
Perhaps I’ve been asking the wrong questions.
What am I asking of this city?
I picture my departure.
When I left the photographs were different.
We used to come here to photograph the wheel
…………even if we’d already seen it,
…………especially because we’d already seen it
we came looking for what we could find
…………a wheel, a circle, a shape,
…………elsewhere an arch, an arc, a tower, tall,
…………and the silent H of the bridge.
We took photos,
trying to confirm the world was indeed shaped as had been promised:
an outline history of the future we could belong to.
But when you photograph silhouettes you can’t expect to find a way in.
Heart and lungs, bodies of water,
it’s easy to be distracted by the shape of things.
We want to see things whole
…………the whole world
…………the whole city
there is escape in the kind of distance that allows you to imagine a city
…………a world city
…………the only city
always looked at from afar
…………the eyes of its inhabitants,
…………the eyes of its future inhabitants,
…………all trying to perceive something of a system.
So many of us have come here from the small places,
from the exposed skies of the countryside
into the long shadows of buildings and blocks,
into the promise of anonymity,
trying to disappear.
Yet time passes and more and more of us are children of the city.
Now we come to the centre to photograph ourselves,
those old city shapes a mere backdrop.
We take photos,
trying to convince ourselves we’re really here,
trying to appear.
We gravitate towards circulation
the movement of people
the movement of money
…………away from each other
…………away from rest
and when I look up at the empty space that weighs down on our consumption,
I notice that the windows no longer light up in the evening,
the city is becoming a world bank of distant transactions.
But underneath it all there is still some soil,
it should still be possible to find one another.
I was born into a big box of this city and my parents
carried me out into the bright sunlight of the world.
I pulled against the city’s gravity and left,
trying simply to appear,
but everywhere I went I found the same city,
and everywhere I went I met others trying to perform
the same disappearance-appearance.
As more and more homes are destroyed we will need to
ask our cities for something different,
for a moment,
to realise where we are,
to see ourselves,
to see that we are already standing next to one another.
I write to you from London,
hoping that one day I won’t need to.
Welcome to my city.
This is the new epilogue to the second edition of my first book Travels Through Absence: Letters from the European City. It’s about ten years since the project originally began, and although the financial system had just crashed – an event that could and should have provided some doubt about the rational abilities of the market to organise and underpin society – the neoliberal mechanisms that created my Absence have continued unabated. The city centres of Europe are: ever more homogenised; ever more uninhabited; ever more visited. All three of these trends are of course interrelated, and the market culture of speculation is pushing residents out of city centres just as it is pulling tourists in. Homes become destinations and the rich constellation of European cities risks becoming a hollow hall of mirrors – their names mere products for consumption – disorientating for both inhabitant and visitor alike.
It is not by chance that the ‘non-places’ that have replaced so many public spaces reduce the capacity for human connection, it is inherent to their design: we make better consumers when we consider ourselves alone. I ask myself now whether loneliness has always meant the same thing to us? In any case, whenever I feel alone I tend to dream of elsewhere, and, when able, I write. As such Travels Through Absence became a series of impossible letters, an unanswered cry from the European City and a longing for here that only ever lead somewhere else.
This fragmented letter in its broken prose was written with the hope that it might finally offer the project a kind of arrival (the original book’s letters were all departures). The impulse to write the book was a mere feeling, a simple sense that something was missing. That anxiety has since crystallised into a firmer belief that social structures, so fundamental in our unstable world, need a strong sense of place: somewhere to meet. This becomes all the more urgent as vulnerable people from elsewhere join us on this journey, not least when these subtle and complex questions risk being lost to a polarised and increasingly aggrieved discourse. As such this letter also represents a kind of departure for a new project, Afar, a journey from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic exploring shared notions of home and homelessness in this contemporary world of movement. Do let me know if you’d like to join me on it.
About the author
All text and images © Christopher Thomson 2019
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