Let me take you by the mind

Cities of the Imagination Series

July 11, 2003

Cities of the Imagination
Signal, £12.00 each

Brussels, by André de Vries, 264pp, ISBN 1 902669 47 9

Buenos Aires, by Jason Wilson, 249pp, ISBN 1 902669 03 7

Calcutta, by Krishna Dutta, 255pp, ISBN 1 902669 58 4 and 59 2

Havana, by Claudia Lightfoot, 3pp, ISBN 1 902669 33 9

Lisbon, by Paul Buck, 246pp, ISBN 1 902669 35 5

Madrid, by Elizabeth Nash, 242pp, ISBN 1 902669 4

Mexico City, by Nick Caistor, 2pp, ISBN 1 902669 07 X

New York City, by Eric Homberger, 258pp, ISBN 1 902669 43 6

Oxford, by David Horan, 246pp, ISBN 1 902669 05 3

Rome, by Jonathan Boardman, 236pp, ISBN 1 902669 15 0

Venice, by Martin Garrett, 243pp, ISBN 1 902669 29 0

The 11 books reviewed here are the beginning of a collection that will hopefully reach across the globe. The titles in the series Cities of the Imagination posit themselves as a new sort of travel guide: according to the subtitle on each cover, they are "A cultural and literary companion" to their subject. This is a timely idea in an age where up-to-date information is accessible on the internet. Is there anyone left who, when planning travel, decides which hotel to choose and which restaurants to avoid on the word of a guidebook that might have been published months previously, and researched years ago?

The cities so far covered are Brussels, Buenos Aires, Calcutta, Havana, Lisbon, Madrid, Mexico City, New York City, Oxford, Rome and Venice, with Athens, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Helsinki, Prague and San Francisco due in 2004. A diverse array of destinations, but all are certainly worthy of the title City of the Imagination - all are cities about which even those who have never visited have an opinion or a prejudice (it is probably safe to assume that the populations of, say, Brisbane and Ottawa would be ill advised to hold their breath in anticipation of seeing their hometowns included). As Elena Poniatowska writes in a foreword to Nick Caistor's excellent Mexico City, the Cities of the Imagination books aim to avoid "what the 1930s photographers of Mexico City - Edward Weston and Tina Modotti - said should always be avoided, the picture postcard. Instead, he has explored its inner workings, the secret passageways of a complex, unpredictable and creative society."

These are books that are determined not to reinforce what you think you already know, and they succeed splendidly. At best, the wealth of arcane detail they contain could lend even the briefest city break a new and intimate dimension. Paul Buck's Lisbon is riddled with engaging diversions, such as the possibilities for spectacular suicides offered by the city's topography and architecture. The chapters on the popes in Jonathan Boardman's frequently hilarious Rome contain things no Vatican tour guide is ever going to tell you (the suspicious reader may note Boardman's day job as Anglican chaplain to the city of Rome and suspect him of subversive intent, but his erudite passion for all aspects of the city should overcome this). In Buenos Aires, Jason Wilson reveals that Argentinian nationalists were so scandalised by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber's fatuous musical about Eva Peron that they staged their own counter-production (at the climax of the play, their Evita ascended from her deathbed to heaven). I am eternally indebted to André de Vries' Brussels for the information that, because of the haphazard nature of some of the city's most venerated architecture, the Flemings used to refer to the Bruxellois as Breynloose Tarenbaurs (Brainless Builders of Towers). That no local rock group has yet adopted the name is a shocking indictment of Belgian youth.

Of the 11 cities in the series, I know five of them slightly or well. I began with the book about the one I know best, and the one in which the world takes the greatest interest: New York City, which would have been a daunting enough subject even before it assumed an additional, if unwanted, symbolic importance on September 11 2001. The author, Eric Homberger, realises there is no sense in putting the event off, and deals with the massacre in his introduction, pointing out that while the method of Osama bin Laden's attack was novel, and the results unique in the way in which they horrified the world, it was hardly the first time that New York had been a battlefield for competing powers, whether ideological or commercial.

Homberger even dares to remind the reader that "there is, in fact, a long tradition of America hating New York". It swiftly becomes clear that this is not a custom observed by Homberger, who deftly uses the mountainous literature the city has inspired as a guide to rich troves of detail in the intersections of New York's history and geography. It should be more commonly known that New York's nickname, Gotham, "originally came from a village in Nottinghamshire noted for the eccentricity of its inhabitants".

When dealing with a city that dominates the global popular consciousness as completely as New York, it is impossible to include everything in 258 pages, but Homberger's book has a major blind spot - a failure to recognise New York's colossal contribution to modern popular music. The section on the Beats mentions Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, but not Phil Ochs; the brisk appreciation of Andy Warhol leaves out The Velvet Underground. Homberger may never have been a regular at CBGB's - the fact that he overlooks the venerable punk venue suggests as much - but he should at least have heard of Blondie, The Ramones and Talking Heads. His coverage of Harlem and the Jazz Age is good, but remiss in failing to link the black music of the 1920s to the present prominence of hip hop, pioneered by New York groups Run-DMC and Public Enemy. And even if Homberger does consider all modern pop a curse, one absence from the "S" section of the index is unfathomable - so Frank Sinatra might have been born across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey, but in singing New York's eternal theme song, he embodied its spirit ("If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere") like nobody else before or since.

The reluctance of these books to acknowledge as culture anything involving a drum kit is less jarring in those that deal with cities whose pop music is not, perhaps, their principal stake on our interest (although David Horan's - again, otherwise superb - book on Oxford neglects the hugely influential Oxford-based rock band Radiohead).

All 11 volumes deal ably with an extraordinary scope of subjects. Elizabeth Nash's Madrid is as good on Goya as it is on Real Madrid. Krishna Dutta's Calcutta wipes away the grime that encrusts most received views of her hometown to offer a view of a clamorous, vibrant metropolis unfairly saddled with grim imperial memories and ignorant western pity. Martin Garrett's Venice and Claudia Lightfoot's Havana both accomplish the improbable feat of making the reality of their subjects seem even more alluring than their myths; I have never been to either city, but now very much want to, and feel rather like I have.

The Cities of the Imagination books are written by people who know the cities well, but have spent enough time outside them to see them as the visitor might. As such, they are travel companions that it would be foolish to leave home without, but they are also capable of taking the armchair tourist along for a memorable ride, and probably of surprising the natives.

The volumes are beautifully designed, thoughtfully bound in rucksack-worthy stiffened cardboard, and all suggest avenues of further reading. The possibilities for this series seem endless: there are many obvious destinations still to be covered (London, Sydney, Paris, Los Angeles, Berlin) and many other cities whose stories would be well served by this format. As yet, there is not a single eastern European, African, Arab or Southeast Asian city on the list: the title City Of the Imagination is surely merited by Moscow, Khartoum, Baghdad, Tokyo, or anywhere else curious people have ever wanted to visit.

Andrew Mueller is a freelance journalist, Time Out columnist, and a contributing editor to the latest edition of Robert Young Pelton's travel guide The World's Most Dangerous Places.

Cities of the Imagination Series

Author - Various
ISBN - 1 902669 .. .
Publisher - Signal
Price - £12.00 each
Pages - -

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