City Landscapes / Travel & Place

15th September 2017

Approaching Venice by boat from far out to seaward of the lagoon, those vasts of shallow green-brown water, sparkling in the late winter sun, bird haunted, dotted with stilt-supported fishers’ huts. Distant shorelines, islands, home to the original inhabitants – refugees from strife, marsh dwellers, fowlers, shrimp netters, fishermen. The Dolomites, far away north, snow covered. And here, growing through the pale haze, the towers and spires and domes of the extraordinary city, my most beautiful city – utterly improbable, once rich beyond rich, venal, powerful, cruel, avaricious, but now aged and aged, well worn, lapped at by ever rising waters. Winter nights there, when the tide covers the squares like black lacquer.

Manhattan, a young man, a country dweller, a lover of the wild uplands, the seas, walking south down Park Avenue towards the Pan Am building. Sloping, low winter sunlight. Quietly awestruck – these great canyons! The creation of them – vision, energy, aspiration, beauty!

Driving south on the M1, late winter afternoon, and there, laid out in panorama, is all of London. The Shard, clear and proud, catching the light of the westering sun and flashing it back at us. The city from a distance,
all promise and optimism and opportunity. As, if he ever existed, Dick Whittington might have seen it. Or Wordsworth, quietly from Westminster Bridge. Or John Keats, pleased to have left it, watching from Hampstead Heath, a day’s country walk from town. Or those Jacobean engravings with parliament, court, palaces, cathedrals indicated in scratchy cursive; little ships on the river; open fields north of Smithfield speckled with cattle – proud London, a trouble to the world, hardly more than a little town.

Tokyo by night from the 52nd floor. Low lights, a piano playing, plucked bass, a woman singing, a hum of conversation, the clink of glasses – but you’re dreaming into the darkness outside. The city stretches to the horizon. Ten thousand red lights, each crowning a high-rise, slowly pulse, pulse on and off, below you and away into the distance. They feel disassociated from the world beneath – lost in the middle air, petitioning the skies above; or Bodhisattvas signing acceptance to heaven, compassion to earth – those yellow/white-lit chasms far below, where lines of headlights snake here, snake there. You’re drinking a cocktail, your glass catches amber light. Planes follow holding patterns in the eastern sky, landing lights cutting through the dark and, now, the rain.

St David’s, the littlest city, its cathedral built at the foot of a deep hollow so that only the tower’s top is visible from the area around. Crouching there for shelter from storms, gales, rain. The small streets clustered around the hollow’s rim, lines of retainers protecting their liege-lord. The grey and rock strewn seas all around. The green and rock strewn land.

New Delhi from a pool at dusk. You swim slow, contemplative lengths on your back, the water just cool enough to offer refreshment. The foliage crowns of poolside palms, their ash grey trunks, follow each other in slow procession at the periphery of your vision. Black kites circle high overhead, riding the city’s thermals. The heat, the bustle, the noise, the hassle of the day recedes. The sky softens – pearl pink, apricot, a hint of green – and then settles into a deep, dusty rose. The day resolves itself. Crickets start to sing.

And then, as in this book: Vancouver in the rain, hunkered in its new built pride between snowy mountains and the long swells of the cold North Pacific.

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Words by James Seaton.