travelling histories

Research, thoughts, links


China Miéville’s novel The City and The City explores the idea that to live in an urban space is to live in a land made up of borders. His does this through the conceit of two cities occupying the same geographical space. His tale follows the efforts of Tyador Borlu, a homicide detective from Beszel, in his efforts to discover the killer of a woman whose body is found in a park in the early hours, one morning. The story is filled with the idea of borders and transgressions. The two cities in which the story is set, Beszel and Ul Qoma, exist uneasily side-by-side in what is essentially the same city. Certain geographical areas are wholly in one city or wholly in the other: in the novel’s terms, they are ‘total’ or ‘alter’. Of greater interest to the reader (and, ultimately, to Borlu) are those areas which are at once in both cities and neither, the ‘crosshatched’ areas. In Miéville’s book, crosshatching evolves from being an everyday inconvenience (for drivers on shared roads, for instance, who must look the other way while avoiding incidents in the other city) to an uncomfortable fact of life, to his very way of living. The cities, though possessing their own jurisdictions, are ultimately answerable to a shadowy, ‘alien’ power known only as Breach, which possesses the ability to freely cross borders and impose its authority.

When I first read the book I found absurd the notion of two cities, with different social codes and expectations, occupying the same space, or rubbing shoulders with each other while people tried (or pretended) to ‘unsee’ each other. Now that I have lived a few years in a large city, the set up seems less absurd and more an accurate reflection of city life. In fact, a few hundred yards from my old front door in Dalston, there was a junction that could be described entirely in Miéville’s terms. The main road was apparently a total area of low-income, mostly BME renters, with flats above take-away shops, where people walked with a harried air. At the junction, the road off to the left was alter to the main road: it was a total area of middle-class white residents, who lived in houses or blocks of flats, ate at upmarket ‘asian fusion’ restaurants, played with their children in the park and bought nicknacks from the quaint shop across the street. The feeling of ‘Miévilleization’ came from the odd experience that often I would be the only person turning from one road into the other, the only pedestrian who failed to obey the unwritten, unspoken, barely acknowledged but wholly socialised rule that one did not cross the secret border. Of course, it seems absurd that I would have been the only one to cross the ‘border’ but that’s what it often felt like.

Almost a year ago I moved out of London and into Cambridge, to start my PhD. Cambridge is, in many respects, an altogether different place. For instance, on the crowded, narrow streets of the city centre, people are more likely to avoid eye contact with other pedestrians, looking down at the ground or away into the distance, in a way that reminds me of walkers in the small town in which I grew up. Pedestrians in London, by contrast and in my experience, are more likely to be looking alertly at others as they walk. This makes navigating the pavements easier, but can seem overly confrontational. Yet, there is one way in which Cambridge is perhaps even more ‘city-like’ than London: the more time I spend here, the more I notice the applicability of Miéville’s ideas of space.

Perhaps it’s too easy to find echoes of Miéville’s total and alter geographies in a university town such as Cambridge. The traditional student/resident divide (the colloquial ‘town and gown’) is particularly prominent in a town so dominated by the university. The university is the town’s principle claim to fame; it’s main tourist attraction; takes up most of the centre and large swathes of land elsewhere; and students are particularly noticeable on the streets, given the great socio-economic divide between most of the locals and most of the students. On top of this, the university’s buildings seem to have been designed to foster a sense of ‘us and them’: ancient stone walls and high wooden gates, set into high gatehouses, guarded by college officials and myriad (unspoken) regulations, work to reinforce the idea that certain lands are ‘total’ to the university, meaning that certain lands are, by extension, ‘alter’ to the town’s other residents. (Google Maps even recognises the colloquial name for the large light-fitting on Parker’s Piece – Reality Checkpoint – so called because it marks the end of the university’s influence and the beginning of the ‘real world’ of city residents.)

This noticeable division of space into ‘total’ and ‘alter’ areas is clearest at the colleges’ gates. Take King’s College, for instance. Unlike other touristy colleges along the river, the main entrance of King’s is reserved for college members and university people; tourists enter around the side. So the gate itself is a border space par excellence. Tourists and locals may gather around it, usually on the no-man’s land that stretches from the street to the gate itself, but they may not cross the threshold. University members, however, can freely cross into the restricted ground beyond.

Yet, this picture of the physical and social division between the college and the town outside its gates is misleading. Cambridge as ‘borderland’ is far messier than it first appears. Like most lived spaces, and unlike Miéville’s Beszel and Ul Qoma, Cambridge is a space where ‘crosshatching’ is the norm, not the exception. For instance, the university is a composite of thirty-one colleges, spread out across the town, frequented by students, locals and tourists alike. Each college has its own terms of access based on self-administered rules and regulations. Thinking back to my earlier experience at the crossroads in Dalston, where two microcosms of culture and class gazed at each other (or not) across an unmentioned border line, it’s apparent that the exclusivity within exclusivity which pervades any encounter with a Cambridge college (“Access for Members of Trinity College Only”/”Private – Members of Magdalene College Only Beyond This Point”) is not unique to Cambridge.

Clearly, as powerful as Miéville’s depiction of two cities relations over shared space and shared lives is, his book greatly limits the number of potential social and cultural divides across which unmentioned boarders might be erected. ‘Crosshatching’, Miéville’s term for the spaces that Beszel and Ul Qoma openly share, is surely the best term to describe the messy, complicated, multi-scalar social geographies of any urban space. It certainly describes most of Cambridge very well. Often, I find tourists who stop me in the street to ask where the university is are confused when I reply, “it’s all over the town”. Perhaps they expected, like other university towns, to find one, ‘total’ university space, from which the town would seem alter. In fact, a map of Cambridge shows this ‘crosshatch’ idea nicely.

It’s with those same tourists that I’d like to end this (apparently random) set of musings on unmentioned borders. In Miéville’s The City and the City, where children are the ones who give lie to the political straightjacketing of people’s lives, by their repeated failing to ‘unsee’ the other city, its inhabitants, its uniqeness. In Cambridge, this role is played by the tourists. Though they may not be able to cross certain borders, or to venture into certain areas, they always take the opportunity to look across, and to take note of what they see.




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This entry was posted on September 13, 2014 by .
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