The Urban Idyll

Notes from The Paul Jennings Reader – Collected Pieces 1943-89

There are moments in even the busiest urban life when our relationship with the city is suddenly changed. A meeting ends early, we have time off to see a doctor or solicitor – whatever it is, for a couple of hours we stroll, we are relaxed, we possess the city, instead of being held ourselves in the grip of its routine. In summer, light winds move through the warm streets, reminding us of our trade with the hot lands, the bales of calico, the boxes of spice. In winter, the afternoon sky goes a heavy pink, the lights come on, we are wrapped in a northern dream of gaiety under the chandeliers. The city has the irrationality of a flower, the power of a volcano.

But such a mood cannot be deliberately invoked. It must come by accident, although we do at least know that we must be on foot, for only thus can we emulate the casual, sideways motions of butterflies, or of bees, drinking the city’s nectar. Wheeled things go in a straight line, to infinity; you cannot cover a city, or have any part of it, on wheels…

Think of it, a wonderful quiet area from Park Lane to Charing Cross-road, from the Mall to Oxford-street, full of beautiful people, relaxed, shining, talking animatedly or gravely to one another. We had a hint of what it would be like on the nights preceding the Coronation, when the Mall was simply a great promenade, a susurrus of strollers, a murmuration of mortals. Is not this what cities are for?

from ‘Oddly Enough’, Observer, February 1954

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