The Library: Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

Review: Paul Scraton

I began to read Imaginary Cities in a bar on a pretend High Street of a make-believe village that was actually an out-of-season holiday camp on the German Baltic coast. From the bar you looked out onto the (indoor) street scene, complete with pretend houses, mock gas lamps and the chairs and tables of cafes and restaurants spilling out onto the “pavement”. The holiday camp was an imagined city of sorts, a self-contained world built in the 1970s for escape by the seaside. And such was the depth of the research and the scale of the ambition of Darran Anderson’s book, I half-expected to turn the page at one point and find a description of this particular imaginary city waiting for me on the other side.

It is a remarkable book, as Anderson takes the reader through and to almost every conceivable city of the human imagination, from the plans for actual cities realised or not, real cities in fictional settings, cities of myth and cities of legend, cities that we can walk through (and some that we could have done, had we lived in another time or place) and cities that have only ever existed in the mind, as a film set, or in the pages of a book. The scholarship involved in such an undertaking is apparent from the very first page, and it is how Anderson that marshals his material that makes the book work. Like a city itself, the book is fractured, with plenty of distractions along the way, and although sometimes you feel like Anderson might have taken you down a dead-end-street, you realise it was actually a diversion that took you to the intended destination by a more creative and interesting route.

As I read, both in the candlelight of the bar and the next day, rain and Baltic winds rattling the window of the apartment, each section of the book brought more to think about and more scribbles in my notebook. I left to go for a walk or a run and found that the book came with me as I attempted to process what I had been reading. And it is a feature of the book, and the quality of the writing, that I found myself writing out (and repeating to myself) direct quote after direct quote. Here are just a few, directly from the pages of my notebook:

On the bias of cartography and the stories maps can tell us… “decisions which haunt us to this day.”

On the law of unforeseen consequences and how pollution helped give birth to impressionism… “the future not only has side effects, it is side effects.”

On historical cities that although we know existed remain imaginary… “we know the dimensions of rooms… but we can only make educated guesses at what transpired within them.”

On the Tower of Babel… “every age built it again according to their own methods and pulled it down for their own sins.”

The book moves ever forwards, towards the next story, the theory, the next city of the imagination. We visit stories of the past told through stone and ruins. We learn about how cities are branded by their cinematic depictions or in books and art. We consider how buildings that once existed “exist little more than the planned buildings that were never built.” We think about the cost of cities, whether the workers who built the Pyramids all those centuries ago or those that built the new cities in the gulf (and are building the stadiums for a football World Cup). We question the politics of cities, and the morality play of meritocracy, where everyone gets the city they “deserve”, whether a villa in a gated community or the favela on the other side of the wall.  And we are forced to confront those places that were born out of the darkest corner of the human imagination to become the worst cities on earth. Places that were never supposed to be known about but whose names resonated through the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Auschwitz. Treblinka. Stalag.

By the time I returned to Berlin from the holiday camp by the sea I had finished the 500+ pages of the book. But it was not the scale of the ambition and the knowledge exhibited in the book that impressed me the most, although impress it did. It was that – like the best writing on place (or the idea of place) – Imaginary Cities influenced how I looked at my own city as I caught the S-Bahn from the main train station and then walked the handful of oh-so-familiar blocks from the station to my apartment building. Any book that provokes us into new ways of understanding our surroundings and moreover leads us to ask questions, about not only how we do live but how we should live is worthy of inclusion in any library of place, whether imaginary or not.

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson is published by Influx Press.

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You can read an interview with Darran Anderson in Elsewhere No.03 - available via our online shop here.