Taking its name from Ray Carver’s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Cities (And Love) is very heavy in literary references, as it’s what Andy Merrifield knows. Having dropped out of his Liverpool schools at 16, he taught himself and wound up an academic. He hated Liverpool – the dirt, poverty, personality and wanted out: ‘Grayness entered your soul. I wanted color, life. I wanted elsewhere.’
So he went searching for it. En route he found his wife Corinna, and explored cities around the world, including New York, London, and Sao Paulo. He fell in and out of love with them. He’s still searching for his place.
Never does the infrastructure overtake the inhabitants in Merrifield’s exploration of what makes a city. As he says: ‘Cities are two-faced. They’re subjective and subjective realites…The objective city is the hard city, made of bricks and mortar, physical and structural…The subjective city is the soft city, the city of the mind, of human consciousness, of human frailty and ambiguity.’
Cafes feature heavily in Merrifield’s assessment of the city. A place to be ‘a part of the action; detached from it, anonymous, sufficiently absent, yet absolutely present.’ Book shops are another key feature. Walter Benjamin once asked ‘How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books?’ Both of these places provide Merrifield with a space to create himself, steal out some time in the busy thrum of a city.
One of his favourite commentators on the urban is Jane Jacobs, who talks about the distinction between ‘city makers’ and ‘city users’ and the importance of always listening to the latter when it comes to planning and making. Marxism is another key feature, as the brilliance of cities is often built on capitalism, yet there must be a sense of collectivism to ensure that everyone benefits from the spoils. But Marshall Berman, an American philosopher whom Merrifield befriends, is the character who looms largest in the book. His thoughts on everything from urban streets to Starbucks (a place where the private is made public) make for fascinating reading, and clearly influenced Merrifield. When Berman dies, he is left bereft.
Merrfield doesn’t find his place. It’s not New York, or London, or Paris even, although he describes the latter as ‘a space that’s open to the world.’ He is unsure of where he is from, and whether to describe himself as Liverpudlian, or European, or something in between.
I finished unsure of what the book was – or rather who it was for. A love letter to Corinna, to cities, to literature, to cafes, to Marshall Berman? Towards the end of the book, Merrifield describes the city as ‘a school. It teaches us things about how to live together, how to love together.’ It’s that potent combination of individual lives being so closely brought together that makes a city infinitely powerful. Makes it something to love.