American suburban ennui

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 07.34.56It was, writes Dalrymple, the

deadness that disturbed me.

The city had a centre,

but nobody lived there: after work everyone decamped to the suburbs, where they seemed to live in isolation from one another and where human relations, if they existed, were shallow and unrooted, as if everyone expected the neighbours to move away soon and so avoided deep attachments. The suburbs, quiet and spacious as they were, seemed to vitiate the purpose, or at least the pleasures, of living in a city, while not compensating for their loss by the pleasures of real country living. Even their comfort seemed suffocating, as if it were a kind of bribe, or an offer that no one could refuse, in return for living in the way that they did.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 07.42.15Dalrymple’s reaction

was purely conventional. I little thought that my complaint was that of hundreds or thousands of intellectuals before me. I was still a long way from my present realisation—it has taken many years and much voyaging to attain it—that every place is interesting.

Public transport

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 07.40.00existed only in a token way, and was useless if you couldn’t wait all day for it. To go anywhere, to do anything, a car was essential. Without one, you were like an anchorite in the Syrian desert. The suburbs were far too spread out for effective public transport without massive subsidies. This struck me as disastrous from the standpoint of quality of life. The car, supposedly a symbol of individual freedom, became an instrument of an informal servitude, adding two, three, or four hours to the workday: it added periods of isolation, frustration, irritation, and—frequently—rage. It is one thing to drive on the open road; another to be but one driver in a seemingly endless procession, thundering or crawling to and from work, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, spending a tenth of one’s waking life behind the wheel. The very sight of the traffic appalls me, and it would terrify me to have to participate in it. Perhaps such traffic is a quid pro quo for the great benefits of modern existence, and perhaps my horror of traffic is idiosyncratic, a personal taste, or merely snobbish; I have been fortunate in having been able to arrange my life so as largely to avoid it.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 07.44.27The possibility of living without a car has become for Dalrymple

a personal criterion of desirable city life. For this, a good public transport system is necessary; and that can exist only in a city with a dense enough population. Many have written about the problems of overcrowding, with psychologists performing experiments on rodents in cages to demonstrate the bad effects on conduct of lack of space; but the negative consequences of undercrowding in cities are less often emphasised.

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