Bruce Chatwin and Commuting in the City - UnderPinned

As a freelance writer, I spend most of my time working from home. When it comes to labour, my life is almost completely domestic: my routine takes me from my bed to the shower to the kitchen to my computer, where I will sit writing, maybe sometimes reading or otherwise researching, usually for around eight hours a day. My partner, Edie, works from home as well, printing t-shirts. Together we maintain a cosy little workplace: our whole lives, personal and professional, knotted together in the small space of our flat.

Leading such a domestic life, my dreams have become domesticated as well. Edie is pregnant, and right now our ultimate dream is home ownership. In five years together we’ve lived at seven different addresses each: we long to thwart, somehow, the inevitably of upheaval, to give our gestating family a place to ‘settle down’.

In a way, this has taken me by surprise: not least because I used to suspect that settling down might be actively, even ethically, bad. I came to this view through the work of the writer Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin is often referred to as a ‘travel writer’ – but this label fails to do justice to the often incredibly ambitious flights of philosophical fancy into which his work often soars: his book The Songlines, in particular, alternates between providing a (fictionalised) account of a journey through Australia, and sketching a grand theory of human nature.

In particular, Chatwin thinks the human being is an animal that is meant to move. “Our nature lies in movement,” Chatwin quotes the philosopher Pascal, “complete calm is death.” Our minds are formed on the move: “the ‘walks’ of childhood,” Chatwin claims, “form the raw material of our intelligence. “Some American brain specialists,” he notes, “found that changes of scenery and awareness of the passage of seasons through the year stimulated the rhythms of the brain.”

Infants long for movement: “Every normal baby will scream if left alone… the best way of silencing these screams is for the mother to take it in her arms and rock or ‘walk’ it back to contentment.” This, Chatwin claims, proves that “man is a migratory species.” “If babies instinctively demand to be walked, the mother, on the African savannah, must have been walking too: from camp to camp on her daily foraging round, to the waterhole and on visits to the neighbours.”

Sitting still makes us feel ill; walking, by contrast, is refreshing. “Solvitur ambulando. ‘It is solved by walking’.” “The heavens themselves run continually round,” Chatwin quotes the 17th century scholar Robert Burton as asserting, “the sun riseth and sets, the moon increaseth, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is tossed by the winds, the waters ebb and flow, to their conservation no doubt, to teach us that we should ever be in motion.”

But at some point in human history, people started to give up on a life of pure migration, and establish permanent settlements, cities. “I have a compulsion to wander,” Chatwin writes, but also “a compulsion to return.” All human beings are torn between our hunger for new horizons, and our need for a “base, cave, den, tribal territory, possessions or port.” We are nourished by novelty but we also need security – hence the appeals of settled civilisation.

“The City,” Chatwin tells us, “appeared with astonishing abruptness out of the alluvium of Southern Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC. This transformation depended on irrigation works, intensive agriculture, specialised skills such as poetry and metallurgy, and supervision by a literate bureaucracy, judiciary and priesthood.” Civilisation thus “demands a stratified social and economic hierarchy.” “Without Compulsion,” Chatwin quotes an ancient Sumerian text as stating, “no settlement could be founded. The workers would have no supervisor. The rivers would not bring the overflow.”

The founding of civilisation is thus conceived by Chatwin as a traumatic event – security is only won through suffering. And that original trauma continues to echo through our society today. In civilization, we sit “brewing in [our] own filth,” exposed to degradation and disease. “Without change, our brains and bodies rot. The man who sits quietly in a shuttered room is likely to be mad, tortured by hallucinations and introspection.” The comforts of settled civilization make us stupid and aggressive: “Monotonous surroundings and tedious activities wove patterns which produced fatigue, nervous disorders, apathy, self-disgust and violent reactions.” In an age where human beings have become capable – either deliberately with nuclear bombs, or accidentally through climate change – of destroying the whole planet, the suburbs seem like a harbinger of the Apocalypse. And so the comforts of settled security end up betraying their own ostensible purpose.

What is the alternative to this? Civilization’s victory is now near-total. But historically, there were always people who resisted it: “On the steppe, from Mongolia to Hungary and beyond,” people “gave up” on agriculture and “opted for a ‘Nomadic Alternative’.” As civilization has grown, nomadic communities have been harried and destroyed: from America to Russia, modern empires have been created from the death and displacement of nomadic peoples. But nowadays, we need desperately to learn a lesson from those nomads that remain.

Nomadism, in Chatwin’s view, helps satisfy those conflicting human drives for movement and security much more effectively than life in cities does. The nomad doesn’t selfishly maintain personal property, for instance in the form of a house: instead, security is ensured through the regular, seasonal migration through ancestral pastures. This also allows the nomad to be constantly on the move. In practical terms, what this means is we need to explore the world more and be less invested in our personal possessions. This, in Chatwin’s view, would make us all a lot happier and less aggressive. As a species, as a society, as individuals, we would all be able to live far more harmoniously together, finally genuinely at home in the world.

So what’s happening to me? Is being a freelance writer turning me into everything a good Chatwinian would hate? Am I doomed to become some cramped and close-minded little Englander, peering through the blinds at my own neighbours, under siege in the property I never leave? I’m not so sure.

For one thing, it seems clear to me that movement can’t be enough by itself. This is one of the biggest differences I’ve felt between what I currently do for a living, and my old job, for which I used to commute between Birmingham and Coventry almost every day. Commuting certainly gets you regular movement, a regular rhythm, to and fro across a particular territory. But it is also horribly monotonous, tortuously tedious, every bit as detrimental to one’s general well-being as Chatwin claims being cooped up in a stuffy room is.

Admittedly part of the problem might just have been the West Midlands’ terrible transport system, which meant spending anywhere between fifty minutes and two hours every morning and every evening, edging desperately along cramped main roads on heaving buses, tutting on cold platforms in anticipation of often massively delayed trains. The rhythms of these modes of transport are nothing like the liberating sway of walking pace: slow, stop-start yet somehow queasily insistent, buses and commuter trains turn movement from a joy to long for into a chore to dread.

Commuting in this way is also, incidentally, a terrible way to experience a city. Chatwin often contrasts city and wilderness, but nowadays a city is also somewhere to explore: part of the appeal of living in a city is the new horizons it promises to open up for you, if only you happen to chance upon the right people, the right place. Birmingham never felt like that, for me. Who knows, maybe this says more about Birmingham itself, but by the time I stopped living there it had come to feel less like a home and more like an obstacle, something merely there for me to move, always far too slowly, through. Looking back on it, the only place I really miss is one of the pubs by New Street station, where I used to stop for a pint on my way back from work when I couldn’t bear to take that last bus home. Too often, sitting there was the only small comfort the day would bring.

When I went freelance full-time, it was because I lost that job in Coventry. This was initially terrifying, but it at least meant that Edie and I could live wherever we wanted – so long as we could afford the rent. Our lease was up in Birmingham, and since that didn’t feel like home, we moved halfway across the country to Gateshead, just across the river from Newcastle. Newcastle is a much more beautiful city than Birmingham, so maybe that’s part of it – and it’s worth noting that although Newcastle’s public transport system isn’t perfect, it does at least have a proper metro, which immediately makes it vastly better than almost every other major city in the UK. But I also think that probably the biggest reason why I feel at home here, when I didn’t feel at all at home in Birmingham, is because I’m now liberated from commuting. I have come to know Newcastle entirely at my own pace – when I do leave the house, I am able to explore wherever I want, in my own time. And this, ultimately, is why I’ve come to feel like I would be happy to live here forever, to permanently settle down.

So what we really need I think is not just movement, it is precisely freedom. Freelancing, as anyone reading this will presumably know, threatens all sorts of financial pitfalls: no matter how well established you are, you are rarely just a few bad weeks off, a few late-paying clients away, from financial disaster. But although my life may be poorer in terms of security, it is now much richer in terms of the absence of compulsion.

The real trick, surely, would be to find a way of spreading the benefits without incurring the risks. Freelancers should be able to live in countries with a genuine welfare safety net, protecting us against sudden, unexpected situations which leave us unable to work, or be paid, or to secure enough work. People with ‘proper’ jobs, by contrast, should be able to go to work on better transport, and work much more flexible hours – perhaps even working from home, if possible, when they choose. If Chatwin is right about human nature, then everyone and everything would benefit: from our personal physical and mental health to our politics.

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