(Image Credit: Daunt Books Originals)
“Look Here” is a candid, studied and panegyric tribute to a city that pulsates unceasingly and is a clash of spectacular contrasts. Journalist and author Ana Kinsella’s London, while home to approximately 9 million, is neither pedestrian nor patient. Delightful and decadent at the same time, London attracts and repels. An absolute paradise for people wishing to traverse the city using their feet, the prosaic nooks and profound crannies of this wonderful city is trod upon by Kinsella, who methodically records not just turns of weather, but also the evolution of human mores in lockstep with time.
As London embraces Kinsella drop by informed drop, it also gets irrevocably assimilated into her, drip by experiential drip. Interspersed with field notes and punctuated by interviews with a variegated inhabitant of the city, Look Here is an unabashed ode to public life and private reflections. One of her interviewers, a fashion designer takes unbridled delight in dressing herself in voluminous and bloated dresses and navigating a packed underground, taking up considerable space in addition to accumulating the ire of many a troubled co-passenger.
The beauty of the book lies in prising out the layers of delightful intricacy that are otherwise enveloped in and ignored as the ordinary. For example, Kinsella alludes to the concept of “Going Time”. Going time simply refers to the countless number of hours spent in traveling in various modes of public transport, queuing up in interminably long lines and spending prolonged bouts of time in planning and scheduling. Yet it is going time that shapes one’s character and lends meaning to the mundane. ‘At a bus stop, my laptop heavy in the tote bag on my shoulder. Walking through Soho after work, weaving in and out of clumps of advertising executives and film people clutching their clammy pints on the pavement. In a dark pub awaiting the arrival of a friend—trying not to watch the door for her entrance, trying to focus on my book….’ All, quintessential examples of Going Time.
Kinsella reminisces on moments of clear and present danger. While heading to the rest room in a pub once she is accosted by a voyeur. ‘I look up, and over the top of the cubicle divider, a man’s face is visible. He holds a phone in one hand, and I hear the artificial click of the phone’s camera,’ she writes. She also pays meticulous attention to the myriad clothes the teeming populace of London is clad in. Not surprising since one of her primary journalistic tasks was covering fashion. Long blue gingham dresses and fine two-piece grey suits share space with scruffy track suit bottoms and coats entirely covered in sequins that fade from violet to magenta.
COVID-19 in more ways than one threw sand in the gear of the phenomenon called walking. Otherwise, bustling venues such as Oxford Circus were reduced to quiet and doleful centres of inactivity. ‘The archetypal city scene, pedestrians striding across the five-way scramble intersection at Oxford Circus with such determination—all gone. No buses now, and only the odd car. And nobody else around barring me and two cyclists, all of us turning incredulous loops in the middle of the road, cameras held aloft in some blank reverie.’
Look Here is also finding oneself and one’s purpose in a city. Whether it be traversing the vast expanse of picturesque Hampstead Heath, a breathtaking expanse of 790 acres that has served as inspiration for many an artist, and literary doyen or the cluttered and cramped Smithfield Market where meat trading commences at an ungodly hour of 2.00 A.M before concluding at an otherwise transitional time of 8.00 A.M. every place has a lesson to impart and a story to tell.
Acclaimed travel writer and critic, Jonathan Raban was a mesmeric chronicler of life in the cities. In his own compellingly poetic words, ‘Living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, then, soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture’.
Ana Kinsella does more than supplement and corroborate the notions of Raban. She adds her own layer of complexity and authenticity which paves the door open for some serious, yet playful exploration.