Magazine article The Spectator

London, New York, Paris-Which Is the Fairest City of Them All?

Magazine article The Spectator

London, New York, Paris-Which Is the Fairest City of Them All?

Article excerpt

There are only three big cities worth living in. I rule out Chicago because, though it is beautiful, full of notable buildings, has the best university and symphony orchestra in the world and cultural facilities of staggering variety, its climate is unendurable. (The same goes for Edinburgh, which also has chilly locals.) Toronto is the cleanest big city, the gentlest and the quietest, but it is a crasher. Buenos Aires is the right size (ten million), has the best bookshops and wonderful gardens, but I cannot abide a place where they dine at midnight. Rome has gone down in my ratings since they closed the bar inside St Peter's where I used to pick up well-informed monsignori. Stockholm is fine for three days, but I find myself looking at my watch halfway through the second. Ditto Prague, a five-day town, and Vienna, six days at most. There is a lot to be said for Melbourne, but it is an awfully long way from anywhere. Singapore is too clean; Cairo, Istanbul and Bombay too dirty. I can see myself living in Hobart or Christchurch, but they are not big cities. Barcelona I admire, but if I lived there I would not be able to visit it.

That leaves London, New York and Paris. New York is the most stimulating. It is impossible to go there, even at my age, without feeling a sudden access of energy, an overwhelming desire to try, or do, something new. It is the freest city: you know that, provided you keep within the law and can afford it, you can do anything you want. When Thomas Huxley paid his first visit, in the 1870s, he observed, 'Ah, at last an enlightened place, where the secular buildings are higher than the tallest churches.' No one would gloat over that now - quite the contrary - but there is a certain attraction in a town where mammon, under the rule of law, operates without regard for traditional assumptions. It pleases me that in this great engine-room of capitalism, where the mighty turbines of wealth-creation throb ceaselessly, the unrestrained pursuit of hedonism, often in its most repulsive forms, proceeds in sweaty proximity to some of the world's most intransigent religious communities performing thorny Sabbath rituals which were ancient even in the Middle Ages. And though New York, in its naive way, is an innocent place even in its depravity, and conformist too, being the only city where you regularly see queues of millionaires waiting patiently behind a maitre-d's velvet rope, it is also a city of fiercely individual eccentrics.

Watching the world go by on Fifth Avenue is like gazing down on the Chandni Chowk in Delhi: you find it hard to believe that such multitudes of weird deviants, each lost in their own closed worlds of paranoid concerns, can cohabit together in orderly non-aggression. In fact, thanks to the present mayor, New York is an increasingly safe and polite city. The angst, frustrations and general pottiness have switched from killing to creating, and nearly everyone is making money as never before. The fortunes being piled up from week to week in this steeland-glass goldmine would have made even Rockefeller, who dismissed J. Pierpont Morgan as `not even a wealthy man' because he left only $80 million in 1913, rub his old lizard eyes. And it's the individualism that does it: you can do your own thing more freely among these concrete canyons than anywhere else. That being so, why is it that what I miss most in New York, and find in Paris and London, are the multitudes of little shops which trade in special items? They exist, but you have to hunt for them. Paris I am warming to again, after years of hostility, because such shops multiply all the time. …

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