Hugh MacDonald

A CURIOSITY of my advancing years is that I increasingly find solace and solitude in cities. The hubbub of workers racing to offices, of cars burping, of the rattle of wheeled mini-suitcases racing each other on sidewalk or boulevard all induce in me a feeling of deep, relaxed satisfaction.

My day job as a sportswriter had the bonus of my being parachuted (The Herald budget rarely stretched to landing fees) into a city for a day before being whisked back 24 or 48 hours later after the mayhem of some football match in some concrete bowl.

Time was as tight as two coats of paint but I always used it to maximum effect, visiting museums or galleries, heading to the “worth a detour” sites or simply walking the streets. This behaviour stretched into holiday time. As a part-time hack, I know I can now regularly decamp to Madrid or Berlin, Boston or Brussels and tramp until the cows put their postcode into the satnav. These expeditions also have the added benefit of not having to watch Scottish football teams being beaten on foreign fields.

This obsession for cities– and I am just wise enough to know it is all of that – chimes with another passion. My addiction to reading encompasses devouring works on cities. One, of course, may have led to another.

A constant joy of reading is that it takes one into another world. How wonderful, at times, to find that some of that world is only a budget airline trip away.

There are three ways of reading about cities: the travel guide, the novel and the work of literature about a specific city. I normally shun travel guides because, as a male, I cannot ask for directions, even from an inanimate object. I also invariably find I have used the pull-out map to wipe away from my mouth a stray ton of chocolate cream from an extravagant waffle.

Novels have, though, opened up the world to me: Balzac on Paris, Dickens on London, Leonard on Miami, Zweig on Vienna, Fallada on Berlin, Montalban on Barcelona, Joyce on Dublin.

Decades, centuries or merely years on from these writers’ works it is still possible to walk the streets that helped give genius inspiration. One may find it difficult to consume Ulysses but it is possible to glean at least the enduring sense and sensibility of a city from it and to follow physically the geography of the characters’ wanderings. The traveller at Gare Austerlitz, too, can reflect that Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Miserables found refuge in its environs if not its platforms.

However, the specific book on a city has become a staple of my later years. They have become part of my preparation for another jaunt.

These books are, of course, written out of love. Why else would a writer sit down to write up to 700 pages on one city? But this love is rarely unconditional. It is all the better for the grit of occasional distaste and the detailed, sometimes brutal examination that this brings.

There is a great ambition at the heart of all these works. The writers seek to bring understanding of perhaps centuries of history intermingled with the lives of millions of people and spread over the zigzag of streets that have survived, been altered or perhaps even disappeared. It is a task that would have forced Hercules to take a sickie. Yet the writers throw themselves at a city with an energy and stubbornness that suggest they have retained the spirit of the medieval besieger.

My love of the genre has been piqued by the publication of Glasgow: The biography by Alan Taylor. My comments on it must be restricted because a) the editor is a friend and b) one of my extended witterings is contained therein (I realise, of course, that a and b may not be unrelated). Nevertheless, I believe the book fits snugly into that genre of City Books to Read with an Interest Only Previous Raised by the Publication of a Rich Uncle’s Will.

It has the added benefit of taking me back to books about cities that have not only informed my trips but enriched my life. A glance at the bookshelf takes me back to the East River of Manhattan, the Barcelona of Picasso and parvenus, the Berlin of Bowie and deep existential dread, the London of friars and traders, of spivs and gin, of early death and eternal glory.

These books have entered what I laughingly call my memory but they have also guided my steps. I remain grateful for both the intrusion and the motivation to visit their subject.

Here is a list of my 10 of the best

1 The Bottom of the Harbour by Joseph Mitchell

"Every now and again, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market.’’

So Mitchell begins his gentle but insistent examination of the rivermen of New York. His work has been questioned over its precise veracity but no one can doubt that it reveals much of the truth about both humanity and how it survives the challenges of the city.

2 Parisians by Graham Robb

Zola on the Eiffel Tower, Hitler at the Trocadero, Haussman on the boulevard. Robb uses history and its characters to form a coherent, breathtaking portrait of a city. His ambition is rewarded by a book that crackles with wit and erudition.

3 London by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd is passionate and insightful on London in non-fiction and fiction (his Thames and the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem are particularly brilliant) but this dedicated life of a city is his masterpiece. Huge and intellectually wide-ranging, Ackroyd never loses his focus on what and who made a city.

4 Barcelona by Robert Hughes

Hughes’ fluid prose beguiles but also can disguise his determination to be brutally exact and frankly honest. His history is let down by its wilful inability to address the significance of the football team and his almost cursory treatment of the civil war. It is routinely brilliant, though, in every other aspect, with the sections on Gaudi being a personal favourite.

5 O Albany! by William Kennedy

Kennedy used the capital of New York state to set his wonderful fictional trilogy of Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed. His obsession with his hometown produces an odd, staccato book of memories and meditations. Deeply insightful on politics, corruption and the American way.

6 Berlin: Portrait of a City through the Centuries by Rory MacLean

Similar in format to Robb’s Parisians, MacLean uses personalities to illustrate history but he brings a personal sensibility to many of the more modern tales. Constantly engaging and, of course, more than occasionally tragic.

7 Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto

In an era where liberalism is under siege, Shorto charts the evolution of a city that once pulsed with tolerance but now faces the same pressures as so much of the world. A first-class examination of a society and its ethics and a compelling tale of a great city.

8 St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past by Catriona Kelly

Written by the professor of Russian at Oxford University, this is a portrait that is excellent on detail and fact but perhaps restricted in colour. It is, though, captivating as it listens carefully to the inhabitants and their concerns. Poetry emerges gloriously amid the statistics.

9 Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

A wonderful city creates its own chronicler. Pamuk, a proud but frank inhabitant of Istanbul, conjures up a mixture of personal memory and wider history to produce a book that tells of an empire fallen but not forgotten, of streets that witnessed greatness but now house uncertainty and even fear.

10 Kathmandu by Thomas Bell

An odd but memorable book. Bell skips between ancient history, bloody modern politics and personal reminiscence to bring alive in all its glory and infamy a city closed to the world until the 1950s.