Grunt – 13 November 2013


Last week, I was re-reading a book simply called Cities. It came out in 1981, and features thirteen well-known celebrities talking about their favourite city. The book accompanied a documentary television series directed by John McGreevy. There are a couple of interesting aspects to this project. The first is that all thirteen presenters were asked to improvise as they wandered about their city; they didn’t follow a written script as is the case with many documentaries. The second is that the city each one chose wasn’t always the place where they’d been born, but rather the one that had shaped their lives in some or other manner. And the photographs help, too.
Now all of this is by way of an introduction. When I finished the book, I found myself wondering what city I would have chosen if I’d been asked to take part in the programme. Of course, I wouldn’t have minded being with people such as Peter Ustinov, who chose Leningrad, not because he grew up there but because that’s where he was conceived. Or R.D. Laing in Glasgow, Jonathan Miller in London, or Glenn Gould in Toronto. The ladies weren’t overlooked either: with Hildegard Knef in Berlin, Mai Zettering in Stockholm, Germaine Greer in Sydney, and Melina Mercouri in Athens. But the possibility of flouncing around with these famous folk wasn’t what set my mind running. It was an awareness that my life had been shaped by many places, that choosing just one would have probably been impossible.
Would I opt for Nottingham where I was born? Or Calcutta and the lifelong impact that my childhood years there have had? Or perhaps the Nairobi of my colonial high schooling? Actually, Auckland would be high on the list of possibilities, where I was a postgraduate student in the mid-1960s, such an exciting environment after the stringencies of my undergraduate years in the apartheid Durban. Or perhaps New York, centre of the universe? And then there’s Bloemfontein…. Ah, yes! Bloemfontein!
You see, some choices are meant to be impossible. Why? I haven’t the remotest clue! Sorry.