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Soft City

posted on 15 Mar 2017

Soft City by Jonathan Raban

Published in 1974, Soft City was Jonathan Raban’s third book. If you want an insight into the thinking, concerns and attitudes of the leftish, literary, upper-middle class intelligentsia at the cusp of the 70s, this time-locked but hugely entertaining and interesting book will tell you – almost as surely as if you had been able to travel back to that period in your own time machine.

What Soft City claims to be about and what it is actually about are not quite the same thing, however. The book claims to be an investigation of urban life, identity and style. Its central idea being that small towns and villages are ‘hard’ – they offer the self a narrow, predetermined identity and are not amenable to those who choose to live outside of this; while great metropolitan cities are ‘soft’ – they are huge malleable theatres of the self in which an almost infinite variety of personal identities can be adopted and discarded.

And it’s true, this is partly what the book is about. But it is also a sort of coming-of-age autobiography, and as surely as anything else it charts the awakening of a rather staid academic, himself the son of a clergyman, a product of the provinces and of the public school system. This personal autobiography informs the book as deeply as any of the French philosophical underpinnings it utilises along the way. (Raban is deeply in thrall to the theories of semiotics and especially the writings of Roland Barthes, but don’t let this put you off: while semiotics is present throughout the book it is as a pervasive odour – rather like patchouli and inexpertly cured Afghan coats – rather than as a philosophical framework.)

In some respects Soft City is written out of great erudition and great prescience. It describes a time during which the conventional trappings and signifiers of status were being exchanged for a status-of-the-self based on taste, cultivation and identity – but with everything reduced to brief fashionable ‘epigrammatic’ statements that could be grasped as quickly and as effortlessly as the fleeting messages on billboards or neon signs.

And yet on the other hand sometimes the book also seems written out of a deep naivety, even ignorance. It is as if Raban is watching the early unfoldings of high consumer capitalism and has just – just this very moment! – realised what it is and the likely implications it will have for human and social development.

But what is perhaps even more fascinating is that part-way through the book he changes his mind. While at the beginning he is utterly in favour of this new modernist consciousness that the great city makes possible, by the later stages of the book he seems to think – like the Victorian reformers – that the city is indeed a den of iniquity; not of moral failure, perhaps, but of rational and intellectual failure, a theatre of self-expression that cannot but tend to shallowness, to weird symptoms of obsession and morbidity. But even allowing for this he closes the book with what to my mind is something of a cop-out. “We live in cities badly,” he says. “We need…to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and the city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom.”

Yawn. That gives entirely the wrong impression. It makes the book sound like a prospectus for a trendy new property development – which may require a bit of ethnic cleansing before the site can be fully utilised. The ending is perhaps where the book strikes its least convincing notes.

But overall, Soft City is great fun. It is a little po-faced in its beginnings but soon shakes this off and when it gets into its stride is written with immense relish. There is barely a page that isn’t studded with audacious and wonderfully expressed insights that one reads with a sharp intake of breath.

Read it as a book about an awakening consciousness, a sort of ‘travel book’ of revelation, a voyage in the head. But do read it. It still holds plenty of surprises.

 

Alun Severn

March 2017