On the Pleasures of Observing the City: A London walk with Ana Kinsella
Look Here, Ana Kinsella
Daunt Books Publishing, Paperback, 26th May 2022, £9.99
When, in March 2020, our freedom of movement was abruptly curtailed, our concept of the everyday was thrown abruptly off kilter. In lockdown, the unremarkable – working in an office, drinking in a pub, human touch – became remarkable, forcing us to consider why we valued the aspects of city life we’d taken for granted. Ana Kinsella, a freelance writer whose work had dried up, spent that strange, suspended summer thinking about ‘what was it that I was missing, beyond the theatres and restaurants’, concluding that it was ‘the way incidental moments knitted together to form the fabric of the city’.
…….This tapped into an existing preoccupation for Kinsella, a former fashion journalist whose interest in urbanism and street style, and disenchantment with the limitations of the trend cycle-focused fashion industry, had led her to launch a popular newsletter, The London Review of Looks, in 2017. She’d later written a novel, but publishers wanted her non-fiction. The challenge was: how to structure a book in a way that retained the observational, episodic appeal of the Tinyletter while allowing her to delve more deeply and discursively into the city’s history and ideas such as community, identity, privacy and freedom.
…….To reflect the multiplicity of urban life, she decided to interweave location-specific chapters linked to her own experiences with ‘field notes’, fragmentary street observations, and interviews with an eclectic array of other Londoners. These include the musician and broadcaster Nabihah Iqbal, the fashion designer Yashana Malhotra, a tube station supervisor, Nicola Dineen, and the photographer Jermaine Francis.
…….The result is Look Here: On the Pleasures of Observing the City, a layered celebration of urban wandering, interaction and diversity that establishes Kinsella as an heir to Virginia Woolf and Vivian Gornick and positions her alongside contemporary writers such as Lauren Elkin, Rebecca Solnit and Olivia Laing.
…….I meet Kinsella on the Heath one drizzly March afternoon. ‘I try not to fall into Hampstead Heath exceptionalism,’ she says. ‘It’s fundamentally just a very large and beautiful park – but during lockdown I felt so lucky to live nearby, and I still do . . . Coming here when I had no garden just really affirmed the importance of open green spaces for everyone.’ Public space is a political issue for her, and a central concern of the book, which examines the proliferation of London’s ‘privately owned public spaces’: sterile, faintly ersatz, ‘carved out of nothing’, and patrolled by security personnel.
……For centuries, pockets of the city, from Portland Place to Kensington Palace Gardens, have been cordoned off from the masses, but her quarrel is with the new, insidious developments ‘masquerading as the commons with profit in mind’. One that springs to mind is Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross, an area whose regeneration was overdue, but which now looks suspiciously pristine, with its carefully curated roster of high-end boutiques and destination restaurants.
…….Of course, the issue here is gentrification, a thorny one because many of us like its perks (yoga studios, flat whites) but lament its shortcomings (rising property prices, high street homogenisation). Kinsella quotes Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, which charts the deadening impact of gentrification and the AIDS crisis on New York’s queer artists in the 1980s and 1990s: ‘By necessity, their goals are altered. Reimagining the world becomes far more difficult, and reflecting back what power brokers and institutional administrators think about themselves feels essential to survival.’
…….Is there a sense, too, that the organic interactions we find rewarding in city life are less likely to play out in artificial spaces, under the all-seeing eye of security cameras? According to New York urbanist and writer Jane Jacobs, to understand the ‘intricate sidewalk ballet’ you must participate in it. It demands that you look up from your screen and your introspection to draw energy from the theatre of the street. ‘Over and over,’ writes Kinsella, ‘as I cross paths with these strangers, something of the city opens up to me, too.’
……. Born in London, where her TV producer parents were living during the late eighties, Kinsella grew up in Dublin before moving to London to study at Central Saint Martins. Look Here is, in part, a memoir of building an adult life and identity in an adoptive city which gradually becomes a home. A personal map of London steeped in musings and memories, it contemplates the idea that we are different selves in different cities, and how familiarity, which breeds confidence, affects the way we relate to the urban environment.
…….Kinsella spent a summer in New York aged twenty-two, ‘porous to the universe’, absorbing new experiences like blotting paper. When she subsequently arrived alone in London as a fashion student, solitary walks became a tonic, representing ‘a kind of loneliness by choice’. Captivated by the city’s immense tangle, she began mapping it in much the same way as Phyllis Pearsall, creator of the A to Z, had done in the 1930s – on foot. (Legend has it that Pearsall would rise at 5 a.m. every morning and spend eighteen hours walking and recording street names and landmarks.) ‘Here was a thing so layered and complex that it had grown gnarled, and it was up to me to put myself inside of it,’ writes Kinsella. ‘I knew that to move through it would be to move through time itself.’ As her knowledge accumulated over the years, she created her own personal London cartography.
…….Walking has been a constant, a recurring motif in her life – and it’s an important connective thread running through the book, which has six chapters titled ‘Walking’ (this was inspired by M.F.K. Fisher, who titled five chapters ‘Sea Change’ in The Gastronomical Me). But Kinsella’s mid-twenties brought a destabilising shift: she developed agoraphobia. She skates over how crippling it must have been for such a dedicated pedestrian to suddenly fear open spaces, but the book would have benefitted from a deeper look at this experience and how therapy helped her overcome it.
…….Nonetheless, Kinsella vividly evokes the excitement, precarity and anxiety of early adulthood, with all its personal and geographical terra incognita. ‘I never really wanted to write a book about me,’ she says, ‘but I found that once I began, I wanted to use my experiences to open up other avenues of thought. To do that, I knew I had to build a narrator who the reader can know the shape of and trust . . . And it became quite enjoyable to sit down every day with this younger version of myself.’
…….Of course, as girls grow up, something shifts in the way they are observed. Kinsella describes the rage she felt, aged twenty-one, at the strangers’ eyes raking her body. ‘The world is full of men who think that looking at me offers them some part of me to own . . . Male sexual entitlement permeates everything as soon as I leave the house’. Several incidents have haunted her: a man in a Dublin pub peeping over her toilet stall to photograph her; some girls laughing at her body in the lido changing rooms. The shock and violation of such memories – every woman has her own equivalents – keeps them sharp.
…….‘Living here in the belly of a new anonymity, I began to feel both more and less on display,’ writes Kinsella of her Saint Martins years. Dublin is so small that you’re bound to bump into an acquaintance if you leave the house. By contrast, London offered a liberating cloak of obscurity. Rejecting the art college’s ‘colosseum of style’, she began to shroud her body in baggy clothes. ‘I thought that by making myself nondescript, a void, I was reclaiming some space or getting the upper hand,’ she writes. ‘I think now what I was doing was pretending there wasn’t a problem. I was refusing to confront the reality of my own body.’
…….I ask her about the conversations around female safety that were sparked by shocking street crimes such as the murder of Sarah Everard. ‘It didn’t make me feel less safe, and I think that’s true of a lot of women I’ve spoken to. It’s difficult because I understand why people talk like this, but I don’t think it’s helpful to overstate the dangers. Statistically, the real threat is in the home . . . This talk can stop women from doing things they would otherwise do. I think we need more women on the street, not less. I don’t want to go out for a walk if I’m going to be the only woman.’ The heightened discourse reminds me, I say, of the moral panic during the pandemic: the rage against joggers and sunbathers. ‘Yes, people felt so ready to reprimand because they’d been given license to, in a way I hope doesn’t stick, because it’s very unpleasant.’
…….Kinsella’s prose is precise, intimate, imbued with gentle humour as she unpicks how our sartorial choices impact others and theirs influence us. I love the way she decodes London’s style tribes: the fashionistas of Old Street, the tailored City slickers. Spotting and adopting trends is ‘like learning a language from a textbook in a classroom, then getting the opportunity to put it into practice’. I ask whether, when calamitous events such as Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine unfold, she feels guilty about the comparative superficiality of fashion. ‘Humans contain multitudes, and you can be in a war zone and still be someone who’s interested in fashion, although obviously your priorities shift . . . I think when I became tired of working in fashion, it was that my priorities had changed. But I still think that how we get dressed is a fascinating intersection of many different things: society, politics, everything.’
…….Look Here really does capture what it is to move through a city, observing and engaging. Interestingly, because it was written in lockdown, from a place of confinement and longing, Kinsella’s research (such as selecting her interviewees) was often mediated by social media, and the writing is infused with nostalgia. This is particularly discernible in the ‘Smithfield’ chapter about nocturnal glamour, when Kinsella wonders why she bothers going out – expensive, exhausting activity that it is. But then, after a series of vignettes involving a celebrity and some beautiful strangers in a pub, she concludes, ‘I have a bank of memories to draw on, a jewellery box of fragments that connect across the city, of things that took place once after dark’ – when London comes alive, dresses up, feels both more mysterious and more welcoming.
…….In this open-hearted love letter to London, Kinsella explores the interplay of history, architecture, style and connection in the urban context. In her we find an attentive, reflective chronicler of the ‘endless stream of personhood, of possibility’, who locates the humanity in the seemingly ephemeral. ‘These are just strangers,’ she writes, ‘but when I pass them on the street, a window opens and for a fleeting moment I can see a small part of their lives.’
Ana Kinsella’s London
- Hampstead Heath (or any park)
‘Parks are for the people who live in the city, everyone should have access and they should be prioritised.’
- The cheap seats at the Royal Opera House
‘It’s just such good people watching. I love that it’s less than the cost of the cinema, which not everyone realises or expects.’
‘It feels like a part of central London that people actually live in, and like there’s interesting things happening there – but you don’t need to take part, you can just pass through and absorb them.’
- Princess Louise pub in Holborn
‘Londoners often assume that Ireland is so similar to England that it’s not at all foreign to me, but the great examples of Victorian architecture were new to me.’
- British Museum
‘Very contentious because everything in it is stolen, but it’s still amazing that all these stolen things from all over the world are in one place and you can go see them for free. It’s something I would miss about London.’
Madeleine Feeny is a freelance critic and editor who has worked in publishing in London and Barcelona. She is the founder of a literary events platform, A MoveableFeast.
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