Maeve Brennan, whose centenary was marked in January, was one of those walkers. And one who loved to walk the city at night. Ten years ago I first encountered her through the biography written by Angela Bourke. As a reader, I was drawn to her personal story and, soon thereafter, the stories she herself had penned. As a scholar whose work, at that time, focused on the post-colonial, working-class histories, and Irish political history, I was drawn into her short stories in The rose garden. Those stories detailed the lives of women who had left Ireland for America, and had found work there as domestics. At that time I also purchased a collection of her work entitled The long-winded lady: notes from The New Yorker, out of curiosity. But it would be another five years before I would crack the spine on this gem. However, as with The rose garden, these tales would find me at just the right time.
These two collections, along with Bourke’s biography, have travelled with me from Canada, where I was born and lived until 2008, to The Netherlands, to Ireland, and then to Saudi Arabia. It was two years ago in Manama, Bahrain, just after I had successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, that I decided one night to pull The long-winded lady off the shelf. I needed to read something, for the first time in four years, that did not have anything to do with my research. I was born in a city, and have remained a city dweller on the three continents where I have lived and worked, and so a collection of sketches of New York’s street life seemed just the ticket for an escape.
Instead of simply serving as a good read at the end of the day, however, my mind started to spin: Brennan was, in the course of capturing random encounters and observations, offering up plenty of connections to my research on the urban poor and the 'official inconvenience' of their visibility and presence in a city undergoing gentrification. According to the back cover, Brennan labelled New York the ‘most reckless, most ambitious, most confused, most comical, the saddest and coldest and most human of cities’. My work at the time focused on the ambition, confusion, sadness, and coldness of the treatment of women street traders in Dublin and Cork in a newly-independent Ireland, those two cities reimagining themselves according to the rigors of what are now known as, colloquially, the ‘world-class’ city.
Her observation in the Author’s Note continues to resonate, encapsulating as it does the experience of modernity in Ireland after Independence and later during the Celtic Tiger. It also encapsulates the ethos of cities in debtor nations struggling to position themselves as ‘world class cities’ and ‘global financial hubs’ now. Of New York city in the 1950s and the 1960s she observed:
Sometimes I think that inside New York there is a Wooden Horse struggling desperately to get out, but more often these days I think of New York as the capsized city. Half-capsized, anyway, with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.
Then, as now, cities become the ‘predicament’ for those in search of a livelihood: the affluent and the poor, and those who migrate from the countryside, or those who migrate from another country, in search of earnings, subsistence or sustainable.
I am one of them. So is the waste picker, originally from India, with whom I exchange greetings on my nightly walks in Bahrain.
And after five years of working in the Middle East and taking long walks at night and early morning to clear the head, take some exercise, and tick errands off my to-do list, I realised that my research and these walks are connected. Yes, they are part of a continuum of city walks I have been taking since my 20s, out of curiosity to observe the life of city streets. Yes, they are part of necessity -- exercise, picking up something for supper, working through an idea, taking some air, and satisfying a need to connect with the spirit of a place for the time I am there. However, these walks in Bahrain intersect with my work because, here in the Gulf, there is still the opportunity to observe modernity as it unfolds. The process is less visible -- or deliberately obscured -- in the cities of North America or western Europe.
Modernity creates an urban setting not unlike the ‘half-capsized city’ Brennan envisioned: people cling on to the city that has become their life’s predicament, even as it begins to contain or exclude them. That is a city capsized by the dreams, schemes, and visions of those who have the power to shape its streets. They do so, literally, through planning and policy and, figuratively, in future-tense narratives that promise prosperity. Yet here in the Gulf, it is still possible to find the rag picker, a job many in the West imagine long-gone, relegated to the pages of Charles Dickens. Here they labour in the shadows of a ‘global financial hub’.
These are the anachronisms and juxtapositions I intend to document here.