• Tiger Lily Raphael

This Post-Romantic Life

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

A blog written for Sparkford Hall...

By Friday the commuters look weary... It’s not so bad arriving into Euston station in the morning though; we haven’t had time to fall behind on our schedules or use up our capacity for patience, tolerance and simple courtesy. We smile sleepily at each other, encouraged by the prospect of the impending weekend, as we migrate towards our working grounds, navigating the wheely-cases being dragged reluctantly towards their trains, weaving our way through the mass of would-be travellers awaiting theirs.

I take the back route out of the station towards Kings Cross, slipping behind the British Library and through St. Pancras, before nipping as quickly and carefully as possible across the congested Grays Inn Rd, backed up to Chancery Lane with lorries, sure to take only shallow breaths until I’m well clear of it.

By 6pm I haven’t got time to walk to Euston and it seems like everyone passing through Kings Cross (176 million of us a year) has only taken shallow breaths all day long. It’s each for ourselves as I dash into Sainsbury’s Local, grab a cling-filmed broccoli and whatever else grabs me, forgetting what I came in for; I scan, swipe and thank the self-check-out, before racing the other bewildered shoppers back onto the pavement - now ready to burst its seams.

Riskier speed-walkers try to side-step the throng of black coats by verging into the cycle lane, adding to the stress of the cyclists who’re trying to avoid human and machine, as we all focus hard on staying alive by whatever means of transport we’ve entrusted ourselves to. The concrete jungle is a zoo and the animals have that wild look in their eyes… There’s now zero capacity for patience, tolerance or pathetic courtesy, as we squeeze ourselves into metal containers, sent whizzing through wormholes before vomiting us out the other side.

In 2007, for the first time in human history, the majority of people lived in a city [1]. In the UK, over 83% of us live in cities [2], however, minus gardens, parks and waterways, only 2.27% of the total landmass had been built on up to 2012 [3]. This is good news, right?...

Well, yes, except that our population is still growing, and so, therefore, unsurprisingly, have city centres: between 2002-2015 Liverpool saw the largest influx and its population boomed by 181%, followed by Birmingham (163%), Leeds (150%), Manchester (149%) and Bradford (146%). London also counted 50 000 more people but that’s only a 22% increase [4]. However, rather than sprawling out of control, our cities have stayed small and the luxury flats fairly low-rise, whilst we’ve gotten more squashed and tried to stop letting anyone else in.

So, here’s the rub: most inner-city real estate has already been developed or is being regenerated in a wave of gentrification that has been sweeping through slightly less central areas, causing ripples of social angst as communities become discombobulated, residents and businesses buckling in the face of rising rents and rates. This includes venues that could once afford to exist in the cheaper areas they helped to make desirable but are now struggling to survive, liable to fall prey to irresistible offers from property developers, like in Bristol’s Stokes Croft, where nightclub Blue Mountain will soon be replaced with flats [5], and in Brixton, where we’ve seen the disappearance of many small independent businesses from the railway arches - just two examples and another story altogether.

In the face of shifting communities and other pressures, city-dwellers have been found to be at higher risk of mental illness as a result of the stress, isolation and poverty that can often go hand-in-hand with urban environments [6], whilst, on the other hand, green space encourages physical activity and social interaction beyond the playground, which can improve mental health, including the ability to process emotions and reflect on problems [7].

Urban designers, such as The Edible Bus Stop, work hard to create more green space in the city [8], whilst the World Health Organisation and others put pressure on policy-makers to consider mental health in planning decisions [9]. Meanwhile, in London, soon to be a National Park City, it’s worth remembering that, even if it doesn’t always feel like it, you’re never more than 5-10 mins away from a park, woodland or garden, and Epping Forest is on the central line, where soon enough you forget the sound of the M25 in place of the leaves on the wind or under-foot.

Now, travel back in time with me to 1800, when only 3% of all the people in the world lived in a city [1]. In England, following enclosure and industrialisation, common land disappeared whilst large-scale manufacturing appearing in towns and cities led to the collapse of the cottage industries [2]. Within 50 years, 50% of the English population had moved from the countryside to the cities [3] whilst the Romantic poets, writing at the turn of the century, mourned the loss of traditional rural life, and were plunged into a reverie of the old ways they saw being swallowed up by technological advancement;

“Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,

Whether the summer clothe the general earth

With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing

Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch

Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch

Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall

Heard only in the trances of the blast,

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

Frost at Midnight by Samuel Coleridge (1798)

Praising nature and championing it over industry, passion over practicality, beauty over sense, childlike over adult, and challenging the virtue of practicality and material gain, the Romantics rebelled against the modern world [4]. Fleeing to the countryside, their outpourings focused on themselves, alone in nature - the antithesis to civilisation, as read by readers in their London living rooms - they literally romanticised the physical and emotional world, starting a trend, in response to increasingly pervasive industrial landscapes [5].

Since the turn of this century we’ve been living through another technological revolution, the age of the individual. In ever-more crowded cities solitude is a rarity but loneliness is rife. It seems we’re more, unprecedentedly connected to each other in some ways, and yet less connected than ever.

Meanwhile, the natural world is struggling to command our emotions; climate change just doesn’t get the ‘engagement’ it demands, whether for lack of a strapline or the face of an iceberg failing to pull heart strings as hard as the face of a starving refugee child (due to climate-induced crop failure). In some ways, it could help to be a little more Romantic, but rather than putting nature on a pedestal escaping in it, maybe it’s time to get our hands dirty and come back to it, to each-other, and cease our self-preservation, in order to preserve our home.

[1] Collyer, M. (2015), ‘The world’s urban population is growing…’, The Conversation [2] ‘United Kingdom: Degree of urbanization from 2007 to 2017’ Statista [3] Easton, M. (2012), ‘The great myth of urban Britain’, BBC News

[4] Swinney, P. & Carter, A. (2016), ‘The UK’s rapid return to city centre living’, BBC News [5] Murray (R.) (2018), ‘Legendary Stokes Croft club Blue Mountain is closing after 26 years’, Bristol Post [6] Gruebner, O. et al (2017), Cities and Mental Health, Dtsch Artztebl Int., NCBI

[7] Barton, J. and Rogerson, M. (2017), ‘The importance of greenspace for mental health’, BJPsych Int., NCBI [8] Purvis, K. (2014), ‘The Edible Bus Stop: promising patch of possibility to blooming success’, The Guardian [9] O’Hara, M. (2016), ‘Building better mental health in cities from the ground up’, The Guardian [10] Wikipedia: ‘Human Population: Urbanization’, Population Reference Bureau.

[11] Winsantley, M. (2017), The Rural Exodus, BBC History

[12] ‘Population Shifts During the Industrial Revolution’ csun.edu

[13] The School of Life, History of Ideas – Romanticism, YouTube

[14] Prof Mullan, J., (2015), ‘Romance and Romanticism’, Word of Mouth, BBC Radio 4.

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