In the margins of a paper I was reading a few months ago, I recently found a note I had scribbled: “Can’t forgo the passing of normal time/submit to the languor of bar-time. I want to read about the flaneur, but not be one.” It was about an article called “Flânerie and the Senses,” and I had been reading it at an East Village pub when I wrote the note—one of those unique pubs where the clientele usually come in alone, sit at the bar, and talk to each other and to the bartender (I was the only one that night not doing this). I usually love reading at pubs by myself, but at this particular place it felt jarring: to be reading with such academic remove about the sights and sounds of the city, without engaging in the sights and sounds around me.
Reading about flânerie is a “useful” thing for me to do: useful for my career, for my scholarly ambitions. Actually partaking in flânerie is rarely useful in these ways. It doesn’t work if you’re concerned about having something to show for your day. It doesn’t really work if you’re trying to fit experiences into a particular story.
Sometimes it feels impossible to both live and think deeply about the urban experience at the same time. To live the urban experience is in a sense not to think about it, not to be a thinker about it. You either listen to the men at the bar talk about their difficult lives, or you read a journal article called “Flânerie and the Senses” at the bar. The former is probably not an interesting conversation, and as with most conversations with a group of complete strangers, you often can’t control it—but this is exactly what daily life in the city is.
Ana Kinsella’s new book, Look Here: On the Pleasures of Observing the City, captures this feeling of meandering through the city: It doesn’t just discuss and describe a fragmented urban patchwork, but embodies it, chronicling stories from Kinsella’s arrival in London in her young adulthood up until her recent experiences of the pandemic. Its meandering tone and structure recall a serendipitous dérive through the city; from personal stories of London and New York, to lists of “field notes,” to interviews with London “characters,” the book, like the urban experience, has no single narrative. It’s simply a document of a collection of hours: unspecified time that is spent surrendering plans and intentions to chance encounters.
Everyday life in the city cannot escape what Kinsella calls Going Time: “filler” moments of walking from one point to another, sitting at the bus stop, standing in line at the supermarket, taking the tube, waiting for a friend at a pub. “All of this is Going Time. I am always on my way somewhere, even when I am not moving,” she writes. Nothing really “happens” during Going Time, but somehow it is still tiring, and also useful. Going Time is for quietly absorbing the outfits everyone around you is wearing, for eavesdropping on fights or dinner plans.
Part of submitting to Going Time is, as Kinsella writes about being part of a crowd, “to forget about the fact of your own body . . . the urge for control that you might carry inside it.” Giving into the environment, “becoming one with it,” involves “surrender[ing] our own emotions.” This is what the girl who sits at the bar without a book, who is ready to be interrupted, does; this is what the girl who sits at the bar concentrating on reading an article from the Journal of the Society of the Nineteenth-Century does not do. Submitting to Going Time means accepting not knowing what value will come of an encounter. When a woman calls out of her window to Kinsella passing by on the street, “Come up here and zip me up please . . . I can’t do it alone!” Kinsella has to make a split-second decision between catching her train and going up to help the woman. She chooses to catch her train, but she spends the rest of the day thinking about all the moments she lost when she refused the encounter in order to keep control of her time.
But she often does give up control of her time, when she stops to make notes describing people’s outfits or how they behave in parks. She also gives up the same kind of control in the narrative of her own book. Kinsella is something of a professional flaneur, but many of the characters in this book are not; they are artists and students and working professionals making their lives in London. They wrestle with toddlers, put up with their bosses, and, in more recent anecdotes, navigate social interactions during and after lockdown. Kinsella creates the urban patchwork with interviews about anything and nothing: a photographer wearing a military jacket getting stopped by the police, a public transit employee at a south London station reminiscing about pre-pandemic crowds on the train and people-watching on the CCTV, a lesbian barrister getting her uniform tailor-made because she doesn’t wear dresses under her robes. These people have nothing in common other than being Londoners going about their lives, but Kinsella’s story makes room for all of them—and they are especially valuable characters because they are so specific to the city, and their conversations with the author are full of details about streets and neighborhoods that only a Londoner would understand.
Every few chapters of the book are interrupted with “field notes,” lists of observations of what people are doing and wearing. A middle-aged woman in a headscarf dancing at a street party while on a video call with her friends. An elderly couple on a bus adjusting each other’s hiking shoes. A woman in a blue gown alone and giggling to herself. Most of her details involve clothing, which she acknowledges can seem trivial. “Should I apologize for looking so much at the surface when there are such problems lying beneath?” she asks. “It would require me to turn away from so much of the outside world, and I’m not sure if I know how to do that.” They are the most mundane observations, but there is something special about Kinsella’s enchantment with the “outside world,” her insistence that we look nonetheless. The details in her field notes, like the daily routines of the characters she interviews, invoke the feeling of just hanging out in the city, where so much time is Going Time.
In these descriptions of London, fashion is a unique way of appreciating the humanity of other Londoners: their diversity, their vulnerabilities, their brave attempts at something new or scary. The gray suit and sneakers stubbing out a cigarette and walking into a social club. The full umbrella and the glass of champagne balancing on either side of a floor-length velvet gown. The cowlick that won’t stay back, until after repeated attempts the comb comes out.
This is particularly touching given that the people Kinsella is documenting have undergone multiple lockdowns over the course of this book: They have a radically altered sense of their own visibility. Clothes are a way of appreciating the public-ness of others, and Kinsella notes the “intense optimism” in the recent “lockdown impulse purchases” that she sees on people during her park walks: a new sweatshirt or puffer jacket. “It is an acknowledgement, after so many long months of quiet, unobserved walking, that walking like this is a chance to be seen.”
Like the passeggiata, the leisurely stroll taken “to see your friends, and to be seen by all and sundry,” to have interactions that normally happen in private or semi-private spaces, all kinds of Going Time were lost during lockdown. Inevitably, the time we spent in quarantine became more conscious and directed; there was nowhere for us to really meander except perhaps into the depths of the internet; the waiting time felt never-ending, rather than transitional.
But in everyday city life, every moment, whether it is spent in transit or at a destination, whether it is fruitful or pointless or some combination of both, is temporary. It’s only these moments that matter. “Why do I bother going out?” Kinsella asks herself at one point. “Sometimes the night can be fraught or boring, misspent, a waste of my precious time. But more often than not I give in.” You end up with a collection of memories, small pleasures, nonevents. “A feeling, against logic, that youth might yet be endless. A nightclub stamp that will not wash off the wrist…a premature nostalgia for this very moment.”
It’s hard to really know the pleasures she is describing here; each one has to be translated into my own version of it. But this seems to me a good template for life: this assortment of moments that may or may not be forgotten but that have to be continually allowed for, every day. Reading about Kinsella going out in the city may be just as futile as actually going out in the city; she certainly accepts that this is probably the case. Her own lists of observations often don’t stick with her; everything we notice today will be gone or irrelevant tomorrow. Every new day brings the need for new lists. “Maybe the value is in the process itself,” she writes towards the end of the book. “The work of loving a city is not in finding and creating memories and interactions that will last forever but in constantly making new and important ones.”