The screech of the rail track underneath the train reached an almost eardrum-piercing volume. The carriage rocked from side to side. Every face was glued to a phone screen. Some passengers—considerately—used headphones, but most just let their devices blare out a tinny and irritating noise. Tik Tok videos, episodes of trashy sitcoms, and rap music. It was a barbarian spectacle. Women with half their hair shaved off. Sunken-eyed and unmuscular men with black nail varnish. Sharp bits of metal protruding out of every face. Ripped up jeans. Noses with bull-rings. Mutilated, stretched ears. Blue hair. Green hair. Tattooed hands. Tattooed arms. Tattooed legs. Tattooed necks. Tattooed faces. Clothes tight where they shouldn’t be; loose where they should be fitted. Everything warped, and twisted, and wounded, and distorted. Pale, hopeless faces, occasionally presenting a miserable imitation of joy with each excitement provided by the little device in their hands—a parasite which governs every moment of recreation when they cease to be cogs in the machine and become underground zombies instead. This is a vision of hell. This is London.
I lived in London for some years. Not a bad part of London. I lived in Notting Hill, in a nice house in which I rented a large room. Nonetheless, every Friday evening I hopped into my hatchback and fled to my family home in the countryside, and wouldn’t return until early on Monday morning, arriving in time at the publishing house where I worked. Beyond its landmarks, most parts of London look like any other part. I suppose it’s not as bad as former communist metropolises, but it’s not much better. London is a kind of Lockean hell, a concrete jungle in which everyone subsists as an isolated individual pursuing his or her own private interests. If you like, it is a reverse of the ideal of the Grecian polis, which entails a people organically emerging together, pursuing the common end of human flourishing.
The very appearance of most Londoners testifies to their desire to be estranged from one another. People used to dress nicely for the sake of manners. For men, a lapelled jacket, collared shirt, ironed trousers, and leather shoes, were a way of saying to anyone they met, “I have made an effort.” In contrast, the untidy hairdos, facial mutilations, and ripped up clothes of our contemporary urban dwellers signify a massive ‘screw you’ to everyone who looks upon the gloominess which they embody. They are in pursuit of radical individualism and self-realisation, and consequently have become mere solipsistic automatons—blobs of grey that are replaceable with any of the nine million ‘radical individuals’ of that great city.
As I looked around the underground train carriage, and meditated on this exhibition of human misery, it occurred to me that the appropriate emotional response would be that of rage. Everything about this vision conveyed an absence of manners and decency. I ought to be offended, I reasoned. I suppose I am offended, I concluded. But I didn’t really feel it, since I had become well and truly anaesthetised, over years of working in London, to the infernal character of the place.
My escape from London coincided with my marriage and subsequent arrival of our first child, to whom we gave a home in Bedfordshire. Now out of the city, I re-waxed my old Barbour coat, started hunting through the Season, learned how to forage, and bought an estate car, a whippet, and a fine pair of gumboots. I learned the names of the trees, birds, and other animals, and I got to know farmers and the rural community. I rediscovered the God who resides not in the Temple alone, but the God of the eighth Psalm—the God of the outdoors. I embraced the countryside with an enthusiasm unknown when I didn’t know anything but the countryside, and here I found—and continue to find—a source of solace which was inaccessible in the city, a solace I knew as a child, and which I had come to taste only in fleeting escapes on weekends.
As a believer in the Christian religion, it disturbs me that heaven is presented to us in Holy Scripture as a distinctly urban experience. In the twentieth chapter of the Book of the Apocalypse, shortly after the doom of Satan, the dead are raised from their slumber and brought before the Judgement Seat. The wicked are then cast into the Lake of Fire and a vision is presented of the habitation that awaits the blessed:
I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold the dwelling of God and men, and he will dwell with them. And they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”
The Book then goes on to describe the celestial city, its size, what materials it is made from, and where the Temple is situated within its walls. Make no mistake, Holy Writ is clear: if you’re saved by God’s grace, then you’re in for an urban eternity. And yet it is from urban life that I fled, and I return only out of necessity a few times a year, and make a point of sulking for the duration of my visits.
Of course, I draw consolation from the fact that it was a rustic life our Lord knew, growing up in a rural village (Nazareth is believed to have had a population of between 500 and 1,500 people). He spent much time up in the hills, out on the water, or walking in the fields and talking to simple people. From among those who worshipped Him as a baby, some were angels and some were Persian priests of a foreign religion, but among His own people of Israel only the shepherds of the hills prostrated before Him. His metaphors were largely agricultural and pastoral. He made short visits to towns, but His visits to Jerusalem were marked by His separation from His parents, His exhibition of righteous rage in the Temple, and His torture and death. And yet, in the Apocalypse, when the angel takes John the Divine into the countryside, it is only to better view the New Jerusalem which is his true home.
No doubt my notion of the New Jerusalem should not be wholly conditioned by my experience of London (though William Blake thought the former was prefigured by the latter). Cities were once very different to what they are today. Indeed, cities used to give the impression that their inhabitants were gathered for a common purpose, not for mere private pursuits. The European city, certainly, used to resemble more the Grecian ideal, so admired by the thinkers and funders of the Renaissance. Every city, for example, had three things: a cathedral, a square, and a hall. These three features indicated the desired unity of the people who lived there together.
The town on whose outskirts we live is marked by these three features. It is dominated by the church’s 190-foot spire (adorned by great stone angels gifted to the parish by Geoffrey Chaucer’s granddaughter, the Countess of Suffolk). At the town’s heart is the square, whose centre has a market cross—a beautiful monument encircled with medieval statues of bearded bishops. Twice a week, the market appears (which received its charter twenty years after the Norman conquest), during which townsfolk gather to buy cheeses, baked goods, flowers, and pigs’ ears for their dogs. Up on the hill is the town hall, which is no longer a gathering place for people to work out their disputes and call upon local government, but you can still get in touch with officials there to deal with problems without too much inconvenience. Our town is a little version of what is found on a larger scale throughout Europe, at Siena, Ghent, Narbonne, Amsterdam, Salzburg, Brasov, Cambridge, Nice, and elsewhere.
There was a time when the distinction between the city and the country was not so sharp. At the beginning of the Phaedrus, Socrates and the man after whom the dialogue is named meet together in the heart of Athens, presumably at the parent of all public squares, the Agora. Within minutes, however, they are out in the countryside, where they find the proper setting to discuss love and madness, and more importantly, to pray together. Some cities remain which blur the distinction between the urban and the rural, and they are the most loved cities; there are few places in Florence, for example, where the Tuscan hills cannot be seen. Florence would not be Florence if that weren’t so (Savonarola may be forgiven for thinking that it would be the location of the New Jerusalem). There are still towns and small cities in England where a tweed jacket and corduroys do not look out of place.
Whilst escape from the city for the sake of prayer and meditation is a recurring motif of Western literature, and one that plays an important role in the life of Jesus Christ, one of the great achievements of our civilisation has been that of sanctifying the city. I am told that Oxford, once a training centre for clerics, evolved with the Holy Eucharist in mind. The roads and buildings were situated so as to allow for Oxford’s inhabitants to get to a tabernacle in the shortest possible time, that ‘ocular communions’ could be made in between tutorials. The layout of Oxford still testifies to its pious history, apparently. Throughout Europe, cities often emerged in the shadow of some great monastery, so that the monks could sanctify the world of trade as they had sanctified the land on which trade depended.
But over the centuries, our cities apostatised.
As the cities ceased to view trade as a means, and began to see it as an end, making cash and commodities the gods of the metropolitan arena, countryside people frequently held out, continuing to build their shrines to the true God whose nature is triune. One by one, as rural people generally remained faithful, cities formally disavowed God, demanding that He look not into the city walls. It was largely the farming families of 16th century England who remained loyal to the Catholic religion. Thereafter, as people compromised, Church establishment in England was nonetheless upheld by the rural squirearchy and countryfolk as the cities and towns became hotbeds of religious dissent and puritan sectarianism—the fast road to secularism, as John Henry Newman argued in his Biglietto Speech. The 18th century saw France’s farmers in the Vendée, Maine, and Brittany refuse to go along with the secularisation of the ‘Church’s eldest daughter.’ In the 19th century, the countryside people of Tyrol rejected the tide of secularism and marched under the banner of the Sacred Heart.
I wonder if, in the Christian vision of history as a “long defeat” containing only “some samples or glimpses of final victory,” as Tolkien put it, the apostasy of the cities is meant to be providentially didactic. Certainly, Europe’s pre-modern cities are magnificent enough to teach us that the polis is our true home, and union with one another our proper condition. Cities, however, have since become rotten enough to suggest that no earthly city can be our true home, and that union with one another in this life is always enjoyed on a knife-edge.
Perhaps, like the distant city in a Flemish Master’s landscape, in this fallen world our urban home must always be an ideal in the background which cannot be located anywhere here below. Like the sign of peace given to Noah, were you to approach it, it would only keep retreating.
It is possible, however, to consider the city more positively, namely as mission territory. Certainly, it is clear from the Augustinian doctrine that the baptised are called to leave the City of Man and enter the City of God, and the faithful who live in earthly cities are no less called. It is plausible, in fact, that the city-dweller must interiorly enter the City of God so as to exteriorly incarnate it in the earthly city. If so, I can only imagine that this requires herculean spiritual strength, which I certainly did not possess. No, it was clear that I would not conquer the city—it would conquer me. In turn, perhaps I chose the lesser part, and fled the city for the small mission of carving out and redeeming a little part of the world which would so willingly give itself to my apostolate.
Sebastian Morello is a lecturer, public speaker, and columnist. Trained by Sir Roger Scruton, he has published books on philosophy, history, and education. He lives in Bedfordshire, England, with his wife and children.