This 'Post-Romantic' Life

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 (176million of us a year) has only taken shallow breaths all day long. It’s each for ourselves as I dash into Sainsbury’s Local to 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 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.

Commuters disembarking at Kings Cross at rush hour - image from Business Insider

Commuters disembarking at Kings Cross at rush hour - image from Business Insider

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], yet, with gardens, parks and waterways, only around 2.27% of our total landmass has been built on [3]. This is good news, right?... Well, yes, except that our population is still growing, and so, unsurprisingly, has that of 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 welcomed 50 000 more people - ‘only’ a 22% increase[4]. Rather than sprawling out of control, our cities have stayed small and the luxury flats fairly low-rise, whilst we’ve gotten more cramped and tried to stop letting anyone else in.

Most inner-city real estate is already developed or being regenerated in a wave of gentrification that’s been sweeping through slightly less central areas, causing ripples of social angst as communities become discombobulated, their 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 in, vulnerable to irresistible offers from preying 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 causes of stress, isolation and poverty, city-dwellers have been found to be at higher risk of mental illness[6], whilst green space has been found to encourage 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 humans lived in a city[10]. 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[11]. Within 50 years, 50% of the English population had moved from the countryside into the cities[12]. The Romantic poets, writing at the turn of the century, mourned the loss of traditional rural life and plunged themselves into a reverie of the old ways that they saw being swallowed up by technological advancement; 

A drawing I bought from an antiques shop in Chinon, France

A drawing I bought from an antiques shop in Chinon, France

“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, championing it over industry, placing passion above practicality, beauty above rational, the child above the adult, and contesting the virtue of ‘progress’ and material gain, the Romantics rebelled against the modern world[13]. Fleeing to the countryside, their outpourings focused on their time alone in nature, the antithesis of civilisation, read by readers in their London living rooms. They literally romanticised the natural and emotional world, in response to an increasingly homogenised industrial landscape[14] and culture, starting a trend that has continued to evolve into the individualism that forms the bedrock of modern-day identity.

Since the turn of this century we’ve been living through another technological revolution, in ever-more crowded cities where solitude is a rarity but loneliness is rife. It seems we’re more, unprecedentedly connected to each other, and yet in some ways, less connected than ever. Meanwhile, the natural world is struggling to command our attention - climate change just doesn’t get the ‘engagement’, whether for lack of a strapline or the face of a crumbling iceberg failing to pull our heart strings as hard as the haunting face of a starving refugee child (likely a victim of climate-induced famine). In some ways, it could help to be a little more Romantic in the value we place on it, but rather than putting nature on a pedestal, and attempting to escape into it, maybe it’s time to get our hands dirty, to come back to it, to each-other, and cease our self-preservation, in order to preserve our environment.

Visit Sparkford Hall on its Open Day, Saturday 27th April

Read more from Tiger Lily on her blog, Curiosity & The Cat

[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 / Fact check post-2012: Full Fact

[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’

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

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