by Billie Walker
"Those privileged to be invisible in the city are cis straight white rich men. No one else feels unseen in the safe way they do."
Although the painting is not titled after her, Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ depicts a barmaid - the centre of this landscape yet part of the furniture.
She looks through you, and behind her you see the customer she is conversing with plus many more shadowy figures. As a waitress, this painting has always resonated with me, the distant look in the barmaid’s eye as she goes about her work unseen and anonymously. This encapsulates the type of solitude specific to the city, being surrounded by people but only seen for what you can offer them.
Before pubs, bars, and restaurants were told to close, I spent my last shifts shocked at how much a part of the furniture I was treated, by the well-off homeworkers who relished in ironically ordering Corona. One declared he’d be in here more often because, after flying back from a business trip in Thailand, he was told not to come in because he could have it. He did not see me as a human able of contracting this virus, just an extension of the draught pump. The city was defined differently by the pandemic, society’s privileges oozing to the surface and spread by the irresponsible jet setters bestowing the disease on those serving them.
Lisa Mckenzie writes in her love letter to struggling working class Londoners:
‘London is shit, it’s full of shit — but Londoners, working class Londoners, you deserve better. Join me in the north. There is fresh air, and a bit of space to breathe. Let’s leave the Insta-creatives, the bankers, the politicians, the media luvvies, and the chattering classes to make their own fucking coffee.’
I cannot discount myself from the privileged as I was able to flee the city. My time was spent on the outskirts of Sheffield, a thirty-minute walk to the peak district with a garden surrounded by fields of cows. My new lockdown life had close approximation with Kim Soon-Rye’s Little Forest (2018). This Korean film centres around Hye-Won who heads to her country home to escape the city.
When Hye-Won returns to the farming village, everyone asks why she’s back. She replies happily: "I came because I’m hungry… I’m really hungry."
We see flashbacks of her guzzling a chocolate bar while working the convenience store late shift, eating beige pre-packaged food. The film is a beautiful, modern ode to the country, to eating seasonally, growing fresh produce and wasting nothing. Fallen apples are made into jam, hay covers onion seedlings, rice is repurposed for making alcohol called Makgeolli.
Much like Hye-Won, I found myself scrambling over brooks to reach the thickest wild garlic leaves and wading through high grass to reach elderflower trees. I watched spring come and go and was amazed by the plants taking turns to bloom, passing the spotlight on to the next.
In the past trips to the countryside would leave me with pangs of longing. What was going on in the city in my absence? Which launches, parties, shows was I missing out on? The way the city constantly floods one with social opportunities for advancement means that you are never fully satisfied and always left hungry. Without this feeling, I was left alone to satiate my hunger.
These events, with free watered down wine and warm beer, feel like a relic of a distant past as I count the multiple touching points and germs that could be lurking in the assortment of dips and quickly staling crisps. The city feels now like it is losing its purpose; it cannot feign its productive importance or proclaim the necessity for networking. Do we need to return?
Solitude in the country did not feel like loneliness. The writer Nan Shepherd explored the Cairngorms obsessively and wrote a celebration of them titled The Living Mountain. She best expressed the comforting solitude of nature by saying:
‘… the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visit a friend with no intention but to be with him.’
Having been brainwashed by the intention filled city, the supposed intention-less life took time for me to settle into. Many of us furloughed or unemployed have learnt that living without production is not living without intention. The intention of walking to meet the mountain is fulfilling in itself. After three months in the countryside, of never feeling alone and taking long solo walks to meet rock formations, I returned to London. All of a sudden the solitude was different and isolating.
The best way to understand how solitude weighs on you in the city is through Edward Hopper’s paintings.
In Night Windows (1928) a woman is seen through her bedroom window wrapped in a towel bending over. Morning Sun (1952) depicts a woman sitting up on her bed, the city can be seen from her window as the sun streams in hitting her expressionless face. It is not the fact that they are alone which is uncomfortable; it is that they are being watched and Hopper has placed you in the position of the voyeur. What makes solitude in the city such a deafening silence is the feeling of being viewed as alone.
Those privileged to be invisible in the city are cis straight white rich men. No one else feels unseen in the safe way they do. I spent months in my body free then was brought haltingly back to objectification by heckling men.
I used to feel that, to immerse myself in culture, I must be in the city. It used to be true but now the move to a virtual space has made it possible for anyone to attend events. The previously exclusive sites of culture have become accessible. Has lockdown made the city obsolete? We can only dream of a way to spread across the country without losing friends, communities and arts, take what solitude forced us to change, and hold onto it.
Billie Walker is a London-based writer who enjoys Campari-based drinks as bitter as she is. There will always be a horror film on her laptop and feta in the fridge. She devours books as frequently as salty cheeses. See more of her work