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Compost for the dream city

This will be a journey of leaps, of steppingstones. It might be best interpreted as a way of thinking, a model which might imprint odd images onto the general structures that help us see the world. Ready?

The graveyard of ambition. Where dreams go to die. These sayings stick in some people’s minds when they think of Bath. They remind me in an oblique way of a famous saying attributed to Goethe (or a magician and healer named Raziella depending on which fable you believe): Vedi Napoli e poi muori. See Naples and then die. The dominant interpretation of the quote is that once you have seen Naples – a city which can offer you everything – you don’t need to see anything else. There are similarities between the sayings, though those about Bath are stated more with derision or, at best, neutrality. Vedi Napoli e poi muori, is positive in origin, but though to many ‘The graveyard of ambition’ appears negative, it feels as if it contains much of the same material as that other saying. It is as if it has come from a shared perspective. The word ‘ambition’ has its roots in the Proto-Indo-European ‘ambhi’ (around) and ‘ei’ (go), and features in Latin as ambitionem, “a going around (…) a striving for favor (sic), courting, flattery; a desire for honor (sic), thirst for popularity.”[1] So, etymologically speaking, Bath is the place where ‘going around’ comes to an end.

There are other aspects of Bath which quite neatly fit into these epithets. For centuries the waters at Bath have been imbued with healing properties, so the sick and infirm – those who quite literally struggled to go around – would come in the hope of getting better. Until 1976, as part of NHS treatment, you could be prescribed a dip in the waters at Bath. The city is a mixture of recreation and healing, of pleasure and spirituality. History is hard to shake off, it seems. However, things have also changed markedly since Goethe arrived in Naples and the Stuarts and Georgians transformed Bath with that distinctive oolitic limestone. Naples has become infamous for its poor and corrupt waste management – though it is a beautiful place, and I love it. Behind Bath’s honeyed facades there are a burgeoning number of tech freelancers. Tracing and making sense of these patterns of change is an overwhelming task. Sometimes I see this practice as similar to bone reading: gather data and then scatter them, looking for patterns that reveal something about the future. I tread a provocative path between rigorous research and esoteric divination, shifting positions, verging from naïve mysticism to austere clarity. It is through this slightly disorientating experience that I come to temporary conclusions.

These temporary conclusions are often like being in many places at once, or standing at busy intersections, where the Bath of the past is jammed next to the Bath of the present, and this to my personal experience, alongside GVA figures from creative industry mapping exercises, and charts that make me groan internally. Hailie Selassie steps out of a Maybach W 5 and bumps into Jane Austen, who was until that point deep in conversation with two creative technologists, one working at The Guild, the other at The Studio. Students tumble out from Moles. Fake snow for a film shoot falls like forest fire ash near Parade Gardens. A 19th century worker from the Bath Gas Light & Coke Co. looks at me as I walk down along Walcot Street, passing The Bell, seeing the Hilton Hotel and The Podium dissolve into translucent pixels. Front-facing, this city is a bit like a gallery curated for visitors. It both calms and enchants, much like Naples did to those on The Grand Tour. However, go behind Pulteney Bridge or The Royal Crescent and you’ll see the jumbled quality of the buildings, where contractors were allowed to do what they liked at the rear, as long as the front had a uniform quality. There is a tension between the image and the messy things that sustain it, a tension that is not unique to Bath, but that perhaps shows up with greater resolution because the image has been so curated.

Curating a jumble is a loose work of identity creation, like giving something, or someone, a name, sandwiching a bunch of relations within a sense-making frame. An identity is so often composed of contradictory information, appearing to be one thing, whilst being so many others. The tension and communication between what something is and what it appears to be is a bit like that between the sciences of ecology and economy, both important to this research. ‘Ecology’ comes from the Greek roots oikos (“house”, or the “basic unit of society”) and logia (“study of”), whereas ‘economy’, whilst sharing one root, mixes this with nomos (“law” or “custom”). It is not only etymologically that these two terms share something in common, where there is tension and communication. There is a reasonably extensive history of people using ecology to justify ways of organising society, and these haven’t all been benign. I like to distinguish the two (to curate their jumbles) like this: Ecology = knowledge of home. Economy = management of home. You could say that you cannot manage what you do not properly know (let’s ignore epistemology (how we know what we know) for now). First, to communicate what you know you must express yourself, name things, curate jumbles. This curation is always a mixture of internal and external, and so it collapses a barrier between the two, makes the distinction irrelevant. It allows me to mix up – as in, mix together – Naples and Bath, and here we come to compost.

Compost. Composite. Composition. From the Latin com “with, together” and ponere “to place”. To place together, to mix together. This piece is a bit of an odd mixture, a tableaux or mosaic formed of different ideas, and written in different ways. You might have noticed rhythmic lyricism followed by a kind of hesitant, more critical essay style. In a sense, this reflects my contemporary experience, an experience which is defined by complex blends of things. It is a response to this complexity, and so has required the usage of many voices to translate this into an expression, something communicable. Whilst as many voices as possible enter the conversation about Bath in order to communicate its complexities, perhaps we can begin to think of this place as a sort of compost for the dream city.


[1] https://www.etymonline.com/word/ambition

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