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Victor’s city in Arcadia is easily recognisable as Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city, where Jim Crace has lived for some twenty-five years. I was interested in getting a ‘Birmingham’ perspective on the novel and John Williams, editor of Birmingham 13 magazine, kindly provided the text of his original review of Arcadia. In a recent conversation Mr Williams described Arcadia as ‘prophetic…the changes Jim wrote about seemed unlikely at the time but the sanitisation is happening now’.
NB: Moseley, where Jim Crace lives, is a community to the south of Birmingham city centre.
This is the sorcery of the city
Extracts from a review of Arcadia
by John Williams, Birmingham 13, July 1992
John Williams begins his review wondering if he should be looking for ‘signs or symbols that I can identify with Moseley or Birmingham…perhaps some profound truth about Moseley Man (or Woman)’.
…The tale that Jim tells is almost an everyday story of city folk but it’s the way he tells it that makes this book so interesting. And yes Birmingham is there but then so is every other city in, I was going to say the world but there is a very European feel to Jim’s city. It is a story of a country boy who makes good in the city the hard way and his pursuit of a rural nostalgia through property development and redevelopment of the market areas. Through his staff he is inextricably tied to the city at all levels and we see how the actions of the very poorest and the very richest can have mutual and long-lasting effect on each other often by no more than coincidence. And it is coincidence that is the essence of Jim’s city. Lives coincide and diverge, the natural world as represented by the fruit and vegetable market coincides with the abstract world of money and commerce, the rural world coincides with the urban extreme.
Arcadia is a description of the urban condition but I was left feeling that Jim doesn’t really like the city. I got no sense of fun from the description of city life, no sense of enjoyment that a city can provide, even when you have little money. It seemed a monocultural place classically structured by class with little hint of the great diversity of cultures that exist and thrive within a city.
But my quibble here is a sociological one not a literary one, and it doesn’t detract from a fascinating book and a good novel. I am still amazed by many of the descriptions of the minutiae of urban living and the details of folk remedies and old wives’ tales. Can they be true? They are so convincing you feel you want to try them immediately. Jim’s journalistic experience shows itself clearly in the short and direct sentences he uses but his skill is weaving them together to form a tapestry that encapsulates city life.
So is it Birmingham? The story hinges around the redevelopment of the market area…sounds familiar…although my thoughts return to the destruction of the old fruit and vegetable markets around Moat Row and Jamaica Row in the early seventies. Isn’t there a new development in Hurst Street called Arcadia? You can see a hundred parallels but then I am sure if Jim had been writing in Lyons or Barcelona or Boston local people would have recognised the story that he tells and the locations and descriptions as their city. This book should be recommended reading for all planners, architects and other so-called professionals whose dabbling in cityscapes leads them to claim that they act on behalf of the people of the city.
I have one consoling thought that, although Jim seems to understand the dynamics of the city so well, and recognises the forces and pressures that shape it and can make it a tough place to live, he chooses to live in the city, in Moseley no less. I suspect that he is what the French call an urbaniste! Read, discover and enjoy Arcadia!
© John Williams 1992
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