Two names twice

By Ken Brown

James Blish's sf classic "Earthman, Come Home" has been one of my favourite books since childhood. It is a space-opera on a giant scale, written around the wanderings of huge numbers of cities that have lifted themselves up from the soil of a failing Earth and gone looking for work throughout the Galaxy. In one memorable scene hundreds of cities fallen on hard times gather together for a conference in the space between distant stars.

The Mayor of one particularly large and apparently well-organised city introduces himself to the Mayor of Budapest by asking "What city has two names twice?"

The other Mayor, and the reader, is expected to know what he means, and even at the age of 9 or 10, I knew what he meant. If there is a hero in the book, it is the city of New York. And everyone was expected to have heard of New York.

If there is a hero in these hard times it is the city of New York.

I've never been to New York. But since I was a child my thought - and those of millions of others - has been partly filled with images of New York, stories written in New York, music recorded in New York, TV programmes set in New York. It is the city that everybody thinks they know. My New York isn't the real New York that people live in, it is a fictional New York, a New York of images and stories. Even cities that don't have two names, not even once, have two lives. They live in in the real world of things and actions and they also live in the thought and memory of those who have never been there, in the world of stories and images and memories. New York City has a place in that world of story as great as any other city that ever was, it has a turf the size of Rome or London, bigger than Babylon.

There is no point in listing the stories, the films, the music, the TV shows that make up my virtual New York. They will be different from everybody else's. But New York has always been there, part of what makes up our minds.

For this reason the present agony of New York affects the rest of us as well as those who are actually there. It affects us in strange, and slighter ways that might seem ghoulish or presumptuous to real New Yorkers. Somehow it hurts more than disasters inflicted on others cities hurt. It maybe has had a particularly strong affect on people who live in or know London (in some ways the only other city in the world that can be meaningfully compared with New York). Someone said today that an attack on Washington would have been an attack on the people of the United States - but an attack on New York was an attack on the whole world.

Now, whenever we hear the words "New York" will will not only remember all those old stories and images, but those we have been seeing since Tuesday 11th September. We'll remember the planes hitting the building, shown to us from every angle, dissected and analysed in a way that those who were there would not have seen. We'll remember the collapse, the destruction roaring down into the the street like a tidal wave of stone and glass and steel. We'll remember - and tremble at remembering - those who jumped or fell from the buildings. We'll remember - and feel guilty at thinking beautiful - the pictures of the Empire State Building, still standing, shining bronze in the morning sun, with the fire and dust glimpsed far behind it.

But most of all, I think, we'll remember the pictures from later, the pictures that have been in every newspaper in the world, and on every TV station in the world, of firefighters and engineers and relief workers toiling through that heap of rubble below the stunted remains of the exoskeleton of the tower, returning to Ground Zero to find and, God willing, save their co-workers and the myriad others trapped; but if not, then to take their bodies back.

The obvious cliche would be to say that they looked like ants crawling on a heap. In fact, since I first wrote this paragraph, I have read that description in a newspaper that should have known better. But those firefighters didn't look like ants. I'm enough of a naturalist to know that they didn't look like ants at all, they weren't moving like ants, they were moving like human beings, people with a job to do. None of us are going to forget that picture.

We, the millions who were nowhere near the attack, who saw only what we saw on television, who have no right to speak about it, saw - and are still seeing - pictures of politicians mouthing revenge from their safe havens in the middle of nowhere. And then the scene shifted, and we saw, and are still seeing, the firefighters, police, paramedics and citizens of New York risking their own lives to dig the bodies of their fellow New-Yorkers out of the dust and destruction.

Now it all comes down to men and women striving in the dust to save, or to recognise, the dead and dying. And many others supporting them, applauding the fire trucks in the street, praying, working: as we used to say here in Britain, muddling through. The image of those men, dusty, weary, standing and staring at that literally overwhelming mound, the grave of hundreds of their co-workers and in its ruin still taller than most buildings, and then walking in to get back to the job at hand; that image will live in our memories and will return to us whenever New York City is named.

Perhaps there isn't anything I can say that doesn't. But I know that whatever happens New York will come back, because like every other city it is not a city made of buildings. It is a city made of people.

Only two years ago there were those who said that the world as we know it would collapse on January 1st 2000. All over the Net they said that we should leave the cities, that we should make our own survival in the clean wilderness, or at any rate the ethnically clean suburbs. I always thought that if there was a global economic collapse, I would want to be at home in the city. Because it is in the city that the people who know how to rebuild live. We people who live in cites know that our lives depend on the city, which is to say they depend on each other. Our great cities are the greatest work of the human species, each one the result of centuries or millennia of individual and collective effort by millions of people, each one flawed but magnificent. The people who live in those cities are able to rebuild those cities, because they are the people who built the cities in the first place, because they are the people who are always building the cities, because the city is always being built.

Almost 50 years ago, British and Canadian and US bombers nearly destroyed Hamburg, in what is still the most destructive military operation ever conducted against a city. I don't want to talk about the morality of that at this time. And I certainly don't want to compare the sufferings of Hamburg then with those of New York now - we play the cards we are dealt, and to say that someone else, in another place and time, was dealt a worse hand, doesn't help much. But I do want to point out that Hamburg was again beginning to function as an industrial and commercial centre within two months of the raid. This was only possible because the people of Hamburg, who were and are the real city, knew how to rebuild and knew how to work. It was their skills, their knowledge, their experience, their co-operation, and above all their determination - even if determination born out of necessity and fear - that enabled them to keep going and, eventually, to rebuild.

The physical damage done to New York will be fixed in time. Maybe it will be fixed quite soon. The hijackers probably did less permanent damage to the fabric of the town than Robert Moses did. The city will repair that lesion. A great city is alway being built. Physical damage focuses the effort.

Any real, lasting, damage done to New York will be in is what was done to the people. The lives of the victims, the confidence and heart of the survivors. But I think that that damage too will be fixed. Not removed - no-one will forget - but fixed. The survivors, the people of New York, will do what they need to do to rebuild, to get the show back on the road, to carry on. They are doing it, already. Those people are, right now, coping. They are doing the business. They are the stars of this show.

Ken Brown is in his mid-forties, lives in London, has a daughter, and is an Evangelical Christian. He is also a lefty sort of socialist, an sf fan, a biologist, a programmer, and passionately in love with big cities and urban architecture. His web site is at