A Review of Ali Miller’s ‘What If The City Fails To Work’

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Ali Miller’s stunning piece of psychogeography, ‘What If The City Fails To Work’, electrified me, inspired me, and reminded me of the joy of writing and reading, which I’m sad to say doesn’t happen often with anthologies. Miller’s writing made me stand to attention with those long sentences, comma after comma, followed by the short and sharp: “It’s fiction, I tell myself. It is, and yet.” I was swept up by the orchestration of words, the delicious rhythm – now this is writing.

Miller’s piece is timely as Edinburgh faces numerous inappropriate building developments and the use of our streets as event space, pushing the residents out of sight. Who is this city for? Is it a living, breathing city? Is it a museum of tartan for tourists?

It’s what we trade in, this lie of nationhood, of unity, of a better past, but it brings in the tourists, and develops the city economically. That’s the buzz word now, economic development, how the worth of proposed schemes is judged, it’s a market driven economy, just as well we have something to sell. The city works, puts its past to work… The city cracks. The city works for some, but not for all, where does the tipping point sit, who calibrates the scales? …The city does not work for me. For me, this city does not work.

Miller reminds us of our place in the city in a time of increasing alienation – capitalism erases us; Miller reinstates us. “We need to know as a city, which is little more than a collection of its citizens – how to nourish ourselves again… I did not know how to feed myself. I stopped knowing because the complexity was too much to handle. And now the city does not know how to feed itself.” To carry with us this idea of the city and its people as a Möbius strip feeding one into the other – this is the personal, this is the political. But is it enough? “What price comfort? What price modernity? And who pays when? …I never have to touch food again to live, I realise… We’re all fucking worth it, until we know the price of everything, but the cost of nothing… I want I want I want, more more more.

Millar castigates herself for being the watcher and recorder, but words are powerful, storytelling is powerful, and we all do it – our lives are a narrative we tell ourselves and others. Our government and corporations tell us what our narratives should be; it’s not the role of watcher and recorder that is passive, but our acceptance of these imposed narratives. We need our writers – not as untouchable demigods, but as workers who can remind us there are alternatives to the dominant narratives of ‘capitalism’ and ‘economic development’. While Miller is tempted down the path of cynicism, she turns away; as she acknowledges it’s a cliché to end such a piece on hope, what other route is there? Miller not only leaves us with hope, she raises a challenge – “It’s daring to imagine a city that works, that can feed itself and its visitors, that trades not only on an imagined past, but a vibrant present” – and as citizens and storytellers we must all take heed.

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