So where are we now? And does it really matter?
A sidebar to Nostalgia for Unknown Cities
Brian Marley


The title of Ken Edwards’ book poses a problem, in that we can never know everything there is to know about a city, even a small city, even if we’ve lived in that city all our lives and are extraordinarily inquisitive. Because cities are changing constantly they are always, to some degree, unknown and unknowable. Nonetheless, drawing on memory, we feel we know them, and this knowing (as partial and mistaken and imaginatively reconstructed as memory always is) amounts to a form of consciousness. If a city is lost – Atlantis, for example – it can still stand before us, in legend, as monumental as a headstone. But a city that has never existed – again, confusingly, Atlantis might fit the bill – is just as real, at least for the person who holds it in his head. In other words, your Atlantis is not necessarily my Atlantis, but although I think you’re wrong about Atlantis I accept that, for you, your vision/version of Atlantis is the ‘perfect’ one and mine is woefully inadequate. But we’re both right: Atlantis exists, though it has no physical presence or precise location. That much at least we can agree upon.


All cities, however geographically distant and climatically distinct they are from each other, and however much they may be products of the imagination, have things in common. Many things. Because, fundamentally, all cities evolve out of human needs that have remained constant over millennia. And because of these commonalities, every city reminds us of another city, and to be in one city can make us nostalgic for the other. But commonalities also tend to cancel each other out, so that we register them only subliminally. What Ken Edwards does so brilliantly in Nostalgia for Unknown Cities is channel his narrative (or whatever one wishes to call the silken strands of continuity that carry the reader from one moment, one sentence, to the next) through these barely perceived commonalities, using them as portals through which to move effortlessly, without dissonance, between one city and the next.


Unlike the Marco Polo of Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities – in which Marco, the greatest sung traveller of his age, describes (and also playfully invents, in time-honoured storytelling fashion) aspects of exotic cities in ways that subtly evoke Venice, so that his less-well-travelled fellow Venetians (and also Kublai Khan, to whom he narrates his tale) can put into perspective the strange, nigh incomprehensible things he claims to have seen – the narrator of Nostalgia for Unknown Cities remains anonymous. There are no named characters, there’s no explicit backstory, and the third-person commentator doesn’t explain the significance of each event as it occurs and lacks (or perhaps just avoids any suggestion of) omniscience. Although it seems that Edwards is sifting through memories of places he has lived in or visited, there’s no reason to assume that that’s the case. Cinema, television and the encyclopaedic sprawl of the internet provide all the travelogue information a writer could possibly require. Books, too, of course. There’s a tradition extant, stretching back to Homer and no doubt earlier still, of writing about places unvisited, of which one has only a sketchy understanding: e.g. the eerie evocation of post-WW2 England that John Hawkes conjures up in his novel The Lime Twig, Kafka’s quaint version of America in Amerika, and the brightly coloured adventure story imaginings of Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa. Swift’s metaphorical lands as visited by Gulliver, and the strangely familiar new worlds and numerous bustling cities thereon of science fiction, while largely products of the imagination, are part and parcel of that tradition. But whereas most writers strive to make their cities as vivid and identifiable as possible, what Edwards creates in Nostalgia for Unknown Cities is something more generalised, a feeling of ‘cityness’. Though this cityness is investigated through the extremes of particularity, the cities themselves remain tantalisingly elusive, unknown and unknowable.


Cityness is of the mind, and the mind, a restless interrogator, flits. Likewise Edwards’ prose. The narrative drive in Nostalgia for Unknown Cities is far from straightforward. Observations of a specific kind often give way immediately to other kinds of observation, and may (or not) be resumed several lines (sometimes pages) later. This elliptical progress, accomplished in long, sumptuous paragraphs and without the signposting that most writers feel the need to employ lest their readers abandon them for less challenging fare, has a complexly woven texture. Or, to switch metaphors, one could also say that seemingly disparate materials are given equal weight that humour renders buoyant, e.g.:

“The city spoke in noise clusters, lingered thunderously. Vernacular yellow brick stained by generations of salts. Yellow was the colour of the CCTV cameras. A car-park of a different colour, blistering fast. A woman changed her socks on the train. The new library with its proud iconic sign. Monteverdi, Radiohead and John Coltrane at the workstation. The place had been thoroughly cleaned and degreased. Newly appointed as librarian, he suddenly acquired gravitic mass.”

This is prose, but a prose approximating the condition of poetry. Not prose-poetry (or, if you prefer, prose/poetry). Prose. And rather beautiful prose at that.


Sentences follow, one from another, inexorably. And one city vista merges or dissolves into another. As with a great jazz solo, we are captured by the moment and captivated, suspended in time but somehow carried forward on a wave of enthusiasm, wondering what will happen next without being able to predict it with any degree of accuracy. There are many pithy phrases in Nostalgia for Unknown Cities that seem so self-contained and so startling they’re in danger of stopping us in our tracks, e.g.: “Ice cream was not available because the ice cream machine was frozen”. But we move on, restlessly. Does it matter whether we can identify the cities that the author conjures up and through which we are, engrossingly, conveyed? I think not. The mind flits, the mind roams. Cityness is all.