At some unknown moment between 2010 and 2015, for the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population lived in cities. Urbanisation is unlikely to reverse. Every week since, another 3 million country dwellers have become urbanites. Rarely in history has a small number of metropolises bundled as much economic, political and cultural power over such vast swathes of hinterlands. In some respects, these global metropolises and their residents resemble one another more than they do their fellow nationals in small towns and rural area. Whatever is new in our global age is likely to be found in cities.
For more than two decades, geographers and sociologists have debated the character and role of cities in globalisation. Historians have been a step behind, producing less and more cautious work on cities and globalisation, and struggling to find readers. The relative silence is notable. As early as 1996, the sociologist Charles Tilly wrote that historians have ‘the opportunity to be our most important interpreters of the ways that global social processes articulate with small-scale social life’. Generally, historians did not answer the call. We still don’t have the powerful insights of historical perspective on many aspects of the historic urbanisation through which we are living.
Whenever I tell other writers that my publisher kindly allows me to do my own book covers, the reaction I get is usually something along the line of “wow, that’s great, wish I could do that.” And whenever I tell people working in the publishing industry the same, especially outside of Norway, they usually get seriously uneasy, followed by a smile that is not really a smile but a defense mechanism to buy them time while they figure out why they’ve suddenly thought of that fox in Lars von Trier’s movie Antichrist (the one that hisses “chaos reigns”). What follows is a mixture of disbelief and something approaching suspicion. It’s as if they’ve just heard me casually say I’m considering a coup’d etat as they suddenly envision more writers having this absurd idea and the world of shit and poor sales it will lead to. But even though I am the initial reason for their suspicion of impending shit, they never seem to blame me personally, at least not at this stage, but rather my publisher, who obviously has no clue about the importance of leaving book design to book designers or ANYONE else really, as long as it’s not the author.
Let me pause here give you some details: I’m not a graphic designer. Let’s be clear on this, out of respect for trained graphic designers. I’m a fiction writer who also happens to do graphic design. I have been doing graphic design for 16 years now, creating not only my own book covers but also, from time to time, doing commissioned work: book covers, album covers, movie posters, band merch, t-shirts and more. I’ve designed coffee mugs, which it seems you have to do at some point. I’ve used the Trajan font and moved on, a designer’s rite of passage (if you must know, I used it for a Norwegian edition of William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles and from what I heard he liked it, so it ended well).
My grandmother had always said she was leaving the house “feet first,” by which she meant she’d never go to a nursing home, which she dreaded. The night she died, two young men had shown up from the mortuary in a white van without windows. They wore white shirts, dark pants, cheap ties. They bagged up my grandmother’s body in a zippered bag. “I have an odd request,” I told them, and they agreed to carry her out the door leading with the feet, which put me in mind of the Wallace Stevens poem about a lonely woman’s funeral wake, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” If her horny feet protrude, they come/To show how cold she is, and dumb/Let the lamp affix its beam/The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
The two young men looked no older than college age; one was Filipino, the other white. They were grim and clumsily efficient. I could smell cigarettes on one of them as I held the door for them so they could accomplish grandmother’s small victory of place and longevity.
I went to 7-Eleven on Christmas Day, the first one I’d spent alone. I went there after I found out that I’d sold my first novel — I bought a bottle of champagne, and we toasted together in the store, me and the cashier. I found myself sharing more of my life — not just my time, but actual pieces of myself with the people who worked there. It became a place where I went to feel more like myself. It was a part of me. When I think of what I want to do, who I want to talk to, where I want to go to feel better about myself, I think of that structure and the people it holds.
For this viewer, who grew up in nineteen-seventies England, there is a recognizable quality of Britishness to Myers’s pictures, whether or not it is explicitly signalled. The image chosen to open the book, “David in Knight’s Armour,” from 1974, shows a small boy dressed in Crusader’s regalia and brandishing a plastic sword, a lion rampant on his breastplate. In one image, a leather-clad motorcyclist has decorated his bike with a small Union Jack; in another, a proud car salesman displays the British flag above the desk in his office. But the Englishness is evident, too, in the irremediably damp crevices in the brickwork of buildings or between the paving stones of sidewalks, and in the hunched shoulders of Myers’s subjects, many of whom look to be feeling a little chilly, physically and emotionally. In their formal poses, they seem as conscious of their status as the objects of an artist’s gaze as any Renaissance Pope or Regency monarch.