Mary-Kay Wilmers

‘Adjustment, no matter how comfortable it appears to be, is never freedom.’ David Reisman said that in The Lonely Crowd, a work of academic/pop sociology, published in the US in the late Forties; much read and remarked on at the time, and now forgotten. I looked it up the other day when I was due to say something at the South Bank Centre in connection with the Cities on the Move exhibition at the Hayward. Reisman divided social behaviour into three categories: ‘anomic’, ‘adjusted’ and ‘autonomous’. ‘Anomie’ is bad – everyone knows that – and something that has long been associated with urban life. But who could be sure, as David Reisman was, that an ‘autonomous’ citizen, no matter how uncomfortable, was better off than one who had taken the trouble to adjust – unless they’d told themselves that adjustment was un-American, the sort of feebleness Charlton Heston might despise? And if you could choose one or other way of being which would you go for? And where would you live?

I had been asked, specifically, to say something about cities I’d lived in and those questions are ones that I find troubling. I was born, not long before the Second World War, in the United States, where until the age of nine I lived in a succession of different towns and states, of which New York was the last, the place from which I left the country for good. I didn’t know at the time that we weren’t going back; and it was only later that it occurred to me that I’d spent the rest of my childhood in some sort of exile.

We were moving – it was now the late Forties – to Europe. More particularly, we moved to Brussels: a dark, rainy, unfriendly, unseductive, unappealing, charmless city. At the time I wouldn’t have been able to say any of that. For one thing, I wouldn’t have been allowed to: Brussels was where we had to be and if I didn’t like it, it was because, my mother said, I was unwilling to make the effort. David Reisman perhaps would have been pleased with me. I found it all very difficult. Again, we moved often. Not that it mattered: I don’t remember knowing the neighbours or playing with the children next-door or downstairs, as everyone did in the States. There was a tennis club to which families like mine belonged but very few places where one could detach oneself from one’s family. I missed the comic books (missed them all the more for not having been allowed to read them), the roller-skating rink in Central Park, the Lexington Avenue drug stores, the Hershey bars and Hamburger Heaven: all important markers of a New York child’s place in the world and signifiers, too, of a world in which there was much to desire. Belgian children ate the same serious chocolate as their mothers and fathers ate and didn’t have places of their own to go to: they stayed close to their parents and wherever they went walked behind them like the Duke of Edinburgh behind the Queen.

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