I’ve said before that we live in what many consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Cape Town can be truly breathtaking. The other evening there was an early autumn sunset over Table Mountain that took breath away and prompted a momentary social media awe-struck buzz – similar to the one in the image above. The always changing site of the unchangeable mountain is quite a backdrop indeed.
As I said a while back , though, there’s a few things about this sort of talk that bother me. I’m not an especially visual person; I like natural beauty, but it rarely moves me to awe or worship the way it does for others. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost for words at a landscape. I tend to find God in other ways.
Another aspect to strike me was the way some talked of this striking sunset in such a way as to say that Cape Town is the greatest city in the world. It seemed like an odd reflection; why does an awestruck moment have to lead to comparison and ranking? Can’t it just be beautiful and majestic in and of itself? Most of the world’s biggest cities are built around natural landmarks of some kind – rivers, harbours, mountains. They all have a particular kind of beauty in the right light and on the right day. I’m a city boy through and through; there was, though, one year I spent in a city I just didn’t like, that as a place did nothing for me. I can still remember, however, 20 or so years on, one sunset in that city which just blew me away.
Which leads me to this: none of this was actually about the city. It was about the backdrop to the city.
Be it the mountain or river or sea or sunset or cloud formation, that’s not the city. It may be over or around the city. But it’s not the city itself. The city is people and what’s made by people. The tangible things made – buildings and roads and monuments – as well as the intangibles of art, culture and community. These are why I love cities and find it hard to imagine living in any other context. I love that dynamics and trends and ideas tend to emerge and take root first in cities. I love that big world events congregate around them. I love that in a city like Cape Town, especially a hub area like that which I live and work in (Mowbray), the nations of the world pass by my door every day.
That can bring pain and suffering too, of course. Crime and disease spread quickest in urban environments. One summer’s day in 2005 my wife and I were moving house and job closer to central London when we found our packed car overtaken by streams of emergency vehicles. The date was 7/7. Such things tend not to happen in more rural areas.
A few days after Table Mountain’s sun-bathed glory, a video started popping up in my social media timelines. It’s a reworking of the video for Pharrell Williams’ song Happy set in Cape Town and featuring the people of the city. It’s not the song’s official video; simply a local contextualisation. There’s two things about this. The first is that if you look up ‘genetically perfect pop song’ in a dictionary, you’ll find this song. It’s irresistible, and does what all good pop music is for. Fair warning: if you don’t know the song and you go listen to it as a result of this post, it will be in your head for the day.
The second thing is this: that the video expressed part of what makes a city beautiful. The people and the streets. It’s not everything – there’s plenty of other emotions and experience to be had here, as there are elsewhere.
This video, though, expresses for me where I find beauty – in people and the things made by them. The art, the buildings, the music, the moves. That’s a city. The mountain, the sunset? Scenery. Beautiful, of course. But scenery. The beauty is to be found in concrete and bone, steel and street.
Next time you take a retreat, consider taking a trip into the city, not away from it. Next time you talk a long walk, think about heading for concrete paving not tree-lined horizons. After all, it’s in the former that you’ll find the image of God, multiplied.