Empirically Real Norbiton is merely Accidental Norbiton reconstituted as a coherent whole. These points and destinations and fragments are no longer bits of other places; they coalesce, become a sort of entity, a small pocket of space in which you can live your life, self-sufficient and (not very) productive.
The empirically real city was there all along; all that was necessary was to notice it. However, since all noticing must battle a perceptual inertia which prevents us seeing anything not automatically conforming to our modes of cognition (is structured, in other words, by habits of generalisation, approximation; not by routines of observation), the only way anyone is likely to look properly at Norbiton and to understand it as a coherent location in its own right is to be forced by circumstances to look at nothing else - and losing your job is a good way to start.
But I did more than lose my job. I abandoned my career beyond any hope of retrieval. I resolved never to go to work again. To jack it in. To dump the entirety of my life and see what happened. That more or less did it. I started to walk the midweek streets of Norbiton, and in this way I began to see that there was a place here, an invisible place, and that its residents were camouflaged, stealthy, anonymous.
There is an episode of Star Trek: Voyager where a woman comes on board who claims to have been there before: she is returning now, she says, because she has fallen in love with Chakotay, the first officer. But he doesn’t remember her, and neither does anyone else. She belongs to a xenophobic species which leaves no trace on the memory of others, or apparently on their electronic storage devices, for more than a few hours. When she leaves for the last time, Chakotay is obliged to pen a crude chronicle in order to prove that she ever existed.
In Norbiton you can get a sense of what that feels like. It is more than anonymity. Go out, walk the streets, buy a paper, get a pint. No one will be able to retain a memory of you that outlasts the exchange. Finish your pint, leave your paper on the table in front of you, nod to the barman, walk out of the pub, and in a few minutes the memory of your face will be no more vivid to anyone who encountered you than the impression of your arse on the chair you have vacated, and perhaps less so.
Taken the right way, this is an intoxicating and liberating freedom, not unlike, it must be supposed, the religious ecstasies of hermits. You have slipped under the World’s radar. Stop moving and you do not, shark-like, die. You float down, down, down, and then find that there is, in fact, a bottom, peopled by odd cartilaginous creatures of the deep compressed into strange shapes by the pressure, and going about their business.
These are people for whom the world of work only obliquely and intermittently intersects with their own, and a world in which poverty, or indigence, or impecuniousness, are remorselessly local. Impecuniousness ought to lead to a lightness of spirit, a weightlessness; but it doesn’t: it drags us slowly earthward, locks us into a few narrow streets.
I viewed all this slow deep sea life not with the detachment of a diver but with the bemusement of a drowned man who finds he can breathe. Whatever else, the lineaments of this new place were substantial if hard to make out, like the traces of some sunken wreck attracting crabs and urchins and bloated blind fish, and growing coral.
It turns out that Empirically Real Norbiton has a centre and a shape, and an intricacy and complexity perhaps in advance of that of Accidental Norbiton, determined as it is by more marginal but more consequential issues of survival, subsistence, resourcefulness, suspicion and occasionally a remnant solidarity. A perilous world, then, long on suffering, but a world where the vectors of Accidental Norbiton join into something coherent, if, admittedly, shit – a place, in other words, that you could hope to escape from, not an ontologically indeterminate region of space.
In trying to describe the arcane geography of the Ideal City, I realise that I am providing not just a series of maps but an assortment of transparent overlays to maps with a highly specific z-index. Frankly, it is not an easy place to visit. It hangs improbably in unstable suspension between powerful strange attractors (see glossary) – Accidental Norbiton and Empirically Real Norbiton among them.
To put it another way, you will not find Norbiton: Ideal City in Empirically Real Norbiton any more than you will find it in Accidental Norbiton, but at least something is now in play. I have a romantic notion that it is in, or more precisely, from such marginal borderlands as Empirically Real Norbiton that new things emerge, and that, if there is any sort of critical mass in our civilisation, any sort of louring or inarticulate determination that things – what things I hardly know – but things, can be, for a spell, different, then this is where it will break out first. This is where the vortex will start to spin.
I don’t know if what we have in the Ideal City is a forming vortex, or just a coincidental but resonant impatience on the part of a slack handful of individuals with the incoherence of this life, and a conviction of its (provisional, temporary) perfectibility.
I am groping for clarity and coming up with something else, as if the object I wished to grasp, to hold up, rotate, study, understand is not after all susceptible of direct observation. The big things never are. You deduce them, see them askance, by inference.
But let us anyway postulate that object and give it a name, and let us call it The Failed Life.