Cities Of The Dead
Cities Of The Dead
‘It doesn’t take me long to get back to my hotel. It’s a relief to leave the commerce behind to be frank. I wanted to love Milan and I don’t. It must be the Kanye West of European cities - loved by millions but nobody is quite sure why…’
In Cities Of The Dead, Siôn Smith embraces what remains of the spirit of Jack Kerouac as he wanders through seven landmark cities in search of coffee, culture and adventure.
From Florence to New York, Paris to Warsaw, he digs up the road less travelled and finds – amongst many other curios – a mermaid who has been assaulted more times than she deserves, a rock star with a stolen head and a corporate accountant on a desperate quest to forget his wife. The result is a collection of lucid essays that reveal a world distracted by the noise of its own making in which few take the time to see what is actually happening beneath their nose.
Written during various trips around the globe, Cities of the Dead is hard-boiled travel writing for anybody who never wanted to read a guide book in the first place.
90 Pages • Softback • ISBN: 978-1-326-84813-2
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What readers are saying:
"I’ve never read any Jack Kerouac but if I did, I imagine it might be a bit like Sion Smith’s CITIES OF THE DEAD. Beat Poetry, to me, sounds like a sort of noirish slam on regular poetry and that’s kind of what’s going on in this book. It’s like hard-boiled travel writing. Like the author, Sion Smith, has captured the true feelings of the various cities he visits - their hopes and fears and dirty secrets – and he’s telling us about it in a language we can all understand.
"It's like that bloke, Jonathan Pie, who does the satire news reader thing, you know the one. He's on Youtube and he'll deliver the news like it's usually delivered and then it cuts to his 'off camera' rant where he tells you what he really thinks. CITIES is like that, in a way: the bits of the travel guide that Smith put together after hours in his dimly lit hotel room - banged out on an old typewriter, cigarette dangling from his lips.
"It's primarily historical figures Smith’s interested in with the cities he visits - dead people - but always from a completely fresh angle, again digging deeper than what’s in your average guide. And then there's the living characters he meets along the way – damaged people who seem, at least to me, somewhat dead themselves, ghostly and ethereal in their interactions.
CITIES OF THE DEAD is the elegant, accessible and emotionally engaging story of a man on a different type of journey. And it’s one which the reader can feel part of, too. So, grab your hat climb on board – it’s going to be a rocky ride but, trust me, well worth it in the end."
"A book of wandering while pondering around the world. With lots of wit and satire thrown in. A really enjoyable read. Thankyou Mr Smith! Next please!"
An extract from the chapter COPENHAGEN
Falling in love can be so very hard on the knees. When you fall for a city however, you can be looking down the barrel of a lifetime of surgery to put yourself back on the road. I didn’t fall for it at first sight. I had enough respect for myself to wait for the cab ride from the airport to be over, but I still can’t get my fingers inside the noose that it threw around my neck the second I slammed the door behind me.
Inspired by the multitude of Scandinavian crime thrillers I’ve been driving myself through in recent years, Copenhagen is my first city in this neck of the woods and as I’ve already indicated, I love it. I may say it again a few more times before we are through. It has to be said however that I didn’t reckon on this wind that’s blowing directly in from the North Pole. I have to break my own ‘travel light’ rules immediately to find a shop that will garnish me with a scarf, gloves and a hat. I know this is the right decision because on the canal next to my hotel, there are ice blocks the size of small cars floating by. Closer inspection will likely reveal them to contain the remains of small animals from the jurassic era.
My hotel is just about perfect - a converted warehouse called The Admiral that sits on the waterfront. My room is small and for once, I am glad of the air conditioning pumping artificial heat into the place. There is enough room for the bed and myself, but if anybody else wanted to come in, it would officially be a crush. Satisfied that there is nothing else to said about this, I hit the road.
I have come to learn that many things people tell you about when you announce you’re about to visit somewhere far away from home, are nothing but hearsay. The Little Mermaid is a good example of this.
“I hope you’re going to see The Little Mermaid…”
It’s not top of my list but I’m sure I can pass by and see what the sculptor Edvard Eriksen was really made of - and there she is. ‘Little’ is a good description - she is maybe a few feet high and, as bronze tends to do, has turned that horrible shade of dirty green.
As wonderful as Hans Christian Andersen may be, he doesn’t need a tiny green statue sitting on a rock to prove it. I’m about to walk away, but when I turn, I find a man with an unruly beard standing directly behind me. He asks me if I have a cigarette and I make a snap judgement that this man is a good man. He has that air about him that says he is a watcher too.
“What do you think of her?”
His English is impeccable.
“The Mermaid? She’s umm… small. Not what I expected, but then, not a lot of things are when you get close up.”
“She looks good for one who has been at war don’t you think?”
Without prompting, the man begins to tell me some of her history.
Apparently, back in the sixties, her head was sawn off and never recovered. Rather than start a new folk-tale about a Headless Mermaid (which I may have to write myself now I have heard this), a new head was made for her and reattached to the body. If having your head sawn off is not insult enough, twenty years later, she had her right arm removed by the same means - only this time, the arm was handed in to the authorities. Just a few years after this, she suffered another attempt at decapitation but was left with a non life-threatening seven inch wound to the neck. Fast forward another couple of years and this time, her head comes off again - only for it to be handed in at a television station and once more reattached.
What kind of thinking can make a mermaid who never harmed anybody such a target of hate? In 2003, the forces of evil - still not satisfied - decide that decapitation is not enough and she is blown up using explosives and found some distance away drowning in the harbour. In more recent times, evil found that she could not be killed and resorted to humiliation as a suitable alternative. She has had paint tipped on her, been dressed in a Burqa and had a sex-toy attached to her hand. That’s a pretty exciting life for a statue.
Apparently, there are also some stories lurking around that she is not the original statue at all - that one being kept at a secure location by Eriksen’s heirs, though the man doesn’t know if this true or not.
Sharing my cigarettes freely now, I look out across the water and see her in a totally different light. She is quite beautiful in her own damaged way. Sometimes you need to know the background of somebody to kiss goodbye to your first impressions of them. The man says something else, but I am hardly listening. Inside my head, I have created a scenario in which the never recovered head from The Little Mermaid is sitting on a shelf in an apartment somewhere in Paris next to the missing head of Jim Morrison. There is a story to be told here as well, but that might be a tale too off kilter for even me to think it through properly.
Half an hour later I find myself in the city centre proper and find Copenhagen to be clean and relatively quiet for a big city. None of the shops seem particularly desperate in any way to sell you their wares either - they are there if you want them and that’s enough. More than any of this, the people who live here seem to be more than satisfied with their lives. There’s no attitude, no pushing, no adrenalin fuelled crisis to get anywhere or be somebody they don’t need to be. Somehow, all of these things have made me feel like I belong and of all the places on earth I have ever been, Copenhagen was not somewhere I expected to feel this.
I drift into a department store called Magasin. I find they sell great coffee as soon as I walk in through the door and I stay for two cups before wandering around inside to reheat myself. Down in the basement, there is a huge international stock of magazines. I browse through some titles I have never heard of and think it would be a real kick to buy a copy of my own magazine here. On doing the math however, I find the cost of it is something like five times the cover price. Further investigation reveals the same is true of all of the magazines. Now I come to think about it, the coffee was pretty expensive too - as was my room and the taxi. I leave the magazine where it is (having seen it something like fifty times already before it even got sent to print anyway) and finding nothing of value I want to spend a lot of money on, leave the store behind.
One thing I can’t leave without doing, is check in with that old rogue Hans Christian Andersen - creator of rather well-known fairy tales but also little known travel writer. Whilst I wouldn’t say his travel writing was an influence, it certainly isn’t not an influence.
There are times when he drifts in and out of what is acceptable - or maybe expected is a better word - with the end result being work that is far from the norm. He began in his twenties to travel Europe after receiving a “small grant” from the King of Denmark (note to self: don’t forget to send that letter to Elizabeth) journaling and sketching along the way which culminated in The Diaries Of Hans Christian Andersen. Titles were apparently not something he liked to dwell over for too long
The sketches themselves are historical if nothing else, their subject matter containing scenes that you could drop a fairy tale or two into that’s for sure. Here’s a short sample of the kind of thing he would drop in:
“Went for a short walk in a black jacket, vest and trousers. The farmers probably took me for a cleric, because they stood still and tipped their hats. All of a sudden an old fellow came toward me and fell on his knees; then I got really scared and turned back. This is the first time anyone has knelt in front of me.”
All of which says nothing at all about where he is - he could be anywhere - but that works for me in huge amounts. There are also entires that detail a visit to Beethoven’s grave, Michelangelo’s house and this extract from a visit to a Turkish cemetery (so maybe we are not so different after all):
“We went to the cemetery, which was very extensive. The graves of dervishes have dervish turbans; there are green turbans on the graves of those who themselves, or one of whose forefathers, have been to the Prophet’s grave. We walked so far that we could see the town Chalcedon and the Sea of Marmara. (In Scrutari we saw Ali Pasha’s grave, which had something like a wire birdcage over it and fountains.) Carved in the burial stones by the graves there is one big hole or two small ones for water, so that dogs can quench their thirst — this is a blessing for the dead.”
In many of the pictures I have seen of Hans - we are on first name terms now - he is also wearing a big coat, thus proving that Copenhagen hasn’t changed all that much in the last hundred years. As is right and correct, Copenhagen has not forgotten one of its finest sons - he is everywhere you choose to find him. My favourite memorial to him is the one I sit next to right at this moment and that is the sculpture of him on Hans Christian Andersen Street (natch) simply because he looks like Gene Wilder’s stylised Willie Wonka.
I also learned he had rooms in Magasin at one point - when it was still the Hotel du Nord - so I return to the fine coffee house inside the department store and sit with my eyes shut and nostrils wide open trying to find even the faintest trace of him to stamp onto my own soul.
During the night, outside in the corridor, there is a man - a German man - walking up and down whilst talking on his phone. He must be talking to somebody very far away because he’s shouting to accommodate the miles like my Grandmother used to whenever I called her up. You can handle such things for a little while but I am not the first to break. Some way along the corridor, I hear a door open with force and the voice of an Englishman letting the wandering gentleman know where he will need to fish his phone out from if he doesn’t go somewhere else to talk.
I look at my watch. It’s 3.30am.
When I wake again, it looks glorious outside, but I’m mistaken because it’s damn near freezing. I opt to spend the morning at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. It’s something of a walk but no big deal. Most things are within some kind of striking distance here. It seems to be hip to cycle everywhere but I would rather walk.
The Glyptotek is an art gallery with some serious sculptures in the house and it is here I have come for my fill of the dead today. The building itself looks exactly how a gallery should look and has more than its fair share of botany scattered throughout. Unlike many galleries I’ve wandered, the Glyptotek is more than welcoming. I don’t feel like I need to keep moving along, eager for the next thing. In fact, I am welcome to loiter as long as I wish. Such appears to be the Danish way.
I guess I could have found the ancient dead anywhere in the world if I had looked hard enough, but perhaps I wasn’t ready for them until now. These faces that look back at me from the longest time ago tell me just one thing… allow me to explain:
There’s a head here set in marble (which is a copy of a bronze original) of Pompeius the Great who was a sworn enemy of Gaius Julius Caesar (yep - that Caesar) and he has exactly the same face as a man I see most mornings when I walk the dog. I don’t know the guy’s name but his dog is called Henry. Which tells us only one thing. At some unspecified point in time, God/The Gods (whatever takes your fancy) ran out of faces and began to recycle. There are a lot of faces in circulation though, so some from the past have yet to be used.
There’s another head in here which I think is called ‘Head of a Young Man’. May the Gods have mercy on the soul that finds himself in line for this one though because it looks like a direct reproduction of Abe Sapien from the Hellboy series.
The point being, somebody made the effort to cast these people (important people or otherwise) because they had the time and the motivation to do so. There’s a little part of me that says social media in the modern age is society’s way of doing the exact same thing. While that may be true and the people of the streets might believe it to be so, it’s still like telling Marco Pierre White you’re a chef when the best you can manage is putting boiling water into a plastic cup with a foil lid.
After being robbed blind in the Glyptotek restaurant - they have a unique piece of scanning equipment at the cash register that knows exactly how much money you have in your pocket and will leave you with just enough small change to hire a bicycle to get home - I wander the streets some more, this time looking for landmarks I recognise from Forbrydelsen (The Killing) of which I find many. It says more about me than I would like that I am equally as pleased with these discoveries as I was at looking upon original work from the hands of Rodin inside the Glyptotek.
If all flights were delayed, I would be quite happy to find myself spending the rest of my days here. A man who truly knows himself could rent an apartment here and lose himself until his dying days in the quiet satisfaction that he has missed nothing of much importance.
Hungry, I track back to my hotel for food and more reading. As I stand from a bench I have been resting on, a dog comes hurtling across the park chasing a ball and takes my legs out from under me. I land horizontally on the grass with my eyes wide open, sucking for air and gazing up at the sky which I immediately recognise as being the same one all humans have looked upon, regardless of whose face they have stolen. A bearded man looms over me, takes the still burning cigarette from my mouth and places it in his own before asking me if I’m hurt and offers me his hand in assistance.
I stay right where I fell, trying to figure out where I have seen his face before