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An essay by Israel Zangwill


Title:     Aberdeen
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

Critics of London allow too little for the charm of irregularity and historical association--for odd bits and queer views coming unexpectedly round the corner to meet one, for strange ancient gardens and fragments of field in the backways of Holborn, for quaint waterside alleys and old-world churches in out-of-the-way turnings--for everything, in fact, that has the charm of natural growth. If I had my way, I would not give up Booksellers' Row for a thousand improvements in the Strand. Where shall you find a more piquant peace than in the shady quadrangles that branch out of the bustle of Fleet Street, and flash a memory of Oxford spires or Cambridge gardens on the inner eye? What spot in the world has inspired a nobler sonnet than Wordsworth's on Westminster Bridge? Who would exchange our happy incongruity for the mechanical regularity of the mushroom cities of the States? Paris has, no doubt, made herself beautiful; but she could have afforded not to be, much better than she can afford to be. The theorist holds up Glasgow as a model city--a pioneer--and the splendour of its municipal buildings is as the justice of Aristides. But if an ugly woman does not dress well, who should? With all its civic spirit, Glasgow remains grey, prosaic, intolerable--the champion platitude of commercial civilisation. Aberdeen would have been a far finer example of the schematic city of which theorists dream. There is something heroic about the spaciousness of its streets, the loftiness of the buildings, and the omnipresence of granite--a Tyrtaean spirit, which finds its supreme embodiment in the noble statue of Wallace poised on rough craglets of unpolished granite, and of General Gordon with his martial cloak around him. If Edinburgh be the Athens of Scotland, Aberdeen is its Sparta. And yet after a while Aberdeen becomes a weariness and an abomination. For you discover that it is one endless series of geometrical diagrams. The pavements run in parallel lines, the houses are rectilineal, the gardens are squares or oblongs; if by chance the land sprawls in billocks and hollows, nevertheless is it partitioned in rigid lines. The architecture is equally austere. The very curves demonstrate the theorem that a curve is made up of little straight lines, the arches are stiff and unbending, and wherever a public building demands an ornament, a fir-shaped cone of straight lines rises in stoic severity. In vain one seeks for a refuge from Euclid--for an odd turning or a crooked by-way. To match the straight-ness of their streets and the granite of their structures the Aberdonians are hard-headed, close-fisted, and logical (there is a proverb that no Jew can settle among them), and when they die they are laid out neatly in a rectangular cemetery with parallel rows of graves. Even when they stand about gossiping they fall naturally into geometric figures: if two disconnected men are smoking silently in the roadway, they trisect it; and if another man arrives he converts the company into an equilateral triangle. I am convinced the moon shrinks from appearing in Union Street except it is in perfect quarters, and hides timidly behind a cloud unless its arcs are presentable. Professor Bain was born in Aberdeen. This accounts for much in our British metaphysics. Aberdeen produced the man who vivisected Shelley's "Skylark," and explained away the human mind and all that is therein; Aberdeen educated him, graduated him, married him, gave him the chair of Logic in her University, and finally made him Lord Rector. Bain thinks entirely in straight lines. He is the apotheosis of the Aberdonian. Which is a warning against regular cities.

According to the Rev. W. A. Cornaby in "The Contemporary Review," the straight line is an abomination to the Chinese; they avoid it by curves and zigzags, and they think in curves and zigzags. Hence it seems the Chinese suffer from a spurious idealism, just as my Aberdonians suffer from a spurious materialism. If only the maidens of Aberdeen would marry the mandarins of the too Flowery Land, what a perfect race we might expect!

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Israel Zangwill's essay: Aberdeen