Invisible Cities: Latitude

In homage to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”. 

Approaching the city of Latitude, the traveller begins to doubt their navigation, recalling the crossing of precipitous mountain ranges that induced such anxiety, or the miasmic introspection of swamps waded through with only their distorted reflection before them, plagued by biting insects. They threaded their way through howling concrete canyons, despairing of ever finding a way out, as overhead ominous shadows swooped and hidden eyes followed their every move. Now it seems they have come full circle; they begin to see familiar features on the road ahead, and realise that it is the path to their home village.

Like an event in life that was imperfectly understood at the time and given meaning by another years later which sets it in context, perhaps seeing a familiar place as if for the first time through another’s eyes, or revisiting a city where the memory of a lover haunts every corner, rendering each anonymous street or half-remembered cafe suddenly and sharply poignant, the city assembles itself into the form that each traveller expects. Their destination has been waiting for them since they departed from it.

Other travellers are heading the same way, coming from all corners of the earth. Some carry their possessions on their backs and travel alone, others in long caravans, setting up nomadic encampents on the outskirts. There are different tribes, identifiable by their costumes – swathes of colourful silks and scarves from the Orient, the rugged workwear of the great plains, the stout boots and fleece of the mountaineer, the long-haired followers of sects and groups dressed all in black. They speak in a multitude of dialects – the quickly gulped glottals of the capital, the adenoidal dipthongs of distant outflung colonies, the deliberately slow rural burr of the locals, stolid, unflappable and reassuring.

Round their legs laughing children run barefoot, the smaller ones towed in little carts, gazing around uncomprehendingly at the colourful melee. A small girl of about five who has been sleeping in a cart sits up, rubs her eyes and looks around. She has touselled blond hair and wears a crown of flowers. Catching the traveller’s eye she holds it levelly, slowly smiles, then lies back down and goes to sleep again with her thumb in her mouth. Troubadours, minstrels, poets and storytellers – all are drawn towards the city, and some sing as they walk. Wandering through a sun-dappled wood as birdsong drifts through the canopy overhead, suddenly one comes to the city gates, sentinels of the watch in their bright tabards, checking documents and laissez-passer. Cursory searches are undergone for contraband, and the assorted travellers ushered within the city walls.

Two long bridges span a lake, thronging with people. In the shallows of water apple-green at the edges assorted nymphs bathe themselves, and further out gondoliers pole their craft, ferrying passengers to the far shore. Around the large, dusty expanse of a maidan the spires of great tents are visible, with pennants flying from their summits. The skirl of music, the smoke of cooking fires, the cries of vendors and the coiling waft of incense all merge. Travellers inspect each other curiously, veterans of numerous trips acknowledging each other with a wide open, searching look and a slight tilt of the head in greeting. People from other, unfriendlier cities, where eyes slip away from each other and faces slam shut like the shutters of houses, begin to thaw and return each other’s gaze. In four days the green bower of branches will grow over the entrance and the city will disappear once more, to reconstitute itself somewhere else, but for now we are all its citizens.

A group of teenage girls run past on coltish long legs, in a frenzy of excitement. A troupe of Iberian dancers are gathering on a stage projecting out into the lake. They are all young men in high-heeled boots and they stamp and wheel with exotic cries, arching their backs as they strut, glittering darkly. One is bare-chested and wears a hood like a hangman, and he enacts a scene of combat with another who dives and rolls as lithe as a cat beneath his outstretched arms. The girls are mesmerised by the muscular sensuality and the songs of passion and death. The men clear the stage to wild applause and a group of women glide in from the wings, draped in cascading costumes of scarlet and black. They sway back and forth with liquid gestures tracing patterns through the air with their hands. Then they are joined again by the men and the oldest dance of all is enacted as they circle each other in advance and retreat, their energies combining.

Deep in the woods stands a tower bedecked with lights, a spiral slide around the outside. Travellers rest in hammocks slung from the trees, serenaded by the muted chimes of a gamelan orchestra nearby. In a field a flock of sheep graze, all of them dyed bright pink; the animals do not seem disturbed by this in the least, and it is done by the farmers purely for reasons of aesthetic pleasure: some seasons they are purple, sometimes green, and now pink. A poet holds an audience rapt, weaving his tale around them as they sit cross-legged in a clearing before him. Then a young woman takes his place and begins to recite a story in the choppy sibilants of the flatlands – a story by turns angry and tender and pitying and tragic, about war and loss and the spaces between people. In the telling of it the spaces between the audience diminish until there is an atmosphere of communal solidarity as they hang onto her words.

After dark lights spring up along the lake shore, shimmering in the currents of the warm night air. Searchlights extend thin white fingers aloft to wheel about the clouds. A deep bass note draws a crowd to a tent, the sound shaking the ground, felt through the soles of the feet and out through the top of the head. It becomes faster, rhythmically pulsing, and notes begin to cascade like stars falling out of the sky. Then the mechanical chiming of dozens of clocks, round and round. Machines, robots, repetitive and soothing, a glittering futuristic planisphere. The insistent pulse of the bass. Lyrics begin, faint and echoing, in which the individual words cannot quite be defined, as if they don’t matter – everyone interprets them differently, according to their own meanings and desires.

People begin to move, swaying back and forth, bobbing up and down, nodding in time. Ethereal words echo around us, the rhythm makes heartbeats quicken. Lights spin about overhead in delicate traceries of filigreed green. On the stage the small figure of a wizard jerks up and down like a marionette, hunched over his computers – each button he presses produces a different effect in the crowd. Suddenly a chorus soars and we are lifted, the tents and the woods and the fields growing smaller beneath us and receding, lifting again until the city is flying, and everyone moving back and forth, back and forth, getting higher and higher like light through the veins, and you thought to yourself I never thought I’d get this high again, I didn’t know I could but I can, and that bass is relentless, remorseless and driving us on as it lifts us all, because there are no spaces between people here, we are all parts of one organism in a mass communal intelligence, all jumping up and down in time to drumming from the end of the world, tick tick tick the clocks are chiming and stars are falling and then they are gone and we are flying into the darkness together.

The Latitude Festival takes place at Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk, UK every July.