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In the mid-eighteenth century, David Hume published A Treatise on Human Nature in which he challenged the traditional philosophical conception of personal identity as constant and invariable. We are instead, he argued, "nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement..... The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations". Hume's radical epistemology of self seems an apposite description - if somewhat avant la lettre - of the modern urban experience: the life of never-ending uncertainty and endless upheaval.
Jeremy Worman's new book, Fragmented, documents this experience, drawn from his own life story. As a child he grew up in a family both privileged and treacherous, on the rural fringe of London's unfolding sprawl. As a teenager he escaped, first and occasionally to the anonymous solidarity of the home crowd at White Hart Lane; later and temporarily to the primitive socialism of the London squatters' movement. This rite of passage is beautifully documented in a series of snapshots and reminiscences: tales with a cast-list of eccentrics, dreamers and losers, drawn quickly and convincingly, each of which occupies but a few pages but tells of an awakening or a disillusionment that will last a lifetime.
Cities can be dirty, aggressive and uncaring places. Their occupants bear the scars of the their habitat. Yet, for all that is obviously mischievous, dangerous or downright wrong, there is also aspiration, ambition and a spirit of camaraderie that cannot always be found elsewhere. As adults we are all forced to bat upon a tricky wicket: but a wise batsman knows that, for all its apparent hostility, the fast-bowling of city-life is more honest that deceptive spin of the leafy suburbs. And Jeremy was a wily batsman.
Saved from seventies squalor by his quick wits, his learning and his luck, Jeremy's life matures into the bohemian civility that is modern day Hackney. He writes of libraries and cemeteries, of being a father and a teacher, of supermarkets and garages, of life amongst the lost and amongst the found. Each episode adds flavour to the cosmopolitan stew that is contemporary London. Each vignette offers new insight into the rich recipe that makes for a modern, urban personal identity. "Maybe you a real black man in one lifetime. You ever tink dat, honky?", asks one incidental character. Maybe he is just a modern Londoner with an open mind, an open heart, and the skill to tell his story well.
David Hume abandoned systematic philosophy to write a multi-volume History of England, and a series of essays on political and literary matters. In his essay "Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing", he says that, "Nothing can please persons of taste, but nature drawn with all her graces and ornaments, la belle nature; or if we copy low life, the strokes must be strong and remarkable, and must convey a lively image to the mind". Jeremy Worman's Fragmented offers us a verbal picture of London and its low-life. It is drawn with strong strokes and conveys lively images of many kinds. Reading it is both a pleasure and an education.