In the 1964 constructed documentary The Newcomers, we witness a young artisan couple, Anthony and Alison Smith living and working in Bristol. They are not natives but they’ve been in Bristol for a while and are fixtures of the Clifton artsy crowd. They count the young Tom Stoppard as a close friend. He has moved to London but comes back to visit often, staying with the Smiths. As the three of them head to visit the camera obscura up in the Downs, the narrator says ‘For Tom, Bristol is an obsession, a kind of cult which is caught and expressed by the camera obscura’. A panoramic view of Bristol from way up at its highest point. A majestic reminder of the shared identity of those who don’t merely live in Bristol but who also have Bristol live in them.
At one point, Antony speaks of his relationship with Bristol while the camera pans over the landscape of the city. He says that when he first arrived here, he imagined the city as a blank piece of paper which his pens were going to scrawl all over. But after living here for enough time, he realised that it was in fact Bristol that was writing all over him. It is very easy to believe that we merely inhabit cities. Especially now with all our technology and highways and gated communities and security alarms. It feels very much like we are adept at bending and shaping our cities to our will. But the truth is that cities still get inside us. They become buried into the deepest fissure of our memories, they can reveal desires we didn’t know that we had and they can remind of old desires that we have been forced to discard like favourite bits of clothing that have been worn to death.
More than that, they are their own characters. There are days when Bristol feels like my sworn enemy; spiteful, hard, delaying me from where I’m trying to go, overwhelming me with too much noise, too many harsh words. But there are many other times when it is beautiful and kind, undemanding, accepting, brimming with comadarie. At those times, I don’t need anything or anyone but Bristol by my side, these streets, these lights, this music. I feel choked by the suburbs and although I’m appreciating the countryside more and more, it too often remains too quiet for me. The city breathes, it vibrates and even though we fall out sometimes, it remains a true blue friend, forcing me to grow like all good friends do. I have been deeply bitten by Bristol; it has changed me and still, it is changing me, writing all over me, stealing my heart.