Ana Kinsella’s debut Look Here: On the Pleasures of Observing the City is a collection of essays with painterly descriptions of London, involving a cast of protagonists she interviews, and contemplations from her time in Dublin and New York. These essays emerge from a Tiny Letter blog Kinsella started in 2017, ‘London Review of Looks’, to put down her fleeting encounters in London. Look Here has a lived-in feeling that is often found in online blogs, also making a larger conversation about her body, surroundings, and relationships in public space.
Kinsella writes with abandon about her thoughts on tube journeys, walks, buses, while waiting for friends, doing small jobs. In doing so she captures the various experiences of a woman outdoors in cities like Dublin, London, and New York. What emerges then bears only the faintest resemblance to an essay collection. Instead, these brief, mesmeric essays take the form of montages that describe the inner workings of a cartographer, some rich and enigmatic and some not quite so.
The protagonists—a musician, an anonymous member of a distinguished London club, a fashion designer, a photographer, etc.—appear as interview subjects for Kinsella. Though they make for great characters, it’s not entirely clear how Kinsella meets them, or what purpose the interviews are trying to serve. They add an off-kilter layer to the otherwise direct book.
Through the essays Kinsella, a writer and copywriter in London, trains her eye on the various aspects of the city, but also on the pressing politics of being a woman out alone. ‘Am I spending my time in the right way? Am I moving in the wrong direction? Is my body wrong somehow? It is so easy to deflect these questions on average days in the city where a busy schedule means I have neither the time nor the inclination to confront the reality of myself,’ she writes, neatly tying the body politic into the book.
Kinsella’s walks at night outdoors also bring to mind the reactions to the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Metropolitan police officer in 2021 in the UK. In the aftermath of the murder, in October, the Metropolitan Police suggested that women stopped ‘by a lone plainclothes officer should challenge their legitimacy and could try “waving a bus down” to escape a person they believe is pretending to be police’. In places Kinsella, too, recalls moments of utter discomfort at being confronted by men in public places. ‘I look up, and over the top of the cubicle divider, a man’s face is visible. He holds a phone in one hand, and I hear the artificial click of the phone’s camera,’ she says.
Through her essays there’s always a sense that while outdoors, there exists an invisible world far beyond the reach of the visible. She writes about being in Oxford Circus one year after the Covid-19 lockdowns: ‘The archetypal city scene, pedestrians striding across the five-way scramble intersection at Oxford Circus with such determination—all gone. No buses now, and only the odd car. And nobody else around barring me and two cyclists, all of us turning incredulous loops in the middle of the road, cameras held aloft in some blank reverie.’ Magic happens on the page when she interacts with the oblique drama of what cannot immediately be seen.
Observing and writing about street couture, Kinsella writes in ‘In Shoreditch’ that ‘work makes you into something, someone who buys Hermès ties or slouching beanie hats, or who is rude to her fellow commuters every morning. It shapes what you think of as acceptable and unacceptable, in clothing and in social mores,’ tidily suturing her primary mode of inspiration in the city—fashion.
In short, lyrical sentences Kinsella teases out a scrupulous, and lived-in mythology of a city. The details in these essays are nothing extraordinary, and could occur to almost anyone who dares to step out of their houses. But in remembering and writing about them, Kinsella lends renewed importance to the everyday, removing the sheen of mundanity from it all. In that the book seems like an extension of Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974). In it he questions: ‘How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious?’ Kinsella then seems to be channelling her insight into what Perec calls the ‘infraordinary’.
The format of the book, the flow of chapters interspersed by a set of interviews of people Kinsella encountered during her walks, seems a bit out of place. At the very least, it would have been interesting to see these people, their lives and these interactions weave themselves more naturally. Books about walking tend to have a predictable structure. But Kinsella dares to weave in more than just walking. It is refreshing to see how she writes about her not so pleasant encounters, instances of men misbehaving or the lack of ample public toilets. In writing about these she gives voice to the small, insoluble dangers that lurk on the periphery of every woman’s vision while outdoors.
Look Here is an homage to all the great flaneuse books that came before it; from urbanist Jane Jacobs’ work to Rebecca Solnit’s oeuvre, to Lauren Elkin more recently. Kinsella’s prose is crystallised, sharp when she writes about her body in public (‘My horrible body and I pad outside to the edge of the water’). Her text is conversant with Leslie Kern’s Feminist City and Annie Ernaux’s Exteriors, in its display of an acute sense of self, albeit in a disparaging way. The Woolf-esque descriptions of London are charming, and immediately transport the reader, helping Kinsella transcend the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.
‘Enduring togetherness, whether romantic or otherwise. There is such power in it. A kind of radical alternative to the impossibility presented by London, the loneliness that can be fomented here,’ she writes about seeing people in romantic relationships and friendships during her walks in London. She writes with care, lucid in her observations, but there is a chimeric quality to these report-like essays. ‘New York is a filmset, and here I am, a bit-part actor with no lines, ready and willing to become another cliché,’ she writes about her time interning in New York in the essay ‘Walking’. Her literary obsession with ‘Going Time’ aspires to the condition of rituals.
‘At a bus stop, my laptop heavy in the tote bag on my shoulder. Walking through Soho after work, weaving in and out of clumps of advertising executives and film people clutching their clammy pints on the pavement. In a dark pub awaiting the arrival of a friend—trying not to watch the door for her entrance, trying to focus on my book… All of this is Going Time.’
When writing about the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns, Kinsella remembers the lack of noises in the city. ‘No sports cars, no shopping bags. No uniform-clad doormen standing guard outside shopfronts, no tourists. I imagined the gates of the Burlington Arcade shuttered and padlocked. At a time when life, and the city, seemed so quiet, I thought about what it would be like to break the silence,’ she writes.
Look Here is on some level a book about cities, the diary of an outsider worming her way into a new city, able to accept and perform the city’s ways. It displays an artist’s urge to elevate the ordinary into something enthralling. Kinsella’s form of studiously documenting her every day is a way of living and making sense of the city. ‘I knew that to move through (the city) would be to move through time itself,’ she writes. ‘I am the index, I thought, crossing out names on my Tube map. On we go.’