Why the urban rebirth surprised the media

A soup vendor on Sukhumvit Road © Zuma Press/Eyevine

The contestants? Fifty or so cars, some food stalls, an FT columnist, scooter taxis, alighting Skytrain riders and one of those street cats that, spared western feeding, manage to keep their figures. The prize? Space to move, or just to be. And this is one of the airier junctions of Sukhumvit Road. The rail line overhead leaks rain water that puts a square yard of pavement out of use, bunching us even tighter together. My heart soars.

A long-injured surfer might seek out the biggest-wave beach — Nazaré, Portugal, say — once back up to speed. For an urbanist, starved of crowds by a pandemic, it is Bangkok that calls. It is Bangkok that sends out the homing beacon. How kind of it to remind us that London and New York are as Bath and Ann Arbor on an Asian scale of energy.

This is as good a time as any to make a non-exhaustive list of things that I read in 2020 had little future. Nightlife. The handshake. Buildings tall enough to need lifts. Casual sex (ha ha). Pret A Manger. The rat race. Business-class seats. Airbnb. I recount none of this in order to embarrass. If any prediction has aged badly, it was that Covid would pass with few deaths. Nor do I expect a medal for having said that cities would roar back. I got the timing wrong: even I didn’t think Dubai airport at 1am would resemble a Black Friday mall by August 2022. As for the pandemic’s one lasting mark — remote work — I wrote it off as a fad.

The point isn’t to taunt the nature-is-healing merchants, then. The point is to draw lessons from their wrongness. One is that journalism has taken a neurotic turn over the past decade or so. It is there in the enthusiasm with which social maladies are talked up (the “loneliness epidemic”). It is there in the interior focus of so much feature writing. It is there in the fact that “burn out” now refers to what happens if you work at home and what happens if you commute. Throw in contemporary fiction, which documents ennui, and often induces it, and the trend in intellectual life towards a certain wetness becomes clear.

Why this is happening is no mystery. Print in its various forms is commercially troubled. The sector attracts the downwardly mobile upper middle class (the opposite journey, I can report, is more fun). These anxieties will naturally colour its perception of everything else. But the result — a media that can’t see the world straight — is no less a problem for being understandable. That 2019 was a Dickensian hell to which people wouldn’t want to “go back” really was an article of cognoscenti faith until recently.

“A changing city”, is the trope about Bangkok. Given the ferocity of its bounceback, though, the place is also a case study in how little changes. Was that Isan food vendor over there just going to stop her life’s trade? Was I going to stop liking it? Human nature is, if not immutable, then vastly more consistent than a journalist is likely to think.

Or incentivised to think. If you write on the regular, you have to play up the significance of transient events. “This little episode won’t change much, read 1,000 words on it”, is not a bad pitch. But it has to be rationed. The rest of the time, all the drive in media is to attribute significance to the ephemeral. Between 1997 and 2003, every other week was “Tony Blair’s worst week”. In 2020 — more forgivably, no doubt — the same impulse led to some dire futurology.

Wartime rationing did not kill the love of food. A much briefer period of lockdown was never going to re-wire the love of bodily contact, or the change of scene that air travel confers or — that Bangkok specialism — the sound of life. I had a disgracefully easy pandemic but even I shiver at the memory of the medieval silence. It was plain even at the time where I would go once it was all over. A city louder than war: it is to de-stress that I come here.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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