Originally posted to my blog, Peculiar Times, this was later incorporated into the Blind Atlas web project (now defunct, but archived online. As with all the Blind Atlas cities, its indebtedness to Italo Calvino's marvellous book Invisible Cities is fully intentional.
Neath is a mining town, a city build by those who toil in the ground. Beneath the surface of the plain where it lies, broad thoroughfares and narrow back-alleys warren the earth, thronged by people and vehicles. Manholes above them provide access to the upper world: during the last century, ventilation holes were also added, fitted with powerful fans, to draw away the fumes of cars and motorcycles.
Houses and shops are bricked-off caverns next to these thoroughfares, each with its windows to the surface letting in the sun: from the air, Neath is a variegated tabletop of earth and glass.
The grander, more imposing structures burrow further beneath the city. The cathedral is a vast, vaulted cellar, hundreds of metres deep, its steeple a spike thrust far down into the earth. Tenement slums and office blocks, artificially lit and ventilated, delve many stories downward, the grimiest apartments and most prestigious meeting-rooms down in the depths. The mining magnates lounge, bloated and pallid, deep down in their geothermal penthouse suites.
The city’s squares and plazas are roofed with earth and stone, held up with many pillars. Civic statuary in Neath tends to be modest in stature, and Atlas a common subject for sculptors. Along the boulevards and avenues flap stunted pigeons, flashing in and out of lightwells, avoiding obstacles.
The few significant regional roads which run through Neath plunge down ramps as they reach the city’s outlying suburbs, buses and lorries entering these subterranean streets to drop off or pick up their loads. Popular goods in Neath include televisions, fans and light, airy clothes: there is little market for heaters, scarves or rotary washing-lines. The city’s major exports are iron and root vegetables.
Neath is a city in reflection, a city flipped head-to-toe. Above the ground, electric cables, water-pipes and phone-lines mesh and interlink: broad channels carry sewage down to the lake. Municipal workers, dressed in waterproof coveralls, blink myopically as they wade the length of them. Here and there wine-racks and storage-cellars stand exposed to the air.
Overground stations, accessed by escalators from the streets below, send trains hurtling along specially-constructed superterranean rail-lines from city-block to city-block. Inside them, the passengers huddle, agoraphobic and exposed. Neath’s inhabitants are diminutive, timid and nervous with prominent ears. Their noses twitch compulsively, as they inhale the unfamiliar scents of the outside.
© Philip Purser-Hallard 2006.
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