Howard Jacobson: What I want from a city is its sexual aura

Barcelona men gripped their women’s necks as they strolled on the Ramblas in an act of erotic possessiveness

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So Tehran, Harare and Douala are worse cities to live in than Vancouver, Melbourne, and Vienna. Who'd have thought it? Shows what you miss if you don't keep up your subscription to Condé Nast Traveller.

I have a concern about these sorts of lists: they always confirm what I think and I have never been to Tehran, Harare or Douala. If Condé Nast were to compile a list of the world's worst travellers I would win it by a country mile – an expression I am trying to wean myself off using as I never go to the country and so don't know how far a country mile is. About 1,000 times longer than a city mile, is my guess. Which tells you something about my travelling. I would win the title of world's worst traveller by virtue of my extreme unwillingness to go anywhere by any form of transport, my reluctance to get to know a foreign currency, my lifelong failure to master a single foreign language (despite having studied three of them to A level standard at grammar school), my irritation, notwithstanding, when waiters don't understand what I am asking for, my anxiety about getting lost in an unfamiliar place (with no local money on me and no word for "help"), my incuriosity as to topography, history or customs, my failure to find the citizens of wherever I've ended up any more interesting, charming or hospitable than the citizens of where I was before, my frustration with the food everywhere I go, not because I am a timid eater but because I am bored with the Michelinisation of once interesting cuisine, my dissatisfaction with all extremes of climate (heat, cold, dryness, wetness, volcanic ash), the refusal of my limbs as they age to climb steps or navigate cobbles, the chronic inability of my neck to look up for long at painted celings or down for long into gorges or raging rapids, my unswervable conviction, in short, of the universal discomfort, not to say tedium, of life anywhere but in your own home.

That someone such as I, therefore, should agree with Condé Nast's estimation of the world's worst and most wonderful cities says little for the expertise and daring of those who have made it. Unless what it says is that they are no more willing to put themselves out than I am and that what they are really compiling is a list of cities where you are most likely to feel you haven't moved a toe outside your own.

Which cities will mollycoddle you the best seems to be the true criterion at work here. And you know from the sound of it that Harare won't. Your true explorer, on the other hand, will tell you that you will see and learn more of life in a single street in Douala – that's if they have streets in Douala – than in the whole of Vancouver and Melbourne put together. But what if you don't want to see and learn any more of life than you already know? What if you've seen enough and are now convinced not of life's variety but its sameness?

Different if you're 18, but this list of the most livable (which is not the same as the most visitable) cities is not confined to 18- year-olds who, frankly, are too wet behind the ears to have an opinion. I remember being 18. I couldn't wait to get out of my native Manchester – which, by the by, has made it into Condé Nast's top 50 – and head for any place where the sexual life was wilder. A few years earlier I'd gone to Barcelona with the school and seen that Spanish men gripped their women's necks as they strolled along the Ramblas in an act of strong erotic possessiveness that inflamed my young imagination.

The minute I got back from Barcelona I tried it on my girlfriend Gladys who sold baby foods at Boots. The moment she screamed and knocked my hand away was the moment that told me I was through with Manchester. Maybe I squeezed too hard. You weren't, I think, meant to leave ineradicable thumb marks. But I doubt, anyway, that Condé Nast would award points for the way men hold their girlfriends' necks in their calculation of what makes a city livable.

Certainly it isn't cited as one of the advantages of Vancouver. Besides, I'm past all that now. "Take your filthy hands off one another in a public place," is what I want to say when hugger-mugger couples stumble into my table in the Piazza Navona. The most livable city at my age is one in which men and women make no contact whatsoever. Which I suppose should make me think again about Tehran.

But I am pleased Manchester is up there. If proximity to great sporting events, an excellent reference library, a fine art gallery, the best curry houses in the Western world and some of the unlikeliest looking transvestites on the planet are considered pertinent, then Manchester deserves its ranking.

I would cite Saturday morning shopping in St Anne's Square, the Christmas market outside the Town Hall, the Town Hall itself, the Lowry Centre, the Royal Exchange Theatre, Prestwich bagels, and boating on Heaton Park as other marks in Manchester's favour. Thirty years ago I'd have added the Kardomah Café in which a character called Russian Dave demonstrated the art of chatting up women of any age in a voice much like Rasputin's. But the Kardomah's gone now, and Russian Dave too – probably to Vancouver.

Of Vienna I have little to report other than that I have gorged on goulash and Sachertorte in its cafés and watched them waltz in the snow on New Year's Eve. You could live there just for that, spending the remaining 11 months remembering that The Third Man was set here and that Alida Valli wandered through its war-torn streets in just a raincoat. You think I make too much of a city's sexual aura? Reader, you cannot make too much of a city's sexual aura.

Melbourne, where they speak better English, give or take, I am probably most familiar with of all, having gone to seed there in the 1970s when Australian girls just back from Asia wore see-through seersucker shirts and served chicken satay on street corners. Later I watched it outstrip Sydney for livability, produce outstanding pinot noir, remember it had a bay, and go from being a pleasant if battened-down conservative town to the paramount place to party in Australia.

So that's my order: Manchester, Melbourne, Vienna. If I don't mention London that's because it far surpasses the lot. Hell to get out of, but then why would you want to?



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