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Jonathan Raban's many awards include the National Book Critics Circle and the Royal Society of Literature's Heinemann Awards. His new collection of essays, Driving Home: An American Scrapbook is published by Picador.

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Dressed up and street smart

Seattle sunsets are raw and bloody things: good ones look like a busy day at the slaughterhouse, as the sun, or its refracted image, grazes the white peaks of the Olympic mountains beyond the dark industrial forests on the far side of Puget Sound. Stuck for a dramatic front-page picture, the local papers, the Times and Post-Intelligencer, regularly run photos of the previous night's heavenly gore: in the foreground, a container ship ploughing northward up the Sound; in the middle distance, low hills of second- and third-growth Douglas firs; the scissored line of background mountains; the sky a wild lightshow of reds, oranges, and rifts of unearthly green. There must be a cause for these sunsets: the scattering effect of salt particles from the Pacific Ocean in the air and the reflective properties of the Olympic snow fields seem the most likely candidates. Whatever their physics, the spectacular sunsets are an important part of Seattle's claim to be "a flower of geography" – as Henry James called the city in 1907, placing it in the company of Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Naples, Sydney, and San Francisco.

With mountain ranges front and back (the Olympics to the west, the Cascades to the east), puddled with lakes, and squatting on a reach of sea more than a hundred fathoms deep, Seattle is up to its ears in nature – rather too much nature for its own good. When the view is not socked in by mist and rain, you can see the great snowy heaps of Mount Rainier to the south and Mount Baker to the north, apparently suspended in midair, and even within the city nature is engaged in a perpetual guerrilla operation against culture: in this moist and temperate climate, every unattended patch of ground turns quickly into a little wilderness of bramble, vine, salal. I've watched bald eagles on Fifth Avenue, and picked blackberries on my street.

The boosters like to say that this is a city where you can go skiing in the morning and sailing in the afternoon, which is the line that accounts for the stubbornly un-urban style affected by so many Seattleites – GoreTex and Velcro, Birkenstock, North Face, Patagonia, Helly Hansen. If you spot someone wearing a skimpy black cocktail number, you can bet she's a tourist. The residents clump around in gear more suited to the piste, the marina, and the rockface than to a city. The homeless are clad in the cast-offs of these outdoor types, so that a gathering of winos in a Seattle back alley looks disconcertingly like an ad-hoc convention of dinghy racers or mountaineers.

The truth is that Seattle's intense proximity to nature makes it an unsatisfactory city. Real cities supplant nature – witness the man-made cliffs and canyons of Manhattan, or the labyrinthine, warrenlike character of central London. In a real city, the landmarks are unnatural: the Monument, the dome of St Paul's, Marble Arch, Nelson's Column. Nature, where it is allowed to show its face, must be strictly gardened (St James's Park), or tamed with memorable architecture. When I think of the Thames, what springs first to mind is not the river itself but the string of bridges that traverse it, from the pretty pink-and-white confectionery of Albert to the Victorian storybook medievalism of Tower. Real cities are works of epic communal artifice, and they tend to flourish best on flat, or flattish, land that denies the citizen the chance to compare a cathedral with a living forest, or a skyscraper with a fifteen-thousand-foot mountain – comparisons that are always likely to work to the city's disadvantage, making its most audacious flights of fancy look conceited and puny. Had Wren been forced to build his Monument in the foothills of Mount Rainier, it would have had all the nobility and grandeur of a telegraph pole.

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