Clouds hover above the sea like tufts of wool caught in the wind. The sun casts sharply defined shadows of these, like cut outs on the flat sea, which from up here shines like a vast stretch of slivery leather. The higher we fly, the vaster it becomes, the cotton wool clouds stretching endlessly, scattered across the surface in wide waves of varying density. Now they are like soldiers in a vast army, or a like a cultivated crop. The key element that transforms all this and makes in incredible is the light, catching the edges of the clouds, reflecting of the surface of the sea and plane and casting shadows.
Up here it is warm. I am cocooned by thick plastic walls and seats, Marit to my left and the sound of the engines humming through everything. But the compact comfort of my little pod here is punctured with a window – my plastic wall has been sliced open, a hole carved out to allow my spirit to be sucked out and to soar across the wide earth below. I feel powerful and transcendent looking down over the towns and fields below.
A crushed yellow sweet on the floor of the tube keeps attracting my attention. It’s bright – like an artificial sun. But without an orbit. No life forms bask in its glory or worship it. No planets revolve around it. Someone has abandoned it and someone else has trodden on it. It won’t be long now before the man with the little spade comes to collect it and throw it out without a moment’s thought. Thus will be the ignominious ending of the little yellow sun.
A crow squawks. Yellow streetlamps cast an eery glow over victorian railings and the first fall of leaves. At this time any human encounters are clouded with an air of suspicion – what are they doing in a park at this time? This park is for the day, for civilised walks, friendly encounters between people in blazers, for the rhythms of daily life in an area characterised by red brick arts and crafts homes with ornate lead windows, and here I am scribbling in a notebook surrounded by indiscernible dark forms, beneath vast black sycamores and the light of a pale moon.
I begin to notice the sound of birdsong reverberating above the chimneys and rooftops of the area and a plane coming in to land. Morning is coming. The sounds remind me of instruments being tuned at the start of an opera and carry with them the same sense of excitement and anticipation. The grand stage of life is gradually lit up in violets and pink flushes by the rising sun, and the eternal void and mystery of space gives way to the drama of the morning.
With the full light of day, everything fits back into place. I am no longer a suspicious anomaly. The dark indiscernible void surrounding me regains its form and shape and the resumes its characteristic air of comfortable security and upper middle class grace. It feels happier, more cheerful and familiar. I prefer it. But with the arrival of this familiarity and cheeriness there is nevertheless the loss of something. Although it can be lonely to wander in the dark on the flip side of the familiar and the known, it can also heighten your sense of existence and its mystery.
With its hard-edged glass/steel finish and gaping entrance, the station look a little like an alien mothership, landing to gobble up and spew out large quantities of humans. It breathes people, inhaling and exhaling them erratically. At this time of the morning, the flow of people sometimes builds to frenetic almost dramatic climaxes, with people moving between each other in effortlessly choreographed flows. The ease with which this is almost unanimously accomplished betrays no sign of each passenger’s clumsy, fitful early attempts to master human motion. They have perfected the fine art of walking. At other times, however, the action dies away, creating a platform for more human events to be noticed – in this case laughs between station staff and a man lighting a cigarette.
A pigeon flies through the entrance, strutting around looking for food. It has the same purposeful air as the passengers and is just as emotionally neutral. For the humans, and perhaps for the pigeon, the neutrality belies the complexity of their life experience, and the sense of direction they appear to have obfuscates the reality that many don’t enjoy this sense of direction where it counts. But at least they can feel they have it here, on their morning commute. At least here they can move confidently, with a little swagger even, and convey to others and themselves that they know where they are going, even if their final arrival leaves them cold. Modern travel is often sleek, intelligent and awe inspiring. It invests our journeys with a sense of robustness and confidence we often appropriate, and fools us into thinking that our journeys are worth making. It offers a variety of ways of getting from A to B, but more importantly it offers a mythical sense of meaningful personal direction. Sometimes this might engender self-deception and denial. But sometimes it might be just what we need to start the day.
From time to time a fairground arrives on the green, which makes sense because there is something of the ‘carnival’ about this place. On the road encircling the green, cars constantly hurl themselves around like so many fairground rides. While it usually lacks the hyper-friendly oversized cartoon characters of a fairground, it has its own ‘characters’ – post-punk Mohicans keeping the dream alive, loud and sociable people who live out of shopping trollies, and the odd transvestite or two.
However it is a fairground that attracts all sorts. The chaos of the swirling traffic underscores the diversity of the people who walk on or round the green, also pulling within its orbit misplaced tourists, kebab shop owners and young detached Kensington types who push on through it with urban swagger and headphones.
Battling against the human chaos is the green itself, fighting to create a sense of peace and nature in spite of the perpetual roar and swirl of the traffic. The green has an architect’s precision to it though. There is the sense that every curving path and each rise and fall in the landscape were the logical conclusions to careful psychosocial analysis rooted in poetic theories about contemporary urban living. It is easy to imagine committees meeting to discuss details such as the elevation of the eastern rise in the park, its health and safety implications and its interference with local events, such as the intermittent fairground.
The effort to create a space for leisure and peaceful contemplation in an area surrounded by as many lanes and as much traffic as the M25 demonstrates the pragmatism to life in this area, an acceptance of the busy-ness of life here and a commitment to make life around the green pleasant in spite of all the nitrates and escalating Co2 emissions. From this perspective, the green can be seen as a microcosm of the city itself and could even be representative of the ways humans get on with life on this often difficult and capricious planet.
The concept of a complex subterranean network of trains beneath a densely populated metropolis still seems radical and futuristic despite its Victorian roots. On one level the tube is a rational solution to a logistical problem. But it has interesting effects on the ways we experience and interact with the city and other people.
Rather than seeing the cityscape evolve and change gradually as you move through it by bike or car, we pop-up like moles in distinct urban pockets with particular architectural styles and cultural vibes. Camden is distinct from Covent Garden, which is distinct from Kensington. Travelling between them underground augments the individuality of these areas, obscuring the continuity of the city above ground.
On the tube different biographies intersect for a few minutes between places like Oxford Circus and Holborn before dispersing throughout the city. This creates interesting juxtapositions of particular types of humans, forcing total strangers into strangely intimate configurations. A city banker in a pin-striped suit will stand buttock to hip with a bearded homebound traveller. A moody teenager will be forced face first into the chest of an old lady. Ironically, however, the closer people get physically, the more vigorously they signal a sense of distance. Social interaction on the tube is characterised by a complex language of social disconnection. Arms hanging from a pole serve as the urban hedge, marking out personal space and respecting others’. Lines of sight form powerful vectors that are carefully controlled so as to not bump into people, particularly others’ eyes.
The mood however can change at different times of the day and in different locations. On Monday mornings, people seem ghost like, coming and going sullenly, like disconnected half-lives seemingly destined to wander the city alone. At South Kensington at the weekend, however, the feeling is buoyant. Good intra-group feelings often spill out, cross fertilising other groups and travellers, generating an almost tangible shift in the collective mood of the whole carriage. Occasionally at these times the rules of disconnection are often fluid or break. Two strangers laugh about something trivial. A kid makes faces at a friendly teenager. Humanity flows in the veins of the city.
The train hurtles on it predestined course, burrowing its way down to London, mole like, in the dark, without eyes. Outside it is cold and inhospitable. Occasionally the indistinct blackness is electrified with illuminated yellow branches. Even in here the light is not exactly nurturing.
The murmur of human voices you would expect on other train journeys has been quelled by the working days requirements – like a form of emotional tax required by offices in Birmingham. The chat has been replaced by the low constant hum of the train that vibrates through our flaccid, wobbling bodies. This is the defining aspect of our shared experience. The silence belies the social activity that is evidently going on via a plethora of electronic devices. We seem to have this irrepressible social urge that new technologies seem both to facilitate and exacerbate. In the melee of social pressures, expectation and a propensity for laziness, we are also perhaps unhealthily drawn to familiarity – these days we generally choose a virtual form of familiarity in text form, over making new connections with the embodied souls around us. We create virtual walls that tend to be mocked by various cuffuffles and awkward encounters which break the myth of disconnection.
The carriage jitters. A whole village passes by us in a split second. Then a damp yellow motorway. Constellations of street lights. Relentlessly we pass by them all as irrelevancies. Snubbed. London is the only thing we are interested in. not warehouses, conservatories, badly lit bedrooms painted blue. A middle class robot makes an announcement. We will not be stopping at the next station.