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.
I wake up jittery. Being in bed seems inappropriate. Even though I’ve only had 6 hours sleep annoyingly I have some excess energy because I am overdue for some physical exertion. Its bright outside and I like the idea of starting the day off with a run, so I get up and grab the first pair of shorts I can find – in this case the pair of brightly coloured swimming shorts dad foolishly lent me once and are now in my permanent possession – and I’m off!! I’m kind of clumsy to begin with, my mental enthusiasm is more advanced than my co-ordination at this point – so I make more sound than I intend to and as a result I unfortunately hear tyler next door turn over – that’s my fault. I’m also sluggish, my body having to rapidly adjust to being vertical and moving at speed. But once I’m on the street facing the long straight pavement ahead of me, I get into my groove, push against the perpetual resistance and insistence ‘no’s’ and get stuck into it.
Familiar landmarks sail past me as I get lost in my thoughts. In this zone good thoughts eventually begin to emerge. The same part of me that is silencing the insistent sluggish no’s is actively assessing my day, my week, my decisions and aspirations and how I’m doing. I coach myself. I am given targets and goals, new visions and a pep talk. After a while, the sluggishness gone, the rhythm established, new feeling start to emerge, my muscles are warm rubber right now, I feel a healthy mist about my person, and beads of moisture now adorn my brow – I become aware of the incredible sunlight, and the force of the cool song I am listening to and eventually it hits me in an incredible rush of good feeling – the endorphin fairy is here! WOOOHOOO!! I can barely contain my enthusiasm for being alive right now! I am sprinting, running fast, smiling and laughing!! I am a running, laughing crazy person! Eventually I simmer right down and this feeling of total awesomeness is replaced by a burning sensation in my throat, and I become aware of the tightness around my ankles and right shoulder. But happily determination dominates and I make it to that landmark, and then the next one, stretching my comfort zone. Eventually I quit – usually just before I should. I flop my way over the road and along the street, flop my way up the stairs to the house and flop onto a chair, feeling a contradicting mixture of floppiness and invigoration. As the floppiness subsides I feel calm and optimistic about the day ahead. BRING IT.
Light is one of the most beautiful features of this world. Urgently but efficiently it travels thousands of miles through the cold crisp emptiness of space to finally alight on the tip of my wooden chair by the window. It is quiet and does not demand my attention – it is happy to remain on the periphery of my vision, to garnish the morning with a delicate grace. It has the unspoken dignity and goodness of kindly professors and religious leaders with the creative range of the greatest musicians.
Sun light is particularly accomplished. I don’t know which is more beautiful – thick rich sunsets, swimming in reds and oranges, or that subtle glow of amber on the tip of the wooden chair by the window. It can be crisp and full as on days when the sky is cobalt blue, when it cuts out and defines every thing, yet it can hang softly and glow in the mist of autumn mornings.
Despite its silent humility and beauty, Light is a physical necessity. It is incredible to think that all these intoxicating displays actually produce the food I eat and define the rhythm of my daily life. Sunlight sets a pace for my internal body clock. I sleep when it leaves and wake when it returns. I am happy for my daily routines to be defined by something capable of such diverse, mesmerising beauty, and feel honoured that my physical make-up is so inextricably connected to it.