“London?” said Mary. “What’s that?”
“Where King is.”
“Who’s he now?” said Richard Turner.
“And a right midden of a place, I can tell you,” said Jack. “I don’t know how he tholes it, King. I was glad to be shut; I was that.”
“What did you see, Jack?” said Nan Sarah.
He looked around, and then leaned forward, pulling them in to hear.
“I saw houses thatched with pancakes, walls of pudding pies; and little pigs running in the streets with knives and forks in their backs, saying, ‘Who’ll have a slice?’.”
– Alan Garner, Thursbitch.
Trains rattle and spark blue sparks under the ground, and it gives people something to talk about.
From my house, to get to my work, you can walk (or get the bus) to the tube station then you can get the Jubilee line, later changing to the Piccadilly Line (or the Northern (or the Central)). Or you can get the bus the whole way. To get to other places, from other places, you can get other lines. They come in different colours and they all twirl together like copper wires on a circuit board and they shuttle information (in the form of people) into processors.
It’s no insult to London’s glories to point out that London is a machine pathology. It’s why most of the glories are here.
I don’t know how he tholes it, King.
Has any other city convinced so many people that such a large place is a small place? I know people who used to commute from Edinburgh to Glasgow to work; but it was something to remark upon. The same length of journey – in which you will cram into trains packed tighter than the crowd at a rock gig, with a closing door maybe grazing the back of your head as you congratulate yourself on having got in – is just getting across town, here. Mervyn Peake’s Castle Gormenghast is supposed to be a crumbling stone labyrinth of impossible size, an astonishingly vast assemblage of towers, gables and colonnades. One critic (I can’t find the citation; my books are in Scotland) has estimated it to be around the size of London. So Londoners ask me how long my commute is, and I say around an hour, and they nod their appreciation of my achievement. Not too bad, keeping it down to an hour.
(By Londoners I mean people who live in London. This seems to be the only sort of Londoner there is. My house has four inhabitants, none indigenous to the city.
–A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
–By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
–Or also living in different places.
– James Joyce, Ulysses.
This city is made of different people living in the same place, just like everywhere is but particularly so. This might be my favourite thing about it.)
And I become proud of knowing what the symbols mean. Liverpool Street Station is to the East and Victoria Station is to the west. If you have enough time you can walk from where you are to where you are going and you feel like you’ve got away with cheating.
After I get off the Piccadilly Line, I walk past the man selling three scarves for ten pounds (this week, I stopped once and I bought three scarves). I walk past the square with the squirrels where it’s still just too chilly to eat my lunch comfortably so I always end up stamping my feet to keep warm as I sit on the bench with my sandwich and wonder what bits of sandwich it’s okay to feed to squirrels, pigeons, and Londoners. Most days I’m early enough to enter the university building by the café door, and buy a coffee to take up to my office.
There is a terrifying Slavic (Russian?) woman with blonde hair and a thin face who works at the café. She has an incredible ability to serve a queue of people in the shortest conceivable amount of time. I think she might be a genius. I might be the third or fourth person in line, idly scrutinising the Danish pastries, when her putty-thick accent demands my order; the two or three ahead of me are already being processed. She sorts drinks into people like files into a cabinet.
(The other regular café staff are a friendly young Eastern European man who wore a novelty jumper at Christmas, and a black woman with braids whorled into a spherical bun who is easily the best of the three at making coffee. The ideal situation would probably be that the Russian queue-savant processes the queue ahead of me, the friendly chap takes my own order, and the braided lady makes the drink. I think this has only happened once, but at £1.20 for a flat white there’s no complaining.)
I go into my office and I do office things. From April this year, new legislation means that all publically funded academic research will also have to be publically available. This may be symptomatic of an economically-obsessed academic infrastructure which is doing some quite fundamental harm to the value of scholarship in the name of impact, but if so it’s a very benign symptom. People should be able to read the papers which experts publish. I work on a repository, making sure that the right research goes onto the right bit of the website, to comply with this legislation. I also post links on Twitter, fix broken links on a research training site, answer emails about why the right bit of research hasn’t shown up on the right bit of the right website yet, and subtitle videos of people talking about history. It’s not unuseful work. It pays for me to live in London, just about.
And then I walk out into the fading light and back into the station and like a brief flash of light along a wire I zigzag from the blue line to the grey line halfway, and I arrive back at North Greenwich. The Millennium Dome, which was once a vast exhibition about science and is now an elaborate way to keep a Nando’s dry, prods the damp sky with red-lit feelers.
And then I find myself at home, pulling my headphones down onto my neck and fumbling for my keys. And London keeps glinting and waiting and I know that I can’t understand the type of intelligence that I’m sure that it has. But I think maybe it likes that I am here.