Once upon a roundel

"Around Stretches the Vast Expanse of the World" by Simon and Tom Bloor

The other day I was confronted by this image which had been tacked up on the construction barrier at Tottenham Court Road.  It was part of the 100 Years, 100 Artists, 100 Works of Art, comissioned by Art on the Underground to celebrate the centenary of the “roundel” or Underground Logo. The posters for the suitably random exhibit can still be seen around town, a bit smog-speckled.  The offerings were spotty and can be seen here.

The roundel is meditation-worthy: a beacon of primary colors and simple shapes that calls to you wherever you might find yourself in London.  It promises to get you where you need to be, pointing to a magic carpet you just happen to share with 7 million other Londoners and another million tourists as well.

I come from Los Angeles where the car is venerated, and in some areas there are no pavements, no zebra crossings.  Whole swaths of the landscape are only  traversable by automobile, and I never learned to drive.  The contrast in mobility is so stark between the two locales that the roundel has taken on a generous, freeing emotional association for me.

But I didn’t pay much attention to this until the Bloor piece accosted me with its Banksy-esque stencil font and its hyperbolic assertion which is nonetheless true. This “vast expanse of the world” is beyond notions of empire, though the cultural panoply of London may have started there, it is now something else entirely.

A little girl builds the rondel as if from blocks. When she is done, she will have placed together a magic key to a microcosm on which the sun never sets.   This is the beginning of the fairy tale every Londoner knows.

“Over 30,000 streets in your pocket”

Meteorite Lands on Buckingham Palace by Cornelia Parker
Meteorite Lands on Buckingham Palace by Cornelia Parker

Before I leave the flat, I often consult the codex of the A-to-Zed, the exhaustive walking map of London.  (It’s not an A to Zeee.  No, never!)  I have no shame in taking it out on the street, appearing lost, or worse–a tourist.  It is because I love it so.  Often, even when not leaving the flat, I read the city in this way.  The place names suggest stories I have read or have not yet been written, the density of history.

Cornelia Parker’s A to Z has a hole burned through it.  If one were to turn the page, surely the meteorite would have also obliterated Westminster Bridge on the next page, and might just miss Waterloo Station as it would surely take all of Borough Market, Druid Street and Tabard, where I am supposed to go this evening.

Cornelia Parker's Tube Map Brochure
Cornelia Parker's Tube Map Brochure

I have made a note of my destination, not far from the Marshalsea Road and a place I have never been which is now called Little Dorrit Park, named after my favourite Dickens novel.  Much of my London geography I owe to Dickens.  Long before I picked up an A to Z, his London was mine.  When I’m blue I often say to myself, Let’s see what’s going down at the Marshalsea Prison and I will pick up the novel and begin reading at random.

I haven’t made many literary pilgrimages since moving here, probably because they are always a disappointment, either completely missing from the landscape of chain stores, luxury flats and tourist crowds or they are overly mediated Heritage sites. There is something joyless about having someone else’s official dream imposed upon your own.

In the A to Z London returns as a tabula rasa, a web of place names held in the hand. Even the name suggests the sprawling labyrinth of London could somehow be alphabetized to order.  Everyone orders London differently, the maps of our minds no doubt carry with them distortions, contractions and omissions. Cornelia Parker’s Tube Map brochure from last year suggests this by using the iconic colours as an ink blot.

Tonight I might just visit Little Dorrit and make something of it, leave there a little of my own jealous imagination.

Hanwell Cinderella

If I leave Vagabonds (a goth club near London Bridge) after midnight these are my travel options according to Travel for London.  The last tube is a few minutes after midnight. For a cosmopolitan city, London really does shut up early.  Some clubs like Vagabonds are open until 3, but how do people get home?  I suppose they wander the streets for three hours until the first trains leave in the morning?  When I put in “show me routes with the fewest interchanges” the first return routes began at 5:30 in the morning, even though I put in midnight.  So basically TFL is telling me to stay in the club until 3am and then sit on the banks of the Thames, etc. until 6?  There aren’t even 24 hour diners in London where you can nurse some coffee and greasy eggs at 3am.  If you have a group of friends I suppose you could split a cab, (last time I shared a cab the ride to Hanwell was £75.)  Or brave the night buses as a posse, but as a woman traveling alone it’s just a bit impossible.  The last time I braved the night bus it never showed up.  I waited for over an hour in an abandoned Sloane Square at 2am for the N11 which never came.  I finally hailed a cab which cost me £28.

Better stay home.

A Piss-up for Boris

Image from BBC News, Revelers at Liverpool Street Station.

Revelers at Liverpool Street Station. Image from BBC News.

Earlier in the week I steamed my black satin cocktail dress and dusted off my fascinator because this weekend I was going out to the Circle Line Cocktail Party. I even considered bringing my absinthe gear to the Last Orders Party happening on the 31st of May, before the drinking ban went into effect. I’d never gone to a Circle Line Party, and I was making up for lost time. This one was in protest of Boris Johnson’s (the new conservative mayor of London) attacks on personal liberty which begin with banning drink on the tube, and will continue to legislate other drinking behavior to the point of absurdity.

I never put on the cocktail dress, and the absinthe bottle remains unopened on my shelf. One of the pitfalls of living most of your life in your head is that reality never really matches up. By the time a few friends had agreed to go with me, so had several thousand other people via the “Last Orders” Facebook page. My friend Aaron texted me to say that on Friday night it was on the front page of the evening papers. What I thought was going to be a nice piece of semi-political street theatre suddenly became a full on street party. I remembered the sloppy and abrasive British stag nights I’d seen in Amsterdam. This would be like that but multiplied by thousands. And then I remembered the World Cup– since I don’t watch football it was just a drunkfest of macho bullying to me.

Lads rampaged the cyclical-tube-car-cocktail-party in my head. I stayed home.

Liverpool Street Station was shut down, as was the Circle Line itself. Chances are I wouldn’t have been able to find my friends in the chaos, anyway. The awful mess left on the tube this morning only makes an argument for Boris’ ridiculous policies, and this is unfortunate. It’s interesting that in the news today emphasis was made on the “exclusive” neighborhoods the Circle Line serves, inferring that it would be unacceptable to have the drink-addled masses partying in posh postcodes. London has become too exclusive for even the people that live in it. Except of course for the ultra rich, but I digress.

To miss-paraphrase the NRA, it’s not drink that makes people antisocial, it’s just that anti-social people drink. When I first came to London I was shocked that people were allowed to drink on public transport. My first real experience with this was the World Cup, as I have mentioned. I witnessed one element of British drinking culture– a bunch of raving louts bullying people around them and eventually passing out or being sick. The testosterone-and-lager-fueled spectacle was punctuated for me by a woman dragging her wasted man slowly up the massive tube staircase at Bank, one step at a time.

That was probably one of the more pleasant public-drinkng drinking problems I’ve witnessed. Once, on a sweltering day in August on a double decker bus which actually still had the heat on (I later learned that is how some buses here cool their engines. In the days of global warming this is just cruel, but I digress). Next to me was an old man with a face full of broken capillaries and a wool coat that had seen at least one World War and pehaps had been unwashed for as long. Each coat pocket was distended with a can of Guinness. A fight broke out in the front between an Arab off-duty bus driver and a Jamaican woman and the bus driver pulled the bus over like a disgruntled parent so that we were all trapped inside, umoving. Some people started to scream at the fighting pair, at the bus driver, at each other, and an explosive noise issued from the old man next to me. He’d shit himself.

Another occasion on the 70 Bus, a scraggly man sat in the rear with a can in a bag, admonishing an invisible companion. I looked down at the aisle where a copious river of his urine was coursing down the length of the bus.

And once on the 607 I sat beside a man and his little son who was maybe six. The father cradled a four pack of Stella in his lap. Taking one out and cracking it open, he handed it over to his son silently. No doubt if this little boy is lucky, when he grows up he will find a girl to drag him up the tube stairs when he’s obliterated himself.

But of course Boris’ measures are going to stop all this.

At least we can be certain what it will stop, and that’s anything sensible and joyful involving drinking on the tube. I leave you with a video of the Central Line Dinner Party.