Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Labyrinth-City

It was not his city. He had not been born here. His family were not from here. The Victorian tall houses, the excess of graffiti along the train-lines into King's Cross and Euston, the byzantine beauty of the Tube map: they were not his. The regimented maze of Bloomsbury, the curling confusion of Soho, the glimmering heights of the City, the opulence of the Finchleys, the mysterious expanses south-of-the-river: they were not his. The network of the Northern, the modernist subterranean cathedrals of the Jubilee, the contradiction of the Circle, the crowds of the Central, the criss-crossing blue streams of the Piccadilly and the Victoria: they were not his. The city was a mystery, a riddle, a puzzle, a maze. Though it wasn't his, it welcomed him. 

In the North, the city had been a place defined by its opposition to Northern values. London was otherness: by definition, not-home. The place-where-no-one-says-hello, the place-where-no-one-smiles-on-the-Tube, the place-that-dominates-the-news-coverage, the place-where-such-basic-foodstuffs-as-gravy-and-mushy-peas-were-alien. A grim city of Union Jacks hanging sodden in the rain, the view of them blocked by a red bus moving slowly through a morass of traffic. He saw people – friends and family – move down south and become seduced like sailors visiting Circe. One by one they fell to it and returned to the North (briefly) convinced that “It's the only place worth living.” No, he said. Anywhere but there. 

Experience changes us. The North became too quiet. The stillness he had once enjoyed became suffocating and the time that stretched out demanding to be filled was a silent accusation of his own tedium. Only when he was busy did he feel like himself: only when he was over-stretched and exhausted did he feel his personality growing and evolving. Rare weekends away, infrequent trips to conferences and events, were the occasions when he felt himself becoming the person he was born to be. 

Over a summer, he discovered the city to be a place that defies definition. It wasn't the place he had thought it was but no-one he spoke to could quite tell him what it was. City of artists and culture? City of business and finance? City of learning and education? City of hipsters or city of yuppies? City of liberals or city of conservatives? City of happiness or city of sorrow? All of these and more. Layers of city laid on top of one another and shifting based on the perception of the individual. Not one thing or another but all things simultaneously. A puzzle-city. A contradiction-city.

While he was there, the puzzle-city filled his mind and freed him from the questioning and anxiety that usually filled the vacuum of his consciousness. Even from a short time in the city, he was filled with himself. "...a complicated love... it's exhilarating, frustrating, surprising, reaffirming. It's tiring, it's never-ending, it fills your life. That figure I'm chasing out in the distance, out in the grey streets, always slips away." In this city, chasing work, chasing friends, chasing love, he felt himself filling up and at long last achieving his potential. 

From Flickr user: @Doug88888

The energy of the city begs for definition and defies it. Books are written about it, TV shows defined by it, music inspired by its people. Wandering the city's streets, a thousand images and cultural allusions come to mind. Before he even lived here, his idea of the city was suffused through cultural osmosis. The skyline over the river: the opening title music of Sherlock. The Old Bailey: the Fifth of November. Earl's Court: the Marquis de Carabas. Senate House: a boot stamping on a human face. London calling. Not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven. 

He can count the number of native Londoners that he's met here on one hand. Everyone else came here for a different reason. It's a city of people with stories of how and why they ended up here. One glance around a late-night Tube train is enough to know that this is a city that attracts the broken and the lost. People who want to fill themselves with distraction; people who crave the anonymity of a crowded street; people who ran here to hide. Those who weren't lost before quickly become so. 

The city's energy and beauty fed him and made him more than he thought he could be. He achieved. He walked the great halls of learning. He met the people he admired and emulated. He gave out awards and steered an organisation. He discovered that among the broken and the lost of the city, he was not as broken as he thought. He shed his anxiety became socially functional. He worked himself to exhaustion, laughed harder than he'd ever laughed, broke the law, loved and lost, philosophised and danced. 

From Flickr user: Jason M Parrish
No-one he talked to could define the city's mysterious allure. It drew them for different but shared experiences. The name itself has power and substitutes for entire sentences expressing a myriad of perspectives: “London” said looking towards the Palace of Westminster at night while watching trains rush over the bridge to Charing Cross; “London” said handing someone a glass of wine with a roll of the eyes; “London” said huddled under an umbrella amidst the crowds of Covent Garden; “London” said hopeless before a crowded Underground train; “London” said looking at The Shard on the horizon from a hill in North London. 

"Every Londoner must have a story, I was told. But it's not true. Some people retract when they come in contact with this city, like salt on a anemone; they become lesser versions and pine for the country. But more often than not, the word 'London' stirred up great emotion. Asking them about the city, people grinned unabashedly, winced or sighed, or would roll their eyes or reminisce. London meant a new beginning, a hell-hole, a wonderland; too big, too foul; a safety blanket, point of pride, unfortunate problem, temporary mattress location; safety, salvation, life's work. A place to stack empty tins of lager. Stage, Mecca, my water, my oxygen. London as cell, jail and favour. London meant 'not living in England while living in England', it meant 'ignoring what my father said', it meant 'I hope I like the husband I'm going to meet at the airport.' Londoners cling to reserve, but find a reason to ask a question and their reserve is broken. Living history is thrilling, especially in an eloquent city, in a talkative town, in a place where people fought to get here, fought to stay here, fought to get out." (Taylor, C., Londoners

One morning, he stopped stock-still in the Tube station closest to his workplace. He stopped, with the morning crowds bustling around him, and he stared at an image on the wall. He was certain that he hadn't seen it there before and even more certain that he would have remembered. It was an image of a labyrinth. The labyrinth had followed him for years. He was obsessed by mazes and riddles, confusion and madness. When he closed his eyes, he saw the curving circle of a labyrinth. He had devoted his formative years to the exploration of the tortured labyrinth of his own mind. He had seen the same image carved into thousand year-old stone and wondered if the ancients had shared his obsession. For him, the universe was a labyrinth and a puzzle: a mystery waiting to be solved. He feared its Asterion – and occasionally feared that he was Asterion – and yet found the labyrinth comforting. 

From Flickr user: grahamc99

Labyrinths appeared in Underground stations across London that month. Each one a unique black and white circular labyrinth – in the classical sense: a maze with a single path to the centre. Designed by conceptual artist Mark Wallinger to mark the London Underground's 150th anniversary, one is installed at each of the system's 270 stations. The artwork represents the labyrinthine nature of the Underground system – a meandering system that takes commuters on a single route from where they are to where they need to be and back again. It also represents the labyrinth that is London: a city of curling streets, fantastical engineering, dreams and nightmares. 

On seeing a labyrinth, he was transfixed. In this city where he's decided he can escape from himself, he is confronted by a labyrinth – his labyrinth – and realises that he can't escape and nor should he. It's only natural, he realises, that he should move to a city that is a puzzle. The labyrinth hasn't only found him again: it's consumed him. He is in the labyrinth-city and it's where he belongs. 

When Borges called London “a splintered labyrinth”, he was not quite accurate. London is a labyrinth of splintered people. A labyrinth of the broken and the lost. It's here, in a city of confusion and contradiction, that he will discover who he is.


Neil Infield said...

Very poetic. I wonder how you will feel once you have spent a summer in the 'smoke'.

Richard Hawkins said...

Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading this - cheers Simon.