Travelling Through London: Three Cities


No city is a single place; each one contains others within itself. Some of these divides are obvious – someone who’s lived on the same street for their entire life would struggle to understand the city experienced by a two-day tourist, while a single mother with two jobs might be bewildered by the one known to the teenager who only comes into her own at night. These cities can be chasms apart, experienced in spans of lifetimes or decades, but others can come as a sudden revelation, born from something as simple as riding a new bus route home from work. London, of course, is a multitude of cities, and how you travel within its borders can be just as enlightening as where you travel. With routes laid down by centuries of lives, rivers diverted and hidden by granite, each new way of finding your way home can bring you closer to understanding the endless places hidden within a single name.

“You can’t understand a city without using its public transportation system.” – Erol Ozan

Step onto a bus or a train, or ride an escalator down beneath the city streets, and you are suddenly the sole survivor of a wreckage. For all the bodies, and the noise, and the crush, you might as well be the only person left alive for miles; we’ve created a system which protects us from each other by pretending, very fiercely, that we are alone. In “Watching the English”, Kate Fox catalogued the few times in which acknowledging other passengers is allowed – aside from mumbled apologies and grumbled complaints into the ether regarding delays, there are few to choose from. We avert our eyes.

If you’re lucky enough to catch the window seat on a bus, the rules dictate that you are allowed to sink even deeper into solitude. Your opposite number will get up if necessary; you, on the other hand, are free to mentally move the window between you and your seatmate. You can remain in that liminal space, not out on the pavements but certainly not riding a bus, until someone starts shouting and draws you back into your physical space. (Not that you – or anyone else – will say anything about the shouting. You might grumble. You’ll almost certainly avert your eyes.)

“It’s a sad fact of modern life that if you drive long enough, sooner or later you must leave London behind.” – Ben Aaronovitch

London was not made for cars, and does not approve of driving them. In his short story “Treasures and Keepsakes,” one of Neil Gaiman’s characters noted that the average speed of traffic hasn’t improved much since the days of horse-drawn carriages, and the clock-tick predictability of congestion costs have become a background hum for drivers who carry on regardless. Car insurance costs may be dropping sharply, but one simply has to try to compare insuring a car within London to, say, car insurance NI, to know that owning your own automobile is a tax on those who can afford their own pleasures. Of course, contrary as it is, London also offers gifts like apologies to car drivers. Theirs is a far more straightforward city; curving roads won’t straighten, and strange back alleys won’t disappear, but it can seem a little as though the white lie that is the map of the underground has suddenly come to life. Trips which might take an hour by public transit suddenly happen over the course of a song or two on the radio, the soundtrack to a muffled world of granite, weather, windshield, and the rear-view mirror.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best” – Ernest Hemingway

Motorbikes used to be a symbol of rebellion. Today, buying a bicycle means committing yourself to war. West Kent bicycle activists wring their hands about London’s wheels-to-win cycling culture, experienced riders mourn comrades struck down by vehicles, and bleary-eyed riders perform death-defying stunts between towering buses on their usual commute to work. Letting go of the machismo is easy: at least once, ride your bike at night. The spinning hiss of gears and wheels gives the world a centre, and the wind resistance forms a kind of map, calmly letting you know the distance you’ve travelled by the sting in your skin when you stop for a breath. More than any other form of transportation, bicycles mean freedom; even if you’re only making your way to work, your mind catches on those side streets and makes note of them, offering ways to escape into a city which would never even know you were there.

Eve Wright © May 2014.