Friday 8 April 2011

Capital Caves & Canyons

Tuesday, for the purposes of work, I made one of my infrequent forays to central London. As taking the car so close to such touristy areas is a total pain, I usually undertake the trip by train and tube, something I enjoy and despise in equal measure. On the one hand it is a dull, lengthy, frustrating journey, on the other, it’s a chance to read for a couple of hours, something which is harder to do when driving.

It was a pleasant day, though, so there was something to be gained from gazing out of the carriage window at the beautiful countryside as we tootled along the eastern flanks of the Chilterns, thoughts of future walks idling in my mind. In between times, I read chapters of Robert Macfarlane’s excellent work “Mountains Of The Mind” – a book which examines our changing attitude towards mountains and mountaineering throughout history, and well worth a read if you haven’t already done so.

At one point, he discusses how the increasing urbanisation of our population during the nineteenth century subsequently led to a shift in perception: that mountains (and wildernesses) embodied escape, freedom and respite from the drudgery of the city, both physically and metaphysically closer to God. Enlightenment and spirituality achieved, he argues, by quite literally “getting high.”

All this was still at the forefront of my mind as I rolled into Euston and prepared to face the ambiguities of the capitol. As far as I’m concerned, when a man is tired of London, he’s tired of strife, to misquote Dr. Johnson. Taking the Eustation tube, I boarded the Northern Line southbound for the onward journey – 40 minutes of airless, uncommunicative, travel without even a scrap of daylight to relieve the toxicity.

Then, mechanically lifted to street level once again, I was disgorged, mole-like and blinking, into the man-made canyons that form the streets around Mansion House, an area romantically referred to locally as “EC4.” Still, perhaps that’s better than Ditchwater, or St. Pancreas, or some such. And you really wouldn’t want to live anywhere with a name like Cockfosters, Pratt’s Bottom, Fickleshole, or Elmers End, would you? Or Ilford, Kilburn, Battersea, Mortlake, for that matter? Sounds positively unhealthy to me.

Sometime later, business transacted, I emerged once again into the noisy, fumy funnels of the surrounding streets in time to encounter one of London’s biggest bongs – the one O’Clock chime of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I always feel ill-at-ease in big cities, where the cliffs are artificial, the broad rivers run with smog, and the sky is just a thin strip high overhead. I find it inexplicable why so many wish to call it home, though many do. If asked to define my version of purgatory, I would describe it just like London, only forever. It was almost a relief to reach the underground.

Then it was the whole, grim process in reverse – a further 40 minutes of smile-free, subterranean passage back to Euston. On the train north, I took the chance to read a few more pages of my book as I headed nearer to home and enlightenment.

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