Night walking

I went up to London to work in the office, see people, walk around, experience a change of scene, look at the Christmas lights, get lost in the city. It was good fun to go inland for the day. Regular commuting can be tiring, stressful and tedious. Made worse by extortionate ticket prices, the constant announcements and the general grot of neo-liberalism which permeates all aspects of public life. The only way I’ve ever managed to get on a train most days is by reading without looking up or talking to people. Being hostile, indifferent or aloof from the people around you is a big mistake. A friendly word or two can lead to conversation, and if not that, at least you have probably established that the person sitting next to you is a reasonable human being. All sorts of things can be tolerated if we speak to each other. I have had some great conversations on trains and made long-term friends as well. So it’s not all bad.

Today the train was almost empty and because I have been cooped up so much during lock-down I connected up to Sunday’s Jazz Record Requests, sat back and enjoyed the view from the window. One can almost day dream although the constant reminders to SEE IT SAY IT SORT IT have destroyed what was once known as the romance of the train. With headphones it can be kept at bay to some extent. I noticed what appears to be a large medieval farm complex (with an excellent barn – was it a tithe barn?) near Ashford and an intriguing church on the top of a chalk causeway near Ebbsfleet. There were two ships in dock at Purfleet and new buildings, unfamiliar, and a row of houses somewhere in the industrial area near the Dartford Bridge which I’ve not seen before. I really do need to go up there with my bike and have a proper look around.

Office cultures and environments are so standardized and homogenous that as soon as I went through the revolving door it might as well have been yesterday that I was last there. But work is work. The real magic of the day was at 5.47 when I caught the train to St Pancras. South from there to Russell Square and then cutting through the back streets to Tottenham Court Road, up to Rathbone place and across to Marylebone.

I was taken aback at how quiet everything was. Less cars and less people and therefore less noise, less commotion and less movement. The streets were able to reveal more of their character and their stories became more alive. Cars are a particular menace and as well as contributing to the destruction of the planet, they have a terribly corrosive effect on social life in how they dominate urban space. Streets are filled with the clutter of traffic lights and signs and parking spaces and parked cars. But with their reduced numbers it felt that the streets were partially re-claimed and that the buildings were being given a chance to breath again (and so too the people). I don’t know why this positive change is not being reported more – perhaps it is. But my night time roaming was made all the better by the relative absence of motorism.

I was so engrossed with exploration that I set up a strange tension within myself where I partly wanted to stop and photograph everything and partly just wanted to get lost in thoughts, a meditative stream of consciousness within the streets, or lost in nothing at all,. I did a little of both. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for in terms of photographs. That’s tricky because they always work best with an absence of self-consciousness; but any photograph is saying something. But what?

It cannot be objective and it must reflect something of the photographer themselves. I found myself unsure of what I was trying to say about this night and aware of a lack of technical skills to create what I had in my mind’s eye. I wanted darkness, light and shadow, a sense of the dominance of the buildings, of density of mass but without claustrophobia or oppression. There was something about the buildings being given a chance to breath. I found it impossible to capture. Perhaps my thoughts were too opaque. It was a learning experience more than a productive one so it was certainly not wasted time. It’s generated what feel like unformulated questions, nagging things, questions which will not make themselves clear and apparent. That’s part of the tension. And following a summer of reading about urban development and planning it felt like I really knew nothing at all. It’s that sensation of tension which is mainly a sensory experience rather than a thoughtful one.

There was one other thing which will not form itself in terms of words or images. While I was taking photographs in Rathbone Street I realised that someone standing outside the pub was watching me. I took no notice of it. I was too engrossed exploring thoughts and senses in relation to the built environment. When I re-emerged into the noise of the street again, I realised they were still watching me, intently. That also gave me something to think about. The sensation of losing one’s anonymity in a street full of people. Perhaps that was the character of this particular dérive. Subtle things not making sense.

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