You (or your character) fall asleep on the subway. When you wake up the world has changed…
London is a solar system. This being true (clearly), one can imagine the map of the London Underground as a layout of constellations of stars and planets in the guise of stations. So it is. And so it was during my years living in East Anglia. Initially, I was a bit reluctant to venture into the monolith that London represents. The stinking hot bowels of the city can be intimidating to the uninitiated and I had never been a huge fan of absurdly large metropoli (New York is lovely in small doses, etc.). I lived close to Cambridge, which is fine for what it is, but London’s magnetism can only be ignored for so long.
The two ways one can leave the countryside and head south to London are the train or the car and I, being the frugal, independent type, chose the car. Once I’d gotten the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road and navigating the wily ’roundabout’ that stands as a work of traffic-flow genius, I came to genuinely enjoy my ass-backwards car with the steering wheel on the right and the shifter on the left. However, upon mentioning my plan to drive into London, members of the village with whom I was drinking one (every) night rose as one and screamed, ‘NO!’, because such a thing is insanity. ‘Drive to Epping’, they advised, ‘and you’ll live.’
For the sake of this challenge, this is how I’ll introduce my first foray into the big city: Much of East Anglia consists of rolling hills, farmland, large stretches of wooded forests. It’s idyllic in many ways. The town of Newmarket is Mecca for horse racing in England and to wander the outskirts of the city is to be surrounded by white fences and open fields where one can snort in lungfuls of fresh air and history, unencumbered by noise or crowds. The town of Epping sits about 45 minutes to the south as the crow drives on the highway. The town is also lovely, much like Newmarket, but without the subtle stench of horse manure and money. There’s a main street with shops and banks and people that generally look happy and relatively carefree. There’s a large clock in the center of town and a church whose steeple dominates the skyline. It’s a very old version of a New England town, which makes perfect sense.
You drive through town and down a hill to arrive at the northernmost stop the Central Line of the London underground. You walk into the station, spend five pounds (~$8) on a ticket that will take you anywhere you want to go in London all day, and board what is, generally speaking, an astonishingly clean and stink-free ‘subway car’. Imagine yourself going to sleep as things begin to move and the conductor declares that ‘This is the service to Ealing Broadway; next stop: Theydon Bois.’ The ridiculous name of the next stop fails to interrupt the pleasant dream taking hold with the swaying of the car, as you hear this soundtrack and see images of rosy-cheeked children running hither and yon through happy fields, perhaps riding equally happy horses (hell, why not unicorns?). Maybe they’re pushing hoops along with sticks under the canopy of trees that line the streets. A butcher stands outside of his store and laughs for no particular reason. A woman dressed like Mary Poppins starts singing as a bird lands on her shoulder. ‘Welcome to East Anglia!’, says the bird, who sounds like Colin Firth.
You’re jarred awake by a rush of humanity at Bank, it being ‘quitting time’ in the city and the suit-clad masses in the process of making a run for home. You stand up because sitting takes up too much space. Someone’s drinking a large can of beer that spills frequently due to the rabid lurching of the coach. A guy wearing a scraggly beard and an parka (in the summer) squeezes in and the smell hits you like a folding chair to the head, Brutus Beefcake-style. You get out at Tottenham Court Road primarily because, holy shit, and instead of making it to the exit, the glut of humanity pushes you across to the other platform and onto the southbound train on the Northern Line. This is no better, so you leap off at Leicester Square and, thinking you’re home free, lurch upward toward the light of day.
What you find during this particular time of day in the middle of July is kind of what you imagine hell is probably like if hell has McDonald’s and Starbucks every 100 yards and open urinals on the sidewalks. There are so many people, so many cabs, so much everything, that you turn immediately toward the one thing that reminds you of sanity: A pub. And as you darken its doorway, some old dude who looks like a very elderly and unwell version of Jesus steps in front of you and asks for a couple pounds so he can get something to drink. You decline, he bids you a merry, ‘Well, fuck off, then’, and wobbles away. Down the alley, a stray dog looks up at you as it pees on the wall and says in Michael Caine’s eastender twang, ‘Welcome to London.’
Sir @ June 23, 2011