Friday, August 13, 2010

My Walk To Work

On my walk to work I walk fast. I take big strides and breathe deeply. It is exhilarating. The more I walk, the more I like walking. Walking and thinking.

I am developing a taste for certain types of walking, a distaste for certain others. I love walking uphill – it stretches my calf muscles and gives me a sense of upward progress; greater, higher things await - a prize at the top of the mountain. I dislike walking downhill. My socks rub against my heels and my toes knock against the inside of my trainers. I don’t think I was designed to walk downhill. If hell has a chain gang then they must be constantly walking downhill in shoes that are slightly too large. If heaven has an urban ramblers association they will walk uphill forever. But, of course, I don’t want to walk uphill forever. The urban fluctuations are part of the joy.

I walk with avid determination, overtaking nearly everyone else I encounter. When I notice that someone is walking as fast or faster than me I am immediately charged with a competitive spirit. I must overtake everyone. On the edge of my conscious thought dances the notion that if anyone is walking faster than me then I am being left behind - not merely left behind literally, as I actually am in these cases, but left behind more meaningfully, in life. This is, of course, ridiculous. I am far too competitive. Too often I find myself competing with people who have not the faintest clue that they are involved. One day I will learn to relax. One day.

When I grow up I would like to be able to relax. But for now I must squeeze the day like a sponge. I must vibrate like an atom. I must not waste a second. Every wasted moment stabs into me like a razor sharp hand, or like the chiseled hand of a muted clock - silently ticking; ominously, inexorably eating time, crunching silently, silently – silent except for the ticking, the ticking which I can hear. Tick tick tick...

But I spend an hour walking to work and an hour walking home from work. Two hours of walking every week day? Yes, two hours every day. Are these two hours not wasted? No no; most certainly not. When I walk I am thinking. This is the closest I get to relaxation. The steady rhythm of my deep breathing acts as an antidote to the mas-tick-ating clock, I no longer hear it munching away at time. My steps beat out a glaring defiance that drowns it out – I am walking faster than it can eat, I am moving ahead of time. My legs pulsate happily below me, like my own little animals, working away at the music of motion. So I think, my mind wanders -- wanders and wonders. My eyes rove and watch the passing streets.

Although my walk to work follows the same path every day, things do not stagnate. The fabric of the city is constantly ruffling. I leave my house at 7:30am. This is earlier than most people so the streets are rather empty. Especially the ones I walk through as I begin my journey. John Ruskin Street, Dale Road, Cooks Road, Ravensden Street... they are quiet, residential areas. In particular I enjoy watching the street sweepers.

In autumn I usually see more than one street sweeper. As I approach I notice the leafless prelude to their efforts, the parts they have already swept. And passing directly by them I pay close attention to their skillful use of the large broom. I can’t help but inject a certain heroism into this activity, this art! Sweeping our streets, these men are artisans in a unique way. Watch them. Look you! They are not drones (though by their faces, I fear some think they are), they are not soulless – they possess a honed technique. It is not as easy as it looks – and I love how it looks. There is a real beauty in their sweeping.

Perhaps I’m mad to think so; I know these are not the happiest of men. Not at all. But they are admirable and they are doing something real, something so very real. Perhaps I am too keen on tidiness – and I am very keen on tidiness – or perhaps I give my thoughts too rosy a tint. Yes. Perhaps.

So my walking usually calms the tempest of time, smothers my fear of wastage, and I stride wholesomely on. But sometimes walking is not enough. Sometimes I need to make sure that I feel I am still progressing, learning, building... So to avoid any of that painful time wastage I practice my human beatbox. I make drum beats with my mouth. Secretly, I tell myself, this is part of my project to become a Homo Universalis, a man of broad and varied skills and learnings, a polymath. Or, at the very least, someone who has learnt things, someone who has thought things, someone with interests, passions and skills. Someone full of surprises. Is this a lot to ask? Probably. But I ask this of myself. I can't help it.

Along I walk, beatboxing in time while humming underneath, gasping for breath after four bars, grunting and heaving, burbling, mumbling, almost gurgling sometimes... I beatbox my way through the streets. When I first became enamoured with the human beat, the mouth-drum, I would only practice at home - in the safety and solitude of my room or that of the bathroom (which has good harmonics). But gradually my confidence has grown. It started in Southampton, where I was at university, in the quieter streets there, at times, when I realised no one was near, I would indulge heavily. "Ba boom boom bap, t-ch t-ch boom bap!" Sometimes, when I became carried away, I would suddenly notice someone nearby, perhaps they had just got out of a car or come out of a house, in an instant I would fall silent. But soon I realised that nothing would come of it if I continued, if I held the beat and walked on, not caring whether others could hear. That is not to say that I now beatbox fearlessly in public. There are certain people who can still cause me to fall silent: those who might understand what I'm doing. Young men, for example, especially those dressed in hip-hop regalia, are most likely to know what I am up to with my strange noises. I do not want an understanding ear listening in. My walking beat is a music of solitude. If it must be heard by others I want it to appear nonsensical, mad, foolish, odd... because no one approaches (or for that matter reproaches) a mad man.

Along the three miles of pavement I see many of the same faces every morning. And more often than not I see them at the same point in my journey. I pass a man and his daughter leaving their house to cycle off down the road together, both heavily clad in reflective gear and flashing lights. The father always cycles between his daughter and the traffic at an angle behind her. They roll along peacefully and their punctuality always pleases me - they leave their house at 7:35.

The same fat woman waits for the southbound P5 bus on Dale Road every morning as I pass at about 7:40. She stands reading a book, solitary and absorbed. She is always alone and always reading. I sometimes try to work out what she is reading but can never manage to spy the spine. She holds her books wide open with the spine facing flat to the floor. You'd have to crouch in front of her to see the cover. One of these days I'll crouch down and tie my shoe laces or stoop to pick something up and steal a glance. It struck me recently that, after months of vague scheming and planning how to discover the book I had never thought of just asking her. But this kind of interaction makes me uncomfortable. I imagine she would feel uncomfortable, if not because it is none of my business, then because she might think I was after something else. After all, one doesn't expect people in the street to take an interest in your chosen reading. And I am just a person in the street, as far as she is concerned. I doubt she even knows my face, though I know hers, as she is always engrossed in a book.

As I walk down Ravensden Street, two cyclists unlock their bikes from the railings in front of their houses. The first one is a young woman, and then further down the street, a young man. They both wear helmets and full-body cycle suits of Lycra. Though they are neighbours about 10 houses apart they never speak to each other, they never look at each other. But, walking through like an unacknowledged ghost at 7:45, I look at them and smile. I enjoy their synchronicity with each other and with me.

My walk takes me past two comprehensive state schools (one of which I went to myself). Bopping in droves, I see duplicates of the characters I used to know at school. In particular I notice the boys who would have terrified me as a boy. I used to call them rudeboys. I still do. They haven't changed. But I, thank goodness, have. They no longer terrify me because they no longer see me. I do not exist to them. I am now a man with a beard, an adult, at least by appearance. They see straight through me. This is at once very odd and very liberating. When I was at school I wished so dearly that they would look straight through me and now that they do I can't quite believe it. There are moments when they erupt into boisterousness right next to me on the pavement, hitting each other, swearing, laughing brutally - sometimes I flinch, forgetting myself for a moment, preparing to run away as I would have done 10 years ago. Then I suddenly remember that I am invisible.

At 7:55 I reach Mi6, the fiercely guarded British Secret Intelligence building. Gazing up at the numerous security cameras lining the walls I sometimes catch sight of one that is moving about like a chameleon's eye, scanning inquisitively yet attached to a large and eerily stationary body. About once a week I notice a police officer on the pavement outside, methodically checking all items of street furniture surrounding the building from the bus stop to lamp posts and traffic lights. He wears a big bullet proof vest and squints at every paving slab with dutiful paranoia.

At 8 o'clock I am half way to work walking over the river on Vauxhall Bridge. Sometimes, when a thick morning mist drapes itself over the city, the bridge disappears into a spectral nothingness. The opposite side of the river is barely visible and the bridge looks as if it might continue indefinitely, stretching over a quiet ocean. Reaching the middle of the bridge is thrilling in the mist: neither side of the river are quite visible and the growling grey metropolis momentarily evaporates to leave me walking through a cloud.

Pimlico's opulent white houses surround me for the next episode of my walk and for the most part, I walk alone. The ludicrously rich inhabitants of this area are to be seen scurrying from their front doors into their luxury cars with their ridiculously uniformed children. I don't understand why Chelsea's private primary schools insist on clothing their students in almost theatrically dated outfits. Three year olds in breeches and berets, or tiny suits with cuff links. I'm probably exaggerating. But not much.

On Pimlico Road at 8:20 I pass the same beautiful woman every morning. She walks determined and fast, looking down, with a slightly pained expression on her face. I always hope she'll look up at me, at which point I plan to smile and thereafter... well, of course, we'll get married. I haven't figured out how my smile leads to marriage... fill in the blanks yourself and let me dream. She's so beautiful. But, as far as I know, she has never set eyes on me. My unrequited encounter with her signals the beginning of the Pimlico Road interior design district.

Shop after shop exhibiting cabinets, tables, chairs, and endless household items of absolutely no function whatsoever adorn carefully arranged window displays. None of these shops are open at such an early hour. But, positioned in the centre of this district of finery, lies Daylesford Organic, a cafe of sorts (though I'm sure "cafe" would strike both the staff and the clientele as far too vulgar a word to be appropriate here). Pampered dogs sit patiently beside botoxed woman of indistinguishable age, and impeccable make-up. Ineffably clean business men sit sipping coffee and reading the newspaper over an eccentric looking pastry.

Sloane Square hits with a sudden bustle and my quiet walk is over, my beatbox must stop. My legs are gratefully worn out, they surge with a glad fatigue as I slow down to weave through the crowds. The throngs push towards the tube station and I salmon against them, eventually slipping into the back door of my workplace. I am damp with sweat.

The oil company is rich and the offices are accordingly plush. The toilets and showers are what you would expect from a 5 star hotel. I've never been to a hotel but I know what I would expect from a 5 star one. The shower room is large enough to swing a cat in - a tiger. Blindingly clean white towels are provided. They are piled up on the bench neatly folded. There is a sink and a toilet beside the shower cubicle. Everything that could possible sparkle does sparkle and the walls are panelled with what looks and feels like marble. It probably is marble. I never get used to the sight of myself in the mirror peeling off my damp old t-shirt and removing my worn trainers in this majestic environment. I don't feel I belong there. This shower looks as though it were designed to wash people who are already immaculately clean.


jennifer S said...

This was an exceptional read for me during a particularly long rendering session. Thanks for that William... more please.

Alana said...

I enjoyed reading that too, I've never done that walk but I can imagine it all and the people too :) can't wait to get back to London (just under 2weeks now!) thanx for comment..I like the skateboard one too!

Shalmaneser Picklescott said...

This is absurdly nang. You make it all feel so undulatingly quiet and welcoming. I wish to do this walk. Perhaps one day I can meet you en route at the eastern end of John Ruskin Street.

Rob2000 said...

This is a great piece of writing. A real chronicle.