23 July 2011

A Mole in the Great Wen

Unlike many of my friends in academia, I wasn't particularly thrown -- on a personal level -- when the Government here in Britain decided that universities here weren't going to be funded as they had been. Sure, I was disappointed, not least because I think it's a big mistake and that it's nonsense to think that the market sorts everything out. After all, even when it comes to so-called 'priority subjects' like engineering and sciences, if we follow a straightforward neo-liberal economic model, I don't see why they should be supported by the State either; the logical question for a laissez-faire thinker in connection with the universities should surely be 'what are universities for?' Because if the answer is 'research', why not just allow the research to be done where it can be done most effectively, and buy the results? University research is irrelevant to vast majority of those who study in universities, after all; for most people in Britain, if we think purely in terms of the 'market', universities are about teaching, and that's it.

No, obviously I don't believe that's the sole function of universities; I just think that that's the inevitable and logical end of any argument that tries to justify British universities in a free market.

Anyway, the reason the new arrangements here, which will have the effect of deracinating all employment in my field, didn't bother me too much on a purely personal level, was that I'd already long decided on quitting academia. The plan has been that once I'd finished my studies and worn my clown costume and silly hat, I'd shake the dust from my shoes and walk away.

Given a choice I'd like to go to London. Well, Rome and Berlin and Paris and New York and Vancouver would appeal too, as would settling back properly in Dublin, but in real terms I've thought of London. I love London; it has a texture and a breadth like no city I've ever visited.

I don't know when the fascination began. With a childhood love of the Household Cavalry, watching them on the television and wishing I could be one, I suppose. I first set foot in London when I was fifteen, whirling through on the return leg of a school tour to the Continent -- we whizzed passed the Houses of Parliament and Nelson's Column, attended and nearly fainted at an impromptu mass in a small chapel somewhere in the bowels of Westminster Cathedral, wasted a ludicrous amount of time in the Trocadero Centre, spotted some of the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 on Petticoat Lane, and waited for our bus in Hyde Park, gathered by the statue of Achilles and within easy sight of Apsley House, which nobody ever thought to point out to us had been the home of the greatest Dubliner ever to -- allegedly -- be ashamed of the fact.

I started regularly visiting when I was eighteen, staying with a sister or two on its outskirts and scuttling in almost every day, whether to comic conventions -- I wanted to be a comic artist -- or to comic shops, all the while trying to take in more and more sights: the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Cabinet War Rooms, the London Eye, Saint Paul's, or the Public Records Office, say, all the while attending conventions and seeing exhibitions, of Ingres portraits and Monet lilies, say, or of all manner of Star Wars props. And though I travelled all over London during at this point, sometimes even staying with friends who had moved there or who I'd made and who lived there, in a fairly profound way I never knew London. I'd been to Harrow and to Finchley; stood outside Buckingham Palace; drank between Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square; eaten a pork bun in China town; spent endless hours in Foyles and the bookshops of Charing Cross Road; marvelled at the comics in Gosh! Comics on Great Russell Street, the Forbidden Planet on new Oxford Street, and Mega City Comics on Camden's Inverness Street; even listened to Scott McCloud expound his theories way out in Ladbroke Grove. But I didn't know London, which became absurdly apparent when staying in Mayfair at a very weird gathering and me utterly clueless as to where we were.

Because I never walked anywhere.

I used to be able to get cheap tube tickets, you see. 25p to anywhere in Zone 1, and never more than a pound anywhere in London. So for me I had this strange, mole-like view of London. I knew the Tube, and I knew destinations near Tube stations, and I knew that you could never get lost in Central London, because after wandering more than a couple of minutes you were bound to find a Tube station, and then you'd be safe.

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere fascinated me when I first saw it on telly, and moreso when I read the book, and bought the series and watched Neil's commentary on it. There were disused Tube stations? Indeed, there's a whole London below London! I've since read quite a bit about London -- fun introductions to the city's quirks like Tim Moore's Do Not Pass Go, dense introductions to its arcana like Peter Ackroyd's London: the Biography and Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory -- the kind of books that like Alan Moore's From Hell reveal just how fascinating the most apparently banal of places actually are -- and specialist explorations of its peculiarities, like E.J. Burford's London: The Synfulle Citie and Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman's London Under London: A Subterranean Guide.

Trench and Hillman's book is fascinating, delving into the history of tunnels under the Thames, Tube lines and disused stations, military installations, mail tunnels, pneumatic tubes, bunkers, catacombs, and lots more, not the least of which are London's underground rivers. London used obviously to have lots of rivers, you see, the most well-known of which probably being the malodorous Fleet, which rose in Hampstead Heath and flowed southeast to join the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge, just off modern Fleet Street, reeking from the by-products of the local tanners. Its route has been mapped out pretty clearly on this Google Map, and seemingly if you sit outside the Coach and Four pub in Farringdon, and listen carefully, you can hear it through the grating on the ground. Or, if you've a deathwish, and want to risk wandering about in tidal tunnels that can fill in thirty minutes' flat, you can visit it, like these heroically mad people.

Well, I may not know London as well as its sub-urban explorers, but I know it fairly well now. I get the bus nowadays, and I walk. I've walked from Islington to the British Museum and the National Gallery and out to Victoria Station, from Fulham to Saint Paul's and up to Holborn, from Chelsea through Knightsbridge to Victoria and Westminster too many times, from King's Cross Station to Paddington and then made my way to Trafalgar Square and thence along the old shores of the Thames to the best pub in England.  And I've wandered aimlessly too many times in Shoreditch and Bloomsbury, Herne Hill and Dulwich, Wood Green and Manor House, Earl's Court and South Kensington, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, and along the South Bank.

And once, from a train, I saw where all the old red phone boxes go to die.

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