Crossing Over No Man’s Land (1/80)

Saturday 29 December 2012

It starts on Saturday 29 December. I’d batted the idea around for a time before then, but that’s the day when the idea crosses the hazy No Man’s Land between thought and action, between day-dreaming and purpose, between the mental (as in mental activity) and the – hmm – mental (as in madness). Public Service Announcement! Reader beware sentences that come in three parts like Caesar’s ancient Gaul or Anthony’s ‘friends, Romans and countrymen’! Therein lies rhetoric not reality. And there’s a lot of that triumvirate rhetoric around. Too much!

The idea is this: using Transport for London’s (TfL) December 2012 edition of the Tube map, I will visit every station on the Tube. All 376 of them. Alphabetically. I will beep myself out of the station, mooch around, take photos and get back on the tube to visit the next station. There’ll be no cheating, no surreptitious strolling the few hundred yards from Acton Central to Acton South, oh no. No journeying by foot on the street. (For the complete rules, see Rules.) And I’ll visit them all during 2013.

Simple, really. That’s over seven a week. About two or three days a week. Around eight hundred hours. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy.

Fran and I are in our new home – a three-storey Victorian Gothic Revival semi I’ve dubbed Gingerbread Cottage (think the Brothers’ Grimm, watch out for wolves in hoodies) – in Forest Hill, South London. We’re having dinner with Fran’s sister (Marian) and husband (Chris), Gemmima (a close friend of our daughter Becca), her fiancé Johnson and sister Christcel. Gem, Johnson and Christcel are over from the Phillipines for a few days. They are hand-delivering us their wedding invitation. Over there they go in for thousand seater weddings. Gem and Johnson are being radical. They’re sneaking their wedding in with under five hundred guests.

Perhaps it’s the sheer craziness of a thousand guest wedding that sets me off. Perhaps it’s the natural human desire to trade, even if the trade is in craziness. Perhaps it’s my bad habit of boasting: you think you can do crazy? I can top that with knicker-bocker cherry-on-the-top nuttiness! Perhaps it’s old Samuel Johnson’s boosterism for the London Tourist Board, “A man who is tired of London, is tired of life”, rearing its clichéd head yet again. Perhaps it’s a voyage of discovery, whether external or internal. Perhaps it’s my way of enjoying myself. Who can tell? There are so many hidden roots to human behaviour, so many different explanations for the universe. There are more answers than questions.

As for the eight hundred hours. Well, I’m no longer working. And I am blessed with a Freedom Pass, so travel at all times will be free. Thank you Ken, thank you Boris. Come on you politicians, keep on providing freebies for us wrinklies and we’ll keep on voting (though not for you, Boris) and we’ll all pretend that this is democracy. To misquote Kurt Vonnegut from Mother Night ‘Be careful what you pretend to be because you become what you pretend to be.’

The idea had, as they say, began gaining traction (hideous metaphor: the world as swamp and mud, the mind as 4WD) for some days. I’d floated the idea to the family over Christmas. It had been met with amusement, skepticism and tolerant acceptance. (Look! Beware! Another three part trope!) This is, after all, the kind of thing that the old geezer gets upto.

The Thursday and Friday I’d been looking out over No Man’s Land. I’d been mulling the idea over. What would I need? A map of the Tube. Got it. A camera. Hmm. I’ll borrow Fran’s. Later maybe I’ll replace my phone with one of those smart-phones with screens the size of small televisions and take photos with it. Got it. And, of course, a notebook for jotting down those random observations and encounters with strangers as well as the nitty-gritty of routes and times. Whatever.

I look at my old Moleskine notebook. It’s three-quarters full of jottings, mostly at the front – scribbles about novels and stories I’ve tried to write and passing quotes, for instance: this from Cees Nooteboom, ‘Memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases. (A disobedient dog).’ But there are notes that start on the last page and lurch forwards – diagrams of a house in Southern France I once considered renting, notes on the 2011 Ecobuild Conference. (‘And what happened to the notes on the 2012 Ecobuild Conference?’ The Wee Professor inside my head asks rhetorically. ‘You know fine well,’ I answer. I find it’s always best to reply to your inner voices, it keeps them in their place. He pays this no attention. ‘You wrote them down in that jotter.  You’ve no system, Craig, that’s your failing.’ He’s a wee Scottish pedagogical pedant, is The Wee Professor.)

I remember the story of Bruce Chatwin finding out that the company making Moleskine notebooks had gone bankrupt. He rushes to Paris to buy up the remaining stock. They are necessary to his art. Bruce Chatwin who tramped the icy wastes of Patagonia, danced the songlines in the burning Australian deserts with the Aborigines. Bruce Chatwin, alpha male poet. Hah! Had he journeyed from Amersham (Zone 9, half way to Birmingham on the Metropolitan line) to Anerley on the West Croydon spur of the Overground? I doubt it. Or from Royal Albert on the Beckton branch of the fairground-meets-Fritz Lang Metropolis of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to Royal Oak on the Hammersmith & City Line (and, allegedly, according to the December 2012 Map, the Circle Line) and then back to Royal Victoria three stops up from Royal Albert? Huh! I bet not. No. And he called himself a poet!

No, my old Moleskine really won’t do. Not for a project of this magnitude, duration and importance, an undertaking of such brilliance and daring. A new notebook is a must, a whole Moleskine notebook dedicated to Tube for LOLs.

So, on the Saturday, after buying vintage champagne at the John Lewis Food Hall to toast Gem and Johnson, I pick up a new Moleskine from the JL stationery counter. I’m ready to go. But it’s only with my dinner-table announcement that the intention becomes action, that the idea walks across No Man’s Land and arrives garbed in the clothes of reality.

As I go to bed that night my heart is full and my head is high. What is this? Where is the old Stormy-Weather? Where the Inner Curmudgeon? Have I discovered a Purpose in life? Or, at least, a purpose with a small ‘p’ now that I no longer have the purpose (with a small ‘p’) of work?

Monday 31 December

I check tomorrow’s journey on the Tube map: Abbey Road, Acton Central, Acton Town. Aldgate might also be possible but it would be better to pair that with Aldgate East. Besides, one doesn’t want to rush at things. This is a marathon not a sprint. And that’s a cliché not an aperçu.

I unwrap my new Moleskine notebook from its cellophane. Aagh!

It’s not a notebook.

It’s a sketchbook. Lovely thick creamy pages just waiting for the watercolourist’s brushes. Lovely thick useless creamy pages: one of the many things I am not is a watercolourist. Disaster! I cry mentally, accent on the ‘ass’. (For the sake of clarification that’s ‘ass’ as in ‘donkey’, not ‘bottom’.) As Iris, my three year old grand-daughter, and I do when she spills a penne with pesto on the parquet.

I pick up my old Moleskine, its spine beginning to split. There’s thirty pages left. Well, that’ll see me through January. I’ll maybe need more notebooks anyway. Anyway, it’s lovely as it is. Lovely and split and bashed and bent. Kind of like its owner.

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