Monday 29 July – Marble Arch (Square C4 on the Tube map), Marylebone (C4), Mile End (C7), Mill Hill East (A5), Monument (D6), Moorgate (C6), Moor Park (A2)
I’m walking through the Albion Millennium Green on my way to Forest Hill station. It’s been three months since the LEAF festival (see post The Walrus and the Curmudgeon) but one of the installations, Labyrinth by Maria Strutz, remains – though a little the worse for wear. It’s a walkable sculpture with pebbles, stones and twigs marking the pathways of a maze.
Whenever I’m not in a hurry, I pause and muse, spend the time of day with it. It’s a friendly labyrinth, unlike some. I’ve always been fascinated by labyrinths – the labyrinths of time, of myth, of memory, of life – and their patterning, their ritual and repetition. But for the first time the thought breaks through the labyrinth of my frontal cortex – is TubeforLOLs a labyrinth? Will I defeat the minotaur at the centre, will I find the one route out? Or will I be like Ben Gunn, marooned on Treasure Island, aching for parmesan cheese?
The weather has cooled. Today is an unremarkable English summer day – warm, breezy, clouds piled overhead signalling showers later. I catch the 9.04 Overground north, forty minutes later fetching up at Marble Arch (Square C4). The Metro’s headline is: Lads’ mags told to cover up or vanish I quite like the thought of the lads’ magazines vanishing, and the celebrity rags too, please, but really my mind is on more convoluted matters.
I’m not quite sure when the idea comes to me, but by the time I get to Marble Arch station, I’ve mulled it over and become thoroughly entangled in its web. I pace up and down the platforms, in and out the station’s corridors and stairs, camera at the ready. I’m conscious that there’s a coughing and spluttering somewhere near at hand.
He’s off on one, Wee Prof, harrumphs The Inner Curmudgeon. You should know, Craig, that a mulled idea is like mulled wine – a waste of plonk! Har! Har!
TfL have commissioned Mark Wallinger as part of their celebrations of 150 years of the Underground. Wallinger has made 270 different Labyrinths. They’re placed, I presume, in 270 different Underground stations, though not in any of the DLR or Overground stations. I nab my first in Marble Arch ticket hall. Today’s TubeforLOLs will be dedicated to Labyrinth spotting.
First though I search out Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, home of UK protest. There are no speakers, though I guess ten o’clock on a Monday morning isn’t prime protest time. A German woman approaches me and asks where Speakers’ Corner is. It’s here, I reply, we’re standing in it. I offer to do a short snappy protest – an anti-alligator piece, perhaps. She points to her tourist map. And how do I get to Paddington Station? I show her. She’s off. She’s ticked the Speakers’ Corner box.
There’s a group of people on the dried grass by the Marble Arch itself. They look like East European peasants from the early 20th century. They’re all dressed in black, shades of grey and faint muted blues and greens. There’s an old woman in a scarf, an old man in baggy trousers, cap, grizzled beard with a cigarette in his mouth. There are three younger men, two standing, all wearing caps or hoodies. Strapped to a buggy beside them are their suitcases and back-packs, all black and dark grey apart from one blue plastic supermarket bag. One of the younger men and the two older people are playing a game of cards on the grass. The other two younger men walk off, one talking into his mobile. I’m wondering about the labyrinth of borders and officialdom between their home country and Marble Arch.
On the bench along from me are three young white men, English, short hair, casually dressed, drinking Red Bulls and isotonics. They’re talking about the group on the grass. You’re joking, says one, they earn far more than us, thousands a week. They beg on stations, look filthy, but afterwards they clean themselves up in the toilets, pick up their Armani suits from the locker.
I remember a story my father told me fifty years ago: the richest person in town was a beggar, he drove around in a Rolls Royce. I ponder on the labyrinths of urban myth snaking through time – the story remains the same only the illustrative detail changes.
You’re driving this labyrinth metaphor into the ground, warns The Inner Curmudgeon.
Next up, a ten minute tube journey (Central to Oxford Circus, then Bakerloo) to Marylebone (C4). I can’t find the Wallinger. I ask a Station Attendant. She thinks they don’t have one. I check out Marylebone mainline station instead. I like Marylebone even though its more a mall of eateries with a couple of platforms attached rather than an actual railway station. I admire its red-brick and canopied exterior. Back at the tube I ask another Station Attendant. It’s at the bottom of the elevators, he says, straight ahead where the corridors divide.
It takes less than 40 minutes to get to Mile End (C7). I’m there around 11.10 am. I search up and down the platforms, stairs and ticket hall. Nothing. No labyrinth. I ask a Station Attendant. No, we don’t have one here, she says. Originally, they were only in the mainline stations, then other stations got them, but we haven’t got one. She seems to know what she’s talking about and there isn’t much to Mile End station where you could hide a Wallinger – a Westbound island platform, one side serving the Central line, the other the District and Hammersmith & City line, and an Eastbound platform doing likewise for eastwards travel. I’m disappointed.
I walk over the road and up the steps to the Green Bridge which connects the two parts of Mile End Park. I saunter around. The Regents Canal curves around the Western edge of the park on its way to the Limehouse Basin and the Thames. I check my iPhone, searching for Wallinger Labyrinths. I try to download the Wallinger Labyrinth app but I can’t remember my password. Oh well.
It takes less than an hour to get to Mill Hill East (A5) – Hammersmith & City to King’s Cross, Northern line (Barnet branch) to Finchley Central, then the one-stop shuttle to Mill Hill East. The station is a tiny one platform job with a cupboard for a ticket hall. It makes the DLR stations look grown-up. There’s no room to swing a cat far less trap a labyrinth.
I turn right under the railway bridge. There’s a huge Waitrose beyond with, a little further on, a corner shop and Indian take-away and a couple of minutes walk beyond that a small village centre grouped around a roundabout of trees. The rain comes on quickly and heavily and I scurry into a neighbourhood bagel bakery. After five minutes the rain clears.
I can’t make up my mind about Mill Hill. It’s quiet, it’s half in the country, it’s ordinary, but there’s something about it … Perhaps it’s Highlander Foods, an organic butcher, which also sells bison, camel, crocodile, impala, kangaroo, wildebeest, zebra …
Back at the station, I talk to the tube driver as he walks back along the station platform. Does he have to drive the tube back and forward all day from Finchley Central? I’ve just started my shift, he says. I’ve got three hours left. It drives you mad, he says, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.
It takes almost an hour to get to Monument (D6). I can’t decide whether the Northern line goes through the linked Bank station or not, so I play safe, change at Moorgate and take the Circle line. I arrive at 2.20 pm and check the platforms for labyrinths. Then I saunter outside and do Number 311 of 1,001 Things Not To Do Before You Die – I climb the 31,111 steps of The Monument. But at least I’ve done my aerobic exercise for the year.
Back at the station I talk with a bevy of Station Attendants and local British Transport Police about Wallinger’s Labyrinth. After some discussion it’s resolved that I’ll find theirs by going down tunnel X, taking the second right, then the stairs on the left, then straight-ahead, then …
I reckon I’ve walked two thirds of the way to Bank station. I also reckon, since it’s at a Northern line exit, that I’m in the central of the three interlinked Bank / Monument circles as shown on the Tube map.
I go back to the Circle and District line platforms and take a Circle train towards Hammersmith – yes, the Circle line really does go to Hammersmith these days! I’m reading John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father. This is part misery-lit (Burnside’s father was an alcoholic and inveterate liar), part bad boy makes good (Burnside is an alcoholic and druggie turned poet and professor). Ostensibly a biographical memoir (and catalogued under Biography by the London Library), the opening note starts: ‘This book is best treated as a work of fiction.’ What it is mainly is a labyrinthine exploration of the gap between truth (that is, historical fact) and our understanding of what happened. Whatever, it’s a startling, gripping read and I’m hurtling through it. I’ll have finished it before the end of the day.
I’m at Moorgate (C6) in less than a quarter of an hour. I case the joint but find nothing amazing. I talk with a Station Attendant in the Northern line platform. No, they don’t have a Labyrinth here, perhaps because of the Crossrail works. He points at the generic Labyrinth poster. That’s the nearest we get to a real Labyrinth, he says.
I scurry to a nearby Waterstones. On holiday I read the first two books of Marakumi’s 1Q84. Book Two ended on a cliff-hanger. I buy Book Three. I’ll start that as soon as I finish Burnside. Back at Moorgate I talk with two more Station Attendants. They link arms and, high-stepping in time, sing (to the tune, Yes, We Have No Bananas), No, we have no Wallinger, we have no Wallinger today.
I make my way to the last station of the day, Moor Park (A2), way out on the Amersham / Chesham / Watford branch of the Metropolitan line. I get there at 4.30 pm.
I check out the station but can’t see any Wallingers. I turn left at the stairs under the platforms for Moor Park centre. There’s an exit right but that takes you pretty much nowhere unless you’re walking the London Loop eastwards. Platforms 1 and 2 are locked because trains only stop there in the morning rush-hour. But even TfL wouldn’t put a Wallinger there, would they? There’s no Station Attendant to ask. But they do have an exhibition of prints celebrating 150,000 years of the Tube.
The last time I was here, it was January, snowing, bitterly freezing, and I was walking the London Loop with Andrew and Fi. I was late. They were waiting in the local café, Café Loco, which was packed with young Indian students. Today, it’s summer, Moor Park is green, the Café Loco has shut early.
Moor Park is a conservation area, stuffed full of 1930s Art Deco houses and a fine parade of upmarket shops. (No betting shops, no fast food joints here.) The landscape is manicured to within an inch of its life. Everything is neat, prim, proper. This is the sort of place where appearances are kept up, except that as I’m taking photographs a car steams up with mother and teenage daughter inside, locked in furious argument. I am not your secretary! screams the mother. The daughter exits the car pale-faced, tight-lipped, staring straight ahead. Nothing is perfect in this life, I think, that’s the beauty of life.
I get back to the station at five o’clock. There is still no Station Attendant. I decide to call an end to my Labyrinth hunting. I get back to Forest Hill about quarter past six and walk back through the Albion Millennium Green. I muse again on Maria Strutz’s Labyrinth. Life is short, but sometimes art isn’t long, it’s mutable. But the other lines from Hippocrates ring true – opportunity is fleeting, experience perilous and decision difficult. That’s what labyrinths tell us (amongst other truths).
I tally up my Labyrinths. Out of seven stations visited, I’ve spotted two Wallingers, three if you count the one at Monument, plus the generic poster, plus Maria’s.
Later that evening I go onto the web where I find a map of the stations showing the Wallinger Labyrinths. There are none at Mile End or Moorgate, but somehow I missed the ones at Mill Hill East and Moor Park. It’s not too bad, I think. A score-draw, I think.
I’ve finished Burnside, so I take out the Murakami from my backpack. Somehow I’ve bought the wrong Murakami from Waterstones. I haven’t got 1Q84 Book Three. I’ve picked up A Wild Sheep Chase. How did that happen?
Har! Har! The Inner Curmudgeon harrumphs. Too much mulling! That about sums up today!