The plastic wilderness

I’ve changed my mind again. I should really finish reading a book before I start passing comment on it.

I’ve followed Jay Griffiths into the Arctic, where she met people whose wilderness is my home.

P. 139: “Paul Amagoalik in Resolute, said, “To me, cities are wild: the concrete jungle.” Elders going to Ottawa for medical appointments have found themselves totally lost. Alexina Kublu spoke of being “be-wildered” in London.”

Perhaps I wasn’t being so presumptuous after all.

I spent a nervous hour this evening waiting for the flying woman outside the Curzon Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (my phone had died, so I had no way of confirming our plans, and was hoping she’d stick to the tentative rendezvous, and hadn’t tried to get in touch to suggest something else), watching the rush-hour traffic and marvelling at the chaos that I never really notice when I’m in the thick of it. Massive disorderly stampedes of taxis and motorbikes, shoals of cyclists, all crammed onto far too small a road, all going at different rates and in different directions – then just to add to the confusion of it all, flocks of pedestrians going against the flow, trying to cross the erratic stream of traffic, fighting their way through the current, standing on the islands and playing chicken with the cars.

Shall I cross now?
No, I’ll wait in the middle.
No, I’ll cross.
No – I’ll wait.
Oh, the car’s stopping for me!
No no, it’s not safe.
No, wait, I’ll cross…

Thousands and thousands of moving objects, all unpredictable. They may know where they’re going, but I don’t. How could I ever hope to navigate that?

A city is the chaos borne of too many different orders; everything has been planned, designed and manufactured, yet at every moment the arbitrary, the unexpected, the vague, the random, the sudden, slaps us in the face. Everyone in a city is partially bewildered (yes, even the cabbies and the cycle couriers) because of all its different landscapes – the physical, the historical, the personal – which coexist in exactly the same place, yet are disparate and mutually unintelligible. I know my London; I don’t know yours. I can beat my own path through the traffic, but from my seat outside the Curzon, I can’t imagine how anyone else finds theirs.

It’s an artificial, plastic, ersatz wilderness, but it’s wilderness nonetheless.

I don’t often feel lost in London, but every now and then, usually when I’m off the bike, and therefore not in my element, its terror suddenly strikes me afresh, and I wonder how I’ll ever find my way out of this chaos. Being in an unfamiliar city – even one’s own – is like listening to someone talking in a foreign language, eagerly catching at the one or two words you recognize, or the English words the person drops in, even though this doesn’t improve your understanding of what they’re actually saying. Or like tuning a radio, and suddenly hearing a few words of human speech in between the whistles and buzzes. As I sat and watched Shaftesbury in full flood, the cycle couriers who passed every few minutes stood out like beacons. Unexpectedly running into someone you know gives you the reassurance (or the illusion?) that it’s really not such a big bad world out there after all. One of the joys of London’s essential randomness is that the lines we draw through the city sometimes cross unexpectedly – the culmination of thousands of meaningless little coincidences; my being held up for an extra five seconds by that slow Brompton-rider, your EC1 pick-up meaning you go via Clerkenwell rather than Holborn.

Six o’clock came and went; I concluded that the flying woman must have had other ideas, and set off home, deciding to go via Charing Cross Road and Whitehall, rather than Haymarket and Pall Mall, simply because I didn’t fancy trying to cross Shaftesbury to go south. And as chance would have it, I ran into Gordon at Cambridge Circus, and stopped to chat. And as further chance would have it, right at that moment the flying woman flew up Charing Cross Road, late, and I stopped her and apologized for my phone almost ruining our plans, and all was well.

And one more thing, from Wild:

P. 150: “We are wild but tamed by television, controlled by Captain Clock, hemmed in by routine and obedience to petty convention. The more suffocatingly enclosed we are, the louder our wild genes scream in misery, aggression, anger and despair. In wildness is our self-willed, self-governing freedom, and such wild freedom blossoms within us, bubbles over with an anarchic ivresse of feeling. And we glint when the wild light shines. We are drawn to derangement and drugs and – living in a way that denies our natural wildness – we choose self-induced wildness of mind when we can.”

I often wonder about this.

Are cycle couriers really wild, really free? In some ways yes we are – we’re not stuck behind a desk, and we get to plot our own course, and make our own way through the city. And ride our bikes all day while everyone else sits inside envying us. And it’s exhilarating. But we still pick up whatever packages our controller tells us to, have to work the same hours every day or we’ll lose our ‘jobs’, and are completely dependent on the very system of commerce and capitalism we think we’ve bucked.

We’re a little more free than everyone else, and perhaps also a little less.

Which is perhaps the perfect example of how the plastic wilderness of the city is constructed. Within the great tangle of overlapping systems, between the countless layers of different authorities, there’s the potential and spontaneity that could only come from such a near-infinite number of choices. We’re not really free – after all, there are only a certain number of roads you can take. But nonetheless, London has so many roads that we might as well be.

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8 Responses to “The plastic wilderness”

  1. EoD Says:

    wait, no. actually i meant i love cake

  2. nickc Says:

    mmmmm, cake

  3. james Says:

    A little bit of pop philosophy I heard lately:

    “In a world driven by need one can never truly be free”

    Interesting article TMC, its nice to get a look into a more desirable world from behind my “desk” job!

  4. Darren Says:

    I am not a number, I am a free man.

    No wait, my number is P50 and I’ve got an overdraft..

  5. zero Says:

    Freedom is impossible. Take the money.

  6. Cake in a Box Lady Says:

    I was searching through Google doing research for a blog when i came across this article and I found it very informative and interesting even though it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for the info. Thanks Suzanne xx

  7. tim Says:

    to quote Janis Joplin:

    ‘freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’

    I have plenty to lose so I am no where near as free as I like to think I am.

  8. EoD Says:

    You should delete that Cake in a Box Lady’s comment; bare spam.

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