Viewed from its bridges and from certain high vantage points, such a Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath, the city of London broadens into a series of postcard panoramas. In the thick of the tall buildings that branch out in every direction from around its sprawling centre, the capital condenses into long vistas, offering occasional, incomplete glimpses of famous landmarks that loom in distance. It’s often the surprise sighting of one of these icons of metropolitan architecture that first alerts you to the fact that, somehow, you have been turned around by the slow creep between the compass points of an apparently straight road, and that you are now walking in a direction other than the one you intended.
If the grand sweep of London’s infrastructure is imposing enough to monopolise the attention, then it’s the city’s underground rail system that puts the capital’s human geography under a microscope. Close proximity to people from every conceivable background and nationality forces your concentration away from the conflicting eye-lines of your fellow passengers and onto the tiny revealing details lurking elsewhere about their person - the grazes on the worn, supple black leather of a woman’s handbag; the little finger of the Indian lady exploring the maze of her outer ear.
You might, with the rattle of the train drowning out all but the loudest elements of a song on your iPod, fixate your gaze a few inches to the left of the man sitting directly opposite, on the raindrops clinging to the window behind him: The vibrations of the carriage causing them to make a stammering, downward-diagonal transition across the pane, and your own faint reflection, before merging into the rubber seal.
Make these journeys regularly and every so often you will encounter a person whose innate charisma draws your attention towards them and encourages you to look in spite of yourself:
The sparsely populated carriage of the District Line train, travelling in the direction of Tower Hill and beyond, was showing it s age in an archaic layout and dated upholstery.
A beautiful, middle-aged woman occupied one of the isolated seats near the doors, which in moments of standing room only are reserved, by social convention, for the elderly, the disabled and the heavily pregnant. Her face was heavily, but skilfully, made-up. Her silver-grey fur hat, long dark hair and eastern European features made me imagine her as Russian. She was wearing a thick, black woollen coat decorated with a white paisley design that achieved complexity through repetition.
Resting on her lap was a musical manuscript, printed out over several sheets of A4 paper, with accompanying hand-written annotations and other passages that had been highlighted in yellow florescent marker. Pausing over one section she resolvedly pursed her lips and whistled a single line of melody in a manner that was both controlled and utterly lacking in self-consciousness; it seemed her only intent was to explore and give body to the flattened, 2-dimensional notes on the page.
I disembarked from the train a few stops later, in the knowledge that I had been allowed a rare, unfiltered glimpse into another human soul.
(Various tube journeys – February – May, 2012)