Drag

The lights turned amber first. A quick calculation: I can’t make it. I change modes to brake. Slow gently, stop on the line. Right foot rests on the ground. I hear him approach, his engine is powerful, sounds sick. He stops; it stops grumbling. For a moment, nothing, then I hear him toot, gently. I turn, his expression almost apologetic. Not those fuckoff eyes you see on most guys. Especially behind a wheel. Funny what power does. His gesture, clear. Over to the side mate, give me space ahead. First, I rise. Then I smile and lower my eyes. Fair enough, he asked nicely. Though riled I am, I know he will pull away faster.

Unless…

Unless. I look over. Sideways now, not behind. I did a wiggle over to here, cut left and forward onto the crossing, then reverse roll-stepped myself back into place. Clear space ahead of him now. He relaxes. It doesn’t even make sense, the half-question in my head. Maybe important that it doesn’t.

The pedestrian lights are done. Cross lights green. Taxis and vans trundling over the junction. Damp, dark, mild night. Almost there. I feel my legs shudder.

They change. I hear his revs. Red-ambe-…Green. Squeal. Of course I’m never going to match it for more than a second. Still, my toes have never been more poised. Now they push. The connection from thigh through foot-pedal-wheel to the ground feels glorious. In touch. The bike responds like it knows me. He’s accelerating off, of course we’ve no race.

We are racing. His power is great, but my wheels are doing something that I cannot explain. 30mph. 40. 45. I’m both just holding on and in utter control. I look over to his wide side-turned eyes. I grin manically. My wheels are off the ground now. Still pedalling, I wonder vaguely where the lift is coming from. Still nose-to-nose with auto. Pupil to pupil, his turned upwards.

Ground resistance gone, things really start to move. Wind ripping through me, muscles singing. I fly on. In this state of elation, language fails me. Fuuuuuuuuuuuu Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah is all I muster. His face changed. I’m close enough, can still see. Pale, eyes shrinking. Then it gets dangerous to look over, past 90° now. I AM AHEAD. I know its over. My gaze straight, concentrate on this trembling steel frame don’t let it fail me. He is creeping, creeping out of my periphery. My fingers are screaming.

This is it. My nitrous hit. Up til now’s been a board game. The bike rears. I pulse. We go. Into the night up and out. First floor. Third floor. The road beneath, the city beneath, him beneath. Laughing shrieking spinning high. Tonight we raced and I won the sky.

Confidence

I rolled up to the red light. She was waiting.

Track stand. No wobble. Positioned at the front of queuing cars. Ready.

She rode a fixie. Her hair was done up tight. Her light blue frame was slim and cool blue. No helmet. Slender fingers wrapped around up-bars covered in brown grip tape.

Her hips were thrust out. Maybe for balance, maybe not. They said, clearly,

Yeah? What you got?

The lights changed. I set off after her but only for a fleeting moment: she was turning right. Nipped out before a van, and then was gone.

I carried on and marvelled. The very dust kicked up from her departing rear wheel oozed cool.

The old man of Furnival

If it were not for the engines it would be quiet here. There are footsteps, horns and jet propellers; only the promise of people exists.

Towering, it rose before me, over the water behind the houseboats. It stood black on black sky, yet quite distinguishable, the sky’s black heavily bordered with orange — the colour of our outpourings into the clouds. Its branches were short and held close to the body – snowman’s arms. Neatly spiked hair began where the trunk disappeared.

The therapeutic effect one tree had on me was strong, my heartbeat halved and breathing lulled. And in the comfort of the slowing, my head fuzzed and a different tower swam in. I was sitting on the Isle of Hoy, gazing out at the Old Man of Hoy, a great sea stack rising uninterrupted from the ocean. The cliffs commanded close attention. All the noises that people make were silenced. In their place rang out waves and wind the screams of cormorants. This wind was far greater than a sound and a brushing hand, it stung my eyes, brought saltwater to my lips.

I stood up, turned my face to the rain. I stepped forwards, compelled, until the next step would take me into the air. Like a grandfather clock the old man out at sea was keeping time. Not in hours or years but in deaths of mountains. This great column holds up everything that can possibly last, and still he crumbles and crumbles.

Movement below startles me, perilously. My eyes drop and meet those of a puffin, looking up from his perch almost at my feet. This funny little guy brings me back, first from the ocean to the land, then from the island, skimming far across the water and down our country’s length to Hammersmith, Furnival park. Wet grass becomes cold wooden bench. The old man has retaken his tree form and, as silently as ever, surveys the river.

A child is running towards me with quick light steps, haphazardly following the path of a drunkard, pink beanie hat bouncing with her gait. Two joggers follow her, their trajectories terribly sombre in comparison. They, in turn, are followed by a couple of dogs, small shaggy things, running recklessly and tumbling into one another as they misjudge how their own legs work. Finally a human couple who move at a leisurely pace bring up the rear of the parade, softening its pace.

I am alone again. Watching the skyline beyond the boats beyond the river beyond the bushes. This tree tower is less than the old man of Hoy: less striking, less wild, less majestic, less unitary. He stands not in the cold sea here, but in the warm streetglow. More close then, more friendly too. Trees line the night on both sides of him, branches upon branches, arms upon arms.

Pasqua and the life of coffee

Historic London works best in the rain. The foggy streets of Dickens and Doyle can be realised in a way in which they cannot in fine weather. On this dripping wooden door Holmes may have knocked, Fagin may have slunk. When the sun is out above this same door, old though it may be, it shall be framed above and behind by glass walls and plastic signs, glinting in twenty first century light. Only on dreich days may the past take over.

We were gathered under the door of the church of St. Michael, boasting an impressive façade, though easily missable as one walks along Cornhill just east of Bank. We were gathered here to be led on a tour of the earliest coffeehouses of London.[1] I was not sure what to expect, but was hopeful of a few good stories, perhaps linking our city, its ancestors, and how and where they began to drink the black liquid I rarely go a morning without. I was not disappointed. It turned out to be one story, about one man, a man named Pasqua Rosée.

It began in 1652. Three hundred and sixty years ago Pasqua arrived in London thanks to Daniel Edwards, a trader of Turkish goods. Mr. Edwards had apparently acquired a taste for coffee in Turkey and brought over a coffee-making servant to satisfy this new taste. The colourful foreigner stood out in his rather drab new home. His drink stood out too. In order to give townspeople a taste of it, when he was not serving his English master he set up a ramshackle stall in the courtyard behind the church, which was where we were led as we departed on our tour.

A small plaque commemorates him at this spot. We stood around it. Mostly we were coupled, old and young, our umbrellas slung readily by our sides, like swords, in warning to the sky. Then before us appeared the real Pasqua. In a loud, singsong Mediterranean voice he invited us to drink. He wore ballooning trousers and a waistcoat, and the colours of his clothes sucked out the only hints of light we could have seen around us on grey walls.

Despite coffee’s immediate popularity, he did not have an easy time. Innkeepers certainly did not like him for detracting from their business. Women, more oddly, complained about him also, even campaigned against him. This unholy drink, they claimed, was turning their husbands away from studious work and turning them into – one must gasp — gossiping fools!

We, the touring, gossiped none. We stood sipping tastes of Pasqua’s bitter coffee, listening. Despite opposition, coffee had been given its first foothold on London’s soil, and it wasn’t about to let go. Pasqua’s stall in the churchyard turned into a four-walled coffee house on Cornhill, a place for men to gather, gossip, sip and spit. (Buckets were provided for this purpose, for those who found coffee too foul to swallow.) The news of the day was held in highest regard here; a new piece of information about the world was demanded of patrons as they arrived to drink; a seat would only be made available to them upon its production. However, fanciful rumours would probably have been received as readily as evidenced facts.

Like whichever sort of stories did spread through that first café, so did the idea of the café itself; soon there were several. By the great fire in 1666 coffeehouses were numerous, and though the blaze wiped most of them out along with so much of the city, they bounced right back. Soon there were hundreds again, buzzing with debate, discourse, and of course, caffeine.

“Accessorize” in its black and pink lettering made me recoil. Engrossed in the story and the winding alleys as I was, return to the streets and shops of today shocked me. Fortunately on Lombard Street it is possible to ignore the last three hundred years. It is one of a few streets left with hanging signs outside its shops. The logos of our familiar companies, Barclays or Sainsbury’s, can appear antiquated when presented on wood hung from an iron railing. In the 17th century, we learn, pictures of cats hanging from these bars would have been known to advertise perfumists. A nail would have identified the coffin-maker, whilst a picture of an arm would have hung outside houses of vice and debauchery.

Going backwards in space or time requires a lot more effort than going forwards. Going forwards is the de facto state of being. We are drawn forwards, into and beyond the present day without doing any more than raising our feet. The ground runs like a silent treadmill. There is a direction too: we are drawn towards things. Wide streets, billboards bus stops and engines. These things are bright and big and loud; these things are the present. Narrow lanes, small chipped plaques and grimy windows; these are the things that require most effort to be attracted to, most effort to notice at all. Overcoming the momentum of the present thus requires slow quiet patience and attention. This is something not too familiar with many Londoners, including myself. It is worth the journey.

What became of Pasqua? In short, he disappeared. Perhaps to France or Germany, to take his drink back to the continent, perhaps he met his end in the hands of a spiteful innkeeper. What remains though, what grew out of that first stone he laid, was a dynasty.

There are three hundred and sixty Starbucks coffee shops in London today. One for every year since Pasqua arrived. Little remains of the spirit of the coffeehouse though. Even in small, independent, passionate coffee shops, newcomers are not greeted with calls for news. Newcomers are not greeted at all, save perhaps by a barista. Today’s cafes are insular affairs, for better or worse.

We last saw Pasqua under the eyes of the Siren. He stood amazed at this future, in part awed by how his drink pervades modern life, in part terrified at the face of the temptress who led the movement. For all, the story of coffee is a rich one. In the end it was too much for him. We, the watchers, stood with wide eyes in the rain as Pasqua turned his back on us and walked, swaying, towards the arches of a giant glass tower. We heard his cry echo off a high wall before, into the mist, he was gone.

Pull Courage, Pasqua, fear no Harms
From the besieging Foe;
Make good your Ground, stand to your Arms,
Hold out this summer, and then tho’
He’ll storm, he’ll not prevail—your Face
Shall give the Coffee Pot the chace.[2]

Pasqua Rosee

[1] Unreal city audio provided the inspiration for this post with their excellent tour. I highly recommend it.

[2] The coffee houses of old London. Retrieved on 20 May 2012.

The descent

The Shard is a strange name, but it is not, I suppose, so inappropriate. It cuts through the night, the clear yet ragged edge of many floors of lights, all slightly misaligned, growing ever more perilously up til their point. I am the point’s peer: it is us on top, all else below. I dwarf whole buildings, let alone lorries. I command kilometres: this is freedom.

32 storeys is a long way down. Vertigo does more than make me dizzy; it detaches me. Like a mirage, what they say is the real world shimmers far away.

I want to come closer by degrees. But it doesn’t work like that. It is abrupt. A discontinuous phase transition from ants to people under the harsh light of the elevator. It’s doors open smoothly. We are here. The people are life-sized again and I am among them. Cautiously I take steps. Traversing the lobby to another set of sliding doors, leading straight out.

Noise smacks me. Cars, taxis, buses, sirens, shouting and honking. The ants were quieter, too. And these full-sized men and women, oh what shapes and colours they are in the lamplit dark.

No longer indestructible, in this plane I am fragile too. A handbag brushes my thigh, a shoulder catches mine so I glance behind to dissolve any danger of a fight. A pair of bright red needle-heeled shoes pass me by clipping neatly as they go. They are followed by feet worn down and cracking, held off the ground by string tied to what is left of some piece of canvas or card. Led by yellowy brown nails, they too shuffle by. There is a figure is a black dress wearing pretty shoes whose hand, when it swings into view, gives away (with chunky knuckles) its owner’s not-so hidden gender. Hollers and cries and squeals come to me in bursts. On top of them a band plays a folky waltz in a doorway, bearded men on instruments with a hooded woman’s voice. Soho is in Friday night mode, and it is having fun.

Through an opening lit by red and blue, the descent continued. The conversation, amplified by fluorescent walls, filled up the air and overflowed back out the tunnel. I beeped my way through the turnstile and onto an escalator. From below me a gravelled voice cracked into life.

we gotta hold on to what we got
it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not

It spread fast, to one group and then a second. I felt the song in the air: it is not one to be hummed, rather hollered. It drove strangers’ faces up off the ground and into each others’ eyes. No one was in tune. No one cared.

woooaah we’re half way there
woooaaoh livin’ on a prayer

Rather than sinking down, I was lifted down into these depths. Buoyed by Bon Jovi; swallowed by the earth.

Roof Garden

Lights too high caught my eye. They sparkled.
It is dangerous to divide your sight between the road and other things though.
So I looked straight ahead as the van approached
crookedly. I held two and a half headlights in my gaze
until I was sure that I was seen. Then looked up

Above the top floor glowing window row there twinkled
Two trees so round with fairy lights surrounding them
And a little fence
Demarcating a perfect looking garden in the sky.

Something to shout about

Raised voices raise emotions. Three recent street encounters let me elaborate.

1. The good.

I stood at the junction of North End Road and Dawes Road, caught in one of those moments of great indecision, the sort that turns blood to glue, and bones to rock. It was over a rather trivial matter (it always is): whether to hurry home in order to depart again, or take my time and settle in for the evening. After some moments, with relief, I chose the latter. I turned to make my way up the road and as I did I heard a woman’s voice. It was deep, melodic and echoed off the buses. It came from a large woman in her mid-fifties who stood leaning off the kerb to be heard by the car that was stopped at the lights. I paused to observe, fearful that an angry confrontation was taking place. Fearful because it never feels good to clash like this, an angry honk on your way to work can really sour one’s mood; fearful because anger can only lead to fear.

But she wasn’t angry; she was giving directions. As the sounds turned into words I realised that they weren’t “get out of” or “what were you thinking”, they were “turn left on” and “keep going until”. My heart lifted and with it lifted off the heavy coating I had seemed to have been labouring under. The swiftness with which it happened surprised me. Having no reason to remain there I walked on and I played with these thoughts. Am I so malleable that I am twisted and changed by the chance encounters of double-strangers? (Strangers not only to me but also to each other.) Is one little moment of selflessness towards another so uplifting?

2. The bad.

I was on familiar roads in an unfamiliar seat. Replacing my saddle was the middle spot in a transit van. I was a metre above my usual road position and I felt it; it felt high. As we crossed Battersea bridge I watched cyclists skirt past us far below. I was surprised by how different the roads seemed. I, the van, was big and powerful, yet with that power came the threat I posed to others of which I always had to be aware. The gaps that look so comfortable in my cycling past had narrowed. I watched as a rider just ahead of us swerved out around a parked car. On a bike I would have found this fine; from the van it seemed almost dangerous. Well, I’ll try to remember how the world looks to such others when I return to my bike.

We stopped at lights at the same time as another van did beside us, and on the outside of him a scooter tried to squeeze past, failed, and bumped with some force into the side of van. He was fine — he hadn’t come off — but the scene exploded. Mr. Van jumped out and came storming round, screaming at Mr. Scooter even before he could see him. Mr. Scooter, in defence of himself, screamed back. It was the scooter’s fault, yes, but does this justify the tirade? As Mr. Van poured out whatever he had pent up, everybody in earshot winced. One man, as he crossed the road, made a half-hearted attempt to diffuse things, but his demeanour suggested that he wouldn’t get far. Finally the lights changed, Mr. Van, with a last yell, climbed back aboard, and as his engine chugged into life, I felt the outletting of breathes we had all been holding.

3. The ugly.

At a crossroads the pedestrian lights turned green with their “beep beep beep beep”. Crossers crossed, heads down and shopping bags in tow. One person caught me though, as I sat at the front of the line on my bike. In contrast to the quite careful, calculated avoidance of each other that takes place amongst Londoners, he was wildly oblivious of the world. Setting out from the kerb he barely made progress across the street as he careened in great circles. His thick, shabby, open coat waved out behind him like a cape. His words came in bursts. Most would have been intelligible singly, but the order in which he strung them together garbled them. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The detachment between him and here seemed absolute. I grew nervous as he came closer, both of the danger towards me his indiscriminate flailing arms might have and of what might happen if our eyes met.

He was still in the road as our lights turned green. I waited, unsure. The cars behind me did not though, they pulled past me, then him, weaving around us carefully but hurriedly. As the 207 trundled past his voice was all but drowned out. Then I too, set off past him, to continue with my day.

So I’m scared to look at mirrors just in case I start to shout