Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Trail to Get Lost: Between Old Street and Barbican by The London Archaeologist

Been doing consultancy work on a recent find in the West City area. Fascinating work, it would have seemed to me when work was something I could count on. Since it ceased being regular, though, I've found myself disengaging, staring out of the window during meetings, or wistfully up at the palisade from digs, thinking only of getting back to the street.

It's not that I know what to do once there, how to approach it, what I'll find. There are none of the protocols as there are on the site, which, for all the mud, ruin and mess, maintain at their best a rigour and purity aligning them with the lab, the operating theatre, the crime scene. The greatest enjoyment of the inner-city dig for me had been, I suspect now, less the research than this ritual, entering a space through a gate shearing it of connections with everyday life, which you might imagine has ceased going on around it. My outing this time was up Old Street. It was the way I'd been going to work every day, and I knew it well, but something drew me back, the suspicion that there were finds of some sort that way even if I couldn't yet know what. I'd made discoveries there before, what's was more - the Well, the nearby Eye hospital -, should be able to do so again.

At the outset as I went, the journey was hobbled, though, with doubt. All the time I'd been working, to have been waiting only for this: to set out as though to work but with neither hope of remuneration nor aim. Around me the street was as busy as it always had been, as purposeful, but with a purpose which appeared to have no place for me.

I looked into the faces of passers by. They appeared at their most normal, but this their most monstrous. A recent post of the Landless Landlord focused my mind a little, reminded me of my own, what I'd been after, if these could all, perhaps, be the angels, if I could find them that way, or what for want of other words I've elsewhere dubbed gods.

But for that, I'd have to see each one not as a person on the way to work, which was what I was doing, still, automatically: making my way to a job that wasn't there for me. Somehow I was going to have to lose not only this, but my sense of the way. Arrive at a dig, but one without recognisable difference from its surroundings, no protocol, no palisade, seamlessly, leave the city without a gate, only ceasing to recognise what I knew.

A major artery, Old Street nevertheless manages to keep a certain hectic intimacy of scale, and its role of drawing a definitive line between the City atmosphere of offices to the South from the northerly residential zones gives itself a mixed feel all its own. It was in Soho I'd realised the place in the window of the glass itself, the worlds in the images it brings. Here would surely be others.

My first recourse was to lose myself among the reflections of the design showrooms - office and residential, furniture, furnishings, paints -, computer shops, cafes, hairdressers, watch repairers, clubs, bookbinders and printers. The sort of place to place the Barbican towers by Parliament, this, in a poster shop, or in a bar draw a plastic monster through a shop front opposite. Propose designs for a plane tree, colour chart a brick wall, screen save a street. A low cloud hung over the morning, refusing to lift in line with the breakfast forecast. There appear to be types of lost, and even with the seemingly propitious combination of windows from which might be hoped to appear the other space, I sensed that something withheld itself.

The cloud was already beginning to clear as I glimpsed what I felt would be my final opportunity. I'd crossed the Fleet valley of Farringdon Road, where Old Street, already having changed nominally to Clerkenwell Road, becomes Theobold's Road, though retaining its atmosphere briefly until Gray's Inn, beyond which the story would have to change. The final shop, on the north corner of the street, would have to turn things around. I knew what was there from having passed before, tagged it for a resort. If the reflection in the window of a magic shop didn't work, nothing would.

With these in the memory as stimulus, I returned back down Old Street, something achieved, perhaps, more sensitive now, clearer about what I was looking for, and with the sun, at last breaking definitively through the cloud, on my side, lifting images from one side of the street to the other, suppressing one detail and replacing it with another, less congruous.

I was surprised to see lunch rush in the cafés. This was a good sign, as it confirmed that at some point I'd lost touch with the time around me, and I joined a queue for service with the reassuring sense of involving myself in a ritual not my own. Indeed, I had to join twice, not having understood the local technique: order first, collect a ticket, and only then queue to pay. That I might have been at the airport, the cinema, the doctor's or a fairground boded well.

Getting up from the terrace table, I abandoned the Old Street plan. Whatever I meant by being lost, I wouldn't achieve - or indeed, if I now was, maintain that state by remaining in a bounded space. I needed to leave the windows. Besides, the light on Goswell Street, north/south, was by now so sharp in contrasts they weren't needed.

Passers were by now behaving strangely, flitting out of the corners of buildings, lost too, in the sense, I wasn't sure that there was a difference, that they can't find their own way or that I couldn't find them in some other way.

Finally, a fence, a trail of tape leading to it and, through it, a sculpture I vaguely recalled from my days at the Museum of London, surely what I'd been looking for but could only now that it confirmed that I and those I'd been tracking had been lost know it. 


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