Item #47: (dirty) map of pedestrian topography
The migratory habits of commuters, moving back and forth as they do along their rigid schedules like shuttles on an automated loom is a ritual I have observed with much interest since I noticed the great changes, the great unhinging, which is taking place all around. I thinks to myself that, of all the other rituals, customs and routines likely to be interrupted by a citywide crisis or disaster, the weekday movements of this species of citizen is so regular, so precise, that even the smallest of variations in movement, direction or purpose might be detected along the ventricles and arteries surrounding the heart of the financial city. My purpose being to reach the ‘heart’ of this problem, (to strain the metaphor a little more towards cracking,) makes this environment – ‘The Square Mile’ as people call it - eminently suitable for a field-study.
Joining the main flow of commuters on the south side of London Bridge as it flows towards King William street I find that I am not at all able to detect anything out of the ordinary; there is evidently a strong will governing this movement, and I wonder what on earth could ever be strong enough to disrupt it. Yet still the desire propelling this ritual on its inexorable course, even if it had been corrupted and eaten away from the inside, is not guaranteed; had there been a crisis or disaster on the scale which I suspect to have occurred, large groups of people may continue their rituals, perhaps even for centuries in order to feel secure, to deny the fact of the event, or even just because old habits die hard. I continue then towards the end of the A3 where The Square Mile begins.
The flow of pedestrians expands and contracts as it enters the north side of the river, ready to split and divide into the arterial roads and the small, inferior veins leading into the workplace. At this point five roads begin: Cannon Street, Gracechurch Street, King William Street, Eastcheap and the A3 to Portsmouth - at their centre is a small island, a concrete slab with two entrances leading to an underground toilet. Feeling in sudden need for urines I head toward the gents entrance, but on my approach I am deflected by a series of arms and feet which push me off towards Cannon Street. I manage to ditch myself in a corner so as to avoid being swept all the way down to Shoreditch High Street and gather myself to move in for a second attempt. But my second attempt proved as futile as the first, and I was pushed into Costa Coffee on the East side of the island. Shuffling myself into a spit-ridden corner where I might keep out of the vicious flows and undercurrents passing through the street, I decide to put the toilet under observation.
Between 08:13 – 10:42, not a single person enters the lavatories. The amount of people who made it to the centre island in this time period is 2,392, (although there might have been twice that number for all I really know.) I figure the odds against an occurrence such as this – not one person requiring urines - are very remote indeed.
At 08:37, a man almost miscarried when he got caught in an eddy created by a sudden wave of commuters and was forced down into the mouth of the lavatory entrance. He recovered quickly enough however, having only been carried a few steps down before being able to re-join the flow outside again. As he walked off I noticed he was looking all around him guiltily, as though someone might have seen.
At around 10:42, (after the main rush had petered out,) I saw a woman, (who judging from her apparel was a tourist, a foreigner,) walk straight across the road and down into the ladies’ convenience. She was shortly followed by another woman approximately 7 minutes later, perhaps her elderly mother or something. At any rate, they had not left by 13:20 when I packed up and left so I have no idea what might have happened to them down there. They might be stranded for all I know.
Perhaps it’s something to do with being underground? Obviously, the flow inside the financial heart is channelled into moving upwards - like the rise of the tall buildings here, or the implied direction of the ‘social ladder’ metaphor. Perhaps this downward staircase creates a symbolic ‘blockage’ in this flow, a direction everybody wants collectively to deny? I don’t know, and detest guesswork in such matters. At any rate, nobody’s going down into these toilets.
These are some of the kinds of toilets I have been examining today inside the Square Mile, reading from left to right: Leadenhall market (public toilet), Pret a Manger cafeteria, Liverpool Street station (customers only), Spitalfields market (public toilet) and the Corn Exchange (public toilet). These are the input level of that vast and abject subterranean machine that governs the movement of waste. But none of these toilets have been used. I came here three days ago to lay a trap to confirm my suspicions about something odd happening in the digestive processes of the City. At twelve different strategic locations I tied a hair to the lock on the doors of each of them so that I could detect if anybody had used them since then. When I returned to each location today, the hairs were all unbroken, confirming to my mind that nobody is needing the toilet inside the Square Mile.
With greater resolve than on the previous couple of attempts, I decide to wait until the rush-hour migration has begun to decline along the bell-shaped curve governing this movement, in order to assail the Cannon Street lavvies. Fuck only knows why. Anyway, someone has scrawled the ‘n’ out of Cannon, so it now reads Canon Street. Or rather, Cannon Street. I chart a direct approach to the stairs from the level crossing, walking at a medium pace, and then descending the staircase in an ordinary fashion.
But as I reach the bottom step, suddenly I find myself out on the street again.
Confused at this state of affairs, I move in for another attempt. I chart a tangential angle to the mouth of the lavvies, and walk a little faster to get my blood up and be a bit more alert this time. I walk quickly down the steps, allowing gravity to pull me down faster by only treading gently.
Again, as I go to touch the bottom step which connects to the chamber of the men’s toilets, I emerge back out onto the pavement, as though my context had been suddenly altered. In the heart of the Financial City, this paradoxical toilet is situated as on a board of existential ‘snakes and ladders’. Like going down becomes going up, or rather, here, you just can’t afford to go down in the world.
Examining the maps provided me by Thames Water PLC, I have discovered that the sewer pipes being blocked up by representatives of that water authority have effectively created one of two situations: either they are laying siege to The Square Mile, choking the area with a political stranglehold over the corporations therein, or they are helping to effectuate an exclusion zone over the Financial heart of the city, segregating the area both to prevent incursion by outsiders, and to create a culturally hygienic atmosphere for its authorised occupants. At any rate, no waste leaves this district, (due to the unusual degree of anal retention displayed by the commuters, who have discontinued their use of toilets,) and neither does any pass through, (on account of the activities of the water authority, who have blocked all the major waste pipes along the perimeter of The Square Mile.)
What effect is likely to precipitate from this situation, inside and outside of this area, is uncertain. Most probably, within a certain radius the sewer-system will collapse under the strain created by these blockages and this area of the city will be obscured by a foul-smelling curtain drawn about its perimeter – of blocked drains forever becoming backed up with more waste unable to leave the city, spreading across the metropolitan area, evicting residents as it goes, pushing the frontier of this exclusion zone ever further back in its dreadful wake.
But I cannot know the motive for the actions of the water authority; neither can I know upon whose behalf they are exercising such insensible reforms to the sewage network. They may be assisting in some corporate scheme to push the price of land here through the roof by making the whole rest of London into a filthy sewer for all I know. But there is also the possibility that the water authority is acting in its own nefarious interests to some purpose which as yet is unclear. Certainly it is too early to tell.
Ducking into an abandoned ground-floor apartment on the Golden Lane estate, (an area which only recently was densely populated, though now the bulk of social housing here stands tenantless,) I observed a pair of utility men working at what at first I believed to be the same activity as the others – shoving dead dogs into the main pipe to block it up – but something arounsed suspicion in me. Perhaps it was the way the taller of the two men turned his head from a passing car that did it, but there was something which caused me to believe that these two men were not with the water authority. I watched for some thirty minutes or so, and eventually concluded that they were trying to power-flush the dead dogs out of the pipe in order to keep the sewage moving through this area. It is my conjecture that the men pictured here are working on behalf of some renegade faction in the immediate Old Street area which does not wish to be annexed from The Square Mile, and is preserving a corridor for itself onto the island, should things take a turn for the worst.