The writer Chris Hall, that redoubtable Ballardian observer of the craziness of the modern inscape, recently sent me a link to an Evening Standard item on the redecoration of the Brixton branch of McDonald’s. It may well be that others of these low-esteemed eateries have been similarly tricked out; but if it’s Brixton alone, either the higher-ups in the chain’s chain are complete and utter bastards, or they’re unbelievably shrewd.
I was going to write about the Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney pudding this week, which isn’t so much a meal as a world entire, but then there was this . . . incident. And so it is I return once more to Pizza Express, and gladly.
Yes, it’s official: standing on busy escalators is faster than walking up (or down) them. Research undertaken by my favourite local transport provider, Transport for London, has conclusively proved that if people stand on both sides of the escalator during peak travel times, the numbers carried can increase by as much as a third.
Well, for once that’s a piece of good crowd news in our febrile and fissiparous world, guiding us towards sensible mass behaviour of a type to appal Yevgeny Zamyatin: think We, people, not a Beckettian I. TfL’s aim is to introduce standing-only escalators at some of its busiest and deepest stations in order to cut down on congestion.
Of the film adaptations that had been made of his work during his lifetime, JG Ballard vouchsafed to me that he liked Jonathan Weiss’s version of The Atrocity Exhibition the best. It was hardly a surprising verdict; the movie, released in 2000, eschews any of the easy certainties of narrative for a furious collage of extreme images – urban wastelands, nuclear explosions, penises rhythmically pumping in and out of vaginas – all to the accompaniment of a voice-over comprising near-verbatim passages from the quasi-novel. And as the book is a furious collage of extreme images, the film is of the highest fidelity imaginable.
Some psychogeographer or other has stencilled a phone junction box on our road with this apposite slogan: “Have You Ever Walked Down This Road Before?” To which the answer always is: “Yes, thousands of times, because it’s the way to the Tube station.” In fact, the walk to this Tube station is almost exactly the same distance as the walk to East Finchley Tube station that I made from my natal home, twice daily, throughout my childhood; so, embarking on it, I feel myself to be a Start-rite kid yet again – and for ever. Then, when you round the junction box, you see on its other side this slogan: “Do You Know What’s Around the Corner?” To which my answer – both existentially and geographically – is all too often: I haven’t a clue.
A little under a year ago I wrote in this place about an encounter I’d had with Barry Sheerman MP and a Virgin Trains snack box on a train travelling from Manchester to London. At the time, what most bothered me about the snack box was its weird appearance: the cardboard printed with photo-real wickerwork so as to give the impression it was a sturdy hamper full of wholesome victuals ideal for a leisurely picnic lunch, rather than the flimsy packet of salty and sugary titbits Richard Branson was “giving” me for my real-life meal.
It’s difficult, simply sitting alone in a small room in south London, really to get a feel for how mass human behaviour is affecting the world. But it’s too cold in late February to go out much, and besides, by this point in winter, my sense of autonomy has been so savagely eroded that I fear for what little sense of individuality I have – if I stand next to as few as two others I can sense myself being sucked into a maelstrom of the masses. So, this week, I have decided to trust to algorithms rather than observation and I offer you the top “lucky seven” maddened crowds as compiled on our behalf by Google News. It took 0.53 seconds for the HMRC-compliant search engine to come up with a humongous crowd of 91,600,000 results – so I hope you’re grateful I’m not doing the entire countdown.
The other day, I bought a chocolate-chip cookie from a little boy called Rocco who had set up a stall round the corner, stocked with all sorts of buns, muffins and other home-baked goodies, in order to raise money for SportsAid. “How sweet is that?” I thought, as I handed over my dosh – but when I passed by again a few hours later, I found that Rocco’s little stall had transmogrified into just one of the hundreds of branches of Rocco’s Patisserie, all of which were decorated like a pseudo-French café and were now serving ghastly, industrially produced sugary comestibles at inflated prices.
That we always kill the thing we love may be a tedious truism, but that can’t make us feel any better when the warm body that we once cuddled and cooed to is lying on the ground at our feet while our hands are bathed in its warm red blood. Last week, the head of the UN World Tourism Organisation, Taleb Rifai, spoke out, saying that travel as “a celebration of life” is under threat. Rifai, of course, was referring to tourism, rather than a broad idea of travel.
The academic requirement for the psychogeography module that I teach at Brunel University London is in two parts. First, there’s a fairly straightforward essay question that gives students an opportunity to display their erudition when it comes to the antics of the surrealists and situationists, or the high-flown ramblings of the English Romantics. Then there’s a special project. The idea for this is that the students undertake their own version of a dérive – the aimless drift through the city that is the raison d’être of seriously flippant flâneurs – and document it in any way they please.