I’m in London, on a conveyor belt filled with zombies.
Nobody looks excited on an escalator. The standard expression on everyone’s faces seems to be “trying to reconnect – please hold” – somewhere between boredom and sensory confusion, as you discover that keeping your balance requires effort and you’ve actually forgotten how to do that. Everyone has furrowed brows and distant looks. If you look at anything except the metal step in front of you, you’ll get dizzy, sway and clutch the rubber handrail in terror.
Nobody looks around. Everyone’s an island.
Escalators are practical and ingenious. They also terrify like nobody’s business. Escalaphobia is a common fear in the modern world (and for anyone who suffers from it, please don’t click this) – but escalators are dull, not dangerous. Millions of people use them every day – London’s Canary Wharf Underground Station squeezes 20,000 people up and down 23 escalators every hour. They’re a blessing to knackered, cranky commuters needing to turn their legs and their brains off for a minute. On paper, they make perfect sense.
The one that spat me out into London St Pancras International was fast, efficient and perfectly boring. It surgically extracted 120 seconds from my life and a day later, I can’t see the scar. You’d think escalators would be a great advertising opportunity with a captive audience, but when I looked back down, nobody was looking at the walls. Nobody was looking at anything. Hardly anyone was moving. That was the weirdest thing. It was like a production-line in a factory that makes statues.
A lot of modern travel involves being frozen in place, as Rebecca Solnit notes here:
“Perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat or plane.”
– Wanderlust: A History Of Walking, Rebecca Solnit (2001)
I’ll spend the whole of that day travelling without moving – through the Underground, on a train, on a Megabus, on an East Yorkshire Services bus. Each time I assemble my things, settle in, peer out the window and fall into a dull-thoughted stupor. Ah, the dream of modern travel.
And since it all started with that escalator, it’d be easy to blame it.
In excess, escalators and elevators are crappy for your health, compared with taking the stairs. Of course, that kind of advice is really easy to ignore when you’re tired or fed up, so most of us are probably better off having stairs forced upon us in well-meaning acts of sadism.
But the world likes escalators. They’re kind to those who can’t take the stairs, and great for those too weary or lazy to take the stairs, and they’re only going to get longer – like this 688-metre monster in China.
So as with all modern tech, it’s up to us to decide how we use them.
When I’m not laden with enough luggage to break the axle of a Humvee, I use what I call Sowden’s Rule Of Earned Convenience, which favours novelty over comfort:
Where there’s a harder, longer, sweatier option available, you have to do that first, to earn the right to take the easier alternative.
I’ve been following this rule for about ten years even though I haven’t fully articulated it until recently. I’ve taken multiple walks across town while moving house, shouldering a backbreaking amount of my possessions, because using a bus or taxi first would have felt like cheating. I could do that later, but not first. When asked, I’d struggled to explain this. My friends looked at me like I was an idiot, and since I couldn’t explain it, I assumed they were right.
I’ve got off the bus early when going somewhere new, so I could introduce myself to it properly, honestly, the clumsy, deliberately humble way that covered me with mud and made my feet hurt. Staying with friends in Luxembourg this November, I was utterly delighted to miss the bus home, because it meant I could walk along the side of a very boring-looking road and find out if it was truly that boring and skippable. In doing so, I discovered this terrifyingly-looking abandoned property:
(Apparently it used to be a kindergarten. Insert comment about Luxembourgish parenting here.)
It’s not just misery-loving masochism to want to do it the hard way. There’s that weird sense of having earned something. Seasoned adventurers hear the call of it. It’s partly why people drag on lycra and go for a run in freezing January rain. They’re not just idiots. There’s something else at work as well – and it’s good for the soul, and for your awareness of the world around you.
So, just occasionally, try taking the long way round…
And then relax, because you’ve damn well earned it.
Every weekday this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?
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