Chance and the City

Chance and the City

by Ana Kinsella

When you live and work in a city, any single journey is an opportunity. No matter how familiar the path, traversing it can lead to brushes with the unexpected, the surprising, the unfamiliar. Sometimes, it’s just the routine itself that can strike the traveller as so interesting – that I do this every day and that over time, this journey has become a part of me.

However, living in a city and making these same journeys over and over can also cause the very opposite effect. It can feel deadening to take the same train to the same office, or to cycle the same streets at the same time of day.

This is a lesson plan to remedy that deadening feeling — to reconnect with the wild chance that underpins life in the city. All you need to get started is a map of the territory and a journey you often take. This could be a commute to work or school, a walk to your favourite bar, a cycle to your partner’s flat, a bus to the train station that takes you to visit your parents.

For me, it’s riding a segment of the Circle Line, the yellow Tube line that loops loosely around the centre of London. The first thing to know about the Circle Line is that it is not a real circle. It is a loop with a tail, but it is not possible to ride the circle of the Circle Line around and around without interruption. To make the full loop, you must change trains at Edgware Road. But for my journey, I will be changing trains at Kings Cross and taking the Circle Line eastbound, a journey I have made countless times during my years living here.

The second thing to know about the Circle Line, or about any method of urban transportation, is that the maps we create for ourselves using it are not necessarily accurate, either. We do not move down a list of stations and tick off memories for each one. Life, human knowledge, experience — this is not how these things work. In reality, the way we map cities for ourselves is messy and personal.

You will make your journey four times, at intervals that suit you. You can repeat a step if you think you may benefit from it.

First, before you leave the house, draw the journey from memory. Accuracy or legibility are not important. Include instead anything that comes to mind that matters to you and to the way in which you conduct your journey.

The first journey
It’s impossible to come to a familiar and routine task with an entirely fresh mind. Even after a long break, like a pandemic, the traveller brings with her all of her memories and associations from the times when she used to make this journey. So forget all notions of objectivity. Today, we focus on chance.

Sliding Doors (dir. Peter Howitt, 1998)
In Sliding Doors, the action turns on the possibilities of a missed train. In one version of her life, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) boards the Tube in time and arrives home to see her boyfriend in bed with another woman. In the other version, she misses the train and ends up getting a taxi home. It takes her hours, giving her boyfriend time to cover his tracks. She remains oblivious to his infidelity.

In stories like this, and in our own thinking about our lives, so much weight is given to the power of What if? On this journey, you will concentrate instead on the possibility of OK, so this. I have boarded the train. I have taken my seat. This is the version of life that I am living.

Between the first and second journeys
The key to leaving yourself open to chance is noticing. A keen eye and a sharp ear are the tools necessary for opening up the part of yourself that often shuts down during the run-of-the-mill commute. There are several good templates for urban noticing listed below; the most important thing, really, is to find the means of noticing that works for you. Something that makes you feel a part, potentially, of whatever the world would like to show you.

The second journey
‘Cities’, Talking Heads
It’s no accident that you have ended up here, remember. Even for those city-dwellers who still reside in the same place they were born, living in a city always involves an element of choice. For some it feels like the only choice available: big cities are often refuges for those who are not at home anywhere else. Either way, every journey, every morning is a matter of waking up and deciding. The rhythms of ‘Cities’ by Talking Heads suit the feeling of moving underground through London. Its lyrics put the role of personal choice of location foremost: find a city / find myself a city to live, David Byrne sings over and over.

A journey is a series of choices. Today, maybe you will make a different choice from usual. You will disembark at an earlier stop and walk the rest of the way, or you will divert your walking route through the park, taking the scenic route. In doing so, you might get a little distance from your own self, briefly, just for a moment. You might see something new.

Supplementary reading: Feminist City, Leslie Kern
Kern’s book imagines a city where women’s choices are accommodated fully. A feminist urban theorist, she writes chiefly from her own experiences living and working in London, though currently Kern lives in a more rural part of southeastern Canada. In addition to being a thorough investigation of what women might want and need from a city, Feminist City is also evidence that urban life can be perceived from the outside as well as in. You needn’t live in the city to have complicated feelings about your own place in it.

The third journey
Repetition is a powerful thing. It underpins so much of daily life — the repeated act of walking somewhere, of taking the same route. Repetition can flatten something, strip it of colour. It can also do the opposite. It can show us different angles, if we want it to. And different angles can give the traveller more space for herself, wherever she goes.

‘A Line Made By Walking’, Richard Long, 1967
Cyclegeography, Jon Day

In 1967, the sculptor Richard Long took a train from London to Wiltshire and walked back and forth across a field over and over again, until his footsteps tramped a visible path into the grass. Then he took a black and white photo of the line before leaving the field and returning home. 

Forty years later, the writer Jon Day takes a job as a bicycle courier in London, tracing rapid arcs through the city on two wheels and with his writing, making a study of the city from his saddle. Many of his routes are well-worn circuits, picking up important packages in Soho and bringing them to the East End or back again. His lines are made by bicycle, rather than on foot, but the message is the same — repetition can be illuminating. At the end of Cyclogeography, his book-length essay on cycling the city, Day visits Long and the pair discusses the pleasure of the body in motion as it leaves traces on the landscape it passes through.

The final journey
‘Wannabe’, Spice Girls
It’s not quite accurate to call the fourth journey the final journey, since the idea is that your journey is one you will make over and over. But this one is the most personal of all. This time, I can’t tell you what to do.

On my journey, I depart at Kings Cross St Pancras, which is the ultimate London Tube station for me. If my years-long experience of living in this city was condensed into a single day, Kings Cross would be where I arrive in the morning and where I leave from late at night, where I carry my worldly possessions through, where I accidentally shoulder into another commuter while I am distracted by my phone, where I am pickpocketed on the escalator or get stuck at the ticket barriers as my debit card stops functioning. 

Journeys through urban spaces like these work smoothly because we all agree to behave in certain ways — nobody speaks out of turn on the Tube, for instance. In ‘Wannabe’, the debut music video from the Spice Girls, the five women wreak a trail of disorderly havoc as they pass through the Grand Hotel at St Pancras. Over and over, the girls encounter people who have agreed to act in one way — posh, elegant, stuffy people who are behaving themselves — while they themselves decide to act in the exact opposite. 

On arriving at your destination and completing the fourth journey, draw its route again. Let the pen meander on the surface of the paper this time. Think of how the journey itself has changed for you; and think also of how the journey may have changed you.