London In A New Light
The play ‘The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time’ by Mark Haddon contained a delightful Easter egg. After the curtain came down and the audience had risen and was putting on coats, the lead actor came back on stage and delivered the speech he could not perform in the play due to his autism. He manages it flawlessly, in full. It’s a triumphant moment.
Small moments of triumph are, I’m starting to discover, something that any disability of any level must involve. Since my eye operation I’ve been rendered effectively blind, because I had the same problem in the other eye to a lesser degree a year ago, but didn’t get that one fixed.
So, the first big blunder: It was raining hard when I left the hospital and there were no cabs. Three tube stops, I thought, I can manage that. It was rush hour, and I had to change at London’s most confounding station, Baker Street. Suddenly I knew how the boy in ‘Dog in the Night-Time’ felt when he hit a station for the first time. Noise, chaos, confusion, a blur of fast-moving primary colours and searing flashes, everything wavering and jumping out. I felt the ground sliding away from me and was forced to follow wall tiles by touch.
The secret was dropping my speed down to almost nothing and concentrating hard, but that caused people to slam into me. I’d broken tube law; I wasn’t behaving how everyone behaves on the underground, moving quickly and purposefully. When you walk differently to everyone else, you strip the cogs from the machinery that keeps everything turning smoothly. People on phones randomly careen into you without apologising or looking up. They’re not mean, just preoccupied and pre-programmed. On a bicycle you see the bizarre way pedestrians behave, strolling into cars and simply never noticing bikes. This year a cyclist killed a pedestrian and the press demonised the cyclist, but now I wonder about that judgement.
There was one other problem on the tube; change of pressure. When our train passed another one my head nearly exploded. Last night I walked to a restaurant in the dark. No light was much easier than conflicting light. But kerbs betray and shadows lie. Things that are three dimensional appear flat, and vice versa. Signage must as well be in Russian (actually not true; I have some Russian – signage is in hieroglyphics).
When Ken Livingstone was London mayor I disagreed with many of the things he did, but he made the South Bank of the Thames accessible to the mobility challenged, so that I was able to push my wheelchair-bound mother from Westminster to Southwark. There’s so much more we could do. London’s level of cycle deaths soared under the cycling mayor Boris Johnson and it remains unacceptable. London’s ancient road layouts will always be a curse, but so will its weather. In Europe one sees more elderly infirm people enjoying life simply because they can get out easily and safely.
For now, each day is a rather interesting chance to learn about how the brain processes information. The biggest curse for me this year – fairy lights. London does Christmas spectacularly well, with each neighbourhood designed differently. King’s Cross is covered in multi-coloured lights and they’re shorting out my cortex.