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Life in the big smoke

An intimate knowledge of the Blackwall Tunnel

I can smell it before I see it. That’s when it’s time to turn on the button that stops any air coming in from the outside and starts recycling the air inside the car. At least that’s what I think the button does.

For eight months we’ve been driving from north east London to south east London almost every day. We live in the north east and the studio is in the south east. The drive takes around forty minutes and it crosses the river. That means going through the Blackwall Tunnel, the exhaust-fumed Victorian tube linking the East End and the south.

On the A12 going down to the tunnel there is a lot of bad driving. Cars changing lanes without indicating, cars gliding across three lanes without looking, cars speeding faster than all the other cars which are already driving too fast in the first place.

I don’t drive, yet. I tell myself that I will learn and dare to get behind a British car on a British road sometime soon. But motorways like the A12 frighten me and I wonder how it’s possible to keep an eye out for all of those things that might go wrong. I’ve been promising myself that I will take a few driving lessons and then get behind that steering wheel, but just not this month.

Gerry drives and without the car our commute would take about an hour and a half. We need the car. We also need the Blackwall Tunnel.

A couple of months ago there was fuel spill from a faulty hydraulic crane. The northbound tunnel had to be resurfaced and was shut for 20 hours. We drove to the studio in the morning, wondering why the roundabouts were jammed, the traffic curdling on the roads. The south east seized up.

During the day each car that ventured out added to the problem until most roads around the studio were at a standstill, queues of traffic stretching from eastern Woolwich to Tower Bridge and for ten miles down the A2.

We waited and hoped the tunnel would be fixed later in the evening. Around 6pm they were still working on it, around 8pm they were still working on it, at some point someone announced on Twitter that the tunnel wouldn’t be open until the next morning. So we waited some more, thinking people would start taking their cars and their exhausted selves home. We waited until 11pm and traffic was still bad, but we had to get home ourselves.

It took us thirty minutes to drive a few miles. At the junction to the A2 a tired police officer spoke to each car that crawled toward the traffic lights. He told us there was no point continuing, that the best way to get home was to drive east, take the Dartford tunnel and continue on the M25 home. There was hardly any traffic further east. It took us about an hour and a half to get home.

We were lucky. In 1996, on my birthday, someone drove a Mercedes truck into the steel frame supporting the tunnel. The accident caused one of the worst traffic jams in the city, 250 000 drivers were brought to a standstill for eight hours.

The tunnel is stinky and slow. The sign at the mouth of the northbound entrance telling drivers how many cars have broken down in the tunnel hasn’t changed for months. It’s one of the least safe tunnels in Europe. No one talks about it fondly (“commuting through the tunnel? You’ll learn to hate it”), but without it London freezes.

And almost every morning and evening we use it to dip below the river, sometimes I count the green signs along the walls that tell me how far it is to each exit, sometimes I swear at the car ahead for swerving close to the other lane or the motorbike zipping and roaring ahead, sometimes there’s a traffic jam and it takes ages to get through to the other side, sometimes a wave of break lights turn the whole tunnel red.

When you enter the tunnel there is a wooshing sound, like the sea crashing against the shore or waves rolling overhead. The murky water of the Thames is just above us. I never think about that in the tunnel.

Image by Caleb George.

Harvest

September. A return to routine. Time to re-focus as the year prepares for the curtain to drop. The beat speeds up and the days rattle along. The nights fight back. Nature knows what’s coming, the trees drop their leaves and pulls energy back to the core. Autumnal storms whip away the dead weight of summer. I look at the calendar and realise I have to do the same. Only a few months and so much left to do.

I’m looking at all the plans in front of me, wondering where to find any dead weight. We’re moving to a new house. We’re going up to Scotland to walk the hills. And then there is the new writing project. Slim, trim, cut away to make space for all of those things that matter. But I thrive when the focus narrows, when life switches on tunnel vision and there is only one thing that matters. That’s one of the perks of my job as a journalist. The deadlines allow me to dig deep into one topic, to focus on one task and allow everything else to fade. The deadline of a new year sometimes help me to finish the projects I started on lazy spring days when there was so much time and wholesome summer months to look forward to.

I like to think seasonally. To sow the seeds in the spring, toil, relax and allow things to grow in the summer and harvest in the autumn. It never really works out as perfectly as that, because living is messy. But I enjoy the rhythm underneath it all. I did start the new writing project in the spring. I’ve worked throughout the summer. I will keep working and perhaps there will be something to harvest in about a year.

ps. You might have noticed the new layout. Thought it was time for a change.

Image by Andrew Small.

Back to the river

Every day stuff floats in on the tide and then out again, empty coke bottles, plastic cups, tennis balls, pieces of wood, condoms, plastic bag, the left-overs of life along the Thames. The tidal movement is called ebb and flod in my native Swedish. Not so different from the English, but those are the words that find me first. Nature is where I stumble. I know what a buzzard is in English, but I have to use wikipedia to translate it into Swedish. Ormvråk. I know what a Gös is, but a Zander means nothing.

We went back to Finland for two weeks. One day we visited my grandmother and in the afternoon we stopped by the cottage in her garden, the bagarstuga. There is a great bookshelf in the bagarstuga. The shelves look like half-smiles and the books look like unruly teeth sticking out in all directions. I went there to try to find some extra things to read during the holiday, but most of the books were in Spanish, French, German, Russian and Finnish. My grandmother learned and tried to learn many languages.

The attic at the bagarstuga smells of dry dust, a sweet grainy smell that takes me back to being seven or nine and making up adventure stories in family attics. We looked at the glass vats my grandmother used for making wine and at the old hammers and saws and the spinning wheel that must have belonged to my grandmother’s parents. We also found a few large leather folders wrapped in old newspapers, unwrapped them carefully, untied the strings holding them together and found a selection of pressed wildflowers. Next to the flowers was a tidy description of where and when they had been picked and their name in Swedish and in Latin. My grandmother’s brother’s homework over the summer. My parents also picked and pressed plants during their summer holidays, that’s how they learned the names. Today it’s different. We’ve lost the names so we look at nature without seeing it.

At the summer house I read Ryszard Kapucinski’s reportages from Africa. In one chapter he talks about the difficulty of describing and understanding the nature around him when he doesn’t know the real names of what he’s seeing. Without knowing the local name, how could he understand the essence of the tree he was sheltering underneath. It was a good book and it was a good holiday, but now I’m back in the studio next to the river, trying to remember the English names of some things and the Swedish names of others.

Thoughts like elephants balancing on a pin

In my apartment block there is a girl who always sits outside her flat with her laptop. She has a desk set up on the balcony and that seems to be where she works. No matter how early I get up in the mornings she’s there. Today London is cold and she’s wrapped up in a jacket.

I’m a bit envious of this girl. In my head she gets up at six, does yoga and then meditates for a while. Then she drinks a green smoothie and starts writing her morning pages on the balcony. When she’s done she moves onto working on her next novel. Or perhaps she works on some big commission about that year she spent living in a small cottage on a remote Scottish island. Maybe she’s writing a gonzo piece about working as a cleaner in the City.

All of these things of course say more about me than they do about anyone else and writing them down feels a bit embarrassing. But there you go. I’m comparing myself to virtuous-writer-girl because my own daily routine has been a bit messy this year. I feel like I’m lagging behind and trying to catch up. My days have been shunted forward. If we commute into the new studio at rush hour we end up stuck in traffic so on many days we sleep in and leave at ten. Then we work late, because there is no point leaving at rush hour in the evening. We come back late and the cycle repeats itself. For a morning person this is frustrating. I imagine all the people I work with noticing my emails arriving later and later each morning and a big chorus tutting “well, she gets up late”. I know this is totally irrational.

We’re planning to make a final move south of the river, to find a house or an apartment somewhere nearer the new studio. This move will happen at some point in the coming months. Before then it’s difficult to settle on a routine. I used to think I liked change, but the move is making me nervous. It will be like moving to a new city. Further away from friends and places I know.

As I was running these things over in my head a few nights ago the silliness of it all struck me. I’ve been doing that thing again where everything becomes heavy. Events in the past and the future bubble up and turn into big mountains, casting large shadows over everything else. I start putting a lot of weight on certain things, like balancing elephants on the top of a pin. Life is supposed to be light. As I laid awake that night I realised all I had to do to make things easier was to change my perspective. There is no script to follow to the letter. Most of the time no one decision or thing will cast as long a shadow as I think. Wait and see, wait and see, is all I have to tell myself. I don’t have to be perfect.

I’m working from home today. When the sun hits my balcony I’m going to take my coffee outside, close my eyes and breathe.

Image by Lauren Mancke.

Settling in next to the river

I’m sorry it’s been a bit quiet here lately. The truth is I’ve been a bit unsettled, slightly more unsettled than I thought I would be, by all this change. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Of moving and getting to know a new part of London. I’m trying to prepare myself for some of the other changes that are coming. But I’m still in-between. So I’m focusing on the details, the small things.

We’ve moved to the studio next to the river. When we arrive in the morning the banks along the Thames are muddy. In the afternoon the tide flows back and the waves lap at the flood barriers. The water is silty and a muted brown. There are three ducks, two mallards and a hen living somewhere near the studio. Every time I’ve walked down to the water they’ve been there. Sometimes they jump up on the platform further out where the London Port Authority’s boats dock. Sometimes one of the mallards chases the other one and nips at his tail feathers.

On the other side of the river big ships bring sugar to the Tate & Lyle factory. The current one is flying a Maltese flag. Gangly cranes swing over it and back again with the cargo. It’s a calm and peaceful dance. Planes take off from London City Airport behind the factory. The sound lags behind the plane. I notice them when they’re already on their way. When the tail has cleared the factory and the plane is climbing steeply toward the clouds.

I spend a lot of time scanning the water, hoping to one day spot a seal. I’ve been reading about wildlife returning to the Thames. Pods of dolphins have been seen further west and seals have been spotted near the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf. London is showing me its wild and industrial side.

It’s a over month since we moved to the new studio. I’m getting used to it. London twists and turns around me. Everything radiates from the places we call home, all the routes you know lead to the areas where you live and work. My center has been north and east. Slowly it is shifting to the south. London turns around me and I’m learning to see the city from a new perspective.