Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
(‘Burnt Norton’ – T. S. Eliot)
One of the greatest pleasures of being able to run is your ability to experience space. Space in motion, shifting perspective, the same, but always different. If you are going to do 11 miles on a particular day, the limitations or the entrapment of having-to-do-11-miles enacts for you a kind of wonderful freedom. At mile three today, I turned a corner and right by me was a passageway that I had never seen before. A wormhole. I still had 8 miles to do. I could turn in any direction I liked. The new pathway could take me anywhere. It would not matter where. I could run it for 4 miles and if I was lost, easily retrace my steps back. I had strayed a couple of metres past it, but I was already within the event horizon, so turned sharply and entered the passage. In my head was John Barry’s haunting waltz, the soaring and tumbling score to The Black Hole (listen to it here – and turn it up as loud as you dare). This little turn took me to the thirteenth century, to hanged highwaymen, to the French Revolution, and to another kind of bustling vortex, and all because I decided to go right, instead of straight on.
Wormholes are are a kind of speculative or hypothetical offspring from the coupling of topology (the metaphysical study of place) and astrophysics. Much like the inability of the inhabitants of Abbott’s Lineland to conceive of two- or three-dimensionsonal space, so with wormholes. We are stranded in our four dimensions, with its superstructure of metaphors and syntaxes built entirely to make sense of those parameters, not to describe what may lie beyond them. In its simplest terms, we might think of them as two black holes joined by a spinning blend of the laws of physics that as yet are not understood. Think of water swirling down a plughole, now imagine that at the other end of that pipe is not an outlet but another swirling plughole that seems to be sending water back up towards you. What happens between the vortices?
I have done this before, seen a passageway, turned and explored it. The effect is uncanny, much more so than one might imagine. You leave one part of London, follow a trail and find yourself in quite another. The feeling is certainly accentuated by the act of running because one’s experience of space happens, well, faster. A few miles into a run you are also more susceptible to any form of hypnotic ecstasy, or psycho-spatial displacement. The slow parabolas of London’s miniature avenues and passageways, and the fact that they are housed and tree-lined, make it difficult for the runner to keep a firm sense of direction. Moreover, when the visual clues of sunlight, or exposed trees that bend towards the north-east (trampled upon by the prevailing wind), without puddles (which sometimes help to reveal north), or the lopsided foliage-growth of a tree (which sometimes helps to reveal south), when these things are gone, and you have been running the passage for a mile or so, you could be anywhere. ‘Anywhere within a mile’ you might reasonably argue. Well, no actually. There is a corner that I turn on a quiet road in south-east Blackheath. On a satellite map I am a couple of hundred foot away from Kidbrooke (what a beautiful name for a place). I could vault a few fences, dodge some guard dogs, climb a tree or two and I would be there. I am not going to do this. If I wanted to get to Kidbrooke it would be at least a two mile walk between those two practically adjacent points on the map. Our experience of the space around us is not purely two-dimensional because all sorts of legal boundaries circumscribe it. In such circumstances, it is much closer to one-dimensional travel, a maze of interconnected tubes. So if you find a wormhole, it could take you somewhere you did not imagine possible. I do not mean Costa Rica, more like a completely different part of Southwark you could not have believed was so close.
It has happened to me before. A run from Lewisham, through Ladywell (a terrible name, but still not as bad as Mudchute), I took a turn, headed into some streets – pop, Catford Gyratory.
What about that fourth dimension? ‘That which hath been is now;‘ (Ecclesiastes 3:15). My wormhole today brought me out in a suburban sprawl. Once out of the passage, the sun in the sky was clear and I could easily read my heading if I needed to turn back. I still had a couple of miles to borrow from the bank so I persevered. Masses of twentieth-century housing, bright red brick, white panelling, tower blocks, scruffy veterinary practices, and ‘that roar’. That roar could only be the A2, the main road between Kent and London (the one that Bond chases Auric Goldfinger on in Fleming’s 1958 novel, Goldfinger), and it was getting louder. I couldn’t see it but it was close. The few children I had passed had all disappeared here. All was still, forced indoors by rage and carbon monoxide. Then, escape. There is a footbridge. I drive on this stretch of road a hundred times a year, or more, and I have seen it from two vantage points: heading east, heading west. Today from on high I get to see it stretch for miles in either direction. The Shard, still unfinished, is evidence of London’s creep ever higher to dominate the view for miles around.
The sound is astonishing. How and why do people live here. The houses are in good condition. This is no suburban shanty-town (like where I live), and this road out to Kent has been here long before any of these houses. I am not thinking this, of course, as I trample along, trapped into having to run parallel to the road, but I know that escape is coming soon. To get back on to ‘my‘ land I need to cross a roundabout. It is a roundabout that has interested me ever since the first time that I used it. It is a big roundabout with a circumference of several hundred metres, and I have never been anywhere near it on foot before so I am surprised to see that there is a pedestrian subway.
This is Shooter’s Hill.
I first heard of it many years ago when I was reading A Tale of Two Cities. The dramatic beginning of the novel, set in the eighteenth-century, has a mail coach lumbering up Shooter’s Hill on a dark and stormy night, and it is being chased by a man horseback. The passengers well know why it is called ‘Shooter’s Hill’, because it belongs to the highwaymen. But it was already called Shooter’s Hill, long before the daring Turpins of the eighteenth century. The name is first recorded in 1226, having acquired it at some point before then – so presumably roadside robberies have been a tradition here for over a millennium.
I run down the ramp and find myself at the still centre of a roaring vortex of traffic travelling north, south, east and west. Any direction and any destination is possible from here. It is a concrete crucible with beds of flowering lavender, but who could possibly come here to piss? Many it seems, for it crowds out everything else.
Time folds here, slowly, like layers of chalk. Some tagster has sprayed ‘PEST’ on a wall so clean and white that it must hide numerous strata of these urban signatures. For me, there is the memory of irony; of being stuck here in a traffic jam for nearly three hours, late for my very first lecture of the previous year. A lecture on time, history and A Tale of Two Cities. The confluence of geography and circumstance few would sanely believe: jammed at precisely the spot where the novel begins.
Time folds again and it takes us from Dickens’s writing of the novel in 1859, to its setting in the 1790s. This was the Dover Road – the mainline in and out of revolutionary France.
Again the strata of memory folds backwards and the hanged highwaymen are here. Strung up in the eighteenth century and before to deter robberies, when surely the effect must have been to terrify the passengers on the mail coach.
Deeper and we can see the marauders hidden amongst the trees of the dark ages that must first have given this place such a name.
It folds forwards, too, to the very beginnings of the internal combustion engine. The earliest cars were tried out here. Alexander Gordon in A Treatise Upon Elemental Locomotion and Interior Communication (1834) recalls, ‘In 1826, Mr Samuel Brown applied his gas-vacuum engine to a carriage, and ascended Shooter’s-hill to the satisfaction of numerous spectators. The great expense, however, which attended the working of a gas-vacuum engine, prevented its adoption.’
Oh no it didn’t, Mr Gordon – the internal combustion engine had to wait for the right time, but being here, there is a great deal of growling sensory evidence of its world domination.
Leaving via the opposite ramp, still on the A2, being out of the engine tunnel it already seemed quieter.
In a title to one of his best books, Stephen Jay Gould drew on a metaphor of time that he saw employed and deployed repeatedly in science for the last few hundred years. The metaphors are Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. These places, wormholes, are imbued with stratigraphic layers of history and meaning. The places are still there and so are the traces of what they have witnessed. Our experience of space is circumscribed by social forces beyond our immediate control; they prevent our free movement within and around the landscape. But if you look down through time, you will find that you are quite free, there. Nothing prevents you from feeling the presence and weight of the past and the future. All of it is there, and it is for all of us, all of the time.
Time is not an arrow. It is not a circle. It does not loop neatly back like an oxbow and continue. It is a corolla, endlessly looping away from the moment, thrown out of its trajectory, and endlessly, endlessly returning.
Within a hundred metres I was back on ‘my own’ ground. The place I had orbitted perhaps a thousand times in my car was now permanently defamiliarized by the memory of the few seconds I spent running through it.
Reading Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge later that day, I was struck by one of his narratorial comments. ‘Time, the magician, had wrought much change, here.’
There is an infinity of possibility and presence in the moment, exquisitely and deeply lived.