This week, I embarked on the final year of my 30s. Cor - 39. Surely a human who reflects on this year with anything other than bemused disbelief is a rare creature? Last time I checked, the space-time continuum was not malleable and yet time seems to be in an increasingly keen race with itself. A philosopher-psychologist* posited that this is because we experience fewer and fewer memorable events as we age. "Sad!", as Donald Trump might say. We mark the passage of time by noticing milestones, "firsts", celebrations of personal achievement - "temporal landmarks" as Oliver Burkeman** calls them. As a child, your daily life is peppered with these landmarks: your first day at school, losing your first milk tooth, your first length of the pool, your first night away from home, your first kiss, your first beer. Inevitably, the interval between notable events expands and time picks up apace.
Given that attaining quadragenarian status is unlikely to pass without acknowledgment in 2018, I kept this year's celebrations low-key. I ate cake at some point (non-negotiable) but there was no fanfare of party horns. Recently, though, I have wondered whether I should make more of an effort to seek out new experiences, throw down a few more landmarks. King Solomon would have us believe that "there is no new thing under the sun.”^ But our experience of time and of life is subjective. There's plenty out there that is new to me and if I don't want time to "grow hollow and collapse", I should - you know - do some stuff.
This year also marks my 17th year in London. If anything, I find this more discombobulating than the notion of leaving my 30s behind. I spent about 17 years in my home town and I held its geography in my head. 14 square miles of lanes and parks and homes and roads. When you know a place well, you can stand at the centre of it and your mind can travel ahead, reaching out through hedges, over walls to the boundaries of your personal experience. It's good for your psyche. It's what having roots in a place is. It's what being grounded feels like. Getting to know your home town is effortless, an organic process, like growth. London is easily 200 times bigger than where I grew up. Driving roots down into that London clay is a tougher proposition.
It was the Law that brought me to London, all those years ago, having made the rash-not-rash decision to swerve away from medicine. I studied around the corner from UCL, commuting in from leafy Wimbledon Village in my first year. It was there, yards from the Common, that I began to shake off 'adult imposter syndrome' by doing an acceptable job of being the boss of myself. I perfected pollo alla cacciatora and chocolate cherry cupcakes, and graduated to buying the next-most-cheap bottle of red. Our rent was oddly cheap and occasionally I felt flush enough to buy one of the enormous Sicilian lemons from the ridiculous boutique grocers down the road. I also formed a coffee and cake habit that would stick with me for the duration.
I moved out in my second year, and found myself neighbouring another of London's fine green spaces, Regent's Park. While it lacked the free-ranging, wildness of Wimbledon Common, I found Nash's white stuccoed villas and the formal gardens and fountains of the park soothing in a different way. From here I was able to saunter down the road to college in 15 minutes. Even as a relative newcomer to London, I knew this was a luxurious state of affairs and I resolved to enjoy it while I could. I ran my hangovers off around the Inner Circle. The grungey old school pubs of Camden were my locals, and when my flatmates and I called it a night, we knew that Cafe Corfu and it's cheap and delicious kleftiko and baklava, would still be open to mitigate the inevitable post-booze blood sugar crash.
They were great flats in great neighbourhoods, my share paid for by my future employer (plus maintenance). I lived a good life with good friends. Me and London got off to a flying start.
After completing my post-graduate courses, I started my training contract at a firm then based on Victoria Embankment. The office was a weird, chrome-trimmed hunk of post-modernism, sandwiched between more dignified Victorian red brick edifices. It was a boon being so close to the Thames. As a lowly associate, I had no river-view office, but the conference rooms where training and client meetings took place had wall-to-wall views across to the South Bank. It was quite typical to turn up for training and to be "faced" with 12 be-suited backs, as everyone sipped their aggressively bitter coffee and looked out over the water. I felt we were like Melville's 'water gazers', "week days pent up in lath and plaster - tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks" looking to the water for a release.
On Fridays or high days, my fellow trainees and I would traipse over Blackfriars Bridge to Doggett's, a hunk of 60s concrete housing a pub just across the river from our office. As our steps took us further from the workplace, the stress dripped away into the river beneath. Our postures straightened and we breathed the muddy scent of the Thames. A few glasses of wine later and with a surging body of water between us and the day's travails, we would trip happily, tipsily out of the pub into the comforting blanket of the city night, and head for home. Another regular haunt was The Witness Box. Being just round the corner, The "W.B." offered us the shortest lead time for alcoholic refreshment, an important quality. The bar was in a basement and, being underground and dimly lit, we felt confined and secure. It encouraged confidences and bonding between our clutch of would-be legal practitioners.
Despite several years of searching, I never really found a place to be peaceful close to the office. The City of London throngs in the day, with its strange, sartorially homogenous workforce. I settled (like everybody in a half-mile radius) for claiming a patch of Inner Temple Gardens' lawn. I think plenty of people can live in London all their lives and never step foot inside one of the Inns of Court, the picturesque cloistered precincts within which barrister ply their trade. In my opinion, Inner and Middle Temple are the most lovely of the Inns. Oases trapped in time, with cobbled courtyards, formal gardens and narrow passageways, where I half expected to catch sight of a Dickensian waif striding towards me out of the gloom. When Dickens described Temple in "Barnaby Rudge" he imagined a sign at the gate inscribed "who enters here leaves noise behind" and that is certainly the effect of the place.
As the years went by I came to know these little pockets of London. I loved where I lived but, as everybody who lives here soon realises, London is not a monolith. It is a series of neighbourhoods. Once I settled into working and, later, family life, my world shrunk to a postcode. I had less and less reason and opportunity to visit different parts of London. Our version of parenthood brought with it some very specific restrictions and limitations, and friends who lived at different points of the London compass felt very far away. And then I did a...thing.
You may have seen up there ↑ that I co-founded a Saturday Club and support hub for autistic children and their families. Fundraising is a part of my life now, but I was so daunted by raising those initial pounds. We had a grand vision for the service we wanted to offer, but we could offer nothing without money. I knew I was battling donor fatigue and felt the only solution was to find an idea which genuinely excited me and hope that my enthusiasm would rub off. Panicked Googling led me to the inimitable Geoff Marshall (who I mentioned in this post) and his annual "Walk The Tube" challenge. Geoff has held the world record for visiting all the London Underground stations in the fastest time - twice. There was a lot of enthusiasm for his endeavours and he was good-hearted enough to host a non-competitive, charity-oriented version of the event. So I bagged the last couple of spaces for me and my mother-in-law and, in that way, we resolved to visit every London Underground station. All 270 of them. In. One. Day.
I should say from the outset that "WALK the Tube" was a misnomer. There was a lot of running. Behind the scenes, Geoff and his team had intricately planned a route based on a forensic knowledge of train schedules, timetables and interchanges. Of course, this is Britain, so nothing ran as it was supposed to and their ability to alter our route on the fly and still get us around the entire network was astounding, but it did mean there were some exceptionally tight interchanges (including 'The Great Shepherd's Bush Cross-Stations Sprint'). Our job was to not get lost at the interchanges, wee fast and keep up. We might have got stuck at Whitechapel, Geoff lost his voice as a result of all his cheerful shouting at us, and he missed a bus when he went to get a cup of tea but, somehow, we made up the lost time and completed what we set out to do. It took 18 hours, 56 minutes and 58 seconds, but we did it. Here's video proof. I am nearly phobic about being on screen, but you'll spot me if you try hard enough(!)
"Walk the Tube" gave me a sense of ownership over London. Now, no part of it is wholly outside my experience. The challenge, and my subsequent weekend rail adventuring with Spike have shrunk the city. I wouldn't think twice about hopping on the tube to any terminal station. An hour to Edgware? Pah! I've been on the tube for nearly 19 consecutive hours. Bring it on. More practically, it has reversed some of the anxiety I felt about travelling too far from home. I feel able to grab a coffee with a friend in the centre of town while the boys are at school, or to take the boys to parks in other parts of London, without it feeling like an epic, stressful mission. And, happily, critically, we raised in excess of £9,000 for our Saturday Club.
So, contrary to popular idiom, research shows that our perception of time actually slows when we are having fun, or at least, when we are having a novel experience. Walk the Tube was certainly that. I feel slightly itchy to do something like it again. In the meantime, writing feels like moving in the right direction. At least I'm stopping to consider and regard the grains of sand as they trickle through the hour glass. If I stare at them hard enough, perhaps they'll slow down.
*William James in his 1890 text "Principles of Psychology".
** This column will change your life: the importance of temporal landmarks
^ Ecclesiastes 1:9
† I knew Edd at school. What a supremely talented print maker he has turned out to be. When I saw this piece, I let him know how precisely it conveyed my feelings about my legal "career", and he was kind enough to give me a print. I adore it. I'd encourage you to check out more of his work here.
Want to read more? The experience of place through an autistic lens