Trifler No. 22 [On Freeways]

“For such is the inequality of our corporeal to our intellectual faculties, that we contrive in minutes what we execute in years” – Dr Johnson

We put on our Sunday best and stepped south down the Carlyle sidewalk, ducking leaf-heavy branches and chatting with little aim. The August sky rolled with clouds; the river sat glassy; the air moved but without a hint of bluster. It was late morning. Church bells rang downtown, and the necklace tourists were beginning to emerge and sift through Jesus Green toward the centre. ‘Let’s take this sidewalk,’ I said as we stepped off the footbridge by the ice cream shack, “alter the routine, keep our brains guessing.” My wife agreed with a slight swerve.

Jesus Green has two tree-lined sidewalks—one old, grand, wide, and plane-treed, and one new and narrow-trunked. We took the latter. Others walked before and behind us, stringing up and down the sidewalk in a silent, straight procession, and I was glad to remember that this was not just a sidewalk but a freeway—older and more storied than the M11 or I70. I thought too how tragic it is that the great pedestrian, tree-lined freeways of Cambridge are now relegated to the words ‘sidewalk’ and ‘pavement’, while the hot, barren, rubber-flecked, death-dealing motorways retain those names. I thought how the highway was no longer a place for a highwayman, and a freeway was no place for a free man, while the pedestrian paths are still veins of commerce and vessels of travel—places of conversation as well as movement, of encounters with men, not machines. The good Samaritan could still operate here, I thought. He would have to pass by on the other side of the M11.

But my thoughts were interrupted by a distant yell coming from the southeast across the opens of the green. I squinted in that direction. All I saw at first was a streak of Sainsbury’s orange hurtling across the open grass toward our sidewalk. Another yell, and another. I still could not hear words, but I recognized rage in the voice. I craned again, and this time I saw him: he was on a bike, pedalling like mad, almost galloping across Jesus Green in the direction of the tennis lawn just ahead. Orange grocery bags swung from his handlebars, and his right arm was extended straight in front of him—lance like. From a distance he looked like some errant knight pricking across the plain in fear and wrath. And all the time he ranted and screamed and cried out like a minor prophet. By now we could hear what he said, “We need you! Men are dying! Can Cambridge form a militia? Harvard can do it! Princeton can do it! Why can’t Cambridge? You! You cowards talk; I want to see you walk. Go fight. We need you. Men are dying. Go fight. Cowards! And you’re doing nothing. We need you! We need you!”

We were not yet to the portion of the sidewalk by the tennis lawn where he was heading, but those who were had, by now, seen the man descending upon them. They froze and quailed. He raged on, shooting nearer and nearer. No one moved. Just as he reached them he swerved off and rode parallel to the sidewalk, pointing at every person he passed, and continuing to yell “Cowards! We need you! Men are dying! Why won’t you help?” He crossed the sidewalk and rode down the other side, continuing to point, continuing to rant. The pedestrians began moving again, heads down, feet shuffling. After three or four more passes, he stopped in the middle of the pavement facing in our direction.

We walked toward him. He continued to rave about militias and men dying; he called us cowards; he called us worse. He shook his outstretched finger. He did not move. All those on the sidewalk were now walking quickly, veering around him to the right and left; giving him a wide berth. He became a kind of river boulder, cutting one stream into two. At last, it was our turn to face him. I will stay on the sidewalk, I thought. I will not be intimidated. Just then I felt my wife detach and slide to the left of the path. He continued to stare me down with his Nahum-eyes, and I did not veer.

********

An encounter on a motorway is an encounter between two hermetic machines—buffering the selves within from other selves and the outside world. For an automobile is a little world that pretends to autonomy and breeds isolation. In a way, the new highway is a place of deadly quiet—only loud in one sense, silent in every other—in chatter, in cries, in yells, in laughter. At least ships passing in the night can call out to one another. Cars passing on the highway can only roar. Not so the pedestrian freeway. On it, every pass is a potential encounter, a dangerous proximity, an electric potential. A man may be grabbed, hit, bowled, complimented, insulted, praised, robbed, denounced, or nit-picked by any stranger on the path. The motorway is dangerous because it is fast. The pedestrian freeway is dangerous because it is slow. The motorway is volatile because it is inhuman. The pedestrian freeway is volatile because it is human, for there the only buffer is convention, the only barrier propriety.

And I found myself face-to-face with a madman who lacked the faculty for convention and the gift of propriety. The danger of this crept upon me as a neared. I had a vague goal of staying between him and my wife; Tennyson flashed through my mind: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ I clenched my fists. My face grew hot, but I kept a straight line. Madness has its own charged energy one can feel like static electricity before a lightning storm—a sense of total unpredictability. One feels what it might be like for the absolute to meet the relative.* At least that is how I felt as I readied myself to meet him.

Just as I approached, he seemed to run out of things to say, or perhaps his brain hit a barrier like a fly at a window. He began repeating, over and over, in a winded, hoarse voice ‘We need you. We need you. We need you. We need you.” He grew less frightening and more pathetic. It occurred to me, then, for just an instant, that I could help—run up to him, offer my services, lead him away to a safe and quiet place, bind up his wounds, pay the innkeeper, leave money for his provision. But by then, I had already passed by on the other side.

R. Eric Tippin
Christ’s College Library, Cambridge
August 21-24

Image:
"The Good Samaritan"
Serigraph - Date Unknown
John Mosiman
Photo Credit: Sacred Art Pilgrim

*This idea was stolen from a priest at St. Edmund’s College whose name I did not catch.

Gambler, No. 29 [The Fog*]

“The man who comes looming out of the fog to us is always the first man made. He is the authentic image of God, speaking our own secret and extraordinary tongue, especially if we have lost the way… The man who came out of the fog last night with a great torch to help my cabman along was not (I think) a cabman. He was not even a man. He was a god.” – Chesterton

 

I

I was on Flamingo. But I had, at once, one of those moments in which I remained yet left. Staring into the grey, the sun had vacationed – one of the few days of summer the Vegas sun sleeps. I fixed my eyes westward; the Bellagio’s outline, almost a flimsy, unfinished sketch, a reflection on a lake, peered out of the grey. It was, as if, the grey predominated the hotel-casino; as if, the casino descended upon the grey, not the grey upon the casino. And as I observed the Bellagio’s center tower, I had, as it were, one of those moments. I gazed not at a hotel-casino but a silo; I stood amongst corn-rows and tractors, not lanes and cars, and I gazed through wet grey fog. The moment lasted but for a second, and when I came to, I observed again the greyness of the day. I realized more than ever that I was surrounded. Yet I was not surrounded by the welcoming-waters of a prairie fog but a thick layer of dust. I waded through a desert fog. 

The air in Vegas is, generally, and surprisingly, clean and clear. But on certain days, often in mornings or evenings, the ash rises from the sun-burnt earth and all Vegas wades through an even thicker haze than usual. One evening, some time ago, I walked with two souls. The air was crisp, one of those evenings where the very air feels brittle and yet thicker than usual. It too was dusty, and the air seemed to snap like a cracker, leaving crumbs. My comrade first noticed the haze, and pointing to a street-lamp, we saw the earth’s ash glimmer in the glow of yellow-light against the black. We could see each dust particle move, almost like a swarm of lazy gnats, or better, like the pixie-dust falling from a fairy godmother’s wand. The vision occurred to me similar to snow-fall, as men gaze at lights for proof. Only this desert-snow not only fell but rose, and in rising and falling together, it danced in the dark of the yellow glow while three souls ambled underneath.

II 

The corn-stalks droop and bow submissively to the thick, early-morning dew. Boots sink in the uneven soil, a slop-squish, squish-slop echoes as bodies march down the rows. The earth does not weep like the sky. The melodramatic sky cries, wails, wants attention. The earth’s tears are excess. They are the leftovers of a man holding back, the tears that never leave eyelids. They bottle and bulge but only evaporate with the heat. It is, I suppose, much like a man who has sand, or dust, in his eye. Perhaps the sower’s seeds beget the earth’s dew. The scattered seed, mixed with soil and dirt, stings and causes our earth to weep. 

On some prairie mornings, the dew and fog are alive, almost an organism in and of itself. It moves, slowly, suspiciously. The dew and fog hover and seem to raise the stalks from their humble beginnings. Mornings after a good rain, absent of much dew, are dryer than the sopping, dew-soaked dawn. Those early mornings mirror the morning of the world before there was rain, when there went a mist about the earth like the very Spirit of God. The closest thing the desert produces are sand-cyclones, dust-devils. Outside of town, the wind whirls the dust in the air. The dust dances with itself, a solo ballerina, observing a sort of rain-dance. Round and round the cyclone spins. I’ve never seen a real cyclone, but I have seen a plain sky turn in upon itself. I have felt terror. A dust-devil is not terrible. When two join they are but waltzing gypsies, striding the desert, looking for a home. But, I suppose, they would cause a terrible sting in one’s eye, and like an unfaithful gypsy, produce a great deal of tears.

III

Recently, I biked down University. A few men with pick-axes hacked at the ground and dust rose with the contact. Any desert-work produces much dust. Tractors, cranes, shovels, pick-axes, boots, shovel and shift and spread the ash through the wind. A sort of cloud hovers around skeleton-buildings, the frames of what-will-be. The cloud ghosts through beams, plywood, drywall, until, leaving, a stucco-structure, picture perfect but likely cardboard-flimsy. Vegas infrastructure rises with dust and rests on sand.

I woke once in a desert haze. That morning the meadow was muted. So many days of scorching sun; bright mornings followed by brighter afternoons followed by blinding evenings, when the sun sets and swells. Any slight altercation, the smallest cloud, thinnest haze, one notices almost immediately. I knew something was up even as I descended the steps, before I left the shade and comfort of entry-way. Having left it, I cast my eyes skyward; a thick layer of dust had risen and settled. Vegas was slowly being cremated. On most days, the brown and tan Spring Mountains are seen with ease. On this day, as I looked north, there was no trace of their presence. Unlike fog, though, which has a lively, somewhat comforting appeal, the sand-clouds hovering about feel menacing. The town has scattered dust, not oil, on its head. One surrounded by sand reminds himself that to dust he shall return. And when one’s thoughts scatter like the dust above and below, deep in reflection, he realizes more fully why the desert begot so many religions. One who wanders the sandy wilderness wanders a dead world. It is with parched mouth and throat, scorched skin and brain, that man sees visions. The desert fog is not so lively as the prairie fog that hovers like the mist before the world, a spirit raising stalks. But then, man was not formed of the mist but of the dust. Not every town witnesses the visions of the prairie fog; not every region witnesses the vision of the desert fog. But every town does witness the vision of those misty-eyed, spirit-filled dust-devils, waltzing on two legs through the haze.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
August 11-16, 2016 

Painting: "A London Fog"
By Charles Albert Ludovici
Oil on canvas, c. 1870

___________________________

*Idea and some images of this taken from an essay by G.K. Chesterton, “The Festival and the Fog,” courtesy of R. Eric Tippin. As well, one specific image taken from Mr. Tippin’s “Trifler, No 18,” and several phrases or verbs appropriated from his work. This is my first known work of plagiarism.

Trifler No. 21 [On Youth]

“HOST: I trust, dear Youth, that you have found all comfortable while you were my guest, that the air has suited you and the company? 
YOUTH: I thank you, I have never enjoyed a visit more, you may say that I have been most usually happy.” –Hilaire Belloc

I.
I shifted into second. My bike shuddered, and the roar over my ears increased. The trail was a half-tunnel of trees and thorny brush, some hanging at head level. A red and yellow, paint-peeling barge chugged downriver. A boat of rowers pulled in its wake. I passed a runner with a paunch, sporting a white Rio 2016 jersey and grinned at the irony. The Cam has no shore in August, only bushes, shrubs, flowers, and turf reaching out over it, creating a kind of green stencilled border in the third dimension. My front tire wobbled before me, growing white with gravel dust. I shifted into third, and the shudder became a rhythmic shake accompanied by an ominous sway. I did not slow down. I passed under the railway bridge at Ditton Meadows just as a train was rocketing over it. This morning, fast felt more restful than slow, somehow. The strength of my youth was upon me; the wind was behind me; the morning was fine, and the meadows, riverboats, and inns passed by in marching procession. 

One can floor a car and feel a certain exhilaration, but on the bike, one feeds all one’s energy down into the pedals and converts it into a channelled, pumping speed. One’s legs are one’s pistons. I knew that the pace and the path and the force were far more than my old bike could sustain. I knew too that, to the lazy fishermen I passed with their cans of crawling worms, I was a mere rushing rattle, a dust devil, blown up by some wind in town. But I pedalled on, giving them my blessing as I tore by—the blessing of youth passed to wizened age; it would be returned to me again, I knew, in the mellow years ahead. 

I nearly laughed as I thought of my distance from any combustion-engined, hot highway. And I was pleased to remember that though I was tearing through the landscape, I was not a terror. I was merely a man enjoying a warm day in the Autumn of his youth. 

II.
That morning I had been on my way to the gym for leg day, but at the parting of the sidewalks at the Jesus Green footbridge, some feral energy came over me—some caloric burst, and, setting my jaw, I careened down the river away from the gym, weaving between morning walkers, stray dogs, and college cattle herds. Now, I have been known to, on occasion, skip leg day, concocting a wild excuse or discovering a phantom limb injury or arranging a real limb injury or forming a spontaneous interest in an old hobby, but this day my excuse was my workout. To pedal away from the gym was, in a sense, to pedal toward it.

The first six miles breezed by, no slackening, no fatigue. The people and the dogs and the stark buildings thinned as I left town, leaving behind the old smokestack, The Green Dragon, Stourbridge common, and the pavement. I had the strange feeling as I moved out of Cambridge that I was somehow moving further into it—into its more ancient, unchanging parts. And though they were ancient, they also seemed new, fresh, green, vibrant. It seemed, as the eastern countryside opened before me, that I was biking not just in the morning in that place but into the morning of that place. The new-fangled, brutalist, utilitarian, conversation-piece buildings behind me seemed old and decrepit and decaying compared to the river and hedges and fields and grazing cattle all around. These, I thought, are the newest and the oldest things in Cambridgeshire. I came upon two runners, and the impression passed. The conviction remained. I pressed on for another four miles until the path met a highway and a pub called the Crown. I parked my bike, and marched to the front door, now filled with visions of toast and bacon and orange juice and, perhaps, a newspaper. The door was locked. No matter, thought I, I will race back in the same manner and with the same ease that I came and eat oatmeal and fruit with the wife of my youth.

With this conviction strong in me, I began the return journey.

III.
I wheezed and pumped unevenly. My bike no longer cut a straight line on the path but wobbled and weaved as I shifted weight in an attempt to relieve some of the burn in my legs. The breeze felt like a wall. The flat river’s edge seemed like a foothill. Every bump jostled my tired bones and reminded me of my body.* I downshifted in shame. 

The world around me that had seemed so young and new now drooped with age. I thought as I looked that the August vegetation had grown almost decadent, almost ostentatious in its late summer ease. There was a heaviness, I thought, to the trees, a fattened largeness to the leaves; even the river seemed sluggish, afloat, as it was, with ghosting mosses and piles of organic debris awaiting full decay. The year had travelled just beyond its peak, and there was a luxuriating air in all natural things. Even the signets, I noticed, had almost fully transitioned from fuzz-feathery to gaudy-sleek. The burst of youth that seemed so eternal when it came had left me, and I was only an under-exercised, slightly dehydrated, haggard man near thirty on an outworn cycle, creeping west, just trying to make it home to his wife.

IV.
A man knows he is leaving youth behind, not when he ceases to have bursts of energy, but when those bursts of energy come with physical consequences. Yes, his preferences may change. He may find himself beginning to enjoy a conversation about the weather more than a chat about a new gadget or anticipating a trip to the barber shop more than a trip to the theatre. He may come to value a full night’s sleep more than a full night and a morning coffee more than coffee till morning. But these are only the orbiting, avoidable consequences of ageing. He cannot avoid creeping decrepitude. At least these were my grim thoughts as my bike and I practically hobbled into town, Jesus Green footbridge and lock looming ahead. 

But after a tall glass of water and a long sit, I thought back over my ill-fated ride with a clearer head. I saw again what I had seen on the way out. In riding out of Cambridge into an older world of green things, I had ventured into a younger world, and in moving away from my half-wasted, maverick youth and onto the old, slower, steadier roads, I was stepping into something that would not age, that could not age. For the truly ancient things are those that will always renew their youth, while the new things will only ever show their age. 

R. Eric Tippin
Recovered
Corner House, Cambridge
August 13-14, 2016 

Image:
"The Secret"
Oil on Board - Date Unknown
Honoré Daumier

*Not to be confused with Broom Snow's old bones, though I have borrowed the construction from him.

Gambler, No. 28 [The Neighbor]

“I recollect [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’” – Boswell

 

I

My hand clutched a black bag as I climbed the steps. An orange tabby weighed down the mesh, and approaching a door, I set the animal down, fumbling with pocket, keys. Then, from the next door, a figure appeared. He was older, nearly sixty, ill-dressed like Vegas: short-shorts and a beater; hair spiked in a sort of perpetually moussed state; old arms chiseled from years of iron- and steel-lifting; bulging eyes, rolling round his face. He looked at me in a sort of knowing daze. He spoke first. He spoke with an east-coast accent, nearly Bostonian. He spoke mainly in questions, many rhetorical, or answered by the interviewer. And he spoke loudly, in one constant volume, as a man yelling injustices.

“Hey, you moving in?” he asked. “What? Are you a student? I’m a student here at UNLV – an undergrad. Mental Health and Addiction. I’ve got one year, man. One year. Then graduate school. I gotta get in, just gotta get in. I wanna start my own practice – I don’t wanna work under anyone! Oh, you have a cat? I’ve got cats, man. What’s his name? Say there’s a great cat-grooming place just over there.” (His ands rolled with his bulging eyes as he pointed.) “A hundred bucks. They do the fur and the claws and the teeth, you gotta do the teeth.” (He showed his, some were fake.) “Say, how old is your cat? You got to clean his teeth. What’s his name? I’ve got cats man. Taylor and Rocky. You should take him to that grooming place. A hundred dollars. Just right over there man. Hundred bucks a cat. They do everything. What’s your cat’s name? I’m Cephas,* by the way, nice to meet you. Glad you're moving in.” We shook hands, and I entered my door.

In this world, some men root like live oaks, sinking deep into soil and place. They root as part of their nature. Death alone uproots them. Others, are rooted more like rocks. They may lie anywhere, but they do not move themselves. Circumstance and Time move them about. Cephas is of the second type. He does not own a vehicle and lives, basically, within a one- to two-mile radius. But Cephas, like most here, is not from Vegas. He has seen the world. But I suspect most of his moves weren’t his decision. Like some rock tucked in a child’s pocket, then tossed aside, so Cephas wanders the world.

I often see Cephas in the late afternoons, when I stroll in from work or the gym. He may be sitting on the bottom stoop, or standing along the paved cement, enjoying the cool Vegas breeze when we have it. He’ll let his two cats out and watch them walk and sniff. We chat, and I answer his barrage of questions. I eventually ease my way to stoop and door, and as I enjoy the peace of home, reading or writing, I often hear Cephas yelling for his cat, Rocky. Often, when the sun sets and a calm sets in, the Andover Place Apartments are awoken by the cry of “Rawckay! Raw-ckay!” ringing and echoing through homes.

II

Last week, at twilight, I heard a knock on the door. I looked through the keyhole and saw nothing, but when I opened the door, Cephas popped into view, short-shorts and shirtless, teeth missing. He needed help with something on his computer. I sauntered over and vainly offered assistance, as his two cats looked at me, wide-eyed with wonder. Like good neighbors, we afterwards sat and chewed the fat. His cat, Taylor, sat atop my chair, and I petted her between Cephas’ questions. Rocky, meanwhile, roved the apartment, or ventured out to the dark porch, his black spots disappearing, his white glowing. But we chewed the fat, just two men, thirty years apart, observing humanity’s most primal ritual: story-telling. When the apocalypse destroys modern man’s toys, he will once again act like a human. He will once again swap stories with his neighbor.

So we chatted, of his two cats, my class, the weather. 

“It’s friggin’ hot man,” Cephas said, raising his two hands and looking upwards. “Say – have you ever – the other day I was riding my bike home and I saw one of them pigeons having convulsions or something. Right in the middle of the friggin’ road man! I stopped, and its chest was heaving like it was having convulsions or something. Like this – ” Here, Cephas ceased his dialogue and again raised his two hands like two mighty wings, his mouth curved into an oval and his chest rose and fell. His two eyes bulged and he imitated the pigeon’s “Huuhuh-Huuhuh” noise while flapping his two wings. “Have you ever seen that? It must’ve been having convulsions or something. Have you seen that? Like with dogs. I see dogs doing it all the time. You seen dogs do that? Anyway, so I helped the thing across the road, but it must have been having convulsions or something. Friggin’ hot man.” 

We began to exhaust our topic, and Cephas’ eyes widened. He looked at me, and in his own way asked, “Hey, wanna see something? Here, come on, I wanna show you something.” The human stood on his two hind-legs, rising, walking toward the bathroom. I trusted my neighbor enough by now. He had two cats that he took good care of; he had watched the orange tabby for a week while I was away. The man was a down-to-earth, simple man. No surprises. Thinking this, subconsciously, I followed. He flipped the bathroom light and crouched, opening the sink cabinet. The light bred terror. A raccoon, or possum, or skunk had apparently crawled into Cephas’ apartment. And the human was proud of it, grinning widely, looking at me, encouraging me to look. So, I looked closer. The two bulging eyes stared at me through the dark of the nether-sink. Then, slowly, its shape formed. Cephas, impatient, crouched down and pulled the creature out. And I saw the fattest, chocolate-colored cat I’d ever seen.

“This is Smoky,” Cephas explained, trying to hold the beast. “Touch his fur. He’s like a bear! He gets so scared – every time someone comes in here, he runs under the sink. Every time. Don’t let the office know. They think I’ve only got two cats. Look at ‘em. Isn’t he huge? He eats so much! He’ll start eating Rocky’s food sometimes, then Taylor’s. He just runs under that sink. Every time. His name's Smoky.”

It struck me, then, as I watched the man fumbling with this large cat, that I had several times entered that apartment, sat, and talked, even of his cats. The three litter-boxes, the three food-dishes, all now made sense. But in all the times we had visited, in all the times we had discussed his cats, Smoky had never once been mentioned, never once appeared. It struck me, then, that in each prior visit, a cat, the size of small bear-cub, hiding in a dark cabinet, eaves-dropped on my speech. And as Cephas spoke and fumbled with this same cat, I wondered how many other cats were listening or even watching, wide-eyed, through the cracks of cupboards or vents.

Broom Snow
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Ave
Las Vegas, Nevada
August 3–6, 2016 

Painting: "A Pigeon"
By H. L.
Oil on canvas, 1906

__________________

*To protect the man’s identity, I have given him a pseudonym.    

Trifler No. 20 [On the City]

“In all our dirt and agony I will still call on what is best in London, and what is best is here. I will find all that can save us between the column of Nelson and the cross of St. Paul’s; I will lift up my eyes to Ludgate-Hill, from whence cometh my help’” –G.K. Chesterton

“[I]t might be questioned whether hammering is more of a strain on the attention because it may go on for ever, or because it may stop at any minute” –G.K. Chesterton

I.
Four of us stood on Castle Hill, two men, two women, gazing down on twilit Cambridge. Behind us, the sun was a mix of burnt oranges, purples, yellows all fading in to a general grey. I held a wreathing, whisping briar pipe. With every pull, the tobacco crackled, contracted, pulsed orange, and faded, mirroring the larger light behind us. All four of us glowed with after-dinner goodwill and a general peace. The evening was fine, the air crisp, and we had reached that settled, comfortable place—known only to old friends—in which conversation is made by instinct, not effort—when topics and anecdotes and rich silences come to one naturally and pleasantly, like a mist or a savoury smell on the air. Below us, the UL and St. John’s chapel stood jutting up from the uneven cityscape. We found them beautiful and said so. 

But as the light continued to dim and buildings faded, we grew more and more conscious of another perennial feature of the Cambridge skyline: the giant construction cranes— spindle-legs topped by red lights, black in shadow, reaching far above the chapel spires into the night—mantis-like, only without the prayer. One sat directly in front of us. Another ten bristled from Cherry Hinton in the south, and three or four rose from West Cambridge. “So many,” said my friend. 
“You should see the sight from Grantchester at night,” I said with a sweeping gesture of my pipe: “A veritable forest rising before one.” 
“A shame,” he said.
“Difficult to imagine it any other way,” I said, making a half-hearted joke about protecting the cranes as cultural artefacts. The sky darkened still more, making the cranes’ red lamps more visible even as the permanent structures around them dimmed. My pipe went out. The cranes glowed on.

II.
Two days later, we happy few found ourselves in the brick guts of a Cathedral, between dome and interior, climbing a tight, spiral wrought-iron staircase, legs burning and pumping mechanically, eyes on feet. The staircase straightened. The passage narrowed to mediaeval body-proportions. We stooped, felt cool air, saw daylight, and stepped out on a narrow ledge, only feet below the ball and the cross on the dome of St. Paul’s. London sprawled before us, an undergrowth of steel and brick and stone and glass and water stretching to the edge of sight, punctuated now and then with a shining skyscraper or a bevy of cranes. The whole scene had the look both of being stationary and yet of crawling, like a termite-infested wall. It was not a beautiful sight. The modern city’s beauty is found in pockets at ground-level, not in cityscapes. Still, it was a striking view of tangled, layered life piled upon life, challenging the onlooker to make sense of it, and—for the bold—to find a way to love it.

III.
The sun set. We same four sat on a balcony somewhere near Waterloo station, drinking milk, eating chocolate digestives, and gazing out at the city, framed for us by unkempt potted plants. We talked of plans future and plans past. I read morsels from an Evening Standard I picked up on the Tube. We touched on the Church and the church. Then talk turned to education, and I, having little to say on the topic just then, adjusted my gaze to the skyline, which was now a hazy glow of dim blue, of yellow incandescent windows, of pale skyscrapers rising out of the dark into the low-hanging clouds like so many babels, of airplane navigation-lights’ fog-diffused flashes, and, most prominently, of red crane lights high above the rest.

Now, to a man sceptical of what is called ‘progress’ the crane is at best a necessary evil and at worst a besmearment. It has all the size of a great project and all the transience of an insect. And like an insect, it can hatch in a night; it lurches and clamps and buzzes and builds, and, sometimes, destroys. Cranes, like locusts, swarm over fields and hedges and dirt lanes, turn them into concrete wastelands, and disappear again when their work is complete. The crane’s great impertinence, however, is that, by it sheer height, it mocks far greater buildings that rose in tens-of-years not hours. It has a kind of knock-off, imitation grandeur that cheapens the real thing. 

And yet the crane is, I thought, in many ways, an apt symbol of the modern city—of London as city planners imagine it, of Cambridge on its outskirts. For it has what can only be called a permanent impermanence—an enduring transience, an ever-renewing ephemerality. It is always about to disappear and always about to appear, like the common cold or house spiders. Few pretend that the vaulting buildings we tack up in two years and call ‘feats of engineering’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘practical’ or ‘brave’ will be functional, let alone pleasant to look at in a hundred years, in two hundred years. Most know the truth of the old dictum that the conversation pieces of today are often the laughing-stocks of tomorrow. Most understand that modern model cities make the grimmest, grimiest, slums and the most sinister ghost towns. Yet, I thought, there stand the cranes, and there stands the city. 

These and other unhappy thoughts passed through my mind as we sat on into the night and the windows of the apartment complex opposite darkened one-by one. In time, we moved inside, and I fell asleep to the sound of Big Ben striking midnight. 

IV.
My wife and I descended from street level into the Underground, on our way to catch a train from Liverpool Street to Cambridge. Evening commuters crowded around us, Evening Standards beneath arms, clashing commuter shoes on feet, determination on faces. It was a descent into human humidity, still, heavy. We crammed into a car. The heat increased. No one spoke. No one moved. No one could move. My wife reached out for a stabilising pole and found a stranger’s bag instead. I thought how this quiet car full of sweating, drooping, silent people was only seconds from wild, scratching, screaming claustrophobia. I imagined a dull thud and a puff of hot air, a lurch, an acrid smell. I thought how the same modern city that vaults men higher also buries them deeper. 

And yet, there was something in me that enjoyed that ride between stations—the abundance of life, the trust in natural laws, the bravery of the common commuter,* and the almost palpable anticipation of some home, some pub, some desk, or some Christian comfort beyond the doors.

R. Eric Tippin
Between Corner House and Christ’s College, Cambridge
August 4-7, 2016

Image:
"London Bridge"
Oil on Canvas - 1952

* It is worth noting that a 'mass' stabbing occured outside the Russell Square Underground station that very night.