“…just thought it then a rather scruffy area, did not see the virtues of the houses, of the variations which broke the monotony of the long terraces without destroying their unity, could not have put a name to the ionic capitals on the porticoes…”
B. S. Johnson, Trawl
I have taken the Megabus from London to Manchester a few times. While this paragraph has started with probably the third least interesting sentence conceivable in the English language (trailing behind both “Mate, why don’t we just go to Ikea, it’s only in Croydon” and “Oh wow, I actually spent part of my gap year in India”), it is nonetheless the opening gambit that circumstance has lumbered me with.
When I got the Megabus to Manchester on the 2nd of May 2013, I was traveling alone, as were most of my fellow passengers. We gazed wordlessly out of windows as our pauper’s carriage inched away from Victoria Coach Station; as it accelerated through suburbs differentiated from one another by their varying degrees of resignation; as it eventually cruised at 70 miles an hour on a monotonous scar of grey amid green. The communal loneliness of public transport was interrupted only briefly, during a stopover in a service station on the M6. Standing on the forecourt outside the bus, exhaling mouths attempted quarter-smiles, and unpracticed voices cracked back into half-life with the heavenly mantra: “May I borrow a lighter, please?”
Once fire had been procured and returned, my distant companions and I returned to looking in different directions at our own individual nothings-in-particular. We all inhaled deeper than we normally would, as much to avoid speech as to sate the need. It was not, all told, the most conversationally thrilling time I’ve had on a Megabus journey: that honour still rests with a time I was going from East Midlands Parkway to Scunthorpe, and a man called Pete talked me through how my physique would stand me in good stead should I ever take up his hobby of fighting gypsies in the street.
Cigarettes smoked and drivers changed over, I moved to resume my seat on the top deck as we began the final leg of the journey to Manchester Shudehill Interchange. Walking through the aisle, I noticed a man who seemed almost a caricature of a closed-off-human-being-on-public-transport; the personification of our collective desperation to engage with anything other than our immediate surroundings. He had his headphones on, his eyes were fixed downward on the book resting open on his lap, and stretched across his chest was a T-shirt bearing the legend “GET LOST”. The font was quite aggressive.
Upon alighting in Manchester, I saw this same man again: standing and squinting in the clear day, he looked as though he had suddenly opened out to the world. Seeing him with his headphones around his neck, his book back in his bag, his eyes scanning his surroundings and planning his next move, the words on his T-shirt no longer read like an aggressive or isolationist statement. Rather, in that moment, they became a suggestion. At his silent behest, I shook off the reticence to engage with the world around me that I had built up over the previous few hours of silent solitude. I spent the next few hours wandering aimlessly around Manchester, seeking out anything and everything and nothing-in-particular, trying my best to get lost.
The phrase “get lost” is aired most commonly as a childish insult, despite being an invitation to do something exciting. Since that afternoon last May, I’ve tried to get lost in as many places as possible, and my reasons for doing so extend beyond my long-standing suspicion that if I engage in the sort of behaviour you might expect from the leading man of an insufferably twee indie film, I maximise my chances of one day falling in love with Zooey Deschanel. As far as activities go, exploring unknown areas on foot and trying to get lost is an extraordinarily easy one to attempt: you can walk a short distance from a house you’ve lived in for years, take a few random turnings you’ve never taken before, and suddenly be confronted with a place you’ve never been in your entire life. You can feel your appreciation for the world and its wholeness and its sheer extent growing underfoot with every additional step taken into alien territory.
While it might be nice to have a neat story about something cool I found while walking around that first evening in Manchester, I can’t really remember much of it. Though I have discovered lots of things I otherwise might never have encountered as a result of urban wandering – pubs, parks, street markets, swan ponds – specific discoveries always seemed less important than the feelings of immersive possibility and learning that spring up when one departs on foot from the context one normally exists in. That, for me, is the aim of the aimlessness.
Considering the degree to which every life is dominated by routine, obligation, and the repetition of the all-to-familiar, occasionally the mere act of walking down an unknown street on a whim and not stopping until you get bored can feel like a tiny and petty and simple and beautiful act of defiance. An inevitable shift in perception occurs when you stop thinking about where a street does lead, and start thinking about where it might. The externally imposed rigidity of the urban environment suddenly feels more malleable. At the very least, I can’t think of an activity more wonderfully antithetical to the homogeneity of journeying to and from work.
After going on a few extended walks last May, it became increasingly apparent to me that it is next to impossible to get truly lost in any village or town or city: essentially, in any place that has been explicitly built up by human beings. The impact of humanity means that there are patterns to be picked up on everywhere, patterns beyond the obvious similarities thrown up by the superficial corporate uniformity of most town centres. There are patterns in architecture; in street lighting; in the comings and goings of people or cars, which will tend to move at certain rhythms depending on the time of day or night and the type of place you’re in. In these myriad patterns, there is at least some familiarity to be found in any ostensibly alien environment – common connections that have arisen in our development like organs evolving convergently – and the recognition of these baseline similarities frees you up to notice the genuine differences that spring out at you from each novel landscape.
I feel as though that this might be a nice way of approaching not only places we haven’t been before, but also other people, other cultures, and perhaps hitherto undiscovered aspects of our selves: to acknowledge the underlying familiarity, born of humanity, that connects things no matter how seemingly divergent, and let that be the mechanism whereby we might better experience the immersive beauty of difference.
“Nihil humanum a me alienum puto and all that jazz.”