(So I’m in London. This is the second part of New Leaf, in which I chase about seeking opportunities for play.)
Woke in the middle of the night after five hours sleep: sorry I’ve not done better by you, circadian rhythm. Promising to improve, I immediately fell back asleep for another 6 hours. Refreshing!
Eating yogurt and a Cox apple and Moroccan hummus with cucumber while looking out into a tidy British back garden is a lovely way to start the day. The post arrived, and I left.
Any chance I get I ask directions, half for an excuse to talk to people and thus get a flavour for the area. Unlike where I’m from, Londoners were happy to tell me they had no idea where the place I’m asking about is, but despite that, and due to several people who did know where I ought to go (including some people who designed an app for this sort of thing), I got to the places I’d hoped.
Yesterday I’d decided today I’d do the following:
1. Eat. (Check.)
2. See an ancient Roman coliseum, excavated but still underground.
3. Play in a fountain which creates rooms of water which change and constrict.
4. Play with a collection of coin-operated automatons made entirely by one man.
Well I ran off to the coliseum which is situated under Guildhall Yard (extremely British, that), first staring for fifteen minutes at my tube map outside of a London Overground station before realizing the two are different systems. Let us not confuse the Overground with the Underground. I rode a few stops on one and then switched to the other at London Bridge station which was, aptly enough, under reconstruction.
I walked on for a bit before encountering fleets of smiling middle-aged white men in business suits. Their whiteness was stark against what seems the usual London mix: every skin tone imaginable. They were attending a charity function at the Guildhall which the Yard is part of and, since they’d overrun it entirely, it was closed to the public. Terrible news. I spoke to the police, but they were powerless to assist me. I walked toward the water, in this case the river Thames.
Skirting the water I was visited repeatedly by visions of a city being remade, re-imagined, and hurriedly shoved together, architecturally speaking. It was beautiful, and I was well glad to have come that way. Gigantic ancient plinths at the edge of the river certainly once held something, now stood disconnected. The walkways cycled through styles, a bike lane emerged and dissipated.
Crossing one of the bridges (Blackfriars, perhaps, or Waterloo), I made my way to the site of the gigantic fountain with water spouts that build rooms. I asked directions from a mum, and she kindly told me that she didn’t know anything about fountains, and her daughter pointed to a public map display two floors up on a terrace. I thanked them and made my way to the stairs. I looked at it a long while and made my best guess at which of the terraces around this, the largest art centre in Europe (touts the web page), held my opportunity for play, and set off. Once there, I inquired about the fountains to a girl about my age, sitting quietly with a guitar. She said yes, they’d been here, but I’d missed them. Yes, she said, she’d seen them here herself, on this very terrace, but she didn’t know where they’d moved to, and they were gone. I thanked her very much.
Inside at the ticket office I got the full story. My hoped-for grid of fountains was an installation called “appearing rooms,” which was due back once the weather reliably improved. I tried to make a case for how pleasant the weather was today (20 degrees, which is about 70 fahrenheit) but the rooms did not appear.
Crossing back over the river Northward I was struck again by the mix of styles in architecture, representative of different ages and hopes and structural systems, all finding ways to blend around one another and cling to existence clear through until today. This is the city that misplaced a coliseum, only later to discover it under the stone-flagged Yard of the Guildhall and then shrugged, saying, “We’ll keep both.” ‘Everything at once’ is a very compelling aesthetic if you’re committed to it.
As soon as I rounded the corner, I saw the the sign for Novelty Automation with its lit arrow bobbing mechanically to and fro, beckoning. When I approached, I saw that I could not enter here, either: it was full. Entirely full, wall-to-wall full, completely brimming with happy-sounding humans and happy-sounding machines. But I went in anyway. Due to the drink special that night they enjoyed a great deal of business and I was able to watch one of my favourite things: adults at play. Genuine laughter, cheering and joking with each other as they operated machines that let them try their hand at laundering money (via a magnet crane mechanism, penalized if they’re spotted by the regulatory authorities popping out from their windows) or standing up to a scary dog (complete with intense growling, and glowing eyes, and slobber). The two-player games, like exercise-cycle-controlled pong, or the oppositional-crank-controlled divorce simulator, were especially fun to watch friends compete on. When I emerged from being shut inside the Eclipse Simulator a group of strangers asked what I’d experienced, and I’ll tell you the same as I told them: it was lovely, and well worth the coin, and they should try it themselves. There’s a picture of me operating the split-stepladder controller of The Housing Ladder, in which I sought to save up for a house before I died of old age (‘Buy The House Or Die Trying’ its sign announces) and, well, let’s just say that you’re all welcome back at my place once the paperwork’s sorted. As it happens I also won a Nobel Peace Prize for my work on the Small Hadron Collider but I’m not one for self-congratulation so we’ll skip the details.
A quick shout-out to Laura and Jeremy whom I joked with at Novelty Automaton and who, partway through me assuming they’d known one another all their lives, got around to admitting that this was only their third date. It’s nice to make fast friends in a strange city, and doubly nice to play unsuspecting social lubricant for people to show one another how clever they are. Hope to see you again!
And a quick thank you to Tim Hunkin, maker of the mechanical marvels at Novelty Automation. Social commentary and silliness in every cabinet of wonders. I met the man briefly: a little shy, he moved among the machines like a librarian between the stacks, you couldn’t imagine him anywhere else. Some player of the automaton My Nuke had managed to flick a few of the nuclear cylinders into the wrong part of the cabinet, and Mr. Hunkin unbolted the tempered glass faceplate and slid away the blast shield in order to fish them out again. “You set out to make new things,” he told me, “but you seldom consider how much time you’ll spend fixing and upkeeping the things that you make.”
2. Attend Now Play This, a festival of experimental games.
3. Play some of the 40 games being showcased there, including my own Majestic Dinosaurs!
(The above occurred on April 6th, 2017.)