Man is free at the instant he wants to be.
Silent Motion rolled up on the East London Greenway at about midnight. Sarah and Maria were with him and he was headed with a determined stride to an old flame. Architecturally speaking of course. The Abbey Mills Pumping Station, recently written about by our friend Paul Dobraszczyk on rag-picking history is indeed a Cathedral of Sewage.
The first empty Redstripe can spiked onto the security fence followed by another empty precariously placed on a ledge waiting for the next little gust of wind to send it spiralling into the River Lea clearly indicated that the Goblinmerchant and Brosa were already inside. But when Silent Motion and the girls rolled up, they found the dejected pair with the rogue Sophie dancing around a fifth of Famous Grouse playing tag with the demons of the night. The window was jammed.
Two hours of death-defying acrobatics followed. We all knew with Silent Motion there we weren’t walking away. The popping sound of the fire exit opening 40 minutes later was consequently rather satisfying, given how miserably cold we all were lying huddled around our empty Grouse bottle drawing straws to see who would be eaten first while we waited for the early-morning train from the Far East back to more respectable South London Boroughs.
Post-apocalyptic imaginaries were abandoned as we walked through the door.
Being in such close presence to Joseph Bazalgette, hero of London sewage, urban exploration and architectural aesthetics, was instantly sobering. Standing in the main hall, it become clear that Bazalgette was mad as a hatter when he built this absurd monstrosity of shit-pumpage. But as Jack Kerouac writes in On The Road,
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
We were all on the same team here. It was clear to everyone in attendance that Bazalgette was there too, raving and craving, clawing and lusting, climbing and laughing. We went into a wild Bacchian frenzy. It was movable feast of affectual affordances as twisted Victorian metal was transmuted into swing and ladders, balance beams and gaps to jump. We played limbo under their security gates, we crawled on all fours across half-submerged pipes and used the derelict phone system to call the security hut and tell them they lost the game.
The truth is that Silent Motion and I needed some time to play. We had been fighting police in the streets, sat in sub-zero kettles, setting fire to the city to keep warm for a month straight as part of the student protests. It felt like life had quickly become so serious. Even urban exploration had taken an ominous turn after other explorers started crying about our A-team exploits. One detractor even labelled our crew “the London can openers” which I quite liked.
Our participation in particular types of exploration, our participation in the riots that most explorers chose to ignore while they sad at home madly bashing their keyboards in frustration, our participation in whatever the fuck gets us pumped up is a reminder, however sad, that as Winch has said before, there is no UrbEx community, there are just friends who enjoy hanging out with each other. Some are braver than others. Some explore for the glory, some for the fun. Some walk in the track of others. Some blaze new trails. Some try to make things a little more fun. As Statler says, there are no rules to UrbEx, there’s just where your morals fit and as Sartre once wrote about the philosophy teacher Mathieu, “he could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.”
We needed this night to remind ourselves that this is what we are capable of. Elegance was reaped by bringing along a visitor to London for the weekend to experience a night out that wouldn’t be soon forgotten. We fed on that initial wonder that comes with realizing that yeah, you can just do this.
Being free doesn’t require consent and we don’t need to ask permission to explore, not from the government, other explorers or your mum. No matter how much frustration we brew, how serious our work gets or how intense our lives may become, we are reminded through urban exploration that all it really takes to feel free again is the initiative to walk away from it all and rewrite the rules for a night. Disclaimer? There is none.
Space, despite all allusions and illusions to the contrary, is free.
The photo of Abbey Mills in 1868 was jacked from Rag Picking History.
The photo of Silent Motion the can opener was kindly provided by Nicholas Adams at Guerilla Photography.
The Red Stripes and Famous Grouse were provided, on discount, by Emron from Pakistan at my corner shop who still wants me to make a documentary about his quest to abandon the family business to become a pilot.
The word were kindly provided by my brain, via my fingers during some sort of synaptic process that still eludes me.