I sometimes feel that my journey in to work is a journey ever deeper underground. From the streets where I live to the moving tunnel of the train. Then into the real tunnels of the tube network. Then I’m disgorged at the other end almost seamlessly from underground into a building, from one capsule of chemical lighting to another.
Then, after the day’s work is done, back out and up, up, up to daylight.
I’m not talking about the bleakness of work or the clammy deadness of the city:
These are old and valid emotions, but not what I’m trying to capture. I toyed with that flippant phrase used of work: ‘another day at the coalface’ to express that sensation of going in underneath. However, although the modern workplace is characterised by repetition periodically interrupted by bouts of panic, this is unimaginably remote from the reality of coalmining, which consisted of long bouts of discomfort periodically interrupted by bouts of mortal danger.
No, I think what I’m aiming for is the sense of the city as a formic organism; an inverted ant colony. If you tracked the movements of an ant colony you would see daily pulses of movement out from the climate-controlled brood centre of the nest. The daily pulse of human movement into the air-conditioned, totally covered, city would look spookily similar.
The city as a nest, or a burrow. Perhaps we’ve got it the wrong way round. Perhaps we actually live in the offices, and we only venture out into the hinterland to hunt and gather the resources we need: food, leisure time, sleep. We’re nocturnal animals, greedily rampaging through the countryside in the evenings to slake our rapacious need for space, for entertainment, for ‘freedom’. Sated, refreshed, the next morning we are able to return to the burrow, sit at our alloted stations in the great organism, and get on with the real business of living.