Andrew Marvell, Machiavellian parliamentarian with the honeyed pen, would have us believe that time has wings.
“At my back, he tells a mistress; “I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity.”
I could hear Time behind me all right, as I walked around London this week. But like traffic on a motorway, time travels in different lanes: a slow lane, where time travels from the inception of the planet to its demise; the middle lane, which chronicles the history of a land and its people; and the fast one, my own personal timeline, hurtling at 90 miles per hour.
But in the style of the cars on the autobahn, timelines draw level with each other on their travels. As I walked round the Tower of London with Maddie and Felix, I passed Historical Time in a cab in the middle lane.See that, he chuckled: 1066, the first bricks were laid. I’ve supervised men for almost a thousand years, adding bits and taking away bits, glorifying and belittling, crowning and beheading.
After a slap up lunch near the Tower we put out our hand for a bus. And what should come round the corner but one of those original London Routemasters.
A scarlet double-decker bus built by the Associated Equipment Company in 1954, the Routemaster is a front engined, back-loading vehicle, seating just over 64 people. It is as much London as red telephone boxes and penny farthings and pea soupers: embedded into the city’s programme, anchored to an era. Just a very few of the original Routemasters run on the popular tourist trail, from Trafalgar Square to the Tower and back. It glories under the number 15.
We were all overjoyed to be met at the bus stop by an icon, and queued to climb the little spiral stairs to the top deck, to watch London pass by with a commentary by Phil.
Pudding Lane, the Bank of England and Mansion House, St Paul’s, The bounds of the old city, Fleet Street; haunt of hacks eternal, El Vino; The Law Courts, King’s College and the LSE, and The Savoy, and a glimpse of Nelson on his column before alighting to potter off to Covent Garden: and the London Transport Museum.
Time was close in attendance.
Because London Transport charts an essentially modern era with a modern perspective: a time when the problems presented by the growing hordes of Londoners were being solved by visionary engineers. Its story starts with the old horse-drawn omnibus and chronicles the growth of comparatively small local train lines and motorised buses which would move people from here to there across a vast city.
We watch the visual language change, sure: but the basic tenets – the tunnel shape, the familiar forms of the vehicles- they stay hauntingly familiar. We stepped inside an underground train carriage from 1890; a tubular carriage with padded seats which earned them the name ‘padded cells’. They are not so very different from the carriages today; they have bench seats, and dimmer lights, but the same shapes.
And yet these things were pulled by locomotives which had engines which were not always strong enough to tackle the hills, deep down there in the City and South London Railway. They would sometimes falter and stop all together: whereupon the unfortunate driver must back up, quite blind, in the inky black of the tunnel, and have another go at the hill.
Nothing has changed: and yet everything has changed.
Time stood indulgently watching as my husband stood on the platform at the back of every bus in the museum, clowning: doing that iconic wave you see in all the old photographs and movies.
And Time watched one of his newest recruits in the simulator, driving a tube train into a state-of-the-art station complete with perspex screens between platform and train. Felix sat there as if he had been driving tube trains all his life. Perhaps, Time mused thoughtfully, he will do just that.
My gothically minded daughter lay in front of a tube train exhibit as she was invited to do. She observed the hypothetically lethal effects of lying in the path of a tube train with wicked delight not one, but six times. Every time there was a spare moment she popped back to end it just one more time.
Here in this great metropolis, Time’s winged chariot is a little outmoded.
Time here travels on wheels, which have changed with each engineer’s draughtsmanship. It rattles down tunnels and stops at signals; it loads people and roars off, away from the milestones of life, and a leisurely pace, so that one might see the sights.
Time, here, travels on a wheeled Routemaster.