AA MIlne, Brogues, DubStep, Escalators, Fluffy Mules, Gene Pool Imperative, Hipsters, Hoxton, Identity, ley Lines, Material Girls, Medieval Royal Courts, Postcode Tourists, Robin The Frog, Shoreditch House, Sloanes, social advancement, Toffs, Trustafarioans, W11
“Half way down the stairs is the stair where I sit.
There isn’t any other stair quite like it.
I’m not at the bottom;
I’m not at the top;
This is the stair where I always stop”
Courtesy of AA Milne & Robin The Frog
Kermit’s nephew is an inspiration for more than just folksy green-leg swinging sing-songs for small people. For anyone interested in the subtle shifts and shapes of social dynamics and advancement, the transient beauty of the place he describes is quite illuminating, being at that point between top and bottom: a moment of clarity in the space between being neither one thing nor the other.
And as the creator of this profound little ditty, the writer, AA Milne, proves how much he was in some ways far more than just a writer of children’s stories.
Outlining as he did the dynamic differences and human vibrations that exist between our grand aspirations and banal realities, the petty social jostling that pervades the space between them; and the immutable frameworks and hierarchies of life into which it all fits, he strikes me as more that social diarist and commentator.
Half way down the stairs is indeed a wonderful place: a vantage point from which to drink in the human condition and view some of life’s subtle people-powered idiosyncrasies in all their glory. Even when those stairs are of the rolling steel toothed conveyor kind.
Traveling through Shoreditch station recently I was reminded of the social ‘in through the out door’ nature of London’s slicker and more happening post-codes, especially when viewed from half way down (or up) the stairs and escalators, depending on your trajectory.
Watching the tribes of London pass like ships both in the morning as well as the night was already a quiet observer sport for me.
It was only after some time of watching though that I started to notice the fractal shades of difference between those who were commuting down the escalator and those on the up.
Both the Ups and the Downs ostensibly deliver the postcode vibe: whether that be Tech Hipsters, Money Monsters, PortoBelles, Fashionistas, Indie activists, Media Molotovs, Toff-ee Mochas, Mayfair Mules or Tattooed Love Sexys. A shared moment of complicity enacted in the fleeting criss cross at the mid point on every escalator or stair well.
Sloane Square, Shoreditch, White City, Notting Hill, Whitechapel, Brixton; these escalator moments of criss-cross spot the difference are note exclusive to one or two stations. They are legion across London (and every other thronging highly emerged metropolis on the planet for that matter). Waves of social similarity washing up and down the escalator in both directions; little to choose between them – all card carrying citizens of their particular postcode vibe.
(That Postcodes tend to attract particular types and tribes is unsurprising; and for that very reason they are able to successfully deliver and maintain their ‘vibe’ or atmosphere. Much of what orientates this ‘oneness’ remains unspoken. This points to something of the Ley Line at work in these postcodes.)
So at first glance there is little to separate those commuting either up or down these escalators on any given morning.
But look a little closer and there the similarity ends. Look closely and you will see small differences start to appear between those on the morning Down stroke and those on the Up-ward claw.
What is that? There. Barely discernible but yes, just there. That! Is that… a quiet swaggerdaccio we see in some of those who commute down and away from the postcode?
Perhaps. After all they carry with them the self assurance of being The Real Deal: no neighbourhood tourists these. They don’t work here. They live here. The pubs restaurants brasseries boutiques and cocktail bars scattered before you are their locals – firmly untouched by them in the day or for early doors drinking. That’s for the postcode tourists. This is their back yard. No drift home to some more sub–urban existence at the end of the day or last orders for them. They will never experience the burden of carrying the creeping disappointing of having ‘been there, done that, bought the ridiculously overpriced T Shirt’ with you back down into the tube tunnels like a cheap fading fragrance.
That quiet, centred and softly confident sense of belonging in the Down the Escalator Morning commuters emanates an aura that the Up The Escalator arrivistes simply cannot and will never be able to match. They remain both literally and spiritually the Upwardly Mobile in every sense of the phrase.
But up they come, day after working day (this is a Mon – Fri affair) – relentlessly, happily, expectantly; something oh so enervating about working somewhere smart or cool. And every day they get to come up that escalator and be in that postcode, is another day they managed to not get found out or set aside. They are cutting it and they’re going to enjoy every second lest it gets ripped away from them by some unseen arbiter of what constitutes being the real deal.
And every day somewhere, the Scuffing-Downs stumble tunnel-ward blissfully unaware of this tension lurking opposite them… ish.
Perhaps a small frisson percolates through them every now and then, when they look up from their gorgeousness reflected in an oh so déshabillé, slightly beach-bruised smart phone for just long enough to remind themselves that they are going down the escalator, with the quiet luxury of knowing that they belong there; up there, in that place up the stairs behind them; written into the property and social fabric of it – rooted. They belong there even when they’re not there: so by day, the Sloane happily inhabits a dingy warehouse in E1 or the W11 Trustafarian a bland vanilla office in Acton in the full and certain knowledge that eventually she or he will return home; climb back up the escalator to ‘being’.
And with this laissez faire acceptance of the Downs place in the world comes a relaxed attitude to those who ape them to the point of genetic similarity. Mimicry is and will always be after all the most profound and absolute form of flattery; especially to those coming down from on high every morning.
So criss-cross; the moment of invisible reverberating collision – where the cultural ‘what is’ meets the social ‘what could be’.
But look again, closer still and you will reveal more layers in this social puppet theatre.
One such layer is amply provided for by the human penchant for living so far beyond our means that we need to buy a home in a different postcode to house our aspirations in.
This human truth of this scale of self-delusion and aggrandisement plays nicely into the theatrical complexity of this criss-cross escalator moment.
And in doing so points to a third ‘ type’ we haven’t mentioned yet – the cuckoos; those pretenders to the postcode throne. Yes, they obey the laws of similarity: as they should. They aspire to this demise so therefore should be respectful of its dress & styles codes. But therein lies the difference. Perhaps they are a little too over respectful? Too attentive to the detail and churn or what the postcode demands? Too vocal about what’s soooo amazing about Postcode x or y. A little too hung up on breathing in and out with every infintesimal more of belonging.
How do you spot them? With difficulty. Their rather overly self-conscious attention to postcode fashion detail can sometimes be a giveaway. But it demands a forensic knowledge of sartorial detail and minutiae and a instinct for trending.
A more illustrative litmus paper can be found hosted just behind their eyes – and on it you will find the dark reactive stain of being ‘almost’. Local -ish. But far from indigenous. Close but no cigar. And the pressure fostered by the pretence can be suffocating. Their intensity of purpose is just a little too pointed. There is an absence of Scuff & Amble in their gait. And under their demeanour behind the safety curtain of their laissez faire an arch pensiveness boils. Clinging to the edges of their Scuffing-Down life (and the over-leveraged mortgage and credit card tsunami that makes up the bulk of it). There by the grace of bonuses, the odd windfall, and an ability to juggle a comedic level of credit go they. A small desperate voice in the back of their mind relentlessly flip flopping them between the distant luxuriant basso profundo embrace of an eventual inheritance and the hysterical alto soprano anxiety fuelled by the immutable fact that their parents have no intention of dropping off this mortal coil anytime soon and those credit card statements simply wont go away.
(These are the urban silent-screamers, who other than their location, are much the same as their sub urban cousins – all shiny largesse and thriving conversation – locked firmly in the hi tensile rictus smile of their fragile success.)
Anomalies in the criss-cross world provide a couple of variants just to keep us on our toes.
There are the visiting cohabiting friend from somewhere exotic and equally zone/zip/post obsessed– staying for a couple of months – and bringing a confusing and very different zone/zip/post vibe to the daily commute.
And then there are visiting siblings. They can really throw you. They look the same, so familiar, so similar in so many ways BUT totally different post-code vibe. The academic or the soldier visiting their banker sibling. The golf club gold card local business person visiting little brother or sister in the Hoxton massive. Baby brother Uni-Boy in the Sloaney Hen House. The normal weight normal life teacher sister in the W11 cat house of eating disorders.
They can completely shift the dynamic of any morning criss cross BUT thankfully, we can broadly agree that the Ups, Downs and perhaps the Cuckoo Types are where the heat and fun is at.
The cross cross moment is also a rich source of information and illumination.
For example the mid point tension between these types of faux similarity on the escalators might remind us why we’ll continue en masse to be material girls and boys in pursuit of Kardashian flash and gold-plated everything.
As someone pointed out to me recently: find me a poor person who doesn’t want to be rich!? The gene pool imperative applies. And the smart rich person; whether escalated there from a poor beginning or born there with a clear vantage of how life is so much better up in the rare air; knows this.
The anomaly is the educated liberal academic elite in the middle, flush with intellectual riches and a sneer for anyone in any way materially driven: and unlike their asset laden, cashed up contemporaries they are profligate with their own riches, motivated to little commercial purpose: and with societal equilibrium and fairness their cause.
Rich people and poor people have no time for this ‘posturing’ as they see it: life is simple.
One is either super rich – counting in BNs – loaded £50M and up – minted £10M+ up – Rich – £5M-ish – or comfortable – the euphemism for being worth £1M+ or more.
Or you’re stiflingly poor. And always just one scratch card away from £1M or a lottery ball away from £26 M and a bloody good life (familial and social consequences of staggering wealth aside).
And a huge pointer to what you’ve achieved or been handed and your subsequent position in life lies in the post codes you both live work and hang out in
For the ordinary people in between, happiness lies in the grey middle ground of ‘almost’. The space between Not Being and Being someone who belongs in that postcode and all it purveys.
Most in-betweenies (whether they choose or care to admit it or not) would like the chance to aspire: to hang out with the big dogs, the cool kids, the upper echelons. Every now and then they want to lounge where the money is and bask in the reflected glory of what its like to be someone who actually lives in the postcodes that the stations serve: to feel ‘happening’: ‘minted’; ‘in flow’.
People want to be part of those post codes that house who they wish to be, even if just for a moment; even if just to spend 8 hours a working day creating a seismic atmospheric tipping point by spraying fragrance at already terribly over cologned passing shoppers in Selfridges before returning to Sutton on the 6.35.
Some of our political parties are in fact the living constitutional embodiment of that right to aspire – by fiercely conserving and protecting the sanctity and very existence of those individuals that so many of us are so desperately trying to stand in the shadow of, even if just for a moment. The Medieval Royal Courts positively thrived on this desperate need to be part of the elite: and the large number of crimes of acquisition used to fill their coffers and expand their lands and the crimes against humanity that usually accompanied them remained more than adequately fuelled by aspirational types and their preparedness to do anything to court the favour of their ‘betters’.
So it comes as no surprise that if there was one thing that many of us would love to sustain, to make last forever; it’s those moments where we are in the thrall of and breathing the same air as the powerful. The only downside one might point to is that in those moments alongside the passing glitter of ‘being’, is the crouching genesis of disingenuous identity, delusional social affectation, crippling personal debt, cheap money, living beyond ones means, profligate waste and a self confident disregard for those less better off than ourselves.
Don’t look down the human condition says to itself. I’m not going back down there. It took me a bloody age to get just half way up the stairs. I’m looking up, to the point were Ill need a neck brace. I’m commuting up into the demise of glory and a better life.
But the fragility of it all is hard to deny.
All that social ‘shimmer, glimmer and glitter’ fades all too quickly after leaving the cocktail bar on Sloane Street to catch the tube back to Finchley or Tooting.
The ageing taste of that last Shoreditch House mojito takes on a less ‘happening’ tang as the Overground wends its way to Highbury.
And that slamming DubStep club night that got you so pumped up fades into the distance when you have to trawl back up the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters.
Perhaps. though therein lies its greatest attraction – its fragility and fleeting brilliance. A precious volatility; such that it all might burst into flames at the drop of a well-turned fashionista hat. Perhaps that is what makes it so delicious. And sordid. And gratifying.
So what they hey!
For a moment, in the prism refraction of the brightly lit morning commute – half way down the stairs; clutching your over priced cappufrappocrappachai-ccino, sling backs or sockless brogues clacking, at a point neither up nor down; not at the bottom and not at the top: for that golden moment everything stops: and you belong: you are one with the ‘vibe’. And life is beautiful.
So postcode anyone?