That’s a pretty fundamental question, but nevertheless, a pretty fair one. I don’t really go into the nonsense I get up to on my weekends with the uninitiated unless they ask directly, part due to the often pretty bait-as nature of activities and part due to the gap of understanding required to take in the information I’m imparting in a timely manner. People aren’t stupid, it’s just that when you tell someone you drove to Brighton to abseil down a sewer drop-pipe or went to Barcelona just to run around the metro system you need to go back about 200 paces to construct a framework for them to make any sense of what you just told them. “… what..?” is normally the reply if you give a direct answer to the usual Monday morning opening gambit.
Sub-cultures are built upon iterative escalation of an activity that has roots in the mainstream, and its in this iterative escalation that the politics, the lexicon, the lifestyle etc are all sculpted. Might be a brave move I think calling it a subculture, as its essentially a bunch of mates dicking about, but we’re years past the point of no return now which makes it all the more important to play with the question.
When put into context with the heaps of Lonely Planet ‘trip of a lifetime’ books that will be weighing down the stockings this Christmas and all those migraine inducing “we were like, back packing in Thailand and got into, like, this secret uber cool underground club in a plastic bag factory that no ones heard about, and like, it was soooo amazing” sack of shit stories we’ve all had to sit through round tables of polite company we cant escape from, you come to realise the roots are pretty much the same:
The desire to experience something real. Something that isn’t tied to a chain, marketing strategy or fallen off a corporate production line.
All a bit sixth form sociology, but fair enough I suppose. It’s here though, we have a bit of a contradiction. The most real things in life are also the most mundane. I have cornflakes and a cup of tea most mornings for breakfast and I brush my teeth before I go to sleep. Real as fuck that is. More ‘authentic’ than a trip down the catas or ascending to the top of a construction crane, situations you purposefully throw yourself into predicting, no, expecting a tirade of unpredictable events. Manufactured ‘realness’ if you will. Before you vocalise your inner “lolz. shut up you dick”, I hear you, just stay with me on this.
While it can’t be argued that these things didn’t happen, one could probably argue that the stories hauled out of these unusual experiences are based in a self induced state of fantasy. Finding video-game style adventures in spaces seen by the people who usually inhabit them as utterly mundane requires you specifically not to step back an take stock of where you are and what you’re doing. For example, compare a nights tales from a tube explorer to those of a tube worker. The worker would go something like “Vis’ed up and went down at KingsX’. Line confirmed clear, HV rails off. Walked the Piccadilly line southbound doing a routine line inspection to South Ken. Noted notched rail by Down Street siding. Reported to supervisor. Tube still fucking horrible and dusty. Clocked off at 5am, looking forward to going to bed.”
The other fellow, who spends 2 weeks researching his entrance, pick his night and waits at a bus stop across a road with his huge bag full of rope and gear for 2 hours for the perfect moment. Pulse racing, he dodges cameras and abseils down a vent into the pitch black. He has no idea if he’s been seen and is going to end up on the no-fly list, has no idea if the rails are on, if there is a service train coming down the zero-clearance tunnels. Creeps quietly, totally on edge for half a mile until he reaches his goal of the abandoned platform. Takes a few pictures and leaves, heart still in mouth all the way out.
The difference is obviously caused by the relative background of our two characters and the only thing that differentiates them, their circumstance. The worker is there as he needs to earn a living, trudging through those old dusty tunnels on a pretty decent wage because no one else wants to. The explorer is there because of his drive for ‘authentic experiences’. Another one he can throw on the pile to show off to his mates on the internet or spunk all over his grandkids when he’s too old to do anything but fester in a chair and watch endless repeats of cash in the attic.
Our metrics of ‘success’ have become so nuanced, that we’ve got to a pretty odd stage. While droves of people are still happy to keep hitting the backstreets to get fucked up in the latest unique superhip bar for their taste of the real, there is small but dedicated group of individuals that are happy to spend the monetary equivalent of that bag of coke, 5 pints and a kebab to hop on trains and planes to world cities with the sole intention of running round their subterranean rapid transport networks.
These people aren’t foamers (slang term for people who are obsessed with metro systems and their rolling stock). They don’t geek out on timetables or have indepth online arguments about wheel diameters and running voltage, they just want to get in the tunnels and spent some time there amongst the grime, the live rails and the trains. Despite the dismissive attitude inferred from the inclusion of that little fabricated fable above, there *really is* a beautiful moment of calm and stillness after dropping down onto a set of subway tracks. You wait, you listen, wary of any track workers or trains that might be hurtling your way, then with baited breaths, take that first step out onto the line. The intentions that put you there become irrelevant and you’re now in the moment and at that primal sense of heightened awareness, moving forward to whatever arbitrary goal you might have set yourself. Reaching a cool looking junction, finding an abandoned station or just walking from A to B underground without getting caught. Even when shit goes south, it’s all part of the roller coaster you threw yourself on when you ab’ed down that vent shaft or ran off the platform, and generally, it’s these unforeseen interventions that bolster those stories you haul back out of the tunnels with you along with the heaps of brake dust that ends up saturating your clothing.
It was on one of these such trips that I found myself 15 meters underneath the streets of Paris in a live metro tunnel about halfway between Ecole Millitaire and La Motte-Picquet, stood with my back against the wall in a pitch black safety alcove. Our aim was the abandoned stations at Champs de Mars, and according to my watch, there were around 120 seconds ’til the next train on the down-track was due, although the three companions whom which I had departed the platform edge with 2 minutes previous were nowhere to be seen. The view from my alcove up-track was pretty poor, so I had another look at my watch, and stepped out a little further into the tunnel to try and see what was what. With a bit of squinting, I could just about make 3 heads poking out of an alcove wayyy up the tunnel. “hmmmm! I thought to myself, this isn’t much good”. We were now separated, which would give the operator of any passing train a much better chance of spotting us when shooting past. The best I could manage was a yell up the way. “Hurry up the fuck up!”.
They all followed my advice, and slithered out from their safe haven, beginning to jog steadily down the tracks toward my position. By this time, the down stream train was letting passengers on at Ecole Militaire, so I popped back into my alcove to let it pass without the driver seeing me and avoiding the inevitable armed police response that would ensue. I assumed my compadres would do the same, and I got right back against the wall in preparation for the draft that would be created by the speeding train approaching from my right. Along came that nice little moment when the blackness is slowly illuminated from the headlights of the approaching train, and…. waaaa????
Un, Deux, Trois, three rapidly moving bodies shot round the corner of my alcove and pressed up against me about a second before the train past.
The next moment sort of went in slow motion…
and Sskkkkkeeerrrgggkkkkkzzzkkkzkkzzzkchhhhhkzkzkhhhhhh!!!!! is what the emergency brakes of a paris metro train sound like.
We’d been seen by the driver and the train packed full of commuters had just pulled an emergency stop, blocking the line. Time to run. In less than 30 seconds, I’d sprinted the length of the tunnel to the platform, hopped up in front of a bunch of rather confused looking commuters and exited the station by the gate. I popped to a shop nearby to afford some cover from the inevitable gendarme response and to get myself a nice cool beer and waited.
Fuck knows how we wriggled out of that one. I’m not sure I know anyone who’s managed to get a train stopped mid-service and escape to tell the tail without going via a cell for the night, and yet two hours later, and with a fully nonjailed team, I was sitting on the abandoned station platform at Arsenal having a conversation in broken french/english with two dudes who fell asleep on a station platform a few kilometers up. They’d missed their last train and figured it’d be more direct to walk the subway tracks than go over ground. They’d also managed to pick up some half full cans of montana 94 and fancied a go at painting as well. Only in Paris.
We chilled here for a while and walked some of the line north to take a look at some of the tunnels above.
One of my many rules to myself when out on these nutty city excursions is to never pay for sleeping. Ever. Aside from the fact its a total waste of cash, you often end up waking up with some pretty amazing and unusual sights, far more memorable than the ceiling of a travelodge.
We tried a couple of places on the way back, including a lovely museum restoration project with roof access on the bank of the Seine, but eventually settled upon an ancient city apartment rooftop a stones throw from the Arc du Triomphe, getting up there *just* for sunrise. Perfect.
It was a bit of an awkward one this roof, as its slopey nature meant you needed to sleep with you legs on a chim to avoid slipping down the tin roof and off a hundred or so feet to the ground, although it wasn’t too much of a problem in the end, as and I got woken up by an infusion of midday sun beating down on my face and roasting me alive and an apoplectic french pensioner screaming expletives at us from below the roof hatch.
Fucks sake. The old dear was screaming way too fast for me to make any sense of it, so I did the only thing I could have reasonably done in the situation. I stuck my grimey face over the open roof hatch, assumed a patronising smile, and said “parlez–vous anglais?”.
She went nuclear, and the only thing I really got from the rant was the tail end of it, which finished with ….. LE GENDARMES!!!!
Time to go!
We packed up sharpish, and made our way down the roofhatch ladder and down the stairs to the court yard below. Just as we got to the giant exterior door, I noticed the noisy pensioner from before poke her head from the lower door. “Au revior Madame!” I shouted, Which was met with an “Au revio… “that sort of trailed off as she realised we were the same jeb ends who’d been snoozing on her roof, just as the door slammed shut behind us.
We picked up some food and went to sleep in a park to recharge for another nights antics down the metro. Upon awakening, we skipped the metro to la Defense and started out the evenings entertainment by watching a parisian sunset from the roof of a skyscraper. Doesn’t get better than this kids.
Time for another night’s antics then.
to be continued….