I spend much of my working week tracing familiar paths around the northern part of central London. It's repetitive, and I often find I've switched to "autopilot", arriving at my destination with little or no recollection of the journey.
But I live 100 miles from London, so I rarely see it at the weekend. That why it was so interesting to wake up this saturday morning in Barbican, don a pair of jeans instead of a suit, and revisit some familiar haunts with a recreational (rather than functional) perspective.
And it's amazing what you see: Upon opening my curtains on the sixth floor, three gigantic cranes confronted me. I've walked past them hundreds of times, but never spotted them before. What are they building, and why?
Perhaps it was the much-diminished pedestrian presence which exposed the many metal cabinets adorning our pavements. Are these part of our electricity, gas or telecoms infrastructure? Who uses them, and why? And whence the welcome development of street artists attacking them with colourful patterns?
There's usually no opportunity to look up inside Baker St. underground station. It's more important to watch the movements of others acutely, so as to avoid collisions in the morning maelstrom. But when you do look up, the ceiling is remarkable: It's decorated with rather formal squares and circles of red on white. Who did that, and why?
Looking up at Marylebone train station was also revealing. The sheer complexity of the interwoven steel frame is mind-boggling, and I loved the juxtaposition of a group of stranded helium balloons amongst the struts and arches. Changing my viewpoint slightly I spotted a cluster of CCTV cameras, and of course that triggered sightings of several more cameras dotted around the building. Why so many? Who watches the footage?
All of this reminds me of an exercise a few years ago, undertaken as part of a photography class at my local college. We were asked to spend a couple of weekends shooting 26 images, one in the form of each letter of the alphabet. Until this task provoked me to look up, I'd never imagined that some lamp-posts look like a 'J', or that a window frame could resemble an 'A'.
Why do we so rarely look up? I think it's a gravity thing. For land mammals like us, the most important objects are on the ground. For basic survival it's been much more important to look left, look right, look behind, or look into the distance. Of course this is why widescreen TVs have replaced traditional square tubes: Most of our TV programmes are about people, so why waste all that space on the sky? How different things must be in the genuinely three-dimensional world occupied by birds or fish!
So next time I commute, I'll look up, look around, ask "why?", then try to work out the answer. I expect I'll learn a lot, and perhaps stimulate a few more new ideas.