Thursday 27 May 2010

Well, here I am at a particle accelerator in Switzerland. No, not that one. Actually, in mildly entertaining metric-compatible self-deprecation, mine is almost exactly 1,000 times smaller than the Large Hadron Collider, being around 10 m across where the LHC is somewhere in the region of 10 km. However, mine is about 1,000 times more interesting. Ha ha! Take that, particle nerds.

The journey was thankfully uneventful, but nonetheless a cornucopia of mild novelty for me, forced as I was by my tardy booking to fly from London City Airport. I’ve never been to the East End before. I’ve never ridden the DLR or stroked Canary Wharf with a fifty-pound note sewn from the tears of overdrawn single mothers, and the closest I’ve been to the Millennium Dome is sitting in a tent, which I hear is slightly better.

I have, however, caught the train to London before, so that was no fun. Riding the Tube, on the other hand, still comes with a vague tingling head-rush as you realise that you might be living in a post-apocalyptic underground dystopia; Big Brother watches your Oyster card, and mysterious warm draughts fill your face with aromas of rubber, electricity and metal, wafted through time from the steampunk future. I was taking the Jubilee Line, arguably the line which most successfully juxtaposes Victoriana and the new-fangled, with its glass screens between platform and track. I believe these were installed back when the Jubilee was the artery to the pulsating heart of turn-of-the-noughties culture, the Millennium Dome, presumably to reduce suicides amongst recent visitors.

The DLR was significantly below my admittedly inflated expectations—having been informed that the trains were driven by robots, I had envisioned sleek, segmented snakes of glass and chrome, a real-life version of those CGI architects’ impressions with laughing people on their mobiles walking in front of some swish new building though a foreground filled with lollipop trees. Sadly, though the robots bit was true and the trains moved around mysteriously driverless, they weren’t silver and shimmering but scarlet and shit; like getting a cockney Tattooine when you were expecting a Canary Wharf Coruscant.

I was sped efficiently if inelegantly to London City Airport (LCY), a strange spoof mini-airport set up as a modern-day folly by someone who liked the Heathrow aesthetic but made their knock-off a little too swanky and ran out of cash before they’d created a hell-hole big enough to cram with a seething mass of twats. Instead, it’s choc-full of people closing deals on Blackberries, and sandwiches which cost £4.50. £4.50?!?

LCY’s tininess perpetuated the illusion of parochial spoof with such conviction that I was expecting the ground staff to wheel a rickety cardboard cut-out plane up to the boarding gate and ask us all to make ‘neeeyown’ noises. However, perhaps it was a spoof spoof; we ended up wandering across the tarmac to board something which, whilst perhaps only one or two up from a papier-mâché Cessna, nonetheless appeared to be a real plane.

I was sat next to a woman who looked pale and a bit nervous, which left me in something of a flight etiquette quandary. I’m never really sure whether my fellow passengers want to make small-talk when all we’ve probably got in common is that we’re going to the same place. This worry evidently didn’t encumber a Scottish loud-mouth a couple of rows back; he yammered to his poor American seat-mate for the duration of the trip about pretty much anything which came into his tedious ginger head. When we touched down, I glanced at his hand luggage, wondering what a man this satisfied with his own high-pitched, annoying voice might be called: the name tag claimed ‘Steve McQueen’. I’m not sure whether my brief contemplation of the possibility that, being Scottish, this genuinely was his name makes me slightly credulous.

I managed to spend most of my time staring out of the window, contemplating how weird clouds are: towering, immortal edifices of solid white from a distance; wispy, moist, transient candy-floss up close. I didn’t get much further than that.

Thankfully, the plane did and thus it was we touched down in Zürich’s rather more plausible airport, an uneventful train, train and bus away from a week of physics at the tiny particle accelerator, sat in an air-conditioned oversize coffin suspended half-way up the inside wall of a warehouse, staring at a computer screen. Whoever said it is better to travel hopefully can piss off.

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