Balancing on a curbside between the concrete and the imaginary is not where I expected to find myself on a Friday afternoon in a talk at the RSA recently. As the four corners of normality disintegrate before me I’m swallowed into the hidden realms of a ‘standard’ London street. This is all thanks to Street Wisdom: an invisible university, whose only entry requirements ask that you can follow your curiosity.
“The street is interested in you,” advises David Pearl (who first conceived the idea some years back) explaining, “and there’s wisdom for as far as you can see.” But instead of taking my normal seat in The Great Room of the RSA, I’m invited to take a step outside of the ordinary and follow a trail around the rabbit holes of my own reality. I’m all ears as I roam the streets ‘listening out’ carefully to clues in what surrounds me. And before I know it I’m sliding underground, traipsing through Terra incognita in a dimly lit tunnel, sinking in and out of the magnetic parts of my periphery.
I’m told to take my time and ask questions. And as I peer closer in, tuning in my senses and altering my aperture – something quite peculiar comes over me. Things start to warp, to morph, to transfigure: a puddle full of clouds becomes a window, a reflection on a letterbox: an important message, a huddling pigeon: the protagonist of an unfolding plot, a discrete doorway: an exit to the astral plane. Now a puddle and a pigeon are things that initially appear quite ordinary, but I find myself challenging that idea as part of the activity.
Back on ground level, we’re invited to reflect on our discoveries and we’re all feeling a bit subdued, recounting contrasting curvatures in what appears to be the same old John Adam Street. It’s not long before I’m drawn to my own reflection in a car window, staring straight back at me. This would normally be the cue to fix my hair or readjust my glasses before rushing on – only this time I’ve been instructed to go slo-mo for forty five minutes and inspect things a little more attentively. And as I watch closely – buildings begin to bend, surfaces ripple, I’m guzzled up by a sea of wiggly shapes and squiggly lines, of tantalizing tessellations and hexagonal hallucinations. The answers to the questions I pose, begin to pull themselves closer and closer to me.
Anyone who saw me might have thought I was mad, motionless in the middle of a autumnal afternoon, poking mirrors and gazing at concrete slabs. I wandered past a patch of flowers and hoped that if I listened out for long enough, they might just start talking back at me. Alas, it was a stranger instead who began a conversation. “Arty” she said, as she passed by while I was pondering life on the other side of a motorcycle mirror. I spoke to her for a good ten minutes thinking she was part of the venture, but it turns out she wasn’t.
‘It’s funny what comes your way when you’re open to it,’ says David. And by the end of my first adventure in the Underlands of The Strand, I’m impressed with the themes that have come back to me. From the banal to the bedazzling, to the beautiful and back again, it’s only when you ask the streets questions that the answers are set free for you to see.
What can you learn from the street you live in? Ask yourself a simple question tomorrow and listen out carefully as you walk slowly down the street…
Maxine Clay ahandfulofcreativity.com