Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Severed Heads and Dismembered Corpses: Answers to Life's Little Mysteries

Living in a city that swells to 12.5 million people in the day time means encountering some percentage of these in the course of one’s daily life. Most of these interactions are subject to split-second evaluations and people are objectified into three categories: threats, annoyances or irrelevant. For instance, a knife-wielding yob chasing you down the train platform or a tyrannical mini-cab driver blindly bolting for the cycling lane are both considered threats. American summer study-abroad students or tour groups stopping in the pavement to investigate the blue plaques on buildings, e.g. Sir Thomas Stone lived near here in 1821 are mere annoyances. Anything else, including a gangland murder across the park, is irrelevant to one’s day. This world view can even be measured spatially, equalling about 10 meters in a 45 degree front orientated cone meaning that anything that happens beyond 10 meters outside this cone has no impact to the self. It is even typical to see Londoners scanning the requisite distance in front, left and right, just to ensure that any possible threats and annoyances do not fall within this cone (of smugness) and are therefore rendered irrelevant by proxy.
Given the chances for even random associations in a city that swells to 12.5 million people each day, however, opens a door wide for some of the more stupefying and bewildering things. Most of these exist because of their ties to random processes that fall well outside the 10 meter cone and are relegated to the realm of urban mystery; these things I will never understand. As such, these mysteries have no business being solved, and generally, people who tend to solve these very mysteries tend to bewilder me more than the mystery ever did in the first place. A year ago, for example, somewhere in a place called Kilburn, North West London, a severed head was found in a bin bag in a large bin. Don’t get me wrong; I, in no way, condone severing heads and placing them in bin bags, but on the same token, I don’t advocate opening bin bags in the first place. Who is the man (or woman) who discovered such thing, and what was he doing looking in bin bags anyway? Another case in point, periodically bodies are found, dismembered, charred and stowed in suitcases that inevitably find themselves dumped somewhere outside the suspicious eyes and prying hands of those who might take offense to murder, dismemberment and arson. Again, I do not condone horrific crimes, and at many levels have nothing but sympathy for those who have to deal with these things. On the same token, at the same time as I sympathize with victims and their families, I have none for the finders of such suitcases, which are invariably discovered by random walkers out for a stroll in the country side who come across these suitcases, are horrified to discover their contents and then see fit to remark about their own shock and disbelief at what they have discovered. Given the number of suitcases that are discovered containing charred and dismembered corpses, I wonder where this sense of disbelief comes from. Furthermore, I argue that the odds of not finding a corpse in a suitcase dumped in the countryside are longer than finding one, so it baffles me as to why anyone discovering a dumped suitcase doesn’t simply call the authorities and let them deal with the shock-horror of discovery.
Not all little mysteries are as traumatic as severed heads and dismembered corpses, but their possibility does impact more banal behaviour. For instance on the way home from work yesterday, after dodging door-to-door stolen goods merchants, both Lowri and I after regarding a large piece of Christmas wrapping paper blowing around in the street, stepped over it and continued on our way. The people in front of us, in employing equal measures of observation and avoidance carried on like us, and I can only imagine that those behind us did the same thing, though since they fell outside the 45 degree 10 meter cone, I have no idea. Questions abound: why did we all do actively avoid a piece of litter that could be easily picked up and wadded in the bin, or more significantly, why was there a piece of Christmas wrapping paper in the street in September, and thus we have an urban mystery. The reason why no one dealt with the litter, even such a seemingly innocuous piece of litter is that most people read the pulp newspapers and are aware that behind even the most trivial piece of trash, suit case or bin bag, could be something horrific beyond words. This is, after all a London street and God only knows where that paper has been and what manner of foulness it has encountered. It could be attached, somehow to a head, or headless body or charred and dismembered corpse just outside the cone vision. Thus, it, like any other anomaly is to be avoided.
Because a city of 12.5 million people does contain its share of randomness, chaos is sometimes unavoidable, and inadvertently the riddles of urban mysteries are solved. For instance, I have always vaguely wondered about particular urban smells; unfortunately, living next to a stadium seating 60,000 people means that the sources of malodour are generally attributed to the fans that inhabit the stadium. For instance, everyone knows that you don’t go into the park next railway tracks adjacent to the stadium if you seek to get away from the clamour of the city and enjoy some greenbelt nature. You go into the park to either dump a body or use it as a public convenience. As a result, the park smells of piss and the source of piss are the fans pissing in it. The same thing goes for the churchyard, square, or anywhere vaguely private but still accessible by the public. This includes the walls to the station and especially behind bins. These smells, however, are not that intriguing and are not even urban mysteries. Having witnessed or participated in my fair share of public urination, I know only too well what happens when there are a bunch of blokes and a bunch of beer. I remember a bike racer I knew who after many beers was found with his back to the wall pissing across a sidewalk, holding up considerable foot traffic with his considerable quantity of urine. It is safe to say that, given these contexts, very few urinary events shocks me, let alone surprise me, or even evoke the most casual sense of wonder, except one thing. I have always wondered why the Tube station smells of piss. Given the cameras, the fact that most people don’t like walking in piss, theirs or otherwise and that the tube is heavily guarded on match day to avoid such incidents, the Tube stations still seem to always smell of urine. Vomit makes sense. When one has to vomit, they have to vomit, and vomit on a platform is about a billion times better than vomit on the train itself. Indeed, platform vomit ought to be viewed as blessing because it is specifically not train vomit. But station piss is a mystery, namely because out of all the tube journeys I have taken, I have never seen anyone pissing, so where does the smell come from? Whenever I’ve had to piss on the tube, I’ve held it and waited for a more convenient place, be it station wall, bin storage, park, square, alley or occasionally the church yard (though this one is a bit spookier given the sacrilegious overtones). The point is I’ve always held it until I was beyond the overt public gaze and somewhere private enough.
As noted above, the funny thing about living in such a big city is that the solution to mysteries often present themselves at the most seemingly bizarre moments. So, when I stepped off the tube at 5:30 in the afternoon and found myself facing a suited chap pissing against the wall in front of me and 6.5 million other commuters, I did not react in horror or revulsion; a bit of trepidation perhaps given my flip flop clad feet but certainly no shock, unlike the girl in front of me who screeched. Rather, I was pleasantly satisfied that, despite my not really wanting to know, at least now I did know where the urine smell in the tube comes from.