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4 November 2015

An escalator deep under Kyiv has the power to change the rider’s existence

There should be some way of apprehending the wondrousness of even our most banal transports. The alternative is everyday murderousness.

By Will Self

Here’s how Louis-Ferdinand Céline characterises travel in his trippy 1932 novel, Journey to the End of the Night: “An infinity opens up just for you – a laughable little infinity; and you fall into it.” Maybe so, yet sometimes – just sometimes – the falling into that laughable infinity is enough to justify all the very grindingly finite journeys we take in our lives; for if one thing seems beyond dispute, it is that no sooner has the circumnavigation of the kitchen table been completed than the man-haul to the kettle begins.

I went to Ukraine in 2011 to write a piece about the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. I had done a fair amount of research, but it was all concerned with the reactor, its meltdown, the aftermath: I’d given absolutely no thought whatsoever to what lay between the airport and the exclusion zone. By which I mean to say that although I was booked to stay in Kyiv for a few days and do some interviews, I had scarcely any mental picture of the city at all. A photo of a mini-Kremlin basilica snipped from a National Geographic of yore, the hazy spatial analogue of reading Gogol’s Taras Bulba and Bulgakov’s The White Guard – that was about it.

I did have the impulse to find out more; and, in my experience, the surest way of not engaging with a new city is to hale a cab, because with one swoop of the arm you hire a local’s expertise and abrogate your own responsibility for orientation. So I took a bus from the airport to the nearest underground stop, reflecting on how quite diverse cultures display a marked uniformity when it comes to the failure to integrate air and ground transport effectively . . . (Yes, it really is like this in my inner life: the personae Pinteresque and vapid, the atmosphere prosaic yet hectoring) . . . And was still reflecting on it as the train – which was foursquare, boxy, red-painted and liberally plastered with ads – burrowed its way from overground unremarkability (standard-issue warehouses, industrial parks and rusty gasometers) into a tunnel. Switching lines at a central interchange, I jostled through marble halls and marvelled at hefty bronze uplights cast in the shape of caryatids. This had to be the same neoclassical people’s palace shtick as the Moscow Metro, a Babylonian public works project courtesy of God-King Joe.

Reaching my stop, I mounted the escalator and stood, legs and arms akimbo, dangling in space. I could have gathered Kyiv was hilly from The White Guard alone – and from the signature atrocity of the Nazis in Ukraine: the mass shootings at Babi Yar, which took place in a ravine or rocky defile which was itself in . . . Kyiv. In dead time, head heavy with dark thoughts – bonemeal and blood-mortar – I ascended the escalator, and went up it still more.

When I was a child there was something called a paternoster lift at my dad’s work; this was a continuous belt of open-sided lift compartments that revolved non-stop. You simply leapt on and off at your chosen floor; or, blissfully, you could stay in your compartment and go over the top and under the bottom of the entire Heath Robinson contraption. I don’t believe I have ever been happier, the paternoster uniting the lift’s vertiginous elitism with the escalator’s trudging egalitarianism in a way today’s corporatised systems cannot abide. True, limbs were lost – but this was the London School of Economics in the 1970s, and young people – especially young social scientists – recover from serious trauma quickly.

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And ascended . . . As I squinted into the Ukrainian lower depths, the bottom of the escalator seemed further off than my mental picture of the escalators at Tottenham Court Road Tube station in London, which I think of as “pretty deep”. (I appreciate it’s not a convincingly objective measure.) Then I peered up, and saw through the bat-black night that there was still about twice as far as this to go before the wood, steel and rubber Sisyphus, ever rolling up the hill, disgorged me on to its brow. The escalator ride to heaven in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death bears close kinship to that Kyivan shaft, not only by reason of its vast extent, but also because both escaliers mécaniques fundamentally alter their riders’ terms of existence. Granted, I don’t imagine every commuter debouching at Arsenalna is plunged into existential crisis as she is winched up each morning: even so, I think Kyiv could make a lot more of having the deepest underground station in the world.

The third-deepest one is in Moscow – but it is hardly likely the disputes between the two nations will be settled by a bout of competitive Tube shaft-sinking. Nor can the Kyiv Tourist Board engineer the sort of pit-and-pendulum experience I had, coming upon their kilometre-long escalator completely unawares. Nevertheless, there should be some way of apprehending the wondrousness of even our most banal transports, for the alternative is an everyday murderousness. We’ll leave the last word, too, to Céline: “At least a hundred people must want you dead in the course of an average day – the ones behind you at the ticket window in the Métro.”

Next week: Lives of Others

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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?