What came over me? I’m not a natural lawbreaker and was never a rebel as a youth. I deplore poll-tax rioters, eco-rioters and every lawless protest against supposed injustice, and read with awe of Charles Moore’s defiant stand against the TV licence people, wondering at the desperado our one-time Spectator editor has in later years become.
But it was with two other editors of this magazine very present in my imagination, that my (to me) astonishing moment of criminal madness occurred.
I was coming back from dinner in Chelsea with Virginia Johnson, Frank Johnson’s widow. I loved Frank, the last-but-one editor of this magazine. It was he who wrote, early in 1979 after one of my more spectacular political misjudgments as a putative MP, that ‘one thing is certain: Matthew Parris will never be heard of again’; he who hired me 14 years ago to write these columns; and he who (though he would be irritated to hear me say so) had stood for me as a shining example in the craft of political sketchwriting into which I had followed him. In uneasy contention within Frank’s breast were a sometimes reactionary Conservatism, and a chippy subversiveness, and the tussle made for journalism of the sharpest and funniest sort.
I’d had a lovely evening with Virginia; time flew; and, later than I’d planned and after perhaps one glass of wine too many, set out by public transport for my London Docklands flat. Virginia and her guests had been talking about an anthology of Frank’s writing on which she’s working, to be published later this year, and I was thinking about him and his two-fingers-up to the insolence of public office, as my District Line tube train pulled into Monument station.
Here you change for Bank station (there’s a pedestrian link) and the Docklands Light Railway. Or, rather, you always did. But Transport for London has made the most almighty horlicks of renovating the pedestrian link — Heaven only knows how it got into this pickle — and to the daily fury of hundreds of thousands of passengers it has been impossible since last year to connect from Monument to Bank except by going up and out on to the street, and walking a very long way round. You can connect the other way, from Bank to Monument, by ascending an up-escalator; but the down-escalator is shut and boarded up. These works (though I’ve peered through some peepholes and seen scant evidence of construction) have coincided with a greatly intensified use of Bank by the Docklands Light Railway, because its other London terminus has been shut for rebuilding. The result has been chaotic overcrowding bordering at rush-hour on panic, and TfL are lucky nobody’s yet been crushed or jostled on to the track.
Why can’t Frank’s successor as Spectator editor, Boris Johnson, do something about this, now he’s Mayor of London? Little among the commonplaces of life really enrages me, but this cock-up, and the insolently unapologetic way TfL bosses its customers around and nobody seems to care, drives me wild.
But I’d temporarily forgotten all about it as I alighted at Monument. In an amnesiac after-dinner glow, I followed habit and walked down the steps leading to the short pedestrian tunnel that links to the escalator down to Bank.
Which doesn’t now exist. I remembered as I rounded the corner: to confront the escalator up.
Oh, I don’t know what happened: some sort of red mist; some sudden vast internal anger; some welling-up of all the months of inconvenience, all the appointments I’d been late for, the trains I’d missed, because of this mess at Monument. Just down there, not 100 yards away, at the bottom of this up-escalator, was the Northern Line platform with its short, direct link into the DLR station. Would I turn away, turn back, and walk meekly up and out into the City streets, and find my way the long way round? I would not.
I don’t think Frank really wanted to hand over the Spectator editorship to Boris. I’d like to believe Frank’s ghost was with me, hovering over my right shoulder, as I defied the new Mayor’s authority now.
I surveyed the moving treads, racing in towards me like ocean breakers, and took a deep breath. ‘This is stupid,’ I said to myself, ‘exactly the sort of thing you shouldn’t do in leather-soled shoes after a drink. You’re 59.’ But then Another Voice — an alter ego — said ‘Heck — give it a go.’
I plunged forward and, with a sort of leap, landed on an oncoming escalator tread, grabbing the moving stair-rail. Which was silly, because it was moving towards me. But some instinct told me to release not my hand but my grip, so that the rail, sliding through my hand, could keep me steady. I lurched, almost fell, found my balance, and began to run down the stairs.
Was I making headway? I couldn’t afford to look to left or right but kept my gaze fixed on the blur of moving tread beneath my feet. Amazed up-coming passengers shot past me, ducking to one side — and seeming to move so incredibly fast.
This is one of the Underground’s longer escalators. When I dared look towards the end of the stairs down there at the Northern Line, it seemed far, far away. A voice boomed over an unseen intercom, telling me to stop at once and return. They must have CCTV down here, I thought, and redoubled my pace. Raising my head momentarily I could see the bottom of the stairs getting closer. Tap-tap-tap-tap, very fast, leather soles on steel treads… I was winning.
And getting a bit breathless. But now the end was in sight, the admonitory voices had stopped, and if I could manage to get off and on to solid ground, and leg it down the stairs to the DLR, I’d soon be absorbed into the crowd and beyond the reach of the Transport Police, or whomever. As the stairs’ base slowly approached, fear gripped me: how do you switch from stair-running flat out, to the hard, stationary concrete plate where the escalator treads come whirring out of a slit? Here goes — I let go of the rail, gave another little jump, landed on both feet on the concrete, nearly overbalanced, steadied myself — and scarpered down into the DLR station. A train was waiting, and within seconds I was being borne away from this scene of folly to a place where Boris couldn’t get me, heart beating, and filled with a wholly disproportionate sense of triumph.
Oh, I know, don’t tell me. Anyone can run the wrong way down escalators. Kids do it all the time. It wasn’t exactly Everest. It wasn’t Trafalgar. It wasn’t swimming the Channel.
But it was sweet. So thank you, Frank.