I started an internship today with English PEN, an organization that promotes literature and literacy across cultures, advocates for writers that have been imprisoned for their work, funds translations of foreign works into English, and is one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world. I’m helping out with their largest annual fundraiser, the PEN Quiz, which is a swank night when all the London publishing and media glitterati get together and compete for prizes and bragging rights by answering questions in categories like literature, history, and current events. The director of the organization is beyond charming, and the events director—the woman I will work with most closely—is a poet. Need I say more?
To get there I take the overland rail from my neighborhood to London Bridge, which is not just a nursery rhyme but also a tube station and an actual structure that spans the River Thames. Then I descend, down, down into the depths of London on the Underground, into a world of artificial lights and swirling sounds—rushing trains, murmuring voices, the muffled clip-clapping of shoe heels on hard floors, clear notes streaming down hallways as the occasional musician takes advantage of tunnel acoustics.
On the Northern Line, the platform is always crowded. Short tunnels no wider than doorways feed the platform off the main hallway, and I stand in one of these, as commuters crowd in front of and behind me. I can see the packed train through the people in front of me as it arrives on a whoosh of air; the doors open and the crowd parts just enough to let people off, and only the lucky few standing right behind the yellow line will make it onto the train before a recording of a woman’s voice announces, “Please stand cleah of the doors. This train is departing.” Then I am at the yellow line, the train so close I could press my hand on the Plexiglas window without fully extending my arm. It begins to move, gathering speed until it is no more than a red blur, and when it ends there is moment of vertigo where I am sucked into the empty space behind it.
When I emerge from the Tube, at Angel, I ascend the longest escalator in the system, 318 steps, and just like that I am in Islington, a hip north London neighborhood where there are shops and theaters and publishing houses. And although I am not paid, I am on my way to work, and even though the day is only just begun, it feels like a very good day indeed.