One summer morning a jetplane flew south over central London, gear down, seatbelts on, devices off. Thousands of feet below, traffic flowed around Russell Square. An open top bus turned into Bedford Way, plunging its passengers into the shade of the tall university buildings.
Thanks to the aristocrats whose names the streets wear, this part of the city between Euston and Oxford Street is the closest London gets to a grid structure. I know it quite well, but still use the crutch of a map to find my way round. It’s a marauder’s map with me at the centre, surrounded by a shaded circle of confidence that pulses bigger and smaller as my phone singles out satellites, cell towers and WiFi points in the radio spectrum cacophony.
I was not there that day, the day of the jetplane and the tour bus. Yet every time I cross Russell Square, Google satellite map in hand, I walk under the left wing of the jetplane.
Frozen in time, the Russell Square aeroplane looks as though it has landed in the park. The scale is about right. Besides, how without forward motion can it be anywhere but on the ground?
Like saving an image out of Photoshop, the satellite view flattens the layers. The people in the sky (who knows where they came from or how long their journeys?) are suddenly on the same plane as the people on the bus, for whom the passenger jet was nothing but a streak of sound or a vapour trail in the clear blue sky.
I can imagine the bustle when I walk though the square, squinting at my phone screen in the daylight. Not a crash landing for there are no signs of panic around the plane.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Russell Square where the time is forever 10am British Summer Time. Please remain seated until the pilot has switched off the seatbelt signs. On behalf of the airline and our partners may I thank you for flying with us and wish you a pleasant onward journey.
And please mind the picnickers as you disembark the plane.”
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