Love and Entanglement in Subatomic London: The Spooky Action Machine

Camberwell, 1980. In the cold, dingy attic room of a smog-blackened terraced house, two undergraduates are on the brink of something. They are physics students, although the strange, gaffer-taped structure that fills the room could be mistaken for an art project. A crudely bolted network of steel piping – propped up by beer crates and books – connects a large refrigerator, the workings of a spin dryer, a tangle of wires and a bank of television screens, circuit boards and telephones.

Sitting atop this contraption, as though it were the most natural place to be, is a cat.

The students place the cat, Erwin, inside the refrigerator (which is empty apart from a steel plated lining), type instructions into the modified ZX80 taped to the door’s inside, and slam the door shut. A brief frenzy of bucking and whirring is followed by one almighty jolt – and then silence.

After a few, charged seconds, the students check the fridge. Then, satisfied that there is no trace of Erwin within it, they leave the room – locking the door behind them. Once downstairs, they take a tin of cat food from a cupboard in the kitchen, and step out into the dark, November night.

ZX80
Sinclair ZX80, an early home computer

“Erwin was a little grumpy when we got to Sam’s flat in Highgate”, says Maja Toft, down the phone from Copenhagen. “But otherwise, he seemed fine. We let him out of the exit machine, gave him some dinner, and had him snuggle up with us in Sam’s big bed. He didn’t seem phased to be a pioneer in quantum entanglement travel”.

This is a story of subatomic physics and its potential to open gateways. But it is also a story of music, politics and romance. Maja and her boyfriend Sam Harper had been working on their machine for months, keeping little contact with the world outside college and their makeshift laboratory. But before that?

Dancing.

Maja says they fell for each other in the student bar, to a soundtrack of new wave and synth pop.

“I had grown up loving punk, reggae, all of that. As a young Danish woman, I took London Calling literally. The UK music scene is what brought me to England’s capital. Oh” – she laughs, a soft, warm chuckle that becomes familiar as the call goes on – “and the especial malleability of your city’s subatomic structure, of course”.

London Calling

As Maja herself admits, had she listened a little closer to the lyrics of The Clash’s album, she might have realised that they painted a less than rosy picture of London and the UK.

By April 1981, Maja and Sam had begun to experiment with using the quantum gateway personally. Meanwhile, just up the road in Brixton, riots had broken out against a back-drop of heavy-handed stop-and-search tactics directed at London’s black population.

White, middle class, and raised in Denmark and the US respectively, Maja and Sam felt inoculated against the issues surrounding the riots. However, says Maja, “My politics were formed in that time. It was so unfair, even as a callow young incomer I saw that. What a struggle it was for some. How easy it had been for me”.

1981_Brixton_Riots
Police presence in Brixton, 1981.

Politics leant their work some urgency. Could instantaneous travel change the world for the better?

But, admits Maja, they had another, less outward-looking motivation.

“It was really just a way to get to each other’s bedrooms quicker”, she laughs. “The journey from Camberwell to Sam’s place in Highgate wasn’t great, especially in winter, especially at night”.

80s train interior
The kind of tube interior Maja was hoping to avoid

So, they studied. For Maja, Imperial College was a natural fit. It had been an early centre for the study of subatomic properties in uranium (until the nuclear arms race drove the research underground).

But the couple were restless. They found their tutors too mired in theory. Between lectures they spent hours in the pub, hammering out ways to make the new ideas practical.

“It was an exciting time in quantum physics”, Maja says. “Stephen Hawking was our hero, tying together a lot of strands. In terms of portals, The Victorians had done some interesting things, but they were chancers, really. They left little useful science. Einstein, Schrodinger – those guys got us past Newton and blind luck”.

Einstein was uncomfortable with what he termed ‘spooky action at a distance’: quantum entanglement, the idea that subatomic particles can affect one another over distances.

“Spooky action, many-worlds theory: Hawking took them seriously. And we took Hawking very seriously indeed”.

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And now, with the help of Maja and Sam’s machine, quantum entanglement was going to change the world.

Maja laughs again, but this time there’s a bitter edge.

“You know, Sam hated that we never managed a two-way machine. That I could get to his bedroom from mine, but not the other way round. I don’t think it was the science that bothered him. I think he just felt cornered.”

For the first time the lightness has left Maja’s voice.

“And – it’s silly – we argued over what to call the thing. I said the Love Walk Generator. Love Walk was a pretty lane in Camberwell that we liked to stroll down in the early days. Spooky Action Machine was Sam’s suggestion. It was certainly catchier. By the time I realised he had suggested it because it abbreviated as SAM, it had stuck.”

There is a silence where the laugh should be.

“I can’t remember whether it was me or Sam who saw the cracks first.”

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Love Walk, Camberwell

Cracks?

“Look – it’s hard to talk about, even now. It wasn’t just the falling out of love. There was… things that didn’t make sense. And – god – the nightmares, and the – our skin”.

Another pause.

“It wasn’t ready. The science wasn’t ready. You could say, yes, we achieved what we set out to achieve. But it wasn’t supposed to – no, it wasn’t. It was a failure”.

Sam moved back to the US and they lost touch. Maja hung on in London for a few years before moving back to Copenhagen.

“I’m a materials scientist, now. Sam would find that funny”.

And the machine?

“Oh, you know I don’t know? I’ve wondered about that a lot over the years. I suppose it’s in some basement somewhere, or in a scrap heap. Hey, hopefully someone fixed the fridge up and used it to keep their groceries fresh”.

Maja’s easy chuckle comes rolling down the phone once more.


  • Candidate: The Spooky Action Machine
  • Type: Quantum Entanglement Device
  • Status: Historic

A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part Two)

We continue our retelling of an interview with H, who works as a cycle courier for a company that collects business visas in passports. As much as possible, it is presented in her voice. In part one, H described discovering the Twitchells, the hidden network of wormhole-like portals which connect London’s streets.

Like I said, no-one’s going to tell you how to find them. I can drop some hints, mention a few street names, but I’m not going to break it down for you. No grid references or google pins. I know how that seems, it used to piss me off too. But I understand the secrecy now. We’re not jealously guarding some cool little club. It’s just that you have to own it. If you ride the twitchells, it’s got to be on your own terms. Because it isn’t a game.

But I sound like an old-timer, one of the doomsayers. OK – riding the twitchells is fun. Those first few weeks were a rush. Through the office doors in the morning and I couldn’t pack my workload into my bag quick enough. No matter that it’s 90 minutes until my first embassy opens. Never mind the murmurs coming from the courier’s desk as I head for the door – the seen-it-all-befores sipping tea with their feet up, smirking and shaking their head. Forget them. I’ve got a new toy and it isn’t anywhere near being boring.

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The twitchells were everything I already loved about my job, times a thousand. Connecting the city, piecing disparate parts into a whole. Stealing time between drops to visit somewhere new. Chancing on the hidden places, the frozen-in-time places, tiny islands suspended in the eddies of everyday London.

Suddenly, the city became a village. Need that mid-morning espresso? Time is short and you’re across town from your favourite coffee shop, but you know a twitchell on the next road that will bring you out in spitting distance.

I could be in Fitzrovia, 20 minutes to go until a Liverpool Street pickup, and find time between for a quiet five minutes on the banks of the Long Water.

Of course, there was a flipside. Once the coordinator knows you’re plugged into the network, no drop or pickup is too outlandish. Can I get an oil worker’s passport back from Angola in Marylebone and swing by the office in Victoria to pick up a package to drop in Canada Square with a banker who’s flying from City airport 45 mins from now? Well, yes, I suppose I can.

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But even the extra work couldn’t dampen the thrill of discovery. Once I could prove inside knowledge, other couriers opened up about the twitchells. For me, finding one usually involves a change in the air, an unexpected sound or smell. Others speak of a ‘feeling’ which tells them they are close. Some more seasoned riders say that they now simply ‘see’ them, as clearly as any side road.

Experiences of riding them vary, too. Some describe being squeezed through a narrow space. Others, being flung forwards as if from a catapult. One guy told me it was how he imagined swapping places with himself in a mirror. And for me? You know those little kids toys, brightly coloured rubber poppers, you turn them inside out and wait until they flip?

That.

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I heard the inevitable macho stories. Twitchells in Blackwall tunnel. Twitchells on the Westway. Ones along the towpath that if you time it wrong you end up in the canal. The two guys who claim to have ridden hundreds on a tandem. The twitchell that still exists where an office block now covers an old road in the City – you have to ride full pelt through the foyer to hook it.

Some say that if you get up enough speed and fling yourself off the east side of London Bridge, you can hook a twitchell left hanging in the air from the bridge’s previous incarnation, but I don’t know anyone stupid enough to have tried.

There were questions I had to find the answer to myself (how to not vomit every time), and some no couriers could answer (how long have they been there? How do they manage to always drop you just behind the passing traffic?). People say the fact you can only access them on a bike is a mystery, but to me it makes sense. Something about the way you inhabit space when you ride, the counterintuitive becoming intuitive, like how you turn into a fall to right yourself.

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And then there’s the big question: what are they? Are they simply hidden alleyways? Permanent features of the city? But then, what city feature is permanent? Do twitchells remain when the visible geography of the city changes around them? Entire roads are disappearing, new ones being created. Look at Battersea, King’s Cross, Elephant and Castle. Are twitchells displaced by these developments, as people are?

Some of those courier’s tales suggest that they are not, but you hear other stories: someone taking a nasty fall onto a pavement because the twitchell they’ve come to rely on is no longer there. And then there are the new twitchells – though it’s hard to prove they weren’t there all along.

All of this is fuel for the doomsayers. They say it is a mistake to picture the twitchells as ‘wormholes’ or hidden tunnels. For them, the twitchells are the tangible manifestations of something else, a larger entity beneath London’s surface. They grow and recede, these courier’s say, like the sporocarps of a fungus. It’s just that they do so very slowly.

Pink_sunrise_at_Regent_Street,_London

A lot of the old-timers won’t use them. We’ve all had the lectures. They talk a lot about the disappearances. And yes, the disappearances are terrible. There are no white bicycles for those who never re-emerged from a twitchell. But cyclists get killed on the streets too. That doesn’t stop us, does it?

I’ll admit some of what they say stays with me. “Fine, you’re young, I can’t change your mind any more than if I tried to get you to quit drinking”, one old-timer told me. “But promise me this: When you start to sense the belly of the twitchells, the inside, when there’s a second or two of darkness where there used to be nothing, and you start to see things out of the corner of your eye – figures, shadows beside you in the darkness – don’t wait for them to get closer. As soon as you start to see them – stop”.

And the other old-timers, the ones who never stopped riding the twitchells, they do look pretty bad, kind of weary, ghostlike. But that could just as easily be the years of coffee and car fumes, or too many hard winters.

I’m not stupid, I know this isn’t forever. I’ll quit one day. But I’m still having the time of my life.

And I haven’t seen any shadows in the darkness yet.

 


THIS BLOG IS NOT A USER’S GUIDE


  • Candidate: The Twitchells
  • Type: Unconfirmed
  • Status: Active

A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part One)

This is a guest post, of sorts. A written version of an interview with a good friend of PoL’s, presented with a narrative element, but in her voice as much as possible. She wishes to remain anonymous, so we will refer to her as H. H describes herself as a quasi cycle courier. New to the gig, she rides for a company that collects business visas in passports. It’s a job that mixes speeding through the city with a lot of hanging around waiting for embassies and consulates to process the visas. H is Czech born, zero-houred and of newly uncertain residential status. We’re grateful she found the time to talk to us about this fascinating candidate for the catalogue.

No-one’s going to tell you exactly how to find them. There’s an etiquette to follow. Besides, even if I laid it all out, doesn’t mean you would find them the same way. All I can do is tell you one way it might go.

It doesn’t have to start on a bike. Maybe it starts in a cafe. Let’s say Clerkenwell Road, 5pm on a Friday. Rush hour, but you’re not rushing because your last job of the day is a pickup from a company in the building next door and it won’t be ready til 5.30. Your dropsheet’s complete so you have won yourself a little sit down with a cup of tea, your phone nice and quiet in its strap pocket. From a stool in the window, you watch the peloton. London’s two-wheeled commuters are heading east and north. Young creatives on too-clean single speeds mix with overly lycra-d managers and the grey-suited Brompton guys. A few couriers weave in and out of the pack, dashing to make their final drops and get to the pub.

Clerkenwell_Road

You spot one, balancing on his self-build at the traffic lights. Something about the way his eyes are checking the other cyclists makes you keep watching him. He seems nervy, as if he’s expecting something to happen. Is he just sizing up the competition, eager for the rush-hour race? But instead of burning for the front when the lights turn green, he hangs back a little. Not until the pack gets ahead of him does he really put his feet to the pedals.

So that’s it. He wants a challenge. You watch him close down the peloton quickly. Then something happens which will come to change your world entirely. The courier is about a metre behind the last of the group – and right across the road from where you are sitting – when he vanishes. Completely. Like he was a sticker that someone removed from the world.

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Let’s say you sleep on that and in the morning put it down to a long week and too much caffeine.

But a month later you are heading south on Edgware road, nostrils full of shisha smoke and car fumes, when it happens again. This time you’ve been trailing a courier from Paddington, half-competitively, half because something about the way he’s navigating the city – cruising complex junctions, finding little cuts you didn’t know about – tells you you might learn something from him. You guess he’s heading for Marble Arch and you’re right. You’re watching him closely to see how he tackles it. But he never gets that far. He’s about half a block ahead of you when you see a movement, a wobble, an intentional shift towards the kerb. What is he thinking? He’ll be thrown from his bike. There’s a small tree on the pavement, he’ll buckle his wheel on that, or worse. A split second later the tree is there, but the courier is not.

You get off your bike, and stare at the empty space for a long time.

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The next couple of months are like a wonderful waking up. You start to see them everywhere. Couriers not just vanishing, but appearing out of nowhere on the street ahead of you. You see them so often you wonder how you never noticed it before. You ask other couriers about it, coming to recognise a certain response when you do. A little movement of the head. A smile, or it’s opposite, the worried look. The shutting down of conversation. You raise the subject with more and more couriers just to test this reaction.

Something is dawning on you. Certain things start to make sense, in hindsight. People crossing London faster than you reckon anyone should be able to. Guys returning to the office almost dry when you’re still dripping from the rainy ride back. The time you overheard your co-ordinator on a call to a rider: “Deliver this one by road please. Time is less important than making sure it 100% doesn’t get lost”.

It’s like when scientists know that something they can’t see is there because it’s the only way to account for the things they can see. All of a sudden the last few months only make sense if – your spine tingles at the thought of it – if there is some kind of hidden route through London, some network of shortcuts that doesn’t adhere to the same physical laws that the streets and alleyways do.

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But talking to couriers is still getting you nowhere. Until, one day, in the basement at the Nigerian embassy, you make a breakthrough. A courier you’ve pestered many times before suddenly drops his defences. Sighs and says, “Look, I can’t spell it out to you, that’s just the rules. But you know where one or two are already, you just have to… Okay, hooking into a twitchell is a personal thing …”. [‘Twitchell!’ He says ‘twitchell’, these things have a name!] He goes quiet. Say’s he’s said enough already. Then he grins and says, “But you’re gonna love it”. You grin back. And when you finally emerge from Nigeria into the darkening London streets, they have changed forever.

So you go back to that spot on Edgware Road. You fling yourself down that stretch, turn into the pavement, and… nearly kill yourself on the tree. Clerkenwell Road goes almost as badly.

But it isn’t just the London streets that have changed – it’s you. Edgware and Clerkenwell don’t seem to matter. You feel – you know – that it’s not a question of if you find a twitchell, but when. And where.

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When it does finally happen, your mind is elsewhere. You’re cycling along in that blissful way, being carried along the winding streets by pedal-memory, thinking about who knows what – dinner, shopping, your home town, your parents, your lovelife. Apart from the movement of legs, pedals and wheels, your bike could be standing still. It is the streets which are flying past you.

Then something makes you look at your surroundings. You have been so faraway you forget where you are, forget the time of day. How did I get here, where am I going? Which blackened Georgian office block is that? Which crouching church down that alley? It is the smell that brings it back to you – the cold tang of raw meat: You are wheeling around the edge of Smithfield market, and it is dawn. But suddenly there’s another smell: sweet coffee, belgian waffles. It is unexpected, out of place. You are knocked off course.

Something makes you jerk towards the kerb. A pothole? That heart-in-mouth moment, you’re coming off your bike and it’s too late to stop it. You hit something, or something hits you. Your body braces for a pain that doesn’t come. Somehow you are still on your bike. The street still rushes by, but it is not the street you were on a second ago. It is not even the same part of London. It is Queensway, and a waffle house is just opening up. You slam on your brakes, throw your bike to the kerb and vomit into the gutter.

Straightening up, you smile.

You’re in.

Part Two

Pilots, Pepys and the sky above Limehouse: The Great Whirl

(Short post):

The image heading this post shows a photo taken on a phone camera by a close associate of Portals of London. From near Deptford Creek he watched for several minutes as clouds above Limehouse “moved in a strange, very slow, swirling movement”, in contrast to their general easterly motion across the sky.

As it happens, such a sight from this vantage point is not rare. In fact, low-lying stratocumulus clouds like the ones pictured are known for betraying the presence of a sure candidate for the Portals catalogue: The Great Whirl of Limehouse.

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All still at river level. Limehouse today source | licence

The existence of some kind of inter-dimensional opening in the sky above London’s docklands is, though largely forgotten by 21st Century residents, woven into Limehouse lore. In warehouses and riverside pubs, ‘The Whirl’ was once a hot topic. Tales were swapped of vanishing barrage balloons, missing carrier pigeons and the one-way journeys of brave Cessna-flying explorers. It is said the commercial pilots of City Airport still steer well clear of the area, though good luck getting them to talk about it.

And good luck getting anyone from the meteorological department to allow that anything other than ordinary atmospheric effects account for the strange behaviour of the Limehouse clouds (as for the European Space Agency, what they know of the Whirl is anyone’s guess – they certainly aren’t talking to us).

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The Whirl might have been visible just out of the top left corner of this 1751 view  source | public domain

Ok, non-portal vortexes in cloud systems are common. But the Whirl’s characteristic corkscrew motion appears time and again in artworks throughout history, in a strikingly consistent part of the London sky. Views from Greenwich are a particularly rich source. Examine the images below, and make up your own mind.

First up is this engraving from 1754, in which the swirl is clear. (Our annotation marks the Whirl’s centre but you can see that clouds across the whole sky are corralled into the motion):

1London,_seen_from_Greenwich._Engraving,_1754._Wellcome_V0013231
source | licence

Note the similarities in the following painting and engraving, from separate 18th Century artists:

1GreenwichHospitalearlystages
source | public domain
1London,_seen_from_Greenwich._Engraving._Wellcome_V0013236
source | licence

The swirling motion stands out clearly in Henry Dawson’s 19th Century painting:

1800px-Henry_Dawson_-_London_from_Greenwich_Hill_-_Google_Art_Project
source | public domain

Some even claim to discern evidence of the Whirl in JMW Turner’s ‘London from Greenwich Park’ (1809), though we aren’t so sure:

1a799px-Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_London_from_Greenwich_Park_-_Google_Art_Project
source | public domain

Those are some pictures, but what of words? Debate continues over the Great Whirl’s earliest mention in print, but the first unambiguous reference to it comes from Samuel Pepys’ diary. In May, 1662, the famous Naval administrator and diarist wrote: 

“Then to an alehouse in Drury Lane, where I did meet with Greatorex and an acquaintance of his, who entertained us both with extraordinary tales of the great Whirl in the sky above Limehouse, through which, it is said, many wondrous worldes may be reached”

Pepys goes on to muse that he would like to gather funds for the building of a “great tower” to explore the matter. We can’t help wondering how the 17th Century might have turned out had he succeeded.


  • Candidate: The Great Whirl
  • Type: Wormhole (Unconfirmed)
  • Status: Current (Activity unknown)