Standing outside a strip club at 9.30am on a rainy Friday morning isn’t generally how the best adventures begin — but bear with me, I can explain.
A few weeks earlier, while sipping a pint next to Regent’s Canal, I overheard a conversation between a couple on the subject of spending 24 hours without their phones. “Impossible” the man thundered, visibly shaken by the mere idea. The woman shook her head, then both heads bowed in prayer to the omnipotent god, Apple, and silence descended.
'I could do that,' I scoffed to myself. The thought of leaving the house without the mechanical overlord — naked and alone — sent a thrilling chill up my spine. I wanted to bounce freely through the streets of London as we used to, noticing things I never would if I was glued to a screen. I enlisted some London friends to suggest a few obscure places I would attempt to find, with just a London A-Z book (2006 Edition).
"I practice the lost art of asking a stranger for directions"
So here I am, standing in front of my first mystery destination; the Griffin Strip Club on a damp Friday morning. A group of builders amble past me, engaged in the kind of technical banter only builders seem to possess.
“Not open yet mate” one cracks, straight-faced. His colleagues snigger in unison — it’s time to move on.
I have a fraught relationship with my smartphone. They have transformed our lives but I feel increasingly sceptical about their long term effects on society.
Half a mile up the road is Great Ormond Street Hospital, which I circle three times before concluding that no, I can't find the Peter Pan statue. For the first of many times, I practice the lost art of asking a stranger for directions. On the plus side I do manage to discover the Russell Square Bug Hotel and the house in which Emmeline Pankhurst once lived.
"I notice how many people are carrying their phones, even when not using them"
My route takes me past the British Museum (where people appreciate art by snapping away at statues), then south towards Trafalgar Square. I start to notice how many people are carrying their phones, even when not using them.
In Leicester Square I stop to watch a busker drumming away on a set of flower pots and kitchen pans, then in Trafalgar Square — dodging all the people looking at their screens — I notice a man on his hands and knees. Specks of coloured dust are flying up around him; on closer inspection he is colouring individual flags from around the world with chalk, the words ‘Welcome to London’ in the centre. “Great work” I tell him. He nods in quiet agreement. We both choose not to mention the swirling black clouds above us.
"I no sooner sit down, pint in hand, when I feel restless"
I tick off Colin Narbeth & Sons, a treasure trove of vintage and rare banknotes, and Gordon’s Wine Bar, in quick succession. I get talking to Franki and Leila, who are perched on a stone bench in Victoria Embankment Gardens.
“It really improves your mental health” Franki tells me, “Last night I deleted all of my social media apps and felt much better for it”. I’m impressed.
“But I downloaded them all again today” she concedes sheepishly. Ambling down Fleet Street I notice a gold plaque attached to a red post box, which strikes me as a little odd. It informs me that this street had been one of the first to have such pillar boxes and it was to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Antony Trollope who introduced them to the UK in 1852. What a marvellous piece of useless information I would normally have missed.
After eating a sandwich on a bench by the Thames, I head to a nearby pub — for research purposes, naturally. I no sooner sit down, pint in hand, when I feel restless. The mind begins fantasising about staring half blankly at a small screen for some easily digestible content.
Fighting my craving, I scan the room. There is an office group in the corner, that devilish Friday afternoon drinking glint in their eyes. They’re a happy crowd and it takes my mind off the thing I’m trying not to think about.
"It slowly dawns on me that I don’t really know where I’m going"
Emerging from the pub feeling refreshed and newly inspired, I set my coordinates for Greenwich. I’ll take a bus to Canary Wharf, walk through the Isle of Dogs and finally through the Greenwich foot tunnel — which I’ve never done. A plan that seems faultless.
My courage begins to evaporate on the number 15 bus as it slowly dawns on me that I don’t really know where I’m going. Blackwall is near Canary Wharf, right? I dig out the A-Z, blow off the cobwebs, and open it to reveal something not dissimilar to Google Maps, but on paper. Maybe this won't be so bad after all.
But the next hour is maddeningly frustrating as I criss cross hopelessly around Canary Wharf, then the Isle of Dogs. Attempting to walk south, I can only seem to drift either east or west. Attempting some kind of navigational calculation using the sun, I spot a woman walking her dog and feel that’d probably be a better option.
“Greenwich. Foot. Tunnel” she repeats back to me slowly. Examining each word as if they’re new and shiny. “No idea” she finally announces. “You should probably stop somebody and ask,” she adds helpfully.
"Before I know it, I'm in the middle of a mass head scratching session"
I plough on into unknown territory, feeling every inch a 21st century Edmund Hillary. 10 minutes later, seemingly by chance, I arrive at the tunnel. I turn back, surveying my surroundings with triumph, this is exactly what Hillary must have felt at the summit of Everest.
Through the tunnel I pass the Cutty Sark, and turn right towards Deptford — more new territory for me.
My route takes me through St Alfege Park, which seems like a perfectly charming spot, until I notice the strange sight of old gravestones lined up next to the park wall where they were presumably moved from their graves. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, but it’s another good reminder that if you just manage to keep your head up and eyes open, London provides a never-ending supply of the beautiful to the bizarre.
In Deptford I stop to ask a shopkeeper where the Matchstick Piehouse is. He scratches his head, then calls over a passing woman, who in turn stops another passing man. Before I know it, I'm in the middle of a mass head scratching session.
“Best ask in the Job Centre” the first man shrugs disappointedly. The group breaks up without success, but after inquiring in the bar over the road, I’m at the Matchstick Piehouse just 15 minutes later. After a quick celebratory drink I begin the long journey home.
"My heartbeat quickens. I bet I got some new matches on Bumble today"
Lying on my sofa that evening I can feel my eyes drifting towards my phone — untouched for nearly 24 hours. Only 27 minutes left. I've spoke to a lot of people today, learned a lot of new things, and navigated some complicated parts of the city without Google Maps or Citymapper.
But think of all the notifications. My heartbeat quickens. I bet I got loads of messages today — maybe even some new matches on Bumble or Tinder. I suddenly sit bolt upright, dragging my mind out of the gutter.
“I’m not your slave” I tell the phone, before marching purposefully past the shelf and to bed. If I can do 23 hours and thirty-three minutes, I’ll just go to sleep and break the 30 hour mark I tell myself smugly. That'll show it who’s boss.
All images © Olivier Guiberteau