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The Manhole That Ruined My Life (An Open Letter to TFL)

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Dear Transport For London, Mayor Boris Johnson, And The Rest Of The World,

Clank.

There is a broken manhole cover outside my flat.

Clank.

It is about a foot and a half square, made of metal, and probably does something very useful.

Clank.

It bangs, every two to three seconds, all of the time.

Clank. Clank.

And it is ruining my life.

Now. I live above a busy dual carriageway in central London and - yes - even on the fourth floor, you expect to hear the traffic.

I was aware of that when I bought my flat. It was just another thing to balance against convenience and a jauntily short commute to the Olympic Games. And actually, I learned to like it. The gentle hum of people coming and going from the greatest city in the world is a sort of urban coastal wave, fluctuating gracefully with the rush hour high tides.

But a loose manhole is something else entirely. As soon as the offending plate is merely touched by a passing car it creates a low, dull thud. There is a slight, hurtful pause, then, as the pressure is released, the metallic thing rises back up, scraping the ground with a high-pitched wheeze like a demonic church bell. And again, and again, until your heart explodes.

When I noticed the problem in July I dutifully and promptly reported it to TFL's well-staffed and friendly 'street faults' line. I even got a reference number (2867011 in case TFL are reading) and politely waited for something to happen. But even after the Olympic hullaballoo had calmed and an embargo on roadworks ceased, the problem remained. I've called back frequently since - as have the blighted other residents of my building. But while I am assured 'the contractor' has the issue in hand, no such mythical being has emerged from the London fog to hammer the manhole back into line.

It is now five months later. And, yes: Clank.

I am not alone. Problems of this kind which occasionally turn up in the local press accompanied by desperate pictures of residents with folded arms, which provides some solace. And like my unhappy brethren, there is a long tale of administrative woe associated with my battle to get it fixed, which I still remain convinced is technically possible.

As a journalist who has covered transport networks intensively, I know the complex job networks like TFL do - and usually I am first to leap to their defence in the event of Tube closures or bus diversions. But in this case, they have failed me. This is now the world in which I live. I have to come to terms with that.

So what is the real impact on my life?

First to go was sleep. Yes, with earplugs and tactical timing it is possible to get a few solid hours a night without waking up from the noise. But going to bed without wincing every time I hear the clanking is a thing of the past. Mornings are getting earlier, and nights later. And even my dreams are affected; last night I conjured a horde of Spartan warriors smashing their shields with copies of the Highway Code. I believe that's what they call an involuntary metaphor.

My health has also suffered. Studies about the long-term impact of noise concur that heart problems and other illnesses can be caused by stress. I am on the verge of this. Even as I write these words my heart is pumping in exhilaration and horror. I currently have music on. Soon I will be sunk back into an early-onset pattern of heart attacks and rage-induced stomach ulcers.

Worse still, I am now someone who talks about manholes. My girlfriend is patient and kind, and happily is not as affected by the manhole's ravaging bangs as I am, but even she is growing tired of my constant angst, the long hours spent staring out of the window in hopes of seeing a roadworks van, and tedious attempts to video the potentially dangerous manhole in the act and inspire some kind of viral, grassroots Internet campaign to help fix it - like Occupy London, but for minor road defects.

It's like that old saying - if you find yourself outside in your pyjamas in the rain with a tube of super glue in your hand staring maniacally at damaged road furniture, that's the first sign of madness.

But most of all, for all the annoyance, worry and sickness the manhole has caused me, the greatest victim has been my faith in other people. I used to believe that with patience and understanding, a bit of funding and Blitz Spirit, most problems like this could be solved. No longer do I think that. I really have lost hope. TFL can only act if motorists are in danger, and whoever actually owns the manhole appears able to ignore it.

There is no motivation for anyone but us who are affected to fix it - and sadly we do not have the tools. If I could pay privately for someone to tarmac the road, I would. I cannot.

Perhaps that's precisely why it bothers me? Save for a few other minor quibbles, this is the only thing wrong in my life. It sticks out like - well, like a clanking manhole - and its effects are magnified for that reason. But moreover, I don't have the tools to fix it. There is nothing - no knowledge I can learn, nor money I can pay or kindly neighbours with whom I can talk things through, to sort it out.

This is now my life, with no end in sight.

Clank.

Nevertheless, even with that knowledge I have to maintain perspective.

I recently visited New York and New Jersey, where I also used to live. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, infrastructure is not just annoying - it is deadly. Many have died, and millions remain without power and clean water. I am fully aware of how minor my problem really is. I live in a warm, nice home. I have a job and a happy life. If I could just solve this, I would be the luckiest man in the world.

And yet, I still feel stricken, poisoned by a slow-moving but deadly enemy, who tracks me even as I stumble through the jungle.

I plead for solace, a night's rest, and release from the broken service duct that plagues my nightmares and waking fears. But no such solace comes. Instead there is only the grim fog of a cold, loud winter, the helpless click of a TFL help-line and the irregular rhythm of metallic death outside my window.

Please, TFL: mercy.

Yours, in all seriousness,
Michael

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