Arthur and Wally

AUGUST 30 03

I had a nostalgic moment today when I came across an old Loompanics catalogue from the 80s. I used to order many books from them. The book VONU I never got round to getting, but the word crops up in my mind still. The author of VONU, which somehow stands for 'Invulnerability to Coercion by Disappearance from Society', apparently completely disappeared some time after publication and has never been heard of since. Or so the myth has propagated. Point is, probably no-one was interested in him in the first place and he has been working at his day-job in a post-room in Boulder for 30 years.

I used to read all the Loompanics books I could lay my hands on. As a 10-year-old I looked with glee through Ellisdon's joke catalogue, plastic dog poo, itching powder, springy worms that shot out jack-in-the-box style when you opened a pack of cards. In my 20s the Loompanics catalogue took over my quest for forbidden toys. The lock-picking books by 'Eddie the Wire', books about uninhabited islands where you could go and live free of any state, the 'paper trip' books on how to construct a new identity with fake ID. And, of course, Bob Black's 'The Abolition of Work'. Though me and Bob fell out many years back, I still think that's a marvellous book.

When I was at university there was a vibrant underground interest in locks and keys. In my first year I caught a whiff of it hanging around the student newspaper office, which published my cartoons. I longed to find someone who could teach me this knowledge. One day I was approached by someone who worked on the newspaper, who I knew vaguely, a boring man who had failed his final year exams and was just killing time before getting a job. He held in front of my eyes a needle file he took from his inside jacket pocket.

'Do you know what this is?' he said.

'A file.'

'A needle file. Get yourself a set and I'll come round and show you a few things.'

A few days later he came round to my room late at night, fastened a portable vice on the desk, and took out a lock and key. He placed the key in the lock, took the restraining clip off the end of the cylinder, and placed a lathed piece of brass exactly the same diameter as the cylinder at the far end and followed it in after the cylinder which he removed from the front.

'Never take the cylinder out without following it in from behind, or the springs in the barrel will fly all over the room and you'll never be able to put it back together. Turn the cylinder a quarter turn before you take it out so the pins won't catch, but never go to half a turn. Keep the cylinder upright.'

He called the piece of brass, which he had lathed himself, a 'follower'.

Then he showed me the seven holes in the cylinder and the pins resting on the depressions in the key. And the way the pins moved up and down as he slowly withdrew the key, and how they all were flush with the cylinder surface when he put the key back in, which was how you tested you'd filed a new key to exactly the right heights. We took the pins out one by one, some were whole, others were split into as many as four parts. This, he explained, was so that more than one key combination could open the lock. Some of the pins were thinner in the middle, which he said were anti-pick pins.

I looked astonished.

He stared at me.

'The ASSA high-security masterkey system. You wanted to learn about the R37 didn't you?'


'Ah, a beginner…' He chuckled. He loved it.

'How did you know I wanted to learn about this stuff?'

'When you've got your own R37 in your pocket you'll know.'

He was right. The key in the cylinder was an R37.

'Ideally you need to to find a key you can file down,' he said, 'this one I had to build up with silver solder. If you've got a Wally you could file it down to an R37.'

'A Wally?'

'You'll come across them.' As an afterthought he said: 'If you've got an R37 you don't need a Wally.'

I loved hearing about all this, I took mental notes. He was revealing just as much as he was concealing, letting you know enough, and the rest you can find out yourself. He was a good teacher.

He showed me how to file the key and how to read any key just by looking at the shape.

'Pin heights on this system are multiples of 0.7 mm. Get yourself a micrometer if you get serious about this.'

Then he gave me his silver solder R37, telling me:

'Use this one to make yourself a better one.'

He also left behind his brass follower, which had his initials engraved on it. He never called to ask for it back and I didn't see him again until a couple of years later, when I was able to tell him what I had learnt on my own, far surpassing his own knowledge. I could see he was very pleased that he'd chosen to pass on his knowledge to someone worthy of it.

A few weeks into my new hobby I came across a key that was perfect for filing down into an R37. I was given a key to the student newspaper office and all the pin-positions were higher than on the R37, and three of the seven positions were already correct height. I took such care to get it exactly right, so it would never stick like the silver solder one did.

I aroused the suspicions of the cleaning lady in my hall of residence because of the metal filings on my carpet, the impression of a portable vice left in the varnish of my desk, and the heavy padlocked trunk in my wardrobe, which also, rather bizarrely I think to myself now, besides containing my lock equipment also contained a stuffed antelope's head I bought on a whim because I was amused the glass eyes had been inserted in such a way as to make the antelope look cross-eyed.

What my mentor didn't tell me was what the R37 opened. Most nights I would go out on exploratory journeys in the darkened College buildings, sometimes rushing just two locks ahead of security guards flashing their torches, which I found a real buzz. Not a door wouldn't open. Later I discovered that the R37 opened more doors than the masters they gave to the security guards, who were issued with sub-masters for their own buildings only. I discovered this by opening a half-door to a vertical shaft to escape a security guard one night who was hot on my tail. I heard the guard trying all his keys in the lock as I was clambering down the metal ladder inside the shaft but he couldn't open it, only the R37 would open it and he clearly didn't have one, which was the theory I was working on in making that my escape route. Then, delight upon delights, I discovered that the R37 opened doors underground.

Besides keys, another activity at College for those in the know was tunnelling. There was a massive complex of heating tunnels under the College, some of which stretched further afield than the campus. Most people tunnelled without an R37 though, frustrated by locked doors they found down there.

Using the R37 underground I once found myself in what looked like a 1950s civil defence room after running through an immense subterranean fan that stopped for precisely half an hour every day and could have sliced me in two had it started up with me in it. I eventually worked out that I had actually left College premises and was now in the sub-basement of the main post office on the corner. Other tunnels I found through the use of the R37 were rumoured to be patrolled by the military when you got close to Buckingham Palace, these tunnels were locked off by prison-style barred metal doors, not one of which failed to open. Though I never found any military in a tunnel, the thought that you might come across them added a certain exhilaration to the adventure. There were few pleasures like trying a new tunnel, such that I eventually crawled through highly constricted duct-tunnels with a compass and torch to find tunnels that led further out into London's subterranean spaces, I wanted to find the tunnels no-one knew about. Once I wrote on a wall 'Arne Saknussemm was here'.

I came across a place underground where there were many tunnels that led off in different directions, and someone had named it in white paint 'Piccadilly Circus', though it was nowhere near the above-ground version. Many of the tunnels carried super-heated water pipes. Others brought you to the base of a lofty tower, with no ladder. There were gorgeous psychedelic pictures in chalk and pastel on some of the walls dating to the 60s, but only occasionally did I run into anyone else in these tunnels, and we would approach each other cautiously not knowing whether this was security or fellow traveller. Usually turned out to be a tunneller, and we sat down and smoked a joint and talked about tunnels to try, though once I came across a heating engineer working on a pipe, he saw me as I came round a corner so thinking on my feet I walked boldly up to him and said I had come down to interview him for the student newspaper. He had keys I needed no more than a glimpse of to memorise their pin-heights. He had an official R37, it seemed like treasure, it was no different to mine except that it had 'R37' stamped on it. I liked him and he was glad of the company, he took me to his office underground in a part of the tunnel complex I had only ever peeped into, never daring to go further into as I sensed habitation, like a tribesman looking out on an enemy village from the jungle of twisting heating pipes. I need not have feared, he made me at home in his underground world where he worked nights. He made me a cup of tea down there. He was a South African who told tall stories, claiming he once worked for BOSS and had shot Muzorewa's brother-in-law with a crossbow. The people you meet in tunnels.

Gradually I came to appreciate that the R37 was everything it was cracked up to be, and by this time I had heard people sometimes mentioning it in conversation, where it was known by the slang term 'Arthur', as in 'Have you got an Arthur on you? Need to get something out that room.' Often the reply would be: 'I've not got an Arthur, I've got a Wally.' Later I discovered that the 'Wally' was so-called because an official one had WAL stamped on it, although in truth it struck me that the people who used Wallys were second-class citizens in the masterkey stakes, i.e. they were Wallys.

This hobby kept me entranced throughout College, and I will admit I rose to dizzy heights in the game. One day on my explorations underground I opened a door to a storeroom and found that it stored hundreds of blueprints and keycharts showing the exact pin-heights of all the departmental sub-masters of the R37, as well as grandmasters that so far as I was aware no-one had yet realised existed.

But the R37 was undoubtedly the magic key par excellance, and its system was then used in many institutional, industrial, and governmental buildings. Technically it was a 'super-grandmaster', the highest-level master on a high-security lock network, and the mythology and respect surrounding the R37 was tangible. Merely to have heard of it placed you among the few. People who knew of it whispered its name in the student bar, those who had never seen one were amazed when I took it out my pocket. Some begged to go on a joyride with it for just half-an-hour, and if I was feeling generous I would loan it to them and they could buy me a drink when they got back. Half-an-hour later in they would come with a look of awe plastered over their faces.

'There's not a door it won't open!'

I laughed, I remembered my own amazement when I realised this key was never going to run out of doors. If you were privileged to have heard of the key, to possess one was a pinnacle of achievement. But few even of those who possessed one knew it opened doors beyond the College. In my third year I drew maps of the tunnels I had explored and hid them in the tunnels themselves for others to find. I did research and discovered certain walls had been built during the war blocking off other tunnels and I sought ways into them. I told no-one about this, I kept it all to myself. I was a part of no key clique, such as that that hung around the Dramatic Society. My mentor had come from there, but I became a lone explorer. Most in Dramsoc just held an elicit Wally, it just opened doors in the Student Union Building and nowhere else. They loved their huge bunches of keys hanging off their hips, testament to the fact that they didn't have an Arthur. But nonetheless this kind of boastful display of keys I found offensive to my tastes. They liked to drink out of pewter tankards with their name engraved on it, and when drunk would show off their Wally to innocent first-years. Once I got so fed up of this I walked over to the table, sat down, took out my R37, and lay it on the table for a moment and then put it back in my pocket.

'You know what that is?'

'Is that an R37?'

'That's an R37.'

'Where can I get an R37?'

'Don't you know anyone in Dramsoc who can give you one?'

And thus I ascertained that there was no longer anyone in Dramsoc who had one.

He looked at me.

'Is it true what they say about the R37?'

'What do they say?' I asked.

'That it opens every door?'

I drank my pint silently. I felt honour-bound to preserve the mystique of the key.

'How did you get your R37?'

'I made it.'

Then I realised I had a chance to not only preserve the mystique of the key but enhance it. I took out my wallet and withdrew a filed feeler gauge.

'Have you seen one of these?'

'No, what is it?'

'It's a flat R37.'

'I've never heard of such a thing.'

'You have now.' I put it back in my wallet.

There was silence for a few minutes, drinking of pints, then he asked:

'Why is it flat?'

'To bypass the R-profile.'

He sat there with a dumb look on his face. I held up his Wally in front of his eyes end-on.

'See the zigzag shape made by the grooves? R-profile.'

I looked at his big bunch of keys and selected one and held it up to him again.


I put the two keys together and showed him end on.

'You see? Mirror image of each other.'

I picked another key off his bunch and held it up.


And another.


I took a key out my own pocket and held it up end on again.


'What the hell's that?'

'Never you mind about that, look at this.'

I once again took the flat R37 out my wallet. I showed him this time the part I had concealed in my hand before, another flat key filed from feeler gauge, both pieces of gauge riveted together, one key formed a handle for ease of turning in the lock for the other.

'That's an R37 that end. Seen one of these this end?'

'What's that?'

'Something you ain't ever heard of.'

Then I closed the two pieces of feeler gauge together, which suddenly form a third flat key, different to the other two.

'Do you know what that is?'

'Wow! No, what is it?'

'Something you ain't ever gonna know about.' And with that I got up and walked out.

After that I tended not to see people in the Union bar boasting about their Wallys.

It was just a hobby for a few years, coming to a sudden halt when I took acid for the first time. Day afterwards I threw my keys and keycharts away and walked into a bookshop and came out with 20 secondhand books on Zen, hallucinogens, and psychedelic culture. I had a new hobby.