Icon of the Week: The Tescalator

by Lilia Khan | May 12, 2024


Let me set the scene. You’re spacing out, walking a busy street in Oxford, probably thinking of next week’s assignment or the dinner you will be making tonight, ultimately not averting much attention to your surroundings; you don’t need to, you know these streets by heart by now. Then, by pure chance, you overhear broken snippets of a conversation from passersby: “smooth”, “futuristic”, paralleled to the Rad Cam in cultural significance, and reminiscent of that scene in the Divine Comedy “when Virgil leads Dante into hell”, the Oxford students you pass gush over a space that sounds to you as rousing as it does unfamiliar.


You may be surprised, frustrated, or just downright disappointed to then learn that these were all real descriptions given to me by Oxford students when they were asked to describe the one and only ‘tescalator’ in the Tesco Express of Magdalen Street. And these responses were only the beginning; when questioned about the assumedly unassuming escalator of our local Tesco, people’s responses landed on a spectrum from nonplussed suspicion to almost devious joy in unexpected ways, taking me and my tiny microphone by surprise every time. Interviewing the people of Tesco on that sunny Trinity afternoon, I was very pleased to find that whatever people’s opinions were on the supposedly unremarkable space, they were certainly far from the ambivalence I had expected.


Some responses were massively helpful in gauging just how important of a (semi) ironic landmark the tescalator actually is; when speaking to a student who moved to Oxford from Turkey, I grinned ear to ear when I learned that ‘tescalator’ was “one of the first words” she learned when she first came to England. While I was a little staggered to think that somebody’s friend decided ‘tescalator’ was a suitable introduction into the ridiculous, encyclopaedic list of Oxford jargon, it was very valuable to know that the word is a notable addition to the eclectic if not absurd network of terms that we as a community share day to day. This response was one of several that confirmed the undoubtable fact that the tescalator was a part of some shared ‘Oxford schema’ beyond the point of simple functionality or inevitability; out of a kind of self-aware satire of the mundane parts of life, there was somehow born a space that is now so known across Oxford that it has its own Facebook page for updates (seriously, if you don’t know about it, look it up for a good time).


When one of my unfortunate flatmates chanced to walk by Tesco at the exact right moment for me to wrench an interview out of him, I again smiled to myself from the response. Interviewing him about something so mundane, I found that, in an intensely roundabout way, he told me what I already knew so well about his character. He answered in a way that was every bit as funny and considered as I would ever expect of him, telling me: “I love the tescalator. I’m obsessed. I think I’m going to marry it at some point. It’s just such a spiritual experience going down the escalator while your friend is going up and just…losing it.” While this may seem like a hyperbolic comment that a friend made for the sake of giving me good article material, what I read from it was that you can actually gauge a surprisingly genuine amount about someone by the way they take time to consider and relate to the little mundane corners of daily life.


Interviewing people as they did their daily shop turned out to be a strangely intimate endeavour; catching people at the bottom of the escalator (or at the exit of Tesco once we were kicked out for filming inside), I repeatedly noticed just how caught off guard people were by my questions about the escalator they had just used without much thought. Whether it was because people were wearing headphones or deep in thought about what to buy, it was apparent that to many people Tesco—and the escalator by extension—was a kind of passageway that momentarily lined the many contours of their busy day. The whole shop is a space that is purely practical, let alone the escalator that functions as a carriageway from one entirely functional space to another. In these terms, the escalator can be demoted to an even lower rank than a space; perhaps a vehicle? Or a moment? I don’t mean to get philosophical with this though; what I mean to do by drawing attention to people’s surprise at my Icon of the Week is to point out how easy and entirely understandable it is to pass through familiar spaces and yet not know or consider them at all.


Amongst the chaotic throes or calmed whirr of Oxford life, I am not surprised when people do not remember what day of the week it is, let alone what colour the walls surrounding the Tesco escalator are. Instead, the reason I chose the tescalator as my icon is because people have already decided it is one (quite literally, one person I interviewed very confidently asserted: “This is Oxford’s icon. An Oxford landmark”). What makes it stand out to me is that we as a community have decided to give this objectively unremarkable space a name, a Facebook page, and a kind of comedic ‘lore’ that denotes that it is specifically our unremarkable space. Somewhere along the line we decided that it is just a little more than a general escalator, agreeing to acknowledge it as a distinct and important thread in the tapestry of Oxford’s well-trodden haunts. For me (and I admit this is a little melodramatic) the tescalator now symbolises a rare instance in which our hundreds of thousands of footsteps briefly align, just for a moment, before bursting apart and splitting in every which way again.


Words by Lilia Khan. Image courtesy of Evie Askew.