01 June 2007

Advanced gap-minding proficiency

It's a long-held cliche of all London diaries that sooner or later there comes a time when the commuter experience must be documented. It's not as if generations of travellers and Londoners alike haven't done the same thing. But it just has to be done. Think of it as a necessary rite of passage, if you like. So here's my brief collection of tales from the rush-hour wilderness, illustrating the challenges faced by the humble office-worker in their daily quest to journey from pillar to post, courtesy of London Transport.

- I received an early reminder of the real pressures faced by commuters when travelling south on the DLR at 5pm one weekday. The train paused at Canary Wharf to let on dozens and dozens of banking industry office-workers, filling the carriages to bursting point. Suits pressed against suits, all seeking a handhold to maintain their vertical dignity. As I leaned back against the glass partition, a woman clambered into the small space beside me, with her cellphone clamped against her ear. The train doors slid shut and the train accelerated out of the station, and the woman's telephone conversation continued on regardless. It wasn't a particularly personal conversation - she was talking to her mother about some household disagreement. And it wasn't one of those noisy blaring phonecalls that often disrupt the solace of a calm, quiet train carriage journey. She was speaking at a very polite volume, almost a whisper. This made the conversation even more peculiar, because the whispering conversation to which I was privy was being conducted 10 or 15 centimetres from my face. It's hard to mind your own business when the cellphone microphone could probably pick up the sound of your own breathing.

- Another example of the close quarters that commuters are required to coexist in is the inevitable physical clashes that result when Tube trains clatter around bends or change speed. Normally despite the close quarters of crowded carriages, there's surprisingly few problems of personal space infringement. Everyone knows the social codes that have developed, and usually a simple turn 15 degrees left or right will help to retore the illusion that every passenger has their own little empire of solitude. But on the morning rush to the office the weary commuter brain sometimes allows small glitches to creep in. One morning on the Central line, it was shoulder-to-shoulder as usual and I was standing perhaps 30cm from a fellow of about the same height. In that elegant Underground ettiquette that has evolved over decades, we studiously ignored each other, despite almost being close enough to each other to execute a swift foxtrot - if there hadn't been ten other people crammed all around, that is. Strap-hanging in a sleepy haze, neither of us were ready for a slight jolt as the Tube took a bend at pace or crossed a set of points. Our heads moved independently into an impressive commuter head-butt, which made an impressively hollow ringing sound. Luckily, we both saw the funny side…

- Entering a packed Central line train at Oxford Circus, a young woman flung herself into the last available space just inside the sliding doors. Unfortunately she hadn’t paid sufficient attention to her accessories – while she was inside the carriage, the doors closed leaving her handbag outside, halfway up the doors, held in place by the strap around her shoulder. The train started to move off as we all tried to wrest the bag in through the doors, but they were jammed tight. After travelling a few metres the train shuddered to a halt and the platform flunky strode up and attempted to force the bag through the door. When this failed, he swore several times under his breath and began to pull instead. The bag strap zipped off the woman’s shoulder, and the attendant stalked off with it. Her mobile phone even fell out of the handbag, and if a lady on the platform hadn’t picked it up and chased after the attendant, it would’ve disappeared forever. Still the train doors didn’t open; in fact the train moved off, and a stern announcement instructed the woman to alight at the next station, and retrace her journey to Oxford Circus to reclaim her handbag, presumably after a stern talking-to and finger-wagging.

- On the same day as the handbag incident I was sitting on an overland train to Croydon after work opposite a suit-wearing gent aged around 30, probably of Indian extraction. As many people do, he was conducting a business telephone call while everyone seated around him studiously pretended to ignore him. I had my book, so I could pay attention to that, but as the conversation went on it proved harder to avoid. By the sound of it, he was discussing an ‘international transaction’ in which two gentlemen with Indian names were flying in on separate flights from an unnamed international destination, bringing in high-value ‘goods’ for sale in the UK. Apparently the separate flights were required because insurance wouldn’t cover ‘the goods’ if they were both on the same flight. My fellow passenger was careful not to name ‘the goods’ or their point of origin. But later in the conversation he let slip ‘the jewellery’ instead of saying ‘the goods’. So, there you have it. I was sitting opposite a (possible, hypothetical, probably not really) diamond smuggler. Not bad for a train to leafy Surrey.

- Returning from Camden Markets on the Tube a few weekends ago I sat down next to a couple who had their dog with them in the carriage. This in itself is not that unusual – dogs are allowed on UK public transport, strange as it may seem. They’re not allowed to sit on the seats, and they must be carried up the escalators, as far as I can tell. Normally dogs on the Tube are small lapdog-type creatures, but this canine was a mature Labrador of a decent size. But she was the perfect passenger, not making a single sound. She was obviously used to this mode of transit. She sat fully-stretched on her female owner, legs unfurled as if on a human armchair – perfectly relaxed and serene, and not moving a whisker. It was beautifully surreal.

- Now all I need to do is work on my phobia of standing too close to the platform edge during rush-hour and worrying that I might lose my glasses or have my nose nicked by a hurtling Tube carriage door as it rushes past. I know it's physically impossible, but it doesn't stop you thinking about it... But as for the businessmen who stoop to pick up their briefcases just as the train is arriving at the platform - well, I'm sure one of them is going to end up a few inches shorter one of these days.

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