Commuter culture: part one

Excuse me...hello....!!!

When I first moved to London I moved from a little village in the depths of Somerset. I had never seen so many people in one place in my life. To say I was gob-smacked maybe understating it just a little bit. But,  after a while I became used to the huge morass of people, both Londoners and tourists and was content and somewhat secure in my bit of London. But, after completing my degree my world once again grew and my comfort zone was again swept away as I started job hunting.

Job hunting, and consequently getting a job (finally), meant that I would have to travel across London every morning and night to get to and from work. This meant navigating London’s varied forms of public transport, but also to do it in one of the most confusing cities in the world and during rush hour! (Well three hours really!)

The tube map is a fantastic tool and has proven very useful, but it took me a very long time to realise that the tube map, although an icon of design, bore no resemblance at all to the real world at street level. I spent a lot of my first year in London totally lost and wandering about aimlessly until I came across a tube station where I could then triangulate my position. Underground I am amazing, but overground you might as well put a bag over my head and spin me around for all the difference it would make. As an example of how I really shouldn’t bet let out alone. It took me two years to realise that Embankment is right next to Charing Cross and that you should NEVER try to get on or off a tube at Charing Cross because it is like Jules Verne‘s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

So feeling a little impressed with myself and thinking that I was well on my way because I could navigate the underground. I then moved further out of London and had to get a train into London and then catch the tube from Waterloo. Again I hear you say easy, and yes it is, as long as you don’t mind being a tiny part of the slowest and angriest stampede in the world!

Basically, the forms of transport are not the problem in London. Well I should actually clarify;  they run late, they are filthy, there is no air conditioning, half of the announcements are for the wrong station, (Twickenham occurs twice on the overground Waterloo loop via Richmond) and they are overcrowded. But, really they are just machines. It is the other commuters that are the problem. I have a litany of tales of the woes of the commuter and some of them I will share, but I think a little clarification first.

This is not an anti-Londoner rant, mainly because I am now consider myself to be one (although my Somerset accent will pop up out of the blue and shock people) and I am obviously lovely. But, I would like to bring to your attention the weird and slightly malevolent changes that happen to the commuter, whether they are born and bred or not. When I arrived in London I was young, eager, polite and respectful and always said thank you to the bus driver or other commuters when they let me past etc. But without realising it the London commuter fog starts misting your eyes and your brain starts to see those human beings around you not as people, but as  as impediments, obstacles and competitors in the big race to get where you are going.

This infliction manifests itself at the start as a mild indifference toward other travellers. Whereas when you started commuting you would watch the other travellers from beneath your eyelashes (ADVICE: NEVER EVER, AND I MEAN EVER, MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH ANOTHER COMMUTER! For one they will think you insane and secondly they will see it as a sign of aggression and will in turn glare at you and make tutting noises or mumble loudly. Commuters are a rare and strange breed and you will want to look at them, but would you try to stare down a Tiger – no? Exactly.) and marvel at their difference. You would find the evidence that you are in one of the world’s largest melting pots awe inspiring and you would not be able to help yourself wondering what their lives were like and where they might be going.

The second symptom is that now you are not merely feeling indifference toward their existence, but you are actually now starting to feel some resentment towards the fact that you are in such close proximity to them. Well if you are spending two hours minimum a day with either your face in someone’s armpit or someone’s elbow prodding you in the ribs while they read their book or paper. Or you are sitting next to a man that sniffs every 20 seconds and then coughs everywhere without covering his mouth, you are going to start to feel a little miffed. And once you compound this with two journeys a day, five days a week, forty six weeks a year you can understand why there are certain conventions of behaviour and maybe even why Londoners are so impatient and abrupt. Too many people in too small a space, not conducive to good will to all men.

This mild resentment quickly mutates into silent frustration and negative thoughts about your fellow travellers. You find yourself imagining them tripping as they bound off the train. When they throw themselves on the train as the doors are closing you silently pray to the god of London transport that their coat or bag becomes trapped in the doors. This then escalates to tutting and huffing and even mumbling incoherently in the worst cases. This disease is highly infectious and has to all intents and purposes infected the entire commuter population.

Before you know it the commuter virus has taken over your behaviour centre and now you are constantly searching for a space in which to squeeze your slightly sweaty, bruised and jittery body. A space that puts you in front of the person next to you. Look you are ahead, but oh no someone else is next to you now and there is someone dawdling in front of you and then they just stopped moving right in front of you so that you have to do an ungainly swerve in order to miss crashing into them. This is when the illness spreads to your voice box properly and you discover that you now have commuter tourettes to go along with all of your other ailments!

I have to admit that only after a few strained  months of daily commuting I was dodging through overcrowded stations angrily chanting the London commuter mantra, ‘for fuck’s sake’ under my breath with every move I made. The disease is out there and they have yet to find a cure.

More soon…..

4 Responses to “Commuter culture: part one”
  1. Nick Wright says:

    The only time I’ve ever seen people on the Tube make any kind of eye contact was the morning after Labour won in May 1997. There were furtive smiles being exchanged over the tops of newspapers which is about as demonstrative and excited as London commuters are ever likely to get!

    Really enjoying the blogs, by the way.


  2. Great post.

    I hate to tell you, but it’s just as awful commuting in NY. I was on the 34th street crosstown bus yesterday — after a 25 minute wait — and no one would move back (NYers define the words shirty and stroppy) — so the female driver shouted and refused to start the bus ’til they did. The woman behind me sniped that my elbow in her back was hurting her; I could barely reach the overhead pole to hang on…I got to the Second Avenue bus, was told to pre-pay (!?) at some (*&^%$# machine on the sidewalk and in those…20 seconds? — the )(*^%#@@ bus left.
    Oh, yeah.

    My sweetie commutes into NYC every day and faces a literal flood of people. He comes home in a filthy mood as a result.

    The WORST? Everyone now walks head down staring at their damn Blackberry and couldn’t care less if they smash right into you.

    Bring back sedan chairs, I say!

  3. Doll says:

    This is sooo true!!! I love my job (most of the time) but the journey in is hell, I’ve told my husband when I can’t take it anymore that’s the time we’ll start trying for a baby.

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