For those of us that live there the London Underground is one of life’s mundane necessities, but here Margaret May takes a moment of introspection during a journey on ‘the tube’…
What a fascinating encounter with human life is a journey on the London tube network. If one is lucky enough to get a seat you can sit back in reasonable comfort (having checked first for chewing gum) and observe your fellow human beings at leisure – rather than passing and brushing past them in a hurry in the street. I find now, having more reason to use the underground system than I have in the last 30 years, that there is hardly any eye contact any more. People will go to great lengths to avoid being seen looking at someone, anyone, else. They will plug their headphones in and close their eyes, hide behind a newspaper, rifle through their briefcases or just read the overhead advertisements over and over again until, with relief, they reach their station.
When I lived in London, all those years ago, and made daily journeys into Westminster, people would look you in the eye and bid you ‘good morning’. Interactive smiles and mutual acknowledgements of anything out of the ordinary were commonplace. Going to Westminster, specifically, meant that many were attired to suit their work in the various government departments – some wore bowler hats, a sight hardly seen now away from royal ceremonial occasions.
Today, when I, furtively, regard my fellow travellers’ outfits there is a horrible abundance of those ghastly jeans whose crotch falls halfway down their legs, and the waist sits precariously on narrow hips showing expanses of Calvin Kleins or grubby boxer shorts. Not something to flaunt, young man! Some, dressed such, flash colourful tattooed limbs and multi piercings. I couldn’t help overhearing two or three of them, discussing whether they should get ‘Prince Alberts’ done at the weekend. Full of curiosity, I asked a more knowledgeable friend what this might mean. It was a bit of an eye-opener – why would you want that done? My attention is caught by two women on the other side of me discussing one’s recent hysterectomy – oblivious to the fact that, despite their pretence to be keeping themselves to themselves, other passengers are ingesting all the gory details, not least that this lady (?) has told her men ‘friends’ (!) that they will have to wait for a bit of the other until she is properly recovered.
We reach Paddington where there is a mass exodus of people, bags and suitcases en route to the overground. An unfortunate, shabby-looking man boards the carriage with a bucket and asks for our attention. He informs disinterested passengers that he has no money and needs to eat tonight. He paces up and down the train, shaking the bucket and imploring people to give him cash. A few people toss coins into the bucket, others retreat further behind their newspapers or feign asleep. The woman next to me shyly asks me why he has wasted money on a tube ticket – that would have bought something to eat!
At Regents Park a virtual coachload of Chinese tourists stagger bewilderingly into the crowded carriage. They have bags from London Zoo and spend their time studying the tube maps and, seemingly, given my lack of Chinese, arguing with each other.
At Oxford Circus the carriage seems to empty temporarily but is then replaced with a plethora of people all with carrier bags and/or boxes of fast food. Primark brown bags are most prominent – a few have looped more decorative bags over their wrists advertising the likes of Zara, Tiffany, Moschino, Harrods. There are no seats so they strap-hang or block the doors giggling and talking noisily. Many are munching on their food and guzzling fizzy drinks. Another exodus as we arrive at Piccadilly Circus. They leave their litter behind them. Tsk!
At Charing Cross an elderly lady boards and can hardly wait, in her excitement, to inform the carriage that there has been a nasty accident on the escalator. Most people are dispassionate but a couple are keen for further details. I get the sense that having such news to impart has made her feel special and a part of this anonymous travelling society. She has bonded with the rest of us somehow.
The journey has passed swiftly yet I feel I have seen a diversity of human life and society. I wish I was going further but here we are at Waterloo. I disembark and as the train roars off towards the Elephant and Castle I notice a mouse running underneath the lines. Where can he be going? No matter – it just confirms that all life has somehow adapted to living and passing through these bowels of London. I enter a long queue to join one of two up-escalators trying to accommodate people, suitcases, bags, musical instruments, rucksacks. There is no room for those athletic people who try to sprint upwards. The single down escalator is deserted and looks strangely eerie. A busker is playing some lovely haunting music in the tunnels behind us and, to me, it conjures up imaginary scenes of how these subterranean caverns must have looked at night when the stations were turned into air-raid shelters during the Blitz.
As I begin to travel upwards a solitary man appears at the top of the down escalator. He is immaculately dressed and carrying a large bouquet of beautiful flowers. Somehow he drifts downwards in solitude. The whole episode is like a scene in a film. One can just see Brad Pitt or George Clooney in such a situation juxtaposed against the heaving human mass moving upwards. The rest of us look at him. The man behind me shouts, “I hope they’re for your mum…or, better still, someone else’s?” (It was Mother’s Day). The man turns, smiles and says, “Maybe”. People clap, laugh and smile. It was a memorable moment – a sense of camaraderie prevailed fleetingly. At the top there is the usual scramble to get through the ticket barriers and onto the main station concourse for a train home.
But, I wonder, somehow life overground won’t seem quite so exciting as life on the Underground.