It occurred to me while travelling home from work yesterday, as I stood swaying around on a tube packed like a cattle cart — reading newspaper The Evening Standard from its position nestled between two people’s backs — that I was content.
Riding the tube is a daily activity for me and a source of much annoyance, yet I still feel a sense of privilege in being able to commute in on it every day. I like being part of the commuter tribe. And I love that no-one talks or even looks at each other.
A lot of people complain that London is an unfriendly city and that it’s much better ‘up North’ because strangers will talk to you on public transport and the street — what a horrible thought. Who wants to talk to a stranger when you’re on your way to work (or ever)? Like the majority of Londoners, I imagine, all I want to do on my way into work is sit quietly reading my paper. Or stand quietly reading my paper. If there is someone sat on the tube talking to themselves, talking to other people who don’t know them, or in fact making vocal noise of any kind, everyone else knows that they are a crazy person and must be kept at a safe distance if possible…
However, this doesn’t mean people in London are not nice. On the contrary, underneath that silent demeanor I’ve found most people to be polite, generous and always eager to help if you’re in need. I’ve lost count of the number of times some kind stranger has prevented me from leaving something precious on the tube.
Sometimes there is need to communicate, but for some such instances there is a non-verbal code. For example, if you want to read a paper sitting behind someone’s head, there is a certain indescribable motion you can make that efficiently asks, “Are you reading that paper? And if not, can you please pass it to me?” The only things I think I’ve ever said to strangers on the tube are:
- Thank you (for a paper, for a seat, for getting out of the way)
- Would you like to sit down? (as I get up to give someone my seat)
- Excuse me (when I want to move further down the carriage or get out of it)
- A very slight forced chuckle when there is one of the aforementioned crazy people talking to me.
Sometimes I wish I had the guts to say other things, such as tell people to move down the carriage or to turn down the volume of their horrible music, but I don’t because such would go against the not-speaking code. Which leads me on to the things that irritate me, strengthening my conviction that I am now a Londoner:
- People who stand directly in front of the tube doors as they wait to get on, as other people get off it. Why do they do this? It forces people getting off the tube to weave their way past, which in consequence delays the boarding of the overeager person. Seriously — just be polite and FOLLOW THE CODE. Which is to stand at the very edge of the door, in order to give people getting off the tube ample room to do so.
- Similarly — people who push onto the tube while people are still getting off. It slows down the entire process and makes you obnoxious. Just wait for people to get off, ok?
- People who stand resolutely blocking off a whole seated section worth of standing space while the middle part is packed full of people with no space. Listen to the driver (and your common sense) and move further down the carriage.
- People who talk loudly and in a very annoying way to a companion, or on a phone, in an otherwise silent tube carriage. Don’t you realise that absolutely everyone is listening in to your conversation (against their will) and thinking to themselves how inane it is? (Don’t get me wrong, if I’m with a friend on the tube I will talk to them a bit. But in hushed tones respectful to others around us)
- People who flaunt their apparent self-inflicted deafness by blasting music out of their earphones, imposing it on everyone else in the carriage. First, we don’t want to listen to your music, so how selfish of you to impose your awful taste on maybe 10 strangers. Second, if it sounds so loud to me then how loud is it inside your ears?? How has your brain not already melted and dribbled out of them, due to the excessive sound damage?
- And off the tube — tourists. Yes, I was once a tourist too, which is why I shouldn’t be so annoyed by them but I am (it is part of being a Londoner). The way they suddenly stop in the middle of the pavement causing you to almost crash into them. The way they take photos of crap run-down back streets around Oxford Street as if they’re a beautiful relics of history or culture. Even the way they use travel cards at ticket barriers instead of Oyster cards, which are much faster. Is that going too far? Well I’m a Londoner, I can’t help it. Everything and everyone must want to travel as fast and efficiently as I do.
There are probably more but those are off the top of my head.
- Riding the tube. Come on, it’s the opportunity to ride a fast train every day — when I was growing up in Nottingham, that experience was a treat. Sure it’s not always comfortable, and there are the annoying factors I’ve already mentioned, but if you get a seat then it can be a blissful ride in which to read a paper, magazine, novel or kindle.
- Not getting a seat can be enjoyable too, as long as you view the experience in the right way. I sometimes feel as if I’m surfing and take some pride in keeping my balance without holding onto anything. And if you’re lucky enough to be standing at the full-length windowed doors on an above-ground train, it can feel like you’re miraculously flying sideways over the landscape at high speed. It’s a feeling that really makes you smile.
- Free newspapers and magazines. I’ve been frugal all my life (I may be a Londoner but I’m not rich) so being handed two free papers every day, as well as two rather good magazines every week (Stylist and Shortlist) feels like a real privilege to me. In reading terms I want for nothing. I haven’t bought a paper or magazine in years. And reading two papers every day keeps me up to date with the news like I never was before I moved here.
- Being part of the commuter tribe. As previously mentioned, I feel a strange kind of kinship with these strangers, travelling alongside me at 6.30am in the morning, to whom I never speak. We all have the same goals — to get to work quickly, to get home quickly, to travel in silence. We all know the unspoken Londoner code. We’re all busy people who work hard for our money and livelihood. I honestly feel that we are some of the most honest, hard-working and respectable people you’ll find (allow me some arrogance here).
- Being busy. I feel like my life is pretty busy and I’ve got to say, I love it. The accompanying stress is not so nice, but the sense of purpose I get from my job, from leaving the house at 5.45am, from tightly scheduling things in my diary and planning social activities at the weekend.
- Having everything around me. London has EVERYTHING. All the shops you could want, every kind of restaurant, globally envied cultural hotspots, beautiful buildings and green spaces, different events happening all the time and entertainment not available elsewhere in the country. TV shows are filmed here (we go to be in audiences a lot) and if musicians are touring they’ll always come here, even if they skip the rest of the UK. Live here and you’ll very rarely be bored.
However — the last thing I’m going to put on my love list is possibly a bit of a disclaimer.
- Coming home. As my readers will know, I don’t live in the centre of London but rather in a little-known western suburb called Perivale. This area is not at all what you’d call ‘London’. It’s quiet, leafy, inhabited largely by young families and has a small library, bluebell wood, wetland nature reserve, tranquil canal path, forest-flocked hill and acres of green fields. Coming home to this lovely little place is a pleasure when I’ve been out in throbbing London all day, which makes me think perhaps part of the reason I love living in London is that I don’t really live in it — rather very nearby.
So am I true Londoner or not? Whatever that word really means, I feel privileged to live and work here and maintain that is a wonderful city — even if overpriced, crowded, full of annoying people and grossly unbalanced in terms of its inhabitants’ varying wealth. When growing up in Nottingham I never thought I’d end up here — but I’m very glad I did.