In the course of the average week, I make a point of travelling, where practicable, by foot, feeling more than a little guilty if I resort to using public transport for a trip of, say, only a couple of miles or so. One of the reasons I decided against keeping a car when I moved back to Aberystwyth all those years ago, along with other tedious factors such as cost, the ready availability of an extensive public transport network and the like, was that I was concerned it may become an “easy option”, engendering laziness and adding needlessly to my carbon footprint: would I, for instance, walk the one-and-a-bit miles to work each day when I could just as easily hop into the car and save my legs seventeen minutes of bother? Even in the most inclement of weather, when taking the bus would the obvious option for any sane person, I tend to feel a little guilty, as I sit there, that I’m letting myself down by avoiding the exercise of a brisk walk through the wind and rain.
There’s something about That London, though, that brings out my inner sloth. Back in my home territory, I’ll think nothing of walking several miles just for the sheer heck of it, but I must confess to having, in what is definitely not my proudest moment, decided to take the tube from Holborn to Tottenham Court Road. Utterly disgraceful, although fortunately I have an excuse lined up.
The London Underground and I have had something of a shaky relationship over the years. Was the time that claustrophobia would grip me with fear when descending the escalators towards a platform on London’s underground network – especially on one of the deeper routes (and especially, it always seemed, on the Northern Line. I think the fact of its line being black – the colour of death – on the maps didn’t help, although the distinct lack of air in the tunnels probably played its part also). When it comes to a phobia, I tend to know only two extremes, with absolutely no middle ground whatsoever: either, as with my aversion to heights, I shall allow, with some degree of determination, said fear to dominate my actions, brooking no suggestion of any attempt to rationalise or overcome my fear; alternatively, as with my claustrophobia, I shall adopt a stance pretty much the polar opposite of the above. First, I shall attempt to pretend that my phobia isn’t there, which won’t work, although others have, on occasion, enjoyed the way that my face tries valiantly to muster some sense of stoicism whilst the sweat teems down it in such a manner that would give Niagara Falls a run for its money. This has the slight advantage in terms of weight loss, as anyone who’s seen me shed half of my body weight in sweat on the Central Line will attest. When that doesn’t work, I’ll try it some more, which also won’t work. And then… well, actually, I don’t especially have another “and then”, as the manner by which my fear of the London Underground was finally quashed was a little unorthodox, unexpected, unplanned and not one I would particularly recommend.
What finally persuaded me that I could “do” the Underground without having to worry about all of the terrible things that can happen in a tunnel, you see, was my visit to London in July 2005. I wasn’t in London for the atrocities of 7th July that year, but I was there two weeks later, when further – thankfully unsuccessful – attacks were made on the underground network. Quite what it was about the sight of Underground stations being closed mere moments after I had left them, or the hour and a half spent on a boiling District Line service en route to Wimbledon owing to a suspicious package at the next station, that rid me of my fear of travelling below ground, I don’t know, but I suspect there’s more than a grain of truth in the observation that, as was the case with so many commuters in the capital, there was an element of that good old-fashioned (dare I say British?) determination not to let those murdering bastards stop us going about our business. So, not only had the persons who carried out the London bombings failed in their attempt to bring England’s capital grinding to a halt, they’d scored another own-goal by persuading a committed claustrophobe that travelling by tube was almost a moral duty and not the sort of thing to be letting anyone see one getting nervous about. Up yours, you murdering shits.
So, for the last six and a half years, I’ve found myself relatively at ease travelling underground, but with one important caveat – the same one, in fact, that dogs me wherever I go; the thought that skips through my head whenever I’m out and about outside of my usual habitat: “whatever you do, don’t look like a tourist”.
In London – and, indeed, in every town or city visited during this trip – I am a tourist. An outsider. I don’t belong there: I’m just passing through, taking in the surroundings, sightseeing, before buggering off again. In London, especially, I’m in good company: everywhere one goes, the streets are littered with tourists. And I hate them. To a man, I hate them. Standing around, getting in the way, pointing at things, looking amazed. It’s more than a little undignified. Actually, it’s not: it’s fantastic. But to my eyes, these people become the scum of the earth, getting in my way by not moving fast enough along my pavements. To my eternal shame, I find myself unable to stop despising them, so I do my best to not be one of them, even though that’s exactly what I am. To this end, I attempt to exude a semblance of purpose, of confidence, as I stride along the streets with my usual speedy gait. Such is my eagerness to appear to know where I’m going, I usually manage to convince myself of this thoroughly-misplaced notion, which is why the tube plays such an important part in my navigation of London: whenever I’ve confidently marched off in a particular direction, convinced it’s the way I want to go, before finding myself absolutely nowhere near my intended destination (“typical: those bastards have moved the Post Office Tower again”), I can allow the Underground to rescue me, its myriad pipes putting me back on track in a trice. There’s far less stigma in producing from one’s pocket an Oyster card than in having to brandish a map, so, in spite of the full and certain knowledge that nobody who happens to see me out and about in London really gives a damn, in my head, I’ve saved myself from appearing to be one of those irritating knowledge-less outsiders.
This trip was a little more organised than the above, although only slightly so. There are certain parts of London’s transport network that I’ve managed to avoid on my many previous visits, in spite of a long-held intention to pay them a visit, so September was my chance to put this right. The DLR, for instance, I was particularly keen to experience, it being about as close as I have any intention of venturing to a rollercoaster. It took three goes, but eventually I was able to wangle a front seat for a trip to Bank, which I found more exciting than is healthy. With this feat crossed off the list, I proceeded to dance around the periphery of the network, hopping off at random stations I’d not seen before and improvising a ramshackle route based on whatever connections were available when I alighted. And of course, this little adventure finished off with a trip to Mornington Crescent, which I believe means I’d won.
This is, of course, exactly what the Underground was not built for: travel for its own sake is silly and pointless and the tube exists mainly as a means to an end, to shuttle people to and from work, or at least to get them somewhere they want to go. Very functional, very useful, very boring. I’m not sure how I’d handle finding myself lost amongst this throng of commuters twice a day. Quite aside from how bored and frustrated everyone looks, I could never get the hang of this city mentality of being in such a terrible rush all of the time. Trains every minute or so and yet there they all are, pushing and shoving their way on to a packed vehicle when the doors are trying to close. What, exactly, would be so bad about waiting for the next train and being at the front of the queue to board that one? If you don’t want to be in such a rush for a particular train that you can’t wait for the next one, why not wake up three minutes earlier? Not only can I not comprehend this desperation not to lose a couple of minutes of a morning in the name of getting from A to B, I find the behaviour of those who miss their desired train by a gnat’s whisker more baffling still. So reluctant are these people to accept responsibility for, it seems, any of their actions, these people see fit to lash out and get angry at anyone who has the misfortune to be within shouting distance: fellow travellers, station staff, the flippin’ train, as if it’s going to turn round and come back if they shout loud enough… and all this going on under a train describer advising that the next train will be along in about a minute.
I suspect, once again, that my country ways are struggling to comprehend a way of life to which they are unaccustomed. Back in Norfolk, if I decided to go to King’s Lynn by bus, I’d need to make sure I was at the bus stop by 9am on a Tuesday. If I wasn’t there on time, the next bus would be at… well, 9am on Tuesday, actually. Missing the bus to Peterborough was even more problematic, as it’d be a full year before the next one would come along. Robbed of the certain knowledge that I could turn up at any time and still get where I wanted, I would have to ensure that I was ready in plenty of time for the scheduled departure – and if I didn’t get my act together and make it to the bus on time, well, more fool me. Meanwhile, down in That London, buses and trains come and go with barely moments to spare between them and yet still people seem convinced that their selected mode of transport should wait for them, as if they’re the only person on the fucking planet who matters. I very nearly typed an “I hate them all” there, but actually, My feelings possibly veer more towards pity, but if we’re honest, they pretty much end up in the comfortable middle-ground of mocking amusement at people who seem hell-bent on occupying such a tiny world in such a big city.
Of course, exactly what makes me, a committed commuter-spotter, any less open to such mockery is up for debate (not a lot of debate, I’ll admit, as it’s pretty much an open-and-shut case, with any jury unlikely to find particularly in my favour). Still, some of the basest and most popular, if on some levels deplorable, focal points for humour are often based around aspects of difference (hence the long and proud British tradition of mocking the French), so I can reassure myself that I am in plentiful – if not necessarily particularly good – company as I stand there on the platform, casting aspersions in the direction of anyone who dares to be in a bit of a hurry.
There’s only so much meandering without purpose that one person can take, though (I’ve managed about thirty-three years of it, to date, with, I suspect, about the same to come), so eventually, as midnight approached, it was time to make one final trip on the Underground – and one with a purpose, no less: the Caledonian Sleeper was getting ready to whisk me out of London and into the welcoming bosom of Scotland.