On the Tube

Please stand on the right

Simple rules bring civility to otherwise potentially savage situations. “Thou shalt not kill” has been exceedingly effective in this regard, as have “Give way” and “Let’s Get It On” (first time Marvin Gaye and rules of the road have been commented on in the same breath? I do hope so…).

My favourite of these on the Tube is, “Please stand to the right when using the escalators.” This well-engrained command has created a culture of consideration on escalators across the underground network that is hard to match; masses of people – some laden with big bags or suitcases – are channelled efficiently through compact bottlenecks and no one loses a limb.

Escalator etiquette in London is so pervasive that even the least considerate of tourists quickly fall in step.

The concept of two separate lanes where one is a fast-track and the other not is a compelling one that I wish was replicated more often in day-to-day life. Having to traverse Oxford Street every day to and from work, I lament the lack of a system that would allow us weary commuters to avoid being bombarded by hordes of tourists orbited by Primark and Topshop bags.

This lamentation also applies when stuck behind someone overly chatty at the supermarket check-out, a customer paying for their goods at the off-licence with pennies, or someone bent on having a drawn-out argument with at the airport check-in staff that they won’t win, but will serve to waste ten minutes.

A fast-lane for those who are in a hurry, or have relatively small demands of a service, would be a simple way to streamline urban living. Just a simple thought for a Sunday night.

On the Tube

The District Line: through the eyes of a child

Seasoned Londoners have been known to indulge in chit-chat regarding which Tube lines are the ‘best’, and which are ‘worst’. Personal experience obviously colours these opinions greatly.

Consistently I read/ hear that in such assessments, the Circle and District Lines rank bottom. Novices don’t understand them – the splintering ends of the District Line are too much to handle for those used to the single-branch simplicity of the Victoria Line or Jubilee Lines – and regular users are painfully aware that familiarity breeds contempt.

I’m a District Line commuter. It’s snail’s-pace slow. A zombie apocalypse could have swept West London in the time you’re waiting for the dreaded red signal approaching Earl’s Court to clear, safe yet irritated.

It’s not just speed that’s an issue. Personally I find the unpredictability of my morning and evening journeys more annoying than the actual time taken to get from A to B. There’s something to be said for a consistently slow journey – at least you can plan ahead. When the stars align i.e. I’m not waiting too long for a train at rush hour which is then too full to board, and I don’t get held at any red signals or delayed by “an earlier signal failure at X” (hear this over the station’s loudspeaker and maybe take the executive decision to work from home that day), my overall journey is pretty acceptable. This happens about 20% of the time. Average journey time probably stands at 50 minutes, to cover 8km. The average speed of a Tube train is 33km per hour, meaning that I’m owed a good chunk of my life back from TfL. Check me breaking out the pedantry, but too lazy to do the maths.

So I’ve prefaced my optimistic tale with a considerable whinge, but I feel it’s a necessary backdrop for understanding the anecdote.

A few days ago, a little kid on my train expressed a refreshing view of the District Line. Squinting at the map of the line, he exclaimed, “The District Line goes everywhere!”

Now, I get that this boy’s world is relatively small; when I was five; outside of home and school my world pretty much consisted of the Holy Trinity of Adventure World, McDonald’s and Bowman’s Farm – all within 8km.

Yet this prompted memories from when I first moved from North to South West London a few years ago, and discovered all the places threaded by the District Line: Richmond, Kew, Chiswick, Holland Park via High Street Kensington, Notting Hill, Edgware Road… the list goes on. Even as a lifetime Londoner, SW was hitherto a black hole to me.

Avoiding a hometown becoming staid means finding new pockets of intrigue, or even entirely new neighbourhoods. Moving to be closer to work enabled me to view London through a different lens; South West London is verdant, relatively tranquil and lacks hipster pretentiousness. Generally somewhere that offers head space away from the bustle of urban living.

“And I can see things!”

Much of the District Line is above ground, allowing for ample time to use phones and appreciate natural light. In this respect, it makes for quite a pleasant journey. The less time spent in deeply-burrowed tunnels collectively resembling a worm farm writ large, the better.

So in summary, the Distrct Line: not so bad when you’re not in any great hurry, when you fancy a bit of a wander someplace green, and when small children make astute observations.

On the Tube

Reading recommendations from a drunkard

Evidently having niche reading tastes facilitates social interaction on the Tube. Yesterday another ‘book thing’ happened to me as I made my way back from a lovely evening of girl talk, meatballs and Pleasing Caroline (a far-too-drinkable cocktail of vodka, gin, lemon, sugar, ginger and egg white).

Ten feet away from the southbound Victoria Line platform, a man sidled up to me. Bleary-eyed and a bit unsteady on his feet, I feared the worst: a slurred come-on, me attempting to politely give him the slip, and him not taking/ taking but disregarding the hint.

But instead of being met with a zingy one-liner like “Alright love?” or something ghastly involving angels and falling from heaven, he asked, “Escape from Camp 14… what kinda book is that?”

“It’s about a North Korean prison camp,” I replied curtly, unsure of where he was going with this.

Pause. “Have you read The Alienist? It’s really good.” And with that, we parted ways as he headed off to the northbound platform, on course to hit the wall of the ‘no entry’ tunnel but swerving at the right time and narrowly missing. He was, after all, very pissed.

Wikipedia tells me that The Alienist by Caleb Carr is a crime novel set in NYC in 1896, with Teddy Roosevelt as the protagonist. In his pre-Presidential role as police commissioner, he must investigate the messy murder of a teen immigrant. The story has huge sociopolitical overtones, as Roosevelt must deal with various anti-immigrant interest groups (the Catholic Church, Episcopal Church, J.P. Morgan and a corrupt police force) to crack the case. It does sound like it could be really good.

Thank you for the recommendation, drunken man with seemingly good taste in books. And if anyone happens to stumble across an intoxicated character clutching The Alienist over the next few evenings, fear not.

On the Tube

Same escalator, same book

Half-six and I was pretty much dead on my feet, and yet I ill-advisedly decided to traipse up the escalators that take you from the Central Line to the District/ Circle Line platforms at Notting Hill Gate station. In lieu of time (read: inclination) to go to the gym, I’ve decided the world is my Stairmaster.

Doggedly making my final steps, I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned around, I saw a middle-aged man holding my current book of choice, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Scanning my bookshelf at home, I appear to have a morbid fascination with dystopias, both real and fictitious.

This was really puzzling for a moment. I had been holding said book open in preparation for my infinitely-long wait on the platform for the elusive mistress that is the Wimbledon-bound District Line train (up to eight minutes feels like an eternity for someone with the patience of a small child en route to Disneyland… or someone simply craving the comfort provided by a sofa, an episode of Mad Men and a whiskey and coke). Was I so dazed post-work that I hadn’t noticed dropping Escape from Camp 14, for it to land at the feet of a fellow commuter nobly trying to tone glutes and thighs on his way home via our makeshift Stairmaster?

I was then struck with the same sensation you have when you’ve been searching for your keys, only to find that you’ve been clutching them in your left hand all along. Sure enough, my fingers were still improvising as a bookmark. I realised that the tapping stranger must be holding another copy of the poignant Escape from Camp 14!

He smiled. I smiled. To be honest, on the Tube I’m happy just to see a fellow commuter reading something that’s not 50 Shades of Shit or the Evening Bog Standard. But two strangers sharing an interest in the woes of Shin’s life in the North Korean prison camp and an escalator was really something.

When we levelled out, he prefaced with, “I’m not trying to hit on you…” at which point I interrupted with a clumsy question about his thoughts on the book. The man’s name is Greg. He has been avidly reading about North Korea for a decade and in a week’s time he’ll be in the hermit country, observing first-hand just a sliver of North Korean life as we understand it from reading defectors’ accounts.

My (dubious) take-out from this interaction – aside from the fact that I love, love coincidences like this – is that people who walk rather than ‘ride’ escalators are more likely to be go-getters in life. They’re more eager to get from place to place. It’s one of the Underground’s great metaphors. Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, Greg, it was lovely to meet you fleetingly, and travel safe.