The first half hour was extremely pleasant. Then I finished birding my way across the Flats and, as acid grassland turned to concrete, I found myself in the wilderness of Forest Gate. Descending the stairs at the train station, I waited with about two-hundred other merry commuters. Standing on the platform, watching depressed-looking travellers rattling into Liverpool Street, I casually wondered how many of them were happy. My conclusion, few. Finally a stopping-train came in. It was reasonably full, but plenty of space inside the carriage if people moved down and away from the doors. The doors opened. People, including me, stood on the platform waiting to get on. However people inside the train didn’t move. They kept reading their papers, tapping their smart phones, avoiding eye-contact. The doors closed without a single person where I was stood getting on, and the train moved off. As it did so I could see a man leisurely stretching his legs inside the far end of the carriage. Well thanks very much Essex commuters, you selfish so-and-sos. Perhaps it is merely a mechanism for survival? Don’t speak, don’t give an inch. These are presumably sociable people with families, who enjoy an evening down the pub, who communicate with colleagues now and again. Yet on a train they are silent automatons. This is what I hate about London and about commuting. Part of it is physical, being crammed into small spaces and being uncomfortably close to the smelly parts of other human beings. But part of it is the sheer unfriendliness of it all. You’re all in it together, all hating every minute of it, but yet there is a massive lack of empathy which you would expect to be present in spades in such a horrible environment. Instead it is cold, silent, and forboding. I managed to get onto the second train, where a number of people mistook me for a large sack of potatoes. It did nothing to improve my mood.
|Grassy intermission. This is on the Flats, and I have no idea why.
At Stratford station I was ejected, almost literally, onto another heaving platform, and traipsed over to the Docklands Light Railway. Again I found myself sharing other peoples' personal space a little too cozily, but there is nothing you can do. It's have an enforced cuddle with four or five strangers, one of whom will be really scummy, or walk to work. At Canary Wharf, you have to move swiftly. If you don't fall into line and elegantly synchronise your movements with a thousand other people, you are liable to be trampled to death. People at Canary Wharf do not stop, everything is fluid. If you're not moving, you don't exist. There are no barriers, so sometimes I forget to bleep out at the Oystercard reader. Turning back, against the flow, can be suicidal, which brings me neatly to the other thing I hate about commuting in London.
I have a very keen sense of self-preservation. I am not the kind of person who needs regular adrenalin rushes. I have never harboured any desire to go bungy-jumping, sky-diving, or swimming with Great White Sharks, I very much prefer tamer activities. Like sitting down on sofas. I was on the tube on 7th July 2005. Luckily, working in a bank that believed in taking its pound of flesh, I was at my desk well before four crazies from Leeds blew themselves and fifty-two other people up. I am sure I speak for many when I say that travelling by tube has never really been the same since. I remember walking home that day, and the following day I actually got off a train because a man with a bag and a beard got on. Pathetic and predjudiced perhaps, but perfectly understandable. As time passes, the memory fades, but never completely, and always at the back of mind is the thought that some brain-washed freako may jump up and shout "Allahu Akbar!" or some such and then attempt to kill as many people as possible in the hope of being granted 72 Siberian Rubythroats and a Wallcreeper in paradise. Now before anyone passes a fatwah on me, I mention this not as an attack on Islam, which I know nothing about (it might be Siberian Blue Robins, not Rubythroats, I have not really researched it), but because in this day and age lunatics of all creed and race are something you have to be genuinely concerned about. Look at that bloke in Norway, an extreme example perhaps, but there are plenty of other less sensational attacks we all forget about. Just last month in Bexleyheath of all places a woman ran amok with a carving knife and killed a lady on her way to work. An innocent commuter, just like me.
And then of course, assuming I survive all that twice, there and back, I have to run the gauntlet of Bush Wood, over whose 100m distance I now look behind me about forty times. It's easily dark by the time I come through. To say I am paranoid is the understatement of the century, but if you had been pinned to the ground by four blokes, punched in the face ten times entirely unnecessarily and had your Leicas stolen I reckon you'd be pretty paranoid as well. Yeah, I reckon commuting is vastly overrated.