Twice a day, I trundle through that laboratory of curious human behaviour, the London Underground. Obviously, I’m not alone. During rush hour, at least, there’s a London effect that cauterises extrovert displays of rage and frustration, but occasional bubbles of anger burst from one’s fellow travellers. “Oh fuck it,” muttered the man next to me recently. “Just fuck it.” Quite what ‘it’ was disappeared with him at Southwark.
TfL has tried all sorts of ways to mitigate our helplessness. We’re at the hapless mercy of the gods of track closures or faulty signals, but at least they strive to soothe our tantrums. Platform Indicators are to Greenwich Mean Time as an aardvark to a tampon, but knowing the next Arnos Grove train is in ‘3’ (Underground) minutes helps. It stops me from attempted murder with a rolled up copy of Metro. Three minutes? That’s nothing. I’ll endure the interval marvelling at financial men who insist on wearing silk – and even wool – scarves with their suits, despite the sticky 24 degrees of the transport system. Strange. However much the indicator clock concertinas real minutes into etiolated approximations, I’m grateful it’s there.
The sonic versions are even more fun. Staff barking into loud hailers, describing exactly what every single waiting passenger can see as the train pulls into the station in front of them is curiously endearing. There’s a bloke at Canary Wharf who spouts the details at crystalline, breakneck speed. How-we-should-all-stand-back-then-enter-by-all-the-doors-and-move-smartly-down-the-carriage-ladies-and-gentlemen-taking-great-care-as-we-board-the-train-and-being-mindful-of-our-fellow-passengers. He’s brilliant. I love him. An auctioneer of impeccable enunciation and amphetamine pace, after a shift, he must be exhausted.
More curious still are the random announcements. Projected throughout the cathedral-like space of Canary Wharf again, one employee, who sounds much like the actor Philip Jackson, has intoned the same message at intervals for years: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to report a good service on all underground lines.” We’d like to, I’ve often thought, but we can’t just yet…
Whatever one thinks, this seems an excellent principle to apply elsewhere in the world. Imagine how walking past any church could be enlivened by a booming voice telling us, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to report a good service to God and all members of the celestial host.” Whether a Tannoy or the vicar hiding in the privet hedge, it could work well. Elsewhere, the forces of oral hygiene could address people forced into uncomfortably close proximity, which means pretty much any queue in the UK. “Are the people around staring at you because of your breath?” A lot more provocative than “Cashier Number Four, please”.
Inevitably, the chaotic sound pollution of such messages would have us diving for sound-proofed cover in seconds. That would be the smart sponsorship, of course. The first brand to become synonymous with silence.