Most days, I’m surrounded by people on the way to work. Mostly, they’re silent. If I vary my route and walk from Earl’s Court to our studio on the river, I’m still surrounded by people, also silent, but they don’t have a choice. Brompton Cemetery is as packed full of characters as any tube. It makes for a fascinating way to reach work.
I spoke to a veg man in a farmer’s market recently who had moved to Deal from the capital when his kids were born. He works on a Rudolph Steiner inspired farm. The clincher for him was walking about his first morning in the coastal town. He stopped counting the ‘Mornings’ and ‘Hellos’ after 15. He’d found the Britain his father, born in 1923, had banged on about. A far cry from encountering strangers this century in, well, just about any London borough, unless you’re a trainee barista.
The commuting silence is a special phenomenon. It may be under threat from smartphone bleeps and bloops plus the occasional, startling ring tone, but a particular kind of London code prevails. This morning when an East European mariachi-meets-dixieland band stepped into the train at Hammersmith, the body language of my fellow passengers was, well, livid. Silently, they were furious.
Tubes are funny places. Upwards of 60 people jammed into a very small space, for all the world as if they are standing, sitting or, most likely, wedged into a completely empty room. In any other setting, you couldn’t – or probably wouldn’t -ignore your fellow man. Here, it’s almost essential to do so. It makes for unsettling theatre, easy to overthink. Church is the only other place that comes close.
There are myriad ways to commune with the ambivalent spirit of this city. Tube travel hardly ever includes you ‘in’, but it’s certainly one way to be part of it.