ONE THING I love about living in London is the Tube. Once you get past the images conjured up by that chain mail that went around a few years ago (the one about traces of semen, faeces, urine, and rat hairs being found embedded in the seats), it’s a mode of transportation that is quite simply ingenious and hard to imagine doing without.
Not only does it get you from A to B relatively effortlessly and cheaply, but it is also the best place to people watch. No one knows you, and you know no one. You can quite literally take the Tube across London and simply sit, and observe, the people around you.
Although openly staring is at best rude, and at worst creepy, I haven’t yet managed to master the subtle stare, and so more often than not end up doing the Cypriot thing of looking people up and down, and taking them all in. What they are wearing, what they are reading, what they are saying (listening in to other people’s conversations is really hard to avoid when they are sitting right across from you).
Sometimes the thought of facing the Tube, when you’re tired and fed up, is as appealing as doing the London marathon. But once you’re on there, it’s simply fascinating, as are the millions of people who make up this city.
Early in the morning you get the workers: Bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, media planners, conference producers, project managers, accountants and sales assistants. I’m making these jobs up as I have no idea what they do, only that they all look very serious and professional in their pinstripe suits and ties, for the men, and black skirts, solid colour blouses and manageable heels, for the women.
The majority of them also look sleep deprived, as they shuffle down the train carriages like sardines being crammed into a can. If you try to make eye contact and smile, you are faced with a dead pan stare, or ignored. Clearly these are not morning people. One can’t help but wonder if they are happy in their chosen careers or if they just look miserable because it’s a wet and cold. Again.
By mid to late morning, the crowd changes and you’ve got the unemployed, the shift workers, the ladies who lunch, the yummy mummies, and the tourists. What’s great about this time is that you’re guaranteed a seat, which means that you can get comfy and study the other passengers more carefully. Like the man who is dead ringer for Kris Kringle (aka Santa Claus) opposite me, and the Scandinavian backpacker who clearly doesn’t do weather warnings and is sporting a pair of sky blue flip-flops.
This lot are chattier, make more eye contact, and offer back a closed lip, half smile. I think they’re not sure if I am genuinely smiling at them or have mental health problems, so after a quick smile in return, their attention is quickly averted back to staring out the window; even if all they can see is tunnel wall.
This time, and the early afternoon, is probably my favourite time to travel on the Tube. I can’t help but marvel at the three-year-old deftly working his way round a game on his mum’s iPad. With a steely look of concentration in his eye, and his legs just about long enough for his ankles to hang over the edge of the seat, he has everyone in stitches with his squeals of delight every time he scores a point. This leads on to a conversation with a woman covered in facial piercings and Vivienne Westwood red hair. Apparently she’s a Chihuahua breeder.
Around lunchtime things start to get busy and, if the weather is good, the workers go out for lunch. This means no seat on the Tube and possibly being pressed up against someone who clearly forgot to apply deodorant in the morning. Travelling on the Tube at this time means head down and skates on. You need to get on the next train because waiting a minute for the next one – which is how often the trains on some lines run during the working week – is just not an option. This is London and people are busy and time is money. If you’re meeting someone for lunch they only have an hour. Not the Cyprus 90-minute hour, but the London hour, which is 50 minutes. The missing 10 minutes is to get to and from work for lunch.
Between 2.30 and 4.30 it’s back to people watching. On the carriage there is a woman no older than 24 with four children under the age of six. Three are clambering on top of each other to sit on the same seat, even if the carriage is virtually empty, and one is in a buggy.
The young woman looks bored and fed up as she chews gum with her mouth open. She has a stud in her nose, and I can’t help but wonder what brought her to this point. Is she a benefits claimant? I tell myself off for being so right-wing and judgemental. Is it her religion? I say this because I hear her calling her mixed race sons Isa and Hamza. I know these to be Muslim names because I watch Homeland. I then notice her headscarf. What throws me is she’s Caucasian. Maybe she is Afghan as they are often fair-skinned and green eyed. At first I think she has a London accent but then I hear a strong Birmingham accent. Interesting. I would love to know more about her but alas the next stop is mine and I have to get off.
The later trains are no less interesting. You’ve got the City workers who look exhausted, the after work tipplers, and the couples in love who only have eyes for each other. So many millions of people to watch, so many different stories. Some of them are having good days and some of them bad days. I often wonder what they’re feeling, thinking and dreaming. What are their lives like? I guess I’ll never know.
That’s the beauty of the Tube. You can watch all these people and it doesn’t matter what you think. It’s not your business. Just like the night I cried all the way home was nobody’s business, and although I felt embarrassed that I looked like Quasimodo, I felt comforted by the fact that nobody knew me, and that to anyone who was watching, I was simply the weeping woman on the train.