Books Magazine

Things I Love and Hate About the London Underground

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Things I Love and Hate about the London UndergroundLife’s a bit hectic with my new manuscript at the moment (up to chapter 6 already!)– no time for features, hence this week’s non-bookish offering.   After my last writers’ workshop on 9 July, things will quieten down a bit – for me – just as everything starts to hot up for the London Olympics.  It’s started already, with posters appearing all over the transport system warning us it’s going to be hell on wheels (I paraphrase).  Stations are now plastered with new pink signs showing the way to the venues.  Such is the predicted chaos that public sector workers are being allowed to work from home (yeah, right – I used to work in the public sector) and as someone who now ‘works’ from the comfort of her ‘hoffice’, I think I’ll be giving the transport network a wide berth during the Games – despite being a London family with 3 sport mad members, we have no Olympics tickets.  But after living here for 23 years it did get me thinking about the Things I love and hate about the London Underground…

♥ It gets you places…

The London Underground gets a bad press but on a good day it’s a decent system.  I’ve used a lot of others and they all have their pros and cons but I haven’t come across one that is significantly better than London.  Since I arrived here all those years ago the coverage has improved in south and east London – I find it gets me just about anywhere I need to go.

…but not always in comfort

Having done it for years, I consider myself very lucky not to be commuting into town any more.  At peak hours, the overcrowding is horrendous and if you’re claustrophobic like me, panic-inducing.  I’ve had several tiffs with my husband as we stood on the platform with me saying, ‘Let’s wait for the next one…’   I don’t want physical contact with strangers.  I don’t want other people’s breath fogging up my glasses.  I just want to get there!  When things go wrong, it can get very unpleasant.  A friend was once stuck in a tunnel on the Central Line for several hours…it makes me feel stressed just thinking about it, so usually I don’t.

(♥)It can be quick, but you don’t know that

The time it takes to get anywhere is one of the bugbears of living in a huge city.  Normally I allow an hour door-to-door for Central London – from my local station to Leicester Square it should be about 30 minutes, but it varies wildly and it doesn’t depend on anything as logical as time of day.  Few things are as corrosive as being stuck out of contact underground with the minutes ticking by when you have a child to collect from school.  There may be an announcement explaining why the train is spending 5 minutes in a tunnel between every station, but whether or not you can make out what they’re saying is another matter.  As always, sod’s/Murphy’s law applies: if you leave loads of time, you will get there in a flash, and if you cut it fine, good luck.  This is why you should ALWAYS take a good book!

Things I Love and Hate about the London Underground
It’s a lot cleaner and safer than it used to be

When I first moved here, the Tube was horrible.  The seats were covered in bristly, carpet-like fabric deeply encrusted with dirt.  The carriages had grooved wooden flooring, a perfect trap for all manner of detritus, and a lot of stations were in a gothic state of dilapidation.  My nearest one at Elephant & Castle back then was notorious for a lot of things, the least of which were its rusting joists, tiles hanging off the walls and water dripping through the ceiling.  In New York, some stations still have this edgy feel but I think the investment of recent years has made a big difference to London (and just as well, considering the massive fare increases).  The trains are clean, modern and have air-con and most stations are presentable.  Unlike the Metro in Paris and Brussels, the Tube doesn’t have a pervasive unpleasant smell (although it has its moments, see below.)

The fascinating people

OK, this is probably a writer thing, but there is nowhere like the Tube for people-watching.  In cities everyone’s usually on the move, but for however long a passenger shares your carriage, they’re not going anywhere.   I’ve found so much inspiration in the way people look – their clothes, their hair, especially their shoes, the expression on their faces, their body language, what they are doing, and I’ve seen some pretty weird things:  Two young Polish women with a large houseplant from Harrods licking their fingers and dipping them into a bag of granulated sugar.  A Brideshead type male model (I assume) in hotpants  and brogues without socks, with perfectly waxed legs.  Sometimes I see someone looking at me and wonder what on earth they’re thinking…and as for the conversations, between friends, between strangers:   The other day I got chatting to a lady and her two year old daughter, whose name is Mona Lisa.

…the irritating/rude/gross people

I’m so relieved we don’t have in-carriage busking or begging (or at least very rarely) on the Tube here.  I  can’t believe it’s tolerated in other countries.  Almost as annoying, and something I’ve noticed a lot recently, is passengers listening to i-Pods so loud the whole carriage can hear and they’re never, ever playing anything decent!  The pointed stares of twenty strangers are as nothing to these people.   And what is it with the ones who stand in front of the doors on the platform or try to barge their way onto the train when others are trying to get off?  It makes NO sense!  Does having no manners affect your brain?

Then there are those who think it’s OK to eat smelly food.  Once, years ago, I was lucky to get a seat on a late night Tube home, opposite a couple so amorous I didn’t know where to look and a girl eating a hot dog covered in the most pungent fried onions.  Not the most pleasant of journeys, even before she threw up  everywhere as the train reached my station.  Bet that was a passion killer.  I hate the Tube late at night.  You just don’t see this kind of drunkenness anywhere else (outside the UK).  At Christmas I had to help a young guy drag his comatose girlfriend off the train, and she was wearing 6 inch stilettos!

I shall stop there in the interests of good taste.  Bit of a rant, but I it really.

What do YOU love or hate about London Underground?  I’ve only scratched the surface.

*POSTSCRIPT*

Thanks to Tony Whelpton, Silent Novelist Diana and Duncan Mackenzie for their amusing Tweets on the subject.

No space to get into it here, but I also love the history of the Tube, which is in so many ways a history of 20th century London with its maps, posters, disused stations, etc.  The London Transport Museum is superb for anyone interested in this.


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