Sitting in the window of the 8.33 to Chingford this morning, I became aware of the gentle metallic drumming noise of the semi-recumbent, dreadlocked man in the seat behind me having a slash on the floor of the train carriage.
Living as I do on the Skid Row of Lower Holloway, on a stretch of road housing, in the main, parking wardens and large numbers of the mentally ill, such spectacles are nothing new, but it did make me pause to consider the delights of the daily commute.
I am unusually fortunate in that, unlike my dreadlocked friend, I am not at the mercy of the flow. In contrast to the hordes of the wretched pouring into town, my morning pilgrimage to Essex takes me out of London, and I sit on half-empty tubes and even more sparsely-populated trains, reading my book in the quiet, interrupted only by the Yellow Submarine tones of the driver updating us about the broken-down Victoria line train responsible for the thrice-weekly delay at Seven Sisters. It did concern me that with the end of unemployment, the luxury of several hours each day buried in a book would be lost to me, but in fact I have continued to nibble my way through novels, usually from an era as far removed from this one as possible.
On the downside, I have never spent so long with continuous low-level illness as I have since I began rattling round North London on the red and grey pestilence wagon, to the point that the childhood asthma that has not bothered me in over ten years has even raised its wicked head. (Though this did have the pleasing consequence of a visit to Dr Shah, a kindly lady who has possibly drawn level with the magnificent Dr Ho as my favourite local GP after accusing me of being ‘obviously athletic’.) You cannot help being conscious that the fug in the carriages, and the black streaks on your hands, are not good honest dirt or the grime of machinery, but an entirely human foulness.
And this is on a spacious route. The ordeal of entering Central London at rush hour is one that in the last eight years of London life I have put myself through only a handful of times, and compares unfavourably with other life experiences such as, say, anaphylactic shock or walking all morning through the desert without any water. Some people inflict it upon themselves every day. Twice.
As if being a wage slave for the kinds of parasitic, emperor’s-new-clothes enterprises that flourish on London’s Petri dish was not enough, the poor souls of this tough old city must de-humanise themselves on a daily basis, burning themselves through the torments of a purgatory that does not purify, to access, at best, one of the more merciful circles of hell.
(Just by the by, I was also considering this morning that, should one be fortunate enough to access paradise after death, then the one to pass into would almost certainly be Valhalla. Not for me grace and enlightenment, but eternal winter outside, roaring fires, unlimited beer, food, girls, friends and stories, and no hangovers.)
In fact, several people I know cycle to avoid the underground, and a return to the tunnel rat life holds traumatic memories of an existence escaped but still unnervingly close. Laurence is forced to endure flashbacks to a time before bicycles now and then, through requirements of work or bike repairs, while Twigley, who zips into work in twenty minutes from South London, was only last week describing the awfulness of the crowds at Clapham North station, queueing three ranks deep to cram themselves into trains that are already packed to bursting. To those who do not do it, the fact that anyone could endure such an experience is incomprehensible. No doubt the odds of being an RTA are rather higher than that of being ‘one under’, but I suppose it is all a question of balancing gambles with mortality against quality of life.
At least I am lucky enough to avoid the worst of it, and my wait on the platform at Walthamstow station each day holds occasional pleasing encounters, like twenty minutes chatting to a cheery alcoholic called Paddy just the other week. I imagine whatever job I get when this contract runs out will entail a daily odyssey into the heart of the beast, so I shall make hay while the sun shines.