The other day, my friend from Bordeaux made a shocking confession:
‘I met my girlfriend on a tram.’
‘You met her on a tram?!’
As a Londoner, this was completely incomprehensible. There is a certain code of practice on the London transport system, which serves to define what is and what is not acceptable. Taking a stealthy glance at someone else’s Kindle; it serves to make all-important judgements about someone we would never make the effort to communicate with. Being privy to the more vocal half of someone’s break up phone call will happen at least once. And nestling into a sweaty commuter’s arm pit whilst they maintain a strict adherence to the safety rail is almost an inevitability.
What is a taboo, however, is conversation. Not even the quintessentially British ‘dull as dishwasher’ small-talk about the weather is relevant within the dungeon-like depths of the Tube. Squashed together in this confined space, we are all adamant that we will have the worst possible journey, then pursue the ‘Way Out’ signs like a liberated prisoner, breathe the fresh air of day and forget the whole ordeal ever happened. It’s stoic, really. But the fact still remains that we have brought it upon ourselves.
The real irony is that a lot of British people would love to say they met ‘The One’ on a train. It’s probably what half the people in the carriage are daydreaming about. Don’t believe me? Think about how many ‘Match.com’ advertisements you see on the Tube: ‘Looking for the one?’. They should really replace them with:
‘Looking for the one? He may or may not be sitting below this sign. But you’re too absorbed in our commercial scam of paying £12 a month to buy into a myth instead of acknowledging the people around you’.
…or something like that. But the ‘pay per word’ advertising space is mighty expensive.
I’m not suggesting the Tube system turns into one big speed dating session; God knows, I’ve been in that commuter’s armpit before and I don’t mean to spend any more time there. But there is something much more natural about striking up conversation with strangers, in the same way that we may have first approached our closest friends in the playground: no sparkling introduction, no business card, no online dating profile. It gives people a chance to win your affections
before you have realised that they fall under one of your ‘unacceptable’ categories: football fan, practising satanist,
There’s something very wrong with the world when a stranger from the Internet is somehow more trustworthy than the one you’re sitting opposite. Events like the 7/7 bombing have shattered our trust for one another on public transport. A smile from a stranger is a sexual advance, and if a man helps a woman with her bags, everyone assumes he is going to rob her. The Underground suddenly becomes a tense, sinister place.
The exception to this was the 2012 London Olympics. A golden age as far as British attitudes were concerned, the Tube suddenly become a forum for the exchanging of niceties.
There’s something very wrong with the world when a stranger from the Internet is somehow more trustworthy than the one you’re sitting opposite.
The usual inhibitions were forgotten because there was an immediate precept for conversation: the opening ceremony, Jessica Ennis’ six pack, the ‘MoBot’. The Olympics were a success in a number of ways. But it was this unexpected cultural change- if only for six weeks- that really showed British people at their best.
As it stands, there really isn’t much to smile about on the London Underground. It is cramped, stiflingly hot, and despite all this it is the fifth most expensive mode of transportation in the world. But, with a bit of camaraderie, it could be a lot better.