Surviving London Transport

Public transport in London is a uniquely miserable experience. There’s a certain etiquette to it all, an unspoken method which sets the London resident apart from the tourists. I don’t suppose they talk about it in the guidebooks, but the average London tube/bus journey is a Herculean ordeal, a strong dose of unhappiness and body odour.

You don’t talk on public transport. Unless you’re travelling with someone, but even then you should avoid talking to them excessively (and certainly, if you must talk, do it in a hushed tone) The whole point of it is to really focus on how mundane the experience is, preferably while meditating on the various failings of the system (i.e the correlation between increasing Oyster fares and time waiting for the next bus) If you’re not tutting to yourself, you’re not doing it properly.

You do not make eye contact. Ever. If you do, the other person(s) will think you are a) a mugger sizing them up b) a sexual predator sizing them up or c) an escaped mental patient. Never underestimate the paranoia of a Londoner. Best case scenario is you’ll be mistaken for a tourist, which is synonymous with “barely human” to many Londoners (not all; some Londoners, like me, are quite fond of tourists. But I’m something of an anomaly among Londoners, who can be viciously xenophobic outside of Designated Tourist Zones like Buckingham Palace) Worst case scenario is you’ll provoke the attention of one of our delightful Sun-reading, testosterone-exuding young men, who will assume you “Got A Problum” and attempt to engage you in combat.

You do not eat. Drinking is permitted, as long as it’s not alcohol; aside from the fact that it is now illegal to drink alcohol on public transport, you will be mistaken for a wino. And nobody wants that. You’ll sometimes see younger Londoners shoving greasy chicken in their fat little mouths, or chomping noisily on McDonald’s. Don’t be tempted to follow their example. Aside from the vast amounts of litter they produce, the nauseating stink of congealed fat and mutated chicken (some would question its chickeny credibility; popular alternatives include sparrow, squirrel and tourist) can be enough to make even the most stoic transport-goer tut and/or gag. If you do eat, please don’t wipe your hands on the seats; it’s unpleasant.

You do not expect a seat. On the buses, it’s more likely; the tube is usually crammed to the gills with business types, identifiable by their shiny briefcases, impracticle shoes and inflated senses of self-importance. Being businesspeople, they are of course superior specimens to the average miserable serf and will rush for seats as if their bonuses depend on it. Some business types will insist on securing a seat for their luggage, which they also consider to be superior to the average miserable serf. Requests to move their luggage will usually be met with stony silence.

Summertime on the tube is a particularly depressing experience; you will be forced to huddle among people with questionable bathing habits and exposed areas of clammy pink flesh, jostling for a prime position near a seat (watch for the struggle that ensues when a person vacates their seat on a crowded train; it’s pure entertainment) or near anything you can hang on to. Stifling heat and nasty smells can sometimes create an overwhelming combination and the less hardy traveller might faint. Don’t expect any sympathy if this happens to you. It causes delays and is extremely inconvenient. Nobody cares about your health or wellbeing. They just want to get to where they’re going without being held up by inconsiderate fainters.

If you do get a seat, you will be sized up by the other travellers, who will be assessing whether or not you deserve the seat. Unless you are disabled, pregnant or over 80 (and even if you are one or all of these) the likelihood is you will be met with grimaces of disapproval. I have been asked more than once to give up my seat for someone who did not appear to need it, but simply felt more deserving of it (and yes, they were businesspeople)

You do not sit next to someone unless there is no alternative; sometimes, standing is preferable. Sitting next to someone you don’t know on a half empty bus or tube is a deeply uncomfortable experience and will usually lead the other person to conclude that you are a) a mugger b) a sexual predator or c) a tourist. Or sometimes d) a terrorist, bent on blowing them up. If you are even the slightest bit dark-skinned (i.e you have a bit of a tan) and carry a rucksack, be prepared for people purposefully placing the greatest amount of distance they possibly can between you and them. This is a result of London paranoia and xenophobia, but it can be a great way of securing space during the hot summer months.

Lastly, do not smile. You are not supposed to like travelling in London; every effort has been made to ensure a thoroughly detestable experience, from the vastly overpriced tickets to the stained, old-lady-wallpaper patterned seat covers and the scary racist graffiti thoughtfully provided by the city’s trogs. London transport is best served with a glower, and a side of drunken hen partygoers spilling their Smirnoff Ices on the seats and flashing their knickers at passing taxis.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Elen
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 16:27:33

    Ah, the Tube. Yes, it’s quite hellish especially when it’s 85 degrees out and you’re jet-lagged. :O

    I’ve noticed the no-talking, no-happiness clause in other subway systems, like NYC and Washington D.C. I think it may be universal.


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