Sometimes I marvel at the incredible complexity of the London Underground. I think about the ingenious minds that came together to design such an intricate underground network, calculating how to dodge electrical cables, sewage systems and water pipes to establish a staggeringly complex piece of practical art.
But most of the time, I marvel at how much it fucking sucks.
I take care, in most of my written work, to present a two-sided argument, or at least a one-sided one with sprinkles of counterarguments. This piece will not do any such thing. It will be a maniacal rant about the tube/train system and its inconvenience, noise, dog hair-fart odor, and often rude passengers who seemingly create this smell.
As a way to explore and explain the aspects of the Underground that grind my gears, I’ll bring you along with me on the mind-numbing morning journey that I take to work on a daily basis. Grab a seat! That was a joke. Because you won’t ever find one.
Here it is, then – a real-time account of taking the tube every morning; you’ll truly feel like you’re there. It’s like the worst ever episode of 24.
07:43: Arrive at Rickmansworth (that’s my hometown) Station approximately six minutes early, just in case the train decides to come early. It comes late every now and then (everyday), so you would assume it could arrive early once in a while, right? Wrong. This has never happened once during my train-taking lifetime. Still, I like to call myself optimistic. Others say naïve. Most would say moronic.
07:49: Train is supposed to arrive.
07:51: Train arrives.
There is a mad rush to get the one remaining seat on the entire train, since the rest are already taken up by the fortunate ones who live at the beginning of the line; the joke, however, is on them, since on the way back, they become the end of the line – as they say, “you win some, you lose some” (though on the Underground, no one ever wins, which led to the coining of the updated expression, “you lose some, you lose some”).
I settle for a “leaning spot” on the door; it’s worth not having to stand up straight, even if you do risk flying out of the carriage when you lose concentration and the door opens at the next station. Then, at least, you would have found a nice “leaning spot” on the track.
I also cunningly choose to stand in the carriage flooded with uniformed, 12-year-old private school kids. Before the Jimmy Savile / Jerry Sandusky chants begin, I should explain that it’s because I know they are going to get off at the next station, a mere five minutes away, where all the local schools are. Still, I have to endure two or three minutes of cramped space, and of envy as they chat to each other about pre-teen “problems”, such as having gotten into trouble for wearing un-ironed PE shorts, or how “well unfair” the science test was for having questions on solar energy when “we only did wind energy”, or how “well fit” Miss Tate is (the teacher’s name has been changed to Miss Tate to spare Miss Willis embarrassment).
07:57: Once the kids alight, I scramble to take advantage of about seven or eight minutes of quiet / uncramped time, before the next station’s masses barge in. This is my time. Talib time. Private time. Shower time. (This doesn’t mean I shower on the train. I don’t whip out two bottles of Evian and a bar of soap and scrub myself in the middle of the carriage, before wiping myself down with a copy of the Metro. What I mean is I enjoy the same private time as people may enjoy in the shower – thinking their own thoughts in peace – during this space of time. Others who enjoy this time of tranquility in the bathroom may call it toilet time; again, I do not mean to say I perform my ablutionary activities on the train – which, I presume, would this time turn the Metro into toilet paper.)
08:05: Talib time comes to an abrupt end as the train pulls into the next station, where the doors open and allow a chilling gust of wind to freeze the brass balls off…well, off me, and the mob piles in, making us all feel like chickens in a coup, but without the altruistic feeling that in a few days time, we’ll be making some KFC customers finger-lickin’ happy. Any newspaper or book I’d opened during private time is now flung into my face – if the Metro’s in my hand, this invariably means a half-naked picture of “world’s sexiest woman” (presumably excluding all other women ever) Tulisa will be flung into my face – and as the train starts moving again, I’m holding the paper so close to my eyes that it looks as if, rather than reading the words, I’m carefully studying the grains in the paper. (This is known in scientific circles as graintology). If I have the urge to turn the page – to compare the grains on the following page, I guess – the likelihood is that I will not be able to turn the page, because a) I am squashed between folks like a butternut squash in a vat of orange squash on a squash court, and b) you have to hold onto the railings for dear life as the train rattles and clanks and throws you about as if you’re on the worst Universal Studios ride ever invented (assumingly based on the motion picture Speed 3: London Underground, except instead of Sandra Bullock, it’s the fat, sweaty lady next to you, and instead of Keanu Reeves, it’s a talented actor). So you either keep reading the same page / staring at the same half-nude photo of Too-looser / admiring the same grain for the next ten minutes, or you take the risk, let go of the handrail and turn the page, which will undoubtedly result in you falling onto that fat lady next to you, which at least means there’ll be a soft landing – and a new leaning spot.
Incidentally, the Metro is, hands down, the worst newspaper I’ve read. I am far from pretentious about the news I read (the last article I read was about Eminem’s daughter’s tweets about One Direction), but Metro truly hits an all-time low. You may say that for a free newspaper, it’s not too bad – but then you would be wrong. (You may also say, in just as wise a tone, that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Yet the sandwich I carried out of the store without paying the other day ended up being free.) The content of the news is such that Metro might as well be called Today in Tulisa’s Life or Rihanna’s Latest Slutty Escapade Explained in Detail With Unnecessarily Detailed Pictures Over the Next Fifty Pages, with a tiny little headline in the bottom corner of the final page reading “Flood In Indonesia Kills Two Hundred”, though the word “Hundred” is hard to make out, as it’s mostly covered by Rihanna’s left tit.
08:17: If all has gone to plan and the driver hasn’t suddenly announce that the train will be terminating earlier than expected – and on the day of writing this, that exact thing happened – it is time to alight and change trains. Which brings us to Part II of this exciting, real-time journey I’m leading you all on. Having proceeded out of the Metropolitan Line train and caught a breath of fresh air, we pile ourselves into a Jubilee Line train, which is structurally thinner, more compact, and contains 10% instead of the usual 20% oxygen present in the atmosphere, because there aren’t enough plants growing inside trains for photosynthesis to occur. (This is a fact. Ask your local grainologist.)
The chicken coup ambience is reenacted on this new train, and is even more accurate a comparison, since we move from the cooler, overground train temperatures to the hotter, molton-lava-like temperatures of the underground as we travel into Central London. And also because feathers are flying around the carriage, since the ostrich costume I happened to be carrying just came apart. As we all shove into the train, someone will predictably shout, “Move down please!”, and I look to see if there’s any space for me to move into, when I realize that OF COURSE THERE’S NO FUCKING SPACE TO MOVE DOWN INTO, OTHERWISE I WOULDN’T BE STANDING HERE SQUASHED BETWEEN TWO HEAVYWEIGHT EATING CHAMPIONS READY FOR ONE OF MY RIBS TO SNAP. Idiot.
08:23: Some bitch coughs in my face. The Jubilee Line train is a melting pot of diseases. There’s like a hot mist of cold and flu viruses, pink eye and stomach flu germs, and a dozen or so STDs rising and covering everyone like a big, warm fleece blanket soaked in crabs and wrapping itself over you. The point is that, when someone coughs, sneezes or ejects mucus on the tube, you have no escape from the airborne virus. You can’t move when you’re in the chicken coup. Whatever diseases Chicken #1 has, Chicken #2 is inevitably going to get, and that’s why colds spread so rapidly on the tube – and it’s also why KFC has so much flavor.
Even if no one directly ejects mucus into your face, your hands have already caught the virus from touching the handrails – which, remember, are impossible to avoid, unless you want to be thrown onto the now skinny gentleman next to you, who is less of a comfortable lean spot than the chubby lady – and the next time you innocently rub your eye, scratch your nose or pick your nose, the germs enter your system and hey presto, you’ve caught the flu-gonorrhea hybrid virus going around.
I am not a hypochondriac. I have just had it up to here (I’m doing the gesture, don’t worry) with the incessant cough-mongering on the tube. However, remember that if you are the one coughing and spreading your germs, then that’s absolutely fine.
08:29: A seat right behind me becomes vacant. I politely take a good look around to make sure there are no elderly people or pregnant ladies around who need the seat more than I do. If I don’t see any, I settle myself into the seat, feeling snug and smug at the same time.
If any elderly people or pregnant ladies board over the next few minutes, of course I will stand up and allow them to take the seat. But the trouble is…sometimes you can’t really tell. Obviously, you can recognize an old person. The telltale signs are: grey/white hair, not just on the head, but also protruding from the nostrils; slight smell of the 1950s (cigarettes mixed with a strong loathing of communists); and a general wrinkly and/or cute look about them. The problems set in when you try and identify pregnant women. Is this woman pregnant or just fat? And before you label me as mean for asking that question, I am actually trying to do a considerate thing and give up my seat for knocked-up females, so hush up. Sometimes you just can’t tell! Pregnant women and plump women both tend to wear baggy clothes, meaning that it’s hard to see whether the swollen tummy is in fact a baby bump or a burger bump. Is it more awkward, given the scenario of not knowing, to not give up your seat to a pregnant lady, thinking she’s fat, or to give up your seat to a fat lady, thinking she’s pregnant? There is no happy ending in this situation. Therefore, the key is: make no eye contact. Pretend you don’t know they’re there. Get immersed back into Talib time.
But then, there’ll be the occasional stroppy woman who demands that you should give up your seat. Again, I really don’t mind if it’s an elderly person or a pregnant lady. But more often than not, the stroppy woman is neither old nor pregnant, because no one has yet wanted to make her pregnant, and pass on those stroppy genes. This is the woman who believes that all women are entitled to a seat over all men. Is this the way a lot of women feel? I don’t know. If it is, then I would be more than happy to accommodate their whining and give up my seat to women. But then there’s always the ultra-feminist who’ll say, “Well, why should I sit down? I am just as capable as a man to stand. How dare you assume otherwise!” At which point I, so confused as to whether to sit or stand, just lie in the fetal position on the train floor, waiting for some kind soul to scoop me up and carry me to a real vehicle – a car.
Given the choice if I could drive to work for an hour or sit (stand) on a train for an hour, I would indubitably choose the former. I feel more in control in my car; I have the freedom to pull over or take a detour if I need to. I can turn up my jams to full volume. I can use my car as a trash can. I don’t have to change cars halfway when I get onto a new highway. My car is not a chicken coup or a melting pot of diseases. There is, evidently, the issue of being “green”, and that it’s kinder to the environment to use public transport. However, I get around this matter by just not thinking about it.
08:38: The tube stops at Waterloo station. The next few minutes are the low-point on a journey of rock-bottom lows. Waterloo station is convenient in that it is a connecting point for train lines all across the country, which, in turn, is inconvenient for me, as it means that I will be completely deprived of oxygen for five minutes everyday as hoards of people cramp into the already packed carriage. Deep-sea divers actually prepare for the lack of oxygen underwater by standing in an underground train for hours on end. Well, OK, they don’t do that. But if I were president of a high-profile deep-sea diving squad, I would suggest the idea. Perhaps that’s why I’m not the president of the deep-sea diving team. Another reason is probably that I can’t deep-sea dive.
By this time, of course, I’ve been ushered out of my seat by the neither-old-nor-pregnant-bitch, and am back in center-stage chicken coup territory. This time, instead of a cougher, I’m inevitably stuck next to either an eater or a stinker. Specimen A, the eater, is on the one hand an admirable character, in that while I am yet unable to turn a page of the newspaper, he or she is able to produce a breakfast burrito from his or her bag, remove the packaging, and calmly chow down on the wrap as if he or she were comfortably resting at a dining table. The bad news is that you become his or her bib. As you stand in awe of the miraculous feat, you haven’t yet realized that there’s a runny, cheesy, eggy substance running down your right jean leg.
Specimen B, the stinker, is another story altogether. There is zero admiration whatsoever for the stinker. He or she achieves no miraculous feats, but rather just smells like absolute shit. I am not talking about a homeless person. I am referring to a seemingly well-to-do person who just happens not to know what a shower is, or has not yet discovered soap, like the rest of the human race did about three thousand years ago. Bless their ignorance. But fuck their stench. It is an inhumane smell: an odor best described as the amalgamation of the ones emanating from Golem’s breath and Honey Boo Boo’s ass.
08:44: At long last, I arrive at London Bridge, my final destination. There’s a last-minute struggle to exit the carriage, and as I push through the crowd, I wonder with paranoia if there’s a conspiracy to keep me inside this hellish compartment, like some form of fucked-up medieval torture as a punishment for something I did in my past life. Perhaps in that life I was unkind in some way to the underground system – maybe I bullied a tube driver, urinated on the seats, or didn’t “mind the gap” – but it’s evident now that the underground is finally taking its sweet revenge on me. As I finally inhale some oxygen in the open air, wipe the eggy substance off my jeans and sigh with relief that I’m free at least for another twenty-four hours, I acknowledge with regret the reality of the situation: the London Underground has made me its bitch.