Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Human Factor

Graham Greene’s novel describes an intelligence operative, married to a black African woman he spirited away whilst he was a field operative, who, in repulsion at the attitudes of his closeted commuterville, ends up a traitor.  The novel, one of Greene’s entertainments, the phrase he used to describe his lighter works where he plays to the chorus, focuses on the department’s hunt for their leak and a contrast between a logical, systematic approach and the irrational humanity of individuals:  the human factor.

Greene was probably trying to understand his friend and wartime mentor Kim Philby’s defection to the Russians.  Philby was one of the Cambridge Four and had risen to the upper echelons of British intelligence services despite working for the Soviets all along.  Greene, and indeed a large proportion of the country, was wondering what drives a human to act in such a way.

Much of the work I get paid to do – as opposed to this sort of work where I spend my time failing to make a living – centres around teaching an awareness of human factors amongst skilled professionals in stressful situations.  We look at human factors to mean non-technical skills, encompassing a wide range of issues from communication, leadership, situational awareness, bias judgement, a fixation on the wrong problem and how restrictions on our bandwidth, our capacity to process and understand information, is influenced by our environment.

For example, why don’t you watch the following video:


See what I mean?  The instruction says do one thing, so your wider context fails.  Human error, how we screw up: We can’t prevent it, so how do we cope with mistakes and how do others around us anticipate and compensate for them?

I’ve been using many of the human factor analogies as I teach my girlfriend to drive.  I’ve talked about making the motor skills of driving – changing gear, operating the windscreen wipers – automatic so that her bandwidth is freed up for more complex analytical processes, like whether that cyclist is going to jump the lights, or if the positioning of the 4x4 with the tinted windows and the system up means he’s likely to try and cut back into our lane.  Cognitive judgements made for the benefit of the team (other road users) – do you pull out or wait until the road is clear?  Keep the traffic flowing or get there thirty-two seconds quicker?  I’m not entirely sure it’s helping, but it beats answering every time she asks “why” with “because that’s what you do.”

What this analysis of the hows, whys and whereforths of human error doesn’t focus on is the confused instinct of the heart.  The emotional thoroughfare which can be even more irrational than stress.  It can overrule distractions and obliterate preconceptions.  The emotional surge takes decisions governed purely by what doesn’t even necessarily feel right, just warm and fuzzy.  Knowing you’re doing the wrong thing and still doing it anyway?  That’s probably what Greene was trying to comprehend.

My girlfriend and I are spending a lot of time being directed by our urges at the moment.  We are – despite my misgivings about betraying my principals – looking for a house to buy.  My concerns are twofold.  Firstly, my high minded adherence to the notion of all property being theft is, as you’ve probably guessed, a bluff designed to beat back those who “feel sorry” for me still renting in my thirties.  I don’t truly believe in a socialist utopia, although neither do I subscribe to the notion that rent money is “dead money.”  It’s a very fair exchange of services, I pay someone and they give me a place to live.  However, I do feel that my generation’s feverish desire to own a flat has caused a situation where – in London at least – property becomes less of a place to live and more some sort of investment.  The idea of paying off your mortgage to make your old age easier is no longer acceptable; instead you have to have gained a theoretical £100 grand every four years so you can laugh at those younger and poorer than yourself.  We don’t seem to have learnt the 2008 lessons that fragile greed can bring disaster.  By jumping on the bandwagon, battering aside the fellow at the wheel and driving the damn bus we’re perpetuating the problem.  Which seems hypocritical, but then it’s mainly her money so what do I know?

Secondly, in complete contrast to the above, we can’t actually afford what I would like.  Whilst my pretence at socialist ideals suggests I’d be happy in a one-bed council flat, because that’s all we technically need, in reality I want an SE4 Victorian or Georgian five bedroom townhouse replete with original features, an expansive lawn and fireplaces in every room.  Alas, a million pounds we do not have, fortunately for my soul, but being somewhere in-between two bed prettiness and bigger 1930s terraces is creating tough decisions and they’re almost to big for logic, the amounts of money involved too huge for rationality so we’re forced to be governed by our hearts.  We’re highly unlikely to find the stuff of our dreams and so with every property we weigh the pros and cons and if the former smother the later, we gee ourselves up into getting excited by it, flaws and all.  We’re evangelical about the good points and brush the failings aside to manipulate our hearts into that emotional rush and convince ourselves that a lifetime of debt won’t be so hard.

And then something goes wrong and we don’t get to buy it after all.  False heartbreak still knocks the breath out of you.

On Saturday, in-between further property wooing, we took to the streets in protest.  Following South London Healthcare’s financial implosion last year, advisors have submitted their recommendations to Jeremy Hunt, the new Health Secretary and former Murdoch lapdog.  A minister who has described his proudest achievement as an MP to be “saving his local A&E”, Hunt’s specialism seems to be looking after himself.  The proposals suggest breaking up SLH, which was only formed in 2010, back into separate hospitals and giving them to other, nearby NHS Trusts to manage.  Lewisham Hospital will take over the running of Woolwich Hospital, although to do so it must close its own A&E facility (which only opened last year following a £9million refit) and alongside it dependant services like the highly regarded maternity unit.

This is, by necessity of brevity, a condensation of the arguments and I recommend you toread the information yourself to make a decision, but essentially it reads like this:  functioning, financially stable Trust bails out neighbour at the cost of local services.

Lewisham management supports the merger, despite the risk of going down with the sinking ship, but not the cutting of service provision.  Depending on who you listen to, the numbers either make sense or they don’t.  Stats, you can make them say what you like.  Clinical leads suggest that it will lead to reduced provision for the local populace, which it almost certainly will, given that Woolwich is an hour away by a sequence of unreliable buses, but from our side of Lewisham you could always self-present to King’s in Camberwell and besides the national Medical Director, Sir Bruce Keogh, disagrees. 

It doesn’t really matter.  The point is, it just feels wrong.  It’s an emotional reaction, an – in many ways – irrational reaction but easily justifiable.  After all, there’s nothing more human than being concern about our health, is there?  And 25,000 other people thought so too as we tooted and whistled and brandished banners in the cool, bright afternoon air heading from Lewisham centre to Mountsfield Park.  Local children wore labels declaring them to be a Lewisham baby – some of the last.  It’s an emotive issue; it can’t help but be otherwise.  Hunt, however, appears immune to the human factor.  He rises above it, accepts the recommendations and passes them to the watchdog for approval and implementation.  With some minor tweaks the proposal will go through and thousands of people – me included – will fail to grasp or even care about the logic behind it because we all trust our heart above everything else. 

Thursday, 24 January 2013


Collecting; I guess it’s a man thing.

When I first moved to London my then-girlfriend interned on Sundays, as a gallery receptionist, which left me to amuse myself for the day.  Whilst many people reserved Sundays for lazing around their flats watching formula one racing and soap opera omnibuses on oversized television sets and dozing off their hang-over, I was more interested in getting to grips with the city and so I’d invariably head into town.  I’d justify it to myself by claiming it was to get a better idea of what London had to offer, not quite getting yet that the more exciting bits of the city were on the edges, but really it was also because with a newly disposable income I could buy stuff, if I wanted.

Consequently, I spent many Sunday afternoons trawling up and down Berwick Street in Soho, nipping in and out of the many different record shops, browsing through the tabletops of the street sellers around Newport Court and occasionally heading up to HMV on Oxford Street.  Remember, this is 2001 before iTunes became mass-market and so the stores were full of equally earnest men in their twenties and thirties doing exactly the same thing, many of them glancing at their mobile phones when they rang, ignoring their girlfriends or wives declaring that they were done in TopShop and heading to Mango, or wherever. 

That was how consumerist capitalism had worked for a couple of generations.  We shopped to support the economy.  Women shopped for clothes, make-up and pretty things.  Men for music and books.  Broadly speaking.  And the experience could be, generally, replicated around the country.  High Streets were universal, even if they didn’t – don’t – have exactly the same stores there were core brand types which allowed the rest to build upon them.  Now the high street is self-imploding and we see Comet, Jessops, HMV and Blockbusters (who I was really surprised to see still existing) fold and join the others who have gone over the past few years to the great Woolworths in the sky, the a businessrecovery firm say they have a list of 140 retailers who are vulnerable.  Whilst it’s not fun to second-guess who is going to go out of business, people like WH Smiths must be particularly worried.  Who else?  Waterstones? Dixons? PC World?  Fashion seems, peculiarly, immune as though the vagaries of size and fabric require things to be seen first, ASOS aside, but everything us is potentially up for grabs.

My instinct is to support local businesses, small shops over national chains.  Back in those days trawling Soho streets I would only head to HMV if I was seeking something specific, but then I was privileged enough to have a choice.  As the chains collapse, they are not being replaced by local versions of the same.  Instead, according to the Observer, they’re taken over in the main by Poundland and other discount stores.  My own uber-local high street in Brockley seems to be teetering along on the edge.  On one hand in the past year the following have all opened up and seem to be making a success of it: a trendy cafe-diner, a cake shop (specialising in cupcakes for God’s sake), a cocktail bar, an excellent restaurant, an different eatery, an talian, resurrected from beyond the grave, an extraordinarily expensive childrens shoe shop and a women’s fashion store.  Old hands like the motor-spares place, the refurbished kitchen appliance store and the hardware store all stagger on and yet the wine merchants and another bar look at risk (one due to a scaling back of a small business, the other due to cash flow crisis in a parent company), the Tesco-metro planning application for the site where the old building “fell down” overnight has been rejected and the jerk chicken take-away has closed down yet again, this time with the possibility of yet another estate agent moving in.  The local news website frequently descends into arguments about Brockley needing to scrub itself up, needing more of the new places and less of the old hands.  More social high street experiences; less places to buy actual stuff, more places to sit around with your MacBook Air buying things of the internet.  I use a lot of older stores, although not on a regular basis, and I like having them there; at the same time I like having a choice of a dozen places to go for coffee, even if I equally rarely use them. 

My point has always been that shops, like any business, stand and fall by the diversity of people.  Just because certain locals don’t want, for example, a fried chicken shop or a garage nearby because they don’t drive or eat cheap takeaway food doesn’t mean that those establishments should be closed down and moved on.  If sufficient people use them to make them economically viable then they should be allowed to stay.  At a bigger level that’s what happened to HMV and all the others, which I understand at an intellectual level, but it still feels disheartening.

In almost of all of the failed big chain stores there’s been threat from the internet, changing technology and changing fashion which they failed to take advantage of or even recognise before it was too late.  Clinton Cards specialised in selling cheap, not terribly nice gift cards.  A rise in smaller stores selling nicer, better designed or funnier cards, plus online services such as funkypigeon or people simply not bothering to post cards anymore, preferring to send an email saw Clinton’s death.  What could they have done?  On online customised ordering service?  Stocked less tacky product?  Probably they were doomed anyway, but they could have tried harder than simply covering eyes and wailing

Jessops were apparently killed off by professionals going to cheaper online services and everyone else just using their camera phone.  And yet on a snowy afternoon on Hilly Fields every bugger and their dog is brandishing an single lens reflex with a lens so long it bows under its own weight.  Either Brockley has a disproportionate number of professional photographers or that argument isn’t quite right.

HMV is the big d’oh moment, as everyone’s noticed.  Apparently it regarded downloadable music as a fad as late as 2003 and was fearful of getting into mail-order after a fail in the nineties.  Plus it was always expensive – I haven’t paid over eight pounds for a CD in years and I’ve never ordered one online nor used a supermarket which means fifteen pounds for an album was just a rip-off.  In the end, it has basically committed commercial hari-kari, only without any pretence at nobility. 

Online retailers, obviously, have a lot to answer for.  Aside from the tax dodging which takes money out the British system, long-term potentially damaging every public service, or seeing an increase in direct taxation on us, am I the only one who finds online ordering less convenient?  Okay, so I live in the country’s largest city giving me greater access to shops which typically stay open longer, but can we really order everything through the post?  I’m not allowed to get personal parcels delivered to work – they will, apparently be turned away – and our Victorian door’s tiny letter box means anything larger than an utility bill needs to be collected from the local sorting office on a Saturday morning, the site of which is up for sale with planning permission for a mixed use unit on it.  Another supermarket with a gym on the first floor and then two stories of tiny flats above.  Probably.  I ordered the computer I’m writing this on online direct from Dell.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  I scheduled a delivery date, booked a day’s annual leave to receive it – not wanting a computer to be left with a neighbour – and it turned up a day early.  Fortunately, my girlfriend was working from home, but still: Is this hassle really more convenient, better value than walking to a shop, talking to a real person and coming away with what you want there and then?

Over the past year I have, with reluctance, begun to digitalise my music deciding that it is preferable to the one-in, one-out book policy my girlfriend still seems keen to enforce and so I’m slowly burning several hundred albums onto the computer – although what happens when the back up as well as the actual computer inevitably fails, either because the hard-drive’s memory is too old or a data storage error in the cloud occurs remains to be seen – and either replacing old tapes or buying new music as downloads.  I concede the immediacy of it, buying that moment and listen the next, is satisfying (if also financially dangerous), but it takes away a lot of the fun.

Back in those days lurking along Berwick Street – and before then at Sheffield in Broomhill’s Record Collector or the second hand CD marts they held in the student union – I wasn’t just buying for the sake of it, I was hunting.  I was collecting.  I would have in my head a list of new music I was interested in but also a much longer list of older music I’d heard good things about, that I wanted to get into, but didn’t want to either buy new or pay full price for.  The fun was in the searching around for an unusual record, say the United States of America’s debut album which I never did find at an affordable price, and then the triumph of actually discovering something utterly unexpected.  Search terms on iTunes don’t have a ”surprise me” option.  Okay, so the “shuffle” function can be a little exciting for playback, but instant purchase gratification doesn’t replace the pleasure of the hunt, the satisfaction in years of effort resolved, the tension and excitement of the journey home.  Only real music – or whatever your collecting fetish is – bores have a nostalgia for being sneered out in a  High Fidelity type, too cool to be actually helpful, but, surely, everyone loves the thrill of wondering whether this will finally be the day you find it.

I can envisage a future where the world is streamed to our at-home offices, squeezed into the corner of ever-smaller flats.  A time when we only go out once week, stuttering, bleary-eyed in the sunshine to scrounge an overpriced chocolate brownie in a destination cafe, only to find that all thirty such establishments, within ten minutes of your media hub, have sold out.  Again.  So you trudge home again, dejected, back to your horrible, isolated life glad that at least online consumption of materials to keep our economy afloat give you more time to watch cat videos on YouTube.

See it, want it, buy it, use it, discard it could pretty much serve as a metaphor for why we’re all in the shit we’re surrounded by.

That’s why I prefer second-hand book shops to even nicely run independent ones.  Yes, I try to support the couple of local book shops around this immediate corner of South East London, but I tend to only buy new if I want something specific – and as a general rule, if it’s part of a mission I’ll go to Foyles or the London Review of Books as they’re more reliable.  But if I go into a second hand shop it’s purely to browse and maybe buy; it might offer things I didn’t know I wanted as I crossed the threshold.

Bit like life, really.



Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Going Underground – being a celebration of 150 years travelling by Tube.

‘Erm, Jubilee, Northern – Charing Cross branch – Bakerloo aaaanndd...’ The train rattled through the darkness then peaked out into the neon light as though to offer her inspiration: ‘Waterloo and City!’

‘Correct,’ he replied. 

‘Okay, your turn.’  There was a moment’s pause.  ‘Oo, West Ham?’

They seemed to be entertaining themselves on some long tube journey, perhaps as many as eight stops without a change, possibly from Green Park to the western wild lands of Hammersmith.  Testing each other on which lines interchange at different tube stations is not strange.  Well maybe it is a little.  Every Londoner does it, even if they don’t consciously make it a point-scoring game, they’ll do it, a little bit, in their heads.  For those of us who have moved to the city, having innate underground knowledge, navigating around efficiently without having to consult the map as you whizz into the station, helps you feel as though London is accepting you.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Tube.  I suspect everybody does and always has done, ever since the Metropolitan Line first opened up in 1863.  Those earliest days brightened up the city from the rat warrens of vice, crime and dubious sanitation where only a generation earlier arming yourself before strolling in Regent’s Park was common practice.  From the slums of Whitechapel and the affluence of Notting Hill and Marylebone it became feasible to commute down from the village of Willesden; the city opened its arms and the scum flooded out and only to come back with the commencement of the working day. 

The early cut and cover lines were designed as extensions of the existing novelty railways into the city, springing out from termini at Paddington, Waterloo, London Bridge, Bishopsgate (now moved slightly down the road to Liverpool Street) and Fenchurch Street.  They were mainly operated by the railway companies in a case of Byzantine confusingly inconsistent pricing and lack of cooperation until comparatively late in the twentieth century and so they, logically, ran their existing steam powered rolling stock.  The tunnels were fugged with the discharged soot and grime making the complaints about today’s claustrophobia and dirt seem ridiculous.  Pharmacists and apothecaries made small fortunes prescribing nerve tonics to help ladies cope with the mess and having to mix with the lower classes as the crowds of urchins pushed up against them.

These days whilst you’ll easily see a rat scurrying between the electric lines the platforms are usually immaculately clean and so are the train interiors.  The instances where someone, late at night, has discarded the remnants of their McDonalds on the neighbouring seat stand out because they are few and far between.  Most of us understand that in order to survive down there, we need to work together.  This collaborative effort lends the Tube a certain romance.  Sure, striking up conversation with another passenger will get you worried looks and there is little pleasure to be had crammed against someone’s sweaty back in a July rush hour, but the sense of being able to go anywhere, of drifting underneath the city, of being conveyed through its self is undeniable.  How can anyone be totally cynical about a system which was originally designed so that illiterate working-class travellers would recognise their home station by its own unique design?  Some of the tiling is obviously modern – the patterned black on red leaves at Green Park, for example, or the etched silhouettes at Baker Street - but look at many of the coloured patterns, especially on the Leslie Green designed Piccadilly, Bakerloo and Northern Lines; they’re all different.

The network built up steadily through the Victorian period.   Lines were added and extended North of the river interlinking disparate villages formerly independent of the city with factories burning along the Thames, government and finance.  The East London line took over Brunel’s foot-tunnel between Wapping and Rotherhithe converting it for rails and became the first to cross – or rather to go under the Thames – linking the East End with New Cross.   It’s former life as a pleasure stroll explains the insanely narrow platforms at most of the older stations, something which I’d ceased to notice until I tried to take my bike on the train late on a summer’s night only to discover that it didn’t fit across the platform.  Getting through the doors was a challenge.  Forays south were scarce, though the District built a bridge to get down to affluent Wimbledon, the Northern, less enthusiastically, headed to less affluent Elephant and Castle and then down, and out further all the way to Morden via Clapham and Tooting, but that was about it. 

Slowly the system began to find its way into popular culture, and although Sherlock Holmes always preferred a Hansom Cab, fiction has loved the underground world and metaphorical potential of the tube.  Neil Gaiman was a bit cackhanded with Neverwhere’s notion of a fantasy alternative reality (an Earl and a Baron sitting in court in West London, an actual Angel underneath Islington, woo, spooky), but Tobias Hill’s Underground showed the rhythm of the trains trundling under our feet as the city’s pulse and the interconnection for people from all the diverse glory London has to offer at least reflects how life really works.

Everything about it is iconic; from the red tiled buildings dotted around the city, to the green arched balustrades marking entrances around the centre, at Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, the red and blue circle on a white background the majesty of Harry Beck’s linear design map, even if it does move central London several miles to the north-west making people think I live in Kent.

When I first came to London, I shunned the Tube.  Brockley didn’t receive the East London line extension until 2010 and whilst New Cross had recently become better integrated by the Jubilee Line meeting at Canada Water, if I wanted to go into the centre of town a direct over-ground train to Charing Cross and then to walk made more sense.   My first office was in Docklands, which meant using the Tube’s sibling, the one it is slightly embarrassed of: the Docklands Light Railway, riding the driverless trains from Deptford Bridge to Crossharbour, getting off before the picture perfect future of Canary Wharf.  The advantage of not travelling everywhere in the dark was that I came to understand how the city fit together and didn’t, unlike many of my fellow early twenties immigrants, start evenings out with rendezvous points in station foyers or get the tube from Leicester Square to Holborn to walk halfway back into Covent Garden.  I only used it when it made sense; I wasn’t beholden to it and yet I still felt like a poor, disadvantaged cousin consigned to the Lewisham wilderness.

In the early noughties wannabe anarchist group Space Hijackers ran parties on the Circle line, back when you could still drink on London public transport and when the Circle Line was actually a circle.  These days the revised track layout mean that termini exist at Hammersmith and Edgeware Road and whilst the points are probably still there to make it technically possibly to while away a broke afternoon going round and round people spotting, none of the trains do.  It’s all stop-start in the twenty-first century.   The parties were fun though, not least for their novelty but also because they worked a bit like an adult version of musical chairs.  Party whilst the music played in the tunnels act as nonchalant as possible in the silent light of the stations even if party popper streams are hanging from your hair.

Slowly, over the years, from the ornate globes which track the escalators at St John’s Wood, to the bleak dystopian future of Westminster, drunken decisions at Camden as to which of the two southbound platforms would be the best bet, racing the lifts down the Caledonian Road stairs, the wind funnel at Maida Vale that whips down the stairs and across the foyer like the arctic trying to calm hell down and the near-mythic status of Mornington Crescent, a station at which few trains stop with little purpose and the name of a game with no rules or reality - the Tube nestled into my subconscious; as it does with everyone who lives here.  There’s a reason why the jacket to Craig Thompson’s superb oral history, Londoners, wraps itself it the colours of the different lines; it binds us together.  It helps us meet people, to see all of life, including that which we don’t necessarily want to see, like Kim Wilde drunkenly singing to a select and only mildly interested audience.

Regular readers of this blog will know my penchant for dropping in snippets of overheard conversations, from people’s sex lives, to heading to New Cross to “re-up” your drugs stash, people breaking up and making up, cutting business deals, a solicitor declining to meet a pro-bono client at a police station because he had theatre tickets on his anniversary, from the drunks to the weirdoes, from those in a mess to those being unbearably smug, I miss hearing London living around me now that I cycle to work.  I’m sure on many occasions I have been one of those people myself, but one incident sticks in my mind.  I was running late for a business meeting, this would have been about 2005 back when I still had business meetings.  I think I was changing from the Piccadilly Line to the Northern at King’s Cross which is a quick clatter down the escalator, especially if you can hear the train in the station, and swing out onto the platform.  As I darted through the corridor, I heard the beeps signalling that the doors were about to shut.  Without thinking I leapt and, feeling the breath of the doors whisper at the back of my neck, landed in the middle of the carriage, grabbed the silver upright to steady myself and somehow made spinning around it seem deliberate.  I stopped and straightened my suit jacket.

“Wow,” exclaimed a small boy who I may well have winked at.  “It’s James Bond!”

I tried that again the other week.  It didn’t work out so well. For my trouble I got a sore chin and the echo of customers being reminded that the doors will close at the sound of the beeps as my head rattled.

One of my favourite things about the Tube are the little, surreal, incidental details.  The genius that was the magazine Smoke highlighted in its, I think, first issue on the mysterious Caution, Void Behind sign on a door, as though on the other side lurked a gigantic Jack Kirby imagined vortex into a microverse.  Open the door and a black infinite space, with just the tiniest hints of golden life on its periphery, step inside and be cascaded inside out. 

Embankment station, on the District and Circle line platforms, has doors marked Private Rod, as though a Underground super-enforcer sleeps waiting for a time when he must be awoken and set to work.  “Quick,” they yell, “send for Private Rod.  And Major Charles too.” 

On the Victoria Line platform at King’s Cross there’s a letter box marked “London Underground employees only” as though drivers trapped on the Walthamstow-Brixton shuffle needing to communicate with a loved one manning the ticket office at Pudding Mill Lane, might leap out and deposit a few hastily scrawled lines sealed with a kiss in its box to be distributed through the system by a special train once the passenger services have closed down for the evening.

We think of the Tube as a static, Victorian system, but in reality it is organic, growing and shifting as the city needs.  There is  a small map on our kitchen wall of the network in times gone by, most noticeable are the complete absence of the Victorian line, churned out in the seventies by, amongst others, my girlfriend’s father, and now home to the speediest trains on the network able to gather pace due to the express-like distances between stops.  The old Finsbury Park Northern line branch-line is still there but now operated by Hertfordshire bound services on their way to Moor Street, but you can still drop underground to pick up the Over-ground at some of the stops.  The Jubilee Line terminates at Charing Cross rather than cutting eastwards to Stratford, briefly dipping south of the river and taking in the – then – new Docklands developments.  The old station at Charing Cross is used for training, filming and – bizarrely – busker auditions, as though every facet of music is now owned by Simon Cowell.  The East London line has now been extended South to Croydon, north to Highbury and just the other week West to Clapham via Peckham making Brockley no longer isolated – and corresponding no longer cheap at the time when we’re trying to buy a house; the Tube, it can be a fucker at times.

In New York, the films of the seventies and eighties, the comics I read as a child depicted the subway as a nightmare environment scrawled with gang tags and happy, public knife-point muggings an inevitability.  Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire ofthe Vanities tells of an eighties city divided in two between the haves and the have-nots.  His use of the Subway juxtaposes the two classes, exaggerated by the haves fear for being there in the first place. The Tube has never quite been that bad, although one presumes there’s a degree of truth behind The Jam’s Down In A Tube Station At Midnight describing those who smell of pubs and wormwood scrubs taking the hapless commuter’s money and takeaway curry for themselves.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve only felt sort of threatened on the Tube once.  

It was years ago, as I flew up the Northern Line from London Bridge to Tufnell Park.  We went through Camden and for early on a Saturday evening the train was strangely quiet.  Indeed I was the only passenger in the carriage but I could hear him coming down the train.  He crashed and banged his way between the carriages – which you never see on the underground, people just stay put – a late middle-aged man, probably late fifties, maybe younger and aged by life too hard, in a black suit, with a light grey shirt, open half-way down his chest, and bright white trainers.  His hair was wild and his stubble patchy, he swore violently and incoherently under his breath, spit flung from between his teeth as he passed by.  The door out of the carriage was locked – or at least beyond his ability to open it.  He kicked it passively a couple of times and let out a wail of resignation, before flipping back to furious, turning and punching the clear plastic divide normally used for the mildly tipsy to prevent themselves from slipping on top of seated passengers.  Then he stormed back up to the middle of the carriage and, despite the plethora of empty seats, chose to sit down next to me, still swearing and spitting.  I tried to pretend I was happy reading my book.  He fumbled around inside his jacket’s pockets before producing an enormous spliff.  My memory may be distorting things, but it insists it was a good six inches plus of packed reefer which he, but of course, lit.  The carriage quickly filled with sweet fluffy smoke, almost with an aniseed hint, then he suddenly turned and grabbed my forearm. His eyes were bloodshot and frantic, his upper lip curled and whilst I believe he was going to tell me something rather than headbutt me, his grip was firm.  At that moment we swooshed into Kentish Town, the doors opened and he yelled “Fuck-Monkeys” before leaping to his feet and darting off the train.

And he was gone.  Just another fleeting London encounter with no explanation, no repercussion and no real point like the bald, tubby and naked man a friend of mine saw last year running through Leicester Square, looking from side to side, frantically, as security staff failed to catch him.  “Ribbet!  Ribbet!” he appeared to be yelling before disappearing off down the tunnel.  My friend shrugged and headed back up into the light.  That’s another good thing about the Tube: when it goes wrong, there’s always the bus.

 “West Ham? Erm Jubilee?  District, Hammersmith and City.”  We rolled into a station, the doors bleeped open and a world moved around happy in its own business shrouded in the familiar reassurance to mind the gap.  “And the DLR.  Yes!”

And off we all rumbled back into the darkness.