Nice idea Boris, but I think I’ll take the tube..

Three months ago when I started my current job in London Bridge it crossed my mind I should consider cycling to work. Not only would it be a good way to fit in some extra exercise, it would also mean avoiding the horrifically busy Northern line in the mornings, which surely had to be a bonus? I wasn’t all that keen on turning up at work drenched in sweat and having to get changed, but thought that ultimately the benefits would outweigh the costs.

But then I started watching people cycling out of Clapham in the mornings, and observed them in their droves when I arrived at London Bridge. And I became hyper sensitive of all the news stories involving cycling accidents. And then I remembered that two of my good friends have had accidents on their bikes in the past two years – one serious, which would have almost certainly killed him had he not been wearing a helmet (which was cleaved in two by the impact – horrific).

Whilst the idea of cycling to and from work and avoiding public transport does appeal (well done on the PR Boris), I’m ultimately not prepared to run (or cycle) the gauntlet when it comes to my safety. I’m the first to admit my road sense isn’t great (when I was nine I cycled around a roundabout the wrong way and nearly gave my mum a heart attack, and whilst I’d like to say I’ve got better since I might just be lying), but even if I was a savvy cyclist it’s the others on the road that are the main danger.

The sheer volume of cyclists on London’s roads during rush hour is terrifying, not to mention the gung ho way in which many of them behave. Only this morning when the pedestrian light was green and I began to cross one cyclist shot right through and nearly knocked me over. Though that’s not to say it’s always the cyclists who behave badly. Car and lorry drivers often exhibit such a flagrant disregard for the lives of cyclists and motorcyclists when driving around London that it’s hardly surprising so many people get knocked off their bikes each year.

On balance, therefore, I’ve decided to stick to the tube for the time being. As much as I hate being face to armpit in a sweaty train carriage, I can at least be confident my brains will stay in my head instead of being splattered on the pavement due to a moment’s carelessness.

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How to cope in the age of commuter rage

When I left London to go travelling in 2007 I was at the end of my tether with the rudeness of people on my daily commute. I genuinely feared one day I’d snap and scream in someone’s face, and it was the day I finally felt that fear about to become a reality that I knew I had to get away for my sanity’s sake.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this city dearly but it never ceases to amaze me how normally civilised people can become ruthless savages the second they step onto the northern line in morning rush hour. Though I’ve never seen a fight I have heard tales of suited businessmen coming to blows over perceived acts of rudeness, and the sighs and grimaces of people who refuse to move down the carriage to let you on when there is patently room because they’d frankly rather have the space to read is an experience I’m certain we’ve all shared at one time or another.

Similarly, there are the people who push and shove and rant and rave when there clearly is no space, and their getting on the train will most likely mean at least one person suffocating to death in their sweaty armpit. But why should they care? They’ve got to get to work, because being so much as five minutes late would obviously be completely unacceptable.

I have seen occasional acts of kindness on the tube-indeed once a man who was well over six feet tall fainted on top of me on the Piccadilly line on a particularly hot day and I myself became a Good Samaritan, shouting for water and asking people to step back and give him air-but on the whole the daily commute is an ‘each to their own’ affair that is to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Take yesterday’s tube journey home as an example. Me and another girl were standing equidistant from a seat when the occupant stood up to disembark at the next station. I felt her body go rigid, and my own do the same in response. This was all out war, and there could be only one victor. But just as I braced myself for the pushing, the shoving and the glaring that would ensue when I beat her to the seat (as I surely would) I stopped and asked myself why it was so important to me to win the seat. After all, I was only going a few stops. If she wanted it so badly-as her reddening cheeks proclaimed she did-couldn’t I just let her have it? And so I did. And I got more satisfaction from that gesture than I ever would have in winning the seat.

So what’s the moral of my story? Perhaps that every now and then it’s good to take a step back from the madness of the morning or evening commute and make a conscious effort to be nice to a fellow commuter instead of automatically scowling at them. Give it a try-you might just like it.

Sticks and stones

Another false start on the finding-mindfulness-on-the-morning-commute front today, when a Daily Mirror-reading (says it all?) suited businessman took umbrage at my claiming a vacant seat he’d deemed to be his and spat the word “Bitch” in my face to vocalise his distaste.

Fortunately my recent mindfulness teachings have, if nothing else, shown me the correct way to respond to such an insult is not to retaliate by shouting “Wanker!” in his face to see how he likes it (as my old self would have found it hard not to do), but rather to take the higher ground, smile serenely and turn away – which, as it turns out, serves to infuriates such people even more.

Now I’m not sexist, but the fact I was not only a woman but a rather unwell one at that (my horrible cough being testament to this fact) would, in most people’s books, be enough to qualify my right to the seat – and that’s without taking into account the fact I was standing right next to the seat in question whereas he was standing beside it. In the world of tube train etiquette surely no one would dispute it was I, therefore, who held the commuter right of way?

Then we have the insult itself. That this man (at least 15 years my senior, I would guess, but nonetheless perfectly able to stand for the duration of his journey) allowed himself to be so riled by a 31 year old plague victim having the audacity to sit in a vacant seat right in front of her is ludicrous enough – but to call me a bitch for doing so? Dog analogies aside (I doubt he’d see the irony of dogs never requiring seats on the tube-if only I’d thought to ask him at the time), the word bitch implies – to my mind at least – some degree of malice. How he could have perceived me as malicious for being equally as keen to sit down on my journey to work as him I simply cannot fathom.

But enough about this sad little man and his misplaced anger – he’s had more airtime than he deserves already. Let him walk around in a rage against the world, because in the end the only person he’s hurting is himself.

The happiness quota

On the way home from work today I was ruminating on the idea of having a personal happiness quota. If such a thing exists I’ve already moved considerably further towards the top end of mine by changing jobs and taking the decision to reduce my working week to four days a week (even if it does mean less money coming in – though maybe best to reserve this particular declaration of happiness until after my first pay cheque’s cleared).

Another way I’ve increased my happiness rating over the past few years has been through incorporating competitive exercise into my routine (not that you’d know it if you’d been watching me over the past week, slovenliness having set in a little in the wake of my last race). And over the past couple of days I’ve managed to crank the score up further still by signing up to the Take Ten programme by Headspace, a daily ten minute guided meditation which already has me feeling more calm and in control of my life.

So, you may ask, if everything’s going so well what’s stopping me from hitting the top rung of the happiness ladder? I’ll tell you what: My commute. After months of travelling to work on the new extended overland train to Shoreditch I’d almost forgotten the trauma that is the Northern line in rush hour. Now I’m working in London Bridge, however, it’s proving unavoidable.

There’s are few things worse than spending the 20 minutes before reaching the office and the 20 minutes after leaving it face-in-armpit with a total stranger – especially now it’s nearing summertime when the airless tubes turn into human microwaves (readers of my old blog may remember the time a six foot four inch giant fainted ON TOP OF ME at the end of a packed tube carriage on the hottest day in summer – NEVER AGAIN).

If I’m to avoid a summer of discontent it’s becoming patently obvious I’m going to have to find an alternative way to cover the four odd miles from Clapham to London Bridge. And the obvious solution is to get on my bike and cycle there. Not only will it keep me fit (possibly negating the need for a new gym membership?), it will also save me considerable money on the cost of tube fare. So what’s stopping me from getting on and doing it? The fear of becoming a statistic after having an unfortunate collision with a lorry, that’s what. I know you shouldn’t live your life thinking ‘what if,’ but when it comes to road sense I’m woefully lacking – at nine years old I cycled round a roundabout the wrong way, nearly giving my parents a heart attack in the process.

All of which leaves me in quite the dilemma: Do I face my fear and cycle or face a summer of discontent on a smelly tube train? I think I know what you’re all saying: Get on your bike! Right? Right. Now where did I put that pump?

This was taken during my triathlon last September – incidentally (and shamefully) also the last time I did actually get on my bike…

People should smile more

As I write this I’m listening to a song by one of my favourite flame-haired gentlemen (besides my boyfriend, obviously): Newton Faulkner. It is entitled “People should smile more.” And as I listen I recall a slightly bizarre incident on the tube yesterday as I travelled home from work, in which I sat down opposite a strange-looking girl with a wide-eyed expression and wild frizzy hair. She was wearing an outfit that can only accurately be described as looking like an eighties wardrobe had thrown up on itself; a multi-coloured neon array of leggings, leg warmers, cable knits and a plethora of other materials whose name I couldn’t even hazard a guess at. But by far the strangest thing about her was her smile. It wasn’t any old smile – oh no. This was the smile of a crazy person; an unselfconscious, maniacal nod to every poor incarcerated loon across the land. And, most disconcertingly of all, this smile was aimed directly at me.

At first I thought perhaps I had some loo roll dangling from my shoe. Or, worse still, perhaps my skirt was tucked into my knickers and I’d walked the whole way from the office to the tube baring my bum to the world. But no, a quick scan of my outfit told me neither of these was a possibility. My eyes darted left to right, engaging in a weird tango with hers as I desperately tried to avoid her terrifying gaze. But the more I tried to look away the more I was drawn into the bizarre interaction. Suddenly our eyes locked, and I was at once both trapped and powerless. Her pupils dilated and her grin widened into the Joker’s from Batman (or at least that’s how it seemed to me as I cowered in my seat). Then, to my horror, she rose up from her seat like some kind of ghoul and leaned in towards me. Just as I thought I might pass out with fear she said four words to me. And then, just like that (and not unlike the devil in The Usual Suspects), she was gone.

What were those four sinister words? “I like your bag.”

Maybe people should smile more after all.

What better accompanying image could there be for this post than a recent snap of me and my two gorgeous best friends? Check out those megawatt smiles – cheese!

Moment in time

It is half past eleven on the London underground; Oxford Circus, Victoria Line southbound.

A girl stands on the platform, her head swaying in unselfconscious appreciation of the rock music being delivered into her ears by her oversized headphones. She stoops to tie a lace in her steel toe-capped boots, pulls her multi-coloured knee socks up, yawns and wipes a heavily charcoaled eye with the back of a fingerless glove-clad hand, oblivious to those around her.

The train pulls into the platform. Unusually there’s no scrum as the doors open, most of the seats being already taken by tipsy revellers reluctant to miss the last easy way home. The girl walks down the carriage and stops in the middle. She grasps the hand rail and blows a bubble with her gum, thinking of her thesis and wondering if smoking a joint when she gets home will make tomorrow a literal write off.

To the girl’s right are a couple so deeply entrenched in one another’s oral cavities it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins. When they finally come up for air they entwine fingers and stare at one another with the intense longing of first love. The man mouths the three words his partner is aching to hear. She flushes scarlet and smiles a smile so dazzling her soul seems to shine right out of her cherubic face. She lays her blonde head on the man’s shoulder and they stare contentedly into the middle distance.

Beside the couple a boy is slumped in his seat, his head lolling forward in a comical fashion. He is wearing a baseball cap with NYC emblazoned across it, and his baggy jeans are so low slung the crotch almost drags on the floor. In his hand he clasps a takeaway box, the prize at the end of a long night. Though some are eyeing him with suspicion, no doubt mistaking him for a drunk, he’s just come off a double shift at work and is exhausted.

The doors beep and start to close, but not before the dreadlocked man who has been busking in the station for the past three hours manages to leap through them, guitar case in hand, prompting a mixture of tuts and nods of appreciation from his fellow passengers. He props the guitar case against the rail and starts to hum a melody, not for money but for his own unbridled pleasure.

Further along the carriage an elderly man is engaged in conversation with two bespectacled students, imparting his worldliness over the course of three tube stops. They watch him intently, rapt in his presence as their own worlds pale into insignificance in the shadow of the one he has seen. There is not, they all know, enough time to hear it all.

Opposite the students sits a girl, pale and drawn with tell-tale streaks of mascara running in rivulets down her cheeks. She knows she is a cliché, the archetypal jilted lover, but her heart feels close to breaking and she doesn’t care who sees the emotion etched across her face.

By the door in the middle of the carriage a drunk, middle-aged couple giggle like school children. The woman flicks her chestnut curls and pivots around the rail, prompting the man to grab her by the waist and prevent her from toppling over. She laughs, at once both wild and tamed.

At length the train pulls into the platform at Victoria. The girl with the headphones leaves first, confident now that she will smoke a joint when she reaches home. She is closely followed by the kissing couple, still smiling as if, in each other, they’ve discovered Utopia. Next the busker lifts his guitar case and exits the carriage with an easy hop. The students sigh and bid goodbye to their mentor who is, he tells them, will be staying to the end of the line. The jilted girl drifts through the doors ahead of the laughing couple, who stumble down the platform arm in arm, singing something unintelligible. As the doors begin to beep the boy with the takeaway box awakes. He leaps up and hurls himself through the closing gap in the nick of time, his takeaway box left behind like a casualty of war.

Off they go, into the night. Never will they meet again, but will forever be indelibly joined by that one moment in time.

Image

This is possibly my favourite picture from my travels. I took it from the rooftop of a hotel in Jaipur, India, and didn’t for a single moment think it would come out as well as it did. I think it perfectly signifies the frenetic rush of city living and, as such, is a suitable accompaniment to this post.