I consider myself a pretty fortunate Londoner. My daily commute is usually wonderfully straightforward; a nice hour long sit on a big red London bus from one end of its route to the other. A whole hour to read, do a little pre-work work, listen to music or just quietly people-watch as central London passes the window. Yesterday, however, I spent almost five hours traveling to and from work, via a multitude of methods, thanks to the ongoing Tube driver strike. For 48 hours, under the watchful, thug-like eye of union leader Bob Crow, the majority of London's Underground train drivers formed picket lines at stations and watched as the city's commuters struggled to find alternative ways into work.
A tube strike? Why should that disrupt my peaceful bus route you might ask. Well, all those displaced tube riders have to go somewhere. That somewhere is apparently the road; London's streets have been grid-locked for the past two days. In return for the lack of tube trains, 8000 extra buses trundled along the city's roads, along with extra cars and motorbikes. A large number of bicycles seemed to have appeared as well, dusted off from garages. Even some of those little scooters which seemed like a good idea at the time, were used once, and after the odd scraped elbow were swiftly abandoned, reappeared. Traffic has not moved that slowly since the days when people travelled in carts powered by lethargic oxen.
Longer travel times I can deal with. It merely means more time for me to read and not be at work; not exactly what I'd call a hardship. I have the tube strike to thank for having finished reading two whole books (ok, not exactly very high-brow ones. Oh, fine, they were downright low-brow; I've succumbed to the Twilight series. I can't get enough of teenage vampire angst at the moment.) What I found more disturbing than anything was the shock of quite how many people live in London.
All the people who normally move about the city beneath it are now in my over-realm. And there are masses of them! They are waiting at my bus stops and walking down my pavements, sitting in my seat on the No. 14 bus. Waiting on Piccadilly yesterday afternoon I stood surrounded by confused travellers, and I felt their panic. Workers were anxious and twitchy, frantic even. They knew where they needed to be and the route they could take to get there, but they were unable to make the journey. A journey they make twice a day without even looking up from their newspapers, let alone considering alternative transport options. It was a strange feeling to feel that the city was suddenly so full; like a block of flats where everyone who lives on the third floor suddenly has to move in with the people on the second floor.
London is a city of many levels, like an ancient Greek mythological world. We should pay heed to the oft hidden underworld which plays a crucial role in the running of our city. The Underground transport system, electricity cable tunnels, gas pipes, water pipes; at one time even our mail moved beneath our city. Funny how it always takes something breaking to make you realise its value.
As a little postscript to this tale of truly torpid transport, I shall describe my struggle home on Wednesday evening, to demonstrate the ridiculous farce that was, I ferevently hope, Crow's last stand. I left work early, anticipating trouble after a sluggish trip in the morning, and walked the first third of my journey. This was mistake number one - the further along the bus route I walked the fuller the buses were by the time they reached each stop. Along with much of Piccadilly I awaited a bus going in the right direction, and finally crammed on to it in conditions in which a sardine would have got claustrophobia. The bus, suspension groaning with its excess load, headed for west London. It may finally have got there. I know not, as the snail-like inching drove me so insane I eventually got off and started to walk home. I got as far as Fulham Broadway. Here comes the most gloriously ridiculous part of it all. Ready? And then I got on a tube and went home. Yep, you read that right. I got on the tube. During the tube strike. It ran beautifully, I got a seat, and it was wonderfully fast. Despite protestations to the contrary, 9 of our 11 underground lines ran throughout the strike, rebel tube drivers at the helm. And boy, was I grateful to them, and their wonderfully half-hearted approach to striking. You do have to admire the British feeling, which may well be their downfall, that even when taking a drastic stand, someone should be making sure we all get home to watch Eastenders.