Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Commuting in London

Commuting gets Londoners riled up. Particularly during a tube strike. Everyone who works in the city has his or her own daily route, with its own series of challenges and changes - a personal assault course just to get to and from work. And the tiniest deviation from this well-trodden path can disrupt a commute. The current lack of tube trains has clogged roads, and unleashed a number of cyclists unused to doing battle with London's scary traffic. Twitter is awash with people complaining about having to *gasp* walk from one area of the city to another. It is commuting chaos.

Even without the pressure of a tube strike, Londoners revel in discussing and comparing their commutes: Who travels furthest? Who travels longest? Who can always get a seat on the bus? Who knows the right carriage to squeeze into so they can be first off the platform when their tube train pulls in to the next station? We spend so much time swapping relative hardships that it comes as a surprise to meet someone who truly enjoys their commute. Yet amongst the whingeing about roadworks and rail replacement bus services, there can be pleasing patterns and familiarity in this daily grind.


I am fortunate enough to be able to travel to work above ground (either by bus or by foot), rather than being stuck in a dark tunnel beneath the city. Yes, sometimes the bus is held up at a random stop for ten minutes, while other buses whizz past. And some mornings I am convinced the driver is attempting to break a record in cramming the greatest number of people into a single vehicle, as I travel to work squished into someone's armpit with the front of a buggy barking my shins. But if I look out of the window, things get more interesting.

I catch my bus near Holloway Prison. (Classy, eh?) As I wait at the bus stop however the big, blank prison building is hidden behind a church without a spire, which now serves as a community arts centre. Reggae aerobics is their latest exciting offering for the local community. The church has utilitarian-looking plain windows where colourful stained glass probably once hung. The traffic hurtles up from the Holloway Road, and finally here comes a 29 bus. Once our bus stop-ful of commuters is aboard, the bus begins its descent into Camden. As we slide from one postcode to another, tall residential blocks with viciously-pruned trees outside give way to stocky white terraces in various states of repair. 

Opposite the university housing development, students pile onto the bus, toting commuter-bashing portfolio folders and an occasional guitar. The bus rings with brash chatter about the events of the night before, as it whizzes past the Tesco garage forecourt. Someone has stolen some of the letters and numbers from the sign on the wall. The shop on the forecourt is apparently 'Open    ho   '. On the other side of the road is the skate park and synthetic football pitch which is always busy. And an incongruous German sportscar dealership which never is.  

The crossroads comes next, with its constant supply of road-rage and traffic accidents - a fatal one briefly commemorated by a white 'ghost bike' and some straggly plastic-wrapped bouquets. And then on we go into Camden proper, past the decrepit old garage and the Afro-Caribbean barbers (whose TV tends to show either niche sporting events - they loved the Winter Olympics - or cable quiz shows; even when the shop is closed). There is a sticker-covered skateshop, and a host of greasy spoons and newsagents.
Beneath the Camden Overground bridge we glide, the pie and mash shop that still sells jellied eels off to the right, and the dodgy-looking massage parlour to the left. Past the new-build apartments we continue over the bridge on the canal where a tiny blue house sits amidst dull modern apartment blocks. Half the bus hops off opposite the mega Sainsburys near the tube station, and we split away from the bustle of Camden Town. We speed down the nothing-y road parallel to the High Street, turning back onto the main thoroughfare by the Purple Turtle, avoiding tour buses and rigs disgorging roadies and speakers into the road outside the music venue, Koko.

Round the bend at Mornington Crescent tube station all the cool-looking people get off the bus and go to work selling clothes online in an Art Deco building with a fa├žade covered in black cats. The bus continues without them past the disused petrol station that Greenpeace once took over in protest of something or other. Next comes a derelict office building, recently used to host a Secret Cinema event.  As of a few weeks ago it seems to have become a campus offshoot of UCL. There is the Thistle Euston - a less welcoming hostelry I have not seen outside of downtown Third Worldsville - and a massive empty hospital covered in plants and pigeons and busted windows. Opposite stands the the Bengali Workers Association, a dodgy looking Chinese karaoke bar, and a bar that constantly changes hands yet somehow seems to maintain enough customers to reinvent itself over and over. And then, as we draw level with the Euston Saree Centre, someone will ring the bell and the recorded bus lady will announce "Warren Street station". Seconds later I am on my feet ready to hop off the bus and onto the massive mess of tarmac and tiles that is the revamped junction at Warren Street and the Euston Road. I disembark beneath a new skyscraper bearing a piece of art featuring an incongruous chicken, and the hideous, towering blocks from the '70s.

I navigate the hellish junction, cars, buses and motorbikes screaming past, and reach the relative safety of the Tottenham Court Road outside UCH's hospital dining room. Inside, tired-looking staff in scrubs and Crocs sip blankly from Costa coffee cups and shovel down huge cooked breakfasts. I continue southwards, past the office with the water feature that falls to nowhere, and cross the street avoiding the scrum outside Warren Street tube station, under the soulful gaze of the munchers in McDonalds, hunched over their egg McMuffins. I swing off onto a side street, and walk slowly past Sardos', notable for its excellent Sardinian food and the enormous cat who sleeps on the wineglass-strewn tables after the evening shift. Cardboard trays of vegetables are often stacked around the snoozing cat, waiting to be turned into vegetali misti alli griglia. Sometimes I stop and grab a coffee from the restaurant's offshoot cafe; not because its decent coffee, but because the cat needs to be fed on the proceeds of something. I swing left and walk down past the Marie Stopes centre, delivering my daily hard stare to the religious anti-abortionists camped on the pavement, clutching their leaflets and plastic rosaries.

I make the final turn and my office building is in sight. Down towards it I go, past the Indian YMCA and the offices that have something to do with the profession of hairdressing, judging by the peculiar posters on their walls. Past L. Ron Hubbard's house, which is now a museum; although not a conspicuous one, to avoid attacks from those who might not hold the home of the founder of Scientology in particularly high regard. Colleagues appear ahead of and beside me, hurrying towards the front doors of the office, take-away coffee cups in hand.  And I am now rummaging for my pass, and spinning through the revolving glass door and my commute is done. 

Done until the evening, when I will do it all over again in reverse. And then again the next morning. Like every other Londoner. Day in, day out, we perform our strange individual routines that tangle around each other in a complex urban choreography. The city presents 'The Dance of the Commuter'. Starring a cast of millions. Monday to Friday. Two shows a day.

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13 comments:

  1. Brilliant! Love travelling/commuting above ground wherever possible and watching the world and people going by.
    Amazing the change over the years however in our fellow passengers: whereas once upon a time many would read a book/listen to music/look out the window, now the vast majority are too busy texting/playing games/catching up on emails on handheld devices to even look up, let alone appreciate the 'real' world around them!
    Their loss.

    LCM x

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    1. Thanks, LCM! So true that many commuters are head-down over their iPhones these days. They're pretty quick to look up and tut whenever there's a hold up however...

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  2. I love this. I used to live in London and although I'm grateful I don't have the 'Londoner's commute' anymore, your post has made me think about it fondly. I remembered all of the details like you have - day in, day out!

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    1. Thanks, Anna. It is odd the tiny details one gathers on a journey that looks the same each time. The smallest change becomes a remarkable feature, doesn't it?

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  3. I know the whole route pretty well so I was with you all the way. But I DID NOT know that L Ron Hubbard's house was there. I didn't even know he lived in London. Good gracious. I must go and see this.
    I agree with you about commuting. I don't do it any more, and haven't for a long time, but I always used to rather enjoy it. I could never really understand those people who commuted into London from places lke Portsmouth and Derby though!

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    1. If you go, do report back, Jenny! I'm sort of curious to see inside. It's just off Fitzroy Square. When the museum opened it had loads of signage but that swiftly vanished after a week or so - hate mail? Attacks on the building? People do get very riled up about scientology!

      I couldn't hack a commute that far - that's part of the reason I chose to live when I did - but I rather like the time to either prepare for or calm down after work, before one walks into ones home again. A sort of time to transition from work to play time.

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  4. Flora, I think you make such great observations of London : ) Your commute seems to be full of interesting characters and humorous details (that "open" shop sign!) It makes my Parisian commute so dull in comparison :( just a bunch of adults pushing and shoving for a spot, oh dear.

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    1. Thank you, my dear! I am fortunate to be above ground. Can't imagine there'd be much to see if I took the Tube to work each day.

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  5. Ah, the daily commute...I think that, if, as you do, you can avoid the Tube, it gets better and better comes summer. That said, I admire you for taking your journey so well. I find it exhausting. My commute was reasonably short. Some colleagues were coming from all parts of the country, every day. I have always wondered how they were doing it...

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    1. I don't think any commuting is all that fun in the summer, Muriel! I tend to walk much more rather than get the bus, as even with the windows open they can get horribly stuffy and hot. And the tube in the summer? Bleurgh!

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  6. I love getting the bus to work for this exact reason - so many people watching opportunities. But it's strange isn't it, how you end up knowing exactly who's going to get on where, and when everyone will get off, and where to sit...all that jazz. What commuter geeks we are.

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    1. You really do get good people-watching, don't you? I spot people from my bus-stop onwards - and you can tell you're running late if you see certain people!

      Hope the new job's going well, Jo.

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  7. Just back from London where I lived in Camden, travelling on the 29 bus almost every day. I was picturing every paragraph as I was reading the post:)

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