Like it or loathe it the Tube is an essential part of life for most Londoners, although the poor tend to avoid it where they can and take a bus, and the environmentalists might take a bike. The tube is always loud and smelly. You can always smell a tube station when you walk past it, this warm, musty dusty industrial air seeps out of it. It’s like walking past a smoker. The authorities tell us the research shows the tube does not contain a dangerous level of pollutants, but I don’t believe that for a second. My body says otherwise. I can feel my skin withering for every second I spend rocking and rolling and vibrating on the tube. My lungs cry out. But when all is said and done, I am happy to spend so much of my time on it, it gets you where you want to go.
Bringing people together
London is like a big sackcloth, London Underground stations are like little holes for laces, and the London Underground track are like shoelaces threaded through the holes. What happens when you pick up all the loose ends is that all the stations are drawn together, whilst those bits of the cloth that don’t have holes sag at the bottom. And this is what the London Underground does, it brings those places which have stations closer together, whilst those places without stations, form part of the saggy hinterland, the places that you have to walk through or get a bus from. The reason that the tube brings London together in this way is because it is so extensive. Having said this, is principally serves the north of London, the south having very little tube network, it is said because the south is largely built on clay, which cannot support a tube system. Another reason why the tube brings places together is because of the frequency of the trains, every two to three minutes a train whizzes by, its almost as if the tube system is like a vacuum, that as soon as you go down the stairs, it sucks you through the tunnel and whisks you away to wherever you want to go. So if you live near a tube station you live closer to every other part of London that is close to a tube station. For this reason, for economies of time, people will pay a premium to live near a tube station, although not too near. It is quite often the case that tube stations cause their environment to be rather insalubrious, although this is more the case when the tube station also doubles as a train station, think Finsbury Park.
Rat race on the tube
Approaching the station, its hustle and bustle, its people coming, going, pushing against the flow, lost, still, waiting, looking and checking their watches, talking. Sometimes visitors or tourists stand, confused, lost in their own world of timetables, watches and maps, unwittingly becoming little islands of resistance, around which rivers of people, who have to forge new paths, flow, tutting, frowning, glaring and staring in disapproval.
As we approach the exits from the train station on a work day morning, foreigners, diminutive types with plans, Asians, battered looking people, hand out fliers and papers, mobile phones, Lebara, City AM, some enthusiastically, some tired, some silently, some whilst experiencing an inner hell, I imagine.
Back into the station, again people back and forth, people lost, not knowing which direction to turn, coming back, reversing decisions, thinking again, wondering, worrying, have I got it right, meanwhile a small queue of people forms for the ticket office, time ticking, impatient, fucking hell, come on, what are they discussing, what are they talking about, what can be that complicated, oh shit.
Pass through the barriers, time it, time it, smaller steps, then bump, whumph, the beep, and then a millisecond split second decision about when to lunge, spare a second to let it go, or anticipate it, but not too soon, bumping into the barrier looks clumsy, unsophisticated, rushed, desperate. The point is you need to move in a continuous movement, not breaking or hesitating, but timing the walk up to the gate perfectly, timing your oyster card positioning perfectly, so that you can swan through at the same speed, as if the doors were not there, as if you didn’t notice their presence, and yet this has to belie a willingness to apply the breaks within milliseconds, to avoid the embarrassment of smashing into or being squashed by the barriers, were some kind of mechanical error to occur, like the reader not recognising your card. You have to time your step, judge the distance so your next step can be a short one to try your card on the reader again, or a long one to ensure that you can swan through, but you cant step too closely because you will crash into the barriers if it doesn’t read your card, its an embarrassment, so be careful, and be ready to apply the breaks, at a split seconds notice, when you lunge, so you can stop yourself sharpish if the doors don’t seem to open, but be prepared to surge through the gates, like no machine could have stopped you, and when you enter, seemingly timing it to perfection you can separate yourself out from all the others, a true Londoner, against all the pretenders.
Your audience, the minions and their Transport for London Underground coats, blue, red, and white, these cave dwellers, also stand and watch, and dip into help, dip into guide, dip into discipline and tell you ‘you can’t do that’ they are your audience, they’ve seen people dipping in and dipping out for years, they watch you, attentively, as if you’re wildlife, like you’re reaffirming the rules of nature for them.
They’ve seen it all before, they’re connoisseurs of a fine underground tube entrance. They can also spot the ones who care from the ones who don’t, the self-conscious ones from the ones that are hardly aware of their environment or of what other people think of them.
Bustle your way through or take it easy, let people pass, move along slowly, take the initiative, bully, scurry, dive for the gaps, get in there, bump, a meeting of two paths, they cede, you cede, you feel bully, you feel inhibited, on to the escalator, success, its moving, and its a groovin, do I stand with the masses, on the right, do I just wait for fete to take me to the bottom, or am I a mover and a shaker, do I want to move, I move, I move, I walk, on the tips of my toes, feeling fitter than all those to my right, I am moving, thinking about how much time I am saving, that they are not. I get down to the bottom, feeling energised, feeling like I am going somewhere, and get caught in the cross-flows of people, anticipating, stalling, we both stall, we both move, trying to figure each and everyone out, diving for the gap, just getting in there, catching someone, bumping someone, apologising, silent response, silent acceptance of apology, begrudging acceptance of apology, move on, move on, down the steps, everyone seems to be in a hurry.
Waiting around on the platform
Clip clop clip clop. The train is about to leave, clipperty clop, clipperty clop, people running to get into those open but soon to be closing tube doors, shit, run, shit run for your life, it will be a life threatening experience waiting for the next train, it might never come, it might never come. So run, run, run, a real Indiana Jones moment, those doors are going to fucking close and crush my tiny mind, I don’t want to get sandwiched. This train is about to leave, shit, run like the fucking wind, and a huge leap of faith, a huge leap, as if I have wings, and I take off, and its now out of my control, I no longer know my future, I feel the wind rushing past me, a beep, an engagement of machinery, and God knows what the outcome will be…. And, fuck, I am in there. Hero.
Others get body checked, a lady has her arm trapped in the door, only her hand and handbag make it into the carriage. One guy, small, pretty relaxed, with a bag slung over his shoulder, gets on as the beeps sound, one door smashes him to the left, into another door, which smashes him back to the right, and into the compartment. That’s a Transport for London bodycheck! He falls into the train compartment, composes himself, and turns around, a little disorientated, to watch the train doors as they make a second attempt to close, contemplating how lucky he was to have survived with just superficial bruising.
In the train
Once inside I encounter so many scenarios…. Victoria Line ram packed jam packed…. adults behave like rats… black man dressed like jazz musician at half past eight in the morning travelling from Finsbury Park to Highbury and Islington delivers short sharp toe poke into my heel…. I look down and he kicks me again… I feel fear and anger in equal doses… my rational mind says just leave it, just a mole hill moment, wrestles with my emotional side, speaking of so many mole hills in my life, that have amounted to a mountain of abuse, and that if I don’t smash this this guy in the face its just another straw on my camelian back.. he growls something at me.. self-conscious I look around to see if everyone else is looking at me… confronted by this angry man… I look around for emotional support and sustenance and validation at my predicament… but the carriages’ eyes are looking everywhere and anywhere other than in each others’ eyes and mine… and I tell the man ‘You didn’t have to do that’ but he growls and tells me to get out of his fucking way…. As the train pushes through the tunnel I am seething… deliberating between panic and calm… the train comes to a stop and the man gets up and pushes me, get out of my way, he says again, this guy has mental health problems, I console myself that one day he is gong to kick and push someone like him but bigger (although I have a feeling bullies like him are also cowards by nature and would never try it with someone bigger than themselves) who will mash his face into the floor
Or you are in the standing up bit, near the doors, and you are with a colleague from work, closely pressed to her body, crammed on, you feel her curves, and the shadowy softness of her breasts, and pretending not to notice anything, you both stare in different directions at different points in the ceiling, amazed at this enforced and acceptable physical intimacy, which never speaks its name, and acts as if it doesn’t exist, and whilst wanting to end it as soon as possible, to ease the slightly ‘wrong’ nature of being so close to a married woman’s body, something physical and carnal in you, doesn’t want it to end, wants it to be an everlasting moment, wants as much information as possible, to inspire these deeply subconscious fantasies that you don’t want to speak about too much
So much staring and looking goes on in the tube. That eye staring, domination and sex, attractiveness, connection, a real physical corporal connection, and sometimes the look lingers, and you think, oh and that’s what people call eye sex, and you look, and you think, oh if only this was at a party, you would be mine. I once saw a guy sat a few seats away from a woman, they looked like they were both from the same country, he stared at her, she stared back and smiled, they were both smiling, he then moved up and sat next to her and they kissed, I never could tell whether it was the smoothest subterranean seduction. People who are inhibited, who have had too much of the day or of people, feign sleep, manufacture sleep, or just sleep to avoid the outside world; others play music, loud, pummelled into the ears, and stare at the adverts above everyone’s heads, cleverly placed, conveniently placed, for people to look as if there’s a really good reason for not looking at each other in the eyes. Others tap into their phones transported into a world of texts, photos, books and computer games. I see a Polish builder to one side of me, and a Bengali woman with headdress on the other side, both on the DLR heading towards Shadwell. They’re playing the same game on their respective mobile phones, one involving brightly coloured shapes.
Fascinating bodies, impressive bodies, impressive male bodies, curvy female bodies, odd faces, odd shapes, smelly men, who sit next to you with stained trousers.
The Balletic Economy of Tube Users
Joe Moran writing for the Guardian, commented, ‘Whenever I am in London, I am struck by the nonchalant virtuosity with which natives use the tube, the balletic economy of their movements – the way they flash their Oyster cards and walk straight through the barriers without breaking their stride, or know exactly when to quicken their pace based on the noise of a train whooshing through the tunnels.’ Its true, one does become a bit of a pro after so many years of navigating the tube system. One instinctively knows which way to head as soon as one gets off the train, one can foresee which is the shortest queue and which queue looks short but contains a tourist who is likely to hold everyone up trying to find their ticket, or failing to realize that you have to stand behind the barrier, before it will let you through.
Most commuters, when waiting for the tube, stand in a rather random arrangement up and down the platform, some keenly standing next to the yellow line, over which people are forbidden to tread in case they tip over onto the rails, and others lurking by the wall. Generally there is an appearance of nonchalance, but this appearance soon gives way to stress clumping, when one or two packed trains pass by, preventing anyone on the station form getting on. Stress clumping is the process whereby frustrated passengers, agitated at not being able to get on to the passing trains, move from a nonchalant manner to a proactive approach, whereby they stand in a place which they predict, based on the positioning of the doors of the train which just passed, will place them directly in front a set of doors, when the next train arrives. Stress clumping occurs when virtually everyone on the platform adopts this strategy, and is manifest in groups of commuters, who huddle together in the spaces, which they predict will be parallel with the doors of the arriving train, once it is stationary.
In a crowded train competition runs high for the smallest of comforts and conveniences. Sam Diss, writing for Sabotague Times criticizes people who in a crowded tube, in the area where you have to stand up, use one whole vertical pole to lean their entire body against, thus depriving all but the most impersonal and intrusive passengers. He noted, in 2013, “I bought a Kindle to make everyone’s ride to work easier. If everyone had one instead of those paper old-school ‘book’ things, there would be significantly less carriage bumping. The only thing you require with a Kindle (or other, less good, e-Readers) is a rail journey and your imagination and you’re good to go. But no. Making a mockery of my effort, there has been a terrifically shit uprising in the amount of brain-achingly wanker-ish people (usually middle-aged men with a sickly hue) who have taken to leaning their entire body on hand-rails; choosing to envelope my hand with their pillowy back-fat rather than just clasp hold like regular not-prick people.”
Giving Your Seat Up or Not
There’s always the ethical dilemma of whether to give up your seat or not when you’re on the tube. And sometimes it is a real dilemma, especially when you are knackered, and would love to just drop off to sleep. Sometimes you might be in this situation and then someone gets on, with enough wrinkles to make them look like they’re getting on, but of a reasonably firm build, which causes your mind to convene an Emergency Cabinet Meeting to work out whether there is a moral argument for maintaining your comfortable position. Of course, on the occasions when you do give up your seat, you can appear the sanctimonious moral do-gooder and feel a sense of moral supremacy vis-à-vis the selfish self-interested emotional retards who are busy looking into their newspapers and other egoistic activity. The worse (well its not the worse) comes when you give up your seat for a pregnant woman, who turns out not to be pregnant. I once spent a good few minutes studying a woman’s belly before deciding to offer her my seat, she burst out into a laugh that was almost a cry, her bottom lip and as she stared into the darkness of the tube tunnel through the window behind me, she shook her head in disbelief as her face rippled into a wry smile.
A recent government report claimed that the experience of commuting to work on the London Underground is traumatising Londoners. That’s a big word to use trauma, trauma is what happens when you see your family raped and then murdered. Travelling on the London Underground is stressful though, distressing I would say. I feel terrible and overwhelmed by stress having to cram myself on to a packed underground train in the morning, especially if I’m feeling tired. It’s a nightmare.
Sleep or the London Underground trance
Sleeping on the tube is a real treat. There’s nothing nicer than coming back from an exhausting days work, and plonking your arse down on a smelly dusty cushion, and slowly drifting to sleep, your tiredness so heavy that the vibration and noise from the train becomes a gentle soundtrack to your sweet sleep. The undulating ricketiness of a London Underground carriage combined with the lack of oxygen and heat generated within the carriage naturally sends many people to sleep. The sleep that people experiences on the London Underground isn’t a deep sleep, usually, it’s some kind of scaling down of one’s conscious systems, and you go into a London Underground trance. You are usually always aware at some level that you are on a train and that you have to get off at some point, its just that you are sleeping at the same time. If you travel on the same line day after day then you realize that your body has such an intimacy with the slightest of subtle changes in the way people get on and off at different stops, and of the length of each journey, that just by having a rough sense of how long the train has been travelling for, and the kind of noise that is made when people get on and off, you know, exactly where you are. It as if, though asleep, there is still some conscious person continuing to monitor where you are. The result of this is that it is often the case that people, who appear, even to themselves, as asleep, will wake up just at the point that the train stops at their destination station.
Now the thing about sleeping on the tube is that, in a classically historic sense, it is hilarious, because people can see you defenseless, no longer keeping up airs and graces, your head bobbing up and down in front of your neck, with dribble coming from your cheek, leaning on a stranger. In the past, historically, photographs of people who had fallen asleep on the tube used to be hilarious. Now, with the ubiquity of the digital camera they seem exploitative and clichéd.
Joe Moran reckons commuting gives us a chance to think, daydream and take stock. I think he’s right. Millions of people moan about commuting, but actually wouldn’t we miss it? Moran also makes the point that commuting is a great opportunity to reflect and chill out – it is – its fantastic – a point in time when you don’t have to be anyone to anything – you can look happy – you can look sad – angry – whatever – no-one really cares as long as you don’t bother them.
Commuting on the London underground is also a brilliant opportunity to indulge in a spot of reading that you probably wouldn’t otherwise do. Plenty of people like to get a fix of fear, blood or sex, or bourgeois bullshit from reading the Evening Standard. Others prefer their kindle. You get the odd few reading and annotating academic papers, and several will have a book. Some people are so determined to read on the tube that they will contort their body and paper into the most uncomfortable looking shapes in order to spend their time reading rather than reflecting. Some will abandon all means to safety, by using both hands to hold what they are reading, rather than holding on to a rail, which means when the train takes off or slows down, they are usually thrown to one side and often into another person.
These days you can do much more than read of course, mobile phone computer games are de rigeur. People watch videos on their iPads.
There is something carnavalesque about commuting – it satisfies the promiscuous desire in all of us – to see, to mix and mingle – on a huge scale – and in a way which allows us to keep our thoughts to ourselves, that allows us to rest in our inner sanctuary. There is something quite animalistic too about the kind of eye contact that you can make on a tube – a deep personal eye contact – which gets your heart thumping – which can be at any second finished, terminated – as if it never happened. Whether it’s a guy to whom you are sending violent aggressive messages or a woman, who you think, maybe might have been the one.
Talking to your carriage crush, is a different matter as Sam Diss, writing for Sabotague Times discusses, “You know that there’s no pressure to chat to them because, hey, you only know they exist because you both get on the train at the same time and to talk to someone – anyone – out loud on the train is borderline sociopathic. Conversely, it’s terrible because of the same reason. I accidentally spoke to my Bow Road crush one time (I think I said ‘Oh I’ve read that’ about her book or something EQUALLY CHARMING) and now she gets on at a different door and I don’t even know who she is anymore.
Attempts at lingering eye contact are made more likely through the window of the train just at the point that the tube starts to pull off. You can stare into the eyes of a girl who is staring back at you, you may even curl your lips into a smile, and she may respond, and as she moves away from you into the tunnel of infinite darkness, you feel a mixed sense of warmth and cowardice (why can’t I do this when there’s not a moving train separating me) which evolves into the numbness that one feels when commuting.
You will, sometimes on the London Underground, if you are sat on a seat at the end of a row, one which has a fibre glass wall to lean on, use the reflection in the glass to peer into the features of some peculiar beauty you have noticed. The reflection in the glass often brings this person’s face closer to yours, so you feel intimately voyeuristic, and yet miles away, as if day dreaming. Every now and then, you may, if you are looking at someone, who like you is well acquainted with and currently engaged in the practice of glass panel ogling, find the reflection of their eyes staring directly into yours, at which point, after recovering from a mild heart attack, pretend, as your eyes dart away, that none of this really happened, or if it did, that it happened in the parallel universe of reflections, thus invalidating it as a real life experience.
Being with people without being with them
Being on the London Underground affords people the wonderful opportunity of company, or being with people, without having to be with them. I wouldn’t be surprised if lonely people, sometimes travel on the London Underground, just as they might take a coffee in a coffee shop, or go for a walk down Oxford Street, just to get a bit of company, just to feel connected to people.
And I think that’s something to be said about the London Underground, being on it, participating in that shared experience affords a wonderful opportunity for connection, connection with so many different people.
You tend to get more aggressive behaviour on buses than you do on the London Underground. My theory for this is that aggressive people tend to have poor mental health, and poor mental health means that they are less likely to have a well-paid job, which means they will prefer the bus as the cheaper form of transport. Nevertheless there’s plenty of violence on the tube, as a plethora of Youtube videos bear testament to.
The general stresses of London transport are enough to provoke anti-social feelings. Lara, a London commuter, points this out , “London transport… has a way of turning you into a bad-tempered cow with low tolerance, a foul mouth and a habit of ‘tsking’ at everyone who happens to cut your path or hold you up at the ticket turnstiles.… I would love to trip the woman in her stilettos who is trying to squeeze through a gap between me and the hundreds of people who are exiting Clapham Junction Station. I long to drop my shoulder and charge through the crowd which has surged onto the platform at Waterloo Station. I would love to strangle the stupid woman who refuses to budge an inch at the closing doors of a packed train. There is clearly enough room behind her for a couple more people and I have already watched three tubes pass with no chance of boarding…. Travel in London is not fun. It pushes you to your very limits of rational, reasonable behaviour. It tests the strength of your resolve and the reserves of your patience. It completely unscrambles the very fibre of your moral self.
Sam Diss recalls once seeing “an angry Spanish family trying to shove a TravelEx bank card into an Oyster card reader at the gates while two suits screamed at them. It was fucking anarchy.”
Sometimes you can get some pretty aggressive men barging their way on to the tube. Sam Diss talks about Angry Fat Guy in Bank, “The rush-hour train at Bank is usually pretty damn packed so when Angry Fat Guy at Bank – with a face the colour of blood and wearing what resembles more the chassis of a Hackney carriage than any kind of human garment – attempts to bundle in, it can be pretty fucking aggravating. With a breathy ‘Move down, please’ (even though ‘moving down’ would require at least a few of us to assume liquid form), he gives zero fucks and I remember one time watching him nigh on crush a woman to death without him so much as batting a gross eyelid.”
Tube as a transient society
The tube is like a transient society, something that you dip into and out of, but for the time that you are down there, the rules suddenly change, peoples’ relative importance changes. There’s a certain way of doing things, a certain way of looking.
When the tube stops in a dark tunnel
Yeh, the tube, like any public transport, is I guess a strange place. All of a sudden you are thrown into a sealed environment, with what seems like to be a random assortment of people. Just for those few minutes you have formed a new society – with very well known rules – but if anyone should break them – you all of a sudden realise how ‘life and death’ everything could become – how vulnerable each one of you is vis-a-vis each other. This becomes all the more apparent when you get stuck in a tunnel – and the driver advises that you could be there for ten minutes – all of a sudden your mind wakes up from the narcotic slumber that the tube induces – and you think, well who are all these people that are surrounding me – you begin to look at their faces, imagining what kind of life they’ve had, and what kind of dispositions they have. If we had to live here for an indeterminate amount of time, and if that time became months and years, who would predominate, what kind of a society would it be, would it be fair, just or a dictatorship? Would we mimic the apes in the jungle – or would we be civilized?
Everyone gets off at the same time
On one occasion on a Northern Line train I was sat on one side of a carriage, of which both rows of seats were fully occupied. The train came to a standstill and then everyone from the row opposite got off, whilst everyone on my row remained seated, and no one got on to replace the people who had gotten off. That left those of us who remained in the rather embarrassing situation, embarrassing for the fact that anyone getting on the train would have looked at us and assumed that we were either part of some cult, or that we were did not have the social and psychological skills to appreciate that when one sits on the tube one is supposed to maximize the distance between oneself and others, not huddle up as tightly as possible. I would have loved to have taken a photograph of the fact that one row was full and one empty, but had I tried it, I would have destroyed that very thing I wanted a photograph of. I remember feeling like we were being set up, I felt like laughing but was stopped my reserve, and I’m pretty sure everyone else felt the same way. We all felt like we were a victim of a joke, but we couldn’t share it with each other, because of the ice cool boundaries between Londoners on the tube. But really what are the chances of that ever happening again?
I’m in Leicester Square underground tube station and I take a long escalator downstairs. Toward the bottom of the escalator three guys, dressed in tweeds and hats, are bunched together. Just before the escalator reaches the bottom, one of them, one in the middle, hangs on to the shoulders of the others and his weight brings all three of them crashing down on to their backs and arses, and three abreast the prostrate men arms around each other’s shoulders are deposited by the escalator on to the station corridor. It would have made a great photograph.
Trouble on the London Underground: Bully Boys
Intimidation and nastiness
Sometimes people get on the tube, and whether they plan it or not, they take one of the several opportunities that operating in close confines provides for picking a fight and intimidating someone. Such an occasion is described by Shaheen Hashmat, who in 2013 recounted how a man threatened a woman who was sat next to her, to whom the woman replied, “I didn’t do anything, why are you saying this?”
Sometimes everyone else in the carriage remains quiet. But not always. In the case described by Shaheen Hashmat Shaheen described how she challenged the man and advised him to calm down, which led to the man turning his venom towards Shaheen, and threatening her. Shaheen describes what occurs, “I laugh and take my phone out of my pocket and take three or four shots of him. He brings out his own phone and takes some of me. I smile for the camera. He says, “You fucking watch – you fuckin’ wait – I’m gonna spit on your face when I get off this train. You wait. Be fuckin’ ready” And then he gets back to his paper. I believe him. He’s drinking his McDonald’s drink and I just imagine him filling up his mouth and spitting at me as gets up to go. In full anticipation of this I raise my bag in front of my face as he gets up to leave, and he doesn’t do it, not believing I would have the audacity to defend myself. He stands there staring daggers at me and I know if there were half as many people on that train it would have turned violent. I peek around the side of my bag and say, “You missed.” He leaves the train. I check to make sure he doesn’t get on another carriage, and when I get off at my stop I wait ’til the train has left and everybody who is getting off has gone.
Notting Hill Carnival Gangs
The tube is also a place where once in a while trouble can break out. It’s preferable when the fight is on the platform, not so good when it’s in the tube, and even worse when the train is packed. I remember a group of black kids getting on the tube for Notting Hill Carnival one year, the alpha males amongst them pushing, completely disregarding everyone else. They laughed, because they were greater in number at all the discomfort they were causing the commuters ‘look at the white peoples’ faces’ the ringleader taunted.
West Ham fans laugh at a Chineseman and a disabled man
In September 2008 I saw a group of leering unshaven West Ham fans on a tube – they were on the northern line heading to beyond Angel – they were drunk on alcohol and West Ham’s victory over Newcastle United, and using their collective strength to intimidate everyone and anyone around them. From their number came a shout of ‘Don’t let any fucking Muslims on to the train’. A Chinese looking guy squeezed on to the tube at the last minute, not expecting to be as so unlucky as to step straight into the midst of the Hammers’ fans. The fans stared at each other and at the man with sadistic glee ‘Do you want to give one of us a kiss’ was the first question directed at the Chinese guy. Psychological and physical survival required that the Chinese lad appeared to be one of the lads ‘No, sorry, I am not a gay’ he said with a smile on his face. The Hammers fans pissed themselves. The Chinese guy spent the rest of the journey treading the fine line between not wanting to engage the fans in banter less their intimidation got worse and more damaging, and not wanting to appear intimidated and disgusted by their conduct – he kept smiling, looking in and around the group but not making eye contact with any. The Hammers fans were like a cloud of high-octane vapor – just needing one small spark to start an explosion. The train began to empty at Old Street – revealing a man with severe mental handicap, who was looking to the ceiling, gesturing with his hands and talking to himself, sat next to a woman in her mid thirties. One of the Hammer’s fans turned around, and pointing at the man – screamed with affected hate filled laughter – he had immediately sensed the victim on the train – the one person who was different and weak – and was determined to ratchet up the power differential – by enrolling his friends into a high energy ball of spite and scorn. They all burst into affected laughter, doubled by the weight of the comedy of this man’s differences, pointed at him and going read in the face. The lady sat next to the man spoke up in an Italian accent, ‘Are you getting off the train soon?’ she asked in angry tones. ‘What love?’ came the reply. After the lady had repeated her question a second time, she got an answer, to which she said ‘Good, good, I hope you get off this train soon’. She then became the new victim, her lack of composure was like blood to a wolf – ‘Why don’t you flash us a smile love?’ ‘You’d look so much better if you had a smile?’ ‘Why don’t you try and smile like the girl next to you? She looks lovely compared to you?’ The train stopped at Angel and I got off, a lot of people got off, but the lady, and the mentally disabled man, and the Hammers fans continuing to rile the now pacified lady, stayed on.
Oxford United fans pretending to be Spurs, intimidating Asian family
Its twenty past seven and I’m on a Kings Cross platform looking to take the Hammersmith and City to Liverpool Street one August evening (24th) in 2010. As I step into a carriage, which is reasonably full, a sickening feeling takes hold in my stomach as I make eye contact with a scruffy looking white guy, who is slouching in his seat. The guy is scrawny but muscular and dressed in a loose and worn light blue t-shirt and dark blue tracksuit bottoms. The words ‘bloody wanker’ ooze out of his sneer, which poisons his face and focuses on me as I step, reluctantly, into the carriage. On seeing said sneer I immediately take myself away from the purview of his two friends, comparable in build, attire and posture, who at said moment are humiliating an African guy, who moments earlier had been offering knowledge of London underground, having heard them utter uncertainty about which stop to get off at. The three amigos joke about the African guy, the content of what they are saying cannot be discerned, but the volume is deliberately indiscreet. The African is trying to save face, undulating between bantering back as if its all a big joke, and beaming a desperate smile into the ceiling of the train, as if none of it was happening. He has everyone’s sympathy. I turn my back on the three men, but hear an ultimatum, a declaration of war: ‘Any West Ham fans on the train. Let’s have it now!’ Apart from the African the four nearest people to the three men are three Bengali ladies, each one very small, and a small but squat Bengali boy of around eight or nine, whose legs swing from the seat he is sat on. Beyond the Bengali contingent there is a man dressed in a suit, a Polish labourer, myself and a few women reading books. The Bengali ladies and the boy are all trying their best not to look like West Ham fans, peering into the darkness of the tunnel, as if the words shouted out by the men just a few yards from them, had no relevance or bearing to their existence, as if they did not even hear them. But this doesn’t stop one of the three men from reissuing the ultimatum, the volume and aggression in his voice reverberates the eardrums of fellow passengers ‘Any West Ham fans. Lets have it right now!’ Sniggers follow, accompanied by lewd remarks directed at one of the women sitting across from them reading a book. One of the Asian ladies moves down the train to sit next to me, the city man and Polish labourer look down the train towards the football fans. Then comes the unmistakable cry of Tottenham fans, “Yid army! Yid army! Yid army!” followed by insults hurled at theoretical West Ham and Millwall, who might but appear not to be on the train. The atmosphere is tense; no one wants to make eye contact in case they become the object of the derision of these three men. The train stops, beeps pulse, pre-empting the opening of the train doors, and the men get up, much to the relief of everyone in the carriage. As they exit, in unison, they shout, “We are Oxford, Oxford United!” Two hours later, at half past nine they’re at Upton Park watching their team being dumped out of the League Cup, thanks to a goal by Scotty Parker.
The Northern Line train pulled into Old Street underground station, where a handful of people got on and a handful off. The carriage seats were mostly occupied and two black lads, of cheerful disposition and medium build, dressed in casual clothes, were sat on the seats nearest to the door at the back of the carriage. Playfully they exchanged jokes and conversation, but this dried up, momentarily, at the sight of a thin pair of legs, covered in tatty looking jeans, supported by two unsteady feet entombed in battered white trainers. ‘See you later’ said the new arrival, whose body was twisted so he was facing the platform, as the train alarm pulsed to signify the doors closing. As the man’s torso straightened, swinging his face in the direction of the front of the carriage, passengers looked up to see the state of the trainers were reflected in the man’s, gaunt, skewwhiff, grazed and dentally problematic physiognomy. Finding an unusual interest in their own feet, commuters knew what was coming, a piece of theatre, a monologue, a plea, skillfully crafted, clearly delivered, pitched with the kind of professionalism that you might expect in an interview for a city job. They knew they’d be recipients of a political speech which gives the sense of a man on the mend, a man who is looking to make a new start, a healthy start, “Hello everyone, sorry for interrupting you, I know it’s the end of the working day and you don’t really need this especially on a winter’s day like today, I wont take up too much of your time. I’m looking to collect enough money to get a hostel for the end of the night, I don’t mean to intimidate or annoy anyone, but anything you could spare, if its food or any small amount of money, would be greatly appreciated, if you could imagine if everyone gave just a few coppers or a five pence piece, thank-you very much.” By the time the man had gotten to the end of his speech everyone was looking into their newspapers or were sat like zombies penetrating the walls of the underground tunnel with a thousand yard stare, their eyes, relaxed, buoyed by the undulations of the train on the underground track. The commuters, affecting nonchalance, knew the man would shuffle his way through the isle, with a cap in hand, collecting whatever people might find in their hearts and minds to give him, a couple of quid, some food, for which he would earnestly say, ‘Thank-you madam’, ‘Bless you’. Failing any charitable act, he would, having worked his way to the end of the isle empty-handed, stop in the space next to the double doors, separating one set of seats from another, and compose himself to deliver the speech once more. Only this didn’t happen. Instead, there was no shuffling down the isle. Instead, after a brief silence, a different tone of voice could be heard, a deeply vengeful aggressive tone, filtered through deep-seated phlegm, ‘You think I’m scum, you think we’re scum!’ This turn of events raised a few eyebrows. Eyes and heads cautiously looked upwards, to ascertain the object of his diatribe, to see who could have provoked this invective. It quickly became apparent that it was the general apathy of the passengers, which had piqued him. This man who had moments before beseeched people not to feel intimidated, launched into a tirade, threatening to ‘fuck up’ someone in the carriage if they didn’t give him something. He threatened the body collective that he would find out where we lived and smash our children. Eyes quickly turned to newspapers and laps, darting nervously every now and then just to see where the man was stood, just to monitor as to whether a bit of flight or fight might be called for. A needlessly an unwitting comical touch was added by the fact that whilst he was spewing vitriol at the greed and selfishness of the congregation, the power of his invective was propelling specks from a piece of shortcake that he was trying to eat, into the air, some of which were finding peace and tranquility on my trousers. I wiped a few crumbs off my trousers as his venom spewed forth. The train eased to a stop for a breather at Moorgate. The rumble of the engine ceased, allowing the man’s words to be heard more clearly, his rant and threats continued, ‘You wait, I’ll fucking find you on the street, I’ll fucking get one of you, I’ll come at you and fuck you up, and take your coat off you, this is the fourth Christmas that I’ve had to do this, you selfish fucking dirty cunts’ at which he stepped off the tube. A collective sigh of relief could be felt if not heard. As the tube had come to a stop, one of the black lads, had, rather provocatively, started sniggering, as the man delivered his parting lines, and once the man had vanished, he and his friend broke out into a fit of giggling. ‘He’s your man’ said his friend ‘he’s coming for you, he’s going to take your coat’. The guy chuckled, recounting how he had initially felt a little sorry for the man and had, moments before the man had broken off into a rant, been routing around in his pockets for a bit of loose change.