Photo by Bim
Artillery Row

Going underground

The everyday misery of modern British life

The line is moving so slowly that I can only think its people must know what’s beyond it.

They are a varied jumble of people: some old, some young, some respectable, some quite openly Lib Dem, but all equal under the surveillance camera’s eye.

Behind me, a woman works her way down the queue, asking for directions.  All heads turn from hers as she passes. It is her face that is the trouble. It has on it the expression which is never wise to wear here: a smile. This is the London Underground — to smile here would be to commit an act close to revolution. 

Surveillance makes snoops of the people under it

I’ve been wondering what it is about the Underground that draws venom from otherwise kind-hearted people. Why they barge into you without shame. Why they demand you make space where there isn’t space to be made. Why they are so rottenly aimless, frustrated and bleak. I put a large part of it down to the prison-like nature of the place. Almost everything about it conspires to make you feel criminal. Everywhere, cameras. Everywhere, the accusing eyes of jobsworths. Everywhere, the slogan: SEE IT. SAY IT. SORT IT. Surveillance makes snoops of the people under it. They cease being people and become mere extensions of the system, sniffing and searching for someone to mark for suspicion. 

Why do they volunteer to snoop? Because the British people have a mysterious attachment to rules, and the more absurd they are, the more fiercely they are obeyed. If you were to leave a sign in the street saying “please wait”, then within minutes, Brits would swarm maggot-like around it. From minute to minute, the crowd would swell, festering there with obstinate obedience. 

I remember in the lockdown years when a man got in my face, breaking all social distancing measures as he did so, to demand that I wear a mask, his eyes flickering wild fury. “What do you mean you won’t wear one? You think you’re better than us, is that it?” His question contained the clue to his grievance. It came not from fear of the virus, but from pure spite that I had swerved the rules to which he was slaved. The notion of fairness is so ingrained in British people that they’ll happily break every rule of politeness to achieve it. 

As above, so below. All these petty customs and grievances are made grand in the Underground. People are suspicious of one another because the rules of the place suggest suspicion. People don’t talk because it wouldn’t be fair to those who have none to talk to. It’s a very British form of purgatory down here.

On my way to the escalator, a large pigeon-faced woman comes off it, barges into me and then scuttles away at speed in variance with her weight. She turns back to look at me for a moment, and for an instant, I think it may be to say sorry. Instead, her face takes on a cast of almost indescribable contempt before vanishing back into the escalator like a trapdoor spider. Clearly, she thinks I am the one at fault for being in her way and is probably now searching for some authority to alert.

Phones act as a sort of talisman against conversation

When my train arrives, I’m struck by a thought: how many people have chosen to go under the train instead of on it? Whatever the number is, it’s high enough for the Underground to suffer a reputation for being haunted. How, I ask myself as I get onto the train and look about the crowd, would one know if one’s sat next to a ghost when everyone looks as dead as to make no difference? Carriage upon carriage of grim, witless faces are made all the grimmer by the artificial light under which no ugliness is spared. Even with my eyes closed, I feel sick. There is a faint yet foetid odour which crawls into the nostrils and lives there even hours after leaving the train. 

It is a subdued scene, poorly lit and scored to silence. Friends often tell me it would only take one or two people to defy the silence for others to rise against it. They ignore the other British trait that would make such an uprising impossible: fuss, and our almost pathological aversion to it. 

For the fuss dodgers, phones act as a sort of talisman against conversation. Even after leaving the battery, the object’s power remains. Better, they think, to have eyes on a blank screen than to risk them wandering into others. Throat-clearing is another defence mechanism I’ve observed in the fuss dodgers. The man opposite me is doing it right now, producing a noise that sounds like the distress call of some small, plant-eating creature. I used to wonder why people clear their throats in places where they can’t be used, but I have since come to think that it’s a deterrent under which the silent order of things is kept. No one dares speak here because everyone has the arsenal to reply. 

My anthropological study of fuss dodgers is cut short by the screech of the district line, as is, mercifully, my purgatory. The further up the escalator I go, the further back to my mind the experience is pushed.

The line in the station is moving quite quickly now; its people know what’s beyond it. An open space, natural light — a smile. 

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