It's a truth universally acknowledged that Londoners have two favourite topics of conversation, particularly when it comes to small talk: the weather and transport. (I can vouch for this too because an Italian once told me his teacher warned him in class.) But that's not stopping me from writing a blog dedicated to the latter. Yep, I'm going to delve into the beauty (read horror) of taking a tube in the capital.
I read an article last week in the Evening Standard about how tube fares in London are something like 25 per cent more expensive than the next most expensive city, Washington D.C. That, frankly, is outrageous. For that sort of price difference I'd expect TfL to provide leather seats, a real-time cleaning service, a free kindle (actually wait, I've boycotted Amazon), air-con, and at least a few inches of personal space. But I sense I'm hedging my bets slightly. Seriously though, what is with the sky high prices?
While summer has come and almost gone with not so much as a passing "hey, how are you?", I have noticed that the tubes have been marginally quieter. Emphasis on marginally. I suppose that's because in August most Britons bugger off somewhere warm, to escape the notoriously wet month. Yep, you saw those flood warnings for the bank holiday weekend...
But the very slender decline in human presence on the tube this summer hasn't necessarily been a blessing. It just means you're more likely to actually get on a train, rather than sulk impatiently behind the yellow line as a handful of trains pass with zero possibility of plunging yourself into the throng of people already trapped inside. And breathe. That was a long sentence.
And you know it's summer when you start to notice a rise in armpit sweat patches, fringes glued to foreheads with perspiration, and faces dripping with grease. Your copy of Metro is starting to wilt, and you struggle to turn the pages with your moist fingers. You feel sweat trickling down your forehead, and wipe it away with you clammy hands, absentmindedly splashing a greyish black smudge of ink across your face. And no-one tells you, not even your colleagues when you get to work, because that's not a British thing to do. Either way, one would be forgiven for thinking you'd spent the morning in the mines.
A stifling smell of sweat mixed with toxic levels of anti-perspirant suddenly becomes apparent. You begin to sniff out the culprit before realising that everyone around you is clinging onto the handrails above them, armpits galore. Get me out of this hell hole fast, you think.
Someone coughs. A wave of panic rises up inside you. What diseases am I going to wake up with tomorrow? And now a sneeze. And another one. And another one. Ebola. Wearing a face mask might not be such a bad idea. Someone yawns. A stench of last night's alcohol mixed with bitter coffee wafts your way. Death seems close.
There's space further inside the carriage, but no-one wants to budge to make room. Just a hoard of selfish commuters, too transfixed on their copies of Metro, Stylist or Time Out, or reading the latest scandals on Mail Online in between stations whenever there's WiFi. Then there are the women intent on slapping on a face of make-up and curling their eye lashes (I keep waiting for the tube to come to a sudden halt and for poor Tracy to realise she's pulled out a clump of them.)
While those starting their commutes in Greater London secure prime standing ground (i.e. the row between the seats), the rest of us squeeze into the remaining nooks and crannies available, struggling to even stand up straight. Reading the news at this point seems farcical as turning the pages of Metro (which at this point I've already folded into quarters to make space for) would only result in the suffocation of the person in front of you.
This is why I particularly hate the Northern line, because it takes the word "cramped" to unprecedented levels. As men and women of all shapes and sizes propel themselves at full speed into the battery cag
e, elbowing and shoving like there's no tomorrow, I really do question why I'm even attempting the journey.
In fact, I remember reading an article on Time Out about a year ago, ranking the tube lines from best to worst. The Northern line had one of the worst, if not the worst, rating. Surely it couldn't be THAT bad, I thought, as I signed the contract for a flat in Clapham. How ignorant and disillusioned I was.
But now that I'm living a couple stops further south in Tooting Bec, I'm one of the lucky few that can actually get on the train, without waiting for 10 to go past (yes, that happened to me in Clapham). At Balham, you're just about safe. Clapham South, you have to start being strategic about where you stand on the platform. Clapham Common, well, don't bother if you want to arrive at work on time. Clapham North? You're an idiot. Walk to Stockwell.
In London, we pay a staggering £144.80 a month for zones 1-3, and £123.30 for zones 1-2. In Paris, I paid €60 for use of the entire metro system, which currently works out as £43.58. That makes us £100 worse off a month in London. I'm not very good at maths, but I reckon that's quite a few Gin & Tonics.