Sunday, 8 January 2012

Maybe it's because

It's the city of my birth, and even though I live in the countryside now, I've never lived more than thirty miles from its centre. Whenever I stand on Waterloo bridge and see the sun glinting on the river, I get a rush of pride that this is my town; that I can call myself a Londoner.

Yet there will always be times when I feel like a tourist. Afternoons where I wander around bewildered; craning up at tall buildings, rushing past my reflection in shop-front windows. I still traipse down crowd-filled streets because I've never learned the quiet short-cuts, still shop in over-priced chain stores because I've never found the secret alternatives.

Philip has often teased me for my inability to find my way around. When he first arrived here, he took the time and trouble to learn the streets, to look for the places he wanted to eat or shop or simply spend time. He walked and walked, until the roads had formed their own pattern in his brain, until he'd formed an affinity with his adopted city. Growing up in London, I just took it all for granted. Or hopped on the tube.

Nowadays, part of the challenge in finding my way around is that my understanding of the geography is totally based on London Underground maps. My only way of working out the route between two locations is by interpreting the coloured spaghetti of the tube.

But at the same time, I have my own, ever-so-slightly bonkers, theory of tube travel in London. It's based on the miles I've walked, swapping between one line and another, along corridors,  through tunnels, up and down escalators, threading my way between rushed commuters, striding past unappreciated and unappreciative buskers. I sometimes believe that it's all a big conspiracy.

Just imagine that, by the time you reach your train, you've actually already walked the distance to your destination. Could it be, that the trains shake and move in the dark, but don't actually go anywhere? That the tube companies entice you in, with their promise of speedy travel, only to use you as a captive audience for the adverts pasted just above eye-level. Have you ever wondered why those adverts are so carefully positioned exactly where you end up looking, as you try desperately to avoid eye contact with the people sitting opposite. As you sit there, in over-crowded, over-hot, carriages, desperately waiting to be set free at your destination, have you ever questioned why it takes so long to travel just a mile?

Or could it just be, that my antipathy to tube travel has more to do with the fact that most of the subterranean railways criss-cross their way beneath north London, leaving those of us who hail from the south-east, forever grateful to red buses and black taxis, fundamentally mistrusting the notion of underground travel in any form at all?




18 comments:

Jennifer Gleason said...

I don't have much experience with a subway or train of any sort, but this made it all clear in my imagination's eye. I really enjoyed this, thank you.

Debbie said...

I loved reading this, especially the part about the trains not actually going anywhere. That appeals to my imagination. I've often thought that about planes, that maybe it's a flight simulator. Maybe I've watched Total Recall too many times.

The Elephant's Child said...

I find underground travel disorientating and upsetting. A touch claustrophobic? I don't like being driven through tunnels or underground carparks either. A wimp. I do love lanes and alleys leading to different venues though.

Anthony Hodgson said...

Like Philip I've spent years learning Londons streets. Many different retail jobs have helped. I much prefer walking through London because I hate the tube. I use it every day, it's dirty, and overpriced. I dream that one day I will leave it behind and can then start to enjoy the character of London rather than because I'm on a tube.

Bill Dameron said...

The T here in Boston is the oldest in the country. It's dirty, noisy and I play a game looking for the rats just below the platform. But to me, it is still magical.

Eryl said...

I'm rather fond of the tube, but I do tend to walk everywhere when in London (not often enough), and just kind of sniff my way around.

You could very well be right about the trains not actually going anywhere, when I do relent and get the tube – usually due to rain – I often feel I walk further.

Bea said...

Reading your post, I was reminded of a time in my early 20s how, because I was looking up at the buildings in a particular San Francisco neighborhood admiringly, I was mistaken for a tourist. I try to be a tourist in my own backyard everyday! It makes even the most mundance of days feel like an adventure.

Cle Reveries said...

I think that we have to walk in London: it's a must!
We have the opportunity of admiring and "live" what London has offered to people for centuries (to tourists too); of listening to all the sounds, London traffic is a kind of music for me; feeling the caress of the ray sun or of the rain.
And what about the panorama offered by the bridges, and the fragrance of life coming from all the living people activities!
The tube is not for me: it's dark, anonymous and sad!

Susan Cooper said...

I grew up in a place that required you to use a light rail/subway. As a kid it was cool as an adults I was able to traverse the DC area with ease as apposed to trying to find a parking space. Now that was scary.

I have had some experience with the tube and found it daunting at times. The people watching is always fun in both situations although walking the streets and experiencing the vibe of the city is very fun as well.

:-), Susan Cooper

The Idiot Gardener said...

It's the jealousy, the creeping envy, of those who hail from the wrong side of the river. As one from the right side, I have always loved the tube.

Nowadays, when I do occasionally head back into town, I do find myself saddened that the tube has become so clean, so safe, so approachable. When we were kids it was dark and gloomy and slightly unfriendly, but it was our paradise, our playground.

It was magical the way you could disappear, take a quick ride, and then pop back up in another place, another chance to misbehave before you were gone again onto the next adventure.

Having Irish parents, we were brought up to be Irish, but I never felt the bond because I couldn't remember it, so I never felt Irish. As kids in England, we were taught that England was a burden on our souls, so I never felt English. However, I was always proud - and still am - to be a Londoner!

Sensible Footwear said...

I always like gazing at the tube map. It makes London seem smaller than it is.

I do prefer walking round this town though.

Lizzie said...

I like the way you're thinking... The tube could be one huge conspiracy to get us Londoners in smaller spaces, forcing us to get closer and closer... until one day, we will actually have to talk to one another! ;-)

Simon432 said...

I do like the idea of the tubes shaking around but not going anywhere! One thing I like to do is 'make a city'. You can juxtapose different bits by hopping on and off at different spots. Depending on your mood you can do Green London; Shopping London; Cultural London, etc. It works best if you doze off en route.

Matt Inwood said...

I always regret not knowing those little secret walkways too. I know some of those places where it pays to walk rather than catch the tube, but I'm certain there are others where I spend as long walking flights of stairs and subways as I would journeying overground on foot from A to B. I like the image of Philip walking 'until the roads had formed their own pattern in his brain'. I wish I had that dedication.
Lovely piece.

Sharon Longworth said...

Jennifer - you really aren't missing much at all - travelling in the open air, where you can see everything around you is a much better way to go!

Debbie - I've never thought that about planes, but now I know I'll think of it next time I take a flight!

The Elephant's Child - I don't think that's wimpish at all - I'm sure we're really not meant to be underground.

Anthony - I hope you get your wishes, and some lovely London air soon!

Bill - I was horrified the first time I saw the mice scuttling along the rail tracks in our underground. Not because they were there, but because they were so filthy black with all the dirt from the tunnels. I hated the idea of them living their lives out in the dark.

Sharon Longworth said...

Eryl - I don't think I'll ever get to the stage where I could say I was 'fond' of the tube. Glad you can see something in my 'going-nowhere' theory...

Bea - that's a great way to be - looking all around and seeing things fresh everywhere you go.

Cle - you make London sound fantastic! Have you written about it?

Susan - people watching is the very best thing about tube travel - except for when you're watching them watching you...

IG - I never knew you were a Londoner until now, & I'm dead pleased we have that in common - even if you are from the wrong side...

Sharon Longworth said...

Sensible Footwear - the map is definitely the best thing about the tube!

Lizzie - forced closeness - Ugh!

Simon - Hello! Dead chuffed that you've left a comment. I love the idea of making up different versions of the city.

Matt - thank you. Not sure if it's determination or just stubbornness on Philip's part, but nevertheless, his knowledge of London comes in handy sometimes.

Depressive Dancer said...

Oh this, yes! For me it's the feeling of the Albert Embankment, watching the Houses of Parliament across the water. A decade on it's still never grown old for me.

I love the way you write, thank you for sharing!