Rebel Writers Club
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Rebel Writers Club

What You Don’t Realise about the London Commute

Fancy living in the Big Smoke? Steel yourself for the daily travel grind.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

The edge of the platform is brimming with bodies. The frostiness envelops the tightly packed huddles. Clouds of warm breath evaporate into the darkness. All is silent but for the occasional chesty cough, slurpy snort or the abrasive voice of the station intercom. The tracks begin to shudder and a gentle clatter down the line triggers a faint feeling of nostalgia. Out of the gloom, the headlights pierce through the mist. It’s 7am, and I am beginning my daily commute, along with thousands of other Londoners.

Photo by Marco Chilese on Unsplash

The train grinds to a halt and with a hiss the doors open. Etiquette awards priority to those passengers departing and — like a parting of the sea — a channel forms in the crowd for them to seek safe passage through. Any ounce of decorum that may have been shown up to this point suddenly disappears as a melee breaks out with your immediate neighbours to squeeze your being through the narrow doors. With sharpened elbows and some tactical manoeuvring of one’s shoulder position you can usually jostle for a fairly adequate zone of personal space.

Instinctively you begin to rapidly eye-scan for a seat…Shit…not even a perch by the litter bin is left, you’re left in no-man’s land, packed in by the central orange pole. Half-dozen hands are clinging tightly around that pole — old, young, black, brown, white. Some have rings, are tattooed, adorned with chunky watches — you can tell a lot from someone’s hands.

Suddenly a jolt. Someone wasn’t concentrating and forgot to cling on as the train set off and as a result I’ve ended up with a heel through the top of my foot. Thanks.

Photo by Alexandre Debieve on Unpslash

You’ve got four types of commuter: the Phone Addict, the Headphoner, the Reader and the Maverick.

The Phone Addicts will barely look up from their screen for the entire journey — they’re totally engrossed in sending emails (because your London boss has come to expect replies at the crack of dawn), thumbing through a feed of drivel on Instagram or catching up on re-runs of Love Island.

The Headphoner comes in many shapes and sizes — beefy over-ear Sony’s, sleek wireless AirPods or a sporty Bose number. You might get a gentle head bob out of them but in general they enjoy staring out of the window contemplating the meaning of life or trying to suppress their anxiety over the investment presentation they’re due to give that morning.

The Readers are blissfully immersed in their own little world, consuming their favourite fantasy novel for breakfast or getting the latest Brexit update in the Metro.

And finally the Mavericks. Oh, the Mavericks. These brave souls go bareback. Zero distractions. No entertainment. Happy to just sit and be on their commute. The Mavericks are few and far between these days — a rare breed. They seem to take great satisfaction just admiring their surroundings, mentally planning their day ahead, soaking it all up.

I’d like to be more like a Maverick.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Whichever type of commuter you are, you will, at some point, make eye contact with a stranger. Despite my best efforts to smile at strangers in these situations when I first moved to London, I now realise that smiling is seldom reciprocated in the city. Sad, really. My natural reaction if eye contact occurs now is to keep a fixed head position and divert my eyes slightly to the left or right. You don’t want to overreact. Play it cool. You’ve both been caught out, now it’s just a question of who can style it out best.

Now there are a lot of attractive people in London and it’s perfectly natural for these people to draw your attention. For a singleton like myself, a moment of eye contact with a girl can be moderately exciting. Particularly if you go back for seconds and you match again. But still, this isn’t exactly going to lead to anything, because who in their right mind would start a conversation with a complete stranger on their commute? Talking simply isn’t allowed. Even a brief phone conversation entices stern looks from your fellow passengers. Best just to let it be.

​As your train trundles to a stop, it’s time to be thrust back out into the bitter cold. Scarves are hastily tucked around necks, leather satchels and handbags are thrown over shoulders, and bodies shuffle towards the exit with an audible grumble. As I’m carried through the barriers amongst a sea of strangers, I detect a sense of collective belonging. Together, my fellow workers-in-arms and I have shared yet another frantic commute. As a newcomer to London, it is these journeys that make me feel a part of the city’s cogs. I’m falling into gear along with everyone else. And I have to admit, I’m relishing every moment of the grind.

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Tom Ludwig

Tom Ludwig

A curious collector of stories and observations from home and abroad. Pioneering regenerative agriculture in the UK. Member of Rebel Book Club. Based in Bristol