Saturday, 18 September 2010

Travel can be miserable, but it can also sprinkle some smiles

Now that I’m working in London again, I’m getting reacquainted with one of those wonderful big-city customs, commuting on an underground railway.

At the end of the working day, I have to get from Kentish Town to Euston.

So that you can follow the action. Feeling the excitement?

Now follow this carefully: it’s terribly gripping. You see, Euston Station is on both the Bank and the Charing Cross branches of the Northern Line, even though it isn’t at the point where they meet (that, of course, is at Camden Town). That means that I can get either a Charing Cross train or a Bank train.

Am I blessed by the gods or what?

Part of the joy of work in London
But the drama doesn’t stop there. If it’s a Charing Cross train, I have three stops to go – Camden Town, Mornington Crescent and Euston. But if it’s a City train, I only have two – the train doesn’t go through Mornington Crescent. And it’s completely in the laps of gods.

How exciting is that?

Of course, there isn’t a great deal that’s joyful about travelling on the London Tube. Just like the New York Subway or the Paris Metro, it’s noisy, crowded and dirty. People jostle you at the ticket barriers. They behave infuriatingly by pushing past you on the escalators, or they behave unconscionably by getting in your way when you’re trying to get down the escalators quickly. Generally, and I’m no exception, they sit or stand around looking like the embodiment of misery, as though up in there in the light and air, life is sweet, but down here in the growling bowels of London, it’s nasty, brutish and short.

So it’s all the more heartening when you come across the occasional exception.

There was the man who was reading Private Eye, the satirical magazine, and laughing out loud at each new titbit. I haven’t taken a look at Private Eye for years; maybe it’s time to start again.

Then there was the woman who was reading Terry Pratchett’s The Fifth Elephant and smiling as she turned the pages. That’s the way to read Pratchett, to bring a little light into a place of darkness and discontent. Especially that book. You don’t know it? Get a copy today. It feels like a child’s adventure story in a magical world, and it works well that way, though I could have done without the chase and fight sequence: Pratchett went through a phase of putting those into one novel after another, and they never work – I can’t follow the description of the blows to this part of the head or that bit of the legs, the leap from the bridge or out of the boat, which villain is crouching in the reeds and which is waiting on the bridge – I can’t picture the scene, and just find myself turning the pages to find out what devilish ploy the protagonist is going to use to get out of trouble at the end.

But a Pratchett novel is far more than an adventure story, and The Fifth Elephant is an incisively insightful presentation of the behaviour of a large minority community with customs that define it and which it protects – see the Jews or the Moslems of our own world. The whole is painted with both love and humour, making for a seductive combination.

There was I thinking that commuting on the tube was just going to be a new chore in an overloaded day. Something to be suffered and got through as best I could. Turns out there are odd moments available even down there in those unpromising surroundings which could make it much more than that.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s these flashes of contact with other people that add spice to any kind of travel. Today I’m about as far from London and the Northern Line as I can be without leaving the Kingdom, and not just geographically – a little market town not far from Edinburgh, where my granddaughter lives (and her parents too).

East Linton, near Edinburgh. A different world
In the queue in the shop this morning, a grandmother pulling coins out of her purse to pay for some buns, commented ‘I hope I’ve got enough money’.

‘Puir granny,’ said her granddaughter.

Grandmother and shop assistant burst into laughter.

‘Och, ne’er you worry about your granny,’ said the shop assistant, ‘she’s got plenty of money.’

Granny spluttered. ‘Don’t you be minding anything your aunty Vee says’ – everyone’s an aunty or an uncle in these warm-hearted little towns – ‘she talks complete rubbish.’

A pleasant change from the London tube. Or is it just the same thing in a different guise?

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