Life in the Underground

Some places deserve more attention than are usually given. In modern cities like London, the underground system is, in my opinion, a prime example. Based on a rough calculation, I reckon that I have spent the equivalent of over one hundred and sixty full days in the London “tube” during the last eight years.

However, I think that the underground is interesting in many ways and not merely because we, poor commuters, are forced to spend long periods of time there.

While suffering the winter cold that the air conditioner fails to mitigate and longing for the ideal holiday portrayed on the inevitable myriad of ads that cover it, there are many things that can be appreciated.

Consider, for example the relentless regularity of certain patterns in the behaviour of the “tube” tribes. Groups of builders discussing football and reading “The Sun” at 5:30am, bankers and lawyers religiously reading the “Financial Times” at 6:30am, noisy children in uniform comparing mobile phones at 8am, the inevitable pack of foreign students wearing their “I love London” t-shirts and going back to the hotel at 8pm, the football fans on their way to Wembley wearing the prescriptive scarfs and face colours, the group of young girls with too much make-up and impossibly high heels going clubbing on Friday nights…

I also think that the underground is the best place to identify social trends. From the scores of readers of the “Da Vinci Code” to “Fifty Shades of Grey”, from the emergence of the ‘smart phone’ to the infectious disease of the “E-book” and the “IPad”, the tube is certainly the perfect setting for market research.

Furthermore, one can always enjoy random encounters with mysterious characters. One night returning home from work on the metropolitan line, I had the privilege of witnessing a fascinating conversation between two old gentlemen about the state of their lodge and the need for reform. They were both wearing very formal clothes and it was impossible to miss their rings, tie pins and emblazoned briefcases that identified them as freemasons. On a different occasion, I encountered an extremely tall and old black man on the Circle line with a black top hat, snake leather jacket and silver stick. His fingers were almost completely covered with rings and amongst them, a big gold ring with the shape of a snake and two huge rubies as eyes caught my attention. I am sure there is a novel waiting to be written about him.

But remember, this is the underground and like any place where humans are around, there is also a much darker side to it. The frequent delays caused by poor souls that had enough of this cruel world and jumped in front of the train, the homeless young man who used to recite the same exact string of words at Baker Street: “I do not want to annoy or intimidate anyone but I would need your help. I am generally struggling with my life at the moment and looking for a place to sleep tonight…”, the Spanish graduate with his backpack full of CVs , lost in the labyrinth of lines and desperate not to arrive late to his next interview since, as he told me, he had pretty much run out of money. Even more tragically, the horror of the terrorist attack at Aldgate on 7 July 2005, half an hour after I had got to work at that same station and which painfully reminded me that human brutality can strike anywhere and one’s life can be gone in a split second.

Life, in any case, goes on in the underground and there are always hints of beauty and goodness that can redeem so much of what is ugly and wrong. If I had to name only two of those things, they would probably be the old lady playing “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” on a rainy Wednesday at London Bridge station and the “Poems on the Underground” scheme that brings a bit of warmth to the impersonal coaches by posting wonderful poems such as:

The Tyger by William Blake

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Categories: Philosophy | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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