Having recently changed jobs I have now found myself needing to take public transport rather than my leisurely walk to work every day, although I miss the walking I have managed to find an equal but differing fascination with this journey, everything has challenges and rewards.
This is likely true of every big city, and every big train station in every big city. I live in London, one of the biggest, most populated and hectic cities in the world. There’s much bigger in the world and many cities in Asia have much larger populations in less space, but London is where I live. I have always been at odds with commuting, it’s a natural part of life in the city, most people live at least 30 minutes journey from their jobs which will involve some form of public transport, many people cycle, quite a few drive but most Londoners use the buses or Underground and Overground trains. As the previous chapter made clear, I like to walk, this took out a great deal of stress in my day to day life, and also saved me a lot of money but I changed jobs recently and have found myself needing to use the trains again.
The London Underground (or the Tube as we call it locally) is quite amazing, integral to the city functioning. Recent industrial striking on the trains can send London into a rapid state of panic when the tube isn’t running, even one or two of the many lines stopping can have a huge knock on effect. All that aside, the distance you can travel in a short time is quite amazing, house prices are affected by where stations are, jobs are chosen based on travel convenience and so on. I haven’t lived in another city with such a system but I have visited a fair few, and although there are naturally differences there are some features which remain the same, one that I want to focus on is people, and in particular the way we behave in city train stations, it has become so much more apparent to me after going from a leisurely walk to 5 day a week train use.
Often I have found myself in busy environments and wondered, where are these people going? What are they doing? What do they do for work? Are they happy? It’s a cliché of sorts of the mad “city folk” who rush around like headless chickens, London is well known for its pace of life and the urgency of how people move about, I can engage in this too or at times you get left behind. I don’t like to waste time and I tend to walk fast, I like to fit a great deal into each day, it makes me feel I have achieved something, pretty much all of London is like this, everyday millions of people zipping about doing who knows what. The UK is supposedly known for its etiquette which is really quite outdated, people in the UK aren’t particularly polite, no more than anyone else, people do seem to say sorry frequently when it’s not necessary, but it’s also frequently hiding disdain. It’s very much a surface reputation, customer service in many bars, restaurants and shops is terrible.
My daily commute is between Seven Sisters and Westbourne Park, which takes me right through Kings Cross which is one of the biggest stations in the world including international terminals for the Eurostar and is a major artery in London, several tube lines and over ground lines go through it which means millions of people pass through Kings Cross every day, which means chaos. If you find yourself passing through you will find that you cannot stop, if you stop you will likely be stampeded by the various tides of people coming and going in every direction, the long-time Londoners tend to have learned various techniques to get through stations like this quickly without too much physical contact, I duck and weave between people, often I have to simply walk very slowly behind a long chain of fellow commuters, inevitably though someone will circumvent the flow, they will walk down the wrong side of a fence, they will stand on the wrong side of an escalator, they will push through the people who got there first to get a seat on the train, they will zip into the queue to get on the escalator or swipe their way out of the station. Besides some tourists who don’t know the system (we’ve all been in a new place and gotten the local protocol wrong) but mostly these are people who live in London and do this every day. The question is, those people with the cut throat “me first” attitude, are they like this in all aspects of life, or is this behaviour only prevalent in the train station? All Londoners discuss their experiences on public transport, this is typical chatter down the pub, some people I have spoken to, very nice reasonable people have said they throw out the rules on the tube, it’s “every man for himself” I refuse to do that, I won’t push someone to be one or two minutes earlier, strangely I believe in these rules, for me it somehow represents some form of civility, that we aren’t mad rushing animals, we aren’t medieval barbarian hordes, we’re modern 21st century people who have a little respect for each other, we are in the same boat, let’s work together and everyone’s lives will be easier. Many people do not hold my view.
One particularly contentious issue is seats on the tube, that there is no legality I know of but the spoken and unspoken rules are you give up your seat for children, the elderly, disabled people and pregnant women. I always do, no matter how tired I may be. There are seats allocated with signs saying “Please give up this seat for…” But often people do not, more than a few times I’ve seen a heavily pregnant women or an elderly person forlornly gazing around for a seat while 7 or 8 teenagers sit there pretending like they don’t notice. Of course, those teenagers may have invisible disabilities, how am I to know? Maybe they do deserve to rest while commuting? But I’m sure in most cases this isn’t true. I stand up most of the time I travel, and usually with people leaning on me, pushing into tiny spaces a child could barely fit, bashing me with their bag or elbow, taking up much more space than they need, chewing loudly with their mouth open (a pet hate) and so on, choose your socially inappropriate behaviour and someone will be doing it on the tube, near you, we’ve all been victims of this, frequently I have challenged people about it, most people correct themselves as they are quite ignorant to the fact they are doing anything offensive, but more often than not, I laugh, sometimes to myself, sometimes out loud. Particularly when you are on an already busy train and a horde of people pushes on at the next station squeezing the capacity of the carriage to its limits and giving what I call a “London hug” sweat, armpits, breath, raspy ruck sacks, wet jackets and all… I smile, simply because if I let this stress me out I would have a heart attack within two months…
It is absurd and it is stressful, why have we created these systems?
Often I am busy after work, I train in kickboxing twice a week, I often perform live music and much more, most days after work I am going somewhere, much of London is. London doesn’t often have a break and the people here do make use of the fact there is always something happening, we’re going somewhere whether it be home or out, this is why people are in train stations, to go somewhere. Why is it that empathy disappears and so many individuals decide that where they are going is more important than everyone else? They attack the train station with blinkers on forcing their way onto sardine tin trains, or getting past the masses with force. This behaviour causes others to do the same, one bad apple… When people do something it appears inconsiderate I do take a moment to think “Maybe they have a good reason” “Maybe it’s an emergency” “Maybe they are late for the birth of their child” or whatever, none of those are probably true, they will be at times but much more rarely than in a usual day in London. This selfishness isn’t confined to cities, but it certainly increases exponentially the more people there are.
That is simple an observation, I’d happily hear a counter-view or someone with a good explanation different to mine, but the behaviour I see within places like Kings Cross raises a bigger question about social rules.
Social rules are different in different societies and in different cultures, in many African and Asian countries spitting in public is completely normal whereas in most of the west it’s rude, disgusting and often used as a way to directly offend someone or show disdain. You could in fact be charged with assault for spitting on someone, besides the fact it’s quite unhygienic. The way we greet each other differs around the world, the different views of sexuality and gender, the position of children in society and what parts of our bodies we can show differ everywhere. When you come to London you get a mix of people from all over the world which is great, part of the appeal but it also means you get a clash of societal rules. If we think about the classic etiquette of a well behaved Brit, spitting would be out of the question, gentlemen shake hands and so on, many Europeans like to kiss or hug people hello, which is at odds with the British reserved-ness. Of course old fashioned rules of etiquette change and British people have evolved to accept things that are unusual for them, like kissing someone on the cheek when you have only just met them for example. Each society has its own ideas of what is polite and what is rude and when you mix these up in one place it can become difficult to define which social rules you should follow. I do believe as an immigrant myself that I have to adapt when going somewhere new, I will have to change some habits to fit in a little more and get by. The side of the UK that is very anti-immigration, often quite racist in their views is fuelled by the Somali men’s clubs, where they take over the whole footpath talking and don’t get out of people’s ways, or the Hassidic Jewish communities that refuse to talk to people from outside, or the Polish men who take over the local pub. These are just groups of different societies who have come to London because they can be themselves, like I did, but a little give and take and a little effort to understand the local rules goes a long way, but a little understanding from the locals goes a long way to helping others integrate.
When we end up with this clash of social rules conflict is inevitable, social rules are like religion, we all have our beliefs, our standards and should we enforce those on others? Should we expect everyone to have the same view of spitting?
Social rules are meant to be the sign that we are civilised, it isn’t kill or be killed, it isn’t fight for your life, it’s about human’s evolving into a higher being than the other animals, we have systems, we have rules, these show that we have evolved to be something more than animals. Or, is it all just stupid? Are we still just different packs of animals who fight over territory and dislike intruders and fear those that are different? If you look at the state of the world we see polarisation politically, economically, religiously and in every other aspect of what is supposed to represent humanities advanced state. I’m not suggesting we throw the rules out and start over, every day I use social rules to help people manage their behaviour, part of what defines a behaviour as challenging or problematic is that it is socially unacceptable, but it is difficult to convince a person that spitting on their parents isn’t OK when they see people spitting everywhere every day. Social rules give us a much needed framework for our behaviour, some of the more daft social rules eventually become outdated and disappear from common use, and they become part of history. Society has changed in many ways, I have a significant number of tattoos, they are important to me and each one has great significance, many more people have tattoos now and they have become more acceptable. The other day there was yet another article about how people with tattoo’s are refused jobs because of them. Even as a tattooed person I do accept that certain places don’t want their staff with face tattoos, we’re still evolving. Having tattoo’s or a crazy hair cut or piercings doesn’t make you a bad person, there was a time that most people viewed tattoo’s to mean you were a criminal. People still stare at them, they aren’t that normal, some people admire mine others find them horrible, I don’t care either way. I love my tattoos and wouldn’t change them for anything, I have a good job and I’ve never murdered anyone. Another factor of social rules which is still contentious is how women dress, this sounds absurd to even say it but there are still social standards that many women are expected to meet when choosing their attire. There was a recent case of a young professional who was dismissed from her job because she didn’t wear painful high heels to work, it wasn’t so long ago women couldn’t show off their ankles at all… it is silly, this is a social rule we really do need to do away with, how someone dresses does represent something about who they are but it doesn’t mean they aren’t the right person for the job.
The problem lies in the different views of this merging into one place, a place like London or even just a part of London like Kings Cross, when is it a step too far to stab someone to get past them onto a train? There have been many assaults on the transport network because someone has disregarded protocol, there’s pushing and shoving every day, people get frustrated, people get stressed and they snap. The irony of a city, a place where millions of people come together and share experiences is we become more self-centred, communities become very different. Communities are no longer about which area you live but who you identify with, Jewish, Punk, Nigerian whatever it may be, and these communities become polarised, extreme to define themselves within the mass of lives in places like London. Personally I can live with people doing things differently to me so I can live in a metropolis, a place of diversity. As frustrating as people are they are also fascinating, you are fascinating. You are an individual, and a member of a community and a human, just like everyone else and next time you’re getting on a train think about that fact and think about how absurd your own behaviour might be, and that maybe you are doing what you believe to be socially acceptable but that will look completely unusual to everyone else. There are behaviours that I don’t like, that I disagree with, but I can’t say “be yourself” in one sentence, then tell people to do something unnatural to themselves. Most people agree on certain points, societies where it’s allowed for men to beat their wives are very much backwards, these social rules need to change but we do need to be flexible, or go live in a cave.
It can become too easy to turn off your empathy for any number of reasons, you can rationalise to yourself why you do or don’t like someone or their behaviour, but do remember we’re all on the same train in the end.