Friday, 4 February 2011

Following Kafka's “Path”

When friends of mine started gravitating towards London several years after University was “out” and had been settled a while, I recall staying with a friend and hearing the great tube/bus debate for the first time. Obviously for some folk which stance they take in this argument very much depends on where they live and the nearest service but for many it’s a case of choosing. Over the years, I’ve noticed an obvious pattern in the correlation between bus users and long-time London dwellers.

Since tenuously moving to London nearly a year and a half ago, I think I’m still uncomfortably straddling the fence. During peak times in the morning or at the end of the working day, although often more direct, bus journeys can take a painfully long-time. There’s also the added problem of having to loosely know the bus route and nearest stop. Sure buses are marginally cheaper (especially for long direct journeys) but the tube is more accessible for those less familiar with London: one look at the map, a quick Google search for the end of tube-walk or glance in the A-Z and you’re there.

Out- of-towners often find the underground daunting while many “locals” seem to have developed an impatience towards the tube and everything you can expect from peak-time journeys. Horrifically over-crowded and punishingly hot regardless of the time of year, a trip in the underground is almost guaranteed to test tempers. As a natural over-heater, the temperature down there is certainly an issue for me but I find the over-crowding kind of amusing. Morning tube journeys are almost like a game of human Tetris as bodies are quite literally bent around each other and hunched over to fit the maximum amount of people into the carriage while still allowing the automatic doors to close without chopping off any limbs. I still haven’t quite fine-tuned my door-safety judgement. Unfortunately I can think of two or three occasions when I’m standing on the platform convinced I’ll never fit when someone else steps in and contorts their body into the space I had previously misguidedly judged to be impossibly small. Of course I have also witnessed the end result of other people’s rather optimistic attempts to board a full tube - someone nearly getting an arm chopped off or a bag almost left abandoned on the platform. It’s worth a go, eh? There’s nothing worse then being left standing on a platform and watching another loaded train pull in – especially when you’re late.

As the London Underground is the oldest underground rail system in the world (first dating from 1863 on the site of the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines), tourists who come from cities or countries without any form of underground are often so impressed by the concept they feel compelled to buy tube map T-shirts. The introduction of the oyster card has certainly changed the way Londoners travel with its incentive of discounted journeys and reduced queuing times but I often wonder how these awe-struck tourists fare. Without the issue of heat and overcrowding, there's the small matter of trying to purchase a “ticket” - “What a dated concept!” I hear Londoners cry.

As Britain undergoes more and more cut-backs, we are coming to almost solely rely on machines. A journey from Victoria the other day proved just how problematic this can be. There are very few ticket machines in Victoria, considering it is such a massive station. In addition, between certain times on certain days, no-one mans the few ticket office windows that there are.

The queues for the ticket machines almost merged into each other and I slowly edged forward trying not to pant and sigh too markedly while pointlessly watching the clock. As the minutes passed, I grew weary I'd not have enough time to return home, pack a bag and catch my train. Momentarily breaking the staring match between my watch and I, looking forward I saw the queue in front suddenly disperse. The man directly in front of me didn't walk away but stared towards the machine and my eyes followed. The words that met my gaze were not welcome: “Machine out of use”. I quickly flicked my eyes left and right to be met by the same infuriating message. Heading over to the card-payment-only machines, I struggled to keep my swearing inaudible to those around. Without any ticket machines operating and with ticket windows unmanned, I had no way of topping up my oyster card in order to hot-foot it home. Asking one of the few staff standing at the barrier, I was relieved to hear that my tale of woe would get me through this barrier and the one at Angel. Although a serious amount of time had been wasted and stress levels had risen, I ended up getting a free journey out of British Rail – surely something few can claim in these barrier-obsessed days?

I am just grateful I am not a non-English speaker trying to navigate my way around, injured or in a wheel chair. In so many stations the stairs are the only option. Hauling my trusty Primani stead up the London Bridge stairs or those leading to the Victoria Line from King's Cross, I dread to think how mothers with buggies cope. And I have still not truly mastered the secrets of the underground. When leaving almost any train in any underground station, signs seem to point both ways for the very same lines. I recall on one occasion in my first few months of living in London, I experienced a Kafka-esque moment blindly wondering back and forth around Bank during some kind of route diversion through Monument. Ever since that frustrating night, every time I leave a carriage and decide which way to walk, I am reminded of Kafka's The Castle. With signs so confusing and conflicting, at times the underground feels like a labyrinth, designed to both trick and delight. I certainly feel glee when I conquer its trickery and re-find the fastest route to my next destination.

Love it or hate it, currently the tube is more often than not an essential part of my day. I may grumble but I still get a disturbing sense of satisfaction from seeing the orderly lines of people standing to one side on escalators, allowing those in a hurry to pass – something never seen in Leeds that has nearly caused me to miss trains on several occasions and resulted in a police restraint for one of The Boy's colleagues who had newly moved from London to Leeds.

And if you're not into people watching and have forgotten your book, you are almost guaranteed to find reading material on the tube. Although signs encourage customers not to leave “rubbish” behind, I'm always grateful to those who do and get a strange warm feeling when I watch someone reach for my recently discarded Metro. Aside from the lines I'm travelling on, this recycled reading matter fleetingly makes me feel connected and the forced experience of being sardined into a carriage reminds me we're all just trying to survive however we can and sometimes in order to do so you need a bloody good sense of humour.

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