The London underground (or the tube, as we plebs like to call it): Indispensable, yet detrimental to the soul. A parallel universe where only one rule applies: There are no rules.
As a veteran of an estimated 7 000 journeys on this necessary evil, I have seen absolutely everything – and have gathered enough knowledge to provide the less experienced commuter with an insightful guide. So – here we go… Or, as we’d say in tube lingua: “This train is ready to depart. Please stand clear of the closing doors.”
The tube is a breeding ground for all sorts of diseases. The common cold, ‘flu, herpes, Aids… the list goes on. If your health remains a priority, then only use your knuckles to press the buttons on the card machines and at the tube’s doors.
If you carry a handbag, ensure that you have your ticket ready before approaching the entrance gates. Do not wait until you come to a complete standstill at the yellow ticket reader before launching a frantic search operation through slimy tissues, bunches of keys and lost Tic Tacs. Your time-wasting will at best incur a dirty look and at worst a head-butt between the shoulder blades.
Be on a wide lookout for the tube scoundrel – that excuse of a human being who arrives after you on the platform, yet cuts you off with sly proficiency to take up the last open seat in the carriage. Do not stand for this. Stand your man. Hit him, kick him, tackle and trip him – whatever it takes. Just don’t let him get away with his devious mission.
When you eventually find your seat, be wary of the imaginary division between seats. Position your elbows firmly inside your own armrests to prevent any potential conflict situation. However, if you find yourself on the receiving end of someone who suffers from a lack of spatial sensitivity, feel free to give him a soft nudge with your elbow to draw his attention to his inconsiderate behaviour. Always follow it up with a “Sorry, mate!” and pretend that it was an innocent little mistake on your part. He’ll get the hint.
If, like me, you like a bit of air between the legs, you will find it very difficult to fight the urge to sit with your legs wide open. Remember, your knees pressing against those of your neighbour may give the impression that you are a subtle flirt, which may very well explode in your face. If you are part of the fairer sex, rather keep your legs closed – for very obvious reasons.
Be warned: Some women see the tube carriage as an extension of their bathrooms. The train hardly leaves the station and out comes the vanity bag. Try not to stare. Rather think of how much her eye ball on a mascara stick will resemble an olive on a toothpick should the train jerk to a sudden stop. And be thankful that “ma’am” at least cut her toenails at home!
Sometimes while on the tube you may get the feeling that someone is reading your newspaper from over your shoulder. This is mostly the case. However, don’t pretend to be haughty and turn your newspaper away from the person. Rather ask the over-the-shoulder reader to hold the other side of your paper so you can both become engrossed in the lead story. The interest in your reading matter will not survive for long, as anyone who starts a conversation with a stranger on the tube will be viewed as mentally disturbed.
No pet of whatever description pays to take a ride on the tube. If the last seat in the carriage is therefore taken up by Rex, Rover of Socks, walk towards the pooch with purpose, stand in front of it and firmly catch the owner’s eyes. Most pets in London have better manners than their owners and will immediately vacate their seat to prevent a situation.
The seat closest to the doors is a “priority seat” reserved for old people, woman, children and the sick. You are welcome to keep one of these seats warm, but vacate the seat as soon as a woman with a “Baby on Board” badge appears. Immediately and without asking any questions. And if – while being pinned between Mr Cornflake Man (the one with the dandruff) and Mr Death Breath – you notice that the seat thief’s tummy is way too flat for someone who should be pregnant, do not think that you have been tricked. In London, honesty is the magic word and no one would be impolite enough to fake a pregnancy simply to get a priority seat (insert coughing noise here).
If the commuter next to you unearths a lunchbox with last night’s left-over curry, do not make a fool of yourself by trying to get rid of the stench with animated hand movements in front of your nose. Rather enquire with great curiosity as to the ingredients that he has used. Tell him about your own curry passion and that you treasure a solidarity with all and any curry lover. Your curry-eating friend will surely change seats at the next station. In fact, he would disembark completely – and your odour pollution problem would be something of the past. Voila!
You will sooner or later encounter the iPod commuter and be irritated beyond yourself with the tin-like tss-n-tss-n-tss emanating from his earphones. It is not worthwhile fretting about it. It is the one without the earphones from whose cell phone erupts rap and hip-hop tunes for everyone to hear whom you will have to confront. Quietly find a place right next to this guy and start singing a very loud version of O Sole Mio in your best operatic voice. And should he protest, apologise and argue that you thought the two of you were involved in a mutual music appreciation excercise.
To gossip in Afrikaans, especially on the District Line between South(Africa)fields and Wimbledon, may degenerate into a very dangerous and risky enterprise. Never think that your embarrassments in the Slug And Lettuce is destined exclusively for your travelling companion’s ears simply because you relayed it to him in Die Taal. Before you know it, everyone will be reading in Rapport of the carousing of London Afrikaners and how we behave ourselves like lascivious drunkards – with your name in the headline!
The closer you get to your destination, the carriage you find yourself in will empty itself. And just like that Murphy guy postulated, eventually it will only be you and the guy right next to you who remain in the carriage – a social situation that can turn into something awkward. Do not hesitate to take to your heels and find another seat. You are not there to take other people’s feelings into account and will in fact inspire respect from your co-commuters if you behave like an unpolished scoundrel that cares for no one’s needs but your own.
So, there you go. Now you have more than enough knowledge to turn every tube ride into a pleasurable journey. Go forth and deal severely with the London Underground. This train terminates here.