Adventures On The London Underground

Jamming thirty prime and active human beings into an eight-foot by six-foot enclosure is simple enough, one just calls it a railway carriage and leaves the rest to the ingenuity or brute force and ignorance of the aspiring passengers. It is a method that never fails to bring out the human quirks that are often not apparent at a greater remove. A nervous twitch at zero distance can become an annoying sexual threat, and tolerance is often just an improper word, not used in the more mature subway circles.

I suppose nerves are okay at a safe footage away, but when a complete stranger starts twitching against one’s back, it can become worrying. This is especially so when there is the equivalent of a ton of assorted people gently but firmly compacting you against the subway psychopath behind you.

My own experience of sub humanity is a long and varied history of daily travels. It took me a while to learn the rules and become accepted. But you learn the game fast otherwise you wouldn’t get home.

Rule number one is that nothing is impossible. In fact impossibility, like the human concepts of time and space, is purely illusionary.

Out of this arises rule number two, which is that the human frame is capable of infinite compression within the confines of an underground railway carriage. The practical application of this being, “There’s always room for one more inside.”

Translated into terms of action this means that if there is floor space to get one shoe in the carriage, it must follow that the rest of the body will fit also. Sometimes this theory is debated hotly in the field. Or sometimes it needs one to hang onto the overhead handrail with both hands and swing inwards on the offending bodies with vigour. But the opposing arguments usually give way to actual demonstration.

In the particular rule book that I was nurtured on, rule number three is loosely defined as, “Never give your seat to a lady if you can possibly get some other hothead to do it.” A classic demonstration of this came to my notice only the other day. The carriage seats had already been filled when an old, and obviously tired lady got in. She walked over and stood holding the strap directly in front of two determined males. One of them was a youngish man who was apparently untroubled by any conscience, and who with hardly a glance at the old lady, went on with his own private daydream. But the other, a slightly older man, was obviously a person of finer breeding and sympathies, whose conscience was not so easily passed over. For some moments he still kept his seat, obviously ill at ease. Then, like a thunderbolt out of the blue he turned to his neighbour and bellowed, “Get up and give the lady a seat!”

The reaction was instantaneous. The man leapt out of his seat as if he had been ejected. It was only moments later that he realised what had hit him, but all he could do in his shocked state was to regard the now satisfied gentleman with open-mouthed wonder.

One of the well tried “sure” methods for the fair sex to get a seat is to faint or throw a fit. I’ve seen this work time and time again even in peak seat grabbing periods. The only drawback however, is that very often some wise guy will insist on carrying the girl out into the fresh air at the next stop. In such cases she will end up with a seat, but it will be on the platform instead of the train. But at least there is a 50-50 chance of success.

Even after many years of close study however, I still find it difficult to classify sub humanity under any one type, there are so many conflicting cases that come to mind. I remember an incident one Christmas Eve. It was on a part of the intricate underground network I had never travelled before, and every male in that particular carriage seemed as if they had taken one or two drinks too many. I didn’t see what started it, but a scuffling drew my attention to a couple of men halfway down the long carriage. They were standing side-by-side in the open space between the sliding doors. All I could see was a slim young man, slightly drunk, giving what seemed to me friendly digs to the stomach to a short dumpy middle-aged man with spectacles. The latter didn’t retaliate or move away. With a sheepish look on his face he simply stood shoulder to shoulder next to his opponent, removing and replacing his spectacles at regular intervals.

The slim one, who I shall call Charlie, then turned to face Spectacles and gave him another couple of playful digs to his ample abdomen. Spectacles still didn’t move away, shout, or give any ferocious signs of his disapproval, but continued the activity with his glasses as if Charlie didn’t exist. Whatever it was that was eating Charlie didn’t give him any peace even after his sporting attack. So he grabbed the folded newspaper that Spectacles held, wrenched it from his grasp and hit him over the head with it a couple of times. Then, with quick precise movements he tore half of the paper into small fragments and, throwing them up into the air, caused a lovely Christmassy effect of artificial snow to fall upon the bald head of Spectacles.

I must add that there was something slightly comic about this whole setting, as both of the men had the unsteady ludicrous attitude of the drunk, and the blows and attacks were thus softened into play acting by their intoxication. But a touch of drama was swiftly moving into the scene. Charlie was just about to renew his offensive when a rather big shadow fell upon him. It was cast by a muscular six-foot three frame, and the hand of that frame caught Charlie by the shoulder. It fell upon him mightily and swung him round to receive the other hand that was already swinging up to give Charlie a crashing blow on his undefended chin. I heard the impact of it ten yards away in the crowded carriage. Then the big hand came up again to Charlie’s face. But this time it was with a warning finger waving before his very sober countenance, and I heard him being told to, “Pack it up, or else you’ll get another one,” and he did just that.

Don’t get the wrong impression that the London Underground is full of six-foot three knights in shining armour who are ready at a moments notice to protect and succour the needy. Rule number three of the travellers code is also taken to heart in other directions. One can be very lonely in a crowd down below. There was the old man for instance, lying full-length across the door space. People didn’t seem worried as to whether he was ill, drunk or just exhausted. When the doors slid open they stepped over him without so much as a glance.

A female friend told me she was once in a carriage where several youths snatched a woman’s hat from her head, and threw it around the carriage to each other. The woman was brought very near to tears by their stupidity, but not a male made any move to help her. It wasn’t happening to them, why should they worry?

But if it is happening to you, and you are big enough and strong enough to do something about it, then it can even be amusing. One night, into a carriage already occupied by the eternal drunk, a crowd of student opera enthusiasts noisily made their entrance. The drunk was a Cockney, slim, short, and with an alcoholic humour. He insisted on wandering up and down the carriage looking dreamily into everyone’s face. As he came upon the newly arrived travellers, his interest was immediately captured by the biggest of the young men. “Aven’t you got luvly curly ‘air,” he said. And wobbling slightly, hanging onto a strap, he leaned close to his new bosom pal. “You know, you got some of the loveliest curly ‘air I ever seen,” he said, smiling.

This sentimental show of friendship delighted the students, but naturally embarrassed Curly. Yet despite Curly’s embarrassment, his alcoholic friend felt no sense of shame for the fine thing budding between them. “For goodness sake go and sit down man,” Curly said.

His friend wasn’t to be dissuaded so easily however. “If I ‘ad such a luvly ‘air as all that, I would be ever so proud of it I would.” And the warm fumes of his laugh bathed Curly in the unwelcome atmosphere of a distant bar.

By this time Curly’s friends were all but egging the drunk on to even more romantic expressions of his admiration for his big hairy friend. But Curly was unable to share their humour. He stood up and took the little man by the scruff of his neck just as they were stopping at a station. As the doors opened he marched him firmly out onto the platform, and getting on again he effectively barred the entrance.

“This isn’t my stop Curly,” little man said, still smiling trustingly at his large friend. Then, when the doors closed, and Curly went and sat down, he moved along to the open window slits. Twisting his head and putting his mouth into a window gap he said again in a slightly puzzled tone, “This isn’t my station you know.” And as the train pulled slowly along the platform, his diminutive figure ran along with it, his mouth still pressed to the window slits, his voice, still puzzled, following Curly into the distance saying, “I’d like you to know this wasn’t my stop Curly.”

Apart from the comic figure of the eternal drunk, the underground often brings to light the wit or as some would prefer to call him, the “nitwit”. On one train journey between Piccadilly and Baker Street, I noticed a middle-aged Greek lady who didn’t seem to be enjoying herself one bit. I couldn’t help but look at her, as my head was turned in that direction when the doors closed. I believe my briefcase was also about two people away at the time, hanging limp from an outstretched arm. It also had been in that unfortunate position when the doors closed.

But getting back to the Greek lady, she had been pushed into the narrow space between the seats, and was backed up onto a small young Cockney. The rocking movement of the train was introducing their backs to each other in the most intimate, and what I would have thought, fascinating manner. But instead of being interested, or even of oblivious of what after all is an unavoidable facet of rush-hour journeys, she was positively repulsed. Every few moments as the train’s rolling brought them together, her arm instinctively came up, elbow first, and poked him in the back. Our young hero managed to tolerate this for the first few vicious jabs. Then, with a cheeky smile, and a voice a that carried to the furthest ends of the compartment, he looked round to her and said, “What’s up with you dear? If you think I’m trying to seduce you I can think of far better places to do it than this! So be a good girl and stop poking me in the back with your flipping elbow will you?”

After a tiring day at work, the crowd enjoyed the free entertainment, and a sea of smiling faces were turned towards the woman. Needless to say, she got off at the next stop without saying a word, and without another jab.

A friend of mine told me an experience she had with another wit. He was actually an acquaintance she hadn’t seen for some time. Seeing him as she got into the carriage, she went and sat down next to him. After a talk and a few laughs, the train pulled into his destination and he got up to go. Pausing at the door he looked back and said, “Cheerio.” Then, as if in afterthought, he called to her loudly, “By the way — are you still living with that black man?” He then disappeared along the platform. My friend enjoyed the joke immensely — afterwards. But for the rest of that journey she couldn’t help but notice all the curious eyes, scrutinising her. As she said later, “With a friend like him, who needs enemies?”

Apart from the occasional fight, people on the underground are human enough. There are of course a few travellers who should never embark on their journey during a rush hour. I’m talking about those who take every little shove or stumble to mean open aggression. I am reminded immediately of the portly gentleman who got pushed unceremoniously into a carriage at Oxford Street. When the doors opened and the crowd poured in he came with them, but probably a little quicker than he had anticipated. However, the unfortunate man who was behind him got blamed for the whole show. They ended up face-to-face in front of a priest. It was pointed out to the portly gent by the other man that, “When the crowd moves, I move with it, and I can assure you I was not deliberately butting you in the back.”

But for his trouble, and over the blushing and blanching head of the priest, he got called all the ignorant porkers and illegal people under the sun.

Then the old lady who spoiled her flowers comes to mind. I still don’t know why she did it, but it was an impressive sight seeing her, again and again, hit the offending male over the head with her daffodils. It was a beautiful flourish too, when the male in question, obviously aggravated by the action, took the flowers forcibly from her and tossed them willy-nilly over the heads of the crowd.

Or occasionally, but not often, one might be cursed by coming across an intruder. In case you don’t know what an intruder is, it is one of those people who act as if they were from a different race of beings, or perhaps even a different planet. They look like humans. When they are sitting still one might even swear that they were humans, but as soon as they open their mouth and speak, they destroy the terrible illusion. I have, to be frank, only ever being confronted by two of them at close quarters, so I can’t be called an expert. But even from such short observation I can see that they have features of a decidedly alien nature. They might masquerade as normal people, but for one thing may have never been taught that railway employees are allowed to do things without having to consult them first. Another deficiency in their education is that they still believe all activities on the railway – perhaps the world – are done explicitly for themselves alone. Possibly the poor creatures never had parents to teach them these sad but true principles. Possibly life has allowed circumstances to let this illusion remain with them. Whatever it is, I met my first underground alien in a carriage at a terminus station. There were two trains on the same platform, and two of us had entered the wrong train. The other person was dressed as a city type, spotless white shirt, ruddy complexion, striped trousers, the lot. Fortunately for both of us a ticket inspector noticed us. Opening one of the doors and poking his head in he said, “It’s the front four coaches you want for the 7:10. These coaches not be going out until 8:10.

I was indeed grateful as it wasn’t far off from being 7:10 and I could easily have missed the train if he hadn’t warned us. But my companion was far from being pleased. “What did you say?” he said, in a very exasperated and pompous voice. “Do you mean to say that this train isn’t leaving until 8:10?”

“That’s right sir,” the ticket collector said. “It’s the front four coaches you want for the 7:10.”

I was just hurriedly collecting my pieces together when the city gent dropped what he obviously thought was a bombshell.

“I am not leaving this train!” he said, and made a sort of jerky rigid movement in his seat as if to say that he was rooting himself in.

The ticket collector’s face was also very expressive of something. I think it was either shock or bewilderment. For a while he just stared at the gent with his mouth slightly open. Then, seeming to realise what the score was he said, “Well sir, it was on the notice board, and it’s the front train you want.”

“I don’t care where it is,” the gent immediately replied. “I was not told, and I am not moving from this train. So you had better go and get somebody in authority and do something about it quickly!”

I can only leave it to your imagination how the ticket collector shifted him. I ran for my train and left them to it.

Strangely enough the next alien I met was on the same train some weeks later. This time I got on the front four coaches as prescribed. There were only two other people in the carriage, a woman and a city type — not the same one however. I had not realised it, but the coaches had to be uncoupled from those at the rear, and meanwhile the lights went out.

It was very peaceful in the carriage with the lights out. I was just beginning to enjoy it, and wonder what happened during the war when the blackouts were on, when there was a sudden explosive movement behind me. It was the city toff. He literally leapt from his seat to the door where a porter was passing. “My God man, what’s happened to the lights,” he bawled?

The porter, not realising he was being got at, answered with a smile, “They’re uncoupling the train sir, and the lights will come on in a minute.”

But this wasn’t clear enough logic for the city toff. “Look here, this isn’t good enough you know. You can’t just go and switch my damned lights off without telling me – it’s disgusting!”

I don’t think the porter had ever realised that there was something disgusting about the lights going off. But he took it in his stride. “If you would just like to wait a while sir,” he said, “the lights will come on again.”

“I should jolly well think so,” the toff said. “And don’t let this happen again, or I shall have something more to say.” And with that he went and sat back in his seat, still mumbling.

Some of my most memorable moments have been spent underground, and this will probably be true of the future too. But I cannot end without mentioning the underground innocent. He was only four, and the underground was new to him. His mother and father had brought him to London for the day. After his hometown in the country London was exciting. He enjoyed the shopping immensely, especially when his mother bought him a new pair of shoes. He was so proud of them that he insisted on wearing them right away. On their way home they used the underground for part of the journey, and were forced to witness one of those unfortunate scenes that sometimes occur on the tube. The little boy and his parents were standing very close to a man and woman in the gangway. The woman suddenly turned on the land and slapped him full on the face with all her might, saying at the same time, “Keep your dirty hands off me.”

The man, without a word, pushed his way to the alarm handle and pulled it down hard. When the train rattled into the next station all hell broke loose as the inspector ran to the carriage and tried to settle the bitter and earnest argument that waged between the two opponents. They had to be taken off the train because there seemed no solution to the discord, and as the train pulled away, the argument was still going on.

As soon as he got home, the little boy insisted on seeing his grandmother to show her his new shoes. “Aren’t they lovely,” she said, as he held out a foot to show her.

“Yes,” he replied, “and as I was coming home there was a very naughty lady on the train. She stepped on my new shoes — so do you know what I did — I pinched her bottom.”


-Kirsten 2011-06-27 23:20:47

hmm. My available version still looks the same as before.

In that same paragraph, it says ‘keep your hand of me’ instead of ‘off me’ as well.
Well I hope it will resolved eventually.


    -Tony Crisp 2011-07-07 8:23:39

    Kirsten – That is weird. I carefully went through and corrected the errors, and thought I had saved it. But checking it again nothing had changed.

    So thank you once again and I think/hope it is alright now.


-Kirsten 2011-06-27 1:37:20

Greetings Tony~
I’m new here and have been enjoying exploring your site a bit.
I wanted to mention that just toward the end of this Underground article there seem to be several odd typos. I recall you mentioning experiencing a stroke, and these substitutions seem perhaps a mishap of voice recognition software?
Those were anyway my imaginings…

a new parents shoes/ a new pair of shoes?
turned on the land/ turned on the man?
for long face/ on the face?
as regards/ as the guards?

It’s an engaging account; perhaps you were the boy. I thought you might like to cast an eye over that ending.

I expect I’ll be poking around. Fascinating account of the graphologist…

From the Outsider archetype 😉


    -Tony Crisp 2011-06-27 6:59:26

    Thanks Kirsten – I have now made a bit more sense of that part. And if you find any more typos please let me know, as I am afraid I often do not read through carefully – there are too many pages to look through and new ones popping up frequently.


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