Commuting days until retirement: 10
So – with only ten more cycles of this curious daily shuttling between one place and another, it’s nearly time for me to say goodbye to commuting and finally justify the title of my blog. I’ve been at it, on and off, for just under half a century, which seems an astonishing thought. (And I’ve just thought of the journey to school – that extends my commuting experience to nearly sixty years.) At different times I have shuttled by foot, bicycle, motor-bike, car, bus, train and various combinations of those.
Right now, travelling 25 odd miles into London, train is the only sensible option, even if it bites a significant chunk out of my salary. But that doesn’t stop my smartphone being convinced that I drive there, telling me faithfully every day: Time to work 95 minutes – 14 minutes delay via A1(M). Its little brain must be puzzled as to how I get there so quickly; and no doubt it will be even more confused when I stop doing the journey altogether, and will probably assume I’m dead and disable itself (although it seems to be making frequent attempts to do that already).
My earliest awareness of the daily cycle of travel was as a young child observing the disappearance and reappearance of my father, and it’s an image of the return home which persists in my memory. I would sit in my bedroom window to take in the view down the road, and watch the phenomenon as it was fifties-style: waves of largely identically dressed men – suits, bowler hats, rolled umbrellas – would be decanted along our street by each train arrival at the nearby station, and I watched until I could distinguish my father among the black suits and hats. The impression on me was such that I would play solitary games in which, with a stick, I attempted to imitate the particular way they swung their umbrellas in smooth arcs as they walked, half-synchronised with their steps like languid third legs. And even more impressive was their nonchalant way of crossing the street diagonally as they proceeded. Having been trained to look right, look left etc., and walk directly across, I would go for this much more sophisticated approach whenever unsupervised by an adult.
But of course commuting as an activity goes back a lot further in time, as I have been reading in Iain Gately’s book Rush Hour. The word itself originated in the United States in 1843, when passengers on the Paterson and Hudson River railroad were offered the opportunity to ‘commute’ their fares by buying a season ticket and getting a discount. Since then commuting by rail or Underground has become an activity where the normal rules of life can be strangely distorted. Normally etiquette forbids us physical contact with strangers – at least without a flurry of apologies if it happens – but on a crowded tube you can find yourself crushed intimately against a man or woman totally unknown to you. There has been awareness of this as an undesirable (or desirable, according to your predilections) aspect of the daily journey since Victorian times. One writer warned that the combined effects of reading stimulating popular novels while in transit, along with both sexes being packed together and shaken by the movement of the train ‘could lead to nervous collapse or the suspension of moral judgement.’
In my experience, however, quite apart from the difficulty of reading in the most crowded carriages, travel of this sort is the least orgiastic experience imaginable. The British in particular are skilled in maintaining a distant, uncommitted indifference even when someone else’s buttocks are pressed into their groin. Not so, it seems in all countries: in Japan, famous for its tightly packed metro carriages, a genre of literature and film has grown up since the publication of a story by Tayama Katai, The Girl Fetish, back in 1907. It generally features the lusting of Japan’s besuited commuters – the so-called salarymen – after schoolgirls, who in earlier times travelled to school in their kimonos. These are apparently not just stories, but extend into real life – there is an openly confident organisation called Chikan Tomo-No-Kai, or ‘The Brotherhood of Molesters’, to which quite eminent men belong.
Perhaps it was to ward off the possibility of such perversions that, at least until the time I was travelling to school, trains offered ‘Ladies Only’ compartments. A bit of googling reveals that these are still offered in Japan (not surprisingly) as well as a number of other countries, even if they haven’t been in Britain for some years. I can remember as a boy playing a silly and probably dangerous game which involved racing from the ticket barrier as the train arrived and trying to get in as near the front as possible, when one day I crashed into a compartment at the last moment only to find, as the train left, that it was Ladies Only. I was covered with confusion and embarrassment at the situation I had got myself into; but evidently the old ladies seated there found this terribly cute; they immediately adopted me as their pet for the rest of the journey. I was fussed over to such an extent that I was relieved that no other school friends had seen, and exploited the teasing potential.
However the battle of the sexes in the UK, commuting style, is not always so harmless. Many years ago I was on the tube on my way to work, having been up very late the night before before and feeling rather groggy. But I was just too late to get a seat, and was wearily strap-hanging, along with one girl beside me. I’m not sure exactly what happened next; maybe in my ennervated state I was swaying a little more than usual, and just touched her. Either way, I certainly wasn’t aware of any contact, until she suddenly turned and startled me by screaming ‘GET OFF ME!’
The rows of seated commuters jerked their heads up and stared – a goggle-eyed jury who had me instantly tried and convicted. I don’t know what the sentence would have been; luckily we were just reaching a station – not mine – but I didn’t wait to find out. I retreated hurriedly and ignominiously.
Gately’s book tells me that currently only 16.4% of commuting in the UK is by public transport. But, aside from over-packed carriages and incidents like the above, I prefer the relaxed thoughtfulness of train travel to the constant vigilance needed for driving. Many of my blog entries have been written on the train, and right now I’ve got a bit of extra time to finish this piece: I’ve just been told by the driver that there are overhead line problems at Biggleswade, and we are going to be stuck in our present position for some time.
This gives me a moment or two to reflect, tablet in hand, about why the train seems such a good place to write. It’s something to do with the suspension from regular living that a train provides – a sort of unconnected limbo that’s not anchored to any of the places which are associated in your routine with things to be done, or duties to be performed. We can add to that the gently stimulating backdrop of the landscape sliding past, giving a privileged, god-like perspective; and the fact that your attention is not demanded for any task at all, as it is for driving. The British aversion to talking to strangers on the train also helps.
So what am I going to do without this aid to creativity? I can imagine that, clutching my Senior Railcard in one hand (I’ll be needing the discount) and my tablet in the other, I may find myself on lovely, half empty midday trains headed nowhere in particular, with no other distractions, and certainly not erotic ones. Goodbye regular, bidden commuting; hello aimless, pleasurable wandering.