It’s a fairly regular occurrence when I make the trip down from North Yorkshire to London: I find myself at the Underground turnstile, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of commuters, each entirely focused on where they want to be, the day they have ahead of them and invariably late or at least hurrying to reach their destination.
As I swipe my pass across the turnstile, jostling with the commuter pack, it surges and ebbs like an angry tide, breaking over the turnstile point like water over rocks. That’s when it happens:
That’s the dread message displayed when your pass isn’t working correctly, your ticket isn’t recognised or the turnstile is simply having a bad day. The challenge from that point is to fight your way back through the unforgiving crowd like a salmon fighting against the current, pushing past each unaccommodating individual; shoulders meeting, testing, pushing as angry faces scowl at you and the impediment you represent to their journey.
The juxtaposition of the message and the situation never fails to strike me; where am I going to find assistance in this unforgiving crowd? Not in the sea of scowling, pushing, rushing commuters certainly. Each individual whose only crime is to have reached the gate and been denied access is bumped and jostled as they make their pilgrimage to the elusive man or woman in an orange tabard who represents salvation in this mass of anonymous, yet utterly hostile individuals.
Why are London commuters always in a rush? What is it about a London commute that drains all cheer, compassion, camaraderie from people whom I can only assume lead normal, sociable lives in the world at large? It’s surely not possible that the station is entirely populated by surgeons, doctors, hostage negotiatiors for whom every tick of the clock represents a life lost or hanging in the balance.
There’s a noticeable transition from boarding the train in Yorkshire, where you can snatch the occasional nod or smile, where passengers bend and give way to accommodate each other and basic courtesies like “excuse me” and “thank you” are still observed.
What’s worst about all this is that after only few hours in the capital I can feel myself doing the same thing. My head goes down, my shoulders tense and I push, weave and nudge my way past the tourists, children, elderly and other “inconveniences”. My transformation is complete as I scowl at those who stand in my way and ponder desperately the time at which I’ll reach my ulltimate destination.
There must surely be hope left for humanity; at some point in the future we’ll reach a collective realisation that the world won’t end if our journey is extended by 5 or 10 minutes, that the daily grind of shuffling and drifting alongside thousands of others would be eased ever so slightly if we all tried to get along a little better.
At some point in this heavenly future the the machine will beep seek assistance and the beleagured individual will be gently eased to the orange-clad individual by gentle, smilling individuals easing back the required 5 inches to allow comfortable passage to the assistance point.
We can make this happen. You can make this happen. Take a breath, think about the bigger picture and then reflect on how you can help the next person who needs to seek assistance.