As a non-Londoner, I find that the Underground works quite a bit better than its provincial counterparts. In many cities, a complaint that your train is a minute later than hoped would be met with a blank stare. In the rural depths, the fact that your weekly bus has come at all is cause for celebration. Unfortunately, the capital also tends to vindicate Eliot’s portrayal of a faceless crowd flowing over London Bridge.
On the tube we’re greeted with an impassable wall of books and newspapers. On the surface the city may be buzzing, but on some of the subterranean levels it wouldn’t seem much amiss to spot Gollum sitting quietly reading the Metro. Which is why I love those fleeting moments when two tortured souls connect – eyes meet, betray a glimmer of acknowledgment, then slide back to the stories of the day. A rare smile between strangers can make the fact that the air-conditioning has packed in and you’re stuck between stations, head wedged in an armpit, seem a little less like Armageddon.
It doesn’t have to be a case of boring your gaze through a fellow commuter’s eye-sockets until they’re forced to react with violence. Take the inevitable shared interest in a must-see headline. Granted, it can be annoying when the rest of the carriage snake their heads round your paper to study exactly who slept with whom, where and how much they were paid to say so. But it can also be reassuring to share a mutual tut and shake of the head at the shenanigans before us, or a grin at a particularly quirky morsel of news.
Sometimes, turning up the corners of your mouth and focussing on a stranger’s eyes, rather than a spot two inches behind them, may make you seem more terrifying than the most depraved psychopath. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try: one can always take refuge in a stop-by-stop analysis of the Central Line if it all goes wrong.
This article was published in The Guardian (G2 section), Tuesday 3rd August 2004