Eleven years ago I had the singular pleasure of having to take part in a group interview. It’s one of my enduring memories of early London life mostly because it was so excruciatingly awful. Looking back, I count myself very lucky never to have landed the job selling classified for a big magazine company. I narrowly avoided working for the 26 year old man-boy in a plastic suit who actually threw a watch at each of us demanding we ‘sell him the benefits’ of said watch. I remember the watch was massive, tacky and a bit grubby. I couldn’t think of anything it would be good for other than perhaps using it as a paper weight. Or perhaps a murder weapon. It was heavy.
But the real stand out moment was the individual pitch bit. Here we were asked what we most enjoyed about London and how we’d ‘sell it’ to a tourist. In 2 minutes. I thought I had this one in the bag. Big -blonde- pushy- snob had nothing on me, and scared-account-boy could barely speak. As for the loud lads with their floppy hair they were from London. What could they know about Tourism? Yes this was all mine. Essentially I was a tourist having been in the country about 21 days. I just had to think about what most impressed me when I arrived. I volunteered to go first (a trick I was told always got you an instant gold star. I really am just a big nerd) and blurted out, ‘The Tube!’ and began to rattle off all the reasons why I thought it was, by far, the very BEST bit of London. How whizzing across town in under 45 minutes was just a pure dream of first world capability, how the maps were readily available, how people were helpful, how you never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a train. Travel heaven.
I must have finished my evangelical sermon about the virtues of the Underground looking slightly manic and maybe a bit sweaty. No one said a word for a moment. Probably checking this crazy South African wasn’t about to start speaking in tongues, they all looked at me as though I was genuinely mad. Someone coughed. Everyone shifted in their seats and looked at their hands.
After what felt like an age, plastic suit man-boy said, ‘Well, fantastic, yes brilliant, thank you… the Tube. Interesting take. Thanks for sharing.’ And moved quickly onto to one of the floppy haired lads. I have since come to learn that when someone British says something like ‘Interesting take’ what they mean is ‘stupid idea, we’ll do the other thing’. Everyone else talked about gigs and bars and clubs. Palaces and theatre, parks and culture. Blonde pushy snob looked smug. I was out of the running.
Now in my defence, it’s also worth saying that I moved to London just after the entire Central Line was suspended for about 6 months due a serious derailment, so everyone was hating the tube. Loathing the tube in fact. It meant adding on an additional half an hour to already long commutes, rammed platforms and hellishly full carriages. I had yet to really experience the tube at rush hour in mid-summer and was blissfully unaware of the sheer horror of being trapped under someone’s armpit while they ate a garlic falafel wrap, for an hour.
For me I had no working knowledge of the red magic carpet that is the central line as it was out of action. I was also lucky enough, in those first few weeks, to be based in spitting distance of the Queen of All Tube Lines, The Jubilee. The Jubilee even sounds different to other tube trains, the swooping through Westminster, the glass doors, the shrill clipped and erudite like announcement of each station. It’s a joy. Even now moving back onto the line is cause for great excitement particularly as I get to hear the Jubilee Line Lady announce my station like it was some glamorous outpost, ‘the next station is Wiiilllllsssden Green’. Brilliant.
The thrill of just getting on a train and going somewhere, whenever and pretty much wherever you like was a huge novelty (and if I am honest, I still get excited booking trains to Europe and travelling under the sea. HOW COOL IS THAT).
On the flip-side, public transport in South Africa is almost mythical. It exists in various guises, and you can get from A to B pretty quickly, but the direct correlation between danger and speed has never been more acute. The quicker you need to get somewhere, the more you take your life in your own hands. Back in the 90s pre the Gautrain, if you were a poor sod without a car you had only a few choices. Minibus taxis and buses. We were strictly forbidden as teenagers to get in taxis, mainly due to the fact they were all apparently driven by people ‘who had got the driver’s licences out of a lucky packets’ and were frequently causing pretty major and horrific car accidents. They were always overcrowded and never used their brake lights or indicators.
Of course, being teenagers we swiftly learned the hand signals required to get a taxi to take us to town and back (one finger pointing up – to town, one finger pointing down -out of town, Simples). And we zoomed around Johannesburg, passing our money forward to the driver, being fed by the ladies in the back and crossing our fingers we didn’t get caught. There were often occasions we had to help put the sliding door back on the taxi when it fell off while moving, or had to laugh off the fact the taxi was being steered with a spanner. All true. And worse.
Buses were safer, but so infrequent and unpredictable that you had to allow an entire morning to get from A to B. I spent my first year at University (17 and not yet allowed to drive solo), waiting for the 72 bus and catching up on my Psych 101 reading. But it was also cheap. And you could smoke of the top deck. Well everyone did, and no one seemed to mind.
When I eventually got myself a car, gone were the days of blagging lifts and waiting for buses. But being based in Jo’burg I was very quickly introduced to epic traffic jams, endlessly finding petrol money and the joys of navigating pot holes on the highways. I loved my green second-hand Vauxhall Astra. It could barely get into 4th gear but she got us down to the South Coast twice and transported me through my last years at uni, and carried me between waitressing jobs and reviewing gigs for my first part time writing post.
As much as I had enjoyed the freedom of driving, moving to London and not having a car was even more liberating. No more hassling for car parking, no more fighting about designated driving responsibilities, no more worrying about theft or break ins, insurance and fuel costs. All of that gone and replaced with a cool card that swipes in and swipes out. A network of trains to get you wherever you want to go. The freedom to plug in your headphones and switch off, tune out and unwind.
Ten years on, I have developed more of a hate-love relationship with the infamous tube. I’ve fallen asleep and ended up at the end of the line and had to get 3 night buses home, been elbowed, kicked and shoved on a daily basis, I have fainted at Holborn and been stepped over by my fellow passengers, and been stuck underground with stale air and furious commuters more times than I can remember. I have sworn and shouted and been on the verge of frustrated tears due to the wrong kind of snow/leaves/dust on the line. I have cursed poor souls who take that extra step out off of the platform because they can’t walk any further in their own lives, and the endless delays.
But ultimately I stand by my 22 year old self who waxed lyrical about the system. It’s a marvel. And majority of the time it works for all 8 million of us. Almost every day of the year.
What’s your favourite tube tale/ horror story/ guardian angel moment?