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Do you think this counts as Olympic travel chaos yet? I ask, jokingly. I’m on a hot, crowded Piccadilly line train that’s just pulled out of Holborn after sitting there for a few minutes after I got on. Behind me there’s a group of young tourists chattering away in another language that I don’t recognise but most people look grim faced, as people usually do on the Underground.

I’m talking to a young, dark-skinned woman wearing a headscarf standing in the corner. “Maybe not yet,” she mumbles shyly with a hint of an accent, “but it’s only going to get worse.”

Are you looking forward to it? I ask (given the atmosphere in London today, there is really no need to define what it is). “The opening ceremony, yeah,” she says. I tell her that that’s what I’m looking forward to most, I don’t really mind about the rest of it. “I’ll watch the 100 metres as well, I want to watch that,” she says.

She has become less shy now, although she keeps adjusting her headscarf, pulling it forward slightly. “Do you live locally?” she asks. Near Kings Cross, I tell her. “At least you don’t live in East,” she says. “They’ve closed loads of roads and stuff there.” Do you think it’s all worth it? “Only time will tell.”

Are you going to watch it anywhere? I ask about tonight. “No, I’ll just watch it at home. I don’t like the crowds,” she says, perhaps showing why she’s standing in the corner. She doesn’t have any tickets to events either. “Because I didn’t know if I was going to be here or not,” she says almost as an excuse.

She’s an accountant (the money’s OK but it’s “very tedious and I get bored easily”) who lives north and works just south of the river so she’ll have to be commuting across London every day during the Games. “I go in a bit later [than rush hour] though, so it should be alright.”

She asks some questions about me and our conversation is halting but comfortable. Enjoy the opening ceremony, I say as we reach my stop. “You too,” she says and we exchange a quick smile.

New Blog

Dear readers,

I’ve decided to give this blog a break. Partly, I just don’t catch the tube that often any more. However, tomorrow I’m starting a new blog that follows on from this one. It’s about doing favours for strangers, and will involve me setting off on my bike in search of people I can do things for around central London. The idea is that I’ll end up in unusual places and speak to all sorts of different people in lots of different situations. I’ll also be updating a Twitter account live as I go which you can follow here. Feel free to request favours as well!

As for this blog, it might be back for the Olympics but in the meantime, if anyone has a story about talking to people on the tube, feel free to send it to londontalkingblog@gmail.com, and I’ll be happy to post it up here.

Getting on at King’s Cross, I was immediately drawn to an older gentleman with a big white beard perched on one of those cushioned ledges, intently studying the floor of the carriage. Somehow I just knew he would be up for having a chat.

Some people treat you suspiciously when you start talking to them but I didn’t get a hint of that with him and it wasn’t awkward, despite him banging his head on the wall after a couple of sentences. Older people are often more open to chatting, I find. Although he was at least in his 70s, he had a spritely glint in his eye and later told me that his job kept him “out of mischief.” His beard was impressively white, sticking out in all directions. As we talked I noticed he also had a few prominent hairs growing on the top of his nose.

He was going into central London for a meeting with his acting agency. What kind of acting? I asked. “TV and film, I don’t like the theatre because it’s too time consuming,” he said. Stupidly, I didn’t ask what he’d been in, but it seemed like it would’ve been the wrong thing to say somehow, a little rude.

I could tell from his accent that he was a Yorkshireman, Bradford it turned out, but now he lived in the Midlands. “I love coming here though, it’s an experience travelling around on these tubes, isn’t it?”

I’ll see you on TV then shall I? I asked as we reached his stop. “You might do,” he said waggling his eyebrows mischievously. Just as the doors opened, he turned round and pointed at me from the hip with both hands. “Rave it up… ciao!” and with that was gone.

On the return journey, I sat down next to a neat-looking girl with long ginger hair, about my age, and struck up a conversation. As I’ve written before, it’s often a little awkward starting tube conversations with younger women, because either they think that I’m hitting on them, or I’m worried that they’ll think that I’m hitting on them, but this was fine and she was happy to chat and laugh.

Perhaps it’s because she was new to the city, having moved from Germany a month ago to do a PhD in neuroscience. “I was actually studying psychology, but now I’m looking at how the motor areas of the brain work.” I gave her a bit of a blank look. “We are basically holding a magnet to the head and so we can move the hand. It’s really interesting.” Sounds a little scary too, I added, a black and white clip of Frankenstein playing in my head.

She told me a bit more about the experiment and it became apparent that she was actually “a subject,” having this done to herself. “Yeah, I have to be.” What does it feel like? “You don’t feel anything. It’s strange.”

We reached her stop, said a pleasant goodbye, and she went off to experiment on brains. The tube, like London, is full of such different people doing a weird and wonderful range of different things. You never know who you’re going to meet.

A tired-looking man with a deeply lined face pierced by bright green eyes leans over the shoulder of a smartly suited man with his back to me on a busy Northern Line train. I’d say he was in his 50’s but it was hard to tell. As he reaches up to scratch his nose, I notice he’s holding a copy of the Evening Standard and use this as my introduction.

This is the first conversation I’ve had on the tube in a while and it was just as difficult as ever. A friend recently compared it to cold calling in her job. It is similar, only with cold calling at least you have a reason to be bothering someone.

Anything interesting in the paper today? I venture over the suit’s shoulder. “Not a great deal no,” he replies. There’s a pause and I wonder if I’m going to have to ask something else but he carries on: “Not a lot that would interest you anyway.” I don’t know whether to be offended or not until he continues. “They’re being urged to improve provision for the elderly. Which I’ll be interested in fairly soon.”

The train reaches the next stop and everyone shuffles around in the packed carriage as people push through to get off but we find ourselves in more or less the same position. I tell him about an elderly woman I interviewed last week and how she objected to the media portrayal of older people as a burden on society.

“What I’m more upset about is that the amount of money I’ve put into pensions over the years seems to be funding a pretty good pension for people in the pensions industry,” he smiles. It seems like a line he’s used before. “I think it’s about £120 a year after all that.” His voice is low and fairly mono-tonal but cuts crisply over the noise of the tube. It contrasts strikingly with the silence around us.

It’s melted away a bit then has it? I ask, not really knowing what the right terminology is when discussing pensions. “Through a series of redundancies and bad business times I haven’t put enough in I suppose,” he says with a touch of bitterness. “My parents’ generation were the last ones that were completely alright with government inflation linked pensions.”

“I’ve put all mine into making sure my kids have a good start. With a bit of luck they’ll be able to look after me. But if they decide otherwise then that’s my life buggered,” he laughs more genuinely this time. Better be nice to them, I say as the train comes to a stop and we are separated in another reshuffle.

Good luck, I say as I squeeze past him a stop later. “Bye then, cheers,” he nods.

Afterwards, I look for the article that he was referring to in the Evening Standard. I look through the whole paper but can’t find anything on that topic at all. Perhaps he was referring to another paper, or maybe it was just on his mind.

Aside

I got blanked! This has never happened to me before. I got on, sat down next to a middle aged woman wearing glasses and a puffer jacket. The seat to my left was empty but there were three men sitting opposite. I glanced at them, then my phone, and then turned to her.

Hi, how’s your day going? She turned, looked me in the eye and turned away to face the glass partition. The three guys opposite looked on impassively. I didn’t know what to do. I probably should have said. ‘OK don’t worry’ or something but didn’t. I felt my face flush and intently looked up at the adverts. The train came into the next station. Should I get off?

I resisted the temptation and thankfully another older woman with short hair and wearing a warm pink coat sat down on my left. Deep breath. She responded much better, flustered and laughing, but soon settled and was very friendly. I completely forgot about the other woman who stayed sitting on my right for the whole conversation.

This new, friendly lady had been shopping. “I’ve been trying to buy some shoes and now my feet hurt.” She hadn’t got any in the end and was now heading for Stratford to pick up something she’d seen earlier. I’ve heard about that shopping centre, I said, sounds a bit terrifying to me. “Well, I don’t think I’ve done all of it. I think I just get off and walk straight to John Lewis so I haven’t seen anything else.”

I said something about Meadowhall, the shopping centre in Sheffield that is commonly known as Meadowhell. “Oh my son was at uni in Sheffield,” she said, “and now he’s settled there. I don’t know if you know it, they live off Ecclesall Road.” I know it well, I told her, I grew up around there. We talked about Sheffield and London and good places to live. She didn’t think much of where I’d been living in Whitechapel or Elephant & Castle, but was pleased to hear I was moving to North East London. “There’s a lot going on there,” she said, “Not that I’d know of course!”

I told her what I missed were the hills and we went back to talking about her son and where he lived in Sheffield. “It’s right near the Botanical gardens,” she said, trying to remember the name. “East-something road.” Not Eastgrove Road? I asked. “Oh yeah that’s it!” You’re kidding! That’s actually the road I grew up on! Small world.

She lived in Epping and told me how the town had grown around her house. She said they’d thought about moving, somewhere accessible to her son in Sheffield and daughter (getting married, hence the shoe shopping) in London, but had never really got round to it. We were getting on really well but I had to stop her mid flow to tell her we’d reached my stop and say goodbye.

I gave the woman who blanked me a side glance as I left the carriage. I wonder what she had made of our conversation?

Because of my schedule and general disposition I tend to still be asleep between 8 and 9am, and as I went down to the platform I realised that I’d never actually been on the tube at morning rush hour before. The first thing that struck me was that, despite teeming with people, it’s very quiet. Changing from the Northern Line at Stockwell, the only sounds to be heard amid the surge of suited bodies coming from trains and escalators was the clicking of heels on tile, the rustle of newspapers and the occasional tinny fizz of someone else’s headphones.

This is not an easy time of day to strike up a conversation. Everyone is still waking up, on their way to work, mentally preparing themselves for the day and very much in their own world. A lot of people are reading a newspaper (mainly the free ones) or books and many have headphones in. Plus, I’m still half asleep myself.

It’s quiet on the carriage as well, and the Victoria line doesn’t have the roar and shriek of some of the other lines, so when I started talking to someone we spoke in hushed voices so as not to stand out in the silence. He didn’t actually say anything at first when I asked him about the day ahead, just shook his head. A graphic designer, he was quite shy and I felt like I was intruding a little by asking him questions. We talked for a while and I tried to lure him to tell me a bit about his life outside of work and what he did creatively but he either didn’t do anything or wasn’t willing to tell me.

Coming down from North London, a middle aged man ran onto the train as the doors beeped their closing beep, looking flustered. He fidgeted, looked rushed and uncomfortable and checked his watch, giving the general impression of a man who is running late.

I waited for him to settle down a bit and started chatting. He seemed pleased by the novelty of it and relaxed. He was a charity youth worker and I asked him if he enjoyed his job. “I love it,” he said unequivocally. “You can make a difference to someone’s life and help them turn it around. That’s important.” And do you think you do? I asked. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t,” he smiled.

So what was going to be the highlight of his day? “Going home I think.” I looked at him quizzically. “Today I’ve got to do all the admin stuff. I’m not seeing any young people.” He explained that there was a lot of paperwork involved, largely showing that what he did was effective to get funding. It sounded frustrating for someone who clearly relished the human interaction side of his job.

I told him that that was the side of my job as a bartender that I enjoyed and made it tolerable. He asked if we had a lot of regulars and if I knew what drinks they were having before they ordered. Of course, I told him, we even keep a glass in the fridge for one of them. “I think that’s something a lot of places have lost, that local feel.” He didn’t know the area I worked in. “I don’t think I’ll ever know the whole city,” he said, “it’s always changing.”

We talked at some length about London, his home for 20 years. Some people I’ve talked to have spoken almost grudgingly about London, as a place they’ve come for work and don’t really regard as home, but not this guy. “I love London. I’ve travelled around a bit but I always love coming back. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” He spoke enthusiastically, passionately even, but also very calmly. “If you like culture it’s got it all: theatre, some of the best art galleries in the world, museums, architecture.”

We reached his stop and said a pleasant goodbye, wishing each other a good day.

On the way back from seeing a friend, I got on the train to find a noisy group of people in their early 20s taking up the end of the carriage. I eavesdropped on their conversation for a while – mostly jokes at each other’s expense, some flirting between the boys and girls and lots of laughing and shrieking. A couple of older people sat opposite looked slightly put out by the commotion but everyone’s attention in the carriage was covertly on them, like we were all secretly watching a performance.

When there was a lull in the conversation between the two guys sitting next to me, I leaned over and asked where they were going. “Ministry of Sound!” they said excitedly. I laughed. My building is right next door, I told them, I even have to get the bouncers to move the barriers to let me in if there’s a big queue. “No way!” From then on they were completely engaged, like I’d joined the group. They were all studying bio-chemistry and knew each other from the course. They weren’t that drunk, but a bit merry. The two I chatted to were both fellow northerners, and full of energy and we chatted enthusiastically about living in London and our hometowns and all the usual stuff.

Getting off the train, I walked ahead, not really knowing whether to wait or not, and got separated from them. I got into the lift with a middle-aged woman who had been sitting opposite and had been watching us chat. “All going out are they?” she smiled knowingly as the doors closed. She seemed very comfortable talking to me after seeing me striking up conversation on the train. She wanted to know what it was like living next to the club. A bit loud, I told her, but I can sleep through it. Weirdly, it turned out she was involved in developing another building nearby and there had been some controversy about noise levels. Well, it’s alright for young people, I told her, but I think you’d get complaints from anyone else.

We were now chatting just outside the tube station exit, and the club-goers had caught up so, waving goodbye to her, I walked with them around the roundabout to, well, my front door, chatting as we went. Have you been before? I asked, seeing as I hadn’t. One had once. “I haven’t,” said the other, “but I broke up with my girlfriend a few weeks ago and so I thought I should make the effort to go out more.” I might come, I said, half-joking as we got to my building. “Yeah, come! Bring your flatmates!” (I’d told them I lived with a lot of Spanish girls), “We’ll buy you a drink!” I’ll think about it, I said going into my building laughing to myself.

None of the flatmates were going out, so I was sitting in my room, listening to the faint thud of the bass coming from the club and thought, oh what the hell? I don’t have work ’til four tomorrow, why not? So off I went, and the rest is a little hazy if I’m honest. I felt a little sheepish at first I must admit, but their “You made it!” attitude was put me at ease. I fessed up to writing the blog after a round of dubious blue shots which they found hilarious, promising to read about themselves later.

And Ministry? Impressive lighting, very loud sound system, great atmosphere (if a little edgy at times) and the slowest drinks service ever.

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