1. The Button Presser

    Posted June 28, 2017 in transport  |  4 Comments so far

    You sense the train’s deceleration and get up from your seat.

    You are the first person to get to the door of the train. This is not what you wanted to happen. Because this means that you will be the Button Presser.

    As the train slows further and moves into the station the rest of us gather behind you. Getting the measure of you. Do you know what you’re doing? Do you understand what being a Button Presser involves? Will one of us have to take over?

    You’ve done this before, of course you have, but this is something you can’t just say outright. No words are to be spoken here: your actions will tell us what we need to know. The choreography is subtle but each step has escalatory potential. Moving your hand to the button too soon will come across as naive and unrealistic, but leave it too late and we’ll think you’re oblivious to the meaning and purpose of the Button. One of us may have to intervene.

    And there are more of us now, crowding round the door, waiting for the Moment, the Moment when the Button will become active and you will face your true test. When that light comes on, you will have half a second to respond. Leave it any longer and one of us will lean past you with a exasperated sigh to press it ourselves. You will have been stripped of your ceremonial role as the Button Presser without honour or dignity. No-one wants that. (Secretly, some of us would relish it.)

    The train comes to a halt and the pressure becomes too much to bear. You begin to frantically, repeatedly hammer the Button long before its light will appear. The train is oblivious — the Button isn’t active yet — and we’re surprised too, you didn’t seem like the button-mashing type. It’s panicked and needy. Where’s your sense of timing?

    Finally, the light around the Button illuminates and quickly dims again as it meets your volley of taps. The door is open and we are leaving the train. As Button Presser you did… alright. You avoided our censure, yes. But you did not earn our respect.


    EDIT: a couple of people on Twitter have pointed out an even worse situation: where you have to lean out of the window on a big cross-country train to get the door open, an act that demands a combination of expertise and strength. It reminded me of a time in Cornwall a few months ago when I failed to do this and had to be rescued from the train by someone on the platform. My memory of the incident is a blur but I think I tried to pretend the door was faulty.


  2. From the archives: my post from 7th July 2005

    Posted July 7, 2016 in Diary  |  1 Comment so far

    This is a blog post I wrote (on Livejournal) at lunchtime on 7th July 2005, the day 52 people were killed in terrorist attacks on the London transport network. This was written not long after midday and, as the final sentence shows, before the full horror of the attacks had come to be known.


    I’ve just got back home from Yorkshire via central London, and thought I’d write an account of the morning’s events while my memories are still fresh…

    I arrived at Kings Cross from York at 9.30 and was initially annoyed that the staircase down to the tube platforms was sealed off. That annoyance turned to genuine bafflement when it turned out that the whole station was sealed off, and the police weren’t letting anyone out.

    The exit to York Road was still open, though, so I came out and turned right, expecting to have to walk along to Euston Square. That turned out to be a daft idea when I saw the chaos outside the station – the roads were gridlocked, and people were swarming everywhere. I decided to head down to Russell Square and either get a bus or hop on the Piccadilly line (if it was running).

    Loads of people had the same idea as me, so I weaved through the confused commuters and was eventually coming down Marchmont Street towards Russell Square station when I heard a loud explosion. That was the bus on Tavistock Square, but I didn’t know it was a bus at the time.

    I kept walking until a wave of panicking people shouting “go back!” swept past me in the other direction. A policewoman walking behind them confirmed that it was indeed an explosion and that the whole area was being sealed off. At this point I thought I’d phone the office to tell them I wouldn’t be able to make it in.

    As I made my way eastwards, there were still huge waves of commuters coming down towards Russell Square who were unaware of Tavistock explosion. It was impossible to get them all to turn back, so those of us heading away just talked to who we could and pushed against the tide.

    Eventually I made it back to Angel, via quite a roundabout station-avoiding route. What I’d heard at this point, through text message exchanges with Guy and brief phone conversations with Fiona at work, was that there had supposedly been a series of power surges on the tube network, that it had been shut down, and that people with blackened faces had been emerging from tube stations. I knew that power surges weren’t to blame at Tavistock Square, having heard the explosion, and the general semi-militarisation that had gripped central London – helicopters circling overhead, police everywhere, entire areas roped off.

    The bus I boarded at Angel had just been prevented from going south of City Road, so it had kicked out the passengers turned round to go back towards Hackney. Within seconds of sitting down we new passengers were all talking about the “situation”.

    Everyone was quite surprised to hear about the Russell Square explosion, but a few minutes into the journey we all got a bit of a shock when we found out that it had been a bus. I got a text from my flatmate saying “stay off the buses!” just as an American, on the phone to his net-surfing wife, got the same piece of news. The conductor wasn’t happy to hear this at all, and spoke of resigning, while we all laughed nervously and seriously considered leaping off at the next set of lights.

    So eventually I made it back home and wrote this blog entry. Looking back at the events of the last few hours, a few things come to mind: for example, the speed at which the police had sealed off the Russell Square area was surprising. They were roping off the bottom of Marchmont Street within two minutes of me hearing the explosion, which goes how to show how serious the situation was being taken by them even then, fairly early on.

    Also, the initial story about power surges would seem to have been intended to enable a mass evacuation of the tube network without an accompanying mass outbreak of panic. It’s strange to imagine what the atmosphere would have been like at Kings Cross at 9.30am if it was common knowledge that bombs had been going off; most of us were in the state of agitated determination that commuters enter when tube lines are shut down and routes need to be recomputed. If panic had swept through the crowd, it would have been a shitstorm.

    At the time of writing it looks as though the fatality rate is low – two dead at Aldgate – so let’s hope that that remains the case.


  3. Brutalism & sticks

    Posted May 4, 2015 in Uncategorized  |  No Comments so far

    via Instagram http://ift.tt/1OUFflo


  4. Coping with rudeness in London

    Posted August 8, 2012 in London  |  No Comments so far

    There are lots of great things about living in London. If there weren’t, why would we stick around? For the weather?

    But life in a city as big as this has its challenges, not least of which is the sheer number of people here. With millions of Londoners trying to go about their busy lives, we rely on the politeness of others to keep us sane. And when this politeness breaks down – when fellow Londoners cross the line into outright rudeness – it can make even the most patient of us lose our cool pretty quickly.

    Rudeness in London can take many forms. Failing to stand aside to let others leave the tube. Talking loudly on the phone in restaurants or cafés. Showing scant regard for the (admittedly archaic) rules of the bus queue. Nearly everyone who lives in London has a personal bugbear, a rude behaviour that winds them up beyond belief.

    Getting wound up is one way to respond to rudeness, but it’s not the best: life’s stressful enough already so why let more tension into our lives? We need to handle rudeness differently, to keep our stress levels down and those grey hairs at bay. And there are three options: to Flee, to Fudge, or to Fight.

    1 – Flee

    The more people there are, the ruder they get

    Do you hate rudeness so much that you just want it out of your life for good? Then Flee might be the strategy for you. Taking drastic steps now can significantly reduce the levels of rudeness you’re exposed to. We’re not talking about moving out of London here – let’s not be silly. We’re talking about changing your daily routine so that when rudeness is on the cards, you’re out of sight.

    What makes people rude? Lots of things, from bad weather to bad coffee, but one thing that’s guaranteed to make people behave rudely is other people. Especially when there are lots of other people. Ever felt snappy and irritable when standing alone on sun-drenched shore? No, me neither.

    Learn the times and places where your routine will bring you into contact with rude people, and avoid them. This is the essence of the Flee strategy. Some ideas for how you could put it into practise:

    • Seek obscurity – London is a huge city with lots to offer. So why do so many of insist on frequenting the same jam-packed bars and restaurants as everyone else, when we’re just going to encounter stress and rudeness? Do some research online and find the hidden gems in your area, where there will no doubt be lots of pleasant, quiet places. Heading off the beaten track will get you away from the crowds and you’ll find that people are politer.
    • Early bird – The morning rush hour reaches its height at around 8.30am. This is when the tube is busiest and commuters become the most brutal. Because this is when most of us are trying to get to work, we end up experiencing a lot of rudeness – in fact it can take nearly all day to unwind from the stress of the morning commute. So why not try to adjust your daily routine to start the day earlier and leave work earlier? London is a nicer place when the streets are quiet.
    • Walk a bit further to the quieter stop, trading a bit of time for a rudeness-free journey

      One stop ahead – Another Flee tactic is to think about the bus stops and tube stations you use. Maybe you’re exposing yourself to unnecessary rudeness levels by getting on at busier stops. If so, consider using stops a bit further back on your route even if it means walking slightly further. Getting on buses or trains when they’re quieter might take more time, but if rudeness is seriously getting you down, it might be worth your while.

    If Flee is the right strategy for you, you’ll no doubt have lots of other ideas about how to adapt it to your own lifestyle or routine. You might even discover a calm, hidden side of London that no-one else knows about. If you do, please tell me about it.

    2 – Fudge

    The British are globally renowned for their passive aggressiveness. It helps us make others know how we feel, without committing the grave faux pas of making a scene in public.

    The only problem is that passive aggressiveness is only effective when it’s understood, like a language. All the passive aggressiveness in the world won’t have an effect on someone who’s oblivious to its signals. This is why tourists often persist in having a good time in London despite our pointed stares and aggravated tuts – they’re completely oblivious to them.

    This doesn’t mean that passive aggressiveness can’t be a solution to Londoners’ rudeness problems, however. It’s worked for generations of Londoners so why can’t it work for us? Here’s how we can respond to rudeness by simply fudging it:

    • Non-verbal disapproval – Tuts, exhalations. Younger Londoners might want to try sucking air through their teeth, but if you’re over 25 don’t try this, you’ll look and sound daft. (Make sure you don’t do it too loudly though, otherwise people might think you’re mad)
    • Silent venting – Experienced rudeness? Venting can help. Maintain your cool, get out your smartphone, and share a snarky update with the world via Facebook or Twitter (or if you’re old-fashioned about these things, text your best pal). Lots of people do this: search Twitter for “on the bus” and you’ll see a stream of commuters venting about the inconsiderate, unsanitary and downright rude behaviour of bus passengers the world over. It might not send a message to the rude person but at least you get to air your frustration to the world at large.
    • The secret posse – rudeness is easier to cope with if we feel like we’re getting other people involved, and there are ways to do this without causing an unsightly public confrontation. The technique to master is eye contact. By making the right sort of eye contact with other victims of the rudeness – disapprovingly raised eyebrows, subtle head-shakes, rolling your eyes to the sky – you send the signal that you’ve noticed the rudeness and that you don’t approve. If you get eye contact in acknowledgement, congratulations: you have a secret posse! Your distaste at the rudeness is shared with fellow Londoners and you will all feel much better for it.

    Use eye contact to recruit a secret posse. You’ll feel better without making a scene

    But this strategy is only useful because it makes us feel better. We end up thinking we’ve done something about rude behaviour through passive aggressiveness, but because rude people don’t understand passive aggressiveness they’re completely oblivious.

    If you want to really get the message across to rude people, you have to do better than fudge: you have to Fight.

    3 – Fight

    It would be great if rude people were challenged in public about their behaviour. Before too long they’d be shamed into being better citizens and life would be easier for the rest of us.

    But this isn’t New York – this is London, where people hate making a scene in public so don’t like to confront rudeness openly. This means that the third strategy, Fight, is a tricky one for Londoners to adopt and needs to be carefully calibrated if it’s going to work.

    Imagine you’re queuing for tube tickets and someone with a rucksack and camera appears to be pushing in. Maybe they’re doing it on purpose, maybe they aren’t: well-meaning tourists often get these things wrong and tube stations can be confusing. Even still, you’re thinking that something needs to be said.

    Just as you’re clearing your throat to correct this errant individual, a man behind you loses his patience and shrieks in rage. His outburst has something uncontrolled, frantic, almost animal about it, and although largely incomprehensible there was definitely a swearword in there. Rather than rallying around this unwanted hero, everyone in the queue averts their gaze, embarrassed on his behalf. He is now the social pariah and the tourist’s transgression is forgotten.

    This is an example of how fighting rudeness can misfire and cast you, not the rude person, as the villain. To prevent this happening you must follow the three cardinal rules of the Fight strategy:

    • No fudging! Clearly register your disapproval with the rude person
    • No hysterics! Establish yourself as the most socially adjusted person in the situation
    • Take the lead! Make sure others are aware of what you’re doing

    Each of these points is as important as the other. You must make sure that the rude person is aware of your challenge – if they aren’t you’re simply Fudging, which is something else entirely. You can’t get too angry or hysterical and you have to know when to stop – if you seem unhinged or furious the rude person could turn this to his or her advantage. And you have to make your challenge public – don’t just take the rude person aside, they have to get the impression that it’s not just you who is offended by the behaviour.

    All this sounds difficult, but there is a weapon we all have up our sleeves that can help: humour.

    Being funny and assertive: the best way to fight rudeness without being rude

    As this diagram shows, it’s sometimes possible when fighting rudeness to actually be rude yourself. On the other end of the scale though you can be assertive, you can be funny, or – best of all – you can be both assertive and funny. This is the best way to fight rudeness.

    Being funny can get a laugh from everyone around you, making the confrontation public; it establishes you as the socially adjusted person, rather than a scarily intense vigilante; and it makes the rude person get the message without feeling like you’re picking a fight.

    So let’s go back to our example of the tube ticket queue, where someone has pushed in. Rather than losing his rag and screaming, the vigilante could have used humour in his response:

    • Gesturing at the queue and saying, “Not so fast! Suffer with the rest of us” – this works because it includes everyone else through body language and directs the blame towards the general chaos of the station, not the queue-jumper
    • Ironically praising the queue-jumper’s enthusiasm for getting to work
    • Directly telling the person that they need to queue, then saying to everyone else “We’re obviously not queuing hard enough!” – again, this involves the others but still gets the message across to the rude person

    You have to be concise, otherwise people won’t understand what you’re saying; avoid condescension, so you don’t come across like a snob; try to work in a sardonic reference to your circumstances, to create a bond between you and everyone within earshot; and don’t be too self-deprecatory as this can take you into passive-aggressive territory.

    Of course this is easier said than done! But practise makes perfect.
    And don’t worry if you don’t feel up to fighting rudeness – you can always Fudge or Flee, and your fellow Londoners won’t think any less of you for it.


  5. Kerry & Mick – a love story that deserves to be told

    Posted October 25, 2011 in Diary  |  No Comments so far

    Back in 1999 I was living in Whitechapel, near a couple called Mick and Kerry who spent a year or so having a passionate love affair.

    We all knew this because their affair was being conducted in full view of the public. On several walls near my flat, they’d been having the written-language equivalent of fantastic sex for all to see.

    always-you-i-love-you

    Love's light shines brighter than the BNP's

    The graffiti started appearing in March 1999, appearing first on the wall pictured above and then spreading slowly onto a disused old doorway across the street. These spray-painted messages of love became quite wild and transcendental at one point; this next one sees both Kerry and Mick touching the infinite.

    love-is-god

    "Kerry is god... Love is god..."

    But being extremely versatile communicators they weren’t limited strictly to the grandiose; they knew how to be succinct as well.

    Always You Kerry

    The small sign says "Oil fill to be kept locked at all times"

    By the summer there was quite a lot of Mick and Kerry graffiti. Who were Mick and Kerry? Where did they live? What kind of a strange relationship did they have, that their intimate pledges of love were spilling out in front of an intrigued if bemused public?

    Mick I love you Kerry god knows

    I'm pretty sure Kerry was behind this one but it's hard to tell

    The messages stopped appearing in early autumn 1999. I imagined several possible reasons for this.

    Firstly, I honestly couldn’t think of anywhere else they could spread their messages to. They’d taken up almost all of the available free space, and it wouldn’t have been in the spirit of things to expand to another street.

    Secondly, the graffiti could have been a by-product of the honeymoon phase of their affair. Maybe their relationship was at a more mature stage with dinner parties starting to replace amorous late-night graffiti.

    Thirdly, their red spraycan might have finally run dry.

    As time went by, it seemed that we’d heard the last from Mick and Kerry, that their story would remain an enigmatic mystery. But several months later a new message appeared – from a devastated Mick.

    Kerry - miss you like mad - Mick

    Maybe Mick scratched this into the wall with his bare hands?

    Our local love story had reached a tragic conclusion, made all the more poignant by Mick’s last lament being scratched on to a door with a piece of metal.

    And that was that for Mick and Kerry. None of the questions I had about them would ever be answered, but there’s one thing I did know for sure; somewhere, in a flat near mine, was a failed graffiti artist with a broken heart. And somewhere else – maybe very far away by this time – was a mad girl called Kerry with a red spraycan.

    The whole doorway

    The whole doorway