The moment of crisis came deep in the swarming bowels of Green Park station. We had spent the previous 45 minutes fighting through the Saturday morning Tube ticket scrum-queue at Victoria, riding one stop in a standing crush, then elbowing a painful passage to the Jubilee northbound platform. And when we finally got there, a handscrawled whiteboard informed us that the line was closed for planned engineering works. Since our final destination was Kilburn, a tense, verging-on-furious and oft-jostled consultation suggested that our only hope was to go back on the Victoria line to Oxford Circus, change to the Bakerloo for Baker Street, then find a replacement bus. A prospect almost too horrible to contemplate.
“The solution,” said Mrs Brit, “is to check on the internet to see which lines are closed before you come to London, and then plan a route.”
“The solution,” I replied, “is to not live in, visit or even go near to London ever, ever again for as long as we live.”
But some time later, upstairs in the Magdala’s old-fashioned dining rooms, ensconced snugly in a brown leather armchair and sipping a pint of Fuller’s Pride amongst loved ones, London didn’t seem so bad after all. As with mothers and the pain of childbirth, the human brain deliberately weakens the memory of London transport because otherwise nobody would risk it twice.
The outside-the-box solution we eventually hit upon was to take the Victoria line north to Highbury & Islington, then the overland train west to a mobile phone-revised destination of Hampstead Heath. When it comes to complex directional decision-making under pressure, my approach is to slow right down, stroke my chin and contemplate the map with the deep deliberation of the chess grandmaster. Mrs B’s approach, by contrast, is to speed up and rely on instinct– the Blink method, if you like. This doesn’t necessarily make for harmonious relations in the middle of a sea of pushing tourists, but between us we seem to get there.
Has it occurred to you that the underground train systems of the world’s great cities are a neat microcosmic representation of that city, or country, as a whole? The Paris Metro is dirty, unfriendly, the map purposefully confusing to the outsider, but once you get attuned to it you can sort of see the appeal. In Berlin everything is clean, efficient and clearly signposted. A breeze, in other words. A cold, cold breeze. The London Underground is a bloody mess that, against all odds and by the skin of its teeth, somehow makes it through each day. Splurged on top of a solid bedrock of evocatively-named stations (plus the design genius of the Tube map), is all the chaos of entrepreneurial, multicultural London. Sometimes it makes you long for some Germanic top-down planning. They have plasma screen technology in there, but instead of using it for, say, handy up-to-the-minute travel information in multiple languages, they scribble illegible notices on whiteboards and use the screens for adverts, just so much more visual ‘noise’ in the clamouring, clashing, brain-aching bedlam of the Tube. Exhausting.
Ultimately, I suppose, coping with crowds is the issue. Some thrive in it, most of us just have to find a way of dealing with it. It is possible to take solace in London’s sheer anonymity. It takes the pressure off; you’re there, then you’re gone. You really are a nobody to everybody. Except of course, to your friends and loved ones, ensconced in cosy leather armchairs upstairs in a pub. And who gives a damn about the rest? Let them swarm and jostle, outside.