Along the article he writes on economics, sociology and psychology of commuting at both such early hour and in general.
The romantic side of the first train is harder to define. It’s something to do with the secret nightlife of the city, the London that is carrying on while the rest of London fidgets in its sleep. There’s a romance attending on those jobs, the ones that keep things running all night long: it’s part of the fascination of big cities, the sense that something is always going on somewhere, even in the smallest of small hours. Bakers and police and nurses and cab drivers and market porters all belong to that secret city, the one which rumbles along so late it starts to get early. Once or twice, carrying on a long evening by going to the place after the place I started, and then to the place after that, I’ve ended up in versions of this super-late or super-early London. I remember once, back in the days when journalism was wilder than it is now, ending up in the place-after-the-place-after-the-place with a group of sports desk colleagues: a packed Greek taverna, surrounded by people howling for more retsina, waiters swerving between tables carrying platters of burnt meat, the room not merely loud but roaring, and looking at my watch to see that it was a quarter to four in the morning – and the point that struck me was that everyone around seemed to regard it as perfectly normal.
This was my romantic version of the first train: that it was populated by inhabitants of this Baudelairean secret London. The truth is more banal, and it becomes clear, not so much at Upminster – since, after all, Upminster is a relatively posh suburb, out past the East End where things are starting to feel vaguely, suburbanly rural. No, it’s a few stops before you realise who these people getting on the train are, bone-tired but indefatigable. By Dagenham East, a few minutes after 5am, the first train on the network is already packed, up to standing room only, and the people with whom it is packed are cleaners on their way to work. That’s the unromantic truth about this version of the secret city. Once you get past Temple, the throng starts to thin out again, because the people who live in the east are going to work in the financial district; the trip to work goes from out to in. Nobody commutes from Sloane Square out to Hammersmith, or from Westminster to Richmond. Once the District line train gets past the City, it’s practically empty, the emptiest it’s been at any point on the journey so far today. Then it gets to Richmond and turns around to head back the other way – except this time it’s carrying not poor people who are going to clean offices, but much richer people on their way to early-starting jobs in the financial sector.
Cinema has covered tubes:
There are quite a few novels and films and TV programmes about Glasgow. Where are the equivalent fictions about the underground? New York has any number of films about its subway – The Warriors, the John Carpenter movie from 1979, is one of the best of them, and explicitly celebrates the network’s geographical reach across the whole city, from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to Coney Island. New York also hasJoseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123, an all-subway-locatedthriller, among many other cinematic depictions. Paris has the Luc Besson film Subway, and plenty of other movies. London has next to nothing. (Let’s gloss over the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors – though not before noting that the crucial moment when she either does or doesn’t catch the train is on the District line, at Fulham Broadway. Spoiler alert: in the version in which she rushes and successfully catches the train, she dies. A District line driver would call this a useful reminder that this isn’t the national rail network, and there will be another one along in a minute.) There’s a wonderfully bad Donald Pleaseance movie from 1972 called Death Line, set entirely in Russell Square underground station; there were some episodes of Doctor Who in the 60s, which seemed scary at the time, about the tube network being taken over by robot yetis. To a remarkable extent, though, that’s it. London is at the centre of innumerable works of fiction and drama and TV and cinema, but this thing at the heart of London life, which does more to create the texture of London life than any other single institution, is largely and mysteriously absent.
Skyfall is a welcome addition to the filmography not just of the underground but of the District line itself. The station through which Bond chases his love interest, played by Javier Bardem – sorry, villain, I meanvillain – is clearly identified as Temple, on the District line, and the crowded train he gets on is shown as a District line train, too.
What is commuting?
“Commute” in its original sense means to give something in exchange for something else, or to change one thing into another. A criminal sentence might be “commuted” from, say, hanging to life imprisonment. The word crossed over to use in a railway context in the US, where regular travellers began to swap day tickets for better-value season tickets; they “commuted” their daily tickets into season tickets. The Oxford English Dictionary locates the first instance of the modern, dragging-your-weary-bones-to-work sense in the American magazine the Atlantic Monthly, which defined a commuter as follows: “one who purchases a commutation ticket”. A commutation ticket was the American term for a season ticket. Commuters commuted “commute”.
This kind of travel, commuting in the modern sense, was a new thing: travelling a considerable distance, there and back every day, in order to work in one place while you lived in another. It was to be central to the growth of the modern city, with London as the first and biggest example of its importance: the modern map of London, the modern city, was created by commuting. One of the consequences of it, gently hinted at by Christian Wolmar in The Subterranean Railway, was that people had more sex – they moved to bigger houses, where they could sleep in separate bedrooms from their children.
Commuting is interesting and important for another reason, too. It was a new kind of time in the day: an interstitial mental space between home life and work. Companies such as Starbucks talk about, and try to position themselves in, what they call the “third place”, between work and home. Commuting can be a mental form of “third place”. It can be when people get some of their most sustained reading or thinking done, their most extended daily period of introspection or of listening to music. In order to be that, though, the commute has to be sufficiently reliable and sufficiently comfortable to not introduce extra difficulties into the day: if your commute is a source of stress and hassle, then you aren’t likely to accumulate any benefit from it. My first commuting days were on the District line – Parsons Green to Earl’s Court and then Earl’s Court to Euston Square – and one of the things I remember most vividly about it was the sense that it was a new thing, different from any other travel I’d ever done. My own experience was that commuting was two entirely different things: a packed, unpredictable, airless standing trip to work, during which it was impossible to read because there wasn’t space to hold a book in front of my face; then, at the other end of the day, a calmer, more reliable, often seated, reading-friendly trip home.
Overall a very good read. He misses mentioning Mumbai while covering Cinema covering “tubes”. Slumdog Milloinaire had quite a bit of Mumbai’s Tube in the movie..
What about other aspects? I guess many things will be similar in Mumbai’s first local of the morning as well (on all three lines). People who make the city function would be taking the first morning locals. What about the commuting? Well less said the better. Unlike the experiences mentioned in tube, most people here want to see the journey end as soon as possible. It isn’t a good experience at all..