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18 December 1998

You must be mad to speak to me

A ride on the London Underground makes Christina Lamb less than proud to be British

By Christina Lamb

I tried to talk to a fellow passenger on the Tube recently. I did this, I hasten to add, not out of some strange perversion nor for a sociological study, but because for the past 11 years I have lived overseas in countries where it is perfectly normal to converse with other travellers on public transport.

Well, so much for the new, touchy-feely, post-Diana Britain. The Prime Minister might appear on Des O’Connor and go round introducing himself as “Tony”, but new Britain certainly hasn’t reached the District Line near Embankment. The moment I opened my mouth to speak, the other passengers retreated even lower behind their copies of the Evening Standard, while my chosen target looked at me with as much horror as if I had suddenly produced a blood-stained axe.

I am not accustomed to being taken for a serial killer. I’m quite harmless to look at, not an oil painting, but no disturbing facial deformities. It was an innocent remark, too, something about the unseasonably cold weather. Perhaps had things developed, I would have worked up to the impending global economic crisis or the fate of General Pinochet.

The collapse of this first attempt at intra-Tube communication was not enough to deter me. After all, in Lisbon (where I was living until recently), Madrid (where I am a regular visitor) or Johannesburg (where I have also lived), it is common to know the entire life story of the person sitting next to you by the end of a short metro journey.

My next victim was on the Piccadilly Line. The Tube shuddered horribly a few times then came to a halt in a tunnel. For a few minutes we sat there in silence, trying not to catch each other’s eyes in that English fashion. Then a bizarre announcement came over the loudspeaker : “Due to an animal on the line at Arnos Grove, there are serious delays on this service.”

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Someone giggled nervously. Interpreting this as a potential conversational gambit, I began to speculate about what kind of animal could possibly be holding up the whole of London’s underground system. It would have to be something large, I ventured, possibly a cow or a pig. Was Arnos Grove in the country, perhaps? It is one of those places I have no conception of. The other passengers shifted uncomfortably, clearly fretting that not only were they stuck in a tunnel, but also in the company of a madwoman. Later, when we finally got under way, some brave soul asked me which country I was from, and looked shocked to hear that I was English, despite my clearly English appearance and accent. The implication was clear: English People Do Not Speak to Each Other on Public Transport.

I was not at all surprised, then, to learn that a dead man had ridden round the whole Circle Line several times before anyone noticed; was declared dead by a doctor; then turned out not to be dead at all, but simply lulled into extreme torpor by travelling for too long on the Underground.

What astonishes me about the complete lack of communication is that commuters share so much suffering. Don’t the English always band together in a crisis – the old Blitz spirit?

It is a mystery to me how people put up with Tube travel, particularly those who are forced to journey at rush hour, crushed together, forced to breathe in other people’s body odours and watch their facial tics up close. Just when you think it is physically impossible for anyone else to squeeze in, a large Belgian with an oversized orange rucksack always forces his way on.

Much of the past 11 years I have spent in so-called third world countries, yet never have I come across such an unpleasant transport system. Give me a Zambian bus packed with chickens, goats and sacks of finger bananas any day over the Central Line at 5.30pm. The metro systems of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo or Caracas are a positive joy after the London Tube. Perhaps not a Peruvian train, with its delicate aroma of llama foetuses that the women carry in their pockets – though the Northern Line to Morden after the pubs close on a Saturday night is a close contender. Despite having lived in three of the world’s most dangerous cities – Rio de Janeiro, New York and Johannesburg – the only place I have ever been mugged was at Morden station.

So submissive are we once we descend those escalators into London’s underworld that we let the masters of the Underground address us in the most ridiculous language. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have been on a Tube delayed because of “an incident on the line”. Imagine calling someone to cancel an appointment and saying: “I’m sorry, but I can’t make it because of an incident in my house/office.”

“Security alerts” I can forgive, but other examples of Tubespeak would fill a dictionary. The other day I was informed that, “there is no service on this line because the Fire Brigade has been called out”. Where have they been called out to? Is there a fire? I was quite relieved another day to be told there were delays because of an “absence of drivers”. At least that made sense, though it did occur to me to think that the minimum requirement of a transport system is to make sure that there are drivers for their trains.

Standing on a packed platform, watching rats at play along the lines and having to put an apple core in my pocket because there are no bins, I can’t help cringing at the thought of all those articles I have written as a foreign correspondent, criticising conditions in far-flung places. I’m embarrassed to take visitors from abroad on the Tube, knowing it will for ever wreck their image of England as clean and efficient, let alone green and pleasant.

So if a tall woman with short fair hair starts talking to you on the District Line, please take pity and reply.

Christina Lamb writes for the “Sunday Telegraph”

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