Tormented by slogans on public transport, I plot my own meltdown, manbag in hand

TFL’s new warning offers those who do not live in London another reason to be glad they don’t.

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I am in sole possession, for the next seven days, of an extremely chic flat in West Kensington, cat-sitting. The cat, a black Persian of venerable years, is called Mrs Peel. How could you not love a cat called Mrs Peel, nor respect the person who named her that? I have been told that woe will betide me should anything happen to this cat, but as I have cat-sat a 15-year-old one (also black, by an odd coincidence) within the past few months with nothing to show for it but the cat’s undying esteem, I am not very worried.

I am a bit worried, though, about the flat. As I mentioned last week, even the sugar bowl makes me feel like something Mrs Peel dragged in, and the sugar bowl is by no means the swankiest item in the place. The meanest object is the TV, a purely utilitarian artefact which occupies, when viewed from the sofa, roughly the same arc of vision as a business card held 12 inches from your face. This shows the right priorities.

I have banned myself from using the fancy plates and assorted crockery, and am already, at 1pm, in a sweat about holding a glass of red wine, unsupervised, anywhere near the cream carpet this evening. The Hovel’s carpet was of such a colour that you could tip any amount of red wine onto it and the only way anyone could tell you’d done so would be to feel for dampness or get down on their knees and smell it.

I wonder what could possibly go wrong. The mind reels. Immediately after B—, Mrs Peel’s owner, left the building, I turned on the main overhead light and somewhere within the exquisite art deco chandelier a light bulb went BANG. That’s a great start, I thought.

I spent the next couple of hours just sitting carefully on the sofa, while somewhere underneath it Mrs Peel made odd grunting noises in her sleep. At least that means she’s still alive. (Mrs Peel, I am pleased to say, has developed what looks like a deep affection for me, but this might be only to make B— jealous and teach her a lesson. “Divide and rule,” says B—, “that’s her policy.”)

So at some point I am going to have to go outside. I will, of course, be terrified of leaving my keys behind, or leaving them somewhere else; I am worried about everything that can happen to me. A few minutes ago I looked at the most drenching rainstorm I have ever seen in London and thought: I’m not going out in that, I’ll get swept out to sea.

I am also worried that I will get on a bus and have to hear the new safety message that goes: “Please hold on, the bus is about to move”. Those of you who do not live in London now have another reason to be glad you don’t. Whenever I hear this announcement, which on some of the routes I take can be more than 20 times, I feel my hair turn a little greyer, my blood become a little more pressurised, the valves of the aorta a little more constricted.

The thing is, you want to say, either everyone on the bus is sitting down, so they don’t really have to hold on to anything, or those that are standing up are so wedged together that there is no room to fall. One wonders if the pavements will one day be equipped with loudspeakers reminding us to put one foot in front of the other when walking, or to obey the laws of gravity.

I called the Transport for London press office to ask if they had any figures for people who had been killed or injured by failing to hold on when the bus moved off prior to this announcement’s adoption, and they said 4,900-odd a year, but they’re not sure how many of those were injured because they weren’t holding on. I am taking that figure with a pinch of salt.

Or if I do not take a bus, I will have to take a train or a Tube, and will be forced to listen to the anti-terrorist announcement that ends with the words, “See it. Say it. Sorted.” And I will run amok on the platform, screaming incoherent curses in rage and beating random members of the staff and public about the head with my manbag, until I am restrained and placed in protective custody under the provisions of the Mental Health Act 2013. And who will feed Mrs Peel then?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration