Talking Carriages

Inside the mind of a typical commuter on the 0845 to Paddington.  The first two trains were cancelled and there is no room to sit.  Everyone is standing in the walkway in the quiet carriage.  Where everyone is bound by the same rule.  To be quiet.


Sometime, probably after the Blitz, it became somewhat un-British to talk to people you didn't know.

Especially on trains.

Look around you.  Discreetly, of course.  What are people doing?  They are, probably, cocooned within themselves.  Looking at screen, reading the metro or encased within big, wraparound headphones.  Everything, everyone owns their solitude, for fear of talking to each other.

There could be good reasons for this.  Perhaps it’s because in 2007 a group of men blew themselves up on a tube train.  Oh, and that poor Brazilian guy who got shot for running away at the wrong time.  Is that why it's not good to look at other people or talk, or smile because perhaps you're threatening, perhaps you are the threat because such behaviour is abnormal.

But.  Is this so, when did conversation and acknowledgement of other humans become a threat?

It could be the modern urban environment.  We all know that it’s dangerous to engage.  You are just asking for trouble.  Don't whatever you do, make eye contact, there could be beggars around.

Perhaps that's another reason.  Engaging with people is trouble, especially when there are a lot of people all crammed together in metal boxes all heading in the same direction to sit, opposite a computer somewhere and conduct most of their interactions through electronic words, squeezed into and around emails.  

“Kind regards and best wishes.”  Hollow expressions of informal acceptance that don't really mean much.

Perhaps this is what we settle for as an interactions now - kind words in emails and posts.  Click if you 'like' me.  Like the playground when you were a kids - walking around in a chain ‘Join on if you want to play ‘Action force.’

But back then, it was real.  If you had to ask someone something, you had to physically ask them - not just ‘drop them a text’.  With technology, it seems we are absent. It’s just too real to talk to people.  Better to use the screen, you can always walk away from that without being too embarrassed in public. Leave twitter.  Switch off your phone, put it in a draw and walk away.

Wait but won’t your friends worry.  Best to check again in an hour, wait, make it thirty minutes.  Wait, make it five.  

So welcome back, you can occupy yourself quite happily in your own little head, in your own little portable appliance, while you stream the most popular music of the day, while everyone else around you does the same.  All of us, all the time, committing some vast amorphous mass of virtual content, that just grows and grows and goes nowhere.

Unlike the people on the carriage, who carry on forward, wait for the doors to open and they can all get out, and get on with things.  Not have to spend time, doing nothing in the company of others.  Careful there - that’s when the panic starts if you’re not occupied.  The thoughts race.

What if I did this, what if I did that?  What would people think if I did this?  All of us together, but all of us alone.

Shhh...calm it down.  Distract yourself. Revert to the traditional British pasttime of quietly judging others.  Generally, those who are making more noise than you - which because you're alone is generally anyone who is talking to someone else.  They'd probably be friends, or worse, people with small children, or even groups of children, being loud.  All of these people are not adhering the British values of being seen and not heard, how dare they live and have life in the presence of people who just want silence...

But do we though?  Do we just want to be left alone?

More and more of us suffer from anxiety.  More and more are lonely.  This isn't something that we readily admit to.  Again, it takes us back to feeling judged.  If I admit to being alone, if I admit that I'm unhappy because I haven't actually spoken to any other person for two days, perhaps two weeks, then face harder questions about myself and my situation.  It’s just easier to sit and ‘tutt’ at the others, get back to your screen, your book, put your headphones on.  Especially if you're in the quiet carriage, right?

You're not there to be disturbed.

But, along the way sometimes, the strange times - when the train breaks down and you’re all sat there waiting for the irregularity to pass, someone might just talk to you, might just notice you.  Often it’s someone, from out of town, a foreigner, the country mouse, that either doesn't respect the rule of the city, or just plain doesn't care.  Such people we say, are full of life and make their own rules...because they just talk to people.  Unfortunately, they are generally not British.  Social class, societal expectations fear of looking stupid or being fleeced, means it better not to talk to people you don't know.

So, all of us here, crammed together in a metal tube and none of us talking.  Our only common feeling is one of quiet frustration and building resentment for the unseen others that have crammed us all together.   This isn’t comfortable, not physically nor psychologically. Everyone wants to be away from everyone else and its’ exhausting to keep up the facade that we are all ignoring each other.  Wait...don't look up, the guy in the beanie hat caught your eye.

But then, perhaps if being overly British is part of the problem, then its also part of the solution.  We like to compartmentalise, so maybe that’s what we should do.  Put your quiet carriages at one end of the train, and talking carriages at the other.  A place that if people are nervous about their days, about travelling, they can talk to each other, without the fear of somehow breaking a silent taboo...or looking like a crazy person or a terrorist, or just someone who isn't British?

Could a talking carriage work?  Hmm...I don't know, sounds a bit like lefty-pinko wool-gathering, besides, it would just invite problems, what about the beggars, the city, all these people it isn't safe?  It won’t be long before someone abuses the system, so best not to try it.

That's right, who actually wants to talk to other people on their way to work. What was I thinking?

Best to just sit here.  Look away.  Post a message on facebook, #feelingblessed, when I haven't actually laughed in three weeks, and then feel worse when no-one likes it.  Careful, that woman looks old and she might want you to give up your seat, best to look away.  

And so it goes.