Who’s for a singalong?

•June 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Stumbled across this charming story tonight: over-tipsy pensioner leading a train carriage in a Scout song. And they really did sing along!
Read the story from the Metro

Perhaps not every night, but it’s nice to picture jaded commuters making their way home to a call and answer refrain from time to time.

Smart phones but dumb people

•May 5, 2014 • 1 Comment

I met my boyfriend on the tube, traveling home from a gig. It’s a good story, mainly because it’s ours, but not an uncommon one. I’m quite surprised by how often someone I tell our story to then tells me they know a couple who met on the tube or at a station.

Nearly forty years ago my Mum had her hen do with a bunch of friends she’d made on her morning commute. I’m not sure if she sees them anymore – how many friendships are able to stand several decades, a few house moves and 2 children? – but I’m surprised that she had been able to strike up a friendship with people she met on the train into work.

A few years ago I and my flatmate used to occasionally catch the same overground train into London Bridge together. She worked in Soho for a company where it was expected  she have her Blackberry on by half seven and be in the office well before 9. I worked for an environmental charity where the building was rarely open before 9.30 and the only person in our office who wore a suit was a self-confessed Tory (now candidate). We would chatter away with little regard for what peace might have been sought by our fellow commuters. I’m surprised we were so often the only ones.

Today I travel in to work alone and in ten months of my new journey I don’t think I’ve seen people chatting on my train once, whether getting on together or convening in situ. And I’m surprised I haven’t tried either.

I ran across this video today on my social timeline. It’s the second piece of YouTube poetry I’ve seen in the last month which has made me stop, think and pass on. But the message here is that isn’t enough, that it’s taking life offline that makes it worth living.

I’m not sure that my particular train into work is ready for me to start engaging in conversation, but perhaps someone else will have watched Look Up, and maybe we’ll see that in each other’s eyes tomorrow morning and talk about it. Who knows?

Washington DC: a potted history and reflections on the Metro

•April 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment


I’m currently visiting Washington DC for a short holiday. It’s a fascinating city with more museums per square mile than seems feasible for a country that’s a shade over 200 years old.

Washington itself was founded as a result of Philadelphia being too far north. It rests on the Potomac river, considered the boundary between Northern and Southern America. At the end of the Revolutionary War (the first one) the states of Maryland and Virginia offered up sections of land to create a city and a district separate from the other states, which was to be the capital of this new independent country. This was named the District of Columbia, after Christopher, and the city itself called Washington after the hero of the war and the country’s first president.

The city has become a shrine to Washington: a replica dome of that on the Cathedral in St Petersburg tops the Capitol Building with ‘The Apotheosis of Washington’, depicting him taking his place among the saints, painted inside, and dominating the skyline is a monolithic and Masonic monument to his honour.


His wife Martha was asked upon his death whether they could bury his body in the place where the monument now stands but she refused, saying that he was just a man and should be buried with his family at Mount Vernon. It was suggested instead that upon her death they might both be interred together in the crypt beneath the rotunda but she again refused. I imagine she wouldn’t be too pleased with the way things have turned out, including all the stamps, currency and institutions bearing her name. I reckon Washington himself probably wouldn’t have minded though; it is a most impressive monument after all.

The city was planned by a Frenchman, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, and is set out very like Paris, minus the canal. There was a canal at one time, but this was drained into the Tidal Basin and filled in after the water caused widespread illness and death, including that of Lincoln’s son.

Like Paris, it has a metro system. Unlike Paris, this one has only 5 lines, with a 6th in planning. Being the intrepid commuter I am, I was keen to use this in our travelling across the city.


The entrance at Dupont Circle is not well signposted, as if to keep it from prying tourists and visitors. Going down the ponderous escalator feels a lot like entering a dark and brutalist womb, especially with the words of Walt Whitman etched into the concrete above our heads:

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night – some are so young;
Some suffer so much – I recall the experience sweet and sad…


Of four attempts to ride the red line, 2 were thwarted by delays and at a time when it was hugely inconvenient (Hello? Is anyone else here in a hurry?). It was too easy to make comparisons with the London Underground at this point, which is, of course, the best underground network in the world; the rosy glow of history had set in after only a week.

During our visit we had the good luck to meet and talk with Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois (D), who told us he thinks London public transport is wonderful. This clearly is a man with good judgement, as if being a democrat weren’t evidence enough. 24 hours later I appreciated the Washington DC benchmark.

The second fateful journey was on the morning of our departure, when speed was not only of the essence, it was necessitated by the knowledge my Mum would kill me if we missed our train.

As we sat in the taxi, careering its way through DC traffic as if a good tip depended on it, Mum seethed quietly beside me. I realised I wasn’t angry, just disappointed: “But I believe in public transport,” I whined pathetically, as we skipped nimbly past another red light.

We arrived at Union Station with one minute to go, only to find the gate had closed and we had missed our train. Determined that Mum would not be let down, I marched to the ticket line hoping to transfer the ticket without too much reliance on the efficacy of an English accent in America.

It seemed God, or at least the aspect of him that oversees travel and transport, had heard my earlier invocation: the overhead wires that power the trains north to New York were down and every train was stalled. Thank God for shoddy investment in transport infrastructure!

It took only a few tears and logical reasoning to convince the lovely Amtrak staff that they could still let us onto the train, since it wasn’t exactly going anywhere.

And so 2 hours later our train was towed away from the District of Columbia by a Diesel engine. Praise Washington for our deliverance.

Mourning Bob Crow

•March 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“I’m not going to be hanging around for ever. I won’t be one of these people like Lenin in a mausoleum.”
Bob Crow, Feb 2014

Over the last few years, London commuters have probably felt less than enamoured with the late Bob Crow: spear-heading strike action and speaking loudly into Radio 4 microphones at 8am. But he stood up for the rights of his union members, the people who keep our morning commute on track. Regardless of your political leanings, his death at this point in his life and career is a tragedy.

He will be missed. Sorely by some, especially those that love him.

I’ll miss his place in the political debate: the force of nature that seems lacking in many political discussions. And I’ll particularly miss him on those 8am interviews when he made the MPs and interviewers in turn sound almost feeble with their diplomatic round tones and comparative lack of passion for the opposing view.

As someone who works in a sector that pays better than some might expect (‘you mean your charity pays you, you’re not a volunteer?’) I found a kind of comfort in his socialist assertions, while earning good money, and refusal to feel shame in the face of media attention. And as someone who works for a representative organisation I found his passion inspiring. However as someone who uses public transport this wasn’t all felt within a rosy glow of history, he could be a right pain in the arse.

I hope, despite the inherent risks to a happy commute, that they find a worthy successor to his legacy.

Rest in Peace Bob Crow.

20 Questions (for a Sunday night)

•February 16, 2014 • 1 Comment

Take 30 minutes every Sunday and give yourself the gift of self reflection.  It has worked wonders for me, and I am confident it will do the same for you.

Marc and Angel Hack Life

I’ve been enjoying perusing Life Hacks over the last few weeks. A lifehack is “a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way”. It’s also a great source of content for Pinterest.

They’re also not always all that effective, as this video from Mental Floss demonstrates. But it looks like great fun testing them out.

However this particular life hack is less about time efficiency and more about mindfulness: taking time to reflect each week on your life experiences, hopes and dreams.

I found myself starting on the first few questions with interest and enthusiasm, only to fall down the rabbit hole of my limitations and failings. Question 9, for instance, “What have I been avoiding that needs to get done?” Oh dear. No sooner had I started considering my unfinished list of Things to Do than I started pondering the other things I hadn’t quite got round to: replying to emails, keeping in touch with friends, visiting Canada.

I’m not sure I’m ready to spend this much energy on self-reflection on a Sunday night. It’s exhausting enough picking out an outfit after 2 days spent in jeans and a hoody. Or perhaps I can try half the questions now and the other half tomorrow morning on the way into work?

To comply or not comply?

•February 8, 2014 • Leave a Comment

windowtaxI’ve been enjoying the BBC programme The Great Interior Design Challenge, where  amateur interior designers competed for what turned out to be a bijou handmade dollhouse in a bell jar. It was a typical elimination game: where no decision ever quite felt fair, but no one was graceless enough to point this out.

A nice feature of the programme was that every episode starred a form of British architecture and used the down time between transformative decor to explore their origin and evolution. I found it really interesting! For instance, did you know that the term ‘brutalism’ came from the french term ‘béton bru’ meaning ‘raw concrete’?

During the final, set in two stunning Georgian townhouses in Liverpool, we learned that in order to get around window tax – where homeowners were taxed according to the number of windows in their houses – Georgian builders would either brick up certain window spaces or simply put in larger windows. And that to get around brick tax,  manufacturers produced larger bricks and houses were often built using other materials.

Both taxes were repealed in the 1850s, the latter being considered a detriment to industrial development. But this got me thinking: could we respond to the bedroom tax with intelligent interior design?

The fabulous website Ikea Hackers, where inventive and skilled individuals take Ikea staples and make them work harder, has a ‘hack’ by a couple who wanted their studio flat to enjoy a separate bedroom, without the permanency of a stud wall. The result was an ingenious sliding-door bedroom compartment off the main living space.

Perhaps we could rebel against the bedroom tax by knocking down interior walls, partitioning space with flat-pack solutions and re-evaluating what comprises a ‘bedroom’?

During the Roman occupation and the early years of Christianity, Christians would use the excuse of their religion to not take part in communal acts of religion expected of the populace. A Christian author of the time, Tertullian, observed that this non-compliance was considered by many pagans to be the reason for any bad thing that happened; a little like the recent assertions that gay marriage has led to all this flooding.

Whether Christian non-compliance led to the downfall of the Roman empire or not (spoiler: not), the fact remains that many Christians did not comply with the edicts of their political leaders. And fifteen hundred years later, tax-payers rebelled against the institution of a form of income tax without resorting to violence.

I think that sometimes it’s important to not comply. Or at least to challenge the wisdom of political decisions with a non-violent whimsy. There will always be a historical precedence to hide behind if needed.

The price of travel

•January 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment
@hennell @davidschneider

@hennell @davidschneider

Another year, another hike in commuter costs.

I’m starting to look at places to buy a property. Our budget is relatively modest, but since we’d like a second bedroom, there’s a whole 3 zones in London already out of our sights.

When I tell people we’re looking to buy, the question of proximity to work is high on the list of discussion topics. While it’s probably risky to make an investment on the basis of where you currently work, it’s a fair question. If not for the destination itself, then the quality of the journey: how long to walk to the nearest station/stop; underground (with all the compacted humanity and lack of natural light that entails) or overground (which has the benefit of a view but the drawback of fewer trains per hour); is there a possibility of cycling or even walking to work?

The sheer cost of travel can make an affordable suburban investment into a monthly drain on income. But sometimes the journey is less time to somewhere outside London than somewhere that lets you tap in and tap out.

I’ve doodled with the sums and worked out we could get a three-bed house with seafront views in Hastings for the same price as a studio flat in Kings Cross. However, the annual railcard cost would be nearly 3 times more than an annual Oyster card for multiple zones. Or if Essex is more your style, an annual fare from Colchester (less than an hour direct into Liverpool St) is a thousand pounds more than the journey from Hastings. I don’t think we’ll be moving out of the big smoke just yet.

Friends and colleagues that live outside London often take at least one day working from home. Not because it saves them money, it saves them time: time better spent with their kids or partner, spent not sitting on a train for an annual outlay equivalent to the cost of studying for a Masters.

What pisses me off is that the transport companies hold us to ransom every year. They know we have to get to work somehow and with only one set of train tracks for each journey, it’s a captive market. It’s not fair.

But life, and society, isn’t fair. The fact our current government seems happy to casually deny legal rights to people that can’t afford it not only reflects this fact, it exacerbates it. It really surprised me to learn that Network Rail doesn’t have share-holders, it is technically not-for-profit, and yet here we are with another hefty January rise in the cost of rail travel. Perhaps if we could see the costs of improvement, have a public forum that shows where our money is invested, it might be less painful. But I pay up anyway, because that’s the price of travel.


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