As 2013 quickly approaches, I’ve decided to write this post in honour of the one day of the year when trains run 24 hours in order to help tired revellers return to their edge of the city. I’ve grown up with both a deep respect and fear of trains. My father was a train conductor and I have many half-remembered memories of gaily swinging around handrails in empty carriages and fearfully following my parents between cars in the New York subway.
There is something that I continue to find completely astounding about these behemoths, their quaintness and continuing technological advancement, the community and alienation that can easily be found in each carriage. It is completely true that Londoners expect a certain level of quiet on the train (though this can be adjusted for area, time of day and closeness to a holiday), and that any acts that stray too far from this generally accepted social contract will cause most in the vicinity to become aggrieved, furiously placing their noses closer to their newspaper of book, or turning their headphones up whilst pointedly looking off into the distance (of course, this changes depending on age or alcohol consumed). Despite this contract of solitude, there are still instances when friendships are forged and love is found. Its interiors act as an extension of the city, a social and historical map, forever being adjusted, improved, forgotten.
Every population of London can be witnessed on the Tube at any time. The Central line (the line I use most frequently) is a lesson in the cross sections of London that intersect each day. From the end of the line, Ealing Broadway, are the immigrants and a general mix of working and middle classes coming and going, whether to work or home in one of London’s numerous suburbs (a small note: Ealing is considered the queen of the suburbs, though I can’t for the life of me tell you why). Between Acton and White City, where the iconic BBC studios resides, the population shifts and becomes noticeably younger- these are the patrons of Westfield mall in Shepherd’s Bush, the sprawling, postmodern, panoptic monster that is the largest shopping mall in Europe. No longer can the industrial, sub-urban 70s remnants of Acton be seen as the train moves underground. After Shepherd’s Bush the heaving crowd thins out and becomes slightly more well-heeled, an occurrence noticeable on all lines passing through the more centralised and affluent sections of West London. These sons and daughters of privilege in their subtle and expensive clothes or tasteful bohemianism sit aside tourists, students and followers of fashion in order to disappear into Notting Hill, Portobello Rd, Bond St, Oxford Circus- and to transfer to the altars of power and taste in Westminster, Knightsbridge, Kensington and Mayfair.
After Bond St the carriages becomes filled with office workers and ever more tourists, the voices form a thick cloud of French, Japanese, Spanish, American, with suitcases jostled nervously and worried eyes squinting at maps above seats in order to not miss the attraction highlighted in their increasingly smudged Lonely Planet. Towards St Paul’s, the tourists begin to disperse and their seats are occupied by weary, bleary-eyed bankers in their uniforms of dark suits and smartphones, arty students in socially accepted subversive charity shop finds and the self-consciously hip denizens of East London. By Bank, their numbers become multitudinous- their stomping grounds are Spitalfields (near Liverpool Street), Bethnal Green, Mile End, Hoxton, Dalston. The Overground, formerly the East London line in these parts (how I was saddened the day it closed! How I rejoiced when it was reborn, reconnecting the limbs found south of the river!) . Mixing with these arbiters of cool and pushers of trends are the ‘original’ inhabitants of the East End, the children of the waves of immigrants and working classes that made London home- the Jews, Afro-Caribbeans and south Asians.
The presence of these eastenders seem to enact a silent protest against the gentrification of these working class communities, with elderly Jewish and black men in pressed suits and carefully cleaned shoes, women with elegantly coiffed, shaved, gelled and braided hair-sometime dual toned in blond or red with natural dark tresses, sometimes in bright unnatural colours copied and made mainstream over decades by passing subcultures. Their clothes hearken back to their heritage or mix patterns, brands and textures in brash and beautiful, constantly transforming urban streetwear. The boys and men wear their own equivalent, standing proud or slouching in particular poses of modern urban masculinity, headphones on- with the brand ever important, a display of their knowledge and belonging.
As the train goes further east, the hipsters, bankers and tourists have all departed and the train grows quieter. The fashions become more diluted, more suburban. The hair grows blonder and higher, with deep orange skin that acts as a marker of artificial tanning becoming more numerous. Teenagers entering the train wear the fashion of subcultures that have already passed the zeitgeist and now speak to the despair of suburban existence-emo, goth, punk. They have not yet embraced the fashions found to their west. Heavy makeup inexpertly and inelegantly applied can be found on many of the youth, with hair styled in reference to idolised pop stars. The train has once again moved above ground and the geography is becoming more rural as Outer London bleeds into the neighbouring county of Essex. The various styles and tribes of London begin to dissipate and meld into the stalwarts of the English high street- Marks and Spencer’s, Tesco, BHS. In just over an hour the people who make the city function and thrive can be witnessed for a few short moments before life propels them forward into a new narrative outside of your own.