I’ve been writing pen-portraits of people (and sometimes not people) I see on the Tube for a few years, on and off. I started when my work temporarily moved offices, from the middle of Soho to the Euston Road. For some reason, the people I saw on the Northern Line seemed more intertesting than the ones on the Central Line. Or maybe there was just more room to look at them: the train was always packed between Bank and Moorgate, then emptied out.
One of these is now on the creative writing syllabus at Roehampton University, which never fails to amuse me.
If there’s a horizontal line between pieces, I wrote them at a different time from the one before. No line, I wrote them at the same time. They were sort of warm-up pieces before diving into work-writing. I don’t really have any rules about doing this, but i try not to let people realise i’m watching them and I don’t talk to them. It’s the London Underground after all. Talking to people? Wouldn’t be right.
I wrote this in 2009. I vaguely remember not being very pleased with it, but it reads OK to me now.
She’s a character from science fiction. And it’s not because she’s in metallic clothes, because she isn’t; it’s not crazy plastic hair, or vertiginous-soled boots, or white contact lenses. None of them.
She’s tall and slender and oddly ageless; mid-forties at the youngest, late-fifties at the oldest. Beneath the fringe of a sharp black bob, her face is a strong-boned triangle, with wide brows narrowing to a pointed chin and a short, turned-up nose. Angular glasses are saved from harshness by their deep burgundy frames; the arms blending into the top bar in a heavy, sculpted double swoop, arcing in line with her eyebrows, the rest of the frame narrow and dark, skimming her cheekbones. The lenses distort her eyes; she’s severely myopic.
She’s pushed her large bag, an upright wheeled holdall in matt black neoprene, against the glass panel beside the door and is half-sitting on it, half-leaning on the panel. Her long legs tense to support herself and her thigh muscles ripple the fabric of her black cheongsam, making the chocolate brown embroideries of ferns and small flowers catch the harsh carriage light. One black-stockinged shin emerges from the slit in her skirt; she swings it across the other leg and taps her toes on the carriage floor.
It’s warm in the carriage, that stifling heat from dry air pumped up from the seat-backs, but despite that she’s wearing a fur coat, old-fashioned with a wide collar, mid-thigh length. It looks like real fur, mottled brown and black, with the slight lumpiness that comes from many pelts stitched together. It would stand up to a St Petersburg winter; it must be sweltering inside it. But she wears it casually, open over the embroidered black fabric, showing off the regularly spaced brocaded toggles. The fabric gapes slightly between them, revealing black lace and pale skin.
She’s engrossed in a book, carefully flicking the pages with one red-lacquered thumbnail. It seems rather incongruous that it’s an autobiography of Shirley MacLaine. ‘A charming memoir’, says the back-cover blurb.
Maybe it’s the ageless maturity or the quietly cross-cultural clothes that give her the look of the future. Something from Blade Runner or a William Gibson novel. Easy to imagine a set of implants behind that black bob, cradling the base of her skull across the occipital ridge. Silicon nanofoam permeating vat-cast hydroxyapatite, set into channels cut into the natural bone. Flush with the skin just below the hairline, they show as rounded oblongs of silky brushed aluminium. Spring-loaded slots crown the finials behind each ear, guarding sockets for memory wafers. At the centre of the curve, pointing down the spinal cord, an inverted teardrop of power electronics, finned in a fractal fern shape to disperse the heat of the circuitry.
Back in the 21st century — and doesn’t that still sound like science fiction? — she’s probably in fashion. Nobody else could get away with that razor-cut sharpness or the smooth futurism of that black neoprene. As the train slows into my station I slip an old ticket into my novel, a new Iain M Banks, and shift to get up. She looks over at me, her finger keeping her place in Shirley MacLaine, and raises her eyebrows.
‘Gonna nick your seat, now,’ she says, softly, and grins. Twenty years fall away from her face.
He’s asleep with his head back, is my first though. But on a second glance, he’s lost in the music humming and ticking from his earphones. Eyes firmly shut behind the late-period gold Elvis shades, the sort with the wide stems with holes in them, and lips slightly parted. His hands rest on the armrests, fingers flickering with the chugging rhythm.
If it weren’t for those sunglasses, he’d look scruffy, going on disreputable. Dark, frayed jeans, nondescript trainers, a dark beige hoody with the name of some American college on it. Almost certainly a pose; he doesn’t look American. Something about the grooming always picks Americans out: a manicured look, even when they aren’t. This bloke is pure North London, from the hair grown out just the fuzzy side of cropped, to the stubble like black moss over cheeks and jaw and the skin stretched tight over the adam’s apple as his head lolls against the back of the seat.
The steady hiss and growl from the headphones is unmistakeably classic soul, and something about the combination of hair and shades catapults him back across the decades. He rolls his head from side to side in time with the music, his eyelids flickering. Just like Ray. Just like Stevie.
People being obnoxious on Tube platforms really piss me off.
They’re as exuberant as puppies and twice as annoying. You could never call the Northern Line platforms at Bank quiet, but there’s more space than usual, and they seem intent on taking up most of it, barrelling down the stairs and slaloming around the clusters of people.
The girl stands on her own near the edge of the platform, jacket done up, scarf snuggled in tight, short blue skirt, tights and boots. The first of the boys takes a run at her and skids to a stop inches away, arms spread wide and face pushed out as though he’s kissing a girlfriend. She recoils and steps away from him, stumbling slightly on her blocky heels; one earphone falls out. He spins away and his friend, taller and darker-haired but less broad, dashes past yelling what’s probably an apology in a language that sounds Eastern European. ‘Sorry about my mate, he’s an idiot!’ But as soon as he’s past her he giggles and accelerates, swerving around a pair of black teenagers who scowl in his wake.
The girl frowns and mutters something and puts her earphone back in, tries to shake it off. But the encounter has planted a seed of unease between her shoulder blades and I can see it take root, dragging on her muscles and pulling her in on herself. She’ll carry that tension around all day.
The boys continue their clowning routine, laughing and gibbering as they cross and recross each other’s paths. They’re in their 20s but act like kids high on sugar; the darker-haired one picks up an intercom from a help point and mimes shouting something into it. The train pulls in as they reach the end of the platform and they turn and swagger back, all elbows and metronome shoulders; they make feints at each set of open doors. The other passengers on the platform shift awkwardly, trying to gauge where they’re getting on. Faces darken and close down; eyebrows knit; everybody looks away from them, avoiding eye contact. I walk fast back up the platform and slip between closing doors, three carriages away.
They are kings of their little world and high on their lives, and they drip a little poison into everyone in their orbit.
I remember having to ask someone not to cut and paste this one because I was worried one of the people could be identified.
They clearly don’t know each other, but they have two things in common — age and class. Bundled up against the cold in overcoats and scarves, the gentleman wears an old-fashioned check cap and the lady has a cosy headscarf. He holds her arm as they board the train in the windy West London no-mans-land on the way to Heathrow, but she’s supporting him as much as she supports her.
‘Oh, thank you,’ she says, in the effortlessly penetrating cut-glass tones of the truly posh. ‘Thank you so much, I was afraid I wasn’t going to get up into the carriage.’
‘That’s quite alright,’ he replies, in a voice you can imagine encouraging the troops at Arnhem. ‘No bother at all.’ But he’s red in the face and puffing, and half-falls gratefully into his seat.
They aren’t shouting, and they couldn’t be described as loud. But their voices carry around the sparsely-populated carriage as they make the sort of small-talk you might hear at a tea-dance. Faultless manners and old-school decorum, and you can see that everyone else in the carriage is paying rapt attention. Newspapers stop rustling. Pages of novels are unturned. The volume on MP3 players is surreptitiuously lowered.
‘You said you had children? A boy and a girl, wasn’t it?’ the lady asks, her head on one side, her face attentive.
‘Oh, yes,’ says the gentlemen. ‘They’re both fine and happy, grown up now of course. Jane’s doing something in social work, living near Brighton; it’s an area called Kemptown, if I’m remembering correctly.’
‘And does she have a young man?’
‘Weeeell…’ he drawls, his eyes unfocusing slightly and a wrinkle deepening between his eyes. ‘Actually, there seem to be two young men around; they have some sort of… arrangement I don’t really understand. They don’t seem to both live there all the time, but they’re both… around. But everyone seems to be happy with it, and she has one son by each of them. And it’s a terribly bohemian area.’
‘Like a village?’ she says.
‘Oh, very like. It’s not my place to question, I think?’
‘And what about your son? What does he do?’
‘Yes, he runs his own business. He was doing something in the City, but he decided to pack it in and do something he always wanted to do.’
‘And what was that?’
‘He opened a sandwich bar with his wife.’
‘A sandwich bar? It’s not one of those places where you can’t sit down, is it? I can’t abide those.’
‘No, no, there are seats, of course there are. And you can get other things as well, hot soups and so on, and I believe there are salads as well.’ This is said in the tones of a man who has heard of the concept of salad but will have no truck with the reality.
‘And it’s doing well?’
‘Yes, very well, I understand.’
‘Oh, good! That’s marvellous. I do sometimes get peckish, you know, and a well-made sandwich is very welcome. What’s the place called? Is it somewhere I could keep and eye out for?’
‘Yes, it’s called EAT, so he tells me.’
The man opposite has raised his newspaper to hide his face, and the pages start to rustle as his hands vibrate.
He was clearly a handsome man in his youth. His hair is still thick and chestnut-brown, although receding into a widow’s peak and greying at the temples. His face is fleshy and characterful, etched with sharp lines from his nose to the downturned corners of his mouth and around his shadowed eyes. He carries himself, too; although he’s standing by the padded bar by the door at the end of the carriage, he doesn’t slump against it. No, he stands upright, his hands well away from his pockets and his bag by his feet.
His eyes are narrowed and his face falls into a slightly scornful look; an air of suave malice, perhaps, like John le Mesurier used to exude in Dad’s Army.
It’s the sort of face that should be above a suit. A dark-blue pinstripe, you’d expect. Not cutting-edge, but smart and well-cared-for, with a white shirt and a striped tie. Black brogues, probably. A camel-coloured overcoat. A briefcase. It’s a solicitor’s face, or a banker’s; maybe even a barrister’s.
But the bag on the floor is a black canvas courier’s satchel, and the feet stand squarely in green Reebok trainers. The trousers don’t have a sharp crease; they are sandy-coloured combats, with bulging side-pockets that stretch the fabric. And the jacket isn’t tailored; it’s a green canvas camouflage fabric, open slightly over a grey zipped sweatshirt whose hood dangles over the jacket collar.
A young Asian man gets on the train, his hair oiled back, the shiny stripes in his black suit catching the light. He does up his jacket buttons and jerks his shoulders back a couple of times. The older man’s gaze sweeps up and down; his left eyebrow raises in an expression of perfect disdain.
‘Trying too hard,’ I imagine him thinking. ‘The attitude is the thing you need.‘
He picks up his scruffy bag and settles the strap across his shoulder; brushes his hand down it like it was kid leather. His scornful gaze stays rooted to the young man all the time.
I know know better. They weren’t necessarily Chasidim; but they were Haredi.
The old generation and the young; Grandad taking the children on an outing. It’s the first day of Chanukah, and there are an unusual number of Chasidim on the trains, probably off to synagogue parties.
Grandfather doesn’t have the usual distracted air of the Chasidim. His face is hawkish over a luxuriant but neatly-shaped beard, still mostly black but grizzled with white. He’s wearing the day-to-day uniform of the Chasidism; sensible black shoes, neatly pressed black trousers, black gaberdine overcoat, unbuttoned in the late-Autumn-like weather; suit jacket, white shirt buttoned to the throat with no tie. His hat, a black homburg, sits squarely on his head; the rim of his black yarmulke is just visible at the back, and his iron-grey payess, the sidelocks of the truly devout, are curled in front of his ears. His eyes dart around the carriage, stopping regularly to check on his grandson and granddaughter, still and solemn in front of him.
The little boy is maybe nine, and dressed in kiddie-clone Chasid style. The black shoes are trainers, fastened with velcro straps; the trousers as neatly pressed as his grandfather’s; the long coat rather stylish, with a buttoned strap across the small of the back. One hand in his pocket sweeps the side of the coat back, revealing the tassels of his undershirt hanging below the white shirt. His payess dangle freely to the level of his chin, and the back of his head is shaved close, almost brutally, in an Army-style crop. His yarmulke is black velvet, held on with an inevitable kirby-grip.
The girl, probably only six, is the only one who looks like she belongs to this world. She’s dressed sensibly, of course, but her pink hooded jacket and red skirt could belong to any little girl, as could the warm, thick white tights and the trainers, which are pink and flowery to match her jacket. Fair hair in bunches, she wriggles and looks around, glancing up at the reassuring bulk of Grandad behind her as she grips the handrail slightly.
Her brother slips his hand down the pole so it rests on top of hers, as his grandfather gives his shoulder a squeeze. It may not look like it’s their world, but this is their place and their time.
The best way to tell someone’s age is to look at their hands, so they say. They’re clearly wrong. His hands are as plump and unlined as a child’s, despite his white hair and lined face that place him in his seventies. They’re also huge. His thumbnails, neatly trimmed and filed, are almost an inch across; the fingers long and thick, with prominent knuckles.
He’s a large, bulky man; overflowing the seat so I have to hunch up to the right to make room for him. His blue anorak could double as a small tent; you could easily wrap a baby up in the wooly West Ham hat sticking out of his pocket. His hair is disordered from pulling the hat off; the fine silver strands tangled into a thatch. If those knuckles were marked and roughened, you wouldn’t be surprised; there’s something of the old brawler about his build and posture. But there’s isn’t a mark on them. His intent expression and the stillness of those shovel-like hands mark him out as something different from what you might expect.
On his lap is a newspaper; a broadsheet, folded into quarters. And on top of that is a chessboard; a cheap travel set in a blue plastic casing, about six inches to a side, blue and white squares, red and white pieces.
He shifts next to me and I glance up involuntarily, expecting to meet his gaze. But he’s fixed on the chessboard. He’s set up the chess problem from his newspaper and slowly rotates the board, one way then the other, with steady movements of his fingers. The board stops. He slips one of those spade-shaped thumbnails under the top of the red knight and flicks it upwards, catching its base with the pad of his index finger and sweeps it in its small arc across the board, clicking it against a white pawn. With movements too quick to follow, he’s lifted the pawn from its socket, dropped it into the tray at one side of the board and notched the knight into its place. Stillness again, and a flurry of movement, white side to red side and back, right hand playing red and left white, the thumbs moving as fast and precisely as the most practiced Nintendo jockey. He turns the board at his measured pace and stills again; red is dominant on the board. Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?
He stretches his index and middle fingers along the sides of the board, pressing them against the plastic, then flips a fogged, cracked plastic lid up over the pieces. He stands, head bowed under the ceiling of the carriage, and slips the board into his pocket, on the other side from the West Ham hat. The commuter crowd seems to give him space as he shuffles for the doors. He carries his Grandmaster’s silence with him.
There’s nothing unusual about his outfit, not really. A certain type of Shoreditch media hipster has been wearing that style for a couple of years now, although they tend to be the older ones; the youngsters are all in skinny trousers and narrow-brim trilbies these days, or clashing neons and asymmetric hair. But this one’s a stalwart of the older style. Sharp oblong glasses with narrow lenses and heavy black frame; a brown cloth cap sat squarely on his head, with reddish-blond curls escaping around the sides. A white shirt under a brown tweed jacket, trendily two-buttoned. Mustard-coloured corduroy trousers, obviously slightly too long; the legs are rolled up at the bottoms, showing his bright red Converse boots.
He stretches his arms up and yawns widely, not bothering to cover his mouth, then snuggles down against the straps of his pushchair and closes his eyes. His mummy leans over and wipes a thread of saliva from the corner of his mouth. The little boots kick as he dreams about crossing the studio floor for the next take. You’ve got to start early, to be a 21st century media star.
‘Nah, mate, Waitrose! I said Waitrose! You listenin’ to me, man?’
He elbows his way to the back of the 205, shiny blue puffa jacket and glinting gold in his ears and at his throat.
‘Yeh, man! They’re buildin’ a new Waitrose on it!’
The bus pulls away from the Old Street roundabout and down the City Road, past Bunhill Fields, where Blake and Defoe rest in the peace denied to the rest of us on the bus.
‘Waitrose, man! That’s what I said!’
The statue of John Wesley, standing in the courtyard of his house, seems to turn its head and roll its eyes. Or is that just the lights and the rain?
‘D’ja get me, man? Waitrose!’
The bus judders around the corner towards Liverpool Street and the fan of high-end supermarkets lifts his phone from his ear, the light from the screen sliding across his deep brown skin. He looks at it as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing.
‘Man, you is listenin’ wiv deaf ears, yeah? Waitrose!
Roehampton students might recognise this.
The woman over the aisle is tall and narrow; her long coat, soft fabric skirt, page-boy cropped hair all black. She’s leafing through the financial pages of the Evening Standard, the pink paper standing out against her monochrome. She licks her finger to separate the pages. Each time she raises her hand to her mouth, she wrinkles her fine, sharp nose and flares her nostrils, as if the stories of gloom, greed and incompetence she’s reading have left some putrid residue.
She catches my eye as I get off at Bank and for a second I wonder whether I know her. But I can’t do; I don’t know any Muslim girls who wear the hijab. But she looks so familiar: the oval face and pointed chin beneath the gold border of the wheat-coloured scarf; the dark, mournful almond-shaped eyes; long, straight, narrow nose; small, serious mouth; the complexion that would be called olive, but is actually closer to dark honey. Even the downcast, intent expression. It all registers so fast and goes straight to some part of my brain – you know that face.
Of course I do. I’ve seen it hundreds of times before, glowing from centuries-old wooden panels pictured in books, on TV, in galleries, in candle-lit churches.
The headscarf should be blue.
She should be looking at a baby.
He’s going up but facing down, and he’s the only person on that escalator. He’s small, middle-aged, grizzled, and something about the way he stands and the tilt of his head marks him out as a Scouser before I even hear his voice. Not that I can avoid his voice, because he’s yelling at the top of his hoarse voice. But even that isn’t what draws my attention first. He’s got the knotted neck of a large black balloon wedged into the top of his flies, and it bobs at groin level in a way that isn’t lewd, or even ridiculous; it’s somehow fitting.
“Why do people worry so much about things that ‘aven’t ‘appened?” he yells, gesticulating at the crowd of people jostling for the up escalator.
“If it ‘appens, you worry! ‘Appen!” – his left hand shoots forward, palm down, edge forward – “Worry!” – right hand chops forward. “‘Appen!” – left hand – “Worry!” – right hand. “‘Appen! Worry!”
“If it ‘asn’t ‘appened, then why the fuck worry? Save your time! Save your breath!”
“It’s the game of life! It’s the game of death! It’s the game of London!”
And with that, he spreads his arms, bows, and takes a step back without looking behind him. He’s exactly at the top of the escalator. He turns, straightens his back, and marches out of the station, his balloon jiggling in front of him.
She clearly loves her bag. It’s big and oblong and as cosily stuffed as a cushion, and she’s cradling it on her lap, arms crossed protectively in front of it, right hand clutching left wrist.
She’s even dressed to match, its faded red complemented by the pillar-box shade of her short padded coat, its warm biscuit tone echoed by the paler beige of her loose-knit jumper, its worn shabbiness played up by her baggy jeans, faded and flared over her grubby white Chuck Taylors.
And the bag itself? That’s what caught my eye, through the window of the train as it pulled in. Is it really made from a cement bag? It certainly looks like it; the faded red spells out SHAH CEMENT in big blocky capitals, and MADE IN BANGLADESH underneath that; the bold semi-circle graphics are surprisingly elegant; the red logo sits within a small navy-blue laurel wreath. The fabric has a coarse weave, each strand a good quarter-inch across, and it looks like it’s worn into softness. The top of the bag and its handles, flopping loosely around the girl’s hands, are red ribbon, embroidered in gold. Her only other nods to the ethnic look are her bracelets, jade-green beads and a bracelet of chunky silver links, with stylised angel charms, the sort you’d hang from an upmarket Christmas tree.
She clearly loves it. Is she trying to say something? Is it an ironic comment on cultural appropriation: your junk is our fashion? Or does she just love the design? She’s only young, but a semi-circular worry line ridges her forehard, giving her a quizzical look. She loves her bag. It means a lot to her.
Not all people…
It’s a tough life, being the first line of defence. Mid-morning on the concourse at Euston and they’re clearly supposed to be alert and with-it, sniffing out the drug dealers down from Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. But it’s been a long morning already and their attention is wandering. It must be hard to concentrate when you’re being tickled under the chin by a sparkly-eyed toddler in a pink spotted coat. And that tiled floor is so cool and comfortable, just made for sprawling out on, chin on the floor and legs splayed out in front of you.
It’s tough on the front line. And just because nobody takes you seriously when you have big brown eyes and soft floppy ears, it doesn’t mean you don’t do the job. This is important dog business, and you are important dogs. Yes.
The cold weather isn’t kind to old soldiers. But that’s no reason not to be smart. The scarlet coat stands out vivid against the grey pavement and the silver car, one hand — in spotless black gloves — grips the top of the open door, the other grasps the elbow of the tall black-clad bystander who’s helping him up. Steel-grey hair neatly brushed under the round black peaked cap; his green eyes are as bright as the ten inches of medals glinting on his chest and the three golden stripes on his sleeve, below an embroidered crown. Gold braid down the black trouser-legs too, and the stout black shoes are — of course — brilliantly and immaculately polished.
He hoists himself out of the car and the bystander helps him onto the pavement, while the driver fetches his case from the boot. Once a regimental sergeant-major, always a regimental sergeant-major: he pulls the Chelsea Pensioner coat down with a sharp tug, getting rid of the creases which — of course — were never there. The medals jingle and he brushes a hand across them. He doesn’t even glance down. He doesn’t have to. He knows every one of them.
He pats his helper on the shoulder and thanks him with a smile, then squares his shoulders and looks toward the station entrance. Age may have shrunk him, but he’s still a big man.
This one isn’t a Tube person, but it belongs in this section. I wrote it just after Oliver Postgate died.
Some years ago I went to a lecture at the British Museum. It was ostensibly about the Lewis Chessmen, those evocative little chunks of carved ivory in the shape of worried kings, calm queens, glaring bishops, and berserk, shield-chewing Viking raiders as pawns. But that wasn’t why I went. It was because the Lewis Chessmen were the inspiration for Noggin the Nog, and most of the talk was being given by two geniuses of storytelling, Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, who died yesterday.
They both spoke, artist/puppetmaker Firmin bearded and blinking, reminding me of a shy but ingenious mole, and Postgate taller, more patrician, with the big glasses that gave him the aspect of a slightly distracted owl. It was impossible not to think of them in terms of cuddly animals.
To be honest, I barely remembered Noggin the Nog; I hadn’t appreciated how old it was (made in the 50s, originally) and I don’t think I was a regular watcher as a kid. But when Postgate talked about it, he started off by saying — incanting — the opening phrases that started every episode, in that extraordinary voice that could rise, swoop, blare and whisper like a skillfully played clarinet.
In the lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands gather around their great log fire and they tell a tale…
And the hairs on the back of my neck and my arms stood straight up on end and I was riveted back in my seat, instantly transported to a land of cold and dark, clear blue skies and howling wind, and everyday magic; a well-meaning king; his wise but crabby advisor, the great green bird Graculus; his villainous uncle, with his Terry-Thomas moustache. A land which I’d forgotten.
Oliver Postgate’s voice and stories are woven into my subconscious as much as the Thursday visits to my grandparents and the smell of my mum’s car when I was six. Their very English whimsy, combined with a sense of strangeness, and the introductions that took you into their world and told you to suspend disbelief. My mum has the videos of Bagpuss, which she showed my nieces when they were little: to them, ‘This was Uncle Stuart’s favourite when he was little’ is as much a part of the programme as ‘Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a little girl and her name was Emily.’
When she got the videos, I sat and watched some of them with my two elder nieces, Emma and Joanne. I hadn’t seen them for maybe 20 years. I remembered every story and every song.
It wasn’t just the stories. The modelmaking and animation was impeccable; as good as anything you’d see today, and Nick Park is clearly in Postgate and Firmin’s thrall. At the British Museum talk, Postgate told us about how he’d built his own stop-motion animation table and camera, and in the early days of Noggin the Nog, how he and Firmin would spend hours painstakingly moving the cardboard parts. How they’d built sets for the Clangers out of whatever was lying around. How Postgate had written all the Clanger’s scripts and submitted them to the BBC, before doing the voice parts with a Swanee whistle. How Postgate’s concerns about the environment and his lifelong pacifism were the biggest influences on the development of the Clangers; I’d never realised that when I was watching them as a kid, and looking back on it now, it’s such a subtle subtext. Science fiction without weapons or fighting, but all about cooperation and wonder.
Postgate was once invited to an animation convention in Germany, where he was surrounded by some very earnest (and, I’d imagine, awestruck) young animators, who’d asked him what field of animation he thought he belonged to. ‘Field?’ he said. ‘I don’t know about field. We worked in an old barn in Kent…’
But it’s Postgate’s voice that I keep thinking of. Posher than I’d remembered, and very authoritative, but calm and reassuring. And impassioned: although he’d retired by that point, he was very clear on how children need stories, how they feed and spark their imagination. He was indignant at modern ideas about children’s stories: when he and Firmin had been approached to make a new series of Noggin, he said, they’d been told that the hero had to be Noggin’s son Knut, because ‘children always have to have a figure of their own age to identify with’.
“Well, that’s just rubbish, isn’t it?” he said. ‘I made them identify with little pink aliens and a wooden woodpecker.”
Postgate may have been a genius tinkerer and animator, but for me, he was the voice of childhood. A voice which understood that stories are magic; that they create worlds and invite you in. A voice that knew the power of an incantation.
I have no memory of this at all.
Lunchtime in the West End, and a middle-aged man crashes to the pavement on Regent Street. His glasses spin from his face and under a stationary bus, while he twitches spasmodically.
Ten seconds later, two people are at his side. A young woman reaches under the bus — which is now moving — and retrieves his glasses. A man in a pinstripe suit makes sure he is breathing and checks his head, which is bleeding where he hit the ground. Five seconds later and another young woman stops and puts him into the recovery position, while the first woman calls for an ambulance.
Another ten seconds, and people have formed a protective cordon around the man, while the security guards in the Apple Store make calls on their radios. A policeman on patrol from Oxford Circus hurries up and checks the scene worriedly, calling ambulance control to make sure they know where to come. A slim, sharp-dressed man runs out of the Ted Baker store with a First Aid pack.
I can hear sirens approaching.
They say that people are rubbish. Not in my city, they aren’t.
(Blogging from the Apple Store, opposite a Buddhist monk)
She sweeps onto the train at Moorgate and everybody looks up and keeps looking. A tall, slim black woman, her face sculpted like a sports car: wide forehead, swooping cheekbones, pointed chin. Her eyes and lips are painted a metallic purple; her lips fade to delicate pink at the inside, and are pursed in annoyance.
She’s wearing red, bright red: a narrow cut scarlet trouser suit, sharply pressed creases running down her legs. Over that she wears a gold mock-crocodile skin trenchcoat, bristling with straps and buckles; the notched scarlet lapels of her suit jacket over the trench’s collar. Immaculately constructed. Her long hair is straight and pulled back in a loose pony-tail. She flings herself back into a seat and lasers the carriage with narrowed eyes: don’t look, what are you looking at, get the fuck out of my face.
At Angel, she unfolds herself and stalks off the train, turning sharply down the platform, shoulders back, muttering under her breath.
A Wildstorm superhero, on her day off.
I think this one reads a bit patronising now.
Their sweatshirts say they’re from Vauxhall Primary. They’re maybe ten, skin tones from chestnut to honey, hair in skinny plaits, in cornrows, scraped back, fanned out. And they are vibrating; at the age when they’re high on hormones and glycogen, all angles and excitement. Four in a row, rocking left to right like the chromed spheres of a desktop toy; a secret passed from the first to the second, then the second to the third, then on to the fourth, then a gale of laughter.
‘She what? Noooo! You lie!’
‘I tell ya! She started devlelopin’…’
‘Yeah! When she was seven!’
‘O my days!’
More laughter, and another secret runs from mouth to ear to mouth. They rock with laughter, hands over mouths and then waving away the fresh scandal into the carriage.
Opposite them and next to me, screened from them by the standing commuters, is one of their classmates, nose sunk in a book. The pages turn. Her teacher reaches down, plucks the book from her hands – dislodging a playing card bookmark – looks at the cover and passes it back down. The playing card falls against my foot and I retrieve it for her; she glances up sidelong and mumbles thanks, inaudible.
The four girls opposite look her way. Just once.
Evening at a crowded Tottenham Court Road, and there’s a flicker of colour just below the track. It’s a crisp packet, silver, blue and white, and it’s vibrating, gently.
A sleek brown shape appears from under the rail: one of the Underground’s little Tube mice, flicking its tail from side to side and nudging at the crisp packet with its nose.
The packet crinkles. The mouse chitters and sits up on its hind legs. It’s thinking about something. Fast as liquid, it scoots around the bag, pauses at its open end for a split second, then darts inside.
The bag jumps a couple of inches in the air and flips over. A black and brown sphere rolls out of it and resolves itself into two mice: our hero, and a larger black rival, who had obviously been blissfully licking delicious greasy cheese-and-onion residue from the foil until he was so rudely interrupted. He tenses his haunches and launches himself at the interloper, who squares up to him: come on, you bastard, come on… ohshithe’stwicemysizeandlookatthoseteeth
Discretion is clearly the better part of valour and our intrepid scavenger hides behind one of the rail supports. For about three seconds. Then he’s back into the bag, much to the disgust of its original occupant, who was investigating something promising underneath a shredded page of Metro. He gives chase and the bag once again does acrobatics, twirling around and developing momentary bulges.
Then quiet. No sign of either mouse. Have they made up? Is there some kind of mousey crisp crumb detente going on? No, what’s going on is the train coming. The breeze from the tunnel catches the bag and, as the front of the train arrives, it spins and dives into the well between the tracks.
No sign of the mice. I imagine them, clutching together in panic and then, once the bag comes to rest, disengaging, giving each other a quick look, and going on their separate ways with a studied, Tom and Jerry nonchalance.
We shall never squeak of this again.
I started writing Tube people again just after Alasdair Watson’s birthday in 2018. These people just cried out to be recorded.
The Kennington Time-Slip
We change from the Central Line to the Northern Line at Tottenham Court Road rather than Bank because the gentle gradient and straight flights of stairs along the interchange corridor are easier on my stroke-stiffened left leg than the steep slope and spiral staircase of the earlier station. This means that we have to change trains at Kennington to continue our journey into the depths of South London. Shuffling onto the correct platform, the first thing I notice about the boy is his knees. And the first thing to note about his knees is that they are visible. It’s the tail end of a historically chilly March, and although the weather has warmed in the last few days, it’s still too cold for shorts. The shorts in question are a dull green, like the leaves of a dusty houseplant, they are baggy and come down to mid-thigh. They’re made of a coarse woven material, something like a canvas.
I’m not good at guessing children’s ages but I think he’s seven or eight; certainly between five and 10. So the shorts strike me as doubly odd: firstly, it’s too damn cold; and secondly, preteen kids are normally synthetic fibre central. Above the shorts he’s wearing a white short-sleeved polo shirt, and in deference to the weather – which makes me slightly relieved – over this shirt he’s wearing a knitted tank top. It’s white at the back, but the front there is the vivid broken stripes of a blue, red and brown Fair Isle pattern. The collar of his polo shirt flops over the V-neck of the tank top, and like his socks – and typically for a preteen boy – they are saggy and slightly grubby. I sympathise. At 49 and after a hard week, I feel saggy and slightly grubby myself. His shoes are timeless, red fabric lace-up plimsolls that are either Converse or Converse-derived… or maybe not derived.
The boy is monkeying around on one of the barriers the Northern line places in the middle of some of its platforms to break up rush-hour crowds. But it’s about 7:30 on a Sunday night so it’s relatively uncrowded. He is brachiating along the horizontal pole, then wrapping his legs around the upright – I wince at the thought of bare flesh on the cold steel – and reversing direction, then traversing back. It’s absorbing work and his head is down, showing a thatch of dark mousy hair. It is precisely dark mouse, the same colour as the little mice you sometimes see scampering along tube station platforms, their little legs going so fast they appear to levitate like the puck on an air-hockey table. It’s unruly hair, sticking out in random directions, and when he lifts his head his face is straight off of the cover of a Just William book: narrow eyes darting left and right, button nose and a mouth which must certainly contain a few missing teeth. Maybe he is younger than seven.
As we approach, his mother – who barely registers at all, apart from her sleek fall of straight dark hair, a shade darker than her son’s – gives him a signal with her eyes and he scampers off down the end of the platform. Andrea’s ears are sheathed in the black and chrome pads of her headphones so I lift one pad up and ask her “Where did he come from, 1943?”
“I thought she must have gone back in time and kidnapped a child from the past,” she replies. As the train comes in, I reflect that might be the reason he was scampering; if he’d been down in a deep tube station on a Sunday night in 1943, he be more likely to be whimpering as he and mum sheltered from the Blitzkrieg falling on the beleaguered wartime city, and he’d be picking his way through sleeping forms wrapped in blankets.
Blue note bonding
As we take our seats on the train to Tooting, a noise tugs at the edges of my awareness. It’s barely louder than music leaking from somebody’s headphones, but it is music: plaintive, mournful music. My ear catches a blue note: the distinctive lowered fifth of the pentatonic scale, which came straight out of West Africa to the cotton fields and gospel churches of the deep South and thence to the French Quarter of New Orleans and the streets of Chicago, before arriving in rock ‘n’ roll, soul, pop and all the others. But I still can’t trace it. Suddenly my eyes catch a bird like fluttering to my left at the other end of the carriage and I realise immediately the connection between the two: it’s a harmonica player.
There’s a lot of carriage between me and him and the Northern Line is noisy, all rattle and roar of steel wheels on steel rail and the rush of air pistoned along the deep-mine tunnels through the slick London clay by the speeding train. So I can’t see him clearly make out what he’s playing. But suddenly I realise there are two harmonicas, being played by two men sitting opposite from each other. The one on my side is playing a more complicated chromatic harmonica, which lies flat and shiny along the outstretched fingers of his left hand, while his right works the lever that switches between keys and modulates the air on its way in and out of the instrument’s reeds. The man opposite has a simpler, stubby blues harp, playing in a single key, jammed into the fleshy notch between thumb and index finger while his right hand makes feathery motions against its outer edge. I want to take a good look, but the people between me and them form a maddening screen. All I can make out is that the blues harp player is the older and more dapper of the two, in a dark overcoat with the occasional rectilinear flash of a white French shirt cuff closed with cuff-links and silver hair neatly combed above the collar compared the salt-and-pepper grey of his fellow musician. Formal for Sunday night, I think.
It’s only when we get off the train and I look back through the carriage windows that I get a better look at Chromatic Man. It’s hard to gauge his age; late 40s at youngest, late 50s at the most. He has the sort of hairline you get when the notches of your widows peak join up with your bald patch and leave a tuft above the middle of your forehead; in his case, it’s the dimensions, colour and texture of a steel wool scrubbing pad, but without the pink detergent. He has a bulbous nose – maybe a drinker’s nose – and he definitely didn’t shave this morning. The tension he needs to keep in his lower lip to play the harmonica makes his mouth appear more pouchy and jowly than he probably looks in repose. But his eyes, below heavy bushy brows, are soft as he feels the music he makes with his inhalations and exhalations; and they are locked with his friends’ eyes across the aisle. They both rock back-and-forth, side to side, gently to the rhythm of the blues. I can’t begin to guess what their relationship is, but it strikes me as almost a shame that I saw this on a Sunday. Such a moment of obvious connection and empathy in older men would have been a cheering sight in the bustle of the weekday commute; but of course they wouldn’t to be able to see each other for the hoarde of people standing between them, or hear a thing over the hubbub of the crowd.
Sci-fi women are obviously a running theme. Maybe that’s why Bill Gibson keeps setting novels in London.
When worlds collide
It’s the juxtapositions that get you. A hot morning commute after the warmest May Bank Holiday on record, and the Central Line is sweltering. Opposite me is one of those women who is so striking you need to keep reminding yourself not to look too long to avoid creepiness. But it’s honestly hard to look away. She’s straight off a science fiction movie; pale skin, long black hair that is Japanese-straight, wearing tweed pattern linen trousers against the heat and a pale blue T-shirt with a pixelated picture of a glamorous black woman whose face is haloed by an enormous Afro. She has fine features that seem almost unnaturally symmetrical. But what’s really remarkable is her make up. Her small mouth is outlined in a metallic bronzy red. She has red eye shadow on her upper lids and black and grey eyeliner below. And around her eyes she has dabbed a pale gold blusher that comes down over the top of her wide cheekbones. She also has a smudge of gold on the tip of her nose; I resist the urge to lean over, tap her knee and ask if it’s deliberate. It would break the spell.
Two seats down is a tall middle-aged man, receding silver hair close-cropped to an iron fuzz and a neat salt-and-pepper beard with the pepper descending from both corners of his mouth. He wears angular metal frame glasses, of the type favoured by trendy architects. But he definitely isn’t an architect. I noticed before he sat down that he was wearing the full-length black cassock of a Catholic priest; immaculately pressed with every pleat in the skirt in place. A column of shining black buttons descends from the neat white rectangle of his dog collar. The immaculate look is spoiled only slightly by the yellow and black striped pencil clamped in the left-hand corner of his mouth, which he removes occasionally to make notes in the book he’s intently studying. Titled “The Mystery of the Eucharist”, it has the most bizarre cover styling I have ever seen: shocking pink, with the title in scrolling white calligraphy of the sort that would be more at home on a 1970s soft porn novel. Whatever the mysteries are, they are more enthralling than the figure from the future seated a few metres to his right, but then he’s made a vow about that.