Adam and Michael, Oxford Circus
Adam and Michael are winding their way west on the Central line. It's 8.05am and a few shirt creases aside, they still look pretty box-fresh.
“Commuting makes you feel important," says Adam. "You’ve got a purpose."
Michael, like most people we met, uses his commute to listen to music or read the paper. But there are still the occasional moments of drama. “I once saw someone on the tube who had asthma but didn’t have their inhaler. Everyone responded really nicely, trying to calm her down and help her out.” See? Londoners can be lovely.
Max, Liverpool Street
“I’m quite happy with it really,' says fresh-faced Max. "I enjoy being around everyone.” Max comes into Liverpool Street from Hertford every day, on his way to Oxford Street. It's a 45-minute journey, but one that takes him through the green fields and along the smooth brown river of the Lea Valley. “I usually listen to music and look out the window on the train,” he says, smiling. Has he ever met someone on the train? Ever been chatted up? “No, sadly nothing as nice as that.” Ah well. I'm sure it's only a matter of time.
Inka, Chancery Lane
I was all set to bribe Inka with a blueberry muffin. I was sure there was absolutely no way anybody would talk to me at 8.30am on a Monday unless I was offering snacks. But no, we were chatting for ages before I remembered to offer her a second breakfast. “When the journey is smooth, you can be unexpectedly early – I like that," Inka smiles. "The people are nice too. You see a lot of nice gestures between passengers." Has she ever struck up a friendship on the underground. "Not really. I never talk to people. I don’t see much in the morning. I’m in my own world.”
David, pharmacist, Holborn
When I approach David he's not reading, not listening to music, not even looking at his phone. "I just think," he says. "Sometimes I find it hard to get a space in the morning, and that’s only going to get worse as the population increases. I work in Chelsea, so my commute is about an hour.” David likes the Central line because it's the quickest. He works in a pharmacy – does that mean he'd know what to do if someone got ill on the tube? “Perhaps, yes, depending on what it was," he smiles. "The thing with a pharmacist is we’re not experts in diagnosis, we’re experts in medicine.” OK, what if I got blue lips and suddenly started writhing around on the floor? Would he be able to step in? “Maybe,” replies David, looking a little more serious. I chicken out of asking him what drugs he has in his pocket.
Racquel, Oxford Circus
I approach Racquel because she looks calm, happy, even upbeat. Does she enjoy commuting? "I’ve never seen anything nice happen, ever," she replies, totally straight-faced. "On Monday a guy nearly pushed another man on to the tracks to get through." OK then. I take it back about the upbeat thing.
"My commute takes about 34 minutes," says Stiljan, which is nothing if not specific. “I think people like to just stand and gaze. They’re in their own thoughts, rather than being miserable. But commuting could be more fun if people talked.” Oh really? Has he ever been chatted up? “A few times.” Was he tempted? Were they nice? “A little bit.” Did they swap numbers? “Nah. Because of the strangeness of it all.” What, that you’re trapped underground in a moving train? I suppose that does make a 9.03am kiss a little awkward. What single thing would improve Stiljan's commute, then? “Radio stations," he says. "Different lines would have different radio stations.” Now there's a thought.
Megan, community researcher, Oxford Circus
Megan is so fresh, so cool, so relaxed-looking that I assume she's only just got on the tube. I am wrong. The poor girl has travelled all the way from Ipswich. "There’s usually this one old guy who gets on at Ipswich and talks to me the whole way to Colchester, where he gets off," says Megan. "He’s so sweet. We talk about trains – I think he’s a bit of a trainspotter.” This is the stuff of commuting dreams – two strangers chatting on a train about railway engineering as they slowly make their way into the big smoke. How else does Megan spend her journey? “I think about what I’m doing in the day and tend to make myself notes," she smiles, before putting her headphones back in and strolling down the platform listening to Erykah Badu.
Tamar, Chancery Lane
Although Tamar says she hates the tube, she does agree that sometimes people will look out for each other. Even on the Central line. "There was a nasty guy on the train who was sort of threatening me," she says. "So I just started chatting to the man standing next to me until he gave up." The man she'd been talking to got off the train with her at the next stop and made sure she was all right. "He walked with me to my platform – he really looked after me,” says Tamar.
“I feel very calm," says Jonny. "I’ve got no reason to be angry." And I actually believe him. Jonny spends his commute doing a mixture of physical, mental, and professional self-improvement. He writes draft replies to emails, does some meditation and mindfulness and practices his balance. "I stand on the train without holding on, to build up my core strength," he says. It's a good way to turn that potentially dead time into an opportunity for exercise. Apparently. “Talking to people is the best thing about commuting," he says, finally.
Kristina, Shaftesbury Avenue
“It’s a great time to just be quiet and pray," says Kristina as I sit down beside her on the top deck of the 38 bus. "I use this time to start my day peacefully and pray to God. Sometimes I pray for the whole journey, sometimes my thoughts drift a little bit, then I go back to praying or reading my Bible.” Perhaps it's the power of prayer that's kept her foundation so perfect and her lipstick so neat, I think to myself, staring down at my scuffed plimsolls and sweaty knees.
“I would tell everyone to keep their litter to themselves," says Kristina. "It would make it so much nicer. There’s nothing worse than an empty bottle just rolling around.”
Charissa and Cynthia, Theobald's Road
I meet Charissa and Cynthia in what I call the Queen's Seat – top of the bus, front row. Charissa usually listens to music, Cynthia reads her book. Do they ever talk to their fellow passengers? “Yeah, I chat to people,” laughs Charissa. Oh, please say you met your partner on your commute. “No," she laughs. "But he does work on the buses." Amazing! Is there a single thing that would improve their commute? "Air conditioning," they reply.
Mounir, Bloomsbury Square
Like many other commuters I speak to, Mounir uses his commute to do guided meditations. No wonder he looks so calm. “I like to be by the window," he explains. "If you get an early bus it’s actually really nice. It’s like someone taking you out for a ride.” What a lovely way to think of the 38 bus at rush hour: your own personal road trip.
Martin, Piccadilly Circus
A man after my own heart, Martin turns down my offer of a muffin and chooses an apple instead. He's also, like me, a fan of podcasts. “Sometimes I listen to podcasts about the history of Rome or the Byzantine era," says Martin. "I try to get the bus rather than the tube if I can. I live by the river so I often hire a bike and cycle in along the towpath. Probably the nicest cycle you could have in the world.” Does he think we're wrong to paint all commuters as angry, frustrated sardines? “Just get up earlier than you need to –make it easy on yourself," he says. "This is one of the prettiest cities in the world."
There is absolutely no way of telling from looking at her, but Ali has actually just gone back to work, part-time, after having a son. “I’m trying to squeeze as much as I can into my day," says Ali, who tends to either sleep or get on with some work on the train. "It’s quite tough being back at work, mainly because the commute is massive. I got from High Barnet down to Sutton, which is the other side of London.”
Although she would rather be at home with her son than on a Southern train, Ali does find it nice to have some time to herself. “This is the first time I’ve had a chance to read a magazine for 10 months, so that’s quite nice," she smiles.
Every morning Christelle takes two trains, changing at Balham. “Mostly I listen to my music," she says, taking out her headphones and showing me her phone. "I’ve got a mix on here but I’m listening to gospel music right now.”
Has anything nice ever happened to her on her morning commute, I ask? “One older man didn’t know how to use his iPhone, so he waved at me and asked me to help," she says. "It was frozen or something, so I fixed it for him. He said, 'Thank you so much.'” These are the little everyday acts of kindness that make me proud to live in London. "We [Londoners] are friendly," agrees Christelle. "I go to Paris a lot, because I have family there, and people are far more grumpy. Once, when I asked for directions on the bus, they said, ‘If you don’t know the way, don’t get on the bus.’ I don’t think people in London would do that.”
Peter, Mitcham Eastfields
Peter normally does the I crossword every morning. “It’s about a half hour trip into Victoria and I usually finish it by then," says Peter. "Although I do cheat sometimes.” Without further invitation I sit down right beside him and start reading through his unanswered clues. "It's usually quite a solitary experience," says Peter, somewhat pointedly. I am unperturbed. Did you know that recruits to Bletchley Park could finish a cryptic crossword in less than nine minutes, I ask? "I go for the quick ones," Peter replies. Fair enough. I know when I'm beaten.
Karolina, cleaner, Clapham Junction
Karolina is the first train commuter I've met with a bike. It's a lovely white mountain bike with a helmet hanging off the handlebars. "I was living in Poland before London and I commuted there," says Karolina. "Here there are a lot of cars and lots of traffic, so I have to be careful.” Karolina sits beside her propped-up bike playing Candy Crush for half an hour before getting off to go and clean houses for nine hours. What's the best bit of her day, I ask? “When the wind is on my face and in my hair,” she replies. As a lifelong cyclist, I couldn't agree more.
"Language Man", works in the NHS, Victoria
Although he was happy to be interviewed and photographed, Language Man asked that we don't use his name and instead refer to him as Language Man. After all, he does use his morning commute to try to learn new languages. At the moment, he's learning Mandarin. “I’m Chinese so I know Cantonese, but not Mandarin,” he says. Does that mean he can be found speaking Mandarin out loud to himself on the train in the morning? “I tend to just move my mouth," he laughs. Has he ever chatted anyone up on the train? "No," he says. He doesn't have the confidence. "To be honest, I quite enjoy the quiet time," he says as we pull into the station. Sorry for ruining your quiet time, Language Man.