Somewhere in London, this very moment, there is rueful conversation being had between two people who have moved to the Big Smoke from lands afar. A place where everyone makes a point of thanking the driver for arriving at a destination without crashing their bus, and their conversation concludes, with dismayed headshakes, that London is a cold and unfriendly place because when no one says hullo on the tube.
This is all that people from outside London talk about. I know, because I am one of them, and it’s all I talk about. Every time I meet another non-Londoner, it’s like our secret handshake. And we’re right, no one talks on public transport here. And we’re also wrong, because that’s a good thing.
I got my hair cut by a new barber the other day - another non-Londoner - and while staring at a reflection of myself making small talk I experienced an excruciating moment of acute self-awareness. I basically have four things I say to fellow non-Londoners on meeting them, and I say them every time. I’m a broken point-and-click game, cycling through “I’m-not-from-London-me pleasantries” and getting no further. And then I imagined sitting next to me on public transport, and having me tap you on the shoulder to tell you that pints are way cheaper where I’m from. That there’s a place that does doubles for £1.50, and that I went to another place here at the weekend and bought a lager top for £6, and then repeating “six pound!” at you over and over in increasingly accusatory tones. And then I imagined your absolute searing indifference at hearing this, having to exert actual physical effort to contort your face into something resembling interest, knowing that later I will bring up this interaction as yet another example of Londoners’ unfriendliness. Awful.
“You can’t even reach your phone anyway because it’s in your pocket wedged against someone’s backpack”
London is terrible in many ways, of course; you only need to travel one stop on any given tube line to know that. The underground is a miserable experience. It’s like riding the Magic Schoolbus through the arteries of someone undergoing severe heart failure because their diet consisted solely of eating bin bags full of lard. It’s being forced to surrender your dignity order to compress yourself between someone’s armpit and someone else’s torso. It’s being held at a red signal and the driver’s “not sure why”, and the heat is becoming unbearable now, and you’re restless, and you’re out of lives on Candy Crush, and you can’t even reach your phone anyway because it’s in your pocket wedged against someone’s backpack. People are murmuring under their breath and still the train refuses to move. You are in the bowels of hell. This is miserable London, and you know it. The last thing you need is some chirpy non-Londoner trying to instigate a chat about how bad London is and how much better everything is someplace that neither of you are right now.
You are, at best, sharing a carriage with someone for about 5 stops before one of you has to change, and then you never see each other again. How are you supposed to make a meaningful connection in that time? Especially while trying not elbow each other in the head in close quarters? You could simply say “hello”, of course, but it would be a truly insane undertaking to make a point of greeting every transient commuter you happened to ride a bus with of a morning.
When you’re in Not London, you can turn to the three other people in your tram and ask where they’re going, swap cheery stories about how you’re going up the town, or to the steam fare, or to the corn exchange, where you hope to trade your cows for a handful of magic beans, and it will be right friendly, because even though none of you know each other, you all know exactly what you’re all talking about. London is too vast for that.
“Why do you need to have a conversation? Why aren’t you closing your eyes and willing yourself to already be at your destination, like everyone else?”
Strangers don’t care that you’re off to Madame Tussauds, or that you’re commuting to your job as a content producer for a new media company, or that you’ve booked a table at a restaurant that “wasn’t TripAdvisor’s best rated for Korean small plates in Peckham, but had better vegan options.” Nobody wants to have to fabricate an opinion on every bar between Zone 1-3, or to have to pretend that an ‘electroswing-a-long Great Gatsby event in a converted multistorey carpark in Seven Sisters’ “sounds nice.” People are resentful that they’re being forced to find Stoke Newington because they’ve been roped into watching their colleague’s boyfriend DJ above a pub, or that they’re having to view their third flat this year because another landlord has jacked up their rent to an untenable price again. Everyone has their different reasons for riding London’s transport and they all want to be left alone. These conditions are not conducive to conversation.
Why do you need to have a conversation on public transport? Why aren’t you closing your eyes and willing yourself to already be at your destination, like everyone else? Has your battery died? Did you leave your book at home? London’s transport is to be endured and escaped. The best way to travel on any TfL service is when you’ve convinced yourself you’re no longer travelling on it. You’re devouring the latest Richard and Judy pageturner, or you’re blasting your lovingly crafted ‘summer vibes’ playlist. Do you want be disturbed from your escapist bliss by someone who wants to natter with you about the weather being too hot/too cold in London right now? Is a stranger’s ponderous idle thoughts on the political climate or Gareth Southgate really going to be as engaging as a thoroughly-researched and impeccably-structured 12-part podcast endeavouring to get to the bottom of a grizzly unsolved murder in America’s Midwest?
Why should strangers to facilitate your entertainment? If I’m concentrating on trying to make my connection, I absolutely do not want to stop and chat with you because you’ve got a burning desire to tell someone about your recent holiday, and that you’re glum to be back in London. I’m glum to be in London, too. I’m trying to be somewhere else. In my mind I’m in Not London, picturing that sweet steam fair, dreaming of a place where people talk freely and easily among one another, and nobody has any strong opinions on how reliable the Northern Line is.
Do not disturb my fantasy. The friendliest thing you can do is to not say “hello.”