Monday 15 April – Eastcote (Square A2 on the Tube map), East Finchley (A5)
It’s a glance of sunlight and a spur of the moment thing. One moment I am happily digesting Stephen Jay Gould on the theory of Continental Drift and reading my breakfast, the next I’m out of the door. I reach Forest Hill a smidgeon before noon. I tweet about the headline in today’s Metro: Trapped in the nest The sub-heading is: House prices force young to be carers.
Whatever next? We oldies are forcing the next generation to be caring? Don’t be silly. What they’re saying is that it’s us oldies that are to blame for the terrible state of the world today. Oh, right. And here I was thinking it was the greedy rich and the supine political class.
You can tell he’s in a good mood today, says The Inner Curmudgeon. Give him a glimpse of Spring and he’s twittering like there’s no tomorrow. Well, let me tell you …
He breaks into his stentorian voice, the one he keeps for special occasions: THERE IS NO TOMORROW!
He breaks into a howl. That’s his idea of a joke.
I’m at Baker Street at 12.35. The Metropolitan train to Uxbridge is waiting at the platform. There’s a shaft of sunlight falling on the train at the far end, the back end of the platform. I walk up through the train towards it and, when I reach the last carriage, I look out and up through the doors. The sun has found its way through the narrow chasm between ten and twelve-storey office and mansion blocks onto this patch of platform. It’s a little like – a very little like – the sun at mid-summer’s day aligning itself with the Henge stone at Stonehenge or through the entrance of Maes Howe in Orkney at mid-winter’s day.
Actually, it’s nothing like either of those, but it’s worth a photograph.
I’m taking the camera out of its pouch when the driver walks through the train. He’s rather overweight with a bright, cheery face, a Dickensian comic figure, a Mr Pickwick perhaps. I can’t understand why he’s walking all this way to the back of the train. I better check that he’s got it right. I begin by exchanging greetings – there’s no point in getting his back up right at the beginning of the conversation. How are you, I ask.
I’m a bit better today, thanks.
I hope you’re not driving that way, I say.
He gives me a quick look. It’s the kind of quick look that Aunts used to give Bertie Wooster. Ye-es? he says, drifting to one side so that he can escape quickly if need be.
Shouldn’t you be going the other way? I indicate the other end of the train.
Where are you going? he counters.
Eastcote, I say, pointing to the map of the Metropolitan line.
That’s this way, he says, pointing in the direction he’s going.
I’m dumbfounded. I look up the train and down the train. I shake my head. Hah! I say, whatever happened to my sense of direction! I think: there’s another Mr TubeforLOLs’ mistake.
That’s the back end of the train, he says. There’s a brick wall there. We laugh.
Well, We don’t want to go there. I change the conversation. But why did you say you’re a bit better today? I’m thinking about the stinker of a cold that’s been shaking me like a rag doll this last couple of weeks. As usual I’m generalising from the particular. It’s a bad habit.
You weren’t on the Metropolitan line, yesterday? he asks. You didn’t hear about the disruption? There was severe disruption yesterday because of a train hitting an obstacle. What they didn’t announce was that the train that hit the obstacle was my train.
I sympathise. At least it wasn’t a person, I say.
No, he replies. We’re always very careful about that. We always say that it’s a person under the train. It gets more sympathy.
I nod. I mutter something about how it must be terrible being a tube train driver when something like that happens. I chunter on. I say, I suppose tube drivers must always be thinking about that, about a person going under their train. Then I think that’s going a bit over the top, that’s being melodramatic and insensitive. Besides, I think, it can only happen once in a blue moon, if at all.
He waggles his head. I’ve had one, he says, meaning ‘a person under the train’. I wouldn’t have minded so much if he had been a suicide. Instead … He looks weary as the memory folds over him. Instead, he was a fool. He jumped on the rails because he’d dropped his battery. He’d dropped his AA battery between the rails.
He speaks of the incident both as something that happened at some distance in the past and also as something that has only newly happened.
I look at him in horror.
He shrugs. It’s not a happy shrug. It’s not a resigned shrug. It’s the shrug of someone who daily has to push a boulder up a mountain. Then, when it’s nearly at the top it rolls back to the bottom. It’s the shrug of someone who knows he’s going to have to do it all again tomorrow.
You would never guess this when he comes over the intercom and welcomes passengers to the Metropolitan service to Uxbridge, calling at all stations to Uxbridge. Later, in the same bright voice he explains, as we wait at Wembley Park, that this is a short scheduled stop.
We’re almost at Eastcote when I finish tapping out our conversation on the iPhone’s Notes app. For more or less the whole journey I’ve been in recorder mode.
I hop out at Eastcote station (square A2 on the Tube map) and wave to the driver. I don’t think he sees me.
I walk up to the ticket hall at 12.10 pm. It’s a lovely ticket hall, it’s got a florist with an immaculate display of flowers. I walk out into Eastcote. It’s sunny, there’s traffic moving around and what looks like a pretty good sized parade of shops. It’s not a full-sized town centre but it’s a good local shopping centre.
It has a wide road with a slip-road for parking up one side and the frontages are, to my eye, quite handsome, while the road itself sweeps in an S-shape. Housing and suburbia proper start from the back of the shops. It’s open, pleasant, everyday. It’s not too over-run by the chains – though Tesco and Costa figure prominently.
I walk slowly up one side of the street. I realise that I’m in a daze. I’ve recorded the conversation with the train driver, I’m now trying to process it emotionally. I’m trying to work out what it really means. I can’t get through my head what that poor bloke must have been thinking about when he dropped his AA batteries. What was he thinking when he jumped down between the rails to get them? What was the horror like when he realised he didn’t have time to get out of the way?
I’m trying hard not to think what it has meant to the train driver, of the horror then, and the horror and pain he’s feeling to this day. I’m out of it, I think. I need to sit down, take stock, have something to eat. Then turn around and go home.
Opposite, between a hairdresser’s and a Chinese restaurant, is the Lelung Dharma Trust. I stare at it from across the street for a while. I can’t imagine a more unlikely place for a Tibetan Buddhist Centre. Eventually, I go over.
It’s a small charity shop with much of the usual secondhand stock you’d expect in a charity shop. But it also has a fair selection of blankets, shawls and Buddhist devotional gear made by the exiled Tibetan community in Dharamsala in northern India. I fancy a ‘singing bowl’ and the Shop Manager gives me a demonstration. It makes a long sonorous drawn-out tone which, she says, helps with meditation. As we talk I tell her of my conversation with the train driver. She says, Would you like to go into the Shrine Room and have some time to yourself?
I realise that I do.
I’ll just check that the Rinpoche isn’t using it, she says. It should be alright. It’s lunchtime, he usually goes out at lunchtime.
She takes me into a corridor separated from the shop by a curtain and a heavy door. The Shrine Room leads off this. I take my shoes off and go in. It’s small and domestic in here. It’s basically the back-half of the shop, perhaps fifteen feet wide by twenty feet deep. A few rows of cushions and wooden kneeling stools face a wide low throne. This is where the 11th Lelung Rinpoche sits as he instructs his followers in the history and faith of the Lelung tradition of Buddhism.
Behind this, standing on a set of shelves, are photos and embroideries of the Dalai Lama, one of the Rinpoche himself, a head of the buddha and other devotional objects. The ceiling has been lowered with institutional polystyrene squares with lights behind two panels. It’s cool in here. I can hear, at a distance, the chatter, banter and friendly greetings of the volunteers and customers out in the shop.
I try to remember the Loving-Kindness meditation I was taught years ago but rarely practise these days. It’s a four-part meditation. In each part you think positively about the object of your meditation – you think thoughts of loving kindness, of sympathy and of forgiveness. In the first part, you focus on someone you love or like. In the second part, you focus on someone you neither like nor dislike. In the third part, someone you don’t like but you still think kindly of him. In the fourth part, you focus on yourself, accepting and forgiving all the thoughts emotions and actions that add up to you.
I take a comfortable seating position and relax. Slowly I focus on the train driver and call up his mental image. Then, the unkown would-be retriever of AA batteries. Then I turn to those detractors of the train drivers, the leader writers of Daily Mail who fulminate against the tube drivers. I try to think well of them …
I don’t get very far, I don’t get anywhere near thinking and forgiving of myself. But, nevertheless, I do feel better. I spend a few more minutes in the Shrine Room letting my mind idle. I like the clutter in the room. There are books, in Tibetan I guess, and papers strewn across the desk in front of where the Rinpoche conducts his business … I wonder how he came to land up in Eastcote, about his life in Dharamsala, about life in Tibet. It was Heathcote Williams who called Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism, the spiritual generator for humanity and the one hope the world has of surviving the excesses of humanity. I bow to the photo of the Rinpoche before I leave the Shrine Room.
Out front, I buy a singing bowl. I leave the Lelung Dharma Centre spiritually replenished. Well, a little.
Spiritually but not materially. There seems to be nowhere in Eastcote that will satisfy my more earthly needs until I chance upon the Patisserie Brione. Even then, it doesn’t do sandwiches or savouries. Still, it’s warm and welcoming. I decide to have a coffee. It’s good – strong but not bitter like Costa’s.
The café is run by a charming French couple, Monsieur and Madame Brione. She was sommelier at the Ritz for seven years, he’s a pastry-chef. They had talked for years about setting up their own business then, a little before Christmas, they took the plunge. We talk about the pleasures and difficulties of running your own business.
I try one of his pastries. It is absolutely delicious – soft, buttery, melting, rounded. Technically speaking it is a Danish pastry but it is a very distant and almost infinitely superior cousin to the industrial Danishes of supermarket and coffee chain. I leave the Patisserie Brione materially replenished. Well, a little.
I leave Eastcote at 2.45 pm. Really I should go straight home. Today is a one station journey. But Tubeforlols has me in its grip. It makes so much better sense to do at least one more station.
It’s a tiny example of the insidious power of ideas – even of patently ridiculous and arbitrary ideas like TubeforLOLs. It matters not whether I go to East Finchley or home. It matters not whether I finish Tubeforlols itself. Yet here I am driven by the idea. In thrall to an idea!
I shake my head and take the Metropolitan to King’s Cross then change on to the Northern line, High Barnet branch and get to East Finchley at 3.45 pm.
I’ve been to East Finchley a couple of times before. The Capital Ring walking route runs through the station and, for a moment, I’m tempted to walk eastwards towards Highgate Woods. But I am made of sterner stuff. This is – near-enough – Thatcher country and, since the Baroness has recently deceased, I should take a look at her home territory.
I trudge up the hill from the station. Ding, dong! I think, but it doesn’t cheer me up. I’m doing my duty to TubeforLOLs here, nothing more. Apart from the snarl of traffic and the ludicrous jumping into non-existent parking spaces, East Finchley High Street is OK as High Streets go. It’s more prosperous than ninety per cent of the shopping streets I’ve seen in the last three months or so, but it’s basically the same mix – fast-food joints, mini-markets, betting shops, chemists – aided and abetted by chains, restaurants, a cinema (The Phoenix) and some speciality shops. Apart from the fact that the Council seemed to have pruned the trees on one side of the street but not on the other, there’s nothing particularly remarkable to note.
Despite its prosperity, though, I wonder how long the small, independent shops will survive. Swiftly but surely, the ‘liberalisation’ of capital that Thatcher helped bring in – the ‘Big Bang’ in the City – is destroying small business almost as relentlessly as Thatcher destroyed the miners and the unions. And with neoliberalism has come an emptying of meaning and purpose to much of life and to many people. There’s something pretty restrictive about life when purpose is defined in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), stratospheric pay packets for the very few and the frenetic lifestyles of celebrities. Some of that emptiness, I think, has to be laid at Thatcher’s door.
I’m back at East Finchley Station at 4.15 pm.
On the Northern line back to Euston, there’s a woman reading Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. That about puts the kybosh on the day: a grown woman reading a kids’ fantasy story. This truly is the modern world, I think, from death to escapism via a Tibetan Rinpoche, a French patisserie and neoliberalism.
I’m back at Forest Hill around half past five.
Later I do some research. In 2011 there were about eighty ‘persons under a train’, the great majority of them suicides, on the Tube. (Mostly these go unreported because of the danger that they will encourage further suicides.) There are around three thousand tube drivers. Over a lifetime of employment that means that there’s well over a one in ten chance that a tube driver will have a ‘person under a train’ with nothing he can do about averting that disaster.
No, I think, given those odds I don’t want to be a tube driver, no matter what the pay is. As far as I’m concerned, tube drivers – despite often being denigrated and belittled – are heroes. Unsung heroes.
I’ve been lucky today. I’ve stumbled across heroes. And I’ve been helped by good Samaritans: the Shop Manager at Lelung Dharma Centre and Monsieur and Madame Brione. Putting Margaret Thatcher to one side (difficult), it’s been a good day on the TubeforLOLs line.