At school we learned how to buy train tickets in French, and in the process discovered we needed to make an alien specification: fumeur ou non-fumeur? British Rail—at it may no longer have been by then, but as I still thought of it—had outlawed smoking on its trains years before. Notices on every window reminded one with threats of sanctions.
The maximum fine was £500, while on the buses it was £2000; a curious incongruity. After all, they were both grubby, unpretentious, overworked components of our public transport network. If anything, the train was a grander mode of transport—and this, I thought, should have been reflected in the fines.
Transport was the prism through which I encountered the world—a world on the move. People stared distractedly at their newspapers or out of the window, attempting to transport their minds from their prosaic surroundings just as the train transported their body through drab suburbia, from Twickenham to Clapham Junction and thence into the city. Rusting gas holders, blackened bridges, concrete tower blocks and horrid bungalows all flowed past as we clattered towards Waterloo. Occasionally one would catch a whiff of illicit cigarette smoke—but not often.
Now smoking has departed that other bastion of public life: the pub. The smokers have been kicked out, just as they were from the buses and trains. But unlike the proletarian local rail and bus networks, where there are no First Class carriages and everyone rides together, pubs and bars exhibit the same stratification as society. Barring undesirables is easy—just price them out. If they can’t afford three-fifty a pint, then by definition they’re the wrong sort.
London is too much in my blood to spurn it easily, but some grey days the grime and money and poverty—and the attitudes they bring with them—just grind me down. Between themselves, Londoners do nothing but moan about their city; put them in a room with someone from anywhere else and they’ll defend it to the death as the greatest in the world. Hardly surprising it didn’t make Monocle’s top 20 liveable cities: ambivalence, for those with open eyes, is our defining attitude.
Last updated 13th Jan 2009