It is an unwritten, or more precisely, an unspoken rule, known instinctively to all Londoners.
As paramount to survival in the great metropolis as never waiting for the lights to change at a zebra crossing. As infamous as the knowledge that you are never more than 300ft from a Pret A Manger. As dependable as the unsmiling face of the barista who serves you your morning coffee.
You don’t talk on the Tube.
The London Underground is a peculiar environment, the commuter’s sanatorium. Suits and Backpackers metonymically mingle here, on the great equaliser of Public Transport.
The chaos of the station platform billows through the sliding doors and is hushed.
London delights in its ambivalence, its ambiguity, its contradiction. The chaos and the hush.
I am not a native Londoner, but I go in and out of the city enough to know how it works. I obey the rules. I stand on the right of the escalator, and when someone stands on the left when I’m in a rush, I tell them where to go. But one day, when a friendly Northerner sat down next to me and struck up a conversation, I couldn’t give him the cold shoulder. He needed someone to explain the rules to him, someone to bring him into the fold.
Northern Guy: “So, where you going today?”
Me: “On my way home.”
Northern Guy: “Ah ok. So is it always like this? People don’t talk to each other in London?”
Me: “No mate, people don’t talk on the Tube.”
Northern Guy: “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m from Leeds, ya see.”
Me: “It’s fine, you weren’t to know.”
Of course I did this without making eye contact with him. That’s a rule I’m not willing to compromise on.
There is only one instance in which discussion is acceptable: transport delays. The horror of your train screeching to a halt, then the tell-tale crackle of the speakers…
The echoing muffle of the train attendant through the overhead speakers – incomprehensible to the average human – will drag the quietest of carriages into audible grumbles. This is the signal to look up from your LCD screen or paperback book, emit a murmured curse and make eye contact with another disgruntled commuter.
This announcement is permission, nay, an invitation to make acquaintance with your fellow travellers, through mutual exasperation. Because, although we all abide by the Unspoken Rule, the truth is, many of us wish we could be like the Northern Guy. We wish we could make friends with the people we are sardined in with. But Heaven forfend anyone who causes a delay.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must get to his meeting on time. If Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy were to run up to the closing doors of a Bakerloo Line train at Piccadilly Circus, he would definitely be one of those arrogant wankers who uses their briefcase to keep the doors from closing. And our modern-day Lizzie, already sat demurely in the carriage, would be righteously pointing out his solipsism to her giggling companion, as they shuttled towards Charing Cross.
Of course this is only fiction.
People don’t giggle on the Tube.
Organised Spontaneity: The magic of film and theatre. You organise a place and time. You arrive, buy some popcorn, take your seat and wait for something to happen…
It is a sad fact for those who devote their lives to this industry, that the magic is diminished by their very involvement in it. By knowing too much of the process, it becomes difficult to let the magic happen without analysing it.
But then, sometimes, the magic jumps right back in.
* * * * *
I volunteered to help out on a film set last weekend. For anyone reading this who assumes the words “film set” mean something glamorous and thrilling, let me dispel the illusion: this is rarely the case. Nothing extravagant, no notable names or fancy locations: a small “hipster-ish” bar not far from London Bridge, a small cast and crew, and a few friends helping out, on a cold and windy day in January.
The majority of our time was spent on the small, open roof terrace. With little to protect us from the elements and intrusive noise from the building works close by, it wasn’t the cosiest of settings. It didn’t take long for people to engage in their own personal warm-up routines between takes; what I shall refer to as The Warm-Up Shimmy soon becoming a popular choice among cast and crew alike.
The most anticipated scene to be filmed was the first meeting of two female leads who quickly fall for each other. You might have thought that the casting for these two characters would require some compatibility testing, that they should meet in advance to assure there was a level of natural chemistry before making the final decision to cast the pair. This was not the case.
Until the moment the director said “Action,” neither of these women had seen each other before. Instructed to stand at either end of the set and look at their feet, less than 10 feet from each other, but not allowed to look up.
One walks. The other stays still. They collide. They look up. They make eye contact. They smile…
Without rehearsing, without really meaning to, they smile. A perfect moment is created, captured on film and preserved in slow motion.
Organised spontaneity. Making magic.
And, that’s why I love acting.