Smoothly from Harrow, but a Bit Late by Chris Moss

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Chris Moss traces the literary journey of the commuter and celebrates his arrival as a 21st century Everyman

“Man is born free, and is everywhere in trains,” wrote Roger Green in his 1984 book Notes from Overground.

Green, who used the pen name Tiresias (the blind prophet) for his rambling, ranting, insightful collection of carriage-seat-observations, was asking his fellow commuters on the Oxford-Paddington trains to stand up and be counted. After all, he wrote, the commuter is “l’homme moyen de notre époque. The anti-hero of our age. More than the soldier, the nuclear physicist, the political prisoner or the starving child, he indicates where we’ve gone wrong.”

Sadly, Notes from Overground is out of print. But I wonder if a reissue is not overdue, as surely it is time our anti-hero came out of his darkened compartment.

To explain the delay, we have only to look at one poem. T. S Eliot, in a famous passage from The Waste Land, coined an enduring stereotype:

“Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not though death had undone so many.”

Even the violet hues of the later Sapphic sections could not quite dispel the melancholy miasma clinging to the men in suits.

Writing from the exclusive metropolitan vantage of Chester Terrace, Eliot was removed from the reality of the commuting world. But in any case he was only espousing a literary viewpoint that was widespread at the time. Gill Cunningham sums up the background to the bias in her essay ‘London Commuting: Suburb and City, the Quotidian Frontier’, in London Eyes: reflections in text and image (2007):

“The predominant terms for understanding the modern city largely rests on notions of alienation, disconnection and anonymity, with the flâneur, from Baudelaire through Benjamin and onwards, as the privileged representative of urban modernity. The commuter, I would argue, provides not only an equally significant but also a more empirically grounded alternative figure through which to apprehend the relations between individual and city, the personal and the mass.”

Cunningham writes in the present tense, a nod to the literati’s continuing fixation with the flâneur. But slowly, stealthily, the commuter has arrived, notwithstanding the obstacles.

The age of the commuter came in to being with the suburban train. The etymology of the word is American, “commuter” referring – from at least 1865 – to the reduced prices of passes for regular users of suburban railroads. As late as 1932, the Times Literary Supplement was still using quotation marks to stress that it was an exotic term.

Yet London, more than most cities, was created by commuters. The city’s expansion and shape were determined by the railways that spread out like spores in the 19th and early 20th century. The social make up of its districts was conditioned by the price of tickets: third-class services to the north-east of London gave Tottenham and Edmonton their workers’ housing units. Esher, Maidstone, Aylesbury, Surbiton and Brighton would not look or feel as they do without the fast trains to the capital.

Betjeman, by focusing on London’s north-western corridor and the rus-in-urbe promises of the lines to Amersham and Aylesbury, provided what he believed was the suburban dweller’s take on life around the capital. He captured the appealing modesty of Metro-land and its demure women passengers:

“Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;”

And conjured the thrill of the technology:

“Early Electric! With what radiant hope
Men formed this many-branched electrolier…”

And the drama mitigated by nostalgia the passenger feels on arrival in the city.

“Smoothly from Harrow, passing Preston Road,
They saw the last green fields and misty sky,

But Betjeman didn’t raise the commuter to the status of hero. His outer-Londoners were too busy gardening to be heroic or profound. He never got inside the heads of the characters he wanted to love.

Television has been providing the returning commuter with a warm comforting glow (to match the one induced by the welcome-home scotch) since the 1960s. Tony Hancock took the idea of the comatose City-bound commuter and turned him – in films like Galton and Simpson’s The Rebel (1961) – in to a sort of Angry Pin-Striped Man. In one wonderful on-train scene, his consciousness streams:

“And then there’s me… the Charlie. You’re just the same as they are. Have a look at yourself. Go on, have a look at yourself! Depressing isn’t it? Same hat as them, same coat as them, same trousers, same papers, same sort of job… Why do you do this everyday of the week wasting your life? Well it’s my job. And how long have you been doing it? 14 years. What is it all for? What’s the purpose of it all? What are we doing it for? Where are we going?”

David Nobbs’s Reginald Perrin – given flesh by Leonard Rossiter in the 1976-9 television series – also examined the commuter’s existential angst. The Times crossword is a symbol of Reggie’s mental health; when he can’t complete it, he is at odds with the world.  As he drags his “reluctant legs” and “battle-weary” body around the suburbs and dodges the “irrelevant traffic” in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1975), he is as disturbing as – and far more engaging than – Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea’s

Given the paradoxical nature of the commuter’s alienation – part of an immense crowd, yet completely alone – it seems extraordinary that Beckett, Pinter and other absurdists didn’t mine his potential. Waiting, repetition, patience, delays: these are the staples of the commuting life. Who better exemplifies the young Beckett’s insistence that “Life is habit” in his 1930 manifesto-cum-essay on Proust?

What, though, of a positive hero who is also a commuter? John Lanchester, in his 2001 novel, Mr Phillips, came close to giving us one, but his protagonist is taking a day off, and the narrative is principally about escaping from an ordinary day’s journeying and working. Still, Lanchester finds time to consider the more banal preoccupations of train passengers and gives his protagonist the all-seeing eyes (and all-smelling nose) of the “empirically grounded” commuter:

“Although there is a gust of new oxygen when the train doors open, the air inside the compartment feels as if it has been breathed and rebreathed, recycled through lungs, picking up bacilli, viruses, tiny minute droplets of mucus and lining and bad breath and stomach gases, the feet and farts and crotch-whiffs of everyone in the train, going round and round their respiratory systems before being passed on to the next commuter. ”

Commuting has changed since Eliot’s day. It has even changed since Green’s day. Freesheets have replaced the Times. The casual look has done away with the bowler. Commuters are now less middle-class, less male, less formal.  They also have less comfort, and pay more for their broken loos, cramped carriages and cancellations than ever before.

The influence of Modernism, with its late Victorian town-and-country dichotomy, is still tangible. Chester Terrace may now be owned by Russians and Qataris, but Zone 1 and 2 “urbanites” still like to distance themselves from commuters and Standard readers. The suburbs, for all their lyrical overhauling by authors like J. G. Ballard and Iain Sinclair, are still not quite allowed into the metropolis.

But the suburbs sprawl towards the centre as well as outwards, and the commuters will not be held back. They share their disgust and despair through Twitter and other social media. Contemporary authors as diverse as poet Luke Wright, philosopher Alain de Botton and historian David Wragg have expanded the repertoire of commuter literature. The Daily Telegraph has a “Commuter Spy” column. Anthologies like Faber’s recent Train Songs remind us that siderodromology is not the exclusive province of the anoraked trainspotter, and that the delayed daily ordeal of getting from Dorking to Waterloo can be as life-defining as any bluesy railroad journey or Trans-Siberian epic.

Notably, the commuter has evolved most in the eyes of those who have something to sell; few markets are as easy to target as commuters standing on a platform. In August 2013, JC Decaux, the global advertising firm, launched a “Twitter Book Club” to get closer to audiences (“building communities through people’s passions” was the official message). It’s probably a cynical ploy, but any reading of books on trains is a good thing and perhaps commuters can begin to read about themselves. If the club can get them to leave the Metros in their unloved piles and turn to the centuries-old literary history of the commuter, from John Taylor the “water-poet” to Dickens’s long walks to Julian Barnes’s mediations in Metroland, then it will have served a purpose.

The story of the commuter is, after all, the story of an everyman, and there actually aren’t that many of those. Late, tired and delayed by poets and the privileged classes, the commuter is at last arriving – probably.

Smoothly from Harrow: A Compendium for the London Commuter by Chris Moss, is published by Blue Guides on October 1, 2013.