Tube Etiquette

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An unusual sequence of events on the tube last Tuesday night gave rise to an intriguing internal debate of social etiquette. A rousing 3-piece Balkan band was busking on my Northern line tube – a fairly unusual occurrence in itself in this age of sanitized public transport space. An ensemble of trombone, accordion and box drum could have made a beautiful, joyous sound; but the trombone was screechy and the punchy rhythms far too bullish for 11:30pm on a December Tuesday night. I was secretly thinking how painful this sound was and trying not to show this on my face, when the band came down the carriage in the customary attempt to amass money from all too nonchalant passengers.

That’s when I noticed the man opposite me, who only a few feet from the zealous trombonist, had an agonised look on his face and promptly shoved both fingers in his ears. It wasn’t a subtle “I’ll pretend that I’m suffering from an unwelcome headache”, but rather a flagrant “F*** off” to the band, who was clearly causing him considerable angst. By this point the trombonist had noticed his brazen distaste for his creative expression, to which he responded by looking incredulously at our fellow passengers. He looked visibly wounded and at the next stop, Kentish Town, the band promptly disembarked the train. Fingers-in-the-ears man continued to look miserable, but somewhat relieved.

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This provoked an interesting dilemma for me. While I would have whole heartedly preferred not to have been harassed by an aural assault masquerading as music, I felt hurt for the injured musicians. There they were, joyously baring their musical souls and cultural heritage for all to enjoy (and hopefully pay for), and a stranger was unashamedly insulting their offering. I admit that I would have quite liked to block out the noise myself, but could he not have suppressed this urge to preserve their professional pride? I regaled this anecdote to a man at a dinner party, who highlighted that fingers-in-the-ears man hadn’t paid to go their concert, so he had every right to shut out the offending sound. The tranquillity of the public space had been invaded. He may have had the right, but that doesn’t make it kind, or in the least bit polite. Don’t these qualities count for something, even in the context of a presumptuous Balkan band?

On another tube journey, this time the morning commute on a packed train, I offered my seat to an elderly lady. “Ooh thank you” she said, “I’m not that old but I would quite like to sit down. Nice to see someone who has some manners.” “It’s normal” I replied, to which another lady next to me piped up, “Oh no it’s not, you’d be surprised”, and the two of them proceeded to moan about the number of people who don’t give up their seats to those in greater need. Eventually, another seat became free and I sat next to the old lady in question. She leaned over and said to me, “I’m 85 you know, but I don’t feel it. You know what I recommend to you? Hormone replacement therapy. It’s fantastic! I started taking it and just sprang out of bed!” She then went on to tell me the exact pill that she had been given and insisted I remember it to tell my doctor, as other types simply aren’t as good. Grateful though I am for such golden tips, I don’t think I’ll remember its name by the time I hit the menopause. London is weird. Suggesting HRT to a 25 year old? If that’s not offensive, I don’t know what is.

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