Early on in my career, I realised that half of the battle in staying happy in life is learning to enjoy your commute. If you find peace during that 45 minute journey, where you’re sat in stand-still traffic or pressed up against the inside of a train door, then you can do anything else in life with vigor. It is the key to inner happiness. When we think of Monks, we assume that it is their connection to their God and their studious nature which brings them inner peace. Although this is a nice theory, I believe it may be wrong. Monks spend their lives in monasteries, where commuting is a dystopian concept. It isn’t a coincidence. They’re probably unaware of the entire concept of ‘dystopian’ with all that peace and tranquility. To some of us, a monastery seems like a concept reserved for dystopia, but I’m sure everyone agrees that the lack of commuting is anything but. Perhaps I should become a Monk, come to think of it. Na. I like buying things too much.
‘Commuting’ is an elastic word. Although it is commonly used to refer to the regular act of leaving one’s home to get to one’s place of work, it could, in theory, refer to any journey that is made regularly. If I had regular piano lessons, and I travelled there every Saturday at 08:00 to arrive at 09:00, could I refer to this as my ‘commute’ to my piano lesson? I might. It might even be acceptable to describe it as such. It is certainly acceptable according to the Wikipedia page for commuting, where the following is stated:
Commuting is periodically recurring travel between one’s place of residence and place of work or study, where the traveler, referred to as a commuter, leaves the boundary of their home community. By extension, it can sometimes be any regular or often repeated travel between locations, even when not work-related.
Notice the use of the word ‘even’ in that paragraph? “…EVEN when not work related.” What exciting lives we lead in the modern world. It makes me think of the interview with then british Prime Minister Theresa May, where a reporter asked her what the naughtiest thing she had ever done was, with the slightest hint of sarcasm in her tone, but still said very professionally. Theresa May responded in a babbling fashion, trying to buy herself time to think of a realistic yet relatable answer – “Oh goodness me…. Erm, well I supposed the… Gosh… I’m not sure… No one’s ever perfect are they… Well, I have to confess, when me and my friends would, sort of, run through the fields of wheat…well, the farmers weren’t too pleased about that.” You can’t watch it without covering your eyes and cringing. I think Theresa May might have written the Wikipedia page on commuting, based on her response that day. I’m surprised it didn’t come up after that question was put to her.
Reporter: “So, Theresa, what is the naughtiest thing you have ever done?”
Theresa May: “Well, erm, I guess I’ve, erm, been a little aloof with my siblings in the past. I EVEN described my journey to my brother’s house for Sunday dinner as a ‘commute’ because I was doing it every week. He didn’t appreciate that.”
After she said it, you could sense the world collectively groan back at through their TV screens, before immediately changing the channel. It would have actually gone down better than what she said – at least it would have hinted at the fact that she had a sense of humour.
But I am not talking about the type of commute where you frequently make some nondescript journey. I’m talking about that forced journey that you make at the worst time of the day, during rush hour. When everyone in the world looks miserable because they got out of bed earlier than they wanted to, to go to a place where they’re constantly scrutinised on their ‘performance’, whilst making someone else a lot of money, which they only receive a small percentage of in return. That morning slog to your place of work.
If you’re driving a car and you’re unfortunate enough to meet another person’s glance as you’re sitting in traffic, you see the same misery that is painted over your face in theirs. You both quietly acknowledge it, before quickly looking away and pretending that you aren’t still wondering if they’re looking at you. What else are you going to do? Think about work? Gaup at another car? There’s nothing better to do. Just stare forward and try to think of nothing.
In London, on the underground, making eye contact with someone is considered assault during rush hour, and it is to be avoided at all costs. There are reports of people actually turning to stone upon making eye contact with each other on the tube in rush hour. I haven’t seen it happen myself, but I’m not willing to find out if the stories are true or not. Here is a little run down of my daily commute on the tube…
As soon as I enter the train carriage in the morning, I run for the only seat that is still available and throw myself on it. Then, I take out my book from my bag, ensuring that the only place I look is down, before opening it up at any page at all (I don’t care where, so long as I am too busy to engage with anyone around me), and that is where my gaze stays until it is my stop. Then, I put the book in my bag, immediately produce my phone from my pocket, check my emails quickly as the train pulls into the station and, when it stops, I finally look up, stand up, and leave the train. A sigh of relief involuntarily leaves my mouth, and I start to shake the hands of every person around me whilst staring them straight in the eye, like a politician, congratulating them for successfully making it through another commute. Then I realise that I have a 20 minute walk to my office from the station, which means that my commute is technically not over yet. Horrified at this realisation, I repent to the commuting Gods and ask that they forgive me for my transgressions, for daring to look another commuter in the eye. Then I nervously run to my office, purposefully barging into people in the street to make sure that they know that I am a commuter and I will damn well act like one, with my eyes fixed on the pavement in front of me and a total disregard for anyone or any thing that isn’t me. Later, when I get a notification from my bank telling me that London Underground have charged me for the journey, I am reminded that I actually pay to do all of this, and the indignation weighs heavy on me for a while. Then I get the tube home and forget about the whole thing. Same again tomorrow, I guess.
Commuting seems to drive people clinically insane. When I used to get the tube from London Bridge, in central London, to Canary Wharf, I would always take the Jubilee line. If it is running to schedule, there is a train every 2 or 3 minutes. It is quite impressive. Despite this, sometimes I would be walking towards the platform, where a train would be sitting with people alighting from it, and I’d accept in my head that I’ll just get the next one, as there are too many people around to allow me to sprint at it, and there will be another train in 2 minutes anyway, so why would I? Next thing I know, Tom in the Blue Suit is bursting past me from behind, as if this train was the last train to heaven and if he didn’t catch it, he would immediately be damned to the train to hell and nowhere else. I’m sure in his head he has a scene from an action film playing, and as he dives towards the train doors, the bell ringing out to signify that the train is going to leave and doors are closing, he thinks he has made a fantastic decision. Then, as he dives through the closing gap, the entire world probably goes into slow-motion a la Matrix style, as he narrowly slips through the gap, the door closing on the heel of his back foot. “Please do not obstruct the doors,” says the train driver through the tannoy, in a frustrated tone. Tom pulls his shoe from the gap with great effort as the doors angrily clap together behind him. He then smiles to the hordes of people crammed into the train, some of which he has just shoulder barged on his way in, then continues to look down and assume his position as unassuming commuter #235987245897349683045892034729845938460395863. Well done, Tom, you saved yourself 2 minutes. Enjoy getting to work earlier you absolute moron.
Of course, the recent wave of Working from Home has seen a decline in commuting. Whether working from home (stylised as ‘WfH’ or ‘WFH’) is a positive thing or not seems to split opinion. I feel like most people that I know are in favour of working from home, but I know a few people who are ardently against it too. In my experience, the answer seems to be in balance. Covid-19 presented us with a rare opportunity where we were forced to stay in our homes, and work from them all of the time. We had to do everything from them. I even had to do my family Christmas from my own home, via Skype, because Boris Johnson announced another lockdown about 2 minutes before I was leaving to get the train home for the holiday. Bah humbug.
Commuting became an ideal of the past, a distant memory of a world not plagued by… plague. One where it was common to see groups of young professionals outside the pub at 18:00 on a Wednesday, armed in suits and drinking beers, and where it was a given that we’d all be travelling into work the next morning, assuming it was a week day, but we all thought nothing of it. We all had more stamina then, and going out for mid-week drinks was part of the job. How life has changed.
Working from home was a benefit that I had experienced at my old job, but it was something that you had to beg for, and have a ruddy good reason for asking. Then, the pandemic happened, and all of a sudden the world required everyone to WfH all of the time, or risk death. We all started judging each other on how willingly we wore masks in supermarkets. I remember someone pointing out that all of the youths that used to love wearing masks in public were now refusing to wear them in an act of defiance, an apt observation which I thought of every time I saw a group of bustling teenagers in a shop, not wearing masks and staring you out for daring look in their direction.
I now go into the office twice a week and I have to say, it is quite enjoyable! It is nice getting out of the house, putting on some nice-ish clothes, and seeing people face to face. The whole thing feels quite novel. Yet, now there is more of an expectation on us to do so, the office is the worst thing ever again. There are no winners. Humans are destined to be unhappy – that is my takeaway from it all. If there is something to be dissatisfied with, we’ll find it and we’ll milk it dry. When we were working from home, we wanted more money to cover the extra heating bills, but now we’re back in the office, we begrudge having to pay the money to commute.
But I have lots of positive things to say about the pandemic AND about post-pandemic life. The pandemic actually presented me with a few rare opportunities, of which I will forever be grateful. I was living in central London when it hit. During my long runs on a Saturday, I’d run along the Thames path right next to the river, through central London and around Southbank. There was a time that I was running over the Millenium Bridge, the bridge which crosses the river next to The Globe theatre and leads you straight to St Paul’s Cathedral, and I couldn’t see a single person anywhere. It felt like I was in a zombie film. No tourists, no commuters, no street performers. Just me, the Thames, and an eerie sense that the world was ending. The world wasn’t ending. In fact, there were images of fish in the canals in Venice, and wild animals venturing into the towns in Wales… the world was actually doing better and we were the problem all along – who knew? But it was a peaceful time, and I’ve never experienced a London like it in all my time of living here.
So, I’ve tried to make something of my commute, as it is the only thing standing in my way of enjoying my 2 days in the office… I try and use it to do something useful. I’ve been reading through all of Patrick Radden Keefe’s books, an investigative journalist who writes incredible non-fiction, but has such a smooth writing style and finds such interesting topics to talk about, that makes you wish that the commute would never end. I’ve started writing on my commute on my phone too, or I’ll respond to a bunch of texts that I’ve been sitting on (apparently, a side effect of having had cancer is that you get really bad at doing life admin). I feel like it is reforming my opinion of commuting. It does help that where I live now is a little quieter on the commute, and I usually get a seat… I wouldn’t be spinning a positive ending on this if I still lived in London Bridge, that’s for sure. And I stand by what I said at the start of this – if you can find a way to enjoy your commute, you will probably be a much happier person overall. I feel like I’m moving past a notional concept of enjoying my commute, though, which is what I used to have, and am actually starting to enjoy it for real. If I see Tom in the Blue Suit, though, I’m going to trip him up and laugh to high heaven as his train departs the station without him!