I am currently reading a novel about a dystopian future in which the world has been destroyed in some sort of holocaust, and all the survivors live in a collection of huge underground bunkers near Atlanta. As with all science fiction, it is about the dynamics of human interaction in a hostile environment. I was sitting on the tube, thinking about how terrible that would be; stuck underground forever, jammed in with thousands of others, living cheek by jowl all the time, jostling for space on the staircase, inching and shuffling forwards to try and get somewhere. You would never see daylight, never get any fresh air, spending all day cooped up in a box, competing for scarce resources.
“Move along the platform, keep moving, do not board this train!”, the train announcer screamed in my ear as I got out of the lifts to the Northern Line at Bank, and turned around the corner to the hideously cramped, tiny platform full of tourists standing in the wrong place. You always feel slightly as if someone is going to get pushed off the edge.
When we get on the train in Milton Keynes, there is quite an art to getting a seat without appearing to have pushed in. Since I’m a lot smaller than my husband, it is relatively easy for me to slip between people. The trick is to never touch or bump into their shoulders, as that instantly raises the competition and aggression involved, and will result in people blocking you off. Just keep very close to the person in front, move in tiny increments, never make eye contact, and never hesitate. It very rarely fails, but I do rather wonder why we live like this. Vast swathes of Scotland, Cumbria and Northumberland stand empty. Houses cost less than half what they cost in the South East. We have the technology to work remotely, yet half the country wedges itself into a few square miles of office space every working day. As a species we are incapable of trusting each other if we’re not seeing the whites of the eyes, looking at the sincerity of a smile, judging a handshake. Ironically, the people I work with are based in Dublin, but somehow it still seems essential to be sharing the pain that everyone else goes through to get to the office every day.