The London evening train

A lonely train journey in London tells us much about life in the capital. Should we have a new academic field: anthropology of the train?

Louis Yako
7 January 2014


I come back to you filled with new sorrows and disappointments. I come from my endless journeys from one melancholic city to another, from one suppressed country to another on our harsh and lonely planet. After spending this past summer boarding planes and riding trains from one alienating city to another, I come back with a mouthful of mud, blood, and broken glass. This time the train is in and about London. It was about 6:15 pm when I boarded one of London’s trains heading to the nowhere. The railroad car was packed with so many people; all trying to keep themselves busy and entertained until they reach the station they believed to be the “right” one. Some were constantly staring at their iPhones and iPads; others were motionless—and emotionless—with their eyes fixated on their newspapers, perhaps searching for some good news about our human misery. Some were secretly looking at other passengers, hoping for someone to share with them a glance of care and compassion to acknowledge their existence, or hoping that someone would notice the silent cries and screams in their desperate eyes. Others were speaking in foreign languages creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Some, like me, were focused on the overhead screens reading the name of each station in anticipation...

Both sides of the railroad car were crowded with advertisements. Right in front of me there was one ad promising the readers to “save hundreds of pounds” on their monthly bills. Another one promised a solution for your bald hair, but there was no ad encouraging us to have bold brains to revolt against the status quo. Another was cautioning us about having unprotected sex. On the other side there was one ad encouraging us to quit smoking, but of course without saying a single word about the problems of the so-called “modern civilization” that force people to fall into the traps of smoking, alcohol, drugs, and other self-destructive behaviors in the first place. Next to it there was an ad that started with the following catchy question: “Do you wish you were somewhere else? If so, give us a call for an unforgettable summer vacation!” This one is making it clear that advertising corporations are aware that we are all where we shouldn’t be—in their hands.  On the opposite side of my seat, I caught another ad asking: “Do you feel lonely amid the crowds of the city? Please visit our website to find the love you have been dreaming of all your life.” It must be a shock for the reader to suddenly realize that the “love” of their life has been around all this time in the form of an online profile, only waiting for them to visit this particular website! Next to that ad there was another one asking: “Are you tired of public transportation? Do you have a romantic date tonight? Call us and we will be happy to provide you with a special car to take you home at any hour of the night!” It must be good that the first ad will provide you with the lover, and the second with the necessary transportation home from your date—they must also be certain that you will not be sleeping over with this new and wonderful lover they have found for you! I wondered whether there will be ads in the near future to teach us how to make love.

As I got tired of looking at these ads, I changed my direction and started scanning the faces sitting around me. On my right side there was a young couple making out in public. On my left side an old woman was staring at the young couple maliciously, either wishing she was part of it, or mocking the whole “lovemaking” scene as a grand project of separation. In the back I heard loud laughter from a group of drunken boys and girls every time the overhead announcement stated: “this train terminates at Cockfosters.” Their laughter came as a reminder of a sedated culture that grants everyone the freedom of “sex” and “alcohol” so long as they do not disturb the system or challenge the status quo.

There were endless bodies of passengers wearing different colors of clothes, carrying handbags, and electronic devices of different sizes and shapes, giving them the illusive feeling of uniqueness, but probably made by a handful of corporations. The crowded faces looked tired of another workday, after being given another big dose of despair to prepare for living, but without being given the chance to actually live. Faces that no longer believe in anything, not least in these train ads attacking their fried brains, exhausted eyes, and lonely hearts. Faces that do not want to hear or see anything after a long day of slavery for the system.  Their next step would most likely be to enjoy the gifts of “modern civilization” by going to a bar, eating a meal at new restaurant they have not tried before, or simply sit on a comfortable futon to watch some programs on their flat screen TV, and be grateful they are not the ones who got murdered, robbed, sued, assassinated, bombed, fired, or arrested on that day. After watching TV programs that teach them how to be grateful in comparison with the misfortunes of the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, they will probably call it a night and go to bed. They will not even dare take a minute and stand in front of a mirror to examine their faces lest they suddenly realize how defeated, how duped they have been all these years. There is something about staring at ourselves in the mirror that makes us question our very existence, and whether we are the kind of people that we wanted to be, a question that so many people avoid confronting.

And thus, as the sad evening train continued moving from one London station to another, I kept searching through the crowded faces getting on and off the train, hoping to find eyes filled with hope, rebellion, and courage. I kept searching for faces that will make me hope for the future—a future filled with love and dreams; a future of awakening from illusions, lies, and deception.

Before getting off at a random station, I took a last look around me and realized how much trains capture our daily realities and existence; how much they mirror our defeats, melancholy, disappointments, joys, dreams and hopes. I realized how life itself is a train not a station, and how our existence is similarly compartmentalized in its shape and temporal in its duration. And so I propose we start anthropology of the train. If anthropology in its simplest definition is “the study of humankind,” anthropology of the train could be defined as: the study of human misery and misfortune captured on the trains. The fieldwork would consist of jumping from one sad train to another, from one alienating city to another, from one melancholy continent to another, in search of the broken pieces of the painted mirror of the human condition.

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