London has lost much of its swagger over the past twelve months. When we think of economic gloom, we tend not to envisage it having a direct effect on how a city looks or feels, apart from there being more “for sale” or “closed” signs. However, there is a palpable sense that something is wrong in London; this particularly comes across in Spring, when depression seems less apropos given the beautiful golden sunlight and the fresh blossoms on the hawthorne and cherry trees.
Perhaps the most depressing place to be in London is Waterloo Station. While its comings and goings should symbolise that the country is still moving along, I found when I was there last week that there was a heaviness in the atmosphere that indicated that Londoners are “going through the motions”. There is a leaden weight in people’s strides, an ashen hue to commuters’ complexions that seems to say, “Oh God, another day, let’s just get it over with.” The only smiling faces I saw belonged to young tourists; there was a group of them, loudly speaking German and wondering when the next train to Portsmouth would be departing and from which platform.
My journey was much more prosaic: I was headed home. A strawberry yoghurt drink and a latte had cleared the detritus of fatigue from the previous night, and I was simply anxious to leave the city; after twenty four hours in the urban behemoth, I wanted fresh green meadows, clear blue skies, and the scent of mown grass. It would make a pleasant contrast to the slightly sickening scents of diesel fumes and frying oil that lingered in Waterloo.
My train was the 9:35. As such, I had bought an off-peak ticket, which meant that I was paying about a third less than the usual fare, though at Â£30, it was still outrageous. I saw my train had arrived at platform seven, and I approached the gate. I stuck my ticket into the appropriate slot: the machine spat the ticket back at me and said, “Seek Assistance”. I flagged down a guard: she was a middle aged woman in a florescent vest and had a sour disposition. She looked as if she hadn’t had a good morning in twenty years. Her hair was cut short, her glasses were dirty, and she peered at me as if to say, “What do you want?”
“Excuse me,” I said, “my ticket won’t let me in.”
She cast a glance at it. “It’s an off-peak ticket, sir,” she said, “you’re not allowed in until 9:30. That’s the rules.”
I looked at the clock. It was 9:20.
I tried reason. I pointed at the 9:35 train. “But that’s my train there, the 9:35.”
She looked at me, her toad-like face registering nothing but contempt. “You’re not allowed in until 9:30, that’s the rules.”
By now, a small crowd was starting to build behind the barrier, all of whom had off-peak tickets and were similarly unable to get in. To my left was an old gentleman wearing a khaki trenchcoat, grey suit and regimental tie. To my right were two young blonde university-age girls who were trying not to giggle too loudly at the absurdity of the situation: after all, it wasn’t like any of us were going to get across the barrier and then go to a slightly earlier train to a different destination just for the purposes of cheating South West Trains.
A young man with short black hair and black wire frame glasses approached. He asked, “What’s going on?”
“Do you have an off-peak ticket?” I queried.
“You can’t get in, they won’t let us in until 9:30.”
“So basically we have to run onto the train at 9:30 and hope to find a seat in five minutes?”
One of the girls spoke up, “Well surely if we’re not all on the train, they can’t let it depart.”
I pointed at the guard, who was now pacing up and down, telling all the off-peak ticket holders in flat tones they weren’t getting in. It was 9:24. I wondered if she was enjoying herself.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” I said.
“It’s really rather a shambles,” the old gentleman added.
“I don’t believe it,” the young man continued, “no wonder this country is in such a mess.”
The queue continued to build up behind me. The guard looked more nervous, pacing up and down behind the barrier as if she was defending a fort. The university girls ran down to the next barrier and managed to convince the guard there, obviously a more reasonable sort, to let them in.
The queue pressed forward. I looked hard at the guard, and wondered what made her such a misery. Yes, monitoring a ticket barrier was not much of a job; was her sole pleasure to be found in getting in people’s way? Was it the only way that she could be noticed?
It hit 9:27. The train’s engine spun up and spun down, which was probably due to the driver doing a systems check. The queue now had become a mob. It was the first time I had been in the midst of a seething mass with one clear, strong message: let us in, LET US IN!
At 9:28, the guard finally decided to radio in for permission to open the barrier, and reluctantly, she let us all through. The movement and sound reminded me of birds fluttering away out of a cage. Freedom: to get out of the station, and to get out of London.
I boarded, found a place to sit and settled back. I looked out the window: the train departed, and I saw Waterloo and the London skyline stretching out behind me, eventually disappearing into the distance. But what the young man said stuck with me, “No wonder this country is in such a mess.” But I think it’s not the stupidity of rules that make the country a mess, it’s the inhumanity in their application and the belief that they substitute for ethics.
If I had shown up too early, and wanted to board a train at say, 8 AM, using the wrong ticket, then definitely, the rules should be there to prevent me from taking advantage. However, note the time, note the train: common sense would have suggested that this was not a group of fare dodgers who somehow wanted to cheat South West Trains. We were just a group of ordinary people who had paid the right fare, and wanted to get on the right train. The guard should have seen this and had the confidence to say, “OK, go through”, but she didn’t. Whether this was out of spite or fear is unclear: but this type of nit-picking, tight-fisted rule making and enforcement has become a motif in Britain these days. Bin men won’t pick up your trash unless you put it out precisely in the right way. Mobile phone companies won’t release your number if you change providers until you go through a set of security questions and are subjected to more marketing. Local councils won’t let you put up a wind turbine or solar cells unless you get planning permission. The number of rules and regulations has increased over the past ten years by a substantial margin and the perception is the accompanying common sense in their application has not risen appropriately.
Britain right now is in the throes of a scandal due to frivolous and outrageous expense claims by Members of Parliament. The retort from the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, has been that the rules were followed; but in this instance, common sense and ethics would have said that it’s not right to claim the construction costs of a sauna on expenses, or to profit on property bought using MP’s allowances. Yet the politicians don’t apparently want to understand that the divergence between regulation and morals is precisely what is making the public so angry at them.
However, I think I caught a glimpse of what’s coming on platform seven. There is a limit to what people will take, how much nonsense will be tolerated. A natural sense of justice is more powerful than the iron fist of rules. Businessmen, politicians, leaders of all kinds should look to examples like Waterloo’s platform seven and realise that there will come a time when compassion, sense and logic will mean more than any petty dictum they can come up with. The barrier will come down: the question is, will it be broken down, or will they open it of their own accord?