Some light at the end of the tunnel

<i>Tunnel Visions: journeys of an underground philosopher</i> by Christopher Ross (Fourth Estate, &pound;12)
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The Independent Culture
Hands up all of you who can hear the Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" in your ears as you sit stony-faced through the start of every weekly commute.

Hands up all of you who can hear the Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" in your ears as you sit stony-faced through the start of every weekly commute. Most likely, it will be because you're stuck on public transport so overloaded it feels like the trigger-point of something about to resemble the Hillsborough disaster. If you are unlucky enough to have a job that sucks the life out of you with its routine, such travel only emphasises the "straight path" of Dante's Inferno.

Christopher Ross chucked it all in before he became one of the living dead. He was a successful lawyer, but his work was leading to the "corrosion of my real self beyond repair". His boiling-frog theory of "straight life" goes as follows: "Scientists found out that frogs have nervous systems poorly adapted to register slow incremental change; if you sit one in a saucepan of water and slowly heat it the poor frog will stay where it is and boil to death." Unless you leap out of the employment frying pan, before you know it you're completely burgered.

Ross began travelling, taking jobs only as a means to buy time, stripping his world to essentials. He became a "philosopher", a "truth seeker", working to enrich his inner life, "to expand the spectrum of my way of thinking".

The hard truth Ross encountered was that he ended up broke. He needed a job that freed his thoughts, so he applied for the position of station assistant on London Underground: philosophy as the new rock-and-rolling stock. Its consolations were that he could escape into the life of the mind, while everyone else was losing theirs.

He was given a customer-care quiz that asked: "What are people made up of? Answer: 72.8 per cent water." Perhaps he was being prepared for the advances of his endearingly wet and liberal "Soft Skills" trainer, Elizabeth. She vainly attempted to empathise with her class by discussing her unhappy marriages and difficult childhood. Remember, when commuter rage next descends on you in London, that Underground staff bleed too.

She also reveals another human touch; drivers on the Central and Victoria lines don't drive their trains at all. They exist as the reassuring human face of the computer-operated system. Unfortunately, this does nothing for the inevitable suicides, the "one-unders" or "track pizzas", as they are known. Shockingly there are, on average, two jumpers a week.

One of the most useful pieces of information Elizabeth imparts is that London Underground has a private arrangement with the IRA. The Provos have an agreement not to plant bombs on the Tube network. This prompts Ross to speculate what the IRA has received in return. Free travel?

Ross's beat is Platform 6 at Oxford Circus station, one of the busiest in London, offering rich pickings for human observation. His philosophical enquiries are the great universals: "How might we best behave in various situations? How should we use our time? What duties, if any, were ours to fulfil? How can we say we know anything? Can we discover the purpose and potential of our lives?"

His questioning can seem portentous and some of his insights into "what happens when nothing happens" tend towards the commonplace. Not a lot happens, but you still applaud his passionate espousal of slowness, of reflection rather than mindless consumption, of the possibility of freedom and happiness, and of engagement as opposed to destructive competitiveness.

Ross is good-natured, undemonstrative and sane. His musings are peppered with good gags and anecdotes. There is an honesty and lack of pretension in his writing, which has none of Alain de Botton's arch eloquence. Ross is a people's philosopher, and if he sometimes states the obvious. it is because too often we forget the value of these truisms.

However, it is hard not to feel that his fellow Underground employee Phil has his life sorted: "His day was a success if he could spend time asleep in the dark, in radio silence, in a cupboard in a tunnel one hundred feet below a London street and be paid for it." Job done.

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