Can Sartre and Gandhi really make a Tube journey fly by?
London Underground plans to regale passengers with philosophical sayings. Stina Backer tries them out
Friday 26 June 2009
"Hell is other people" – something London commuters may be forgiven for muttering to themselves on their daily Tube journeys. It is certainly not a phrase they would expect to hear the driver announce, not without feeling a slight pinch of panic.
Yet these words, from the Parisian existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, are part of a book of sayings given to London Underground staff, who are being encouraged to dispense them over the Tannoy to try to spread some joy and intellectual inspiration.
At the moment these pearls of wisdom are only being communicated to the lucky passengers on the long and winding Piccadilly line. So, to ensure travellers on the rest of the network did not miss out, we decided to spread the word on the Circle line – one of London's most-hated Tubes because of its infrequent service and frequent signal failures.
Nearing rush hour on a hot and sweaty day, I try out one of the Gandhi quotes chosen by Transport for London (TfL) to create a relaxed and soothing atmosphere. "There is more to life than increasing its speed," I announce loudly to my fellow commuters, only to be met with endless death stares mixed up with the odd why-did-I-have-to-choose-the-carriage-with-the-crazy-person sighs.
Perhaps the idea of being told to slow down when stuck on a packed and clammy Tube does not sit well with everyone. "I think it's a ridiculous idea and a waste of money," moaned Jo Byrne, 37, a payroll officer from Romford, Essex. "Surely it's not safe either, the Tube driver should be concentrating on driving the train rather than reciting some philosophical quotes."
Others seemed to love the idea of having their minds expanded by the wisdom of Einstein and Dostoevsky. "I think it's great as long as they don't do it too often, because then it risks becoming a bit annoying," said Anna Waterer, 34, an architect from Putney.
"I always like it when Tube drivers say something spontaneous, it brightens up your day a bit. Commuting can be such a solitary experience so when you share a laugh with a stranger because of an announcement, it takes your mind off the slightly absurd situation you face when you are on a packed train deep underground."
The quotes are collected in a passport-sized pamphlet, What is the city but the people? (from Shakespeare) that has been handed to Tube drivers and platform staff on the Underground. The project is the brainchild of the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, who said he was motivated by annoyance at the recorded announcements that bombard Tube passengers, such as "mind the gap" and "stand clear of the closing doors".
His original idea, a day with no announcements, was rejected by Tube bosses, "so I came up with the idea of giving staff a collection of quotes and the idea grew from there".
"I often wish announcements were more personal and reflected the realities and absurdities of living and working in a big city," Deller said. "The travelling public enjoys some humour and unexpected insight during their journey."
Drivers who agreed to take part were given tips on delivery by the stand-up comedian Arthur Smith. Piccadilly line driver Susy Wells told the BBC that the sayings helped liven up a job that "can be a little bit monotonous at times". TfL has asked passengers who hear the announcements to send in their reactions by email.
Train of thought: TfL's philosophy quotes
Trouble will rain on those who are already wet – Anon
Never criticise a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins – Native American proverb
Those who lose dreaming are lost – Aboriginal proverb
It is no longer the time of day for making plans, but for having them – Greek proverb
Beauty will save the world – Fydor Dostoyevsky
Nothing is worth more than this day – Johann von Goethe
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