Victoria Summerley: Town Life
Wednesday 29 November 2006
Chatter among the child-rearing classes at London dinner parties tends to be dominated by three things: property prices, schools and transport. These days, property prices and the battle to find a place at a school have become genuinely terrifying, however, so the transport items tend to come as a bit of light relief.
Horror stories about how long you were stuck on a Northern line train in 40C heat, or how it took you two hours to drive 10 miles thanks to an alien spacecraft trying to do a U-turn on the Highway, in Wapping, or how many times they've dug up Thames Street in the past five years (my guess would be 23,546 times) - all these stress-in-the-city anecdotes are trotted out to an admiring audience.
This usually degenerates into that favourite London pastime of comparing routes. This will enthral the two people involved while the other guests slide into a wine-sodden stupor of boredom until the arrival of (a) the brandy or (b) the minicab. If you haven't experienced one of these conversations, they go something like this:
"Nah, nah," the first person will say (people seem to talk like a cross between a cabbie and Chris Tarrant when discussing routes), "I don't go through the Elephant. I cut down Landor Road, then back-double through Myatt's Fields, then across Camberwell New Road, then back-double to Albany, then straight across the Old Kent and . . ."
See what I mean? You're asleep already, aren't you? Commuters do it too. "Nah, nah," they say, "don't take the Northern line all the way to Goodge Street. Much quicker to change at Stockwell for the Victoria, then you can walk back from Warren Street."
The reason we Londoners are obsessed with these travellers' tales is because we have to endure the daily task of getting around the city. One friend visiting from Edinburgh admitted she'd always thought London Weighting meant London Waiting. She'd never seen it written down. On the other hand, she had just spent hours trying to get a Morden train on the Northern line.
But there are compensations. Particularly if you live in Wimbledon, apparently. I don't know what it is about that particular place - perhaps it's all the sexy tennis stars, or the balmy south-west-London air, or pheromones blowing around on the common, but if you're looking for romance, Wimbledon's public transport systems seem unusually able to provide it.
A former colleague of mine met his future wife on the Wimbledon branch of the District line. They'd noticed each other on the homeward journey each day and then, while stranded at Earl's Court waiting for a Wimbledon train that had been held up, they got chatting. They went for a drink and the rest is history (not to mention three children).
Sometimes, however, you have to be a bit more pro-active. Elaine, a friend of a friend, met her Mr Right on the 8.10 Southern Trains service from Haydons Road station in SW19. She had noticed that this gorgeous guy seemed to take the same train as her each day and desperately tried to think of a way to make contact. Trip him up? No, likely to result in serious injury. Spill coffee over him? No, for the reason given before, with the additional danger of expensive litigation.
So she wrote her e-mail address on a piece of paper, then manoeuvred herself into position close to Mr Eight-Ten just before she boarded the train. He was with three friends but, undeterred, she dropped the paper on the ground. And then she tapped him on the shoulder and said: "I think you dropped this."
Here's the clever bit. Instead of leaving him to pick up the piece of paper, thus running the risk that he might ignore her, or reply that no, it wasn't his, she picked up the precious scrap. She handed it to him then fled, her knees shaking, to a different carriage. That evening, he e-mailed her.
Elaine and Mr Eight-Ten (his real name is Grant) have now bought a flat together. So when they have dinner parties, they'll be able to talk about property prices and transport stories. One of these days they may even start talking about finding the right school.
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