Eloquent notes from the Underground

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IT IS sobering to realise that, after home and the office, I probably spend more time in the Underground than anywhere else. I cannot drive, and have insufficient patience for buses or money for taxis.

It takes about 40 minutes each way to travel between my nearest station (Gloucester Road) and that closest to this office (Old Street). I do this return journey five times a week. Add various others (visit daughter: Brixton; visit son: Clapham North; visit consultant: Belsize Park; visit friends: various) whose length averages half an hour each way and the total must be 10 hours a week.

I am not complaining. People who never travel by Tube miss the great parade of ordinary humanity that London Underground provides. Nobody who goes by Tube could believe for a moment that this country, or its capital city, risks being submerged under a tide of immigrants. Even if a disproportionate number of people from ethnic minorities use the Tube, they are still outnumbered by white people in a ratio of easily 1:8. Buskers are the only exception, many of whom seem to have dreadlocks and play drums or guitars, while singing strange rap songs whose words are eloquent of pain and yearning: for love, money, or more obscure pleasures.

I watched an elderly gentleman on the escalator at King's Cross the other day. He wore an old-fashioned hat, a peppery country suit and that expression of nervous apprehension common to provincials venturing down the Tube. At the foot of the escalator stood a bongo drummer, head back, eyes closed, juddering and ululating. The old man looked at him in bewilderment. Here was a denizen from a world beyond his recognition.

For regular travellers, the change is more gradual. The young go by Tube all the time, enabling us to get used to their fashions. Pink-dyed dreadlocks? No problem. Holey jeans, patched with what looks like an American colonial quilt, worn with huge unlaced running shoes and sunglasses and topped with a jacket from Peru? No trouble: I can decode the signals. I also know, from watching them wink or play hide and seek to entertain an infant in a push-chair, that most of these fancy-dressed figures are perfectly benign.

Another Tube pastime is watching romance, often in its tenderest form. Do people still kiss on escalators? Yes, yes they do. On Tube platforms, benches, trains? Yes, indeed: as if they were alone in the world, although in truth they are just far from parents, teachers and the mockery or gossip of their contemporaries. They kiss, not with the sculptural artistry of film posters, but the clumsy gentleness of youth.

I relish the absurd conventions of Tube travel. Hell knows no fury like a woman beaten to the last seat by a man, yet much as one may glare, one never asks people if they would mind getting up. An American survey some years ago showed that if a perfectly able-bodied young man simply says in a firm voice, 'May I have your seat?', with neither an explanation nor a please, the vast majority will rise docilely and surrender it. The reason must be that only the most desperate need could impel him to break the taboo.

And finally, the drama] The other day, returning from the National Gallery with three small grandchildren in tow, we were gliding down the escalator listening to a clarinettist when suddenly a member of the station staff came up behind him, snatched his takings and sprinted up the escalator. The young busker was after him in a flash, and together they wrestled furiously until the musician had retrieved his money. It was all over in 20 seconds, but the suddenness, the realness of it all] The children were wide- eyed. It was better than the Martyrdom of St Sebastian.

And now, a happy ending. Several weeks ago I wrote lamenting the fact that, after 20 years of successful contact lens wear, I had been forced by 'oxygen starvation of the cornea' to revert to glasses. Many readers wrote sympathetically, several with helpful suggestions. The Association of Contact Lens Practitioners urged me to get a second opinion, and named a helpful optician. I went; I was examined; and I am back in lenses. A different type of contact lens, plus a rest of two months for my eyes, have done the trick. The message to contact-lens wearers seems to be, do not abandon hope until you have tried a change of lens, or of practitioner.