True Gripes: OK, just ignore me: Avoiding eye contact on the Tube

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The Independent Online
Some stare at their shoes, others at their hands as if considering a manicure. The middle distance is always popular, as is feigning reading, sleeping or a Walkman induced reverie. But whatever the tactic deployed, the essential thing when travelling on the London Underground is always the same: avoid, at all costs, catching another passenger's eye.

Why should this be? Well, of course, the British have always had trouble with eye contact - just watch them squirm in restaurants as they try to attract the waiter's attention. But the real problem here is not simple Anglo awkwardness. Travellers on the Underground ignore other passengers because to do anything else would be to acknowledge that other passengers actually exist.

Admitting that you are not the only person on a Tube train is disastrous because it means that you can no longer maintain the pretence that you are alone. The cosy, semi-detached British mind cannot cope with the absence of privacy, so it just refuses to accept the possibility of its absence. If, above ground, an Englishman's home is his castle, then underground it is his self-delusion. Without it he would have to deal with the squalor around him - and that might mean changing his voting habits, or even complaining.

Nevertheless, maintaining the delusion that you are alone in your BHS slippers sipping a Cup-a-Soup and watching Coronation Street, is an extremely difficult thing to do when your nose is jammed into the nylon armpit of an insurance clerk with a fondness for rich food.

In fact, it's exhausting - making people disappear without the aid of automatic weapons is a very tiring business. It is also, by the way, quite, quite mad. The people who know this best, of course, are the Loonies and the Pervies.

Not surprisingly, they exploit this knowledge to the hilt and, released from the burden of convention by virtue of being Loonies, take enormous pleasure in not ignoring you, reminding you how utterly exposed you are. After all, as far as you are concerned, locked in your little world of denial, other passengers only become Loonies when they speak to you.

Loonies love the Underground because, next to the neurotic behaviour of the 'sane', they appear relatively well-adjusted; they are the Fools that speak sooth when the rest of us don't want to see the auguries or listen to limericks in Glaswegian.

The Pervies have even more fun. They embrace and exploit the very indecency of the Tube that everyone else refuses to accept. Not just the blind, forced intimacy of strange hips and unwilling buttocks, but the very nature of 'tube' travel - that moistness, those tunnels, that stop-go movement reminiscent of peristalsis.

Perhaps the London Tuber has ggod reason to be neurotic.

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