Saturday, January 23, 2010

King Commute

Yesterday, I did my last ever commute into London. It was a very happy day tinged with a tiny bit of sadness for the colleagues I probably won't see again now that my job has finished. I will miss them but I won't miss the journeys to and from work. Or will I?

You see, I think what I'll actually be glad to see the back of is the getting up early and having to get somewhere at a specific time part of commuting. I've always quite enjoyed the journeys. And I've used them to my advantage. I used that time every day to catch up on my reading, or to make notes or do exploratory drawings. When Walkmans came along, I listened to music as I doodled and, when Discmans and MP3 players evolved, I switched to audiobooks and podcasts. What I didn't do is sleep. Nor did indulge in the great British disease of working on the way to work. Surely we're the only nation stupid enough to do this? Isn't it bad enough that we already work the longest hours, have the fewest bank holidays and shortest holiday entitlements in Europe? I was damned if they'd get even more work out of me, especially unpaid. My commuting time was mine.

I first started commuting in 1980. After leaving the police college in May of that year, I lived for a time in a guest house in Harrow, near to Northwick Park Tube Station. I didn't own a car then and would catch the Metropolitan Line train to Uxbridge, where I worked, some 10 miles away. The earliest train to rattle through in the morning - which everyone called the 'milk train' - was at 5.30am, which was cutting it it a bit fine when I was on the early shift. We were expected to parade in full uniform at 6am, which meant that we usually arrived at 5.45am to allow for a seamless handover from the night shift. The milk train, if it was on time (which it often wasn't), didn't get me to Uxbridge until around 6.50am and I got moaned at every cocking day by a weary old curmudgeon of a sergeant who couldn't get it into his Neanderthal skull that I could do nothing about it other than sleep overnight in the station. Anyway, the problem was solved when I moved first to a bedsit and then a house-share nearer to work in Hilingdon.

For the next two years, my commute was rather shorter. Although I worked at all of the stations on the division - Uxbridge, Hayes, Ruislip, Harefield and Northwood - my trip to work was never more than five miles. And I got a car, a deliciously curvy old Ford Cortina GXL just like the one Gene Hunt drives in the UK Life on Mars. I still remember the numberplate: COX401K. How I guffawed. But then, in 1983, I got married and moved into married quarters at Ealing. My wife needed the car - now swapped for an altogether more conservative and shameful Vauxhall Chevette - for work so I was back on the trains. My journey to work now consisted of a long walk down Castlebar Hill from Preston Road to Ealing Broadway Tube Station and another trip on the trains. I took the District Line one stop to Ealing Common then changed onto the Piccadilly Line to Uxbridge. The journey was around 11 miles and took 20 minutes. Incidentally, I often shared my walk down Castlebar Hill with a young lad who worked for the BBC. Whenever I was on an 8am-4pm shift we'd leave for work at the same time and often found ourselves walking together. We soon got chatting and it became a pretty regular event. Nice guy. Did quite well for himself. Philip Schofield.

In 1986 I transferred to the West End to work at Vine Street and West End Central Police Stations. Now the journey shifted from Ealing Broadway to Oxford Circus and a walk down Regent Street. Thankfully, the shift system there worked on the half-hour so getting in for 6am was no longer a problem. 6.30am was quite do-able. In 1989, I moved to working at Hendon and, simultaneously, moved into a larger house in Wembley. Then, in 1992, I transferred to Ealing before moving house to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire in 1993. Now, my journey was significantly longer - around 30 miles each way five days a week. And things got worse and worse. Landing a specialist role within the Met Police's Problem Solving Unit meant that I was expected to travel all over London and visit any one of its 32 boroughs on any one day. Sometimes my journey was close to home; Hillingdon was a mere 18 miles and 20 minutes away. However, if I was travelling to Croydon in Surrey or way, way over to places like Bexley or Barking and Dagenham in Kent and Essex, my journey each way could take up to three hours.

I've done a very, very rough totting up of my commuting time and distance for the past 30 years. The average is around 15 miles each way per day . So, assuming a five day working week and allowing for 30 extra days off per year to account for holidays and bank holidays, I've travelled approximately 7,200 miles per year and a total of 216,000 miles in my career. That's about nine times around the Earth or most of the way to the Moon. Assuming each journey took me half an hour, I've spent around 300 days - each 24 hours long - commuting. Extraordinary isn't it?

I guess my message to all of you still having to commute is this: don't waste that time. You'll never get it back. For me, commuting offered a moderately distraction-free (most everyone else is asleep or working) parcel of time that I could use profitably. Yes, some days, I'd have to stand for the entire journey - but I could still listen to an audiobook. On better days, I could write or draw or read. My first book was largely researched on the Chiltern Line service between High Wycombe and Marylebone. I've absorbed countless facts and stories during those journeys. I've held conversations, arranged meetings and sent emails. I started a hashtag game on Twitter called #trainbites where myself and others would bitchily describe our fellow commuters. My favourites include the 'lady with a too-small bra and four breasts', the 'man so fat he beeps when he's reversing' and the 'religious guy who hides his Bible inside a Dan Brown book'. What gems.

I shan't miss the commute. But I will miss that valuable time because now I have to find another way to get myself a couple of hours every day where I can just sit and read.

The toilet seat is just too hard.


joelmead said...

Great headline…

Winifred said...

You namedropper! Phillip Schofield by gum!

Yes you can waste a lot of time travelling. I have to say the few times I've been on the Tube I've just people watched! Then struggled to keep my laugh in watching fellow commuters in case they took offence. The Newcastle Metro commuters are no match for them in the weirdness stakes!

Happy non cummuting!