An article I wrote about voices on the tube, originally published in White Noise Magazine 2017.

Screenshot 2017-10-22 22.15.53

Mind the gap between you and your fellow commuter – how the rise in the ‘quirky train driver’ reminds us what’s important. 

‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are cruising at a height of -100 ft and a speed of 40mph. If you look to your left you’ll see grey tunnel, & if you’ll look to the right you’ll see grey tunnel. We’ll shortly be landing at Bayswater.’

It’s the more reserved Londoner’s worst nightmare, but in recent years, we’ve seen a rise in the ‘quirky’ train driver or conductor. Love them or hate them, these disembodied voices can turn your mundane commute into a poetry reading, game-show or – like this clown on the Westbound district line – a comedy night. Across West London and beyond, we often find ourselves comforted, uplifted or amused by the voice of a stranger as they drive us home. Is this kind of interaction a cringe-tastic nuisance, or a welcome blessing, to shake us out of a worker-drone sleep-walk? And what does our reaction tell us about ourselves?

By rights, it shouldn’t work. Rush-hour interaction is against the very fibre of our being. As Londoners, we’ve spent years perfecting this eye-contact-averting, aloof persona. And yet, there’s something lovely about the way the voice of someone you’ve never met – and probably never will – can give you a little lift (pun not intended). It can turn an ice-cold silence into a moment of warmth among strangers. 

One mid-winter morning last year, a crowded train was crawling though South London. I was sat on board in a pre-caffeine haze, mulling over the day’s workload, when I heard a voice say, ‘The fog has cleared, the skies are bright. London Bridge is in sight.’ I looked up from my Metro and shared a smile with the person across the carriage. Somehow, after an unexpected flash of poetry, I felt a bit more ready for the fourteen-hour day of pitching and office-politics that lay ahead. ‘This train is for work. Calling at ‘work, only’, came the voice again. Again, more smiles across the carriage. Since then, my ears prick up every time a driver goes on diversion from the usual mundane script. As it happens, loads of them are at it.

There are the conductors who – despite going round in circles all day, are relentlessly chirpy – like this guy leaving Goldhawk Rd. There are the drivers who poke fun at us passengers, like this guy on the Hammersmith and City line: “Sorry for the delay, why don’t you take this opportunity to look up from your papers and smile at a stranger. Or even say hello”. (Tracey McAndrews, via The Londonist). And there are the ones who love a bit of wordplay: ‘It’s the station that sounds like something you’d have with your Sunday roast. Yes ladies and gents – it’s Brockley.’ (Copley again). 

Love them or hate them, these drivers have a following on Twitter. South-West Londoner, James Beckingham (better known as @ChattyTrainDriver), is most famous for his oft-tweeted line: “Please mind the gap between @SouthernRailUK timetable and reality.” This morning’s train driver. Love him (@adamski1974). Another of his lines: “The forgotten jewel in South East London’s crown – Ladies and Gentlemen – Penge West”. Hear Beckingham in action here as the train pulls into Clapham Junction.

An experienced radio DJ, Beckingham has worked for Southern before, but now drives the High-Speed 1 for South Eastern. Was he nervous the first time he went ‘off script’? ‘Yes – and constantly every time after. Although it’s like radio in a one to many relationship – but your audience are effectively trapped and HAVE to listen… I’d say 95% of the time it’s well received and people say thank you (or give me food!).’  

He finds the best time to do it is in the morning, concentrated and quick, before arriving at the London terminals. ‘Some drivers find solace in doing it at every station. I once wrote a version of ‘The Night before Christmas’ for a trip to Caterham. One lady stayed on the train way past her stops, to hear the end of it. Empathising with the passenger is so important.’

This level of empathy has won Beckingham a ‘Driver of the Year’ award, as has his ‘rival’ Southern Rail’s Steve Copley, who actually runs an entire game-show from his driver cabin. It’s made him an internet sensation: ‘I’m on the on the #TimeTunneltrain again! Still maintain ‘this guy should be Mayor of London’. (@JamesMorris). “Every morning I, like many of my fellow commuters hope and pray that the train to work will have this guy at the controls. With his upbeat and cheery persona, he lifts the spirits of grey-faced Londoners, distracting us from the normal frustrations of delays and overcrowding on the daily commute into the capital! A great idea of bringing people together and getting them to interact (in a positive way) on a packed train. (Via RailStaffAwards.com). 

I happened to find myself on the #TimeTunnelTrain a few times. At one point the quiz master broke into a rendition of ‘Sweet Caroline’. It could have all been so #awks, but it wasn’t. Looking around the carriage, I counted way more smiles than I did winces; and way more camaraderie than cringe. 

Copley’s not the only quirky train driver to burst into song. Creative Director Dave Trott tells of a time when a driver was pulling into Olympia, and, ‘the driver started singing  “And now the end is near, and now we’ve reached our destination. We’ve come from High Street Ken
and gone through all those other stations…” to the tune of My Way, and everyone applauded. (via The Londonist). Another time, on the westbound District line, a driver led a chorus of Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, and passengers all joined in for the whistles. ‘People went up to the cabin at the front of the train, to talk to him and thank him for what had been such a unique tube ride,’ (Juliet, via Londonist). 

Meanwhile up in Salford, at the BBC’s new Media City, commuters are treated to the dulcet tones of Shaun Ryder, who pipes up ‘your twisting my melon man’ as you ride the tram around Salford Quays, amid ripples of smiles across the carriage. Is West London missing a trick here? Perhaps the buses and trains around White City could be voiced by BBC national treasures, as a way of celebrating the area’s heritage – like Attenborough, Palin, or Balding?

Too much? Like all good comedy, less is more, and it comes down to timing, too. ‘The whole ‘chatty train driver’ thing doesn’t work on every trip,’ says Beckingham. ‘I think there is a time and a place. Some lines are more stuffy and less encouraging. What works on the way to Caterham doesn’t work on the way to Dorking. I’ve been on trains before where the driver has been doing it and I’ve just thought “SHUT UP! IT’S TOO EARLY!” When I worked at Capital I used to commute up to Victoria every day and know exactly what the passengers feel. As you walk along the side of the train, you can sense the mood of the people on board too.’ Clearly, Beckingham knows how to read his audience, just as a comedian can ‘read the room.’ 

Inevitably, the ‘quirky train driver’ trend is not for everyone. ‘A few drivers are quite public about their dislike for it,’ says Beckingham. So, it seems, are the passengers. Hardened Londoner Martin Headon writes on Facebook, ‘That creeping sense of terror when you realise the man in the Virgin Trains on board shop is making his announcement in the form of a poem.’ Similarly, @elliott_perkins who would rather be anywhere else, according to his tweet – “I’m on the #timetunneltrain into London Bridge… headphones in and volume up.”

As a city, we almost pride ourselves on this rush-hour eyes-down-aloofness. But when you think about it, is this cool curmudgeonliness doing us any good? With current levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness being at an all-time high, surely something that brings people together in this way is to be applauded? (Trigger warning) According to CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably), suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. Surely anything that can possibly hope to reduce our level of isolation and loneliness must be a good thing. It’s possible that if we spent a little less time plugged in and swiping right, and looked up across the carriage, we might find ourselves making a connection with another human being in a way that enriches our It certainly worked for Zoe Folbigg and her husband, and their tale of tube-crossed romance.

Whether it’s coming to you from an open mic or via an intercom, good comedy reminds us we’re not alone. These days, just talking to another being, asking them how they are, can make a little bit of difference to that person’s mood. It can also have an important impact on the driver, in what is otherwise a day of complete isolation. As we see in the film Paterson, finding a creative outlet provides a vital solace for Adam (bus) Driver. 

‘It can be stupidly lonely,’ agrees Beckingham. ‘People forget there is an actual human driving them to work/school/university, and the chance to connect with them is lovely…and the time taken for someone to say thank you is appreciated beyond belief. I think everyone struggles with the alone time to a degree. You are completely disconnected from the world except the track and signals in front of you. There is no radio, and mobile phones are mandated to be off, on penalty of instant dismissal. To pass the time, I very often find myself singing to myself just to fill the void.’ 

Quirkiness aside, there are many trains which you’ll only hear the pre-recorded mechanical intercoms which don’t veer off track from the script, enabling us to stare down at our iPhones and Metros without needing to connect with anyone, thank you very much. Chief among these voices are the central line’s Emma Clarke, (Link: http://emmaclarke.com/london-tube-announcement-script-photo/), as well as ‘Britain’s most apologetic couple’ –  husband and wife voice over artists, Phil Sayer and Elinor Hamilton. Then there are the more ‘vintage’ recordings which you can still sometimes catch in certain stations. When you catch the original iconic ‘Mind the Gap’ recording of  Oswald Laurence, in his old-fashioned BBC accent, it can feel like a kind of time travel. You can almost picture him in the recording booth, wearing the fashion of the day, trying out different ‘reads’. This pre-recorded voice in particular has provided a unique comfort to Laurence’s widow Margaret McCollum. Long after he had gone, she would go to Embankment tube to just hear his voice again – the recording taking her back to 1969, when her husband was still alive and first did the recording, which has now inadvertently led to him being immortalised by TFL. It is a common coping mechanism in grief to cling onto the old voice messages of loved ones. Films like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Recalculating all explore the way in which a recording of a voice can become a treasured audio time-capsule of their loved one. Sadly, Phil Sayer also passed away recently, but his family paid tribute to unique voice when they announced that, ‘all service terminates here’.

Whether it’s serious, funny or melodic, the disembodied voice of a train driver can sometimes take us a lot further than zone six. And as London lurches it’s way into the dark tunnel of another Winter, we probably need all the silliness we can get. Laughing at broccoli-based wordplay, competing a quiz, or breaking into song, while we commute, it reminds us that really, that big meeting/new business pitch/PR catastrophe we’re worrying about that day – it won’t matter in a few years. What’s probably more important is how much we’ve connected with another human being in our short time here. Because like Oswald and Phil, we all reach the end of the line eventually. And – unlike the District line – that destination can sometimes come sooner than we think.

FULL PIECE originally published: http://whitenoise.city/articles/mind-the-gap-mind-the-silence/