Good morning, lemmings! Commuting by rail used to be such a simple pleasure. Well, obviously, not a pleasure as such. But it was at least comparatively simple.
You’d board your chosen train and, regardless of whether it was the one you actually wanted or not, you could enjoy your journey unburdened by information, ‘help’ or assistance of virtually any kind. And if you ended up in the wrong place, you could quietly reprimand yourself in the untainted knowledge that you’re an idiot.
These days, within seconds of arriving at any London Underground station – like with pretty much any other UK rail service – you’re bombarded with instructions, warnings and announcements.
You all know the ones I mean. The mildly informative bulletins – ‘there is currently a good service on the Central line’. The public safety reminders – ‘please report anything suspicious to a member of staff or the police’. And then, of course, the routine statements of the bleeding obvious – ‘please mind the gap between the train and the platform’.
It’s as if we are now assumed to be completely devoid of awareness, common sense or intelligence and have to be constantly guided from hazard to hazard by verbal cattle prods. Today, there’s no escape from the clutter of information.
So I feel a (very slight) sense of joy when the simple, to-the-point ‘mind the gap’ announcement that used to be heard at a number of central London Tube stations has made a return – to the northbound Northern line platform at Embankment, no less.
In fact, this no-bollocks phrase may also replace the more fulsome, idiot-proof instructions at other Underground stations, too.
Its return at Embankment is, apparently, partly a nod to the widow of Peter Lodge, who recorded the original and iconic “mind the gap” warning in the 1960s.
Gradually, his voice was replaced across the Tube network during the eighties and nineties by today’s equivalents, until it could only be heard at Embankment. After Peter Lodge died, his widow would go to Embankment just to hear his voice – until, even here, progress prevailed.
Welcoming passengers from The East…
I assume his work was similar to, if not the same as, the booming ‘mind the gap’ I would hear at Bank station’s Central line platforms. The words, annunciated in exacting, BBC English, had a voice-of-God-like quality that, as my train pulled in from The East, seemed to prepare us for an existential chasm rather than the two-foot void between the train and, er, the platform.
In those days, this was pretty much the only automated announcement on the Tube. But those days are long gone.
However, I shouldn’t really complain about this because I don’t live in London any more. And, by comparison with Southeastern train services into London from Broadstairs, Tube travellers have it easy.
Passengers setting out for London from Thanet are obviously considered feckless infants who have spent all their mental credits for the day just by getting dressed, such is the laborious repetition of the bleeding obvious throughout every journey.
The automated, on-board announcement woman
Okay, so the automated on-board announcement woman starts well enough.
Get on at Broadstairs and she welcomes us with “thank you for travelling with Southeastern”. Lovely. Though, in truth, it’s the very least she could say as we’ve just extended the national debt to use the service in the first place. Thing is, she has too many opportunities – namely, stations – to break her silence.
Entertainingly, some stations, like Canterbury West, come with their own set of helpful instructions. If you want to navigate your way to the world-famous cathedral, for instance, you should “alight at the station and follow the signs”.
Yes, you can leave your map and your beam-me-up-Scottie transporter thingy at home. And, just in case you didn’t quite grasp the task at hand, the explanation is then displayed on the on-board dot matrix signs over and over and over again.
Good morning, lemmings
Of course, such local variations from the rule are rare. Generally, we’re just confronted with a relentless succession of instructions, warnings and other communications, some more useful than others but each one expressed in slightly more stressy tones than the last.
Indeed, although the on-board announcement woman might be just the human voice for a computer, I still half expect her to finally lose patience with it all, get into a strop and sign off with: “Look, will you all just fuck off to work and leave me alone!”
It would at least be short and to the point. And I, for one, would respect her more for it.