Scared beneath the watchful eyes

London's paranoid public transport.

Ray Crowley

Topics Science & Tech

Travelling on the London Underground used to be scary, when I was four and terrified of the escalators and falling down the gap. These days, though, there is something far more frightening lurking down in the Underground – worse even than the live third rail or London Mayor Ken Livingstone.


Picture your journey home from work. On the way down to catch your train, you spot the poster explaining that ‘99 percent of our staff have experienced verbal or physical abuse’. It’s a pretty terrifying thought, as you step into a packed carriage, and your face is pressed into the armpits of 50 or so potentially abusive sardines.

You try and avoid accidentally giving anyone a dirty look, by keeping your eyes fixed on the adverts in the carriage. And you end up staring at one of the Metropolitan Police’s ‘Out of sight is safer’ posters, warning you to keep your mobile phone hidden away. Attempting to move the phone burning a hole in your outer pocket to a more concealed place, you accidentally elbow several potentially criminal fellow travellers.

Fear of a beating drives you off the train at the next stop, and you decide to get some cash out of a machine for a taxi. Instructions to keep your pin number concealed, and ‘Who is looking over your shoulder?’ warnings plastered over the cashpoint machine, distract you. And as you repeatedly glance behind you, you key in the wrong pin number and your card is swallowed.

Someone has left their balance slip by the machine. The balance is quite high, and worried that a robber will think it’s yours and come after you, you snatch it up and desperately run around, looking for somewhere to get rid of it. Of course, there are no bins anywhere. There haven’t been any bins on the Underground since the heyday of IRA bomb scares – how could you have forgotten?

Protective of the little cash you have left, and worried by the constant tannoy messages announcing that ‘pickpockets operate in this area – keep your belongings safe’, you put your coat on over your rucksack. It’s worth spending the rest of your journey looking like Quasimodo, so as not to get robbed.

Going back down to the platform, you walk past another Metropolitan Police poster – ‘Cut out hate crime’ – which encourages the reporting of any ‘abuse’ given to people because of their ‘race, faith, religion or disability, or because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual’. You wonder for a minute whether trainsexual means getting turned on by the Tube, before realising your mistake.

Still, apparently being different makes you a target for abuse. And in all the curved mirrors, carefully located so that you can see who’s coming round the corner, you realise that the Quasimodo rucksack makes you stand out from the crowd. So you move the rucksack around to your front, under your coat. Now you look pregnant. Good – you might even get a seat.

Finally, after a harrowing ride, you reach your stop. Your girlfriend is waiting for you. You’re late, she’s bored and reading another Metropolitan Police poster – ‘Unmask the abuser’ – which encourages people to report hidden acts of domestic violence. Eager to get out of the station and escape the threat of the criminals around you, you shove her towards the exit.

‘Oi, mate’ – a firm hand clamps down on your shoulder. ‘You don’t treat women like that.’ Everyone is staring at you, and at the poster you’re trying to block from their view. You wonder whether you should call the police, but your mobile is shoved so far down your trousers you’d never get to it without surgical intervention. You run home at top speed.

This might all sound a little far-fetched, but you couldn’t blame a person for getting edgy about using public transport these days. The ‘Cut out hate crime’ campaign hit the Underground on 11 November, accompanied by a radio campaign – with posters on washroom panels and in trains urging ‘victims of hate crime or those who have information about it to come forward’.

The ‘Unmask the abuser’ adverts warning of domestic violence, first appeared last year. The Met’s ‘Out of sight is safer’ posters, instructing the public to conceal their mobile, are also plastered over the sides of London buses. And you can’t go anywhere in Hackney without spotting the ‘Street robbery – don’t start’ posters at bus-stops, depicting the prison bars you will end up behind if you mug someone.

Most public places – such as doctors’ surgeries, job centres and council offices – have posters up reminding you that (physical or verbal) assaults on their staff will not be tolerated. Apparently, it’s mixing with the general public we have to worry about.

Does the Met really see London’s population as 50 percent potential-hooligan and 50 percent so-thick-that-the-only-reason-they-haven’t-reported-certain-crimes-is-that-they-didn’t-have-a-Met-poster-campaign-to-tell-them-to-do-so?

If all of this doesn’t make you paranoid, the final nail in the coffin is the Ken Livingstone-endorsed ‘Feel secure beneath the watchful eyes’ poster and leaflet campaign, which depicts a London bus cruising beneath a sky of eyes with Underground symbols as pupils. The leaflet explains that security initiatives on buses, including reduced delays and CCTV, ensure that ‘your bus journey will be a more pleasant and hassle-free experience’.

Except that if the ‘watchful eyes’ are really that necessary, it’s too dangerous to take a bus in the first place, isn’t it?

When your girlfriend gets back, after having to apologise to the Underground staff because you knocked two of them over during your panic (were those the last two, you worry – will they have to put up new posters saying that 100 percent of staff have been assaulted?), she reminds you that most people on the Tube are just members of the public, trying to get somewhere like you, and says she’s leaving you.

After double-locking the door behind her, you vow to start driving – being around the public is even more of a risk than road traffic accidents. Never again will you strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you about the Harry Potter novel they’re reading.

In fact, you’ll never have to sit next to anyone again. You miss your girlfriend, but you have so much time now to ponder whether the expression ‘Better safe than sorry’ really means ‘Better safe and sorry’.

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Topics Science & Tech


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