We can have a dramatic impact on people’s lives with simple, small and cost-free changes

London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.

The men and women imagine they are going into London and coming out again more or less of their own free will, but the crouching monster sees all and knows better.

So begins Patrick Hamilton’s 1947 novel Slaves of Solitude. It was written in an era when trains still held some sort of allure for the British. Published while Mallard was still in service, two years after the release of Brief Encounter and six years before that of The Titfield Thunderbolt, the passage depicts another side to the railways. Its depiction of the drudgery of commuting now seems timeless.

It is also bound up with the peculiar sense of misery associated with the daily grind into London. And one or two other cities, but mainly London. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was not set in York for a reason.

While surveys over many years have identified the commute as the thing people tend to like least about their daily working life, the commute into a major city has its own unique deprivations.

It is far more likely to be carried out on public transport, full of other people with their fug and baggage. And at the end, the crouching monster itself. The business districts. Canary Wharf or London Bridge or what the critic Jonathan Meades described as the ‘City’s grotesque pile-up of embarrassingly nicknamed trinkets’.

By focussing on the journey made by a million or so people every day, we have pathologised commuting in particular ways. This is not new.

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

TS Eliot, The Waste Land, 1923

For most people away from major cities, the misery of the commute is bound up with being part of the school run, a product of the anachronistic and inexplicable need for children and adults to be on the move at the same time. The insistence on a nine o’clock start is also associated with added costs in the forms of childcare and raised blood pressure.

For many people, the withdrawal of this insistence could be life changing. Yet still it persists. It may even have been ossified by that peculiar obsession we have developed with setting the exact days for people to be in an office.

And that leads us to the recent but already clichéd formula about making the office worth the commute. Often the resolution to this equation is seen to rest on our ability to increase the value of the office. That’s always a commendable goal to aim for, but we should be doing it anyway.

There is another variable in this formula. The daily experience of somebody traveling into Farringdon from Berkshire is very different to that of somebody who has a fifteen-minute walk in to work from home in Cheltenham. The commute may even be an enjoyable part of the day, not just pleasant per se, but the perfect bookending of a shift of work.

Nor does it have to take place at the same time as everybody else’s journey. We all know this, but it is often neglected in these conversations. We don’t need to insist everybody is on the Northern Line at the same time, or that parents need to find a way to drop children at school AND be in work for 9 am.

The conversation about work has shifted so far in the past four years, but it it doesn’t always seem to be moving in the right ways. We can make small, free changes that have a dramatic impact on people’s lives, whether they are making their way to a business park in North Berwick or the very maw of the crouching monster itself.



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Image: via Andrew Cote