‘Zoning Out’: the Mind in the City

"Metro Train" by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee

Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee from

By Ochieng Maddo

Travelling by train, as opposed to walking or driving through the city, exposes one to a kind of surreal environment. It momentarily binds together individuals from diverse backgrounds, detaches them from the larger physical environment of the city and provides them with both written and unwritten conventions of operation and engagement. The environment assembles physical objects and visual codes which manifest aspects of people’s social lives in the city. With William Mitchell’s concept of mise en scene in mind, Transport For London, TFL, has created a scene representative of the wider urban society, on their trains. In the course of travelling, one can read and understand how the city functions and operates. The city is also divided into several zones which are served by different lines, and peoples’ behaviours show that they are conscious of such demarcations as they travel through those zones.

On the over ground train

Groups of people anxiously smoke outside Stratford station. The more they consult their watches the faster they suck at the ebbing cigarettes. Smoking is prohibited inside the station. Station attendants and the police are strict on the rule. Conscious of the constant glare of CCTV cameras on them, the smokers keep a safe distance. Michael Foucault observed that with cameras “inspection functions ceaselessly and the gaze is alert everywhere”.

Time soon dictates on the smoker to move on. They strew half-smoked cigarettes and glowing butts anyhow, littering the glittering pavements. Here, a whiff of tobacco and perfume is a familiar ingredient in the air. The station is a beehive of activities: crowds rushing in as other pour out into the street, queues snaking from customer desks and ticket vending machines, anxious commuters bombarding station attendants with questions and police officers maintaining hawk-eyed surveillance.

But it is inside this maze of a station, where the ‘zoning out’ begins. People’s eyes are fixed on the wide screens on the walls announcing departures as they rush on, bumping on each other with quips of “sorry, sorry!” They disperse to various directions leading to their respective platforms, depending on the trains they intend to catch. I make my way to Platform 1 and 2 for the Overground train to Clapham Junction. Two trains painted with yellow, orange, grey and blue colours stand side by side. The Richmond bound is about to leave in 5 minutes while Clapham Junction’s still has 9 minutes. “Twit! Twit!” sounds dominate the air as people swipe to validate their travel cards on platform machines!

They walk reluctantly into the waiting train. The speaker overhead announces the departure, enumerating all the 23 stations along the route till the end. The journey is estimated to take slightly over an hour. Stratford is in zone 3, but zone 2 starts from the next stop, Hackney Wick, and goes all the way to Clapham Junction. This platform is unusually overcrowded this weekend. Most of the people here are wearing Chelsea Football team’s blue outfits, which remind me of Chelsea versus Fulham match at Chelsea Village on that day.

This train is my tour guide through the city from East to South London. It constantly announces which station is next and when to alight to access a certain place or connect to another line. Highbury & Islington is the first station where the line connects with National Rail, Victoria Line and Overground trains from Crystal Palace, West Croydon and New Cross. More people join this train at this point. Crystal Palace reminds me of the changing ecology of the city; how the first Crystal Palace was erected at Central London’s Hyde Park in 1851 and lasted 85 years. It brings to me ghost memory of an imaginative magnificent glass palace which David W. Bartlett claims had glittered like a ‘mountain of light’. The ‘palace’ does not shine with the same glory at Hyde Park any more.

At Gospel Oak, two uniformed officers—male and female—enter the train. A Chelsea fan who had been sipping at a can of beer quickly slips it into his blue rucksack. The female officer says: “Travel cards and tickets check please!” A couple of people leave their seats and walk down the carrier to avoid the check. People are notorious for travelling free on the Overground because most of its station entrances are free of barriers. I hold out my card to the rotund male officer who places a snakehead-looking card reader on it. The reader blinks with a green light. He demands to see my student photo card. He scrutinises my face to verify the image. “Thank you”, he says and moves on to the next person. I feel criminalised by this check. I am put under constant scrutiny by authorities as if I’m a criminal. However, I’m impressed by TFL’s application of technology to panopticism by delegating the surveillance duty to a computerised gadget.

The train is a long, hollow tube. There is adequate time and space to relax, and with a sense of humour. I stride along, making observations. Most people have carried over some unfinished businesses at home to accomplish here. Others use the time on train to perform important tasks. Some people chat at each other, others talk on phone. I sample different hairstyles, fashion and looks.

There are so many wheelchair users, baby prams and bicycles in designated parking areas. Dogs accompany their owners. A mother removes her baby from the pram, sits the baby on her lap and coos in the smiling baby’s face. A man fumbles through his pockets, fails to find whatever he is searching for and lays his bag on his lap for thorough search. A lady is fixing her hair and sprucing herself up. Another young man is tackling a KFC bag and a can of drink at normal speed. The train is slightly above the ground in certain areas, allowing a landscape view as it passes. Through seeing I feel connected to the outside atmosphere of green plants and the architecture of the city. I get the same surreal feelings as Michael de Certeau, except I am much lower than his 110th floor of World Trade Centre, I am not in New York but London and I am on train, so I don’t observe as much anyway.

The roaring of the train, the whirring of the air conditioner beneath my seat and the monotonous announcements of the current station and the next one bores me up. Today, the old man who usually plays guitar and sings Country classics is absent. He probably knows the trains are still too packed for his trade. I recall his baritone voice bellowing out Elvis Presley’s I Can’t Help Falling in Love…. By the way, I have the song in my mobile phone! I fish out my phone from the pocket, fix earphones, press the start button, scroll, touch the Country Album below the screen and scroll to select. It is scintillating and soothing. I am at Kentish Town West. Soon I succumb to sleep and wake up at Shepherd’s Bush. Here I can alight for Central Line and Westfield Mall. I resist the urge to alight for Marks & Spenser store, my former work place, to catch up with former colleagues.

At Fulham Broadway the train remains relatively empty after Chelsea fans alight. I now focus attention outside the train. All the stations have benches. Some also have resting booths. Most stations do not have barriers at stations entrance. The presence of bicycles on this train is caused by the wide spaces, the open entrances and the zone’s location away from the densely populated central London, zone one. I notice a few people wearing uniforms of various shops as we approach Clapham Junction, another marvellous train terminus.

In the underground terrain

Jubilee line has a dual platform. Two trains stand side by side. The next train is about to leave in two minutes. The departures screen writes: Westbound, but it is going to North West London. In less than an hour I will be at Stanmore, 22.7 miles away, a journey that I would otherwise cover in two days on foot. The journey takes me through zones 1 to 5. Just like almost all everyday activities in my life depend on technology, the trains have extended my limbs and given me a different perception of the city in terms of distances and places. But in the meantime, I join the rest in the race to catch the train. As soon as I jump in the doors shut behind me. Two elderly ladies who have been running along the platform heave sighs of relief and grief, fanning their faces with open palms. A number of people however, have missed this train. As we depart I see them walking round to the next train. On this platform minds work faster and bodies move quicker in compliance with the fast-paced London Underground. Inside the train, I notice different sitting and standing postures. Those travelling short distances tend to have fewer activities to do. Long travellers tend to find something to engage their minds. The train is packed and its isles are narrower. It is also a longer train than the Overground, consisting of several carriage segments which disallow movement from one carriage to the next.

The structural design of this line is capable of instilling all manner of phobia in people. It has to a larger extent, zoned out vulnerable members of the society. However, the numerous stairs, escalators and lifts in most stations aid the movements of the disabled who would otherwise not manage to find their way from the ‘underworld’. 13 out of its 27 stations are connecting with other lines. It goes through Central London’s zone 1 which is busy and expensive, characterised by pushing and shoving by passengers. Major city stations like London Bridge and Baker Street fall along this line. Trains only linger on platforms for a minute or two. Unlike the Overground that gives friendly and detailed customer information, here loudspeakers belch out the trademark “Mind the gap” followed by “this train is ready to depart”, and shortly come the ticking sounds of warning accompanied by red lights as doors slide and shut with speed.

I haven’t seen as many wheelchairs, bicycles, prams or dogs as was the case on Overground. Two lovers cuddle near the doors and kiss, but the girl quickly looks around with unease written on her face. This condensed environment allows the scrutiny of others’ actions, limiting the carefree attitude on the Overground.

All the people standing hold on to metal bars above them and get busy with newspapers and mobile phones. People are less interested in their colleagues. I guess the only thing that everybody wants is to get out of here as quickly as possible. Perhaps I’m the only one interested in looking around. The lady opposite me notices my wandering eyes and steals frequent glances at me, perhaps wondering whether I harbour ill intentions. But soon she loses interest and dozes off with earphones on, listening to music. Several passengers follow suit. I wonder what types of music they are listening to. Mobile technology has denied me the opportunity to share her entertainment experience by introducing a devise that incorporates mobile music, computing and telephone with a touch screen interface. It has withdrawn the sounds of music from this space and confined it to individuals for private listening.

There are many travel bags and suitcases on this train. Some passengers are going for flights. At Green Park Jubilee line joins Piccadilly line to Heathrow Airport. At London Bridge and Green Park stations a sea of humanity pours out of the train. At various stations people join the train with shopping bags from different shops. Unlike the Overground where most shops are visible from the train, here I only know where one has been shopping by the types of bags in hand. There is strong smell of foods and drinks. A man rolls up cigarette and gets his lighter ready, and I know he is about to leave the train. I see people of different races, faiths, culture and sexual orientations—signifying London’s tradition of tolerance and assimilative cosmopolitanism as a global city. This is one family united in their diversity. Their unity and affection towards one another is evident from the warm smiles and nods they exchange across the isle whenever their eyes lock. I can tell the level of technological advancement in the city from the sophisticated gadgets in their hands: Kindles, mobile phones and iPads.

Passengers who are conversing are forced to raise their voices above the incessant humming of the train. The thrill of being underground seems to inspire them to gesticulate elaborately. The windows are covered with darkness except when the train pulls up at the station. Having nothing much to see, I concentrate on reading travel instructions, maps and commercial adverts patched on the tube walls and above the train windows.

At Canary Warf, Marble Arch and Westminster stations, my mind wanders out of the tube onto the outside world above me. I visualise the buildings, the crowds and the cars. I can see exactly the house of parliament and the serene Thames waters calmly swirling behind it. Like Ian Borden observes that we engage with material conditions of cities through physical activities like walking, cycling, looking and skateboarding, I also engage with it mentally through imagination. Around West Hampstead and Willesden Green stations the train runs over ground and people quickly make phone calls and access their internet. I realise that while in the tube where there is no adequate internet, we were ‘zoned out’ from the rest of the technologically networked society that we live in.

As I reach Stanmore, I haven’t seen a single ticket inspector on this line. Through pricing, infrastructure and the police, TFL believes it has ‘zoned out’ many fare defaulters. But it has failed to deal with another group of offenders who have left behind fast food bags, coffee cups, and packets of snacks, bottles and newspapers in the train. As I step out of the station into the streets, I feel as if I have been rushed through a tunnel in which speed was necessary to somehow avoid suffocation.


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