You’ve all been there: the carriage is packed, and with no hope of getting a seat, you prepare to write off yet another commute into work. So long productivity, hello forty-five minutes of staring at the same grey scenery whilst adopting the ‘feet flat, legs wide, hands gripping nearby headrest, goodness I hope the train doesn’t lurch and send me thrusting into the face of that man at crotch level’ stance of the regular British train user. You could read? But you know where that leads: printed words plus motion equals a morning feeling as if you just stepped off the deck George Clooney’s swordfishing boat in A Perfect Storm. (I commiserate, I really do). So what to do on your journey into work? Ah yes. You reach for your pocket, you reach for an audio book or a podcast, you reach for some music, for a little private space away from the clamour, you close your eyes and prepare to drift away…
Only – there is a problem.
No headphones or music allowed: this is a ‘quiet carriage’.
Not that you would know it. The only thing even vaguely competing with the whir and clack of the train’s powerful engine is the incessant chatter and crisp munching of your fellow passengers. This is no sleepy noonday crawler; it is a London commuter: a circus of shirts and skirts, of 90s looking ‘power laptops’ and of buzz-word round-table meeting speak, all guffed about the carriage on waves of mint-fresh mouthwash breath. Peace and quiet? You would find more solace standing in a ring of teenage girls at the front row of a Justin Beiber concert.
So what now? Abide by the rules and etiquettes (deeply ingrained and reasonable as they are), or, try to make the journey a little more bearable? You did not, after all, choose to stand in a quiet carriage. All the other carriages were full. And it’s not like this is an isolated incident. It is, what, the third time this week?
Slowly, inevitably, boredom wins out. Out come the noise-cancelling headphones. Oh, you’ve no intention of plugging them in. You just want to use them like earplugs. And that’s not unreasonable, is it? I mean, the purpose of ‘quiet carriages’ is to reduce noise. And in no discernable way can you be accused of adding to the sum total of noise going on from one end of the carriage to the other.
And yet, barely a minute passes before, out of the corner of your sleep-filled eye, you become aware that a person in a nearby seat is calling to you, gesticulating to get your attention. Smiling, you pluck the bungs from your ears and lean in, already dreading the inevitable.
“This is a quiet carriage, you aren’t allowed to wear headphones in here.”
You blush; the person’s voice is loud enough for all those in the vicinity to hear. “I’m terribly sorry, but it was just so noisy.”
“Well you are hardly helping. I can hear your music from here!”
The unconnected end of your headphone jack slips from your pocket without so much as a phone or MP3 player in sight.
“I wasn’t listening to any music, I use the headphones as ear plugs to block out the noise.”
The person sits back, lips puckering like a sea anemone pocked with a stick. The word liar is etched into every crease of their forty-something brow. Not that you blame them. You wouldn’t believe it either. Yet there it is.
Awkward silence falls. Perhaps the only silence you will get that entire journey.
Now don’t get me wrong, I support quiet carriages. After all, what reasonable person could object to the setting aside of a small portion of each for those who do not wish to be disturbed by the half-muted thud of other people’s music and the constant one-sided chatter of mobile phone speak? Certainly not I, keen as I am on quiet spaces, and fastidious as I am about the observance and respect for common courtesies. (If it were up to me, Britain would be littered with ‘quiet zones’. There would be ‘quite enforcement officers’ in every library. Sorry, I mean to say, ‘in every Facebook checking waystation come DVD rental store’). But the reality of Britain’s woefully underfunded and ludicrously over burdened railway network is that quiet carriages on commuter trains are an unfair nonsense. When boarding a rush-hour train, one seldom has a choice about where to sit or stand. There is no freedom to select a quiet carriage as a preference over a ‘noisy’ carriage, and the nature of the trains – busy, packed, filled with people who are already on their third espresso of the morning – means that these ‘quiet carriages’ are seldom the havens they were designed to be. When the lady in my tale leaned forward to rebuke me for breaking the rules (which was a reasonable thing to do), I suspect that what she was really doing was expressing her own frustrations at being able unable to move away from the coffee-slurping gent to her right and the pinstripe suite slumped opposite – a man whose bourdon snores were probably tripping alarms in the seismology stations of the San Fernando Valley. Being unable to do anything about these perfectly ‘legal’ irritations, she directed her ire against me. Well, I sympathise. I really do. And what’s more I apologise. I broke the rules. But given that I couldn’t possibly have been accused of making any noise, (even if my headphones had been plugged into something, mine are of sufficient quality to prevent noise leaking out into the environment) wouldn’t it have been kinder to leave me in peace? I know not everybody owns such a pair of headphones. (Yes, I’m looking at you, users of stock Apple ear buds: they leak worse than Julian Assange high on sodium penthanol at a kiss-and-tell party). But in a carriage where noise is so ubiquitous, why torture the many for the sins of the thoughtless few?
Save the quiet carriages for the sleepy lunchtime trains. Abandon them on the commuter trains. They leave those of us seeking genuine solitude with nowhere to hide.