The Commuting Life: A Very British Pastime

In the week that work commences on HS2 and the UK Government tries to ramp up rhetoric encouraging people to get back to the office, Esyllt Sears finds the absurdity of ‘the commute’ perfectly encapsulated in a recent article from The Times.

What is it about us, who live on this tiny little island, and our sense of having to endure suffering before we can reach any type of fulfilment? Wales’ storytelling tradition is littered with such instances. Just look at Culhwch who had to complete a series of impossible tasks before Olwen was free to marry him. But it seems the modern day equivalent is having to endure the commute to work. Just imagine what twelfth-century knights would make of that.

Much is being said on this topic as the UK government desperately tries to breathe some corporate life back into our cities. But rightly or wrongly, it should make all of us question our quality of life. Personally, as someone who left London and embarked on homeworking over ten years ago, I can tell you now – you do not need to endure someone’s armpit or endless roadworks to be content in life. I will never forget a heavily pregnant friend of mine, with whom I shared an office for a few years, arriving in work, on crutches, enraged because no-one had offered her a seat on the train; or the time a girl collapsed onto the floor of a tube carriage during a heatwave and every other passenger urged me to not pull the emergency lever as it would delay the service; or the time I was secretly photographed by a man pretending to text on his phone; or when I got lost on the M25 due to diversions and turned up to a meeting two hours late.

So, when I happened upon an article in The Times this week, which read like a piece of government propaganda, arguing that our commute defines us and that we need it in our lives, I nearly walked into the sea. Let me break it down for you…

missing that daily ride to and from the office? For many of us, the commute is part of who we are – and it serves a useful purpose.

Every single person I know who has moved out of London, myself included, always says that the thing they don’t miss AT ALL is the commute. I would gladly live there again… I’d live in any city for that matter, but the thought of wasting at least two hours of my day getting to and from the office brings me out in hives.

When, in 2004, the technology company Hewlett Packard attached electrodes to the heads and chests of rail commuters, it found the elation and anxiety they experienced when rushing for trains and jostling for space were as intense as the emotions felt by fighter pilots during combat. Commuting gives a daily double dose of free adrenaline.

You only have to do a quick google search to find articles on stress disorders in pilots. Just sayin’. There are plenty more ways of getting an adrenaline hit. Maybe go white water rafting on the weekend instead.

Even for those driving to work, which is still what most British commuters do, a bit of road rage can be good for us, a way to let off steam in a controlled environment. As Tom Vanderbilt writes in his study Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do: “It can be quite therapeutic to act like a yelling maniac once in a while, and the plush, leather-seated interior of a car provides a nice, semi-private environment in which to do that. Remember, in the traffic, no one can hear you scream.”

This section is something, isn’t it? I had to read it three times to be sure. It’s actually advocating road rage. There are cases in the UK of people being killed as a result of road rage.

The cyclists among us may well be experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the endorphin surges caused by slippery roads after rain and near collisions with buses and careless pedestrians.

I know people who have been in serious cycling accidents (in London again). In 2018, 1,220 were either killed or seriously injured in London road collisions over a period of just three months. And don’t even get me started on Welsh cycle lanes.

For others, commuting offers tranquillity: two periods of limbo in between home and work, that allow us to steel ourselves for a stint at the coal face, and unwind before we return to the gentler pleasures of domesticity (and not take the stresses of the office out on our families).

You’re either rammed onto a dangerously full train or stuck in traffic. I don’t care how many podcasts you’ve got on the go, it’s mostly stressful.

Our commuting “I” might make loud unselfconscious phone calls and share our feelings with a captive audience. It might visit websites we wouldn’t dare click on in front of family, friends or colleagues: we can gamble, shop, check our horoscopes, go internet dating.

I absolutely screamed at this. If you’re making loud phone calls on public transport that everyone else can hear, you’re a grade A nob. Also, when did we start advocating gambling?

It then goes on to talk about the Hadza tribe in Tanzania and I had to put my head in between my legs. So, in a nutshell, PTSD, road rage and gambling are all fine as long as you can get back into the office and keep buying Pret meatball hot wraps to keep the economy running. I would argue that an economy based on Pret meatball hot wraps is no economy at all, but what do I know?

Actually, what I know is that I’m currently writing this in my quiet kitchen, with the dog by my feet and my choice of music playing and I’m feeling pretty content.

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Esyllt Sears is a writer and comedian.