Samuel Johnson may have said, “when you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life”, but the man neglected to mention that it is the city’s people that keep it an ever-changing medley of cultures, faiths, nationalities, music, art, fashion, languages and attitudes.
There are over 300 languages spoken in the capital and 36% of the population was born outside the UK. There are more than 50 recognisable non-indigenous communities. London also boasts 72 billionaires residing in the city: more than anywhere else in the world.London is the EU’s biggest city, stirring 8.6 million people into one huge melting pot, and there’s no better place to grab a serving of this cultural stew than on the tube. A tube ride through the big smoke is like cutting a cultural cross-section of the city: each station is a chance to encounter another outpost of the community.
This international city is a centre of finance, a fashion icon, the home of football, a city of parks, an educational powerhouse and a pilgrimage destination for shoppers. On top of all that, it’s a living, working city with millions of people going about their own business, usually on the tube.
We’ve taken a tongue-in-cheek look at the tube riding population, distilling the individuals we’ve met into some clumsy categories. So next time you’re riding the rails, see how many of your fellow passengers you recognise from our handy guide.
Varying in size from diminutive and cute to large and intimidating, the youngster is a common sight across the transport system and is one of its most enigmatic species.
Youngsters are usually spotted in small groups, all with similar marks of belonging. Some group markings seem to relate to their musical preferences, whilst others sport icons of adoration for various celebrities and brands.
Common across all the subspecies of youngster is their use of verbal communication. These complex systems, unique to each group, can be understood by youngsters but remain a mystery to all others.
These communications can take place at any level of volume and frequently do so concurrent to the ritualistic performance of loud music, played for communal consumption on handheld instruments.
These instruments are objects of fascination for the youngster, who is held in mesmerised astonishment by them whenever verbal communication ceases.
By and large, the youngster is a harmless creature, and the majority of tube species can make themselves understood and respected should it be required.
One of the easiest to recognise of tube inhabitants, the tourist is a disruptive influence in the habitat. Tourists have been spotted singly and in groups of several dozen, often congregating at key choke points: the top of escalators and just inside the tube carriage being particular favourites.
The tourist is also known for risking communication with other tube-dwelling species, a dangerous move in this hostile environment. Much arm-waving and scratching of heads mean the tourist is often able to gain assistance from other species and arrive safely at their destination, leaving a trail of disruption in their wake.
Tourists are readily identified by their heavy burdens, sometimes carried on the back but more frequently trailed behind, extending their destructive range. Often this species will be seen angrily communicating with mating partners or offspring, jabbing wildly at maps and guidebooks.
Once the tourist has established a presence in the tube habitat they are often reluctant to venture outside of it, taking the train from Leicester Square to Covent Garden.
Tourists can be found throughout the habitat, particularly en masse at Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus. Some have been found at London Bridge, exasperated that they were not able to find a neo-gothic triumph of Victorian engineering there.
The Football Fan
This creature naturally belongs in a large tribal group and will be seen furtively glancing around for more of its kind. Subtle markings display loyalties to fellow tribe members and serve as a warning to those from other groups.
Generally quiet and timid when solitary, the football fan’s confidence grows in correlation to the size of its tribe: the more of them are in one place, the more boisterous they become. When herd numbers reach critical mass the group feels compelled to issue loud, coordinated cries that resemble primitive forms of music.
These ‘songs’ will often affirm the identity of the group and its disparaging view of rival herds. Occasionally the parentage of individual members of competing tribes will be called into question.
Football fans are active year-round and all over London, but are most active during weekends of the winter months and in predictable locations. A strong herding instinct carries the herd on weekly pilgrimages on the tube; those displaying blue plumage heading to Fulham Broadway station, those in maroon and blue congregating at Upton Park and the red tribe meeting at Arsenal.
Sometimes mistaken for the tourist, the student is often a new arrival to the tube habitat and is slowly adjusting to its new environment.
Frequently lost, small gaggles of students can often be seen issuing their cackling call to each other whilst hyperactively consulting tube maps. Their behaviour sometimes echoes that of the youngster, but the two groups tend not to mingle.
The student is quick to converge on any source of free sustenance and can often be found at ticket barriers sifting through vouchers and Walkabout loyalty cards to find their Oyster card.
Largely nocturnal, this species tends to avoid the busiest times on the tube, instead travelling later in the day with an expression of exhaustion. It is during the hours of darkness that the student evolves to temporarily become another species in this study, the drunk.
The Shift Worker
This is one of the tube habitat’s most mysterious of creatures.
Generally this beast obeys all the conventions that help other species survive in the environment, but its migration patterns are backwards. As the majority of species flow into the city, the shift worker heads in the opposite direction.
Exhausted at the start of the day and awake towards nightfall, it is supposed that this species is involved in strenuous activity whilst the other tube dwellers are at rest.
The shift worker’s routine may vary considerably, with them performing this backward migration for days on end and then disappearing for a time before returning.
Usually a quiet creature, it has been speculated that the shift worker is an essential part of the environment, contributing to its protection and continued operation.
The fashionista, although attempting to sport unique plumage, marks themselves clearly as one of their species.
Often found near South Kensington and Sloane Square, the fashionista is poorly equipped for the rigours of life on the tube. The female is often seen sporting footwear of impractical height, apparently performing a feat of balance in the belief it will attract a mate. Instead the fashionista female moves slowly through the network on unsteady feet whilst pausing regularly to adjust plumage and inspect herself.
The male of the species is often more suitably adapted to the ecosystem, able to stride confidently through the crowds. He will pause only smooth down his immaculate hair or to remove smudges from his shoes.
This species is highly competitive with its own kind, loudly cuckooing and displaying its shoes, watch and jewellery in a display that is as much for its peers as to demonstrate dominance over other species.
The parent is an interesting part of this complex ecosystem. Weighed down by excess baggage and at least one child, the parent often resembles a more tired, harried version of other tube species.
Perhaps this is why the parent is afforded special assistance on the network. Parents are frequently gifted seats and all tube dwellers will make way for their oversized transportation systems. Known at ‘buggies’, these vehicles are laden with baggage and accoutrements, however the parents’ charges will refuse the comfort of the ‘buggy’ in order to roughhouse with the parent.
The offspring are yet to learn the rules of the habitat and often try to interact with other species, sometimes with success and to the apparent enjoyment of all.
On other occasions the offspring are restless, noisily demanding the parents conjure up the presence of a mystical deity known only as ‘Peppa Pig’.
The parent’s life is undoubtedly a hard one and they should be offered all assistance that can be afforded them.
Almost a subspecies of the fashionista, the hipster would loudly refute such a classification. The hipster would in fact loudly refute any attempt to classify it, preferring to be described as a ‘freerange artist contributing organic content to a gluten-free interpretive dance collective’.
Found in great concentration on the overground network, any tube station east of Liverpool Street is likely to contain a hipster or two. Hipsters are the species most likely to be seen mixing summer and winter plumage, sporting chunky knitwear alongside skin-tight acid washed denim hotpants: the female’s dress sense is just as questionable.
The hipster is also the species most likely to be spotted wearing sunglasses underground.
Hipsters seem to have evolved recently, spreading from a central hive in Shoreditch to colonize new habitats. Being a new species may explain why the hipster’s digestive system is so specialised, requiring gluten-free vegan food with ethical credibility and an artisan touch, served on anything but a plate.
The drunk is a seasonal creature. Thought to hibernate during the summer months, this species is seen out in force during December, with their activity peaking on the last night of the year.
That’s not to say that they aren’t spotted at other times of the year, too. They will often adopt the plumage of the football fan on weekends, or the hipster after the opening of a new microbrewery.
By far and away the least popular of tube species, the drunk seems oblivious to the animosity it causes. Indeed the drunk is often oblivious to the fact that is on the tube and relies on others to guide it to safety.
Unpredictable, the drunk can often be found asleep, loudly eating food it appears to have caught and killed or sobbing at high volume.
Female drunks can be found wandering vaguely around the network at late hours. The male is sometimes predatory to other species, only held back by his peers who soothe him with their repeated collective call, “leaveitdaveitsnotworthit.”
This is the most populous of species found on the tube, and is also the most widespread. The commuter seems to shun sleep in favour of rising early to join its fellow kind and migrate in mass herds toward destinations in the centre of the city.
Commuters enjoy a close bond, packing tightly into tube carriages in order to snuggle up affectionately to each other, occasionally grabbing short naps on each other’s shoulders.
There is a complicated social hierarchy to commuter behaviour. Even in the most tightly packed spaces commuters give way to the elderly and infirm, making a ritual of offering seats to the pregnant females of the species. This largely good-natured beast is quick to anger should the social order be broken.
Commuters avoid all eye contact and eschew verbal communication in favour of a series of grunted signals and loud ‘tut’ sounds. The collective consciousness of the commuter herd is immediately alerted to impostors who disrupt the unspoken rules of the tube, grunting at tourists who block escalators or drunks who attempt direct communication.
The commuter is a hardy creature, able to endure the heat of hot summers in trains without air conditioning, as well as the freezing cold of an open-air zone four platform.
Commuter stampedes happen with predictable regularity, occurring in the mornings and evenings on weekdays. It is rare to see commuters outside of this time and their activities between these hours are one of nature’s biggest mysteries, although their similarity to office dwellers and pen pushers may provide some clues.
Article by Andy Scofield, International Features Writer