Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Noughtie side of Commuting - Part 2

Communication, communication, communication. That's the biggest change to the commuting experience in the last ten years. Yes there have been other, cosmetic, enhancements - cappuccino makers, toilets with electric doors that generally shut while you're in there, free newspapers of course. But were you to consider a carriage full of commuters during rush hour at the beginning of the Noughties with an equivalent group ten years on, the most striking difference would surely be the plethora of wireless devices into which they were yapping, tapping or cra- No, sorry, that one hasn't been invented yet. Good rhyme though (sorry, it's late and I'm tired).

In the 1980s, of course, there was the Walkman. In the 1980s, the mobile phone began to proliferate. But it was in the Noughties that being communicative on a locomotive became mainstream. In the late '90s, in the fabulous Notes From a Small Island, the sight of a man talking on a mobile phone retained enough novelty value to prompt Bill Bryson into the proclamation that "these people really are becoming tiresome." These days, it wouldn't even be worthy of comment. But, as Bryson observed, in those salad years of mobile telephony, the level of conversation rarely got much beyond "I'm going to be late but really I'm just calling you to emphasise to everyone else no this train that I have a mobile phone, and am therefore intimidatingly cool and with it." It was still the newspaper that remained the distraction of choice for most commuters.

In the mid-Noughties, the Ipod arrived, and suddenly the trains were colonised by the Apple tribe with their little white headphones. Nobody spoke in the carriages, passengers seemed barely aware of their whereabouts, as their personal soundtracks took them far away from the physical realm.

Then the newspapers launched the fightback, led, improbably, by The Independent, which seems to have been dying a slow death for longer than it took The Soviet Union to collapse, but enjoyed a brief reversal of fortunes (the Gorbechev years) after it relaunched it tabloid format. It was the first of the "quality" titles to do so. Groundbreaking it certainly was, and a cause for celebration as loads of people who had previously purchased The Daily Mail because it was the only white top that didn't require a contortionist's powers of elasticity to read on a crowded train, switched their allegiances. Then The Times and The Guardian followed suit (yes, I know The Guardian opted for the JFK approach ("Ich Bein ein Berliner") rather than than the tabloid, but the principle is the same. And The Independent entered its Yeltsin period, proving that style really does matter as much as substance.

Next were the freesheets. Metro, the early morning one, was first, and managed to carve out quite a little niche among consumers who preferred their news bite-sized in the morning. Sometime around 2008, everyone got pant-wettingly excited about everything being free, and two of the newspaper trades biggest and oldest bullies waded in to try to take advantage, and kill off the London Evening Standard, with the truly appalling London Lite and TheLondonPaper. It seems like a bad dream now, but for a couple of years freesheet hawkers stalked the streets of the Capital. Eventually they both ran out of steam - the Standard survived and, in one of those ironic little twists, has now gone free itself.

As 2010 dawns we now have smartphones, Blackberries, tiny little laptops that fit in the palm of your hand. The little white earphones have largely gone, to be replaced by old-fashioned headphones so big that Pat Butcher could wear them as earrings, which somehow fail to do half as good a job as their tiny predecessors at actually keeping in the noise. So now most carriages have a soundtrack, possibly two, always too quiet to be properly heard, but too loud to ignore.

And free Wi-fi. That's another thing, notable chiefly because it is so pushy. No sooner have I turned my laptop on in the morning then it is asking me if I want to join the local network. I never do, because rather like the frustrated mobile phone customer who just wants to talk, I only really want to write on the train. That's where I actually wrote the bulk of this post.

Ah, there's nothing like progress.

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