When I was a kid, right up to about 12 months ago actually, I always swore I'd never move to London. Whenever I'd jump of the train at Euston I'd immediately be struck with just how busy and rude everyone was. People seemed stressed and bad-mannered for the sake of it.
But after eighteen years in Hertfordshire, one in Worcester and a good five years in Brighton, sat doing not very much at all with every other pretentious inhabitant that the city centre accommodates, I got lured in by the Capital's promises of work and, well, more girls. Or perhaps more accurately, more girls that werent ex-girlfriends or their pre-warned friends.
So I decided that despite the total lack of manners I always encountered on journeys into the Big Smoke, I would have to grin and bear it. But I made a solemn resolution: I wouldn't change. Although I'm only just starting to realise the contempt with which Londoners use this word, I would remain 'provincial' in my attitude towards how I treated other people. If I got to work a bit late because I let someone go in front of me on the tube, so be it. If holding the door open for someone didn't always generate a thank you, I would have to put up with it. I would be a bastion of propriety in a land barren of etiquette. I would inspire others to demonstrate their goodwill towards their fellow humans by simple decorum. Plus, you know, girls like it.
I did alright for a while. I'm not sure if this is an acknowledged truth, but people in South London do seem warmer than our cousins north of the river. That's another thing I didn't realise till I moved here: I am not just a resident of Clapham and London, but of South London too, and my neighbours display an appealing regional attachment to all things Saaaaf which I have, of course, latched onto. I hate North London, apparently, although I'm not totally sure why yet. From what I can make out its related to them having all the tube stations, more money and more pretentious pubs than us.
I haven't worked out yet what I'm supposed to think of West and East London, apart from the former is quite nice and the latter is going to host the Olympics and doesn't really have somewhere called Walford in it. They made that up, apparently.
In short, I've learnt that if asked if I know somewhere on The Other Side I'm supposed to say: What, Highbury? Naah mate, I get a nosebleed if I go north of the river.
But it was a lot easier to remain well-mannered before I had to participate regularly in the bedlam that is the tube in the mornings. Dear god, it's brutal. Everybody is very, very keen on getting on the next train and will do pretty much anything to do it. Elbows come out. Feet are trodden on, repeatedly if necessary. Umbrellas and briefcases are used as blocking weapons. It's like there's never going to be another train coming through Clapham North again.
But of course, there is. A minute later. A minute! Calm down! You see people look up at the electronic display, notice a minute delay, and curse like they've just been shot in the leg. A whole minute! How is the world going to function if I'm at my desk 60 seconds later? How on earth am I going to receive and resend all those stupid email forwards and wild speculation on the condition of Rooney's metatarsal before lunch at this rate?
I remember the first time I entered this subterranean nightmare, when I started commuting to Blackfriars for work experience. The platform was packed, and everyone was jostling for position so that they might find themselves at a doorway. The train came in absolutely rammed. In every single carriage faces were pressed up against the windows, limbs were twisted around each other, everybody looked miserable. It looked as it would burst at the seams. Somehow when it stopped I found myself directly in front of a door. It slid open but no one got out. All of a sudden I could understand our gripe with North London: it seems the whole of the south takes the Northern Line into the City on weekdays.
The train was packed. There was no room whatsoever. Oh well, I thought, I'll just wait for the next one. Of course next thing I knew was I was being shoulder-charged from both sides as about a hundred people pushed past me into the carriage. It was like a magic trick; I honestly couldn't work out how they were finding room. I stood back, aghast, like the slack-jawed yokel I was. I was tutted at by everyone. I felt like going back to Brighton to sit about in expensive t-shirts, staring at the sea all year.
But the feeling passed. The next day, I was determined to smarten up my act, toughen my game, put on some trousers or whatever. Fortunately, it was nowhere near as busy but I was still pleased with myself for fitting into a tiny space by the door.
After a quick change at Embankment, I was heading West to Blackfriars. I suspect only orienteering fans are expected to refer to the points of the compass as regularly as Londoners. I found a place pretty much equidistant between two sets of doors and read the back of someones Metro. Pretty soon, it was my stop. Not many were getting off, and it was a difficult journey past completely unyielding commuters immersed in I-Pods and newspapers. I noticed a young man was attempting the same journey from the same position the other aside of the doors. We were both making out way out.
Our eyes met. He quickened his pace. I realised there was no way in hell he was going to let me go first when we arrived at the doorway. He had one thing on his mind: getting to work, and there was no way he was going to let basic niceties delay him by a couple of seconds. Right, I thought, such rude behaviour warrants an equal lack of civility. I sped up.
We reached the doorway at pretty much the same time but at the last second I took one slightly longer step and was out the door ahead of him. I didn't look round, but like to think I walked in front of him with an air of "that'll teach you some manners", although in retrospect it's probably impossible to convey such as thing without looking, well, very, very camp. Nevertheless, I was pleased with myself. And I was on time for work.
Of course, about half way up the escalator, it dawned on me. I'd become one of them. I'd become rude to protect myself from other peoples rudeness. This is, of course, how everyone in London ends up. No one here is predisposed to discourtesy, but it is what you become. A more provincial attitude to these things just makes you late for work or gives you someone's elbow in your face for the duration of the Charing Cross branch.
As my friend from Hertfordshire said the other day, I've changed, inevitably. It's a difficult thing to hear from one of your oldest friends. Still, I had just kneed her in the stomach for not standing on the right of the escalator. Its dog eat dog in this city.