Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Oyster wand

I'm looking forward to the new BBC2 series starting on Monday: The Tube, a fly on the wall of the London Underground. On Twitter I heard a story, perhaps an urban myth, about a man who removed the chip in his Oyster card and placed it on the end of a magic wand. So he waves his magic wand and the automatic barriers respond to his command like 'Open Sesame'. I do hope it is true.

Whenever I am in London, I am struck by the way that the Underground marks the starkest boundaries between tourists and natives. While the former fumble for change and try to work out how to renew their cards, and flinch at the barriers as though they are not quite convinced they will open for them, the latter absent-mindedly place their cards on the electronic reader, and walk straight through the barriers in one fluent movement, knowing the exact moment at which they will open, so their stride is not broken. Some don't even bother to take their Oyster cards out of their handbags or wallets, knowing that the reader will be able to detect them through the leather.

These natives also respond to the beeping sound that precedes the closing of the train doors by instinctively contorting their bodies to fit into the carriage; and they undertake complex manoeuvres while reading newspapers or talking on mobile phones, pulled along by force of habit and the momentum of other moving bodies. They are as at home in their natural habitat as swifts on the wing.

I think there are about three million journeys made each day on the Underground - commutes, tourist trips, assignations, visits to meet friends, aimless journeys by the confused and depressed - and thanks to the Oyster card there is now an electronic record of almost all of them.

Mundane quote for the day: 'As if everything happens in London and the rest of the world doesn't matter. Every paper you pick up, every time you turn on the television or listen to the news, it's London, London, London, all the time. You come home from work, turn on the news and the announcer's there, and he says the temperature on the Air Ministry roof is such and such. And there you are! Buses can have been blown over in Newcastle and people killed – but the temperature on the Air Ministry roof is such and such!' - Huddersfield man, quoted in Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden, Education and the Working Class (1962)


  1. There has been the recent buzz of Radio 4 programmes emanating not from London but from Salford where the Metrolink now travels to its Media City. There is no Oyster card to get you there but you do pass through stations with exotic sounding names like Pamona and Anchorage.