When I moved to London aged 18, I felt alone. Wasting hours on public transport made it feel like home

Baker Street station. Image: Getty.

I love the London transport system. At 9.30am, when I can’t get on three Central line trains because they’re too full, I remember why I love it so much. I’ve even got over the dust, which I’ve been told comes from the brakes, coating anything it touches. 

I credit London transport for curing my homesickness, when I felt like I had absolutely no idea where I was. It helped me stick my head above the water, and see things a little more clearly. 

I moved to London for a job aged just 18 – a bit too young for it to be entirely comfortable. I didn’t have the security blanket of university halls or people my own age. I’m not naturally adventurous, yet wasn’t that worried about moving. I thought I was very grown up; but looking back, I was just a naive child.

I realised fast I felt like I was drowning: anxious and tired and confused by the volume of Prets. My northern accent was a constant source of hilarity, the house I shared had a mouse problem, and one of my housemates is still assigned in my memory as ‘Weird Cameron’. I didn’t want to be in my room at home thinking about these problems. 

And so, to waste time, I started extending my commute – deliberately missing my stops to spend a bit longer on the train, or even getting the wrong line to travel three sides of the square. I already paid for the ticket, so why not?

The part of the north I grew up in still has pacer trains, which were meant to break down years ago, yet still connect most of the region’s cities. Apparently, they are getting new ones, but this feels somehow very far away. Power sockets, on Northern trains? Absolutely spoiling us. I like the pacer trains despite their terribleness. But it’s the underground and buses that I really love.

The DLR in the mist. Image: Getty.

Living near Morden, at the bottom of the Northern line in south west London, facilitated the start of this journey fairly well. I began taking the tube up to Angel or even right to the end of the line, just for something to do. 

There are endless good things to see underground, in my humble opinion. Highlights from my journeys included the trips in the lovely Bakerloo line carriages which always made me feel like I’m in the 1970s (the trains date from that era). It’s a bonus if you get to sit in one of the little booths.

Or Mile End station, where all the tube lines and tracks sit next to each other – Central line, District line, District line, Central line. This means you can see sub surface trains and deep level trains all at once, which is pretty exciting. 

I got on the Piccadilly Line and went to Heathrow, just to shuttle through west London suburbs and get an idea of where I was, watching the planes get lower and lower until I eventually reached the airport. I took the Victoria line from Brixton right up to Blackhorse Road, then the Overground to Gospel Oak and home again: I liked just seeing where I was. I’d get the Jubilee line to Stratford and back after I’d finished my shift, safe in the knowledge I was underground for an hour or so, so didn’t have to deal with cooking or lost keys or washing, all the things that no 18 year old wants to deal with. 


My love soon extended to buses too, and trams, and the DLR. I discovered the route 44 from Victoria to Tooting, taking over an hour in rush hour traffic, but driving over Chelsea Bridge lit up beautifully on a dark evening.

Later, when I moved to East London, I’d take the 205 up to Paddington and back again, going through Shoreditch after knowing it was the cool place to be, always getting a sense of what the cross section of London looked like.

The DLR to Woolwich Arsenal, going past the Tate and Lyle sugar and golden syrup factories which seem like a relic against the modern skyline now. Elbowing kids out of the way to get to the front.

The N73 bus once saved my life when, during a brief period of living in another city, I ended up missing my coach home, with no battery and nowhere to stay. (I slept on the bus until the first train back.) The night bus from Vauxhall to Liverpool Street which I boarded at 3am in Vauxhall, fell asleep, and woke up at 4am, back in Vauxhall again.

I realised it was TfL that truly made me feel at home when I was looking at another overpriced room in another house, when the current tenant told me the District line ran past the window. It did: it was the best part of living there. Another bit of track at the end of the garden also meant that C2C trains to Essex sometimes ran directly past my window, too, which made me feel like I was in this with other people.

London buses in the snow last February. Image: Getty.

This habit of extending my commute, deliberately going the wrong way or spending a Saturday on the sweet Metropolitan line to Watford and back again, gave me a sense of resilience I don’t think I would have got otherwise. It started off as something to fill time, and make me anonymous, but I ended up getting a far better sense of where I actually lived. When I met someone from Watford, I could tell them I’d been there (we became friends – my first, in the city). And slowly, I felt less like I was visiting, and more like I had stuff I could be doing or people I could be seeing. 

I am a terrible navigator and timekeeper – ask any of my friends. I’m well known for walking the wrong way even while staring at Google Maps. But I know the Tube and bus networks better than I ever knew the transport systems at home, and it’s given me the kind of resilience I needed to feel like I could call London home.

It, weirdly, hasn’t stopped at London, either. Some of my nicest memories on holiday in New York were getting the train into the city from Brooklyn, and seeing the skyline in the distance. Falling asleep and ending up very briefly in Coney Island. Trying to navigate station closures and route changes (something virtually impossible in NYC).

I live in a slightly nicer flat now, I actually have friends who want to make plans with me – but sometimes I still like getting on the Central line, and just seeing where I end up. It might seem like a big waste of time – and that’s exactly what it is.

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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.