The Luxury of the London Tube

Most Londoners see the tube as a luxury. That’s one of the first things somebody told me when I made the trip from Manchester to London: That they all ride the bus. Which makes sense, considering a single trip on the tube runs about £5, or about $7.

I guess that means I spent three days in London living in luxury, because I was too lazy to figure out the Oyster card (London’s version of a SmarTrip), and by the time I did figure it out, I was on my way to the airport to go home, moments after a bum fleeced me for a few pounds in the Chalk Farm Underground. It had been a late night dancing at the Dead Dolls House, and I was feeling a bit loopy, feeling a bit generous, so when he approached me for a pound, I dug into my pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. “Oh,” he said as the change fell to the floor and rolled in circles around our feet. “Can you just give me two? Just two? I need to get on the train.”

IMG_0114Have it all, my  friend, and enjoy the tube, that luxury Londoners so carefully avoid. Now that I think of it, I don’t think he had any plans of riding that tube. In fact he was walking in the complete opposite direction of the turnstiles. The liar!

But this man was a small-time swindler compared to Michael Fagan, the mental patient who twice in the 1980s scaled a drainpipe and snuck into Buckingham Palace. According to Fagan’s account, and according to my tour guide that Saturday in London, he spent his first visit to the palace eating cheddar cheese and drinking wine that had been gifted to Princess Diana. He apparently tripped several alarms and caught the attention of a maid, who told security. But by the time security came for Fagan, he had left, as he had grown tired and bored with the place.

The second-time the 33-year-old Fagan, an unemployed decorator whose wife had just left him, scaled a wall and slithered up the drainpipe again, this time finding his way into the Queen’s bedroom. According to my guide, the Queen, who was not a smoker, offered Fagan a cigarette. When he accepted, she phoned security and requested a pack, which alerted the guards that something was wrong. Anyway the security guard who responded, according to my guide, who may or may not have been as full of it as my friend at Chalk Farm, offered Fagan a glass of scotch and then escorted the subdued intruder out of the palace. London law at the time did not consider Fagan’s actions a criminal, but he was charged with theft, a charge that was apparently dropped when he was committed for psychiatric evaluation. Our guide told us all of this while we watched the practice run for Queen’s 90th birthday celebration, which took place June 12, a week after I left London.

Yes, I would say my time in London was a success. I had spent the first night hanging out with friends in the hostel, listening to the criminal history of a Mauritian, who talked about how many jails and prisons he had been in. The worst was South Africa, he said, where one of his cellmates told him to take the HIV medication the nurses were offering. That way nobody in the cell would mess with him. In his six months in London, the Mauritian had only been arrested once.

The last night in London I met a friend from Belarus, a friend who held strong convictions about Russian politics and a deep resentment for the materialistic ambitions that pervades post-Soviet life. He offended two Russian girls we ran into when asking for a cigarette. He didn’t actually ask, which was the problem, I think. It was more of a: “Give me a cigarette.” One of the girls, the same girl who denied any Russian involvement in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, told me my friend was rude. We eventually made our way to the Dead Doll House, where my friend certainly offended others, this time with his unconventional dance moves. I’ll be back to London sometime, maybe on the lookout for a drainpipe.

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