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Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher
Christopher Ross

Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher
Christopher Ross
Fourth Estate
London 2001

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Hot and sticky, pressed into someone else’s foul-smelling armpit and condemned to mindlessly reading adverts: if this sounds like your experience of the London Underground, spare a thought for those who actually work there. Where else do people run around quite so irately, in such a frenetic, inhuman fashion? Add to that the polluted air, an ageing system that’s buckling under the pressure, and you have to wonder why an intelligent man like Christopher Ross ever donned the Station Assitant’s orange vest.

The truth is that Ross, who styles himself as a traveller-cum-philosopher, has just the right balance of tractability and the knack of not taking things too personally. So, when he stops Pierre, a notoriously aggressive busker who’s just punched another member of staff, he lets him go even after Pierre’s taken a good bite out of his hand. When a blind woman berates him for several minutes because the trains are late, he shrugs her off as a “permantly cross shrew”, despite privately wanting to shove her in front of the nearest train.

As well as these occasionally disturbing anecdotes, Ross’s roving eye takes in his fellow Underground workers and their training, which is frequently hilariously risible. They learn ‘soft skills’ from their endearing trainer Elizabeth, feel like they’ve gone back to school with hard-nosed fire trainer Frank, and take a walk along the rail-line to test their mettle. In amongst the other pieces of training information that’ll be of no use in the job, they take a multiple choice test which asks what percentage of our bodies consists of water. When they finally ‘graduate’, most of them spend as much time as possible skiving, while one undertakes his daily ritual of sleeping in a locked storage cupboard.

As eccentric and weird as these events are, it’s only with Ross’s raspingly dry deadpan style that they become so funny. Sometimes it verges on the precipice of becoming a rogue’s gallery, but Tunnel Visions‘ episodic nature is usually – with a few exceptions – reined in by Ross’s hand. The book’s real depth, however, is provided by Ross’s search for meaning and learning through his work as a Station Assitant. Despite the distinctly hackneyed observation that we should all slow down, Ross’s lessons of tolerance, living for the moment and appreciating different cultures would be well heeded by many of us as we rush around the Underground. It’s not flawless, but this is a warm and compelling debut.

Reviewed by Adam Vaughan


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