When the Metro first came out, the free daily newspaper one finds everyone on the London Underground (the trains, not the mafia), I didn’t own a smart phone. I didn’t commute with books either, and refused to listen to my iPod while on the go (another story), so I would grab a discarded Metro and browse through it. I mean, it was better than nothing. Or so I thought. It took me a while to feel the effects of the Metro’s mindless contents – that and the release of two more free dailies: London Lite and The London Paper, the twain of fact crank-up.
Anyone familiar with London during the second half of the past decade remembers the effect. These free dailies burst on the scene like the plague, transforming the place almost overnight from a busy, bustling city to a massive paper flea market. Their vendors, dedicated and trained as they were to keep circulation high, took to every street corner, shop entrance and tube station to hand out their quota. Never mind if you were in a hurry, or talking to someone, or carrying stuff in both hands: up came the paper, in your face (torso to be exact) demanding that you take it. If you did, great – one down, millions to go. If you didn’t, no worries, next in line, here you are, next, next, in a shuffling barrage of high-street press vending.
Soon the people of London were ushered by paper vendors bottlenecking and frustrating pedestrian traffic to a degree that made an already congested city worse. Did I mention they were doing this during afternoon rush hour?
So there I was, going about my business, bustling my way through the din, handed a daily paper every day en route to the subway, and looking forward to unfolding it.
The effects were slow but insidious. First I would browse through the sheets looking for news that had anything to do with anyone familiar. Sexy ladies and revealing pics were at the top of my ride’s attention span, followed by celebrities in general, politicians, royalty, Posh Spice, the England football team, Sven-Goran Erikson’s girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, her best friend, her manicurist and gardener, all jumbled up and mixed and shaken and stirred in one big, insane cocktail of meaningless information, laced with pictures embarrassing enough to catch my attention and instigate reactions such as ‘shit, wow, wtf! really?’ and other such mental grunts.
With the pictures over and done with, I would then start reading (when stuck in the Tube with a bunch of people breathing in your face, all cramped up against each other and eerily silent [except for the mighty screams inside their heads, which can be heard very clearly, if one pays attention, starting with one’s own head], a daily in your face to shield you from others is as good as it gets. Might as well make the most of it). So I read my paper, going through article after article, short and boneless as they were, devouring the entire daily in the time it takes to eat a McDonalds burger.
At first I was thrilled with this new way of keeping myself entertained, even look forward to my sardine-packed ride, deep underground where I could now get a whiff of the dirty deeds of society’s elite-and-not-only, seeing things that made me laugh, cringe and wonder what on earth was going on with these people. The sheer novelty of it all, in combination with the Metro’s diversion from rush hour’s frenetics, made me enjoy it in a way that was wonderfully self-indulgent. It was as if a switch was flipped inside my head and my mind went blank, or rather woosh, into a land of fairytale entertainment, with a strong twist and a flair for the absurd.
Looking back on it, I was addicted to the daily crap, and overdosing on it
This went on for a few weeks, until it got old. How much junk can one read? I was fed up, disinterested, drowsy and bored once again, the dreariness of rush hour getting to me. I’d eat up the dailies like a rabid dog, often going through all three of them in a single tube ride, one after the other in a reading frenzy, struck and inundated by hoards of drunken celebrities caught in the most unflattering poses, like animals in distress. I would read about how Prince William ate a grilled-chicken-and-sprouts meal after speaking at some public event, followed by a list of what Kate was wearing, what she said, what angle her mouth took as she smiled when saying “hello, delighted, I loathe the lot of you” (wait, that was inside her head too), but it just wasn’t the same. The novelty had worn off and the only sensation I was getting was an intense headache that taunted me for hours.
In fact, I was addicted to the daily crap and overdosing on it, chasing the high street daily dragon. I didn’t realized it at the time, of course. The cacophony of trivia had infiltrated my head, penetrated my mind and hooked me into a meaningless, undefinable dependence that rendered my head a garbage can for other people’s obsessions, their sick fetish with celebrity and meaningless data. In other words, I had become the canister in which the scum of journalism was deposited to make a quick, sensational buck.
Not for long. One day, as I was picking up a discarded daily in an empty tube train, on a cold, February morning, with my mind not yet contaminated by stress and garbage, I tasted the stench of the “information” I was about to read. It hit me right in the middle of the brain, and I flinched, and my face soured, and my body felt sick, and I threw the daily away and never picked one up again.
Since that day, walking through London has been a revelatory experience. The endless signs promoting countless products and services, and the billboards on the double-deckers that swish past, one after the other after the other in an endless stream of channeled misinformation, brandishing their latest thingy for this-and-that on whatnot occasion for thingumajig and bollocks, seemed to me like a streaming daily newspaper, running its cacophonous script through my mind, wrapping me up tight inside it, like a piece of cod drenched in vinegar. Brains corroded on end, sloshing through the din, carrying bags, boxes and headaches, stress and other people’s crap, wondering why life in one of the world’s greatest cities feels so draining.
Needless to say I always carry a book with me these days, in which to immerse myself and keep the crap out when moving around town, wherever I may be.
I also have a smartphone filled with stuff I enjoy – apps, pictures, music etc.
I’ve also stopped watching the daily news on TV, getting my information from select sites on the net instead. My head feels a lot better as a result, and so does life in general.
And one more thing. I lied when I said I haven’t picked up another daily since that eye-opening February morning. I used to pick one up every day (the one supposedly printed in stain-free ink) with devoted precision, rolled it up nice and tight, and used it to shoo away the daily ushers who clotted up London’s high streets. Armed with the very junk they handed out, I burst through their aneurysms and opened up a trail for pedestrians, all with a flick of the paper – shoo, shoo! The paper stained my hands, as you’d expect, but better a stained hand than a pickled mind.
Fortunately I didn’t have to do it for long. By the end of the 00s, both London Lite and The London Paper shut down. The Evening Standard took their place, which is just as well. At least its distribution takes place behind licensed paper stalls that don’t hassle pedestrians. In an age of rampant traffic, it makes a huge difference. Every little non-intrusion helps.