Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Endearingly Fluffy

Being a Londoner, I am absorbed by anything London related in the media, and currently I am transfixed by BBC2 documentary The Tube. It's a thoroughly fascinating insight into the London Underground, a fly-on-the-wall look at the people who work in the vast and most ancient labyrinth of tunnels, trains and tracks, and a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes. We've met the people who have to close stations and open them the following day. We've met the men who remove and replace the huge posters you see opposite you when you're waiting for the next packed and sweatingly hot service up to Kings Cross on the Northern Line. There's been a chap whose job it is to shoot rogue pigeons with an air gun. We've even, rather gruesomely, followed the work of the crack squad of people who have the unenviable task of clearing up after someone has jumped under a train -- a tragically common occurrence, I'm sorry to report.

Tonight, though, it was the turn of Harry and the Fluffers to make their debut The Tube appearance. An amazing bunch. Vladimir is their leader, a Bulgarian who has worked in many countries, who just wants to work, and who is amazed by the what he sees as the uniquely British desire to "pay people when they don't work" (we presume he is describing welfare benefits). Meanwhile, Harry (one of his young charges) wishes he'd worked harder at school, as he'd like to be a nuclear physicist and work at CERN. And what does this crack squad of personages do? Rather disappointingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), they are not a special team of committed adult industry workers. Instead, they deep clean the stations late at night, after everyone's gone home. They jump down on the tracks with battery powered vacuum cleaners strapped to their backs, and set to work. You have to admire their unending good humour and desire to meet their deadlines before the systems starts back up again (perhaps they are motivated by a fear of electrocution -- or maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention).

What struck me most of all, though, was a penchant we Londoners seem to have for nicknames. Harry and the Fluffers are an unlikely bunch, but revel in their trade name and are famous amongst their peers for no obvious reason other than this. This has something that has on multiple occasions exercised me. Just today, I was in a long meeting with a colleague (Rob -- I won't reveal more), and he collected several new nicknames which we all secretly hope will stick. One was "Risky Rob" (he is tasked with sorting out some "risks"), another was "Robbie Two-Cakes" (because he bought, and ate, two cakes). My personal favourite, born as he removed a large paper document created during the session from the wall, was "Wallchart Wob (sic)". It's not a subtle art, as you can see, but we all love it and chortle long and hard at our collective inventiveness. Ho ho ho (as Wob himself would say).

But it's not local to teams staffed with childish middle aged men who should know better. Oh no. London has a Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe). A Shard (32 London Bridge). A Wobbly Bridge (The Millennium Bridge -- there's not a Londoner in the whole metropolis who knows it's properly called that without having to Google it). The Waterloo and City line is know to all Londoners as The Drain. Even real names, like The Elephant and Castle, sound like nicknames. The Yeomen of the Guard at the Tower of London are Beefeaters. And the London constabulary enjoy a wide variety of invariably affectionate names, the bloody Rozzers.

Meanwhile, for reasons lost in obscurity, any latecomer to my office is called "Dave". I've even worked with a guy who was named after a famous golfer from the eighties for twenty years simply because he once wore a pair of checked trousers to the office. My own brother has called me Burt for my entire adult life (I have no real idea why).

And why do we do all this? Because we think we're funny. It's as simple as that. We're so funny we invent witty names for each other and everything around us. The Tube itself is, of course, a nickname, but such a common one that even TFL website previously linked to, the formal website of all London Transport, refers to it as, simply, Tube. What a drole bunch we are.

In the end, it's all part of what makes us culturally, of course. As ever, I dissect it but I too am just as likely to join in the fun. It's culturally in me. I'm quite happy about that. But Harry isn't. Having been unable to become the CERN physicist he once aspired to be, he wants to get away from London. We learn of his new objective. Harry wants to win the lottery, then buy ten homes, then sit in them and do "absolutely nothing" (one wonders why he needs ten homes for this). You have to admire the man, perhaps even warm to him a little. He's still a Larry Lightweight though.


  1. But of course Larry Lightweitgh refers to something completely different, and nothing to do with sitting on your backside doing nothing...

    1. That's sort of true; but roll with it. I needed an ending!


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