Encounters on the Underground

< Articles by Urgyen Sangharakshita
Adhisthana Writings

Encounters on the Underground

Encounters on the Underground

I was born and brought up in South London, and it was therefore not long before I became acquainted with the extensive network that is the London Underground system. I made my first journey on the Tube, as it was popularly called, when I was six, and I made it in the company of my father. Most likely we were on our way to one of the South Kensington museums. My predominant impression, as we sat in the rapidly moving carriage, was one of stifling heat, and noise so loud that we could hardly hear each other speak. Thereafter I was to make regular use of the Underground both before my departure for India in 1944, and after my return in 1964. It was in the early years of this latter period that I had my four encounters. Two of them took place on the Northern Line and two on the Central Line.

It was eleven o’clock at night, and I was travelling on the Northern Line, heading for northwest London where I was then living. I must have been leading a meditation class or giving a lecture and had stayed on afterwards talking with friends until quite late. My mind still being preoccupied with our discussion, I did not at first take much notice of the person sitting opposite. Eventually I looked at him, or rather, I realized that he was looking at me. He was wearing cherry-coloured corduroy trousers and a buttercup-yellow shirt open at the throat. I judged him to be seventeen or eighteen and his beautiful face was lit up with a smile. He was not only looking at me but looking at me with what could only be called love. In fact he seemed to be in love with me. I did not know what to think, especially as the angelic young man was evidently in a state of sexual arousal. Who was he? What did he want with me? Should I speak to him, or should I wait for him to make the first move? Such were the thoughts that passed through my mind. How long we sat gazing at each other, he with that look of adoration in his eyes, I do not know. It could not have been for more than five minutes for by this time I had reached my destination and had no choice but to alight.

The young man did not move. Over the years I have often reflected on the encounter. Had the young man taken LSD, in which case would he have looked at whoever came and sat opposite him with the same love with which he had looked at me? Alternatively, perhaps our paths had crossed in this way because we were meant to be friends and companions and I should not have allowed my habitual cautiousness to prevent me from asking him to go home with me regardless of what some of my friends might think. Whatever I should or should not have done, the vision of the beautiful young man in the cherry-red corduroy trousers and buttercup-yellow shirt remains with me to this day.

My second encounter took place on the Central Line. At the time I was living at Sukhavati, above the FWBO’s centre in Bethnal Green, and every few months I would have a little holiday, taking the Tube from Bethnal Green to Tottenham Court Road, from whence I would explore the bookshops of Charing Cross Road. On one such occasion I was caught up in the morning rush, and found myself hemmed in by commuters. To my right was the back of a woman. She had a bag slung over her shoulder and the mouth of the bag was half open. Facing me and the woman’s back stood a well-dressed man in his thirties. We had not been long on our way before he slid his hand into the woman’s bag. I looked at him and slowly shook my head as if to say ‘you shouldn’t be doing that, you know’. The man smiled and withdrew his hand from the bag. A few minutes later the train stopped, the doors opened, and several people including the pickpocket got out, and the woman and I continued on our way with rather more elbow room than before. Reflecting on the incident afterwards, I concluded that the well-dressed man was a professional pickpocket, taking systematic advantage of the cramped conditions that prevailed on the Underground during the morning and evening rush hours.

My next encounter also took place on the Central Line when I was returning from Tottenham Court Road to Bethnal Green. I was sitting at the end of the carriage. Opposite me, but a little nearer to the exit, there sat an elderly couple. The woman had a small closed basket on her lap, from which a faint mewing could be heard. From the other end of the carriage there came towards us a strange figure. He was tall and raw-boned and his filthy, tightly fitting clothes clung to him like a second skin. His long hair was unkempt, and his expression was fierce and scowling. As he came he sang in a loud raucous voice accompanying himself with strident strummings on his guitar. As he neared the old couple the gentleman asked him, very politely, not to sing and play so loudly. They had a kitten in their basket, and the noise was frightening it. The man snarled a peremptory refusal and went on singing and playing more loudly than ever. Some people gave him money, others did not. I was one of those who did not give him anything. It was not that I disapproved of buskers, even though busking was illegal, but I was disgusted by his behaviour towards the old couple and their kitten. Far from disapproving of buskers, I would generally give them a few coins. At Tottenham Court Road station near the exit from the southbound platform there was a corner in which a busker would be playing. More often than not he or she was an out of work classical musician, and as one stepped off the escalator one would hear in the distance the sound of a violin or a flute playing a beautiful Bach melody.

From out of work musicians to out of work actors is only a short step, and I am reminded of an encounter, if such it may be called, that took place not on the Underground but in a café. The café was the As You like It, which was situated next door to Sakura, the Buddhist shop, in Monmouth Street, in whose basement the FWBO’s first meditation classes were held. After a class, my friend Terry and I would sometimes adjourn to As You Like It, where I would have a cup of tea and he his evening meal. Barrie, the owner of the café, was a very thin, very camp man of about thirty-five. He spent much of his time talking on the phone, for As You Like It doubled as a kind of theatrical agency, and there were usually two or three good-looking young actors lounging about. Just inside the entrance there invariably sat a very elderly woman. She was dressed entirely in black, and her black hat made her yellowish features look almost cadaverous. She never spoke to anyone, except for a word to Barrie or to the young actor who brought her meal. It was always a big meal, and probably her one square meal of the day, and I noticed that Barrie never charged her for it. With her she had a large handbag, stuffed full of newspaper cuttings, and when not eating she would take out some of these and study them closely. I never saw her arrive, and I never saw her leave. She seemed to be a permanent fixture of the place.

My last encounter took place on the Northern Line, as I was travelling down to Tottenham Court Road. There were not many people in the carriage and looking along the gangway to the left I saw a man standing with his back towards me in front of the closed doors of the carriage. Of medium height and sturdily built, he wore a dark suit and was bare headed. He was obviously waiting for the next stop. The instant I set eyes on him I said to myself, ‘That’s not a human being, that’s a little devil,’ and I decided to keep him under observation. This I could do for only a few minutes, for the train soon came to a halt and the doors slid back. As they did so, the man turned round and very deliberately thumbed his nose at me. He then skipped onto the platform and ran laughing to the exit. It was as though he was saying, ‘You haven’t caught me yet.’

I was born and brought up in South London, and it was therefore not long before I became acquainted with the extensive network that is the London Underground system. I made my first journey on the Tube, as it was popularly called, when I was six, and I made it in the company of my father. Most likely we were on our way to one of the South Kensington museums. My predominant impression, as we sat in the rapidly moving carriage, was one of stifling heat, and noise so loud that we could hardly hear each other speak. Thereafter I was to make regular use of the Underground both before my departure for India in 1944, and after my return in 1964. It was in the early years of this latter period that I had my four encounters. Two of them took place on the Northern Line and two on the Central Line.

It was eleven o’clock at night, and I was travelling on the Northern Line, heading for northwest London where I was then living. I must have been leading a meditation class or giving a lecture and had stayed on afterwards talking with friends until quite late. My mind still being preoccupied with our discussion, I did not at first take much notice of the person sitting opposite. Eventually I looked at him, or rather, I realized that he was looking at me. He was wearing cherry-coloured corduroy trousers and a buttercup-yellow shirt open at the throat. I judged him to be seventeen or eighteen and his beautiful face was lit up with a smile. He was not only looking at me but looking at me with what could only be called love. In fact he seemed to be in love with me. I did not know what to think, especially as the angelic young man was evidently in a state of sexual arousal. Who was he? What did he want with me? Should I speak to him, or should I wait for him to make the first move? Such were the thoughts that passed through my mind. How long we sat gazing at each other, he with that look of adoration in his eyes, I do not know. It could not have been for more than five minutes for by this time I had reached my destination and had no choice but to alight.

The young man did not move. Over the years I have often reflected on the encounter. Had the young man taken LSD, in which case would he have looked at whoever came and sat opposite him with the same love with which he had looked at me? Alternatively, perhaps our paths had crossed in this way because we were meant to be friends and companions and I should not have allowed my habitual cautiousness to prevent me from asking him to go home with me regardless of what some of my friends might think. Whatever I should or should not have done, the vision of the beautiful young man in the cherry-red corduroy trousers and buttercup-yellow shirt remains with me to this day.

My second encounter took place on the Central Line. At the time I was living at Sukhavati, above the FWBO’s centre in Bethnal Green, and every few months I would have a little holiday, taking the Tube from Bethnal Green to Tottenham Court Road, from whence I would explore the bookshops of Charing Cross Road. On one such occasion I was caught up in the morning rush, and found myself hemmed in by commuters. To my right was the back of a woman. She had a bag slung over her shoulder and the mouth of the bag was half open. Facing me and the woman’s back stood a well-dressed man in his thirties. We had not been long on our way before he slid his hand into the woman’s bag. I looked at him and slowly shook my head as if to say ‘you shouldn’t be doing that, you know’. The man smiled and withdrew his hand from the bag. A few minutes later the train stopped, the doors opened, and several people including the pickpocket got out, and the woman and I continued on our way with rather more elbow room than before. Reflecting on the incident afterwards, I concluded that the well-dressed man was a professional pickpocket, taking systematic advantage of the cramped conditions that prevailed on the Underground during the morning and evening rush hours.

My next encounter also took place on the Central Line when I was returning from Tottenham Court Road to Bethnal Green. I was sitting at the end of the carriage. Opposite me, but a little nearer to the exit, there sat an elderly couple. The woman had a small closed basket on her lap, from which a faint mewing could be heard. From the other end of the carriage there came towards us a strange figure. He was tall and raw-boned and his filthy, tightly fitting clothes clung to him like a second skin. His long hair was unkempt, and his expression was fierce and scowling. As he came he sang in a loud raucous voice accompanying himself with strident strummings on his guitar. As he neared the old couple the gentleman asked him, very politely, not to sing and play so loudly. They had a kitten in their basket, and the noise was frightening it. The man snarled a peremptory refusal and went on singing and playing more loudly than ever. Some people gave him money, others did not. I was one of those who did not give him anything. It was not that I disapproved of buskers, even though busking was illegal, but I was disgusted by his behaviour towards the old couple and their kitten. Far from disapproving of buskers, I would generally give them a few coins. At Tottenham Court Road station near the exit from the southbound platform there was a corner in which a busker would be playing. More often than not he or she was an out of work classical musician, and as one stepped off the escalator one would hear in the distance the sound of a violin or a flute playing a beautiful Bach melody.

From out of work musicians to out of work actors is only a short step, and I am reminded of an encounter, if such it may be called, that took place not on the Underground but in a café. The café was the As You like It, which was situated next door to Sakura, the Buddhist shop, in Monmouth Street, in whose basement the FWBO’s first meditation classes were held. After a class, my friend Terry and I would sometimes adjourn to As You Like It, where I would have a cup of tea and he his evening meal. Barrie, the owner of the café, was a very thin, very camp man of about thirty-five. He spent much of his time talking on the phone, for As You Like It doubled as a kind of theatrical agency, and there were usually two or three good-looking young actors lounging about. Just inside the entrance there invariably sat a very elderly woman. She was dressed entirely in black, and her black hat made her yellowish features look almost cadaverous. She never spoke to anyone, except for a word to Barrie or to the young actor who brought her meal. It was always a big meal, and probably her one square meal of the day, and I noticed that Barrie never charged her for it. With her she had a large handbag, stuffed full of newspaper cuttings, and when not eating she would take out some of these and study them closely. I never saw her arrive, and I never saw her leave. She seemed to be a permanent fixture of the place.

My last encounter took place on the Northern Line, as I was travelling down to Tottenham Court Road. There were not many people in the carriage and looking along the gangway to the left I saw a man standing with his back towards me in front of the closed doors of the carriage. Of medium height and sturdily built, he wore a dark suit and was bare headed. He was obviously waiting for the next stop. The instant I set eyes on him I said to myself, ‘That’s not a human being, that’s a little devil,’ and I decided to keep him under observation. This I could do for only a few minutes, for the train soon came to a halt and the doors slid back. As they did so, the man turned round and very deliberately thumbed his nose at me. He then skipped onto the platform and ran laughing to the exit. It was as though he was saying, ‘You haven’t caught me yet.’